Viññāna and Sankhāra – Connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda

February 25, 2019; revised August 28, 2002

1. To review what we have covered in the last few posts in “Essential Buddhism“:

  • A defiled consciousness or viññāna has an “expectation” for the future. The “kammic energy” in “kamma viññāna” is responsible for “sustaining the rebirth process.”
  • We do that willingly by generating (abhi)saṅkhāra,i.e., how we think, speak, and act.
  • One who has not understood the First Noble Truth is willingly generating (abhi) saṅkhāra via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” which leads then to the cultivation of different types of viññāna via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” step. That is how Paṭicca Samuppāda cycles start. They end up in “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka, parideva, dukkha,..” the whole mass of suffering!
  • Therefore, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” lead to all future suffering. We will proceed step-by-step.

2. The five types of viññāna can be called “just consciousness,” i.e., without “future expectations.” These are cakkhu viññāna (a “seeing event”), sōta viññāna (a “hearing event”), etc. for the five physical sense inputs. One more special case with manō viññāna is discussed in #4 below.

  • A “defiled viññāna” or “an expectation for the future” is associated only with the manō viññāna, which is what is normally referred to in a Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle if a specific type is not mentioned. See “Viññāṇa (Defiled Consciousness).”
  • Therefore, in Paṭicca Samuppāda or any sutta, if a reference is made to viññāna, that is referring to “manō viññāna” or “mind consciousness.”
  • The mind generates the “kammic power” to create “kammic energy” or “kamma bija” (“bija” is pronounced “beeja”); see “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka.”

3. Other five types of viññāna (e.g., cakkhu viññāna, etc.) are only registered in the mind when we see, hear, taste, etc.

  • This is stated as “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ” in suttā or Abhidhamma. This normally translates as “eye-consciousness arises when a picture is seen or received by the eyes.” That gives the basic idea but has a deeper meaning. See “Contact Between Āyatana Leads to Vipāka Viññāna.”
  • Similarly, hearing happens with “sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōtaviññāṇaṃ” (“hearing consciousness arises when a sound is heard or received by the ears”), etc.

4. In addition to the sensory inputs via the five physical senses, we also get sense inputs DIRECTLY to the mind. These are “memories and future hopes” that just come to the mind and are manō viññāna. Even though they seem to come to the mind for no reason, it also happens due to the mind DIRECTLY receiving a memory (called dhammā; this dhammā is different from dhamma in Buddha Dhamma).

  • This process is stated as “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ,” or “mind consciousness arises when the mana indriya or the mind receives a dhammā (of a memory).”
  • This event is also “just consciousness,” remembering a past event or a future expectation; for a deeper discussion, see, “What are Dhammā? – A Deeper Analysis“.

5. Therefore, the mind can “receive” six types of “sensory inputs,” i.e., the mind becomes “aware of” or “becomes conscious about” those six types of sense events.

  • Based on those, the mind may “take actions” (to think further, to speak, or to act using the body). Those are called vaci and kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Such saṅkhāra then leads to a defiled mindset or a “defiled viññāna” via the Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) process. Therefore, such “defiled viññāna” can arise only via PS processes.
  • And that happens ONLY IF the mind gets attached to that sense input (an attractive figure, a pleasing sound, tasty food, nice smell, soothing touch, or an important past event (or planned future event).

6. Please read the above points in #5 carefully until the concept is understood. This is the key to understanding the key Pāli words saṅkhāra and viññāna and also the concept of Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • Whenever we willingly grasp something (or get attached to something), whatever results from that action has the corresponding nature. Because one got attached willingly, a similar bhava (existence) will result: i.e., pati+icca leading to sama+uppāda or Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS).
  • Here, “pati+icca” means “getting attached willingly,” and “sama+uppāda” means “giving rise to a corresponding (similar) existence.”

7. The “existence” one gets according to one’s saṅkhāra generated according to one’s mindset. As we have discussed before, the first manō saṅkhāra arises automatically based on one’s gati (or gati) when one gets attached to a sensory event.

  • Then, if one does not act with mindfulness (i.e., does not see the bad consequences of generating such thoughts), one will start generating vaci saṅkhāra. If one’s emotions get strong enough, one could start speaking (more vaci saṅkhāra) and even taking bodily actions (kāya saṅkhāra). A deeper discussion at “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • We will first consider a PS process that often happens during a lifetime. This PS process is not discussed in the Visuddhimagga or any current English texts on Buddha Dhamma.

8. In pavutti PS,  bhava or existence refers to a “temporary existence” during a given lifetime. Pavutti means “current.”

  • In the most fundamental sense, a “greedy state of mind” will result when we get attached via greed, i.e., one develops a habit or gati or bhava corresponding to that state of mind; a “hateful state” (habit/gati/bhava) results via hateful attachment; acts of greed and/or hate are always done with ignorance.
  • The pavutti PS describes how we develop certain habits (or bhava or gati) during a given lifetime. It is often easier to use an example to illustrate these PS cycles.
  • Pavutti PS is important because the habits (gati) cultivated during this lifetime can feed the uppatti PS process leading to future rebirths.

9. Let us examine how a teenager becomes an alcoholic using the pavutti PS. The teenager becomes friendly with a group of other teenagers who are into drinking. Initially, he may be reluctant to join in, but due to ignorance (avijjā), he joins them and starts drinking.

  • Suppose a good friend or a family member knew about the situation. In that case, they could have prevented the teenager from associating with such bad company, i.e., ignorance could have been dispelled by explaining to him the adverse effects of drinking and associating with such a group.
  • Now we will examine in detail how this happens.

10. The PS cycle thus starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“; due to ignorance of the adverse results, the teenager starts drinking with that group (saṅkhāra = “san +khāra” or actions of accumulating, in this case, bad kamma).

  • The more he is involved with such drinking activities, the more he thinks about it and develops a “defiled mindset” or a “defiled viññāna” for that activity. This is “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“.
  • This is explained in detail in the previous post: “Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna.”

11. When he begins to like drinking, he starts thinking about it while doing other things. This is “viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa“ step.

  • In this case, nāmarūpa are the mental images associated with that viññāna, i.e., the names and shapes of particular alcohol bottles, the places where he normally drinks, the friends who drink with him, etc.
  • He also thinks about the next “event” and visualizes the scene, all these are associated with nāmarūpa. Thus, here nāmarūpa are the mental images of “things” and “concepts” that one would like to enjoy.
  • Nāma” means “name” assigned to a person/object, and “rūpa” means “spatial profile” associated with that nāma.
  • Nāmarūpa” are the “mental images” together with the associated feelings (védanā), perceptions (sañña), saṅkhāra, and viññāna, the COMBINED effect of “nāma” and “rūpa.”

12. Now, his six senses become “involved” to provide reality to those nāmarūpa; to provide the desired sensory pleasures. In Pāli terms, the six indriya (senses) become “āyatana“. For lack of a single English word, I will call an “āyatana” an “import/export facility” and get involved in the actions associated with drinking events.

  • Eyes are used as indriya when they are used just to identify things out there. When eyes are used to repeatedly look at an object TO ENJOY IT, then the eyes are used as “āyatana.”
  • His mind is often thinking about the next “event” (where, when, with whom, etc.), and he makes necessary preparations for the “event” using all six senses (now āyatanas) compatible with those nāmarūpa (that he is cultivating.)
  • Therefore, this is the “nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana“ step, where salāyatana means the six āyatana. Eyes are now not merely for seeing, they have become an assistant looking for a “good drink” or a “good friend to chat with,” etc.

13. Then we have “salāyatana paccayā phassa, “i.e., all six āyatana become actively engaged in making contact with relevant sense objects.

  • His eyes are on the lookout for a favorite drink or a favorite person to chat with, etc. Here instead of phassa, it is (more appropriately) called “samphassa” (= “san” + “phassa“), where “san” implies it is not just contact but a “san contact” or “samphassa.” See “Vedanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways.”
  • This may be a good time to review the term “san” if you have not already done so: “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

14. Such “samphassa” lead to védanā (feelings), i.e., “(san)phassa paccayā védanā“. He experiences “good (but immoral) feelings” with all those sense contacts.

15. Now comes, “taṇhā paccayā upādāna“. Upādāna means “grabbing or getting hold of something automatically,” like an octopus grabbing its prey with all eight legs.

  • In the present case, the teenager wants to re-live this experience and gets immersed in it. When he is experiencing the event, his mind is absorbed in it; he does not have the mindset to think about any adverse consequences. This is the critical “habit-forming” or “bhava forming” step.

16. So, the next inevitable step is “upādāna paccayā bhavo“; this particular state of getting drunk becomes increasingly ingrained in his mind. It becomes “a bhava” or “existence” or habit that is important to him. He very much wants to re-live that experience.

  • And that is exactly what he gets: “bhava paccayā jāti. “ This “bhava” or the kamma seed is now well established, and he can be born in that state quite easily. All he needs is an invitation from a friend or even a sight of a bar while traveling, for example.
  • Getting into that state or being “born” there will happen more frequently. So, he gets drunk at every opportunity. See “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and (Repeated) Births Therein” for more details.

17. However, like everything else, any birth is subjected to decay and suffering: “jāti paccayā jarā, marana.., eva me tassa dukkhandha samudhayō hōti“, i.e., “the whole mass of suffering.”

  • But in the case of a single drinking event, that state of intoxication comes to an end, possibly with a big headache and a huge hangover. That episode ends with nothing to show for it but a hangover.
  • Even worse, now he is “hooked’; he has formed a bad habit, which only strengthens even more if he does it repeatedly. Because each time the PS runs, the viññāna for that habit gets more fuel, and the bhava gets stronger.

18. The more the teenager gets trapped in that bhava, the more jāti that occurs, i.e., more frequently he will be drunk.

  • And it is not even necessary to participate in a “drinking event” to run another PS cycle. He may be sitting at a desk trying to study and may start going through the PS cycle MENTALLY.
  • He can start right at “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and be generating vaci saṅkhāra (vitakka/vicara or planning), thus generating (and strengthening) the viññāna for drinking, generating nāmarūpa (visuals of places, friends, alcohol bottles, etc.), and thus going through the rest of the cycle: salāyatana, samphassa, védanā, taṇhā, upādāna, bhava, jāti (“living it”), repeatedly.
  • Thus numerous such PS cycles can run at any time, probably increasing their frequency as the bhava or the habit builds up. The stronger the bhava or habit is, it will be harder it to break.
  • This is why meditation, together with another good habit to work on, should be undertaken to replace a bad habit. While in meditation, one can contemplate the adverse consequences of the bad habit.

19. It is important to realize that the above PS cycle does not run to its conclusion when the drinking “event” is over. Rather the cycle can repeatedly run unless it is stopped willfully, deliberately.

  • And the way to do that is to act with “mindfulness” and stop those bad first conscious thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra) that start arising. This is the key to “real Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna meditations” in Buddha Dhamma.
  • Then one would stop the “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” step. That will stop “bad viññāna” from arising or being cultivated by the elimination of the “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” step. That will, of course, stop the result of suffering.

20. If those abhisaṅkhāra cultivated get strong enough, they can also lead to future births. The rebirth process proceeds via the uppatti PS process, which is very similar; see “Akusala-Mūla Upapatti Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

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