Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means

January 6, 2018

1. I have seen several discussion forums discuss the verse, “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..”. Many times I have seen it to be referred to as, “there is controversy as to the precise meaning of this enigmatic phrase”.

  • Most common translations say something like, “‘Consciousness non-manifest (sometimes as consciousness without surface) , infinite, radiant all around”.
  • Such incorrect translations have then led to another drastic error by saying that “anidassana viññāna” is the same as the “pabhassara citta” and even as bhavanga. All these are astonishingly wrong!

2. Viññāṇa is a central and key concept to understand. I have started an in-depth discussion of viññāṇa in an advanced subsection of the “Living Dhamma” section: “Viññāna Aggregate“.

  • In this post, I describe a meaningful translation to the verse, “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..” that is consistent with all the suttas in the Tipitaka. I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.
  • This is getting into deep concepts. I would urge reading other related posts mentioned above first. Depending on one’s background, it may take time to grasp these concepts.
  • In fact, one really needs to read the posts in the subsection “Nāma & Rūpa to Nāmarūpa” of which “Viññāna Aggregate” is a part. If one does not understand those concepts, one could keep going back to earlier sections in the “Living Dhamma” section. It is designed to go from simple to deep.

3. First, let us find the meaning of “anidassna” from the Tipitaka. The meaning of the word nidassana means an ‘illustration’ that can be seen. Anidassana means something that cannot be seen.

  • For example, dhamma that impinge on the mana indriya and gives rise to mano viññāna via “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjati manōviññāṇaṃ“ also cannot be seen; dhamma are just energies lying below the suddhashtaka stage.
  • These dhamma are described as, “anidassan appatighan dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpan“ or “cannot be seen, cannot be touched, and can make contact only with the dhammāyatana”; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.

4. In the Kaka­cūpama Sutta (MN 21): “..Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, puriso āgaccheyya lākhaṃ vā haliddiṃ vā nīlaṃ vā mañjiṭṭhaṃ vā ādāya. So evaṃ vadeyya: ‘ahaṃ imasmiṃ ākāse rūpaṃ likhissāmi, rūpapātubhāvaṃ karissāmī’ti. Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, api nu so puriso imasmiṃ ākāse rūpaṃ likheyya, rūpapātubhāvaṃ kareyyā”ti? “No hetaṃ, bhante”. “Taṃ kissa hetu”? “Ayañhi, bhante, ākāso arūpī anidassano. .”

Translated: “..Bhikkhus, a man may come along bringing off white or yellow or dark green or crimson colors, and may say: ‘I will draw shapes in the sky, I will make material shapes appear. What do you think about this, monks? Could that man draw pictures in the sky with those colors?” “No, Bhante. It is not possible to draw shapes in the empty sky that can be seen, that can manifest as figures”.

5. In the “Nibbāna-The Mind Stilled” series, Venerable Katukurunde Ñāṇananda has provided more evidence that “anidassana” means “something that cannot be seen” or ‘something that does not manifest”; see, Sermons 7 and 8 in Volume II, which is provided as a pdf in the above link.

  • However, his explanation of viññāna is critically wrong, as I explain below. This is a common mistake that I see in many current interpretations.

6. Viññāna is loosely translated as “consciousness” or “awareness”. But it is much more than that. Viññāna represents much more:  “our hopes and desires that we want from this world”. This is the more important aspect — which makes the connection with rūpa.

  • We believe that things in this world will provide us with long lasting happiness. Thus we do vaci and kaya sankhara to achieve them. Then, “sankhāra paccayā viññāna”  leads to the cultivation of a corresponding viññāna.
  • Viññāna means without ñāna. When we follow the Noble Path, we will comprehend the Three Characteristics of nature (anicca, dukkha, anatta) and realize the unfruitfulness of having such false hopes, i.e., we cultivate paññā.

7. This is quite clear from Paticca Samuppada: “avijjā paccayā sankhāra; sankhāra paccayā viññāna; viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa, nāmarūpa paccayā salāyatana, salāyatana paccayā phassō, phassa paccayā vēdanā, vēdanā paccayā tanhā, tanhā paccayā upādāna, upādāna paccayā bhavō, bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, marana, sōka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti”.

  • All future suffering arises because we act  with avijjā (i.e., generate abhisankhāra) to achieve pleasurable worldy things  and thereby generate viññāna.

8. Each individual citta of a normal human— during its existence for a billionth of a second — is contaminated in 9 stages and is added to the viññānakkhandha! See; “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga

  •  Viññāna is a contaminated citta.
  • The contamination of a citta is manifested in saññā and vēdanā.
  • These are discussed in detail in “Nāma & Rūpa to Nāmarūpa“.

9. It is stated in the “Saṅgīti Sutta (Digha Nikaya 33)“: “Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho—sani­dassa­na­sappa­ṭi­ghaṃ rūpam, ani­dassa­na­sappa­ṭi­ghaṃ rūpaṃ, ani­dassa­na­ap­paṭi­ghaṃ rūpaṃ“.

Translated: “Threefold classification of rupa (matter) – visible and graspable, invisible and graspable, invisible and ungraspable“.

10. Viññāna is also the link between mind and matter, even though it is in the “nāma” or mind category” most of the time.

  • In the Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda­ Vibhaṅganāma is defined as only the first three khandha: “Tattha katamaṃ nāmaṃ? Vedanākkhandho, saññākkhandho, saṅ­khā­rak­khan­dho—idaṃ vuccati “nāmaṃ”. This is a clear indication that viññāna khandha does not really belong in the “nāma or mind category”.
  • Even though vipaka viññāna is conclusively in the “nama” category, kamma viññāna have intrinsic energies, and thus fall into the rupa category. This why sometimes it is not included in the “nama” category.
  • This was pointed out in the post, “Viññāna – What It Really Means“. You may want to read that first. As pointed out in that post, kamma viññāna are different from vipaka viññāna in that kamma viññāna have energies embedded in them.
  • This is confirmed in the Majje Sutta (AN 6.61), where the Buddha stated that nama is at one end, rūpa is at the other end, with viññāna in the middle: nāmaṃ kho, āvuso, eko anto, rūpaṃ dutiyo anto, viññāṇaṃ majjhe“. 

11. The real nature of viññāna as cause for suffering is clearly stated in the “Dvaya­tānu­passa­nā­sutta (Sutta Nipata 3.12)“:

Yaṃ kiñci dukkhaṃ sambhoti,
Sabbaṃ viññāṇapaccayā;
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
Natthi dukkhassa sambhavo“.

Translated: “Whatever suffering that arises, all that arises due to viññāṇa; With the not arising of viññāṇa, there is no existence with suffering“.

  • That should lay to rest any arguments about viññāṇa being equated to Nibbāna or even pabhassara citta, or bhavanga.
  • A critical point that I have been trying to make is that when one sees such dramatic contradiction somewhere, one should be skeptical about the trustworthiness of that source. This is the only way to make progress.

12. The phrase “”viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..” appears in the Brahma­niman­tanika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 49), and I will first provide the essential parts of the Sutta that are relevant to discuss the meaning of this verse.

Here is the essence of the Sutta in plain English:

At one time, The Buddha saw that the following wrong view came to the mind of the Baka Brahmā (who is the leader of the Maha Brahma realm; see, “31 Realms of Existence“): “My existence is permanent, it is stable, it is eternal, and is not liable to passing away”.

In order to correct the wrong view of the Maha Brahma, vanishing from near the great sāl-tree in the Subhaga Grove at Ukkaṭṭhā, the Buddha appeared in that Brahma-world.

Baka Brahmā saw the Buddha coming, welcomed him, and told him: “Idañhi, mārisa, niccaṃ, idaṃ dhuvaṃ, idaṃ sassataṃ, idaṃ kevalaṃ, idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ, idañhi na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati. Ito ca panaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇaṃ natthī’ti.

Translated: “This existence, good sir, can be maintained to my liking, it is stable, it is eternal, it encompasses all, this is not liable to passing away, this is not born, nor does it age or die or to pass away or uprise, and there is not another further release from this existence”.

The Buddha replied: “You are steeped in ignorance.  You say your existence can be maintained to your liking, but that is not so, it is not permanent as you say…” (yatra hi nāma aniccaṃyeva samānaṃ niccanti vakkhati, addhuvaṃyeva samānaṃ dhuvanti vakkhati,..).

  • By the way, here it is important to note that the Pali word for “permanent” is “dhuva”, and not “nicca”.

The Buddha added, “..although you say there is no further release that can be attained, there is indeed a permanent release” (“santañca panaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇaṃ “natthaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇan”ti vakkhatī’ti.”

  • Then there is an account of how Māra the deva, having entered a certain company of Brahmas, spoke to encourage the Brahma. I will skip that account, in order to get to the crux of the matter.

Baka the Brahmā then replied to the Buddha: ‘But, good sir, I say “nicca” because it is so, I say “stable” because it is stable, I say “eternal” because it is eternal. There is no more suffering,…I have escaped from the cravings for patavi, apo, tejo, vayo dhatu..” (meaning he has overcome tanha for the sensual pleasures available in the kāma loka comprised from the satara maha dhatu).

The Buddha told the Baka Brahma that indeed he knew that the Baka Brahma had transcended the kāma loka, and was fully aware of his powers. The Buddha added that there were things in this world that the Brahma was not aware of: (1) There are higher Brahma realms, (2) Maha Brahma himself was in the Abhassara Brahma realm, died there and was now reborn in this lower Brahma realm. The Buddha told the Baka Brahma: “you neither know nor see those higher realms, but I know and see them”.

Here is the really relevant part of the Sutta where the Buddha tells Maha Brahma: ”Pathaviṃ kho ahaṃ, brahme, pathavito abhiññāya yāvatā pathaviyā pathavattena ananubhūtaṃ tadabhiññāya pathaviṃ nāpahosiṃ, pathaviyā nāpahosiṃ, pathavito nāpahosiṃ, pathaviṃ meti nāpahosiṃ, pathaviṃ nābhivadiṃ…

Translated: I, Brahma, knowing patavi to be just patavi (devoid of life), knowing the true nature of patavi, I do not take patavi to be me (no attachment to things in the kāma loka made out of the satara maha bhuta)”.

  • Then he repeated the same verse for the other three maha bhuta of which the bodies of beings in kāma loka are made of: apo, tejo, vayo.

Finally, he summarized it all in the following verse, which we discussed in the  post “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“: “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃtaṃ pathaviyā pathavattenaananubhūtaṃāpassa āpattena ananubhūtaṃtejassa tejattena ananubhūtaṃvāyassavāyattena ananubhūtaṃbhūtānaṃ bhūtattena ananubhūtaṃdevānaṃ devattenaananubhūtaṃpajāpatissa pajāpatittena ananubhūtaṃbrahmānaṃ brahmattenaananubhūtaṃābhassarānaṃ ābhassarattena ananubhūtaṃsubhakiṇhānaṃ subhakiṇhānaṃ subha­kiṇ­hattena ananubhūtaṃ, vehapphalānaṃ vehap­phalat­tena ananubhūtaṃ, abhibhussa abhibhuttena ananubhūtaṃ, sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṃ.”.

Translated: “Viññāna is unseen, infinite, and leads to the rebirth process for all. With viññāna (defiled consciousness) one cannot comprehend the real nature of patavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo, bhūta, deva, pajapti brahma, abhassara brahma, subhakinha brahma, vehapphala brahma, etc. and everything in this world (sabba)”.

Then, the Buddha concluded: “Thus Brahmā, I am not merely on an exact equality with you as regards super-knowledge; I am indeed higher in knowledge”.

Then the Brahma challenged the Buddha saying that he is going to disappear and If the Buddha is indeed of higher knowledge, try to find him. But he was unable to hide from the Buddha.

Then the Buddha said, “‘Now I am vanishing from you, Brahmā. Find me if you can”.  Of course the Brahma was unable to find the Buddha and thus had to concede defeat.

That is the essence of that long Sutta, that is relevant for this discussion.

13. We have to realize that indeed the Maha Brahmas has a very long lifetime of a quarter of the age of our universe (several billion years).

  • Furthermore, since brahmas do not have solid bodies like ours they are not subject to diseases or bodily pains. So, they live a peaceful life until their bhava is ended. So it is no surprise that the Baka Brahma thought that he had overcome all suffering by getting rid of the human body. See the post on “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya” for details on bodies of beings in other realms.
  • But of course, the brahmas are not released from the apāyas, since they have only suppressed kāma rāga and have not removed any of the ten samyojana that bind one to the rebirth process (unless they had attained at least the Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna).
  • This should give us a lot to think about our suffering-causing body that lasts only about 100 years! There is absolutely nothing to be proud of one’s physical body or to think that it is worthwhile to take this foul body to be “mine”. That is one way to get rid of sakkaya ditthi.
  • The question is not whether there is a “self” or not. The question is whether it is wise to think that it is worthwhile to have the idea of a “self” which lasts less than a blink of eye in the samsāric scale, and gives so much suffering (and could lead to unimaginable suffering in future lives). 

14. I hope this post — together with the other posts in this subsection —  makes it clear what viññāṇa really is, and what is meant by the famous verse, ” “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..” that has been mistranslated so many times.

  • Please make any comments/suggestions/criticisms in the discussion forum, so that everyone can benefit from the discussion.
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