Sankhāra paccayā Viññāna – 1

1. “Sankhāra paccayā viññāna” is normally translated something like, “with mental formations as condition, consciousness arises”. But I will show that a more accurate translation is, “Immoral/unfruitful actions and thoughts as root condition for defiled consciousness”.

  • I will just keep the word viññāna without translating as “defiled/unfruitful consciousness” (which could become cumbersome to repeat also), because the word “consciousness” cannot fully embody the meaning of viññāna. Furthermore, vipāka viññāna (those that arise outside of “sankhāra paccayā viññāna”) are “just consciousness”; see #4 below.
  • Viññāṇa is a step in the Paṭicca samuppāda that describes how suffering arises; thus viññāna is NOT neutral or innocuous as the word “consciousness” or “awareness” implies; it is DEFILED consciousness, contaminated with immoral mental factors such as greed and hate.
  • In contrast, an Arahant has undefiled, pure consciousness; thus an Arahant experiences the world without any defilements. He/she can see, hear, etc  without making any type of judgement, attachment, or repulsion to what is seen, heard, etc.

Thus we need to realize that viññāna is DIFFERENT from “knowing” or “being aware”, which is what “consciousness” implies. This is very important.

2. For example, two people with opposing political views (A and B) may encounter a politician C on the street who has views compatible with those of A. Person A will be happy to meet C and may go up to C, shake his hand and talk to him enthusiastically. On the other hand, Person B will automatically have irritable thoughts about C and is likely to avoid C. In this case, A and B generated two very different kinds of viññāna upon seeing the same person.

  • On the other hand, suppose there is a fourth person,D, who also knows the politician C AND suppose D is an Arahant. Now, person D will recognize C as that politician but will not generate any likes or dislikes about C. That is what “consciousness” is, just recognizing who or what it is without generating any biases.

3. The other main point is that viññāna is multi-faceted. It has embedded in it one’s memories as well as one’s future hopes and plans, and those lie under the surface. This is what Sigmund Freud called the subconscious. But there is no separate “subconscious”; there is only one citta at a time.

  • The mind does this with the help of several mental factors (cētasika) like memory (manasikāra) and perception (saññā). We will discuss that in the future.

4. For example, when I am looking at a picture I have what is called cakkhu viññāna, i.e., “visual consciousness”. This is a vipāka viññāna and is “just consciousness”.

However, if I have been planning a trip overseas that is still in the “back of my mind”; if I have been thinking about calling an old friend about whom I just thought of recently, that is also in the “back of my mind”. Thus at a given time there may be several or even many viññāna waiting to come to the surface.

  • And some of those “subconscious” viññāna may disappear, if the reason for it to be there goes away for some reason. For example, if civil war breaks out in the country that I was planning to visit, I will abandon that trip and my “viññāna” for that will go away. If I stop thinking about my old friend, that viññāna for calling him up may also go away with time. Thus if a given viññāna stops getting “its food” it will die off gradually.
  • The difference between kamma viññāna (those that arise due to “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna”) and vipāka viññāna is discussed in “Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations“.

5. Now we can see how “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” works. The more I think about my old friend, the more sankhāra I am generating; thus I keep “feeding that viññāna” and that viññāna for calling him gets stronger.

  • The breaking out of the civil war in that country basically deprived the “viññāna for making a trip to that country” of any food (i.e., now it is not possible to visit that country), and thus the news effectively killed that viññāna.
  • As always, it is best to think about your own situations and see how  “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” works, and also how one can have many types of viññāna at the same time, even though only one is at the forefront at any given time.

6. There is another way that viññāna can be divided into two main categories. One is the “base level” of viññāna for an existence or bhava. For example, if a deer is reborn as a human, then that lifestream will now have a “higher base level of viññāna” suitable for a human. Whereas a deer cannot sort out right from wrong, a human can. Thus at the end of a given “bhava” (say as a deer), that lifestream gets new, higher “base level” of viññāna.

  • The other main category of viññāna is the numerous types of viññāna that arise in a given existence that we discussed above. What we perceive through the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) gives rise to six types of consciousness: vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and concepts. Based on those, we can have infinite types of viññāna as we discussed above. These types of viññāna are now in accordance with the type of existence or “bhava”. For example, a deer does not perceive what is seen at the same level of consciousness as a human, even if both are looking at the same thing. Sometimes there may be differences in sense faculties too: a bat cannot see but uses sonar to find its way around. Furthermore, as we discussed above, there are many types of “subconscious” viññāna as well.
  • There are many new concepts introduced in these introductory posts that are critical. One may need to go back to previous posts and re-read in order to grasps these important concepts.

7. Based on those two categories, there are two main Paṭicca samuppāda cycles that describe life “in this world of 31 realms”:

  • One describes how the “base level” of viññāna changes at the end of a “bhava”, say when a deer is reborn as a human. Here a given lifestream can make a transition from a lower base level of viññāna to a higher (e.g., deer reborn as a human) or vice versa (e.g., human reborn as a deer). This is the “patisandhi Paṭicca samuppāda” cycle.
  • The other Paṭicca samuppāda cycle describes how a given lifestream accumulates conditions for suffering during a given “bhava”. This is where we experience viññāna through our daily activities. This is the “idappaccayātā Paṭicca samuppāda” cycle; see, “Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda“.

Let us discuss the viññāna associated with this latter one first.

1. Sankhāra paccayā Idappaccayātā Viññāna

Let us first look at how our consciousness changes basically every moment in an active day. We are being bombarded with pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, body touches, and we think about all sorts of things throughout the day. In each single case, we experience a different viññāna. This is why viññāna is very complex and multi-faceted.

1. If we take a simple example of looking at a person, there are multiple events that happens in the mind: the physical eye captures an image of the mind which is processed by the brain and sent to the mind (details of this will be discussed in the Abhidhamma section later). The mind instantly compares that image with previous experiences and recognizes that it is a close friend. Happy feelings may arise instantly too. If we had not seen him for a while, some old memories associated with him may also instantly pop into our mind. The sum total of all mental factors (feelings, perception, joy, etc) associated with that “seeing event” is the “eye consciousness” or “cakkhu viññāna” at that moment.

  • And this is an example of a “vipāka viññāna”. We did not plan to see him, but just bumped into him.

2. But now based on this vipāka viññāna, we may decide to take some actions. We may run to meet him, give him a hug, and follow-up with even more actions. Most of these could be harmless saṅkhāra and our experience, consciousness, or viññāna is mostly harmless.

  • However, if we instead ran into a person with whom we recently had a serious argument, that vipāka viññāna may lead to a series of “bad saṅkhāra” in our minds and thus lead to a totally different viññāna BASED ON those bad saṅkhāra. we may decide to say something bad to that person. Now we are doing vaci saṅkhāra that may have adverse consequences. Now our viññāna is different and we feel differently from the above case. We have an agitated state of mind, and with the slightest provocation from him, we may say or do even more harmful things.

3. When a thought arises in the mind, it has associated with it many mental factors (cētasika) which characterize how we feel: joy, sadness, greed, generosity, hate, kindness, etc. Viññāṇa encompasses all such relevant mental factors.

  • In the previous example of persons A and B meeting the politician C, person A’s thoughts embody happiness while person B’s thoughts embody dislike.
  • For a viññāna to arise, there must be some interest in the sense object. For example, we are bombarded with millions of sense inputs in a day, but we “pay attention to” only a fraction of those. Each mind has a set of “preferred items” in the background or “in the subconscious” based on the person’s habits and cravings.

4. Then, the more we “feed a given viññāna” by thinking, speaking, doing things related to that, the more strong it gets. Thus we can see how “habit building” is tightly associated with saṅkhāra. In the same way, we can “remove a habit” by depriving that associated viññāna of its food, i.e., by stopping thinking or doing things related to it.

  • And that can be done only realizing the benefits of a good habit or adverse consequences of a bad habit, which was the first step in the Paṭicca samuppāda, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra”. A bit of thought should make this clear. Comprehending Buddha Dhamma takes time to think deeply about how all these things fit together.Just being able to recite the Paṭicca samuppāda cycle does not bring any benefits.

5. A simple example is “building a viññāna for getting drunk”: A teenger may not like the taste of his first drink, but if he keeps doing it due to “peer pressure”, he is likely to build a new viññāna for it. As he builds this viññāna, he will keep accumulating saṅkhāra to “feed that viññāna”. He will be thinking about it, talking about it, and of course whenever has the chance he will be drinking. The more he does any of those saṅkhāra, that viññāna will grow. AND even when he is doing something else, that viññāna will be at close to top of the subconscious waiting for an opportunity to come up and induce him to get drunk.

  • And it works the same way for any type of activity. A teenager studying for an exam, will have a viññāna for it. If he is serious about it, he will be thinking about it more, talking about it, and studying hard; all those are saṅkhāra too, in this case for his benefit.

The idea is to first not to do any abhisaṅkhāra (strong immoral saṅkhāra) that could lead to birth in the four lower realms. These kinds of saṅkhāra are the immoral acts, speech, and thoughts. We will discuss this in the next post.

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