Where Are Memories Stored? – Viññāṇa Dhātu

February 21, 2022

Viññāṇa dhātu represents the nāma loka. It has no spatial location. That is why we can recall memories from anywhere.

Nama Loka (Vinnana Dhatu) Is Different Compared to Rupa Loka!

1. A question that comes up frequently is: “Where are our memories stored?” Are they stored in the brain?

  • The Buddha could recall memories of previous births trillions of years in the past. See, for example, “Mahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14).” Those memories could not possibly have been in his brain of his last birth!
  • Below, we will discuss scientific evidence that the brain cannot possibly hold our memories.
  • Then we will discuss the Buddha’s explanation of “memory storage/recall.” The brain plays a crucial role in recalling memories, but the memories are in our nāma loka (viññāṇa dhātu.)
  • We are used to thinking in terms of the rupa loka represented by the other five types of dhātu (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo, ākāsa), where objects remain in specific locations. But viññāṇa dhātu has no specific location in space. We will discuss some unique properties of our nāma loka or viññāṇa dhātu. 
Recent Evidence Against “Brain as the Mind” Hypothesis

2. As we discussed in the recent posts, scientific findings within the past 50 years have converged to THREE investigations that point to the fact that the brain is not the “seat of consciousness.” These findings indicate that while the brain plays a crucial role in consciousness, it is NOT where our thoughts arise, i.e., the brain is not the mind! In addition, our memories are not “stored” in the brain either.

ONE: Rebirths accounts by children have been common knowledge in many Asian countries for ages. Most people in those countries were Buddhists who accepted those accounts without question. Only recently, Western countries became interested after two significant developments: Systematic studies conducted by Professor Ian Stevenson (Ref. 1) and easy access to rebirth accounts via the internet. Also, see “Evidence for Rebirth.

TWO: Accounts of Near-Death Experiences (NDE), which happen without brain activity. Some NDE accounts are by those declared dead for periods ranging from a few minutes to many minutes. They say that “they were outside of the physical body.” They were looking down at their bodies from the ceiling!

THREE: Reports of “extraordinary memory recall” by several people. They can recall the past several years in great detail, and it is unlikely that the brain could have “stored” such minute details as a video recorder.

  • Let us discuss briefly the third now.
Extraordinary Memories – Impossible to be Stored in the Brain!

3. Strong evidence has emerged recently that a “complete record” of one’s past exists somewhere, just like a full record of an event is in a videotape. These studies started with Jill Price, who contacted a team of scientists in the early 2000s about her ability to recall anything from 1974 onwards. Here is a video of her interview with Diane Sawyer on an ABC program:

  • She says she can “see” what happened on any day in the past. It is not like she recalls a “summary” or the gist of what happened. She can recount the whole episode in detail. Even the date and time come out effortlessly. That is amazing!
  • @2:50 minutes: Diane Sawyer tests Jill’s ability to recall past events. She passes all tests.

4. Since then, several more such individuals have been studied in detail. More details in “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM),” “Autobiographical Memory – Preserved in Nāma Loka,” and Where Are Memories “Stored”? – Connection to Pañcakkhandha.”

  • The brain cannot “store” that much information in such detail. Scientists are unable to explain these amazing accounts.
  • The point is that even one such account of “detailed memory recall” (as by Jill Price above) is enough to negate the “memories in the brain” hypothesis. In the words of the American philosopher William James, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black. it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”
Viññāṇa Dhātu is Accessible from Anywhere in Ākāsa Dhātu

5.  A mind has access to viññāṇa dhātu from anywhere.

  • That is why whether we are on Earth, go to the Moon, or even to another planetary system at the other end of the universe, we will be able to recall memories and think just like while we are on Earth.
  • The brain helps to extract memories from the nāma loka (viññāṇa dhātu) and pass them to hadaya vatthu, the seat of the mind.
  • On the other hand, the five physical senses help detect localized, dense rupa. Again, the brain plays a key role in that process; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.” Of course, it is the mind that experiences all rupā and memories.
Our World – Rupa Loka and Nāma Loka

6. Our world consists of rupa loka and nāma loka. Rupa loka, of course, consists of physical rupa that we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Other humans and animals are included in one’s rupa loka. They are at specific locations in ākāsa dhātu (space.)

  • The nāma loka includes the “mental aspects” or nāma, specifically vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and vipāka viññāṇa.
  • Kamma viññāṇa (associated with dhammā ) do not strictly fall into the nāma category but are also in nāma loka (viññāṇa dhātu.) 
  • We all share the same rupa loka. However, each person has their own nāma loka, because vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa are one’s own.
  • Unlike rupa (located in specific places in space), nāma in nāma loka (viññāṇa dhātucan be recalled from anywhere in space (ākāsa dhātu.)
Nāma and Two Types of Rupa

7. The astronauts who went to the Moon could not see, hear, smell, taste, or touch anything that was not on the Moon. But they could recall their memories as if they were on Earth. That is because we can access viññāṇa dhātu from anywhere.

  • Put it another way, dense rupa (experienced by the five physical senses) are localized, but the nāma category (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) is NOT localized.
  • In addition to those dense rupā and nāma, another category makes the bridge between “pure nāma” (without energy) and rupa. Those are the dhammā in “manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjāti manoviññāṇaṃ” in the “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148).”
  • Vedanā, saññā, saṇkhāra, and “vipaka viññāṇa” belong to the nāma category. “Kamma viññāṇa” are dhammā (anidassana/appaṭigha rupa.)
  • In between such dense (sappaṭigharupa  and nāma, there is anidassana/appaṭigha rupa (dhammā.) These dhammā are kammic energies created by kamma viññāṇa; see, “Dhammā, Kamma, Saṅkhāra, Mind – Critical Connections.”
  • Both nāma and dhammā are not localized and in viññāṇa dhātu. See, “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!
The Sixth Type of Rupa in Buddha Dhamma

8. As discussed below, nāma (or “thoughts with nāma“) arise when an external rupa comes into contact with an internal rupa.

  • Our thinking process always starts with an ārammaṇa that comes to a “sense door.” We discussed the five physical sense doors above.
  • The sixth sense door is the mind itself. It can become active upon receiving a “dhammā,” as we have discussed previously; see, for example, #6 in “Summary of Key Concepts About Viññāṇa and Saṅkhāra” and the two posts referred to there.
  • Dhammā (with a “long a”) are memory records (nāmagotta) with embedded kammic energies. They are kamma bija (kammic energies) that bring vipāka. The contact of such dhammā directly with the hadaya vatthu is described in the “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)” as  “manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjāti manoviññāṇaṃ.” See “Chachakka Sutta – Six Types of Vipāka Viññāna.”
  • Where are such dhammā or kamma bija “stored”?
Dhammā Are in Viññāṇa Dhatu (or Nāma Loka)

9. Our world consists of six types of dhātuspathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo, ākāsa, and viññāṇa. 

  • We are familiar with the rupa loka associated with the first five types of dhātus. “Things” made of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo are in specific places in ākāsa dhātu or “space.”
  • The Buddha described a nāma loka associated with the viññāṇa dhātu. Nāmagotta and dhammā in the nāma loka do not have spatial locations. They can make contact with the hadaya vatthu from anywhere in space. We discussed that starting with #11 in the recent post “Summary of Key Concepts About Viññāṇa and Saṅkhāra.
  • Let us think about that because it can provide more insights.
Difference Between “Dense Rupa” in Akasa Dhatu and “Nāmagotta/Dhammā” in Viññāṇa Dhatu

10. If you want to see the great wall in China, you must go to China. If you need to see a concert you need to go there. To experience any of the five types of “dense rupa” DIRECTLY with the five corresponding physical senses, we need to “bring them together” at the appropriate location.

  • However, we can recall memories of any of the above experiences from anywhere. Even if you go to the Moon, you can recall such experiences (nāmagotta) from the past. Does that mean you took all those memories with you to the Moon?
  • Some scientists believe that all memories are in the brain. But no one has proven that despite the efforts, especially during the past several decades.
  • Furthermore, there is an ever-increasing collection of evidence from the accounts of past lives and near-death experiences. Even if just one of those accounts is true, we can rule out the “memory storage in the brain” hypothesis.
Internal (Ajjhatta) and External (Bahiddha) Rupa

11. There are five types of rupa in the external world (bahiddha rupa): rupa rupa or vaṇṇa rupa, sadda rupa, gandha rupa, rasa rupa, and phoṭṭhabba rupa.

  • Then there are subtle internal rupā (ajjhatta rupa) associated with a living being. The seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and a set of pasāda rupa arise at the beginning of a new bhava (existence.)
  • Note that the external vaṇṇa rupā are experienced (or sensed) with the internal cakkhu pasāda rupa; external sadda rupa experienced with internal sota pasāda rupa, etc.
  • Both internal and external rupā are made of the four fundamental elements (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo) and other types of rupa derived from the fundamental elements (upādāya rupa.)
The uniqueness of the Set of Internal Rupa

12. These internal rupā are very special. They can be created only by kammic energy.

  • Materialists think thoughts (nāma) arise in the brain. But they have not found ANY evidence of that despite intensive research over the past 60 plus years.
  • How can feelings of joy or sorrow arise in inert molecules, no matter how complex they become?
  • As I discussed in the first few posts in the “Origin of Life” series, even the first cells are created by kammic energy!

13. Note that pasāda rupā are in the mental body or gandhabba. They cannot be seen even with the most powerful microscopes.

  • The eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and physical body only capture the external sensory inputs. Those signals get processed by the brain and transmitted to the mental body with the hadaya vatthu and a set of pasāda rupa.
  • Nāma (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) arise at hadaya vatthu in the mental body (gandhabba.) See, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.” It is not necessary to learn such details. But it is necessary to understand the difference between the sensory system on the physical body (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and brain) and that in the mental body (hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rupa.) Thoughts (nāma) arise in the mental body.
Contact Between External and Internal Rupa Give Rise to Nāma (Mental Attributes)

14. ma arises when an external rupa comes into contact with an internal rupa. For example, when an external rupa is seen with the cakkhu pasāda rupa, cakkhu viññāṇa arises. That ” seeing sensation” is felt with vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and the overall experience is cakkhu viññāṇa. All five “physical senses” work the same way.

  • By the way, those five types of sensory experiences (cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya viññāṇa) are vipāka viññāṇa.
What Are Nāmarupa?

Nāma loka includes two types of “nāmarupa“:
(i) The primary type of nāmarupa is “in-between nāma and rupa” and arises in Uppatti Paticca Samuppada. This is the “mental body” or “gandhabba” produced by kammic energy!
(ii) The second type belongs to the “nāma” category and arises in the Idapaccayatā PS.

  • In this post, we will discuss only to the first type of nāmarupa.

15. The set of ajjhatta rupa defines a living being.  It is also the primary type of nāmarupa because it can generate nāma!

  • Nāma” arises at the “seat of the mind” (hadaya vatthu) with the help of the five pasāda rupa. Each pasāda rupa is a “doorway” to the hadaya vatthu. For example, vaṇṇa rupa makes contact with the cakkhu pasāda rupa, and that contact is transferred to the hadaya vatthu.
  • We can see that this primary type of nāmarupa has the remarkable ability to generate nāma or “mental attributes”: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and vipāka viññāṇa.
  • That is why the hadaya vatthu and the five pasāda rupa go by “mental body” or gandhabba. It has the unique ability to generate nāma upon interactions with the five types of external rupa.

16. Some living beings, particularly the Brahmas in the highest 20 realms, have only such a “mental body.” They do not have dense physical bodies like humans or animals.

  • Rupāvacara Brahmas in the first 16 Brahma realms have hadaya vatthu and two pasāda rupa (cakkhu and sota.) Thus they can only see and hear.
  • Arupāvacara Brahmas in the four arupāvacara Brahma realms have only the hadaya vatthu. They cannot see or hear either. But they can think! That brings up another type of rupa that we discuss now.
  • The hadaya vatthu of any Brahma (or any living being) is unique; it is formed by the specific kammic energy that gave rise to its existence.
External Rupa are Inert; Internal Rupa Are Not Inert

17. The critical observation is that the set of internal rupa (hadaya vatthu and the set of pasāda rupa) are not inert. That set is the “mental body” or “manomaya kāya” or “gandhabba.”

  • Those are the ONLY rupa that can give rise to nāma (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, vipāka viññāṇa.)
  • The Pali word “nāma” can mean “to bend/adjust” (in Sinhala, නම්‍යතාවය.) The internal rupā generated by kammic energy is compatible with that existence.
  • Our big, dense physical bodies are made of inert matter, just like plants. “Consciousness” arises in the “mental body.”

18. For each human, kammic energy creates a manomaya kāya with a hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rupa. Until it is pulled into a suitable womb, that gandhabba or manomaya kāya lives in the “para loka.” That means those of us in “this loka” (ayaṁ loka) cannot see them; they are in a “different loka” (para loka) that is unseen.

  • While in para loka, a gandhabba can see and hear just like a rupāvacara Brahma. Even though a human gandhabba has ghāna, jivhā, and kāya pasāda rupa, those cannot make contact with gandha, rasa, and phoṭṭhabba until getting a physical body.
  • A physical body starts when the gandhabba enters a womb and merges with a zygote. Then it grows inside the womb getting food from the mother. Once that baby comes out of the womb, it grows into an adult eating food.
  • Thus, our physical bodies are inert matter, like plants or rocks. They are all made of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo. That is why it becomes inert as soon as the gandhabba leaves.
  • It is CRITICAL to have this basic understanding; see “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”

1. “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” by Ian Stevenson (Second Edition,1974.)

2. Related posts: “Where Are Memories “Stored”? – Connection to Pañcakkhandha” and “Memory Recall for Gandhabba in a Human Body.”

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