January 23, 2022; revised December 23, 2022
The famous verse, “viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ” in Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11) and Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) refers to the creation of anidassana appaṭigha rupa (dhammā) by kamma viññāṇa.
Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ – Correct Translation
1. The phrase “anidassana viññāṇa” needs to be analyzed within the longer verse, “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ.”
- That extended verse appears in two suttas, “Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49)” and “Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11)“; see Refs. 1 and 2.
- That verse means: “Viññāṇa is unseen, infinite, and is the origin of all existence (bhava).” Here, it refers specifically to kamma viññāṇa that arises via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa” in Paṭicca Samuppāda. As we know, that leads to “upādāna paccayā bhava.“
- The “Dutiyabodhi Sutta (Ud 1.2)“ and many other suttas confirm that. It states that avijjā nirodhā (cessation of avijjā) leads to the cessation of kamma viññāṇa that, in turn, leads to the cessation of bhava and future suffering.
- See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda” where I pointed out the problem with translating “viññāṇa” as just “consciousness.” The six types of vipāka viññāṇa do not cease with the cessation of avijjā and will exist until Parinibbāna.
- Now, let us see how most translators have incorrectly translated that verse, “viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ,” in both those suttas.
Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ – Incorrect Translations
2. Bhikkhu Sujato translates “viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ” as “consciousness that is invisible, infinite, entirely given up;” “On the Invitation of Brahmā (MN 49).” I have no idea how he translated “pabhaṁ” as “given up.”
- Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the same verse as “consciousness non-manifesting, boundless, luminous all-around;” see Ref. 3.
- I have seen others translate “pabha” as “luminous,” too. That confusion comes from equating “pabha” to “pabhā” (with a “long a.”) Those two words have very different meanings; see #3 below.
- All of us agree that the first part means, “viññāṇa is unseen, infinite.” As I show below, those are general characteristics of viññāṇa dhātu.
Pabha Is Different from Pabhā
3. The “Concise Pāli-English Dictionary” by Buddhadatta Mahathera defines “pabhava” as “origin, source” and “pabhā” (with a long “a”) as “light, radiance.”
- Both those are correct. It is also good to know that the word “pabhava,” “pa” means again and again, and “bha” is related to” bhava.“ Thus pabhava means “repeated existence” that arises via Paṭicca Samuppāda, as pointed out in #1 above.
- The word “pabha” appears in another critical verse, “Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā;” see Refs. 4-6.
- The meaning of “pabhā” (with a long “a”) as “light” is easily seen in the short “Pabhā Sutta (AN 4.142).”
- To get a good idea of how bad the translations of #2 are, we need to look at the background of the two suttas where the verse “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ” appears.
Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49)
4. This sutta describes an account of a “debate” between the Buddha and Baka Brahma, the “leader” of the Mahā Brahma realm. Baka Brahma thought that his existence was eternal and superior to the Buddha.
- During that discussion, the Buddha explained to the Brahma that Baka Brahma was not even aware that there are realms above the Mahā Brahma realm.
- Then they discussed how attachment to worldly things made of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo would lead to various existences. The Buddha pointed out to Brahma that he did not understand the fundamental nature of the four primary elements (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo) present in all the realms.
5. That is when the Buddha made the general statement in Ref. 1 to point out that it is (kamma) viññāṇa that leads to the continuation of the rebirth process among all those realms where the four primary elements are present.
- Translation of the first part of the verse in Ref. 1: “Viññāna is unseen, infinite, and leads to the rebirth process for all. With viññāna, one cannot comprehend the real nature of pathavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo, bhūtā, deva, pajapti brahma, abhassara brahma, subhakinha brahma, vehapphala brahma, etc. (in any realm) in this world (sabba)”.
- The last part of the verse in Ref. 1, “sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṁ” means the following. Without comprehending kamma viññāṇa (that it is invisible, infinite, and gives rise to existences based on the four primary elements), one would not be able to comprehend the fundamental nature of this world.
- The verse in Ref.1 is critical to this relatively long sutta. Even though the rest of the sutta could be translated word by word, that verse requires a detailed explanation.
- Next, the Kevaṭṭa Sutta directly states that cessation of (kamma) viññāṇa leads to the stopping of the rebirth process.
Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11)
6. Kevaṭṭa Sutta is even longer. But most of this sutta can also be translated word by word. The Buddha explains to Kevaṭṭa that trying to convert people of other faiths by performing miracles/supernatural deeds like flying through the air is not good. When people understand the deeper aspects of the Buddha Dhamma, they will not give any value to such miracles.
- Section 4 of the sutta is where the background story starts leading to the verse in Ref. 2. The following question arose in the mind of a certain bhikkhu: “Where do these four primary elements (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo) cease to exist?”
- Then the Buddha explains to Kevaṭṭa how that bhikkhu (who had abhiññā powers) went to higher realms looking for the answer to his question. No one knew the answer, and he returned to ask the Buddha. That account takes most of Section 4.
- The verse of importance to us comes at the end of the sutta in Section 4.1. There, the Buddha explains that the question needs to be re-phrased., as we discuss next.
Nibbāna Reached with the Cessation of Kamma Viññāṇa
7. The point is that one cannot find any existence where those four primary elements are absent. Instead, one should re-phrase the question as, “How would those four primary elements (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo) not find a footing anywhere (among the 31 realms)?” That is the same as asking, “How can one stop the rebirth process?”
- The answer is at the end of the verse: “Viññāṇassa nirodhena etthetaṁ uparujjhatī’ti.” “They (the four primary elements) will cease to exist with the cessation of viññāṇa.” Of course, it refers only to kamma viññāṇa.
- The four primary elements will cease to exist in Parinibbāna or “full Nibbāna” (realized after the death of an Arahant.) Once the Arahant dies, they will not be reborn in this world made of the four primary elements.
8. As we have discussed, kamma viññāṇa ceased to exist for the Buddha upon his Enlightenment. But he lived in this world for another 45 years until Parinibbāna and experienced vipāka viññāṇa during that whole time! Thus, the “cessation of the four primary elements” was realized only after the Parinibbāna. See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
- I hope now you can see why the English translations in #2 above of the verse “viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ” are wrong. Of course, there are several more wrong translations of the same verse. We will discuss one more next.
Anidassana Viññāṇa Is the Second Arupāvacara Jhāna?
9. In the previous post, I mentioned the fact that there have been many discussions at discussion forums on anidassana viññāṇa. See, for example, “Viññāṇa anidassana: the state of boundless consciousness.” The author points out a reference that equates anidassana viññāṇa to Nibbāna!
- The author of the above essay does not go that far but says, “I show here that viññāṇa anidassana is not nibbāna, but a poetic description of the state of boundless consciousness, the second “formless” meditation state.”
- So, the author attempts to prove that anidassana viññāṇa is a state of higher consciousness, the second arupāvacara jhāna or the “viññāṇañcāyatana.”
- It is also interesting to read the comments following that essay. Bhikkhu Sujāto agrees with the essay’s author, saying, “It makes a lot of sense, especially the idea of anidassana being equivalent to arūpa..” Bhikkhu Brahmāli states, “Excellent essay! It is clear, and I think the conclusion you arrive at is solid.”
10. That is why I have been emphasizing that most translators of the Tipiṭaka do not even understand basic concepts like viññāṇa and saṅkhāra. I hope those bhikkhus and other translators will think through the FACTS presented here.
- One can get a good idea of the sad state of Buddha Dhamma in the present day by reading the above essay and the following series of comments. It was a depressing experience for me.
Ananta Viññāṇa – Characteristic of Viññāṇa Dhātu
11. The author of the essay cited in #9 above extracted “boundless consciousness” from the next word, anantaṁ, in verse: “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..” The Pāli word “ananta” does mean “infinite.”
- However, viññāṇa dhātu itself is boundless, and that characteristic is NOT limited to the second arupāvacara jhāna. In the transition from ākāsāṇañcāyatana (the first arupāvacara jhāna) to the viññāṇañcāyatana, viññāṇa dhātu separates from the ākāsa dhātu. At that point, the mind separates from any rupa and perceives ONLY the “ananta (infinite) viññāṇa.”
- Note that everything in this world is represented by the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha), twelve āyatana, or six types of dhātu. Those six types of dhātu are pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo, ākāsa, viññāṇa. Both ākāsa and viññāṇa dhātu are infinite.
12. Any type of viññāṇa is “spread out” without bounds. A mind has access to its 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 on Earth. On the other hand, the five physical senses detect only localized, dense rupa.
- 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 viññāṇa is infinite.
- Put another way, dense rupa (experienced by the five physical senses) are localized, but the nāma category (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) is NOT localized. In between such dense (sappaṭigha) rupa and anidassana/appaṭigha nāma, there are anidassana/appaṭigha rupa (dhammā.)
- Both nāma and dhammā are not localized and are included in viññāṇa dhātu. See, “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!“
Sappaṭigha Rupa and Appaṭigha Rupa (Dhammā)
13. In modern terms, sappaṭigha rupa can be detected with five physical senses AND scientific instruments. On the other hand, appaṭigha rupa (dhammā) and appaṭigha nāma cannot be detected with scientific instruments and can be detected only by the mind.
- Note that out of the five types of sappaṭigha rupa, only rupa rupa (visual objects) can be seen (dassana) because sounds (sadda rupa), tastes (rasa rupa), odors (gandha rupa), and touches (phoṭṭhabba rupa) cannot be seen (anidassana).
Anidassana Viññāṇa Means “Viññāṇa Cannot Be Seen”
14. The phrase, “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ” means, “viññāṇa is invisible.”
- If any viññāṇa is purely mental belonging to the nāma category (i.e., just consciousness or awareness), then what is the point of saying, “viññāṇa is invisible”?
- As I have explained in previous posts, it is only the vipāka viññāṇa that pertains to just consciousness (strictly within the nāma category.) In contrast, kamma viññāṇa is more than consciousness and has energy. Kamma viññāṇa gives rise to subtle rupa (dhammā,) the sixth type of rupa in Buddha Dhamma.
15. In this world, there are nāma, rupa, and nāmarupa (for example, living beings have nāmarupa represented by the five aggregates). There are different meanings of all three words depending on the context.
- The verse in question, “viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ..” refers to the unique property of a kamma viññāṇa. It is “in the middle between the category of pure nāma (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, vipāka viññāṇa) and dense (sappaṭigha) rupa (rupa rupa, sadda rupa, gandha rupa, rasa rupa, and phoṭṭhabba rupa.)
- In Buddha Dhamma, there is a sixth type of fine (appaṭigha) rupa called “dhammā,“ as we have discussed, for example, in “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!” Dhammā are invisible and arise due to kamma viññāṇa. That is why the need to emphasize that kamma viññāṇa is also invisible.
Kamma Viññāṇa = Patisandhi Viññāṇa = Gandhabba (Mental Body)
16. Thus, a kamma viññāṇa that comes to play in Paṭicca Samuppāda is MORE THAN consciousness. It CREATES kammic energies (dhammā or kamma bija) to power future rebirths. That kammic energy creates the “seed” of a future human at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. That “seed” is the “mental body” or “gandhabba.” That gandhabba is so tiny that it is invisible to the naked eye or even the most powerful scientific instruments.
- Note that gandhabba is not a kamma viññāṇa, but the RESULT of a kamma viññāṇa. At the cuti-paṭisandhi moment (grasping a new existence or bhava, that kammic energy creates the “seed” of the sentient beings in the new existence. In many cases, like a Deva or Brahma, that seed itself is the new living being, i.e., a Deva or a Brahma. We would not be able to see them.
- In the case of humans and animals, that seed (gandhabba) needs to get into a womb to grow into a human with a dense physical body. See “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”
- That gandhabba is “anidassana” too, i.e., invisible. Even though some suttas refer to a gandhabba descending to a womb (e.g., Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (MN 38), other suttas (e.g., Mahā Nidāna Sutta (DN 15)) refer to a “paṭisandhi viññāṇa” descending to a womb. Thus, both refer to the “seed” of a human, which grows inside a womb taking food from the mother.
17. “Anidassana viññāṇa” in the verse, “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ” refers explicitly to kamma viññāṇa that creates kammic energy (or dhammā or kamma bija.)
- We may have created numerous such kamma viññāṇa (or kamma bija) that can “power up” births in various realms in the future. When it is time to grasp a new existence (at the end of the current bhava), one kamma bija comes to mind as an ārammaṇa.
- If that ārammaṇa is grasped, that creates the mental body/gandhabba/paṭisandhi viññāṇa. Thus, paṭisandhi viññāṇa is actually not a viññāṇa, but the result of a kamma viññāṇa.
- More details at, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”
1. In the “Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49)“: “Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ, taṁ pathaviyā pathavattena ananubhūtaṁ, āpassa āpattena ananubhūtaṁ, tejassa tejattena ananubhūtaṁ, vāyassa vāyattena ananubhūtaṁ, bhūtānaṁ bhūtattena ananubhūtaṁ, devānaṁ devattena ananubhūtaṁ, pajāpatissa pajāpatittena ananubhūtaṁ, brahmānaṁ brahmattena ananubhūtaṁ, ābhassarānaṁ ābhassarattena ananubhūtaṁ, subhakiṇhānaṁ subhakiṇhattena ananubhūtaṁ, vehapphalānaṁ vehapphalattena ananubhūtaṁ, abhibhussa abhibhuttena ananubhūtaṁ, sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṁ.”
2. In the “Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11)“: “Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ,anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ–Ettha āpo ca pathavī,tejo vāyo na gādhati. Ettha dīghañca rassañca,aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ; Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,asesaṁ uparujjhati; Viññāṇassa nirodhena,etthetaṁ uparujjhatī’ti.
3. Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha” Wisdom Publication (2009), p. 428. A lengthy footnote on p. 1249 (footnote 513) describes how he has agonized over choosing from three different explanations for this verse.
4. “Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā,
Tesaṃ hētuṃ tathāgato āha;
Tesañca yo nirōdhō,
Evaṃvādī mahāsamaṇō” (See Ref. 5 below)
- Upon hearing this verse uttered by Ven. Assaji, Upatissa (later Ven. Sariputta) became a Sōtapanna. That is the fundamental concept of Buddha Dhamma and is explained in detail in the Paṭicca Samuppāda.
- The correct translation is the following. “Buddha declared that all dhammā (some of which are kamma bīja) that give rise to everything (including the rebirth process) are caused by “three san” (lobha, dosa, moha); he has also explained how we can stop those causes from arising (and thus end the rebirth process).”
- That is essentially the translation of the above verse given in many English texts; see, for example, the following from Ref. 6 below: “Of all those things that from a cause arise, Tathagata the cause thereof has told; And how they cease to be, that too he tells, This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.”
5. From “Peṭakopadesa” (around the midway in the link):
“Tattha katamāni cattāri ariyasaccāni? “Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā,Tesaṁ hetuṁ tathāgato āha;Tesañca yo nirodho, Evaṁvādī mahāsamaṇo”ti. Hetuppabhavā dhammā dukkhaṁ, hetusamudayo, yaṁ bhagavato vacanaṁ.”