Summary of Key Concepts About Viññāṇa and Saṅkhāra

January 16, 2022; revised August 31, 2022

We have discussed several key concepts about viññāṇa and saṅkhāra in the recent series of posts. It could be beneficial to summarize them in one post.

Difference Between a Vipāka Viññāṇa and a Kamma Viññāṇa

1. It is CRITICAL to distinguish between recognizing a sensory input and thinking about it to achieve a particular goal.

  • The first is just a sensory experience called consciousness or awareness. One becomes aware of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, i.e., “eye-consciousness through body-consciousness (touch sensation.).”
  • The second is MORE THAN consciousness/awareness. The mind wants to accomplish something based on that sensory input. The second type occurs ONLY IF the mind is attracted/attached to that sensory experience.
  • It is essential to see the connection between the two cases and the time sequence. A kamma viññāṇa may arise only after a vipāka viññāṇa.
Vipāka Viññāṇa – Initial Sensory Experience

2. The first type is a vipāka viññāṇa. Any person living in the human world (whether it is an average human or a Buddha) will experience this type of viññāṇa.

  • For example, imagine our Buddha Gotama living in Jetavaārāmaya (a luxurious residence offered to the Buddha and the bhikkhus by the wealthy merchant Anāthapiṇḍika.) He would see and hear the same things as anyone else there. If someone offered a good meal, they all would agree that it was tasty.
Kamma Viññāṇa – Expectation (Goal) Based on the Vipāka Viññāṇa

3. The second type, kamma viññāṇa, will take place ONLY IF one got attracted/attached to the sensory experience of the first type, a vipāka viññāṇa.

  • The mind MUST first be made aware of “something attractive thing,” whether it is a sight, sound, taste, smell, or a touch to get attached. Of course, it could also be a MEMORY of a previous sensory experience. For example, the memory of a tasty food eaten last week may come to the mind as a vipāka viññāṇa too. That is why a vipāka viññāṇa can be cakkhu, sota, jivhā, ghāna, kāya, or mano viññāṇa.
  • However, we don’t get attached to all we see, hear, etc. We get enticed by only a fraction of such sensory inputs (ārammaṇa.) But if we do attach, we start building expectations along with that. We do that by thinking about acting on that ārammaṇa (how to enjoy it more if it is enjoyable.) All that happens at the mind-door (manodvara), and thus kamma viññāṇa is always a mano viññāṇa.
Saṅkhāra and Abhishankhara – Critical Difference

4. Thus, the cultivation of a kamma viññāṇa starts with vitakka/vicāra. In simple terms, vitakka is to “focus on that ārammaṇa,” and vicāra is to “think along that ārammaṇa.” For example, if we see an appealing person, we may think about approaching that person.

  • Thus the initiation/cultivation of a kamma viññāṇa starts with “vitakka/vicāra.” Such vitakka/vicāra are vaci saṅkhāra. If such thoughts involve lobha, dosa, and moha, they become vaci abhisaṅkhāra.
  • If that kamma viññāṇa becomes more assertive, we may take physical action to fulfill that kamma viññāṇa (expectation.) In the above example, we may walk to that person and start talking to the person. Such activities involve kāya saṅkhāra. Again, if such thoughts also involve lobha, dosa, and moha, they become kāya abhisaṅkhāra.
  • Thus, we can see that abhisaṅkhāra are associated only with kamma viññāṇa and NOT with vipāka viññāṇa.
It Is Necessary to Understand Those Key Concepts

5. I hope the above summary on saṅkhāra/abhisaṅkhāra and their relationships to vipāka viññāṇa/kamma viññāṇa is clear. If you go back and read the previous posts, that may solidify your understanding.

  • It is essential to understand those critical concepts before comprehending Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, or the Four Noble Truths.
  • The English words “consciousness” or ‘thoughts” do not convey the meaning of viññāṇa, especially kamma viññāṇa. Learning about the relationship between citta and viññāṇa could be helpful.
A Citta Evolves to a Viññāṇa

6. Why did the Buddha analyze our world with five entities (five aggregates) of rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa?

  • The world offers sensory inputs with six types of rupa: rupa rupa (sights), sadda rupa (sounds), rasa rupa (tastes), gandha rupa (smells), phoṭṭhabba rupa (touches), and dhamma rupa or dhammā (kammically-produced fine rupa).
  • That last category of dhammā includes rupa below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. A suddhāṭṭhaka is the smallest rupa belonging to the other five types of rupa. In other words, modern science can detect the first five types of rupa with their instruments but will never detect dhammā.
  • For details, see “Chachakka Sutta – Six Types of Vipāka Viññāna” and “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!
  • The suttas refer to dhammā as “anidassana appaṭigha rupa” (which cannot be seen or detected with the physical instruments). I will discuss how dhammā are related to kamma viññāṇa in the next post. An intro to the next post is in #10 below.

7. When any of those six types of rupa makes contact with the mental body (gandhabba), then vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa arise as vipāka viññāṇa. That is how we experience such a rupa. The brain plays a crucial role in the above process; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”

  • All four of those mental aggregates rise in citta. A citta arises with a certain number of cetasika (mental factors.) At least seven cetasika arise with a citta, and vedanā and saññā are two of those “universal cetasika.”
  • The inclusion of more cetasika in a citta comes under “saṅkhāra.” If any sobhana (good or “mundane alobha, adosa, amoha“) or asobhana (bad or lobha, dosa, moha) cetasika arise, then those become abhisaṅkhāra. That is a simple way to remember the difference between saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkhāra.
  • The overall sensory experience is viññāṇa. Any citta starts with the seven universal cetasika and will incorporate more cetasika (saṅkhāra generation) and ends up as viññāṇa. That happens very fast (within a billionth of a second), and only a Buddha can “see” such a rapid process. 
  • That is a bit of very basic Abhidhamma that everyone needs to know. It is not necessary to learn the details at the beginning.

8. I hope now you can see the inter-relationships among the five aggregates.

  • The six types of rupa bring sensory experiences via vipāka viññāṇa.
  • The four aggregates of vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa help describe such a sensory experience.
  • If we attach to such sensory experiences, the mind will generate kammic energies (dhammā) via kamma viññāṇa.
  • Such dhammā can lead to future rebirths of a sentient being AND more of the six types of rupa. That is all explained by Paṭicca Samuppāda.
Paṭicca Samuppāda Can Be Deep and Explain Everything in This World

9. That is also the critical meaning of the first two verses in Dhammapada: “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..” It is the mind that creates the future lives and the physical world. That is a profound subject, and we are at the beginning of such a discussion.

  • Of course, it is NOT necessary to learn such processes in detail.
  • But it is good to realize that Buddha Dhamma (Paṭicca Samuppāda) should not be taken lightly, as the Buddha admonished Ven. Ananda in the “Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15).” The first few verses in the English translation recount that exchange between the Buddha and Ven. Ananda.
Anidassana Viññāṇa – What Does That Mean?

10. As we discussed above, it is a kamma viññāṇa that creates dhamma rupa or dhammā – the sixth type of rupa in Buddha Dhamma addressed in #6 above.

Summary

10. A sensory experience starts with a vipāka viññāṇa. If the mind gets attached to it, then it may begin to generate abhisaṅkhāra and thereby generate kammic energies via kamma viññāṇa. Such kammic powers bring future vipāka, and thus the saṁsāric process drags on.

  • Any type of viññāṇa starts as a citta, “the primary unit of cognition” in Buddha Dhamma. A set of cetasika arises with a citta that defines the citta as good, bad, or neutral.
  • That citta evolves into a complex entity called viññāṇa (by incorporating various cetasika) within a billionth of a second. During that astonishingly short time, the original citta gets contaminated depending on two factors: (i) the sensory input and (ii) the gati (character/habits) of the person. See “Gati (Habits/Character) Determine Births – Saṃsappanīya Sutta.”
  • Comprehending Buddha Dhamma requires studying various interconnected aspects. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. With time and effort, a clear picture will emerge.
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