I’ve just read yet another assertion that tries to slip a ‘cosmic consciousness’ Nibbana into the Suttas. In these kinds of arguments the same mistakes are made again and again, and you should beware of them.
One popular argument is based on the famous passage:
viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ
‘Consciousness non-manifest, infinte, radiant all around.’
This is sometimes said to be a term for Nibbana, although since it is an obscure poetic passage of dubious meaning we should not infer any major conclusions from it.
This obscure passage has been often exalted to the revelation of the highest teachings of Nibbana. One of the arguments one hears is that viññāṇa normally means ‘separative consciousness’, and that this has been revalued to refer to an infinite awareness. This argument is wrong.
The etymology of viññāṇa is invoked to justify this conclusion. ‘Vi’, so the story goes, means ‘separation’, and ‘ñāṇa’ means ‘knowing’, so viññāṇa means ‘separative knowing’ (as opposed to the universal cosmic consciousness of Nibbana.)
But you cannot derive the meaning of a word by adding up a root with a prefix. Words derive meaning from context. This is especially true in the case of words in abstract philosophical use.
In any case, the etymology of viññāṇa does not mean ‘separative consciousness’. The prefix ‘vi’ has many different meanings, which you can check up on in the Pali Text Society’s dictionary. If you don’t want to read the entire entry, the applied meanings it gives are four:
1. expansion, spreading out
2. disturbance, separation, mixing up (opp. saṁ)
3. the reverse of the simple verb, or loss, difference, opposite
4. in intensifying sense
Obviously, there is no requirement to read vi in its separative sense here.
There are many terms formed from the root ‘ñā’ in Pali that all refer to knowing in some way (‘know’ is in fact the English cognate): aññā, ñāṇa, pariññā, paññā, paṭiññā, saññā, and so on. In some cases these words are interchangeable, in some cases usage tells us that they carry different nuances. In no cases can we simply infer the meaning from adding prefix + root.
Given that vi– is probably the second most common prefix in Pali, and has an extremely wide variety of implications – including in some cases not affecting the meaning at all – we can’t say anything meaningful from the etymology.
Even if we did look to the etymology, we can come to all sorts of different conclusions. In some cases, viññāṇa is clearly a synonym of paññā, ‘wisdom’ (e.g. Sutta Nipāta 92-3). Here the implication could be that vi– means ‘intensive’, or ‘clear’ (as it does, say, in vipassanā).
It is true that the Buddha often presented viññāṇa in an analytical way as the consciousness of the six senses. But this tells us nothing about what the word means. He also used plenty of other terms related to the six senses: vedanā, phassa, or saññā, for example. The fact that a word is used in an analytical sense does not mean that the basic meaning of the word is analytical.
On the contrary, what the ‘viññāṇa = Nibbana’ school overlook is that viññāṇa is in fact used very commonly in the sense, not of ‘separative consciousness’, but of ‘infinite consciousness’. This is, of course, in the standard passage on the formless attainments. This samadhi meaning is directly applicable in the case of the so-called ‘Nibbanic consciousness’, as they are both described as ‘infinite’ (anantaṁ).
The Buddhist texts strongly suggest that this idea is pre-Buddhist. And we do indeed find the phrase ‘infinite consciousness’ in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. But more on that later. First let us survey the use of viññāṇa briefly in the oldest Upanishad, the Brihadarannyaka. This probably pre-dates the Buddha by a century or so, and many of its ideas and turns of phrase can be felt in the Suttas.
Viññāṇa is used in the ordinary sense of ‘sense consciousness’:
jihvayā hi rasān vijānāti || BrhUp_3,2.4 ||
For one knows tastes through the tongue.
More commonly it is found as the final of the four terms, ‘seen’, heard’, ‘thought’, ‘cognized’, a set that is frequently found in the Suttas. In this context it is said that ‘how can one cognize the cognizer’, a means of pointing beyond limited sense experience to the true Atman.
kaṃ vijānīyāt yenedaṃ sarvaṃ vijānāti taṃ kena vijānīyāt sa eṣa neti nety ātmā |agṛhyo na hi gṛhyate | aśīryo na hi śīryate |asaṅgo na hi sajyate |asito na vyathate na riṣyati |vijñātāram are kena vijānīyād ity
Through what should one know that owing to which all this is known ? This self is That which has been described as ‘Not this, Not this’. It is imperceptible, for It is never perceived; undecaying, for It never decays; unattached, for It is never attached; unfettered – it never feels pain, and never suffers injury. Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower?
See also BrhUp_3,4.2, BrhUp_2,4.5
The self is defined in terms of viññāṇa.
katama ātmeti — yo ‘yaṃ vijñānamayaḥ prāṇeṣu hṛdy antarjyotiḥ puruṣaḥ
What is the Self? This very person made of viññāṇa, among the breath (life-faculties), the light in the heart.
sa vā ayam ātmā brahma vijñānamayo
This very Self is Brahma, made of viññāṇa… (a long list of other things of which Brahma is formed follows)
yo vijñāne tiṣṭhan vijñānād antaro yaṃ vijñānaṃ na veda yasya vijñānaṃ śarīraṃ yo vijñānam antaro yamayaty eṣa ta ātmāntaryāmy amṛtaḥ || BrhUp_3,7.22 ||
He who inhabits the viññāṇa, but is within it, whom the viññāṇa does not know, whose body is the viññāṇa, and who controls the viññāṇa from within, is the Internal Ruler, your own immortal self.
As in Buddhism, viññāṇa is closely associated with rebirth. In the following passage, the phrase ekībhavati refers to the withdrawal of the sense at the time of death – which is interesting since in Buddhism the same term is used to mean samadhi. Viññāṇa has two meanings here: in the first use it refers to sense-consciousness (because others realize that the dying person no longer hears or responds). Later it refers to the conscious self that takes rebirth.
ekībhavati na vijānātīty āhuḥ | tasya haitasya hṛdayasyāgraṃ pradyotate | tena pradyotenaiṣa ātmā niṣkrāmati | cakṣuṣṭo vā mūrdhno vānyebhyo vā śarīradeśebhyaḥ | tam utkrāmantaṃ prāṇo ‘nūtkrāmati | prāṇam anūtkrāmantaṃ sarve prāṇā anūtkrāmanti | savijñano bhavati | saṃjānam evānvavakrāmati | taṃ vidyākarmaṇī samanvārabhete pūrvaprajñā ca ||
He becomes united; then they say, ‘He does not have viññāṇa’. The top of the heart brightens. Through that brightened top the self departs, either through the eye, or through the head, or through any other part of the body. When it departs, the vital force follows; when the vital force departs, all the organs follow. Then the self has viññāṇa, and goes to the body which is related to that consciousness. It is followed by knowledge, kamma and past experience.
But the most directly applicable passage is the following. Like several of the above it is the teaching of Yājñavalkya, who should be recognized as the father of the teachings of consciousness as the great Brahman. Notice the simile of the lump of salt, also familiar in Buddhism. The passage from which this is taken is full of such parallels, as I discussed in A History of Mindfulness.
evaṃ vā ara idaṃ mahad bhūtam anantam apāraṃ vijñānaghana eva | etebhyo bhūtebhyaḥ samutthāya tāny evānuvinaśyati | na pretya saṃjñāstīty are bravīmi | iti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ || BrhUp_2,4.12 ||
As a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves with (its component) water, and no one is able to pick it up, but from wheresoever one takes it, it tastes salt, even so, my dear, this great, endless, infinite Reality is but sheer mass of viññāṇa. This comes out from these elements, and is destroyed with them. After this it has no more perception (saññā). This is what I say, my dear. So said Yajnavalkya.
Compare with the Buddhist line above. Both describe viññāṇa as ‘infinite’ (anantaṁ). Both use the philosophical term mahābhūta, although in different sense: in the Buddhist context it is a word for the four elements which the state of viññāṇa described goes beyond, whereas here it is the Great Reality itself. The Upanishadic passage describes the infinite consciousness as having disappeared or become non-manifest like salt dissolved in water, just as the Buddhist passage describes viññāṇa as ‘non-manifest’ (anidassana). The Buddhist passage speaks of viññāṇa as ‘radiant’, just as elsewhere the self that is viññāṇa is said to be the ‘light in the heart’.
The parallels are by no means arbitrary. In fact the Buddhist passage appears in a specifically Brahmanical context. The text is the Kevaddha Sutta (Digha Nikaya 11: text here, translation here, parallels here.) A monk wants to find out where the four Great Elements (mahābhūta) end, and goes to Brahma for the answer. Brahma, however, doesn’t know, and he sends the monk back to the Buddha. The Buddha rejects the original question, and tells the monk how it should be reformulated.
The basic idea is clear enough. Brahma’s realm extends as far as jhana, as Buddhists assume that the Brahmanical philosophy was based on jhanic experience (at best). So Brahma doesn’t know what lies beyond this, while the Buddha does.
The problem is that, apparently, what lies beyond is a kind of consciousness. Given the evident connections between this description and the Brahmanical conception of the higher atman as a form of infinite consciousness, the most obvious inference is that it refers to the formless attainments, specifically that of ‘infinite consciousness’, where the ‘four great elements’ don’t find a footing.
It is in the next lines of the verse, which are usually overlooked by the viññāṇa = Nibbana school, that the Buddha’s true position is stated. With the cessation of viññāṇa all this comes to an end. The ‘infinite consciousness’ is merely the temporary escape from the oppression of materiality, but true liberation is the ending of all consciousness.
‘Kattha āpo ca pathavī,
Tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Kattha dīghañca rassañca,
Aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
Where does water and earth
fire, air not find a footing?
Where does long and short
Small, gross, fair and ugly,
Where does name and form
Without remainder cease?
Tatra veyyākaraṇaṃ bhavati—
For that the explanation is:
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
Tejo vāyo na gādhati.
Infinite, radiant all-round
There water and earth
fire, air do not find a footing
Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
Aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
There does long and short
Small, gross, fair and ugly,
There does name and form
Without remainder cease:
With the cessation of viññāṇa
There this ceases.
The problem is not so much the interpretation of viññāṇa as such, but the syntax of the verses – which is one reason why poetry should not decide doctrine. The Buddha rephrases the original question, but his rephrasing has three question words and two verbs. It may be read as a single complex question, but this assumes that the two verbs mean the same thing (which they don’t: na gādhati means ‘does not find a firm footing’, like a man crossing a ford, while uparujjhati means ‘ceases’) – and that viññāṇa means ‘infinite consciousness of Nibbana’ in the first occurrence and ‘separative sense consciousness’ in the second.
It is simpler and more natural to read the verses as asking two questions, with the verb uparujjhati (ceases) acting as a ‘lamp’ to apply to both the preceding clauses. In that case the syntax of the answer would be expressed thusly:
Water, earth, fire, air do not find a footing in viññāṇa that is non-manifest, infinite, radiant all-round.
(i.e., the four material elements cease temporarily in the formless attainments, which is the highest reach of the Brahmanical teachings – even this much Brahma, being a deity of the form realm, did not know.)
Long and short, small, gross, fair and ugly, name and form cease without remainder with the cessation of viññāṇa. This is where this all ceases.
(i.e., the Buddha’s real teaching is not to temporarily escape materiality, but to reach an ending of suffering. And since all forms of viññāṇa (yaṁ kiñci viññāṇaṁ…) are said countless times to be suffering, even the infinite consciousness has to go.)
In this reading, the reason for the Buddha’s reformulation of the original question becomes clear. The errant monk had asked where the ending of the four elements was – which is of course the formless attainments. But the Buddha said the question was wrongly put, as this would merely lead beyond the form realm of Brahma to the formless realms. The real question is what lies beyond that, with the cessation of consciousness. It is not enough for matter to be transcended, one must also transcend mind as well. If not, one ends up, apart from all the other philosophical problems, with a mind/body dualism.
And one ends up with a description of the Buddhist goal which is not merely indistinguishable from the Brahmanical Higher Self, but is quite evidently the same thing. A description that was meant to critique the inadequate conception of the Brahmanical goal is turned into a description of the Buddhist goal. Meanwhile, the hundreds of times when the Buddha explicitly and definitively refuted this idea (viññāṇaṁ aniccaṁ…) are explained away with a trivial etymological mistake. And so it goes…
118 thoughts on “Nibbana is not viññāṇa. Really, it just isn’t.”
I hope you don’t mind but I have a more general query about reading the Suttas that I recently came across from an American academic on Buddhist Studies (Glenn Wallis). To me it seems to be going to heart of how we should be reading the Suttas (and what may or may not have been ‘slipped’ into it).
This is maybe an old chestnut to you but Wallis has written a recent paper titled a Buddhist Manifesto (http://glennwallis.com/blog/2010/11/07/buddhist-manifesto/)
where he focuses on try to “sort out Gotama from the Buddha”.
If I may quote Wallis (with my abbreviations):
“Coming from the mouth of Gotama (ie not the Buddha – literary figure), on the other hand, such supernaturalism (ie reference to the gods, Mara, seeing his past lives, knowing the fate of others, performance of miracles) doesn’t make sense — at least not as supernaturalism. Let’s imagine that Gotama did, in fact, speak in such terms. Then, how might we understand it? The most generous view is that Gotama really did see “with his divine eye … thousands of devas” (Dighanikaya 16.1.27), converse with them, debate with them, and so on.
Why not hold out the possibility, as many believers do, that there really are such entities in the world? Well, one reason might be that no one has ever seen such entities outside of the literature itself, or outside of his or her beliefs about what is possible. Another rebuttal to the view of literalism is that such a reading of the supernatural material is wholly incompatible with the phenomenological, counter-speculative, counter-metaphysical reading of Gotama’s teachings that the other premises commit us to.
A more non-literal reading of Gotama’s usage of supernatural language might be that he was simply employing cultural coin. Buddhist teachers in contemporary North America reflexively adopt certain axiomatic American cultural constructs (the notion of equality, the inevitability of materialism, the necessity of therapeutic healing, the need for scientific validation and philosophical sophistication, and so on). Similarly, the Buddha adopted some basic cultural axioms of his own time and place. Some, of course, he would reject; but some he would not. Why not? For the sake of communication perhaps; or perhaps he did so just as reflexively and unconsciously as modern-day teachers do. Certainly, we can’t take everything Gotama said at face value because he could be deviously playful with language. There is example after example in the texts of Gotama’s using irony to make a point. So, maybe that’s the explanation here, too. Who knows? We still have a long way to go to figure it out.
One final possibility: maybe he was just dead wrong about some things. After all, Gotama was not the Buddha.”
I would be very interested in your response to this and your suggestions on how we should read the Suttas.
Finally got around to reading the article. I appreciate Wallace’s up-front manner, which i don’t find at all vexatious, as his apologetic tone in the introduction would have us believe. It’s a straightforward set of principles, clearly and energetically set out. I would have thought most of what he says is fairly standard fare in the realms of ‘secular Buddhism’, but he seems to be presenting it as a controversial statement. Perhaps it is, I’m not very familiar with the world of american Buddhism.
There are certain problems with the paper. First up is his dismissal of being able to sort out the original teachings on text-critical grounds. Like so may, he seems to have absorbed second hand the opinions of Schopen, which simply don’t establish what they are supposed to. Most of the basic arguments that Schopen uses to demolish the findings of the text-critical studies are simply wrong: i have demonstrated this at length in two essays. This is not a matter of interpretation (only), he misreads his texts and draws false conclusions. When his mistakes are rectified, the readings in fact tend to support the text-critical consensus.
Wallis describes the nature of Buddhist texts as “heavily edited translations of older oral compositions”. This is misleading, and perpetrates a number of misunderstandings. First, the Pali texts are not ‘translations’ in the sense of translating from French to English; they are ‘translations’ in the sense of translating English to Australian (ok, some might think there’s an even bigger linguistic gap there!). The translation, or more precisely, dialectical standardization, does not seriously affect the meaning. Second, there is no evidence at all that an oral tradition of the type of early Buddhism is in any way less reliable than a written tradition. Finally, they are ‘heavily edited’. So what? A newspaper article is edited, does this mean we simply throw out the idea that it in any way reflects the opinions of the author? This is not reason, it is the rejection of reason.
What our understanding of the nature of early Buddhist literature means, rather, is that we have to understand the nature of the editing process, the kinds of changes that may have been introduced, the manner in which the means of transmission may have influenced the final product. This is simply to say that the Buddhist texts, like all other texts, do not exist in some arbitrary socio-historical vacuum, but must be read in context. Sure, this means that we nuance, refine, criticize, and sometimes reject the theories of earlier scholars. It does not mean we stop trying.
The outcome of this kind of ‘reasoning’ is that most of the western scholarly world has stopped paying serious attention to the early teachings, while a few dedicated scholars like Ven Analayo do the heavy lifting that is required to actually improve our understanding.
This then leads on to Wallace’s Dhamma principles. First, Wallace redefines the four noble truths to strictly exclude rebirth – including saying samsara is ‘neurotic pressure’! Then he goes on to say that these definitions are “so basic to Buddhism that it hardly requires comment”. Umm, no. They are a radical revisioning of the Dhamma, which is a product of 20th century American secularization, and which would be unrecognizable as Buddhism to any previous generation.
Wallace is honest enough to admit the obvious: that references to devas and the like are fundamental to early Buddhism. (Note how he has now switched from first decrying the text-critical process, to now relying on it, implicitly assuming that the early Sutta, not the Mahayana, etc., are the best guide to what “Gotama” taught.) What he omits is the elementary distinction between narrative and doctrine; between the ‘story’ of a deva who comes to visit the Buddha, and a direct and specific claim made by the Buddha when speaking of central matters. It is in the first kind of teaching that we find the Indian cosmology, the use of ‘special effects’ for narrative spice, and the other matters that Wallace quite rightly points out (including “(i) genre restraint and requirement, and (ii) advertisement and propagation”.)
In the Buddha’s own direct statements on the matter, however, we do not find these things: we find a consistently worked out, philosophically coherent system that the Buddha says he has realized with his own direct knowledge. Wallace avoids the implications of this, having previously snipped rebirth out of the four noble truths. Remember, the second truth is not, as Wallace says, “you ask too much of the world.” It is “That craving that leads to future rebirth”.
Wallace goes on to say that “supernatural” teachings contradict the phenomenological approach of the Buddha. I agree completely. It is just that the Buddhist teachings are not in any sense “supernatural”. This is an imported western concept, derived from Aristotelian metaphysical dualism, which is unknown in India. The gods and the rest are very much a part of nature, subject to the same laws that we are. This does not mean such teachings are true; but it does mean that this critique is misguided. We need to ask the Indic tradition how they conceived these things, how they reconciled the different aspects. Contrary to Wallace, we have not received mainly the Buddha of the devotees – in fact the vast majority of Buddhist texts are precisely the Buddhism of the philosophers – they’re the ones who write stuff. This means that there are many highly intelligent, critical, inquiring minds who have reflected on these questions before us. While we won’t come to the same answers that they have, as we are in a different context, we should not labor under the conceit that we are the first generation to notice these things.
So, then, are the Buddha’s claims about rebirth “true”? There is a genuine issue here, and a case to be made on both sides. Those who attack rebirth, to my mind, accept too readily the hubris of modern science, which itself does not in any way understand the anti-metaphysical nature of Buddhism, but is still fighting its battles with Christianity. On the other hand, perhaps, as Wallace suggests, Gotama simply got it wrong. Those who defend rebirth often misunderstand or misrepresent the extent to which traditional Buddhist beliefs have genuinely been undermined by science. I just heard a story of a senior monk who insists that the moon is a silver mansion inhabited by a deva, who used his magic powers to create a false surface of the moon in order to deceive the astronauts who went there. Sad and a bit pitiful, yes, but it is honest in representing the kinds of ideas that 2500 years of Buddhists have accepted without question.
Okay, fair enough, intelligently interrogate Buddhist notions in the light of modern science, modify or reject when required – on both sides. In this sense I agree with Wallace that we should be critics of tradition – although this does not exclude being a custodian as well. In fact, any good custodian must always be a critic, to decide what is worth preserving.
Our understanding of early Buddhism – of “Gotama”, if you like – is imperfect and always will be. Nevertheless, there are some things we do know pretty well. If we are to embrace Wallace’s project of rescuing Gotama from the Buddha – a project I have considerable sympathy with – then it is a bad move to start by throwing away some of the few things we know with reasonable certainty. When we cut ourselves loose from the moorings of history, we end up with a Buddha who looks very much like, well, us. And how exactly is that meant to lead to any radical transformation?
Thank you for this post. Should be essential reading for anyone interested in t he teachings of the Buddha, and even more so, for those practicing 🙂
From Ven. Nanananda’s Nibbana Sermon 11:
Ete ca ñatvā upanissitā ti
ñatvā munī nissaye so vimaṃsī,
ñatvā vimutto na vivādam eti
bhavābhavāya na sameti dhīro.
“Knowing that they are dependent on speculative views, The sage with discernment, with regard to whatever is speculative, Emancipated as he is through understanding, does not enter into dispute,
A truly wise man does not fall back either on existence or on non-existence.”
The concluding verse amounts to a refutation of both these extreme views. The truly wise sage, who is released with proper discernment of the nature of dogmatic involvement, has no disputes with those who are at loggerheads with each other on the issue of existence and non-existence. This, in effect, means that Nibbāna as a goal avoids both extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
The Upasīvasutta in the Pārāyanavagga of the Sutta Nipāta provides further proof of the plausibility of the above interpretation. There, Nibbāna as the cessation of consciousness in the arahant, is compared to the extinction of a flame.
Accī yathā vātavegena khitto
atthaṃ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṃ
evaṃ munī nāmakāyā vimutto
atthaṃ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṃ.
“As flame flung on by force of wind, Reaches its end, comes not within reckoning, So the sage, released from name-and-form, Reaches his end, comes not within reckoning.”
When a flame goes out, it cannot be reckoned as having gone in any of the directions, like north, east, south, and west. All what can be said about it, is that it has gone out.
Even after the Buddha has given this reply, the brahmin youth Upasīva, entrenched as he is in the eternalist view, raises a question which is similar to the one already quoted. He, too, is trying to understand it in terms of the two extreme views of existence and non-existence.
Atthaṃgato so uda vā so natthi
udāhu ve sassatiyā arogo,
taṃ me munī sādhu viyākarohi,
tathā hi te vidito esa dhammo.
“Has he reached his end, or is he no more, Or is he eternally well, That to me, sage, in full explain, For this Dhamma is well within your ken.”
In the discourses we find similar instances of attempts to determine, in terms of those two extreme views, even a conclusive statement of the Buddha on the question of Nibbāna. Yet another instance is found in the Poṭṭhapādasutta of the Dīghanikāya.
I have lately gotten more clear than ever about how viññāṇa is dukkha, in part based on Metzinger’s “Ego Tunnel”. Jayarava is also on to this theme lately on Jayarava’s Raves. My current idea: Viññāṇa is “separate” in the sense that it “knows” a separate self. It knows something that is not true. Here is my take in an 8 minute talk, comments welcome. http://www.zshare.net/audio/8978870784dd1d59/
Many thanks for this analysis. I think I know who’s the subject of your “jittderm” critique 🙂
May I trouble you for your thoughts on the Sara Sutta, SN 1.27? Although “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ ” is not mentioned there, but it does discuss “where water, earth, fire and air, do not find a footing”. The cluster of 3 questions SEEMS to my untrained eye to be answered by the single reply “where water, earth, fire and air, do not find a footing”. If it’s OK, I’d like to post my speculation made elsewhere –
Oops, my erstwhile speculation did not show up. Here it goes –
“Q1 From where do the streams turn back?
Q2 Where does the round no longer revolve?
Q3 Where do name-and-form Cease utterly without remainder?”
“A: Where water, earth, fire and air,
Do not gain a footing:
It is from here that the streams turn back (Q1),
Here that the round no longer revolves (Q2);
Cease utterly without remainder (Q3).”
“Kuto sarā nivattanti,
kattha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
“Yattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Ato sarā nivattanti,
ettha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
In SN 1.27, the triad of questions is answered with just one reply, ie “Yattha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati”, (where water, earth, fire and air do not gain a footing). It should be obvious that the corresponding question “where do water, earth, fire and air not gain a footing” is answered by DN 11’s “viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ”. In other words, the answer to the 3 questions in SN 1.27 is also nothing more than “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ”.
Thanks for this – useful and interesting post.
Thank you for this very detailed review of viññāṇa and Nibbana. Very nice! Just to ensure I am understanding your article I’d like to reiterate in my own words, from my own experience. Can you confirm if this understanding is correct?
Infinite consciousness is not the same as Nibbana because infinite consciousness is still bound by the elements and the conditioning of names and forms. While we continue to view and experience the world through this consciousness then we are still experiencing the reality as conditioned phenomena. This infinite consciousness appears as non-manifest, radiant and infinite, and can thus be incorrectly interpreted as Nibbana because of the unification of experience that is apparent. This however is not the true liberation of enlightenment, which is the cessation of the consciousness itself. In experience then they are different.
Does that a correct way to understand the experience?
Thanks in advance for your time.
Dean ‘Jagaro’ Crabb
That’s exactly what i would say if i wasn’t wasting my time with the etymologies and arcane Upanishadic references! actually, my post was a very rushed reaction to some common errors in this field, and I didn’t get into what I believe are the more important questions underlying the problem – which you have spelled out for me, so thanks.
Thank you for taking the time to respond. I wanted to ensure in description I was being accurate about the experience. Thank you!
I am hoping to come to your North Sydney talk either this Friday or next as I would like to meet you and say hello. It would be wonderful to finally meet face to face.
Also, I’d love to organise for a monastic from Santi FM to come to my meditation group in Helensburgh sometime in the future. On a Monday night we get about 15 to 20 people regularly and I think it would be great for them to experience teachings and come to understand more about Buddhism, Santi FM and the monastic life. Maybe you can email me offline to discuss further.
Dean ‘Jagaro’ Crabb
Sounds good, we can catch up. I’d love to have a chance to visit my old stomping ground. I used to live in a rambling shack that I think still exists behind these bushes.
I’m not sure whether this recent blog entry pertains to recent discussions on the Dhamma Wheel Buddhist forum, but if/when it does, please feel free to link to your blog entries from Dhamma Wheel in order to maximise the number of potentially interested people who have the opportunity to share in and consider your analysis.
Thanks for the suggestion, paul. No it wasn’t, as it happens: I guess it’s a subject of frequent interest in Buddhist discussion circles…
Actually, Ven. Sujato, it’s not that simple as Ud 1.10 makes clear:
Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing:
There the stars do not shine,
the sun is not visible,
the moon does not appear,
darkness is not found.
And when a sage,
a brahman through sagacity,
has known [this] for himself,
then from form & formless,
from bliss & pain,
he is freed.
“Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing…” also describes being freed from the formless realms in this sutta. Vinnanam anidassanam could still well refer to some form of “consciousness” that exists after parinirvana.
Thanks for the comment. However, the passage you quote doesn’t change anything. This passage doesn’t mention consciousness at all, much less of the anidassana variety. The actual mention of consciousness in the Sutta comes earlier, where Bahiya is told, in line with hundreds of other suttas, that consciousness must be seen through with insight and let go of in order to realize Nibbana.
I mentioned at the start of this essay that verse should never decide doctrine. This is for very good reasons. Verse is weird, it follows obscure laws of metrics, it uses evocative imagery, it echoes ideas from other verses, it frequently is interchangeable, with lines and phrases copied willy-nilly frome here and there. This kind of thing was happening constantly in Buddhist verses, and I can only recommend that you read, for example, some of the comparative studies of the Dhammapadas to get an idea of the actual situation. Analayo has a good essay on the Udana, which shows the extent to which this work is a patchwork compilation. The Bahiya story is presented in totally different ways in different collections; although I can’t recall off hand how this effects the final verse.
The fact that a few lines held in common with a verse that mentions the dubious anidassana phrase appear elsewhere is entirely unspectacular, and has no real doctrinal significance. These are meant to be evocative lines, that express through imagery the ineffability and profundity of the ultimate realization. They are, moreover, entirely negative in content, emphasizing through and through what is not present in Nibbana, and making no claim at all for the persistence of any positive existing state. This is stated more explicitly later in the Udana, with the first Dabba Sutta (8.9), which actually does talk about vinnana.
Important post, thanks for sharing this. You’re right, nibbana =/= vinnana.
However, I’d like to note that Yajnavalkya doesn’t say that the atma made of vijnana is the Paramatma, the Highest Self.
Actually it might be disturbing in upanishads that atma is defined in various ways. If one explores deeper one will find that we can see the teaching of koshas (shealths of atma) here. There are five of them, what we are talking about is the vijnanamaya kosha. This isn’t the supreme. But we also find that Brihadaranyaka says that manomaya (kosha) is Atma. These all are different levels.
If we want to see what the older upanishads take as the Highest self we must turn to atma-pada-vada. Atma has four quarters. The fourth is Turiya. Mandukya upanishad tells about this:
“Turiya is not that which is conscious of the inner (subjective) world, nor that which is conscious of the outer (objective) world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness nor is It unconsciousness. It is unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable and indescribable. The essence of the Consciousness manifesting as the self in the three states, It is the cessation of all phenomena; It is all peace, all bliss and non-dual. This is what is known as the Fourth (Turiya). This is Atman and this has to be realized.”
Thanks, Satiananda, you’re quite right that vijnana is not regarded as the ultimate self in all forms of Upanishadic thought – which are of course quite varied. But I’m not sure about how this relates to Yajnavalkya. Of course the chronology of the Upanishads is difficult (as with the Buddhist texts), but is there any clear reference to such a paramatman in his time? (I believe Mandukya is later.) It seems to me that Yajnavalkya’s main dialogues end up with vijnana as the highest expression of the atman – do you know of any passages in the Brihadarannyaka that contradict this?
Mandukya is maybe later, I don’t know. One should be cautious with opinions of sholars. Actually they just guess at dates.
Yajnavalkya doesn’t mention turiya explicitly. I recently explored the idea of atma in early upanishads and I found that basically all the fundamental teachings of vedanta is already there in a ready state in Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya.
Among them the kosha vada is there and the atma-pada vada is also there. It is not well structured in the text one must dig a little bit.
What we can know is that Yadnavalkya tells us about Prajna, the 3rd pada of atma. (BrhUp_4,3.21-22 )
This is the place of anandamaya-kosha, the supreme kosha. (There is no place for koshas in Turiya)
We cannot speak about vijnana in Prajna. Prajna = Panna. Wisdom. Among states of mind this is deep sleep. (actually it should be taken as a mirrored state of normal deep sleep what is here the talk about. A meditative state full of prajna)
It might be considered that the symbolic description of the gayatri lines might denote to the atma-padas.in BrhUp_5,14.4
Thanks, I’ll check these references.
Excellent essay, I will translate it into russian and put on theravada.ru -)
“Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing…” also describes being freed from the formless realms in this sutta. Vinnanam anidassanam could still well refer to some form of “consciousness” that exists after parinirvana.”
– Well, we can say that this (“water/fire/wind/earth have no footing”) is true BOTH for 6th jhana and nibbana ,) So this does not mean that this phrase about “no footing” must refer to nibbana only. In Ud 1.10 it refers to nibbana, but in DN 11 it refers to 6th jhana.
Dear Venerable Sujato,
This is a fascinating essay. However, there is an area I am finding troublesome to understand. You wrote:
“… true liberation is the ending of all consciousness.”
I am finding difficulty in distinguishing this from annihilationism, and it was my understanding that the Buddha discouraged this extreme view.
Can you help to elucidate?
Dear Venerable Sujato,
What about the MN 49 saying that the consciousness does not partake in the Allness of the All?*
The infinite consciousness jhana falls under the All, yes?
*”‘Consciousness without surface, endless, radiant all around,
has not been experienced through the earthness of earth … the liquidity of liquid … the fieriness of fire … the windiness of wind … the allness of the all.”
Dear Bhante Sujato,
It is probably way too late to enter this debate now; I found it when googling ‘viññāṇa’ as part of my research for an upcoming presentation of the opposing position at a conference in the U.S – that nibbana is a type of unconditioned consciousness! Rather that enter into an interpretive debate over the suttas (I hold that ‘viññāṇa’ qua khandha is best understood as object-oriented consciousness, which explains its designation as impermanent), I have a philosophical question to put to the ‘viññāṇa is not Nibbana’ school of thought. As I understand their standard picture, each moment of discerning consciousness co-arises with its object (one of the other khandhas), and at each moment is distinguished, in experience, by the object that is taken by consciousness. The discerning consciousness itself, simply *an awareness of*, is, from one moment to the next, both qualitatively identical and numerically distinct. The illusion of self is (on this picture) partially generated by running together as a unity the numerically distinct but qualitatively identical ‘knowing’ or ‘discerning’ aspects of each moment, just as one confuses the distinct flames in a whirling firebrand with a unified fire.
Here is my puzzle. It is commonly said by advocates of this position that the discerning consciousness (meaning the discerning aspect within each moment of object-oriented consciousness – the ‘awareness-of’ aspect) directly observes itself as arising and passing away. This cannot happen contemporaneously – it is logically impossible for a discerning consciousness to directly discern its own arising and passing away. So it must happen retrospectively – let’s say C3 takes the transition from C1 to C2 as its object. But given that the purely discerning element within each moment is qualitatively identical (such that an illusion of ‘self’ is generated), how can one experientially distinguish the two scenarios (a) discrete moments of discerning consciousness taking discrete objects and (b) unified ever-present discerning consciousness taking discrete objects? It seems that the only way to discern transition from C1-C2 is via the objects that are taken by the consciousness (qua the discerning element).
Given that the transformative nibbanic insight into no-self is supposed to be based upon experience rather than (purely) intellect, it is troubling that the two scenarios are experientially indistinguishable from each other. My take on the matter is that the whole ‘consciousness is impermanent’ notion is a red herring – consciousness is only impermanent in the sense that, within context of the five khandhas, it is object-oriented. Of course, in this designation, consciousness comes and goes in the sense that it is relational property; one moment there is consciousness-of-a, then next, consciousness-of-b. But since it is impossible to experientially discern whether the ‘consciousness-of’ is discrete, ‘seeing through’ the self-illusion must be based on something else entirely, such as dis-identification from the five khandhas.
Thanks, a very pertinent question.
In such areas of detail, you will of course find a number of different interpretations, but for what it’s worth here’s mine.
Agreed. It is not only logically impossible, it contradicts everything the Buddha said about consciousness. He repeatedly asserted that vinnana arises dependent on nama-rupa, on the six sense objects, or on the first four khandhas, and never said that vinnana takes itself as object. The (in my view) mistaken emphasis on ‘present moment’ awareness in modern meditation obscures this. The Buddha never spoke of the “present moment”, only of the “present”, which is somewhat different.
Here I would disagree. The whole point of teaching that vinnana is dependent on nama-rupa and the rest is that the ‘purely discerning element’ changes all the time. It is not just the object that changes, it is the supporting factors (nama) and the quality of awareness itself which changes along with those other things.
The illusion of self does not stem from the actual existence of an unchanging element within the flux, but from the mind’s need to find stability, constancy, and order within an inherently unstable system.
Not quite, and here I think you are also following an unfortunate tendency of modernist Buddhism, which has lost much of the nuance of the traditional account.
In fact, the Suttas, and the Buddhist tradition as a whole, acknowledges two ways of knowing (pramana), which are direct experience (paccakkha) and inference (anumana). (As with many issues, these are implied or stated in various ways in the Suttas, and came to be more explicitly formulated in later years.) See, for example, the two reasons why Vipassi Bodhisattva was called ‘vipassi’ (i.e. one with vipassana): because he could see things very far away with great clarity (paccakkha), and because he could reach a correct conclusion in a court case based on very little evidence (anumana).
Knowledge of consciousness as such, since it cannot be seen directly, must be via inference. Indeed, all knowledge of impermanence must be inferential, since in the present one cannot see change – change, obviously, being something that happens over time.
However, inference can in no way be identified with intellect. On the contrary, inference actually happens in that obscure moment when the mind sees things together, understands things, draws disparate threads into a meaningful whole. Intellect, on the other hand, is the process whereby one explains and rationalizes to oneself (and others) about the inference one has had.
I believe this answers your question, but please let me know if I’ve missed the point!
All we have to do is use reductio ad absurdum to see that the conclusions of your arguments aren’t true. First of all, if Nibbana was the cessation of even consciousness – and the ninth jhana can be compared to Nibbana, then to enter the ninth jhana all we would have to do is hit ourselves in the head with a hammer to make ourselves go unconsciousness.
Secondly, SOME type of consciousness still exists after the sixth jhana. Transcending from the seventh to the eighth jhana is described as letting go of an extremely subtle perception. How could a perception exist without consciousness?
According to the Buddhist usage, where we are of course translation vinnana as consciousness, this is not the cessation of consciousness, merely the returning to a more primitive form. There is no school or tenet of Buddhism that argues that such states are devoid of consciousness.
Yes, this is true, but I am not sure what it has to do with the point. Consciousness exists in all the meditation attainments (except, arguably, for the temporary cessation in the so-called “ninth jhana”). It ceases, finally and irrevocably, upon the parinibbana of an arahant. To quote from the Udana:
Venerable bhikkhu Sujato,
Isn’t nibanna actually exactly like the modern scientific view on death? My conclusion from reading the suttas is nibanna= the same state (can’t really speak of a state) as (scientific/modern atheist) death. The only difference is that in the scientific view it is instant while in buddhism it occurs when an arahant dies.
What is your opinion on this?
The Buddha would have said that a materialist imagines that they are real existing thing that is destroyed at death, whereas in fact they will, despite their ideas, be reborn, as they are continuing to create new conditions (i.e. kamma). The Dhammic perspective is that, even here and now, there are merely conditions arising and passing, and the conditions no longer arise. It is a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. Try shifting focus from what ends at death, and think about what arises, what is the cause of continued existence. It is the ending of this cause which is the third Noble Truth.
“According to the Buddhist usage, where we are of course translation vinnana as consciousness, this is not the cessation of consciousness, merely the returning to a more primitive form. There is no school or tenet of Buddhism that argues that such states are devoid of consciousness.”
Well my point was that if Nibbana is comparable to the ninth jhana, and you admit that there is consciousness in the ninth jhana, then you agree there is consciousness in the paranibbana.
“Yes, this is true, but I am not sure what it has to do with the point. Consciousness exists in all the meditation attainments (except, arguably, for the temporary cessation in the so-called “ninth jhana”).”
Well you just stated above that the ninth jhana does have consciousness.
“To quote from the Udana:”
Well I have always interpreted vinnana as “consciousness OF.” So don’t cling to consciousness OF the body, don’t cling to consciousness OF the mind, don’t cling to consciousness OF (the idea of) consciousness. But to say that consciousness (or I prefer “awareness”) does not exist in nibbana makes the view seem hopeless.
No, I didn’t say that: in fact most likely there is no consciousness in the ninth jhana (although the suttas are not definitive on that point). In any case, the mere fact that there are parallels between that state and parinibbana does not imply that they are identical; clearly, in fact, they are not (since one is temporary).
I am trying to get some clarity on what is the condition of “one” in or as nirvana. Was this the Buddha’s condition while he was teaching? In other words is one still able to function in normal relationships while as fully enlightened in the permanent nirvanic state?
There’s no such thing as a “permanent nirvanic state”, and the Buddha didn’t describe Nibbana as “one”; if anything, the appropriate number is zero. “One” is typically used in connection with samadhi, and in such a state one indeed cannot be teaching and so on.
Nibbana as lived by the Buddha and other arahants is simply the ending of greed, hatred, and delusion. Their minds work in the same way as yours or mine, it’s just that these defilements are absent. So they can do anything (or not do anything) that is motivated by letting go, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
“The Buddha would have said that a materialist imagines that they are real existing thing that is destroyed at death, whereas in fact they will, despite their ideas, be reborn, as they are continuing to create new conditions (i.e. kamma). The Dhammic perspective is that, even here and now, there are merely conditions arising and passing, and the conditions no longer arise. It is a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. Try shifting focus from what ends at death, and think about what arises, what is the cause of continued existence. It is the ending of this cause which is the third Noble Truth.”
So this is an intelectual position that Bhante Sujato is taking?
Yes, I too would be interested in your explanation
is different from the nihilist materialist view
of neuro-science. If Nirvana is total annihilation
of consciousness, with no remaining essential Awareness,
who would want to achieve Nirvana? Wouldn’t you prefer
waking up early, watching a beautiful sunrise and taking a
walk along a beach or hike in the mountains?
Consciousness takes objects as they arise and cease, and it arises and ceases with them. It is also a collection of processes to which was attach the construct of self.
Awareness is different.
Thanks for your elucidations! Yes, I see how the fifth skandha is dependent. And that is the meaning of vijnanna. However, you said “awareness” is different. Since the defilements that comprise “consciousness” as the fifth skandha are absent in a Buddha, his mind is still responsive and has the qualities of omniscience etc. what do we gen call or label this capacity if intelligent cogniscience that is not dependently originated? What word would you use for “awareness”? Wouldn’t this Buddha Mind be that poetic reference :
“‘Consciousness non-manifest, infinte, radiant all around.” ?
To borrow a line from Zen, because you asked what it was, name and description are used; however, even named and described, it remains without name or description. So, perhaps to give it a name, we can use: pabhassaracitta, the luminous mind. Lighting upon it by insight and undoing, there are the realizations that it was always there and that it is not me, not mine.
Are you familiar with Dzogchen? What you are describing as having always “been there” sounds like the “Dharmakaya”. It is this always present “luminous wisdom mind” that the Dzogchen master points out right from the beginning.
Dharmakaya. Buddha-nature. The Unconditioned.
This is where the Buddha’s teachings are most helpful:
It exists does not apply.
It does not exist does not apply.
It both exists and does not exist does not apply.
It neither exists nor does not exist does not apply.
Yes, I see this the same. The cessation of “consciousness” is not annihilation, rather it reveals something else that can’t be substantiated in any way. I have noticed there are many followers of Theravadin teachings that err on the side of nihilism. Nagarjuna points out it is far better to err on the side of a substantiated remainder as the nihilistic view is hopeless. Susan Kahn has a website that reflects the secular materialstic view, that there is no cogniscience beyond the fifth skandha. This is really a partial view at best, and completely nihilistic at worst. It is easy to intellectually understand the Bahiya Sutta in such a manner. Only through meditative insight is it possible to know the deeper meaning of what this impersonal omniscient Buddha Mind is.
I was at a retreat led by Ajahn Punnadhammo in April 2011 where he talked about how those with a nihilistic view and those with a theistic view both misunderstand the Buddhist view.
He used the image of an island in the middle of a lake. From one shore, one with a nihilistic view would say that the island is closer to the other shore (i.e. that Buddhism appears to support an eternalist view). From the opposite shore, one with a theistic view would say that the island is closer to the other shore (i.e. that Buddhism appears to support a nihilistic view). They’re both wrong as a result of their limited point of view.
I’m not sure where he got this image from. It’s possible he came up with it himself. I don’t know.
I’ll look for Susan Kahn’s website. I suppose from an argument that there is a distinction between mundane and supramundane, a nihilistic view in regard to the mundane might make some sense. On the other hand, removing the supramundane entirely from view, as some secular Buddhists do, seems to lead to nothing more than a basic nihilistic view.
Thanks! Do you feel in accord with Thanassaro Bhikhu’s views as expressed below and in general:
“Consciousness without surface (viññanam anidassanam): This term appears to be related to the following image from SN 12.64:
“Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?”
“On the western wall, lord.”
“And if there is no western wall, where does it land?”
“On the ground, lord.”
“And if there is no ground, where does it land?”
“On the water, lord.”
“And if there is no water, where does it land?”
“It does not land, lord.”
“In the same way, where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food … contact … intellectual intention … consciousness, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or grow. Where consciousness does not land or grow, name-&-form does not alight. Where name-&-form does not alight, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.”
In other words, normal sensory consciousness is experienced because it has a “surface” against which it lands: the sense organs and their objects, which constitute the “all.” For instance, we experience visual consciousness because of the eye and forms of which we are conscious. Consciousness without surface, however, is directly known, without intermediary, free from any dependence on conditions at all.
This consciousness thus differs from the consciousness factor in dependent co-arising, which is defined in terms of the six sense media. Lying outside of time and space, it would also not come under the consciousness-aggregate, which covers all consciousness near and far; past, present, and future. *****And, as SN 35.23 notes, the word “all” in the Buddha’s teaching covers only the six sense media, which is another reason for not including this consciousness under the aggregates. ***However, the fact that it is outside of time and space — in a dimension where there is no here, there, or in between (Ud I.10), no coming, no going, or staying (Ud VIII.1) — means that it cannot be described as permanent or omnipresent, terms that have meaning only within space and time.”
In other words, just to be perfectly clear: Do you agree there is a Buddha Mind or Awareness that lies outside of dependent origination and is unborn, insubstantial, not a me or mine, without a cause?
From Udana 8.3:
I agree that if there were only bases that arise and cease, then there would be no Third Noble Truth.
I’ll be back tomorrow to look more carefully at your early comment re Thanissaro
Jnana/Geoff says it very well: “Firstly, while the translation of asaṃskṛta as “the unconditioned” is fairly common, it’s a rather poor translation that all too easily leads to reification. The term asaṃskṛta refers to a negation of conditioned factors, and the meaning is better conveyed by “not-conditioned.” Secondly, for Sautrāntika commentators, and many mahāyānika commentators as well, an analytical cessation (pratisaṃkhyānirodha) is a non-implicative negation (prasajyapratiṣedha), i.e. a negation that doesn’t imply the presence of some other entity, and therefore nirvāṇa simply refers to a cessation that terminates the defilements and fetters that are abandoned by the correct practice of the noble path. It doesn’t refer to an entity or state that is substantially existent (dravyasat).”
Thanks for that useful clarification. I believe the Theravada abhidhamma uses a similar distinction, between ‘reflective cessation’ (i.e. nibbana) and unreflective cessation, which is just the ordinary ending of conditioned things.
Sujato, would you please comment on Brc posts to my last few posts please?
Okay, when I get the time, will do…
Hi Jackson and Brc,
Finally got around to responding to your comments–but perhaps you’ll wish i didn’t! But first, thanks for having a civil conversation, it is a much-valued skill, and I appreciate it.
But I would have to say that I don’t agree with either of your positions–or that of Ven Thanissaro on this point, either. The Buddha was so very very emphatic that the end of dependent origination was the end of all forms of consciousness. Making distinctions between “consciousness” and “awareness” and the like is no use, since these do not apply in the suttas.
Unfortunately, most Buddhist commentators on this point are not familiar with the relevant pre-Buddhist Upanishads; for in those texts, it is precisely vijnana (= Pali vinnana) that is the “Universal Awareness” that survives all. If you read what the Upanishads say about vijnana, side by side with what the Buddha says, it becomes perfectly clear that the Buddha was specifically adopting the Upanishadic terminology in order to refute it.
If what the Buddha taught is really in essence the same as the Upanishads–and the ideas that you good gentlemen are talking about are, indeed, Upanishadic–then why was he so chronically unable to say so clearly? Why did he not repeat, as part of the basic definition of Nibbana, that it meant “an eternally lasting radiant omniscient transcendent consciousness”. It’s not so hard; I can do it, and the Upanishadic teachers could. Why did the Buddha, so extraordinarily clear and analytical in all things that matter, fail to say what he meant? Why, in all the dozens of epithets and descriptions of Nibbana, did he so scrupulously avoid anything that implies an existent state? Why, then, do those who search to validate such ideas in the Suttas constantly bringing up the same few, obscure passages of poetic or dubious interpretation? Passages which, moreover, have been shown time and time again to not mean what they are supposed to. The pabhassara citta in the canon, for example, clearly refers to the mind that is developed through samadhi; and if it can be developed it cannot be unconditioned. If actually you consider the passages that supposedly support the idea of Nibbana as a transcendental consciousness, they invariably undermine any such tendency by phrasing themselves in the negative: “There is the unborn…” It’s an emphatic assertion of a negative, not of a positive.
Nibbana is supposed to be threatening. It’s supposed to be disturbing. That’s why, when the Devas or others of limited ability here of it, they are terrified and traumatized. Who gets traumatized by the idea that they will live forever as a transcendent consciousness? Nibbana poses the ultimate existential question, which is why the Buddha always described in ontologically in the negative. At the same time, however, he described it psychologically in the positive: the peaceful, the shelter, the cool, the ultimate bliss. But we can’t realize that state of peace as long as we still attach to refined forms of suffering such as a transcendent consciousness.
Ah, I thought Bhante Sujato was answering my questions. Who is Brc? And what is Brc’s background in the Dharma? Does the Bhante agree with what you are sharing in the posts with me?
His original position was one of describing a total cessation of all forms of consciousness…
Sorry, Jackson. I certainly didn’t intend to give you the impression that I was Bhante Sujato!
Dear Bhante Sujato,
I’m very glad that you got a chance to respond at length to us!
At the end of Part VI of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, there is this (father teaching his son, Svetaketu):
There is self (atman) and there is Self (Brahman), i.e. there is your true self, there is the Universal Self, both exist, and both ultimately are one and the same.
The Buddha clearly said that it is better to think in regard to the world in terms of arising and ceasing than in terms of existence and non-existence. See, for example, the Kaccayanagotta Sutta:
I understand vinnana as the Buddha used the term as that which arises and ceases with the arising and ceasing of an object. The Unborn and Deathless Not-Conditioned is clearly beyond arising and ceasing.
My use of awareness (distinct from consciousness and mind) is the best word I can think of to translate the Buddha’s terms Adhicitta, as in:
and Pabhassaracitta, as in:
The key distinctions from the Upaniṣads are:
Unlike the true self (atman) and Universal Self (Brahman), this awareness (for lack of a better term, distinct from consciousness and mind) is beyond existence/non-existence (also, beyond arising and ceasing) and it is anattā (not the true self, which ultimately does not exist).
What I am talking about is disturbing for one who craves after and is attached to the world. It means that awakening requires one to completely abandon self in relation to any object of awareness rather than (as Uddalaka taught his son Svetaketu in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad) find a true self and know it as being one and the same as a Universal Self.
Thanks for the quotes from the Upanishads, always good to get back to the source.
I was, admittedly, vague about my references to them, as I was making a small comment about a big topic. Obviously you are correct in the sense of the letter, that the Upanishadic atman is not what you are referring to. My suggestion, however, is that if you look closely at the way certain Upanishadic passages describe the atman (for the Upanishads are, of course, anything but consistent) that they describe it in ways that are, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from what the “Nibbana = transcendantal consciousness” school proposes. The difference, then, is only that those coming from a Buddhist point of view avoid using the word atman. This way of looking at things is hardly radical: similar ideas have been propounded by many modern Hindu thinkers.
But the more basic problem is that the Pali words you are using simply do not mean what you think they do. As I already explained, pabhassara citta means the mind that is developed in meditation; and likewise, adhicitta is simply a word for samadhi. Neither of these words are ever used in the context of Awakening, or the state of an arahant after death, or anything like that.
As for transcendental consciousness being scary, well, this is a subjective matter; but I have heard many people say that Nibbana as the ending of consciousness is disturbing, and I have never heard, to the best of my recollection, anyone react in the same way about the attainment of a transcendental consciousness. On the contrary, most people find the idea comforting; and this was, after all, the very reason why the matter was raised in this conversation in the first place.
Thank you Sujato! Then indeed the “end state” of nibbana is not at a state at all, it is the cessation of all states and consciousness of all kinds including awareness according to your definition. This is identical to what current brain science postulates. When you are dead, you are dead, finito… total extinction of any consciousness. So both you and materialist neuro-science are pointing to the same thing. But this is the problem when we try to understand the depth of enlightenment through another’s words, like the Buddha. His point was not to refute the notion of God or transcendental “Beingness”. His point was to refute the “individual, separate soul”. His teachings make that quite clear. That individual “I” or “I am” is a product of the fifth skandha, a dependently arisen “self” belief. When the fifth skandha, vijnana, collapses, then something more subtle is revealed that even made the skandhas possible to arise in the first place. Its an all pervasive “tremendous Intelligence” that can’t be substantialized. Its completely “empty” of any dependently originated characteristics, yet it has permanent attributes as described in the Uttara Tantra of Maitraiya, “The Changeless Nature”.
This teaching was revealed by the Buddha to counter-balance certain nihilistic tendencies within the followers of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka dialectic. We have the same problem with your view Sujato as well. It was and is a common mistake to equate “vijanana” as representing the “wisdom mind” of a Buddha as well. What was being pointed to was the absolute fact that there is no permanent “personal” soul entity that was independent and inherently existing. That position is correct. What remains became known as the Dharmakaya aspect of the Trikaya teachings. So, in India and later Tibet, the yogis who realized this “Dharmakaya” Buddha Nature said, “Hold on… this nihilistic view is not what we are realizing in samadhi.” So out of this came the teachings that pretty much became show-cased as the “Uttara Tantra” teachings that heavily influenced the development of Yogacharya thought. This led to a more refined understanding of exactly what this “Buddha Nature” and “Tathagatagarba” is about as direct “experience”. Out of this grew what later became known as the Zhantong tradition which was the pinnacle of Buddhist philosophical thought based on yogic experience.
The tradition of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka was known as “Rangtong”. Zhantong was its further refinement. Rangtong means empty of self and objects, or two-fold emptiness. Zhantong was developed to express that this “empty” nature is indeed “empty of any substantialized qualities”, but that also the Buddha Nature is empty of any errors or imperfections intrinsically. So its perfection is not the result of some dependent process. And next Zhantong says further “But this Buddha Nature is not empty of its positive and permanent attributes.” These can only be fully revealed and noticed after “rangtong” or realization of the two-fold emptiness of self and objects, subject and object. This is the same in the in the meditation of shamatha as calm-abiding stillness that then unfolds and reveals vipassana as its luminous clarity and wisdom knowing. This vipassana brings about the end of the functioning of the fifth skandha of vijanana. Beyond that is Mahavipassana where there is no trace of a subject/object dichotomy and is a true non-dual Gnosis. However this is not a “state” its the Ground of Being that has always been present, but just not noticed due to the clouds of vikalpa obscuring the view of the ever present sun or Buddha Nature. This is why in Tibet one traditionally studies the Tripitaka first as being the “Hinayana” or small vehicle. Then Mahayana teachings are studied followed by Vajrayana. And in Nyingma the pinnacle of Vajrayana is Dzogchen or Ati Yoga.
The early teachings of the Buddha are not complete “in writing”. Those who cling to this tradition are really not different than the conservative Christians, Jews and Moslems that believe the words of their scriptures are the exact Truth of what their prophets taught. Many of today’s Theravadins suffer from the same malady: clinging to words as being the sole indicator of the Truth. So the Theravadin path is a good place to start but our practice needs to evolve through and to a Mahayana perspective then to Vajrayana and and eventually to the “no view” of Dzogchen.
This progression can happen fully in one’s own personal practice of samadhi as taught by Dogen, zazen shikentaza, without ever hearing the words Buddha, emptiness, anatman, Mahayana, Vajrayana or Dzogchen. But what you are espousing Sujato is far from the Buddha’s intent. It is a biased nihilistic view. Its actually supportive of the heretical view of secular Buddhism that is becoming popular in the West today. But thank you so much for engaging this dialogue, we can come to better understanding of each others’ views through such willingness to examine each others’ viewpoints carefully.
Yes, and thank you for responding in detail. You are probably quite correct in tracing the evolution of thought in the later schools of Buddhism away from that taught by the Buddha. However, i believe that the Buddha actually said what he meant, and don’t feel the need to rely on later teachers to correct him. To expand or clarify things, sure; but not to propound something that is manifestly different.
What I am talking about is not, in fact, identical with the annihilation of the materialists, and I would ask you to respect the fact that, while you may see no difference, I do. That the Buddha’s view was similar to that of annihilation, and was liable to be mistaken for it, is acknowledged in the Suttas themselves. However, the fallacy is that of reductionism: because the Buddha’s teaching of Nibbana as the “cessation of existence” (bhavanirodho nibbanam) shares some things in common with the annihilationist teaching of the destruction of a physical (or immaterial, for that matter) Self, it is assumed to be the same.
This is why, as I emphasized in a previous comment, the Buddha’s position will be always misunderstood as long as one or other aspect is emphasized exclusively. To repeat: when speaking of the ontology of Nibbana–what actually exists after the death of an arahant–the Buddha always spoke in negative terms: the cessation of consciousness, the ending of the five aggregates, and so on. However, when he spoke of our subjective attitudes towards Nibbana, he always spoke in positive terms: the peaceful, the sublime, the refuge, and so on.
If we try to push this further, to unravel too many details, the Buddha would call a halt to the discussion: “You are proliferating the unproliferated”. These things are simply too subtle to be caught with words.
This does not mean that we cannot use words; it means that we must use words, but only as far as they are useful.
By describing Nibbana in terms of cessation, the Buddha was accomplishing a specific purpose: to sever people from any and all attachments, especially the attachment to subtle forms of “objectless” or “transcendent” awareness. By describing Nibbana in glowingly positive psychological terms, he was accomplishing another purpose: to overcome people’s fear of annihilation, and to motivate them to practice. Once these two purposes are accomplished, there is no further need for words.
Interesting… Thank you Sujato…
So you are leaving the door open to some kind of Nirvanic sentience, but just not conceptualizing about it in any way, correct?
No, that wasn’t what I was saying at all! The Suttas emphatically, repeatedly, and unambiguously (sabbena sabbam sabbattha sabbam kassaci kimhici) deny the possibility of any “Nibbanic sentience”, and this is, in fact, one of their principle doctrines, stated in direct opposition to the Upanishadic notion of the transcendent consciousness. In addition to this ontological position, the Suttas also express an unreserved and equally unambiguous positive sense of how we should feel about Nibbana. Beyond this, one is proliferating the unproliferated….
Gee, I can’t imagine anyone who would be interested in going where you are pointing towards. How nihilistic and flat…
Well, you are most entitled to your opinion, although it ignores what I have said about the psychological positivity of how the Buddha presented Nibbana. Anyway, I’ll stick with what the Buddha taught, thanks. Happy New Year!
By your efforts to interpret the Buddha’s words in the way you do, you pervert the essential meaning as “experienced” by countless masters of Zen, Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions. One should not rely on the words but rather the meaning. And the true meaning of the Buddha’s intent is not present in your nihilistic narrow-mindedness. You fit right in with the secular Buddhists and the materialists of neuro-science. Many Theravadins also do not accept your extreme view, Thanassaro Bhikku being one…
This is just getting stranger and stranger. Here I am, a Buddhist monk, trying to explain what the Buddhist texts say. When I make the rather mild claim that the Buddha said what he meant, I am attacked for being nihilistic and narrow-minded. On this blog, Peter, I do not encourage such ad hominem attacks, and I ask you to restrain yourself in the future.
Your faith in “thousands” of realized saints who have penetrated the true essence of the teachings is your faith, not mine. I will stand by the teachings in the Culahatthipadopama Sutta and elsewhere, where the Buddha encourages us not to make unreasonable claims on the basis of insufficient evidence. Any student of Buddhist history knows full well that there have been countless changes and divergences in the practice and theory of Buddhism. To begin with one’s own faith in someone’s attainment thousands of years after the Buddha and proceed to revise what the Buddha said is methodological madness.
This is not a question of “literalism” versus “experience”, for you are speaking of the words of these later teachers, just as I am speaking of the words of the Buddha. I have my own experiences of meditation, but that is not what this article is about. The simple fact is that how the Buddha described the practice and the goal of spiritual life is quite different from how many later Buddhists describe it. By maintaining that the apparent difference represents a real difference, I am expressing my trust that sages such as the Buddha, and indeed the later teachers, were able to describe what they experienced reasonably well. It is not as if such ideas as you speak of are simply unknown to the Buddha. They are very well known, and constantly refuted.
Sujato, I am speaking from direct experience. And that experience does not match your interpretation of the Buddha’s words. That’s the basis of my refutation, not someone else’s words.
Sujato, this may help:
While the Buddha was discoursing, going on alms rounds etc. was he in the state of Nibbana? If so, then that shows there is a functional and responsive cognitiveness in the nirvanic state.., no?
This is the distinction between sa-upadisesa parinibbana and an-upadisesa parinibbana (Nibbana with and without remainder). “Nibbana with remainder” refers to the Buddha or an arahant while still living. For this time, Nibbana is the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion. Apart from this, their minds work just like yours or mine: they see, talk, think, and so on. This is considered to be a “remainder” because the five aggregates, which have been produced by kamma from previous lives, still remain. It’s like the spinning of a wheel after the impetus has stopped, or the warmth in a fireplace after the flames have been extinguished. In this state, there is still suffering, as for example bodily pain. When the Buddha (or arahant) passes away, this is “an-upadisesa parinibbana”: the five aggregates end, including all vinnana, and there is no suffering.
But it seems we have just down graded the “anuttara samyak sambhodhi” of the Buddha to a state requiring physical death for completion. I would say the motion and functions of the Buddha after enlightenment were no longer driven by the imaginary or empty skandhas but were driven by the inherent dynamics of the Sugatagarbha Itself. Without the imputations of a self, a me and a mine, suffering would not be possible.
The Chapter on the Buddha Nature from the Uttara Tantra
Commentary by Thrangu Rinpoche:
62. The nature of mind is like the element of space;
it has neither causes, nor conditions, nor these in
combination, nor any arising, destruction, or abiding.
63. This true nature of mind—clarity—is like space,
unchanging, not becoming defiled by desire and so on,
passing impurities which from improper thinking spring.
64. It is not produced by the waters
of karma, defilements, and so forth
nor will it be burnt by the cruel fires
of ageing, sickness and death.
65. One should know that the first three—
of death, sickness and age—
are similar respectively to the fires which blaze
at the end of time, in the hells and ordinarily.
The true nature of the mind is compared to space because space is
never created or destroyed. Likewise, the actual nature of the mind is
changeless, clear, and not polluted by impurities. Space is not created
by water or destroyed by fire and similarly Buddha-nature is not
created by the water of karma and defilements or destroyed by the
fire of old age, sickness, and death.
66. Free from birth ageing, sickness, and death,
they have realized the true nature, just as it is.
On account of this the wise have
awakened compassion for beings,
and even though free from the
miseries of birth and so on, they demonstrate these.
67. The suffering of aging, sickness and death—
these the deeply-realized have radically removed.
They are without them because their birth
is not brought about by karma and the defiled.
Birth is acquiring a new set of aggregates in a particular life.
Sickness and old age are alterations of the aggregates and death
occurs when the aggregates terminate. The Bodhisattvas are beyond
old age, sickness, and death because they have realized the true
nature of reality. Even though they are free from these four states,
they do not try to liberate just themselves because this realization
leads to a desire to free others.
How can there be psychological positivity if there is no psyche in Nibbanic experience?
I have said in many comments on this thread that the Buddha repeatedly described Nibbana in ways that are psychologically appealing, drawing us on with the images of cool water, safe harbors, and the like. This has nothing to do with the existence of an absolute transcendent consciousness that survives the death of an arahant.
Venerable Bhikkhu Sujato: This is just getting stranger and stranger. Here I am, a Buddhist monk, trying to explain what the Buddhist texts say.
Gotamist: I wouldn’t worry about it, the dhamma goes against the entire way of the world. Beings want to exist and are afraid to hear that nibanna is the end of existence and consciousness. Not realizing that this is the end of suffering, they never break trough ignorance.
The essential confusion here lies within the nomenclature itself. Only one term is being used here: vijnanna. For example in Dzogchen we use “sem” in reference to the consciousness complex that is engaged as the fifth skandha. Beyond sem is the term rigpa which points to the gnostic wisdom of the Dharmakaya. This enlightened “consciousness” is not dependent, and is completely outside the cycle of dependent origination. However the luminous phenomena that appear as objects, thoughts and perceptions are themselves the play of Rigpa that arise dependently, like clouds that arise in the changeless sky. The Buddha refers to this unconditioned awareness as that “consciousness that does not land”.., it is unfortunate that the Buddha did not clarify this aspect in greater detail. It is the single most important teaching in all Buddha Dharma. We are only this naked, immediate presence of being. It is always free of suffering. It has never become afflicted nor needs improvement. When the consciousness of the fifth skandha collapses back into its origin , Rigpa, nirvana is known to already be our true condition from the beginning.
The problem is that the efforts in this discussion both continue to present positions in terms of existence and non-existence.
Emphasizing that nibbana is the end of existence (“beings want to exist and are afraid to hear that nibanna is the end of existence and consciousness”) gives the impression that non-existence applies and that the Buddha’s teachings amount to nihilism.
On the other hand, the Zen “original mind” and the Tibetan Rigpa/Dharmakaya (“beyond sem is the term rigpa which points to the gnostic wisdom of the Dharmakaya,” etc) point to an transcendent existence beyond worldly existence, giving the impression that existence applies and that the Buddha’s teachings amount to eternalism.
Both positions require further explanation, and arguing about them to determine which one is “right” would probably be endless.
Dear Brc and All,
I think this is a very important point. It is inevitable that anyone who still has a view of self, sakkāyadiṭṭhi, will regard nibbāna as either annihilation or eternal existence. The problem here is the view of self, not the nature of nibbāna. Once the view of self is removed, the whole question is besides the point; more precisely, it is just papañca, proliferation.
Our interest in the nature of nibbāna stems from our view of personal existence. If there is no self, there is nothing worth “saving”, and thus even if everything just ends there is no problem. Whether there is something or nothing is therefore besides the point. But certainly, the ending of all things (note “end”, not “annihilation”) can only be good thing and is nothing to be concerned about.
Sujato, nirvana and anatta are intimately related. For instance here when anatta dawned, there was no one to realize anatta. The entire self-construction just dropped away. What “remained” was a completely impersonal field of knowing in which and as which thoughts, feelings and perceptions arose spontaneously and dissolved without hindrance. There was no centralizing “I” or “I am”. It’s like a knowing space that belongs to no one, nor is there a someone having that experience. It is complete freedom from all stories and suffering, because there is no sufferer. There is no owner of karma. There is no perceiver. There is no knower. There is no self, no me and no mine in any of this. But there is a certainty that prevails like water is naturally wet. The delusionary “consciousness” as Vijnana is extinguished but not what remains.
Once greed, hatred, and delusion have ceased, knowledge and vision that most of us lack become manifest. “Vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno sugato lokavidū.” The five aggregates remain, but dependent origination stemming from ignorance (avijjā) has been undone. The knowledge and vision of the Buddha had nothing to do with the five aggregates, right?
It would seem that awakening isn’t about there being nothing, but about not being attached to anything.
Exactly. It’s neither about there being nothing nor about there being something. It’s about the ending of suffering. If suffering ends, who cares if there is something or nothing?
Hi Bhikkhu Brahmali,
Based on the qualities of the Buddhas, I can’t help thinking that, by removing all delusions, far from any nihilism, a whole new experience must open up upon awakening! And it seems like this would be true for arahants as well as for Buddhas.
What I’m learning is that grasping and clinging do nothing by reinforce self. Stopping means becoming boundless and truly free.
Ajahn Brahm’s way of expressing how the progress toward the stilling of the mind allows bliss to become manifest (here) has been useful to me as I’ve come to experience it for myself.
I agree with everything you say here. This is the experience of the arahant. What happens when the arahant dies is irrelevant. All that matters for them is that they have made an end of suffering.
Hi Bhikkhu Brahmali,
Without the teachings and patience of many bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, few of us would understand nearly as much of the heart of the Buddha’s teachings as we do.
Some people (including me) do not subscribe to your mahayana belief system. Your Buddha is not my Buddha.
Also, the majority of Mahayanists may not agree with Jackson’s eternalist view either. As Loppon Namdrol commented in Dharmawheel, http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=66&t=7420
“This is not Dzogchen. This is Neo-Advaita.”
Dharmawheel and Namdrol (Malcolm) are hardly representative of any authoritative views regarding Dharma…
Jackson what constitutes an authoritative views regarding Dharma? A PHD?
Only “realization” is the authoritative view. Then one Sees through the same wisdom eye as the Buddha. All the rest is imputation and intellectual grasping…
With regard to the different traditions as referred to in this thread a bit ie Jackson, could you please make sense out of this:
Listening to Ajahn Brahmas talks he seems to infer there are no differences between buddhist monks/nuns they are the same. However he seems to follow the teachings and viniya whereas many of the other traditions do not, they in many ways seem to live a life like lay people except they don’t work; although I saw a Buddhist Nun advertising work the other day, another shopping …. so it seems to be that the only difference between Buddhist and lay people is maybe a bit of intention or the wish to be enlightened or something.
I don’t want to cause a schism or anything but Personally i found the teachings of the different traditions to have more differences than similarities, the Mahayana and Vajayana seem to infer that the Theravarden path is the lesser of the three and to follow the Vajayana path is very superior, and those following must obey without question – even though the end of the path is a bit of a non-event (or very samsaric) as all it seems to be about is finding a partner basically not even for a relationship but for sex or something. Why then is celebacy such a big thing for Theravardens and even Ajahn Brahm, is he too just looking to get laid if that is the aim of Buddhist and Buddhist Monks are all the same (what is the difference between buddhist monks and other men then?)
Could you clarify what he means or does he mean they are the same if they follow the teachings of the Buddha So doesn’t it all just end up back where it started at lay life – only a nicer more peaceful, spiritual version.
I just don’t get how he says they are the same when the teachings of the different traditions seem to be the opposite to each other or have little similarity.
Why not then just call the pope a Buddhist Monk?
Can you explain this before I go insane trying to figure it out.
note: I shouldn’t say the opposite or no similarity obviously they cover the same basic principles/Buddhist philosophy
Dear “Person” (a real name would be greatly appreciated!),
The three traditions of Buddhism can seem very different when you focus on the scriptures and the philosophy that are particular to each. But when you focus the common core of scriptures, and especially when you focus on what people actually do, the three are often very similar.
It is true, as you say, that the majority of monastics are quite lax in their vinaya practice. This is true across all Buddhist traditions. But this does not mean that they are practicing like lay people. Even a lax monastic will normally be celibate and usually keep a host of other rules that most lay people would never dream keeping. It is probably celibacy that is the most important distinction that sets monastics apart from everyone else.
And, yes, celibacy is important. Deep meditation is only possible through abandoning sensuality. Anyone who is sexually active will find it hard to abandon sex. This is just the nature of attachment. If you want to have a realistic chance of deep meditation, including deep insights, celibacy is really the only option.
Dear Bhikkhu Brahmali,
Thank you very much for your reply.
I have to say that I find it a bit disconcerting people wearing robes if they aren’t really at least following the Buddhist teaching in the most part at least – but maybe as they say or think they are enlightened they can do that?
I just try to see them as spirtual practitioners incorporating the teachings of the Buddha then it doesn’t do my head in so much.
Still it is abit like buying coconut milk (because it is suppose to be “the lastest healthy wonder food”) and reading from the tin labelled “Coconut Milk” that it contains coconut extract 19%, water, thickener, emulsifier, acidity regulator – ur what? Then buying a whole coconut thinking well that is the real thing – but really you don’t know because it may still be 90% water and have been sprayed with DDT or something. But I guess even still because of the completeness of it it has health benefits and probably wasn’t spray with DDT – even if it was the shell probably protects it.
It must be hard to follow or adapt Buddhism in/to the West too, and obviously anyone doing their best is doing more harm than good; hopefully.
I don’t think Ajahn Brahm would ever do anything that didn’t lead to, create, peace harmony freedom etc – I think he is the real whole coconut!
The problem is not sex. The problem is attachment to sex. Celibacy is for most a suppression and denial of natural urges, like hunger being the urge to eat. For those doing certain energy practices associated with kundalini yoga principles, periods free of orgasmic discharge are required. But this is only weeks and months. However in Buddhist Vajrayana, sex is used as the method for liberation and enlightenment. Resisting an energy only makes it more powerful. Whereas in tantra we use that energy to our benefit by increasing it. When I visited an abbot of a Theravaddin monastery in Singapore he told me that he believed “celibacy was a harmful practice as it encouraged homosexuality amongst the monks.” He thought that marriage would be healthier. We know the problems in the Catholic Church. Rabbis are required to marry as sex is considered to be a mitzvah or blessing. Not being interested in sex is fine. But attacment to sex is not remedied by renunciation or denial. Attachment is the grasping and clinging quality and tendency of ego. To remedy attachment to sex it is best to go deeper with one’s investigations into two-fold emptiness or anatta. It is the imaginary self that clings and becomes attached. Any distraction in meditation can be used as the meditation object. Seeing the emptiness of the object releases the grasping as well. Renunciation is not a healthy approach but may be used as an initial “turning away” as in drug and other addictions. Many Theravadin monks are addicted to nicotine and renunciation is the first step after getting beyond “denial” of the addiction. But sex is life long and is better harnessed as a catalyst to practice not an enemy.
As I understand it, Vajrayana goals amount to the transformation of samsara (rather than liberation from samsara) as all negative karma is replaced by Bodhicitta. The idea is that anything can be useful so long as it’s used skillfully. For example, all energy, including the energy from sex and anger, can be redirected and used for spiritual transformation.
Yes, it is disappointing when monastics do not keep their precepts properly. Usually it is a sign they are not fully committed to the Buddhist practice. But it is important to understand why. People enter monastic life for all sorts of reasons, and only rarely because they are truly committed to awakening. Moreover, they are conditioned by their teachers and by the Buddhist community around them to be slack about their precepts. Once you realize this you can forgive and let go and look elsewhere for true inspiration.
Frankly, this is directly opposed to what you find in the early suttas. If we still possess the Buddha’s words – and I think there is every reason to believe we do – they are to be found in the Nikayas/Agamas. These scriptures make it abundantly clear that deep meditation can only be achieved by skilfully and wisely abandoning all sensual desire. It is not a matter of suppression; it is a matter of turning away from an inferior pleasure. Of course, if you don’t practice the path properly and you have to suppress things too much, then, yes, it can be unhealthy. But with proper practice the turning away from sensual pleasures is quite natural.
With best wishes and metta.
Dear Bhikkhu Brahmali,
I am not too sure why else you would ordain.
But still you can only do the best with what you have and even if people aren’t committed at first, maybe later on when they can, with different conditions, or if inspired, I am sure they can become committed.
Thank you for your responses
Vajrayana utilizes the principle of transformation, yet the pinnacle of Vajrayana goes beyond even transformation. Here is an excellent summary of the Dzogchen view:
From 19th century Dzogchen Master, Shakya Shri Jnana’s The Vital Essence
“In every instance there is an aware quality that is both empty and cognizant and neither altered nor corrupted by any thoughts. Simply keep this natural state and remain without straying from it.”
“The Great Perfection does not require analysis nor cultivation. Rather, it is merely a matter of recognizing, as your own nature, this very wakefulness of natural knowing that is self-existing and spontaneously present throughout samsara and nirvana.”
“According to this king of views, our Dzogchen tradition, whether expressions of thought movement occur, remain, or dissolve, the essence does not change but remains a fresh, basic state of naturalness. No matter the variety samsaric or nirvanic displays that may arise, there is nothing else to be attained apart from or superior to this unchanging essence suffused with awareness, which transcends being liberated, even though the labels “Buddha” or “fruition” may be given to it. Since this essence has never been tainted by confusion, it is free from the seeds for taking rebirth… Primordial purity (kadag) means that the basic nature of awareness belongs to neither samsara nor nirvana, and therefore its identity is primordially pure. No type of virtuous karmic cause and effect improves this primordial purity, nor does any type of unvirtuous karmic cause and effect worsen it. This primordially pure identity of awareness can be neither improved nor harmed by anything whatsoever. It is an unchanging openness of awareness that continues throughout the day and night.”
Quotes from Quintessential Dzogchen Rangjung Yeshe Books
Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the philosophical efforts among schools of Tibetan Buddhism (which give us such gems as “primordial purity means that the basic nature of awareness belongs to neither samsara nor nirvana, and therefore its identity is primordially pure” and the “wakefulness of natural knowing that is self-existing and spontaneously present throughout samsara and nirvana”) and the tantric practices among schools of Tibetan Buddhism (which attempt to use conceptual frameworks, constructs and energies to cultivate qualities that are supposed to ideally replace unwholesome conceptual frameworks, constructs and negative karma as Bodhicitta transforms samsara by means of leading practitioners to see that there is no samsara so long as Bodhicitta is omnipresent).
I think its best to not bring in all the various philosophical positions possible. I am most interested to see how the view of Dzogchen accords with the Theravadin view of nirvana. Dzogchen states that the entire mandala of appearance and experience is absolutely perfect just as it is and that samsara needs no improving so to speak. Its just not seen clearly. Dzogchen also teaches that we don’t need to meditate, study or cultivate Bodhicitta. Nor does one have to accumulate virtue or wisdom. And there is no sense of a gradual attainment. What is done, is that this perfect, changeless “awareness” is pointed out to be the existing awareness already fully present in this moment that needs no correction or improvement. The teacher gets the student to “see” this perfect nature directly and immediately without need for prior preparation or practices. This pure awareness is called “rigpa” in Tibetan. But from what I am reading of Sujato’s view, there is no such thing as “rigpa” in Theravadin teachings… Is that correct?
What you’re describing (a “perfect, changeless ‘awareness’ is pointed out to be the existing awareness already fully present in this moment that needs no correction or improvement”) sounds like what the Buddha called satisampajañña. Sati is careful attention. Sampajāna is clearly knowing (sampajañña is clear knowledge). Satisampajañña (awareness with clear knowledge) seems to be what you are talking about. The Buddha taught that awareness and clear knowledge are important, but that they are not the goal in themselves.
As I understand the Theravada view of samsara, it is what it is due to kammic results and is by its nature imperfect.
Drozen as I understand it which I probablydon’t is considered the highest or high teachings or something.
Personally as a Westerner though I find all that hard to understand let alone to do or get realizations – maybe it is the translation or something or maybe you need a past life karmic connection with the tradition? If not maybe it is not possible to grasp in this life.
As I understand it, even though I probably don’t, you can though get awakened in this life following Theravaden teachings – or maybe this is wrong, For us poor old westerners with no past life connections to any of these traditions I hope not because there is not much hope otherwise 🙂
..not to say though that the Theravarden teachings are any easier to understand sometimes
Dear Bhante Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali,
How would each of you translate the term “anidassana-viññāṇa”?
The reason I ask is that viññāṇa, which arises and ceases with objects, is a condition for the arising of Self-asserting fetters and rebirth. But the Buddha’s use of the term anidassana-viññāṇa in the phrase viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ does appear to point to an awareness that does not arise and cease with objects and that is not a condition for the arising of Self-asserting fetters.
Using the passage viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ as a basis for a “cosmic consciousness” doctrine probably doesn’t make sense, any more than it makes sense to think that any word or combination of words used by the Buddha could have conveyed the experience of Nibbana. And yet he did use phrases like viññāṇāṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ and pabhassara citta and appatiṭṭhita viññāṇa, and it does makes sense to me to reflect on what he meant by these terms when trying to experience something other than saṃsāra and make sense of the experience.
Hi again Brc,
I’m kind of reluctant to get back in this discussion, as I think we are clear enough on our various positions, and I’m not sure how fruitful it will be. Nevertheless, I will remark briefly on these terms.
These phrases all have quite distinct meanings, and occur in completely different contexts. There is no reason to think they are somehow referring to the same thing.
Pabhassara citta (radiant mind) is a term for the mind that has become radiant due to the development of the mind in samadhi and the abandoning of the hindrances. It is merely a synonym for the many other terms expressing the brightness of the mind in samadhi.
Appatittha vinnana (unestablished consciousness) refers to the mind that is not “established” in defilements that produce rebirth. The “stream of consciousness” of an arahant is “unestablished” in this world and the world beyond. To be “established” means to be grounded in conditions; the metaphor is suggestive of growing a plant (cf, for example, vinnanam bijam “consciousness is the seed”). To say that consciousness is “unestablished” means that it has no nutriment for future growth. It does not imply that there is a special sort of consciousness that is “unestablished”.
Anidassana vinnana (unmanifest consciousness) is more difficult to define, as the term is nowhere used in a clear sense. It is purely a poetic phrase, used in a couple of gathas, usually when talking with/about Brahma. However, whatever it means, it cannot mean that nibbana is some kind of eternal consciousness: the very same verse that starts with this phrase ends by saying “vinnanassa nirodhena, etth’etam uparujjhati” (with the ending of consciousness, all this ends). Invariably in Dhamma texts the final lines express the higher stage, the earlier lines the more primitive. So “anidassana vinnana” ceases in the end. Nanananda argued that the phrase, along with several others found in the Suttas, refers to the fruition attainment of arahantship, a special meditation attainment realizable only by arahants. This attainment is not explicitly named in the Suttas, but perhaps there is something to this idea. As to what ‘anidassana’ actually means, I think the best hint is to compare with another phrase where it is said that even the gods cannot know the meditation (jhana) of an arahant. Since the context of anidassana vinnana is to prove the superiority of Buddhist meditation over Brahma, this is a plausible context. The root meaning of anidassana is “does not make a showing”, i.e. “invisible”. In this sense it is applied also to matter (anidassana rupa). Taken literally, it suggests that in such a profound state of meditation, the mind of an arahant is so subtle that it is beyond the ken even of Brahma.
Sujato, I think it is becoming more clear as to what you are pointing to. Let’s see if you concur with this brief text that I wrote:
“In the Buddhist descriptions of Dharmakaya there is no sense of an “I” or “I am”. I use the Immense Intelligence and Ground of Being in the sense of Dharmakaya. Our nature is Ultimate Emptiness. A quality of that Ultimate Emptiness is an “awakeness” or knowingness. It is not personal nor has a definition of itself. It has no conceptual process at all. Its not an entity. Its not a ”creator”. Nothing is “created”. But there is a spontaneous luminosity, the glow of this emptiness that arises within this space like holographic 3D appearances. These are called “empty forms”.
Because the very nature of this luminosity is emptiness, like space, everything is impermanent and is in constant flux. This impermanent, unborn, uncreated flux is what we call the universe, experience, mind, body and stories. The knowing of this Ultimate Emptiness is for Ultimate Emptiness alone to know. The sense of being a seeker, seeking this Ultimate Emptiness is simply the temporary play of this unborn luminous Nature that appears as the five skandhas that make up the sense of “personhood”. There is no seeker, there are no gurus, there are no “things”… there is only the play of impermanent Luminosity, the luster of Ultimate Emptiness. The Luminosity display always appears according to dependent origination. It is not that there is a self that finally realizes itself to be Ultimate Emptiness as the Dharmakaya, but rather the karmic causes for the illusory appearance of a self as the seeker become exhausted and hence the “person” no longer appears. This is called “cessation” of the causes of suffering, the “sufferor” is no more. In cessation, the five skandhas that give the sense of “I am” or “me” cease functioning. The story of “me” is over… No one remains…”
Thanks for explaining these three so clearly.
I’m not sure about the idea that “pabhassara citta is a term for the mind that has become radiant due to the development of the mind in samadhi and the abandoning of the hindrances” and that “it is merely a synonym for the many other terms expressing the brightness of the mind in samadhi.” Based on my understanding of AN 1.49-52, it appears to be mind that is luminous whether defiled by adventitious defilements (kilesas) or freed from adventitious defilements. Here’s what Thanissaro says about it:
While this may correspond to fourth jhana according to Thanissaro, it seems that this brightness of mind becomes manifest through insight rather than concentration.
Regarding anidassana vinnana, part of my confusion stems from the idea that unmanifest means that it does not arise. If it does not arise, it should not cease. It is the awareness that does not involve itself with the objects – subject to arising and ceasing, to birth and death – of which it is aware and so there is no investing of a Self in any objects:
Re the pabhassara citta, it is taught in the context of cittabhavana: that is what the sutta is about. And cittabhavana (development of the mind) always pertains to samadhi, not to insight. The insight in this passage, as always, emerges from the clarity of the mind purified through samadhi.
Re anidassana: Perhaps unmanifest is not such a good rendering of anidassana. Literally it means “invisible”: as the simile in the suttas goes, if you try to paint pictures on the sky you cannot make them “manifest” there, i.e. cannot make them “appear” or “be visible”. The idea of anidassana, then, is not connected with conditionality, but with the appearance or “showing” of things.
The Bahiya passage you quote is completely unconnected with anidassana, and has not even the vaguest notion of an “unconditioned consciousness”. In fact, the terminology and context (Bahiya was a non-Buddhist ascetic) suggests that the passage is explicitly a critique of the Upanishadic (Yajnavalkya) notion of the “unseen seer, unheard hearer, unthought thinker, uncognized cognizer”, i.e. vinnana as unconditioned.
BTW, the translation above is wrong: the list is not “seen, heard, sensed, cognized”. The third term is “muta”, which just means “thought”. This very common mistake derives from the commentaries.
Perhaps we could equate this to the oft translated condition in Dzogchen as “transparent”…for this unconditioned or “invisible” description. Would you be comfortable with “transparent” in this case?
Bhante, Thank you! All three of your points clarified a lot about pabhassara citta, anidassana, and the Bahiya Sutta. Honestly, what I see in AN 1.49-52 is not pabhassara citta in the context of cittabhavana so much as pabhassara citta being present whether there is development of the mind (it becomes manifest) or there is not development of the mind (it does not become manifest). If it is present, the key to making it manifest is insight, i.e. one goes from not understanding that it is defiled by adventitious defilements to understanding that it is freed from adventitious defilements. Where do you see that that understanding “emerges from the clarity of the mind purified through Samadhi”? What is the basis for the assertion that pabhassara citta is taught in the context of cittabhavana and that this is what the sutta in the AN is about?
Thanks for actually following up on things, this is very useful. To explain in more detail I will have to go into the text more, so hold on. Here’s the Pali:
The sutta appears in the middle of a long list of other short suttas, all of which deal with some aspect of mental development, eg. metta and so on. These texts are obviously artificial in a sense: they have been divided up from longer, more coherent discourses to fit the “Ones” format. Thus these two “suttas” are really one sutta; and the same goes for the two previous suttas (not quoted here), which are just abstracts from the present text.
The overall context of this part of the Suttas is samadhi: in fact, probably the reason these texts have been artificially “processed” to fit in this section is because the idea of “one” fits well with samadhi as “one-pointedness of mind”. This doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that we should expect texts here to deal mainly with samadhi.
A literal translation is:
The syntax of the sutta is somewhat obscure, in Pali as in English: while there are no grammatical difficulties, it is not entirely clear what the sense of the text is. This is already a red flag: as a rule, one should never rely for crucial explanations on a text that appears only once, and which is unclear. Surely in a crucial matter the Buddha would have stated it many times and made it clear what he was talking about. As a rule, when faced with an obscure passage, we look to more clear examples to help us understand.
To start with, then, let’s look at other Sutta passages that use the same word “pabhassara”. Here I will ignore the fact that this word is merely a synonym for many other terms such as abha, pariyodata, obhasa, and so on, that are frequently used in the context of samadhi. A quick search of the uses of pabhassara reveals this:
So pabhassara is used in an ordinary language sense of the “radiance” of a fire or gold; in a “religious” sense of the light of Brahma; and in a Dhamma sense of the radiance of the mind in samadhi. The sense of the simile of gold, which is the most common context, is that just as gold has impurities and the smith will gradually work them out, resulting in pure, radiant gold, so too the meditator eliminates the defilements (upakkilesa = nivarana = 5 hindrances) and thereby leads the mind to samadhi. This all hangs together very straightforwardly. Nowhere is there any suggestion that it has anything to do with Nibbana.
These passages, especially the recurring comparison of gold with samadhi, are clear and well-defined. They are proper teachings, not just cut-up slivers with no parallels, as in the more famous pabhassara citta passage. This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them.
Returning to our passage, the “radiant” mind is said to be either defiled or freed from defilements. While the overall context is cittabhava, i.e. samadhi, and is obviously meant to be the same as the more common gold/samadhi passage, there is a crucial difference. That is, in the gold/samadhi passages, the gold (and the mind) is said to be “not radiant” when it is defiled; and “radiant” when the defilements are removed. The texts say exactly the opposite. There is a clear contradiction here, and as always, one can approach contradictions in various ways. Perhaps the two can be harmonized: the radiance of the mind is potentially there, even if not apparent. Fine, but that is not really how the Buddha talked about things. Given that the text has obviously suffered editorial changes, I suspect that the problems arose due to these.
The beginning of the Sutta has the Buddha (presumably, although it doesn’t actually say so), saying, “This mind is radiant…” The particle “idam”, “this”, functions to limit and specific: This mind, not “the mind” (as in Thanissaro’s translation). As well as the gold/samadhi passages, we might compare to the Upakkilesa Sutta, where the Buddha speaks of how he meditated, then light arose, but because of “defilements” (upakkilesa, the same word as our sutta), the light vanished. The word for light is different (obhasa), but is from the same root with the same basic meaning.
This is the normal way the Buddha talked about the mind. It is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. Our passage, which is unique, without parallels in any early Suttas, syntactically awkward, clearly the subject of editing, can be read as suggesting a different take on things, that the mind is somehow “radiant” even when covered by defilements. Or it can be read in line with the other, more clear suttas.
In either case, there is no suggestion here that the “radiant mind” be connected with Nibbana. Quite the opposite: the whole point of the sutta is that it can be defiled, so it cannot be Nibbana.
Interesting suppositions! However it is discovered in samadhi that the defilements were just imaginary, like imagining a rope to be snake in poor lighting. The rope at no time was transformed or conditioned by the imputation of “snake”. Likewise the radiant mind also was never defiled like the pure gold ore was never defiled by the dirt covering it. We experience in samadhi the fact that defilements or conditioning are no more real than reflections appearing in an always perfectly clear mirror. The clear mirror appears altered by the presence of reflections, but upon closer inspection we clearly see directly that the luminous or radiant clarity of the mirror was never defiled. When the mind is also recognized to have never been defiled, that recognition of the”never defiled nature of the radiant mind” is itself enlightenment and nirvana.
Which suttas state that consciousness ceases upon attaining parinibbana?
This is a basic concept that is found throughout the suttas. In dependent origination, the “ending of suffering” is dependent on the “cessation of consciousness”. So that’s a few hundred suttas right there. This is a key teaching, as the formulation of dependent origination, in addition to its central place within Buddhist doctrine, serves as a rebuttal to the Upanishadic notion of the “infinite consciousness”, which is the self that is brahman.
You all are trying to ‘Understand’ Buddha’s words with your ‘petty’ minds. Stop being so foolish as to split hairs on the meanings of Pali words. When you have attained to Nibbana you will know that the words of Buddha contain MUCH MORE than a ‘mere meaning’ that which your petty mind is ‘struggling’ to ‘understand’. If only you entered into silent contemplation using even just ‘one single word’ of the Buddha you may have a chance of returning to the ‘ ‘. Arhanthhood was attained by ‘SILENCING’ the mind; PURIFICATION of your energy is essential. It is obvious that all of you LACK that. STOP arguing and RETURN TO PURITY and SILENCE. Cut out all the activities and foods that cause imbalance of the Dhatu. STOP lending your mind to ALL the ‘stuff’ of this world. TV, News, movies etc. Do not travel. Do not engage in chatter. Keep silent. Eat only one meal a day – Eat only MILD food that will not cause Dhatu excesses. Avoid Animal flesh, onions, garlic, Tea, Coffee, Alcohol, Bread, Cheese, Chocolates, Sweets and medicines. Get rid of the ‘Debris’ !
Not only that you will have a PERFECTLY HEALTHY body, you will be able to recognize your own enemy that lives INSIDE OF YOU who blocks you from REALIZING Nibbana! [Gahakaraka Ditthosi’ said the Buddha]
The enemy is contentious. It keeps you in Dukkha. Get rid of your ‘contentious mind’, May all of you come to know what Nibbana really is!
First step is to STOP arguing and challenging the good work of the noble monk Ven K N who has very kindly attempted to express the inexpressible thru the Nibbana sermons. May he attain to Nibbana!!!
Interesting discussion. I really don’t enjoy debating in forums, but I think each buddhist practitioner have to deal with this issue in some time. I study the Suttas and find both: positive and negative definitions on nirvana, and the ineffability of the Tathagata even in our lifes. The problem here is language. The Buddha taught us the cessation of the five khandhas, but also about the unconditioned dharma (nirvana). He uses many words for nirvana, negative and positive answers. The ontological position of nirvana and the arhat is just papañca. Sorry: out of range. Nirvana is a dharma very subtle and hard to see, said the Buddha. We have the Aggi,Vacchagotta similes, about the ontological status of the Tathagata as the fire extingued, and like the great ocean. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, the truth is in the middle of both similes. We cannot understand what happen beyond the cessation of the khandhas, because that would be non-differentiated. There is no basis for description. The second problem I see is the omnipotence we believe human intelligence has. Follow the way of the Buddha imply let go all positions and views. We have no basis to understand how nirvana is like, the only thing we can do, is trust in the Buddha and taste the teachings, and see the results. This is the only way to really know for ourselves, “the taste of freedom”.
Thanks for the comment, Jorges. Hopefully we can offer a friendlier and more meaningful commenting community than you might find elsewhere!
Anjali venerável Bhante Sujato. Estou escrevendo do Brasil, e em português. Concorda com o ponto de vista do Bhante Sujato. O Buda descreveu Nibbana em termos negativos para mostrar o que a libertação é: “O cessar da existência Bhava”. Como o Bhante disse, as referencias positivas à Nibbana são apenas uma maneira estratégico que o Buddha utilizou para gera uma imagem de Nibbana como algo agradável e que vala a pena ser alcançado, e também afastar o medo da aniquilação. Enquanto o Buda diz que a primeira nobre verdade deve ser conhecida; a segunda nobre verdade deve ser abandonada; e a quarta nobre verdade deve ser desenvolvida, ele diz que a terceira deve ser realizada. Portanto, jamais vamos saber o que Nibbana de fato é, especulando sobre ele! Para ser conhecido, ele deve ser realizado ao invés de pensado.