Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa

Thanks to Sylvester for raising some more issues regarding the ‘non-manifest consciousness.’ In this follow-up post I will address the verse he quotes and a number of other issues. Here is Sylvester’s comment:

SN 1.27:

“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);
Here name-and-form
Cease utterly without remainder (Q3).”

“Kuto sarā nivattanti,
kattha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

“Yattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Ato sarā nivattanti,
ettha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

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”.

Sylvester is quite correct in terms of the syntax of the verses. However comparison with the Chinese versions of this text reveal that the inferred connection with the non-manifest consciousness may be an illusion.

The verse you mention has two Chinese cognates. I post very rough translations of the relevant sections here:

Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, reach that state (?)
name and form cease without remainder
streams (text transliterates sara) turn back
birth death moveable, immoveable, pleasure, pain cease without remainder.

Eye, ear, nose, and tongue, and also the wished-for body
name and form are completely ended
like a dried up pond
finished with all knots, life and death, happiness and sadness
all this is finished without remainder
with nothing left to return to.

With the notable change of the senses for the elements, and allowing for the vagueness of translating Pali verse into Chinese and then into English (by a confirmed amateur!) these verses appear to be similar to the Pali one. None of the three versions refer in any way to a ‘non-manifest consciousness’, and all of them speak strongly of Nibbana as the ending of everything.

But it is that first change that is the significant one. In both the Chinese translations, the texts clearly refer to the 5 senses (眼耳鼻舌身), not to the four elements. With this stroke, any connection with the viññāṇa anidassana verse is cut. Exactly what the textual situation is here would require further consideration, but it is plausible to suggest that the opening couplet here was a later addition in the Pali version. At the very least the situation is textually too confused to make much of.

This conclusion is strengthened when we make the obvious point that the Pali verse is simply wrong. Samsara does not unravel when the mind goes beyond materiality. This is merely a refined state of consciousness (arūpa), well understood and incorporated in basic Buddhist cosmology. (It is possible that the Chinese verses make the same mistake, as they also start off referring only to the material; but the syntax is so unclear to me that I cannot say for sure.)

The only other time in the Suttas that the ‘non-manifest consciousness’ is mentioned is in MN 49 Brahmanimantanika. There, according to Analayo, the Sri Lankan, Thai, and English editions of the Pali attribute the phrase to Brahma, not the Buddha, while only the Burmese attributes it to the Buddha. (The commentary attributes it to the Buddha and says it refers to Nibbana; Burmese texts are notorious for incorporating ‘corrected’ readings from the commentary.) In the Chinese version it has nothing to do with Nibbana, but is part of Brahma’s claim to omniscience.

In the Kevadda Sutta, both the Pali and Chinese versions attribute the phrase to the Buddha, but the sub-text is of course the Brahmanical context.

It is a similar situation as the one I documented in the context of the ekāyana magga in satipatthana: the texts imply in bold, underline, and ALL CAPS that this phrase is part of the Brahmanical tradition. The Buddha adopts it when quoting from Brahma himself. The Buddhist tradition, having lost contact with the root Brahmanical texts, interpreted the phrase in their own terms, giving rise to a variety of doctrinal problems, all of which go away if we apply some historical perspective.

And by the way, the phrase anidassana, ‘non-manifest’ is usually taken as meaning ‘does not make a showing’, or ‘is not pointed out’. What the precise implications are here is not clear. The word has a variety of meanings in Sanskrit, including: ‘example, simile’; ‘teaching, text, authority’; ‘prognostic sign or omen’. Since the word appears rarely and with uncertain meaning in Pali texts, and with a wide variety of meanings in broader Indic literature, it is premature to conclude that any one meaning applies in this case.

Unlike ‘infinite consciousness’ or ekāyana, non-manifest consciousness does not appear to figure in any extant Brahmanical texts. This is unfortunate, but it does not prove that the word was not part of the Brahmanical tradition, of which we only preserve a part.

The notion of ‘manifest’ and ‘non-manifest’ consciousness does rather remind me of the Hindu idea of Samsara as a vast ocean of consciousness, from which the cycles of the world arise from time to time like a dream, only to lapse once more into the trackless waters. This idea, however, is not directly attested in the time of the Buddha (although certain Upanishadic precedents are found: nāmarūpa is like the rivers with their ‘names’ and ‘shapes’ that all return to the ocean of viññāṇa.) Also, I can’t find these terms used in this way in later Hinduism, either.

Anidassana as such, however, was not understood by the early Buddhist tradition to definitively mean Nibbana or the unconditioned, since the (proto-Abhidhamma) Sangiti Sutta refers to ‘form that is non-reactive and non-manifest’:

Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho— sanidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanaappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ.

The traditions (e.g. Mahaprajnaparamitasastra, p. 295; also the commentary to the Sangiti Sutta) take anidassana here in the literal sense of ‘invisible’, which makes sense in the context of rūpa, not so much for viññāṇa.

The Digha commentary says nothing meaningful on anidassana in the Kevadda Sutta (tadetaṃ nidassanābhāvato anidassanaṃ), while the Majjhima commentary says Nibbana is ‘non-manifest’ as it ‘does not come within the range of eye-consciousness’ (Anidassananti cakkhuviññāṇassa āpāthaṃ anupagamanato anidassanaṃ nāma), thus taking anidassana in the same sense as the Sangiti Sutta.

The upshot of this is that the Pali tradition does not supply us with any meaningful explanation of what anidassana means in this context, yet another hint that we have before us a non-Buddhist term.

Given all these uncertainties, it is not possible to establish one definitive interpretation of the phrase. I have suggested that it is a reference to the formless attainment of infinite consciousness, which is surely the most obvious reading (since it actually says ‘infinite consciousness’!). Bhikkhu Bodhi prefers to read it as a reference to the arahant’s meditative experience of Nibbana; while this is not an unproblematic reading, it is certainly defensible.

The point here is to notice how texts are used in uncritical and dubious ways to find support within Buddhist texts for a doctrine that is denied many hundreds of times in those same texts. The key problem is, of course, eternalism: the ever-present need to conceive of the final spiritual goal in terms of the permanent existence of something or other.

Buddhist traditions have been in a constant dance with this temptation for thousands of years, and many are the pages of debates on the matter. There is something innately appealing about the eternal survival of ‘this’, conceived of as ‘me at my core’. Despite the Buddha’s continual, explicit, and non-negotiable denial of any such survival, the eternalist desire (bhavataṇhā) seeks for any crack or crevice to grab hold of, like a bush finding a hold in the crevices in a cliff-face. Getting clear as to what the texts mean does not, in itself, overcome this craving, but it has to be a start, right?

The more subtle matter is how to present a non-eternalist conception of Nibbana in a psychologically appealing light – which I admit in this essay I have not bothered to do. I’ve never had a problem with it, but then I’m a converted annihilationist, rather than a converted eternalist.

Frankly, I think the final goal of spiritual life should be a bit scary. It’s meant to be a revolution, a fundamental overthrow of all values. If not, what are we left with? The popular idea of heaven as a kind of family reunion – Christmas dinner forever? A universal eternal consciousness that is somehow not conscious of anything? Or, quite simply, peace?

Letting go is scary, we all know that. Why shouldn’t the biggest letting go be the scariest of all?