A Consciousness outside the Bundles?

This is a quote from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s A Verb for Nirvana:

This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be “without surface” (anidassanaṃ), for it doesn’t land. Because the consciousness-aggregate covers only consciousness that is near or far, past, present, or future—i.e., in connection with space and time—consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates. (https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/a-verb-for-nirvana/)

Does his interpretation “consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates” has any footing in the EBTs?


This seems to pop up quite often.

The short answer is no, but I would recommend these articles by Bhante Sujato:

Nibbana is not viññāṇa. Really, it just isn’t.

Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa

Nibbana remains not Vinnana


To me this is misleading because the above implies that consciousness without surface exists out of the aggregate of consciousness. It follows that if consciousness exists in any form then that is not Nibbana.

Venerable Bhikkhu Nanananda translates “anidassanam” as non manifestative which is a synonym for Nibbana and it makes a lot of sense. Because Nibbana is the end of the aggregates just like a lamp going out without leaving any trace of where it has gone.

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I started a discussion about this topic here: Is there a contradiction in the Kevatta Sutta? and came to the personal conclusion that this verse Thanissaro, Nanananda & others seem to focus on is not about Nirvana & is not even a Buddhist teaching and is just a gradual & idiosyncratic teaching given by the Buddha to & for Brahmans since the context in the relevant suttas (DN 11 & MN 49) are Brahmans & Brahma Gods.

SN 22.53 does not include the term ‘anidassanam’ but does include the term ‘does not land’ and could assist in shedding some light on the original question.


there’s peculiar irregularity in the last paragraph

“When that consciousness is unestablished, not coming to growth, nongenerative, it is liberated. By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

it starts with the subject being consciousness (it) and suddenly switches to pronoun he which must refer to a bhikkhu as in many other suttas, yet a bhikkhu isn’t a subject of the narrative
i assume the translation faithfully follows Pali
so it might indicate a composite nature of the text, that’s not to discredit its doctrinal validity, just an observation


“Without surface” is a bizarre rendering of anidassana, which means “invisible”.


What exactly Ven. T said?
a) Nibbana is the consciousness without footing
b) Nibbaana is where consciousness has no footing

This is my understanding:

My understanding is, that the only way that I can experience consciousness is via namarupa. The only way that I can experience namarupa is via consciousness. Each is dependent on the other.

The only way that I can experience anything is through my six sense doors. Each sense organ has no consciousness of self within itself. My eye is just an organ which processes light and forms and sends nerve signals to my brain which processes the information. My eye could be plucked out and there would be no loss of sense self. Same goes with my other sense doors.

Namarupa (name/form) is what happens with this human organism. This human organism is essentially no different than the environment, both consist of the four elements. Namarupa is the perpetual contact between this human organism and it’s environment; namarupa can’t be teased apart from the organism and the environment. It’s the consciousness that arises with namarupa that is the focus here.

When my eye makes contact with visible forms, eye consciousness arises. When my eye makes contact with visible forms, a feeling tone arises. When my eye makes contact with visible forms, a perception of what it is arises. When my eye makes contact with visible forms, a viewpoint about what it means to me arises. When my eye makes contact with visible forms, attention to it arises. This is namarupa.

When namarupa arises, consciousness arises. When consciousness arises, namarupa arises. One cannot exist without the other. Yet, consciousness is not part of namarupa, it is distinctly separate. Consciousness is an aggregate (bundle) of grasping, a magic trick, with nothing substantial, empty, no inherent self, a killer. Likewise forms are a bundle of grasping; a lump of foam, no inherent substance. Feelings are a bundle of grasping; bubbles from the rain, no inherent substance. Perceptions are a bundle of grasping; a mirage, no inherent substance. Mental formations (viewpoints) are a bundle of grasping; a banana tree with no heartwood, no inherent substance.

I understand the Buddha to have seen dependent arising and seen through the emptiness of consciousness. Yet the only way to experience anything is through the sense doors and consciousness. But he wasn’t deceived by the magic trick, wasn’t led by it, didn’t reach out to grasp it. He just saw the seen as the seen and the heard as the heard, didn’t identify with namarupa or consciousness or locate an essential self therein. Consciousness is totally and completely conditioned.

So to me, there is no consciousness outside the bundles, there can’t be. Consciousness without anything to experience and without any way of experiencing is empty and meaningless. This life experienced is within Mara’s domain, a magic trick that the we need to see and meet with equanimity. With clear ethics and compassionate intention, we make the best choices, thus conditioning karma.

I hope this makes some sense!


I have studied this a bit in reply to a question I was once asked, and found that the translation of anidassana is not very easy. The word is incredibly rare (already a good reason to not give it much weight) and its meaning very vague. Even so, “without surface” is one of the more liberal attempts at translation I’ve seen. I agree with “invisible”. This both means something and fits.

Where consciousness is anidassana, boundless, all-luminous:
Here where earth, water, fire and air find no footing.

The entire verse in DN11 is quite poetic, but it is clear to me that “where consciousness is boundless” simply refers to the meditation state of boundless consciousness. This is the only other context where “boundless” and “consciousness” are used together. And this occurs very often.

This becomes even more clear when looking at MN21, the only other context that gives a clue for anidassana. Here anidassana refers to open space and is used alongside arupa: formless. The state of boundless consciousness is also often explicitly called formless. It seems one and one make two. Anidassana vinnana has nothing to do with nibbana but is a state of meditation.

Also, there are many other passages that do not allow for any consciousness outside of the aggregates. These should be given priority over vague terms found only in poetry.

With kindness,


Above is a paper by Bhikku Brahmali found in a discussion under “Is Nibbana a form of annihilation”. I think you can find the answer to your query there.


It is not uncommon for people to walk through glass windows and doors. Yet it would not be a problem for someone with some paint to have drawn pictures on that glass – and it might have saved some hospital trips. I realize they probably didn’t have glass back in Buddhas time but it is a reason why using invisible these days might not make the meaning completely clear (so to speak).

MN 21 presents four similes – each with a similar format – basically someone is trying to carry out a task which by its nature is impossible. There is a kind of foolishness with respect to each one – they are just trying to do something that can’t work:

  • the image of someone furiously digging so as to remove all the earth of the earth
  • the image of someone – paints in hand – trying to paint pictures in empty space
  • the image of someone – with a bundle of burning grass – trying to boil all the water in the Ganges
  • the image of someone trying to make a soft supple bag crackle and rattle

To try to paint pictures in empty space seems foolish – you are standing there waving your paint brush around and it isn’t doing anything - there is no way to get something to stick – to make an impression.

In contemporary usage we wouldn’t normally say that empty space is invisible even though it is. If I ask you to pay attention to the ghost in front of you then you might say “I can’t see it” (it’s invisible) but if I ask you to pay attention to the empty space in front of you, you probably won’t say “I can’t see it”. You can attend to that space – it is defined by it’s emptiness.

There is another sutta (AN 3.130) that deals with a very similar theme. And here there is the sense of inscriptions on different surfaces – progressively less permanent: stone, soil, and water. It describes three types of individuals in the world while MN 21 presents an ideal to strive for: no imprint at all.

In DN 11, saying something like “Where consciousness is invisible, boundless, all-luminous ” sounds strange in that one would not normally say something is invisible and then go on to describe it. So ‘without surface’ seems reasonable to me though I get the sense more of non-reactive, un-impressionable, non-supportive, untouchable, unimpactable.

The phrase in my view is pointing to the imperturbability of the Arahant as well as the spacious and luminous quality of consciousness that I see mentioned by some of our contemporary Arahants. For example:

Consciousness arises in the mind, purely and simply without producing suffering. …All sense media and the sense contact that they condition are just naturally occurring phenomena that exist according to their own intrinsic characteristics. They have no negative effect whatsoever on the citta that has successfully completed its task

This subtle awareness manifests as a radiance that extends forth in all directions around us
– Ajahn Maha Boowa

Knowing is the normality of mind that’s empty, bright, pure, that has stopped fabricating, stopped searching, stopped all mental motions — having nothing, not attached to anything at all.

All that remains is pure, clean, bright — great emptiness, enormously empty” - Ajahn Dune Atulo



Dear @charlie,

Interestingly, Ajahn Bua suggested that the mind exists even after nibbanā (indestructible citta). Please see link below.

The Lord Buddha explicitly said that nibbāna is the extinguishing of the consciousness(es). It’s like a fire being snuffed out which is a great simile (MN 72). Another great simile is from the Therigatha by Ayya Patacara ( Thig 5.10). Any claim in reverse from what the Buddha proclaimed, is not inline with EBTs understanding of the mind’s existence and therefore that claim would not be considered as of an ariya. If the mind was indestructible as Ajahn Bua states, wouldn’t that make awakening impossible?

Also, from my understanding, once a person attain’s arahantship, his/her citta no longer needs to go on because there are no more supports. Arahants only continue to live because they have replaced the old supports with the brahma viharas.

I’m not the sharpest tool on the shed but hey, something doesn’t jive here Ajahn Bua’s statement.

But maybe I’m reading it wrong?

I don’t mean to create an uproar. I’m just stating what is said in the EBTs and the implications of having different ideas from what the Buddha expounded.

Happy vassa!

in mettā,


Hi Russ,

Well, let’s not put old Bua in the dog house just yet. Context is everything. Seems to me that terms like mind and consciousness are used with reference to both awakened and unawakend.

There is defiled mind of the worldling and the undefiled, taintless, or liberated mind of the Arahant. Similarly, there is the consciousness of the worldling bound-up through passion with its associated object and the liberated consciousness of the Arahant that was the topic of this thread.

It stands to reason that Arahants are still conscious – they are not like inert rocks or vegetables. Likewise Arahants are not mindless. It’s just that the nature of that mind and consciousness is described as being very different from samsaric mind and consciousness.

Worldly consciousness is described as being bound-up through one of the senses with an object (Ex SN 12.2). It describes a consciousness that moves like an inch-worm – landing on one object and then moving to another – always holding on to something.

In contrast, the consciousness of the Arahant is described as having no footing, no surface, unattached and the other inch-worm consciousness is no more – it ceases.

Similarly, mind of the worldling is mixed up or polluted with defilements where as the mind of an Arahant is untainted, stainless, purified.

No uproar from my perspective. I am glad you responded.


Hello Russell

In my reading, the Lord Buddha spoke of two kinds of Nibbana (Iti 44) & seemed to emphasize the Nibbana where the mind remains conscious (Iti 44; MN 37; end of MN 38; etc), i.e., the Nibbana that is the visible here-&-now (DN 2 ) destruction of greed, hatred & delusion (SN 38.1, etc ).

Also, I am not personally aware of any similes the Buddha used that compared consciousness to a fire (apart from the explanation of interdependent consciousness at the start of MN 38, which is not about Nibbana). I am only aware of similes where the Buddha compared defilements (greed, hatred & delusion) to fires (SN 35.28; Dhp 202) and feelings (vedana) to a lamp flame (MN 140).

In SN 22.53, the here-&-now Nibbana seems to be described as non-lust towards consciousness & the contentment & non-agitation of consciousness.

Could you please provide a link to some references where the Lord Buddha explicitly said that nibbāna is the extinguishing of the consciousness(es), like a lamp fire being snuffed out?

Thank you

Bhikkhu, just as from the contact and friction of two fire-sticks heat is generated and fire is produced, and with the separation and disjunction of those two fire-sticks the corresponding heat ceases and subsides; so too, in dependence on a contact to be felt as pleasant…to be felt as painful…to be felt as neither-painful-nor-pleasant there arises a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling… One understands: ‘With the cessation of that same contact to be felt as neither-painful-nor-pleasant, its corresponding feeling…ceases and subsides.’

Bhikkhu, just as an oil-lamp burns in dependence on oil and a wick, and when the oil and wick are used up, if it does not get any more fuel, it is extinguished from lack of fuel; so too when he feels a feeling terminating with the body…a feeling terminating with life, he understands: ‘I feel a feeling terminating with life.’ He understands: ‘On the dissolution of the body, with the ending of life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here.’

MN 140

MN 43 appears to state that wisdom cannot arise without consciousness, i.e., wisdom & consciousness are co-joined. Therefore, if this interpretation of MN 43 is correct, it appears enlightenment & Buddhahood cannot occur without consciousness.

I would guess what is interpreted from the EBTs is based in translations, which may not necessarily be accurate.

For example, in the EBTs, it appears the word ‘dukkha’ does not always have the same meaning or context thus it appears it should not always be translated in the same way.

In the Four Noble Truths & Dependent Origination, the ‘dukkha’ arising from craving & resulting in sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair obviously means ‘suffering’. Buddhas obviously do not have this suffering.

However, many EBTs describe Buddhas experiencing ‘dukkha-vedana’ or ‘painful feelings’ without suffering (e.g. Iti 44; MN 37; end of MN 38; DN 16; etc). Therefore, it appears ‘dukkha’ does not mean ‘suffering’ here. I have never read a translation of ‘dukkha-vedana’ as ‘suffering-feelings’.

As for the Three Characteristics, they appear to be ‘anicca-dukkha-anatta’ rather than ‘dukkha-anicca-anatta’. In other words, the cause or condition of ‘dukkha’ here is impermanence (rather than craving). Being so, the ‘dukkha’ of the Three Characteristics sounds like a different kind of ‘dukkha’ than explained in the Four Noble Truths since one kind of dukkha appears to have impermanence as its preceding condition (as described in SN 22.59) and the other kind of dukkha appears to have craving as its preceding condition (as described in SN 56.11).

The EBTs seem to describe Buddhas experiencing ‘anicca-dukkha-anatta’ all the time, without suffering (e.g. SN 22.59), such as in the following verse where ‘dukkha’ as a characteristic (lakkhana) is translated by the translator as ‘unsatisfactory’ rather than as ‘suffering’:

277. “All conditioned things are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

278. “All conditioned things are unsatisfactory (dukkha)” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering (dukkha). This is the path to purification.

279. “All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

Dhp 278

For example, an old dysfunctional computer that is always malfunctioning may be ‘unsatisfactory’ due to its impermanence however the ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of the impermanent computer does not necessarily make the computer ‘suffering’. It appears only ignorance, craving & grasping (as ‘mine’) at the impermanent (anicca) unsatisfactory (dukkha) not-self (anatta) computer can make it ‘suffering’.

With metta :palm_tree:

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Perhaps @Russell means the simile in MN 72:

This simile is given to explain the nature of the Tathagata after death, so it’s not just about conciousness, but the following does seem to say that after the parinibbāna of an arahant, there is no more conciousness of any kind:


It certainly sounds reasonable that the simile is not directly about consciousness. Instead, it seems to be about the “classification” of each aggregate as “self”. Further, where does the sutta state the Buddha is describing Nibbana with the simile? Instead, Nibbana seems to be described as follows:

I say, a Tathagata—with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit—is, through lack of clinging, released.”

This appears why the quote concludes with the phrase: 'Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha…". It seems not consciousness but the “classifying” that is extinguished. If the Buddha had no consciousness, how could the Buddha have seen & heard Vacchagotta?

If you can keep searching for a relevant quote, I would appreciate that. Back to work for me. Thanks

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It seems to me you’re personal belief is that an arahant or maybe his/her pure citta “exists” in nibbana outside of the five bundles and keeps on “existing” in that same manner after death. Is that about right?

The way I see it, is that at the time of full awakening, craving is abandoned and the arahant just waits for the five bundles already aqcuired to run their course, using all his senses. Then at the time of death, all the five bundles cease and due to the prior destruction of craving, new ones aren’t taken up. End of story - total extinguishment.


My personal belief? Certainly not. It is not me that is misinterpreting similes from the suttas.

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Well your interpretation of the suttas then. I’ve got the impression that you subscribe to a “nibbana = some sort of cosmic conciousness” type of theory from several of your posts. Am I totally off base here?

PS. I’m talking about nibbana without residue.