Consciousness without surface

I came across the expression “consciousness without surface”, supposedly mentioned by the Buddha. This consciousness is a form of pure awareness and lies outside the 5 aggregates, it exists beyond the realm of sensory perception and mental activities.

Has anyone else heard or read about this? Thanks for any input and clarification.

A quick google search reveals that this is one way that Thanissaro Bhikkhu apparently translates this verse:

Consciousness where nothing appears,
infinite, luminous all-round—
that’s where water and earth
fire and air find no footing.

DN 11

NOTE: This interpretation of a consciousness that is distinct from the five aggregates is not without contention. You can find many threads on this forum where proponents of this view and detractors of this view have spoken at length about various pros and cons. Your mileage may vary. :joy: :pray:

Not an accurate translation. Viññāna anidassanaṁ was translated by Ven. Thanissaro as “consciousness without surface” and he stated that it referred to a kind of nibbānic-consciousness outside of time and space:

" This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be “without surface” (anidassanam), 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."

But further analysis of MN49 and DN11 in which these words occur strongly point to something else:

In the suttas, the Buddha never clearly or repeatedly states that there is any kind of consciousness outside the khandhas or the six senses. Would have been easy to do – for example, there’s no debate about this in the teachings of several early Upanisads in which an everlasting “knowing” beyond all conditions is taught.


Namo Buddhaya!

I think that this controversy has been solved just recently.

That whole verse describes something not experienced through the allness of the all

"‘Having directly known the all as the all,[8] and having directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, I wasn’t the all, I wasn’t in the all, I wasn’t coming forth from the all, I wasn’t “The all is mine.” I didn’t affirm the all. Thus I am not your mere equal in terms of direct knowing, so how could I be inferior? I am actually superior to you.’

"‘If, good sir, you have directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, may it not turn out to be actually vain and void for you.’

"'Vinnanam anidassanam, 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.’ Brahma-nimantanika Sutta: The Brahma Invitation

It is a reference to something one comes to know having attained special kind of samadhi described here

"Absorbed in this way, the excellent thoroughbred of a man is absorbed dependent neither on earth, liquid, fire, wind, the sphere of the infinitude of space, the sphere of the infinitude of consciousness, the sphere of nothingness, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, this world, the next world, nor on whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, or pondered by the intellect — and yet he is absorbed. And to this excellent thoroughbred of a man, absorbed in this way, the gods, together with Indra, the Brahmas, & Pajapati, pay homage even from afar:

‘Homage to you, O thoroughbred man.
Homage to you, O superlative man —
you of whom we don’t know even what it is
dependent on which
you’re absorbed.’"
Sandha Sutta: To Sandha

The correct translation of the compound “vinnanam anidassanam” is close to “consciousness not being apparent/demonstrable”

The term anidassanam appears as a description of space

Suppose a person was to come along with dye such as red lac, turmeric, indigo, or rose madder, and say, ‘I shall draw pictures in space, making pictures appear there.’

What do you think, mendicants? Could that person draw pictures in space?”

“No, sir. Why is that? Because space is anidassana.

Then there is a sinhalese word ‘nidarshana’ which as i understand it is analog of pali ‘nidassana’, the sinhalese means ‘demonstration’ and we would say that space is not apparent in that it is not demonstrable.

It’s an important piece of controversy which ties these texts

Reverend Ānanda, one time I was staying right here at Sāvatthī in the Dark Forest. There I gained a state of immersion like this. I didn’t perceive earth in earth, water in water, fire in fire, or air in air. And I didn’t perceive the dimension of infinite space in the dimension of infinite space, the dimension of infinite consciousness in the dimension of infinite consciousness, the dimension of nothingness in the dimension of nothingness, or the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. And I didn’t perceive this world in this world, or the other world in the other world. And yet I still perceived.”

“But at that time what did Reverend Sāriputta perceive?”

“One perception arose in me and another perception ceased: ‘The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment. The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment.’ SuttaCentral

There is that ayatana*, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished,[1] unevolving, without support [mental object].[2] This, just this, is the end of stress. Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1)

The latter being the semantic target of the bolded

Homage to you, O thoroughbred man.
Homage to you, O superlative man —
you of whom we don’t know even what it is
dependent on which
you’re absorbed

*Ayatana means something close to the semantic overlap of base, dimension, possibily, opportunity and reality.

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"Our duty with regard to the third Noble Truth is not to talk about it too much… it’s to realize it. "


How am i supposed to argue with that

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viññatabbanti “Viññanam” nibbanassetam namam,…”

“There, to be known specially, so (it is) “Viññanam”. This is the name of nibbana.”

And Kevatta Sutta Tika further explains the phrase “viññatabbanti” as follows:

"Viññatabbanti visitthena ñatabbam, ñanuttamena ariyamaggañanena paccakkhato janitabbanti attho, tenaha “nibbanassetam namam"ti.”

“(To be known specially) means to be extraordinarily known. The meaning is ‘to be known in the sense of realization by ultimate wisdom, by noble path wisdom’”. Therefore, (the commentator) stated that ‘This is the name of nibbana’" Therefore, the term ‘Viññanam’ in the line of the original Pali verse “Viññanam anidassanam, anantam sabbatopabham …” does not refer to consciousness, the usual meaning of viññanam.
In fact, the same verse includes the following two lines “Ettha namañca rupañca, asesam uparujjhati
Viññanassa nirodhena, etthetam uparujjhati’ti”. “Here (in nibbana), nama as well as rupa ceases without remainder. By ceasing of consciousness, nama as well as rupa ceases here.”

Nibbana does not become a sort of consciousness just because one of its Pali names happens to be Viññanam. In English language, the term ‘object’ can have different meanings. For example, the term ‘object’ in visual object has no relation to
the term ‘object’ in my object of studting Pali.“” endquote Suan

Namo Buddhaya!

I also want to caution against explaining it as some sort of extraordinary-consciousness because it begets the question whether it pertains to this or that set of aggregated consciousness, parttaking in this or that consciousness-stream such that everybody has his own unique extraordinary consciousness or hit’s like a collective soul/one true mind.

This sounds much like ‘eternal seer’ or ‘we are all one mind’ kind of doctrine.

Whereas in the sutta method everybody creates a unique opening for attaining the cessation of aggregates where that in dependence on what the aggregares cease doesn’t change & is not associated with any particular set of aggregates, but beings do come to know it individually in that each set of aggregated consciousness ends in dependence on the same exact ayatana where consciousness is not apparent for having ceased.

  • Viññāṇa can also be translated as “knowing” or “awareness”.

  • 1. “Viññāṇaṁ” is used when referring to consciousness as a direct object or the object of a preposition, and 2. “Viññāṇassa” is used when indicating possession or association of consciousness.

“Consciousness where nothing appears,
‘Viññāṇaṁ (1.) anidassanaṁ,
infinite, luminous all-round—
anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;
that’s where water and earth,
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
fire and air find no footing.
tejo vāyo na gādhati.
And that is where long and short,
Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ;
that’s where name and form
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
cease with nothing left over—
asesaṁ uparujjhati;
with the cessation of consciousness,
Viññāṇassa (2.) nirodhena,
that’s where they cease.”’”
etthetaṁ uparujjhatī’”ti.


Further more:

  • One can still perceive while beyond all planes of existence according to both The Buddha (AN 10.6) & Sāriputta (AN 10.7)

  • Nibbāna is LIGHT (luminous all-round)

“Where water and earth,

fire and air find no footing:

there no star does shine,

nor does the sun shed its light;

there the moon glows not,

yet no darkness is found.” <————— (Ud 1.10)

  • Anidassanaṁ is a synonym for both Nibbāna and the entire path - The full Anidassana text:


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Agree, but

sounds like a contradiction to the first part of your statement. Beyond that, I think a number of essays and posts by Venerables Sujato and Sunyo, as I posted above, make a strong case that viññāna anidassanaṁ does not refer to. nibbāna at all.

I think we’re in agreement that final nibbāna is cessation and not a kind of ineffable timeless consciousness, or knowing, or whatever. So this response is about any use of viññāna as a name for nibbāna.


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Those words are not from me, I just copied from the link I posted, and that’s the conclusion of the commentaries.

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The path that leads to the invisible goes beyond the second formless realm… :wink:

Maybe a distinction must be drawn between vinnana as awareness/knowing and vinnana as consciousness. Consciousness is awareness with intentions/volition/kamma/cetana and Nibanna is awareness/knowing without intentions/volition/kamma/cetana.

I’m not well versed in the commentaries but am surprised some labeled nibbāna as consciousness.

Beyond that, I know we agree on the more important aspect of cessation.

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Supported by the teachings in the suttas where?

On the other hand, many suttas state that all consciousness/knowing is impermanent, with no added teaching that there is another kind of awareness/knowing outside the aggregates or six sense fields.

I am well aware of the suttas you are talking about. I am also aware of the suttas that say otherwise. And there are reasons to believe that the latter are earlier. The Atthakavagga and the the Parayannavagga do not even mention the aggregates. Nibanna is the end of greed, hatred, and delusion. You can be aware of that. In fact, you have to be if you are to know the end of suffering. What is extinguished is kamma. I would also add that in many places in the canon the Buddha says he does not declare what happens to the Buddha after death. So what he is talking about happens in life.

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Namo Buddhaya!

There is no good reason to do so because both etymology & the semantic properties are so alike.

The etymology breaks down

-vi+ñana like the sanskrit vijñāna

  • (vi-, “diverse”) +‎ ज्ञान (jñāna, “knowledge”)

-con+science derives from latin
Con - with
Scire - know

For example ‘conscient’ is latin for something close to ‘being privy to’ or ‘cognizing’

The ‘con’ as in 'with" shares semantic properties with ‘diverse’ and ‘conjoinment’ in reference to conjoinment of the diverse elements with one another.

Therefore these are essentially the same words different only in translation.

It is one of the few key words which is easy to translate whereas sañña & others are more difficult for lack of direct etymological & semantic analogs. For example sañña has much semantic overlap with both observation and perception, it’s difficult to pick one and have it consistently translate into several modern languages.

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Which ones clearly say so?

We agree. but this applies when the arahant is still alive. Or perhaps, applies to when the senses and aggregates are still present and active.

With the final death the aggregates and senses cease and there is no rebirth, so those who claim that some kind of knowing/consciousness still exists invoke another kind of consciousness/knowing.

BTW, “knowing” without some form of awareness or consciousness appears to be abstract word-play. It’s not that nibbāna can be fully defined or analyzed, but claiming there is an insentient-knowing or non-conscious-awareness…

Namo Buddhaya!

It can indeed be wordplay especially of talks about some knowing after final extinguishment of the five faculties.

It’d be akin to this. I’ll utilize an analogy

A man extinguishes a fire with water. Fire is extinguished in dependence on water here.

If a child who has never seen a fire before asks

But where is the flame burning now?

The man answers

It is not burning

It would be a mistake for the child to assume that there exists a flame which does not burn.

Moving on,

There is the ayatana, wherein no worlds, i think one should be able to at least entertain that this is that in dependence on which both nirodha and nibbana occur, both in mechanical & psychological sense, meaning

  • Mechanical - sannavedaniyanirodha, seeing with wisdom (analogical vision), parinibbana
  • Psychological - removal of taints, end of suffering.

Now if we assert this, then one can speak of a being who attains samadhi based on that ayatana wherein no worlds, saying: ‘In dependence on this attainment he discerned the ayatana of which he speaks’

But even so when one arrives at the final extinguishment, which also occurs because of that good ayatana, still then there is nothing further to any knowing or mechanics because all is extinguished.

A person’s final extinguishment, in a sense, has nothing to do with that ayatana in dependence on what it is possible to attain final extinguishment, a difference can be delineated.

Like extinguishment of the fire is neither the same thing nor is it apart from water in dependence on which it is extinguished.

If there was no water such extinguishment would not be possible. And the flame does not become that in dependence on which extinguishment is possible, nor does the fire go into that in dependence on which the extinguishment occurs.

The sutta method is close to this and the ayatana is the unmade. No matter how many beings attain nibbananirodha the ayatana is unaffected by it, not modified in any way, neither before nor in the future, it is the exact same as ever.

This is unlike the constructed of which we say that ‘A man can never step into the same river twice. Because he is neither the same man nor is it the same river’.

Here many beings attain extinguishment in the dependence on the exact same timeless truth & reality which doesn’t change. Where neither sun nor moon but no darkness either.

Here are some:

This quote shows parinibanna happening while someone is alive. If you take rupa in the five aggregates to mean the physical body, this is problematic for you.

What you’re saying contradicts the following:

And of course we have the Kalama Sutta where the Buddha goes out of his way not to declare what he says he does not declare.

And yet the first two quotes in this post say otherwise.