Emergence of Consciousness

Continuing the discussion from Looking for the only two EBT suttas where the Buddha talks about consciousness evolving from plants:

I wanted to briefly open this up to somewhat tangential discussion. Here are some thoughts on the subject. I hope that folks more knowledgable in this domain can also chime in.

It seems that if consciousness could emerge from unconscious structures (say, for the sake of this discussion, plants), it would be deeply problematic from the Buddhist perspective of consciousness. I can think of two main, related reasons:

  1. The Four Noble Truths.

The first noble truth is the truth of dukkha, which has to do with the five aggregates. These are divided into consciousness on one side, and the other aggregates on the other — with an interdependent relationship between the two sides. If there is consciousness (in the Buddhist sense), there will also be form, sensation, perception and volition or some among these. These are all categorized as dukkha, and so their origin should be the craving which produces another existence. But in this case, the origin of the aggregates is not craving, but … an arbitrary emergence from non-sentient material without prior existence.

This also means that there would be a discernible first point to suffering and samsāra for the being in question at least. It would begin when consciousness emerges together with the other aggregates. They would not be able to say that all suffering originates from craving and ignorance, because in this case there would be a definite starting point which is not from craving and ignorance.

In brief then, the doctrine of the four noble truths and the related idea of an unknown beginning to dukkha do not lend themselves to an emergence of prior non-existent consciousness.

  1. The Nature of Consciousness

If consciousness were to ‘emerge’ from sufficiently complex structures or systems, it would mean that consciousness is essentially a similar kind of ‘thing’ to the systems that gave rise to it. Consciousness would be algorithmic, meaning there would be a predictable recipe for generating it from other ingredients. Otherwise, it would be a random and causeless appearance — also known as magic.

From the Buddhist perspective, consciousness has no discoverable/known beginning, like I mentioned above. But it also is not supposed to be reducible to a product or aspect of non-consciousness. This is why nāmarūpa or the other four khandhas are placed in dependence on consciousness and vice-versa: they are dependent, but not the same. The fact that they are distinguished in this way is highly indicative.

Consciousness is simply the presence of the other aspects of experience. It is the basic stream of awareness or experience which is “colorless” and “flavorless,” reflecting the characteristics of the other aspects of experience which consciousness makes available. In other words, simple ‘awareness’ or ‘knowing’ is not reducible to processes present to that knowing.

There is also the ethical dimension of consciousness. In Buddhism, an important condition related to consciousness are intentional activities performed by body, speech, and mind. These will build inclinations and tendencies that steer and station consciousness into particular realms, characterized by particular sensations — pleasant, painful, or neutral. Hurtful and painful choices lead consciousness to be stationed in a hurtful realm characterized by painful sensation. And nice choices lead consciousness to be stationed in a nice realm, characterized by pleasing sensation. If consciousness emerges from something unrelated to intentional activities and sensation, then the Buddhist doctrine of kamma also suffers.

If this were the case, there would be a stream of consciousness planted in a realm unrelated to kamma, experiencing sensations unrelated to kamma, with senses that originate unrelated to kamma, as well as inclinations and tendencies unrelated to past inclinations and tendencies. Not only would the experience of pleasure and pain be completely unrelated to past deeds, but the very faculties which consciousness is dependent on would also be unrelated (contra e.g. SN 35.146). There would also be no prior reason or condition for the habits and tendencies in consciousness.

If there are no prior inclinations and intentions that condition the tendencies present to consciousness, these also would have to arise unrelated to prior conditions of the same type. Otherwise, if someone argues that the consciousness would emerge without any pre-set inclinations, then the consciousness would be inert — with no inclination, intention, tendency, etc. — in which case there would be no momentum for such consciousness to continue arising in another state of existence steered by craving. In case it isn’t clear, a sentient being with no liability to rebirth would be an arahant in early Buddhism.

Of course, there are ways of negotiating these points and trying to make things fit. The easiest way seems to be to say not that consciousness emerges spontaneously, but that there is a past series of conditions, such as a prior stream of consciousness with built in intentional structures, behind the arising of consciousness in a non-sentient basis. So in this way of thinking, if consciousness were to arise in a plant, it would not emerge but rather re-arise from prior consciousness with the plant as basis.

The main point here is to say that as the Buddha’s teachings are presented, it seems that the idea of algorithmic emergence of consciousness outside of past craving and kamma is problematic on several grounds. Maybe somebody here is more familiar with arguments in favor of this idea, or reasons why it is plausible within the Buddha’s world view described in the suttas.



Basically, the above is saying that plant is a realm of rebirth.

Given SN15.1-20, I think it’s not feasible for new consciousness to arise from plants as well.

Even the 4th Brahma realm of no mind, body only has different description, it says the body once reborn there stays the same posture throughout the lifespan. Not to mention plant lifespan is so much shorter than that brahma realm.

To make new lifestreams from existing one, I had thought of if AI, robots is a realm of rebirth, then one could classically copy the robot, and thus all the data of the being’s past lives and then that new being which is copied would have the same infinite past but can have different future.

Problem is, I don’t think any finite capacity AI brain can handle infinite past lives download from a mind which is reborn there. And I don’t think people are convinced that robots is a realm of rebirth. Intuitively, if robots aren’t, then plants aren’t too.

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You don’t need consciousness to be alive. I.e. a Buddha, they have transcended, for example.

But with regards to plants I’d say personally that they (most of them) have consciousness. Even though that the Dalai Lama has publicly stated that from a Buddhist perspective they do not.

But plants are clearly alive, there is no argument there, and I used to live in trees to protect them from being cut down. I remember one Buddhist Nun coming even to Ordain a tree, even putting a robe around it, performing such a ceremony! Such an act was certainly extremely merciful. Though later, the trees were cut down. :face_holding_back_tears:

Hi, Yeshe. Thanks for your feedback. Your comment is off-topic and unrelated to my post though, which in fact is about the conditionality of consciousness and experience and how the dependency of conditions in Buddhism is crucial to the Buddha’s description of consciousness and life.

We need to remember not to use dialectic tools in extreme ways which immediately shut down any conventional discussion of common Buddhist teachings by positing some philosophically higher truth.

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Deleted. Sorry about that. :pray:

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No worries! I appreciate your conduct and think you contribute valuable perspectives to the forum here. :smiley:

Can we first decide what is consciousness?

I believe : mind in essence is receptivity. That is its basic function. First of all functions it is able to detect, to receive sense-info. But i do not feel we can call this vinnana. Vinnana arises when this received sense-info is processed. Sense-Vinnana is a result of that. But info is not received as a vinnana.
Nor does vinnana receive.

The basic receptivity of the mind does not get lost while being unconscious, moreover, science also shows that sense-info does not always become conscious but still affect us.
We cannot think about our lifes as a stream of sense moments. Our lifes also consist of unconscious moments.

I also read a book of a scientist and he feels one cannot see the ability to detect and respons on external info, as a sign there is an awareness of what is going on. For example, plants clearly react upon light, but do they sense it? Small organism like amoebe also react upon outer conditions but are they aware? A smokealarm can also detects things but we do not believe it is aware of what it detects.

But in general i feel sense-vinnana arises due to the presense of a basic receptivity of the mind and is the result of how that received info is processed. I think this might also be the meaning of dhp1, mind is the forerunner of phenomena.

I do not know what to think exactly about mind as forerunner. Does it mean that all that exist, cannot be seperated from mind?

Thanks for making the discussion so interesting!

The way I have heard Ajahn Brahm explain it, is that consciousness can start developing in plants.
He said it is a primitive, rudimentary form of consciousness. Plants are not self aware and don’t have fully developed 5 khandas. Consciousness can start off from a plant and evolve from there. He always said the Buddha only mentioned it in two places, without giving out too much information.

The reason i am interested in the subject, is because dependant cessation makes perfect sense to me.
Just like in deep meditation, when the mind objects cease, consciousness ceases. In order to have consciousness, you need something to be conscious of.
Which brings me to how a consciousness arrises in the first place. Everything that is conditioned (like consciousness) has a cause. The Buddha says the condition for consciousness is mind objects (nama rupa). Delusion and wanting are what fuels future existence, not what starts consciousness. The Buddha never said there is no first point of consciousness. He said no first point of Samsara can be discerned because he went many aeons back, and never saw it’s beginning.

The way i see it, consciousness or “mind”, is a natural phenomena which depends on movement, on change, on altering information or in other words: mind objects. Knowing is one of the main functions of the mind. When there is something to know, consciousness turns on and vice versa.
Can a rock develop consciousness? Probably yes but an even more primitive one than plants. Perhaps a rock is able to know the change in environmental conditions but that’s about it. A rock can not move. Plants on the other hand, have more information to “know” as they have growth and movement. They want to move towards the sun. Some plants hunt insects and their 5 khandas are almost animal like (the carnivorous plants).
The same way primitive creatures have primitive brains with very limited functions, a primitive mind is limited as well. Such a mind is probably not even aware it is reincarnating , just like most human beings, ha ha! Life, mind, reincarnation and everything else the Buddha taught, are natural and quite automatic processes without a “self” or a “soul”.
Ajahn Brahm does not claim such primitive consciousnesses are fully developed but that a process of developing a mind and rolling on in samsara can begin to form there.

With Metta

Read SN 15.1-20.

If there can be a begining to a lifestream without a past life, then theorectically, there should be some beings whose past life chains are so short that they cannot fulfill the general, generic comparison made by the Buddha about tears more than ocean, been family in the past before etc.

I think SN 15.1has nothing to do with new minds forming and evolving all the time in samsara. The sutta referes specifically to human beings who have been around for a very long time. The evolution from plant consciousness to human consciousness probably takes forever.
If there is a fixed number of minds in samsara, and some of them get enlightened and escape it, even though those who achieve nibanna are few, given enough time all minds will become enlightened and samsara will stop which makes no sense.

Conclusion: no finite initial mind.

I suppose plant consciousness can be inferred from SN 12.64

If there is desire, relishing, and craving for solid food, consciousness becomes established there and grows. Kabaḷīkāre ce, bhikkhave, āhāre atthi rāgo atthi nandī atthi taṇhā, patiṭṭhitaṁ tattha viññāṇaṁ virūḷhaṁ. Where consciousness is established and grows, name and form are conceived. Yattha patiṭṭhitaṁ viññāṇaṁ virūḷhaṁ, atthi tattha nāmarūpassa avakkanti. Where name and form are conceived, there is the growth of choices. Yattha atthi nāmarūpassa avakkanti, atthi tattha saṅkhārānaṁ vuddhi. Where choices grow, there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future. Yattha atthi saṅkhārānaṁ vuddhi, atthi tattha āyatiṁ punabbhavābhinibbatti. Where there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future, there is rebirth, old age, and death in the future. Yattha atthi āyatiṁ punabbhavābhinibbatti, atthi tattha āyatiṁ jātijarāmaraṇaṁ. Where there is rebirth, old age, and death in the future, I say this is full of sorrow, anguish, and distress. Yattha atthi āyatiṁ jātijarāmaraṇaṁ, sasokaṁ taṁ, bhikkhave, sadaraṁ saupāyāsanti vadāmi.

Especially if you think about it watching something like The Magical World of Moss.

I’ve even seen, either at DOXA or VIFF, a documentary in which some type of moss-like, lichen-like thing that demonstrated something like a neural network was being experimented with and it was able to move things.

Consciousness doesn’t depend on matter. Between universes minds are said to get sorted into heaven and hell realms until the material universe becomes suitable for consciousness again.

I always liked the image of the two reeds: mind and matter depending upon and supporting each other.

I think discussing Spirit is very important, which could answer a lot of questions people have about Nibbana and even Enlightenment (as well as the topic at hand, Consciousness the Cessation of it). After all, nearly every practitioner would say they are living a Spiritual Life. So what does that mean? Hmmmm?

MN77 says:

Again, Udāyin, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to understand thus : ‘This body of mine, made of material form, consisting of the four great elements, procreated by a mother and father, and built up out of boiled rice and porridge, is subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration, **and this consciousness of mine is supported by it and bound up with it.**’

The same message can be found in DN2.

I think this is certainly true regarding all sense-vinnana’s. Info from the eye, ear, nose, skin etc. is received and processed and leads to the arising of eye, ear etc vinnana’s.

I also think it is very obvious that also mental consciousness (6th sense) is supported by the brain. Small changes in the brain functions and neurotransmitter levels causes changes in emotions, passion, thinking, even tendencies and personality. But also memory, agression, freeze, fight, flight is brain related, and also feelings of reward (rewarding system of brain, dopamine system). Moods too.
But what not? Movements, heartbeat, bloodpressure etc etc.

This also shows, i believe, sense-vinnana cannot be mind.

So you both believe in the duality of mind and brain, but disagree about what is mind and what is brain :joy: :pray:

I have no fixed ideas about this. But i believe that from an inner perspective, all sense vinnana’s arise with basic receptivity of the mind as condition. The mind must first be able to receive info, before it can be processed. And a sense vinnana is not the receiver of sense info but the result of processing of sense-info. Agreed?

In other words, basic awareness receives and as a result an awareness of something arises (a sense vinnana). Like waves in water. The water receives a stone and as a result waves arise.
Sense vinnana’s are like waves but minds knowing nature is not like that.

Can you comment on this?

I do not know how brain and mind exactly go together but we cannot denie how huge the role of the brain is in all we experience…all?..you may say it Yeshe.

It may be better to think of sense consciousness (viññāṇa) as of contact (phassa) rather than of sense consciousness (viññāṇa) as of anything “out there.”

Yes, i also believe sense vinnana’s do not deal with what is out there. It deals with what presents to our mind as being out there.