How can we understand the fact that DN 11 speaks of a luminous consciousness beyond the world?


In DN 11, Buddha makes an astonishing statement:

“‘Where do water, earth, fire, & wind
have no footing?
Where are long & short,
coarse & fine,
fair & foul,
name & form
brought to an end?

“‘And the answer to that is:
“‘Consciousness without surface,2
without end,
luminous all around:
Here water, earth, fire, & wind
have no footing.
Here long & short
coarse & fine
fair & foul
name & form
are all brought to an end.
With the cessation of (the activity of) consciousness
each is here brought to an end.’”
DN 11  Kevaṭṭa Sutta | To Kevaṭṭa

In MN 49, the Buddha says something similar, and Ven. Thanissaro notes that there are good reasons to say that this consciousness is nibbana.

Thanissaro’s idea interesting, but at the same time, it poses a “problem”: if there really is an unconditioned luminous consciousness, what view should we take of Mahayana and Vajrayana practices?

I mean, the idea of an unconditioned luminous consciousness is present in both Mahayana and Vajrayana: it’s tathagatagarbha, Buddha nature. And the Vajrayana insists a lot on clear light, and proposes a lot of sophisticated techniques to realize this clear light and stabilize this realization (for example: visualizations, mandala, mantra, subtle body, etc.). Based on DN 11, it seems that these Buddhist currents have realized something real when they speak of tathagatagarbha. Moreover, other religions (e.g. Sufism) speak of similar experiences.

Are we to conclude that these currents/religions also really enable us to achieve nibbana? If not, how do you explain their success in understanding the reality of the luminous consciousness of DN 11?

I make this topic because I am rather disturbed by DN 11, because if the luminous consciousness of DN 11 is unconditioned, it means that other currents/religions have managed to realize the unconditioned with different doctrines and practices!!! I’d find that really unbelievable.

One might even ask whether perenialism is the truth: do all religions point to the same wisdom?

I find it hard not to ask myself these questions.

Thanks in advance

May all beings destroy jealousy

Edit: side note : I took note of Ven. Analayo’s work (arguing that the sutta does not originally speak of luminous consciousness). But I wasn’t convinced.

You may wish to read:


The question is asked by a monk who obviously has already well mastered the four jhānas and now wants to practice the formless meditations. He is asking for the way to the formless meditations.

See Bhante Sujato’s notes to this Sutta:


Thank you very much !

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Yes, it seems that religions share the message and understanding that there is some unborn kind of intelligence as a kind of mysterious source for everything that exist, underlying all existence, as a kind of ground. Also scientist seem to be increasingly open minded towards this idea that intelligence is somehow fundamental to life and not some later emergend property from matter.

Religious seekers, mystics, express this intelligence. Sometimes it is expressed as a Being, sometimes more like an eternal ground of being, sometimes both. Often it is threated like some mystery which cannot really be grasped by intellect and reasoning and expressed in words. When one expresses it in words one gives it name and form but at that time one also starts to objectivy that what cannot be objectified. I like to see it as the pure nature of mind. It is no bhava. It is beyond that.

When the sutta’s teach that the pure mind is without lobha, dosa and moha that is ofcourse just a description and we are not anything wiser now of what it really is. What does pure mind really mean? What is a mind that is not involved in 5 khandha’s, detached?

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Some thoughts: Doctrines are only useful if they guide our practice in a skillful way. Specific practices are only useful if they fulfill the seven factors of awakening. The Buddhist practice unfolds something like:
1. See that worldly desires are transient and unsatisfying
2. Working with an expansive uplifting theme, attend to that theme until the mind becomes quiet the body calm - wisdom arises.
3. Keep at it.
4. Eventually the sense of I am this or that falls away – permanently.

Here is a short talk from Samaneri Jayasara reading from the Prayer of Quiet by St Teresa of Avila:
(It might help to understand that for Meister Eckhart the closest thing to God in worldly experience is stillness)

“Let our thoughts always be fixed upon what endures and not trouble ourselves with earthly things which do not endure – even for a lifetime”

“Think and meditate upon what is real and what is not”

“[When a sister is meditating] thought wanders off after the most ridiculous things in the world – she should laugh at it and treat it as the silly thing it is and remain in her state of quiet.”

“In this state all the faculties are stilled and have no wish to move”
“The person that does most is the one who thinks least”
“To know nothing is everything”

I find this pattern in most religious traditions – but of course one has to learn their language and symbolism rather than just plug in our own conceptual views (no small task) – if we do that we totally miss what they are saying.

Mystics have been sharing caves and abandoned dwellings with each other for thousands of years and they don’t care about doctrines – they just want to know what works.

Some bits from my collection:

Meister Eckhart:

“[W]e must come into a transformed knowing, an unknowing which comes not from ignorance but from knowledge.”

“As long as I am this or that, I am not all things.”

Huang Po:

This pure mind, the source of everything, shines for ever and on all with the brilliance of its own perfection. But the people of the world do not awake to it - regarding only that which sees, hears, feels, and knows as mind. Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling, and knowing they do not perceive the spiritual brilliance of the source substance. If they would only eliminate all conceptual thought in a flash, that source substance would manifest itself like the sun ascending through the void and illuminating the whole universe without hindrance or bounds.

Meister Eckhart:

if God is to shine divinely within you, your natural light cannot assist this process but must become a pure nothingness, going out of itself. Only then can God enter with his light, bringing back with him all that you have renounced and a thousand times more, including a new form which contains all things in itself.

Consciousness without surface, without end, luminous all around?

Could be. I don’t think these folks are just making this stuff up.


Thanks for the link. It is very helpful to know that I can turn on the ‘notes’ feature.
You make this statement with a sense of certainty but reading through this and looking at his notes I don’t see how we can conclude from the text what his motivation is - what he is asking about. I get that he has mastered the four jhanas (otherwise how could he have gotten there) but beyond that I am not seeing it. My Pali is not great but I am trying to work at it. What am I missing?


@cdpatton renders the equivalent passage in the chinese thus:

“I then spoke in verse:

“‘What causes the four elements to not exist,
Ceasing earth, water, fire, and air?
What causes what’s coarse and fine to not exist,
What’s long, short, beautiful, and ugly?
What causes name and form to not exist,
To be forever ceased without remainder?

The answer is that consciousness is formless,
Measureless, and has its own radiance.
When it ceases, the four elements cease;
What’s coarse, fine, beautiful, and ugly ceases.
When these names and forms cease,
Consciousness ceases, and the rest ceases, too.’”

So in the Chinese version we have a clearer reference to dependent arising, that is;

With the cessation of consciousness there is the cessation of name and form

And with the cessation of name and form there is a cessation of consciousness.

So if you are meditating on the sphere of infinte consciousness, with the cessation of that consciousness one enters the sphere of nothingness, which is a place without the four elements etc.

But the point is to understand dependence, not to experience some highly refined pleasurable mental state like “infinite consciousness”

Liberating oneself from attachment to conditions (like “infinite consciousness” through the understanding of dependence is nibanna.



I was referring to this comment on segment 67.4:

The question is about meditation, not the annihilation of the material world. The first four jhānas are based on the “subtle form” (sukhumarūpa) that manifests as light in deep meditation. He is asking how to go beyond this to the formless attainments.


Further down in segments 85.18-19 we still find:

DN11:85.18: ‘Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ,
“Infinite consciousness,
DN11:85.19: anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;
invisible, radiant all-around—

This passage has also been discussed a lot. Bhante’s comment:

The adjective “infinite” (ananta) is the direct qualifier of “consciousness”, but in the Pali it is shifted to the next line to fit the meter. The dimension of infinite consciousness is one of the formless realms of which Brahmā has no knowledge. Yājñavalkya describes consciousness as infinite in the famous passage at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.12.

It seems that the fact that the adjective ananta (infinite) is not found in the same line as the noun it qualifies has led to some confusion, and the connection to the formless realm of “infinite consciousness” has been overlooked; but such things happen quite a lot in Pali verse, for the sake of meter.

The realm of infinite consciousness is described for example here in DN 33:

DN33:1.11.58: Sabbaso ākāsānañcāyatanaṁ samatikkamma ‘anantaṁ viññāṇan’ti viññāṇañcāyatanaṁ upasampajja viharati.
Going totally beyond the dimension of infinite space, aware that ‘consciousness is infinite’, they enter and remain in the dimension of infinite consciousness.


Does this mean that that the dimension of infinite conscious exist independly of the four elements?
(because the sutta says that these elements find no footing, then there can be no rupa, etc)
A vinnana without rupa?

Do you believe that in this jhana there is no sense of an I or me ?


Perhaps we should ask the author of this comment? Bhante @sujato ?

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Thanks, yes, i understand, but to be honest i feel that translators and teachers sometimes tend to wash away all mystic, esoteric, deep tone in the sutta’s by the force of ratio or intellect. I have a hard time with this rational approach of Dhamma. You can see that, ofcourse.

I cannot help but wonder if the texts are still read and translated unbiased. Ofcourse i also look into myself for a honest answer if i am biased. I think i am. I feel deep resistance to the idea that parinibbana is a mere cessation, or even the idea that Buddha really believed he was a human in a human bhava. These are only conventional ideas. There is nothing real about it. The pure mind is not human.

I have a hard time dealing with this tendency to wash away all that is deep, connected to emptiness, transcendent, more mystical, esoteric. And i cannot help to think that this agenda or (what i sense as) rational understanding also dominates the translations and comments on sutta’s.


I can well relate to what you are saying here. As to my own “Dhamma history”, I have originally encountered the Dhamma in the Tibetan tradition, and there you encounter all this stuff you seem to like. I also liked it! I have to say, my encounter was originally very emotional, not much intellectual at all. It felt like “coming home”, so to speak. Ad I loved this colorful, mysterious world!

But after some time the wish to understand things beyond mere faith grew stronger, and I didn’t find much to satisfy this desire in the Tibetan tradition (at least not in this environment I had contact to). At some point I started finding it a bit too much mystery and secret, and I understood that non of those Tibetan teachers would ever reveal to you all that they knew. There would always remain something left for the still more advanced or more trustworthy disciples …

At the same time I encountered teachers like Ajahn Brahm and Bhante Sujato, and this was just totally the opposite! No secret, nothing hidden for the “more worthy”, just everything clear and open! And this attracted me at that point.

And when I started to discover the Suttas (which I hadn’t much the opportunity with the Tibetan teachers) I was totally amazed how rational they actually are! So this is my experience.

Of course there is also a lot of myth in the Suttas, and I love that! But this isn’t the doctrinally relevant stuff; which is indeed pretty rational; and nibbāna is indeed “extinguishment”.

And of course I have my biases—everybody has!


Super interesting your message Venerable!

Interesting. Personally I have a bit of trouble with certain passages, especially in DN 27, I’ve made a topic about it where I detail my thoughts. When things seem to go too far against science (like the myth in DN 27), or seem to be too strange, it bothers me, because I have the impression of being faced with two possibilities:

  • either the Buddha could have been wrong about certain things ;
  • or the false mythological passages are later additions that the Buddha didn’t say.

I don’t know what to think. Both options seem difficult to me:
1/ if the Buddha is wrong on certain subjects, why shouldn’t this also be the case concerning the other fundamental points of his doctrine?
2/ If the false mythological texts are later additions that the Buddha never said, how do we know that this isn’t the case for many other texts that speak of fundamental doctrinal points?

Of course, these questions are as old as the hills and have been asked by many people before me.

I have faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, because in my own experience, looking at how my mind works, I find that the central doctrinal points of the Dhamma are simply incredibly true. But sometimes my faith is attacked by this doubt about the mythological things in the suttas.

Venerable, please, how do you avoid this doubt? What do you advise us to do? For example, regarding DN 27, what attitude do you have?

Thank you so much Venerable for your presence, I’m always quite moved when I talk to a Venerable!

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“Myth” in the original sense of the word isn’t what we understand in a colloquial sense as “something that isn’t true” or “something that doesn’t represent the facts”. “Myth” in the original sense means a “sacred story” that makes sense in a specific society in order to create a sense of belonging, assigning a role to individuals, giving the events of life and death a meaning and so on.

It doesn’t claim to be factually true, so it often isn’t. But nevertheless, it often carries memories of actual historical facts. What is called ancient myth is not something created deliberately, but something that has grown organically in a society, just by being told time and time again, and also being interwoven with events of life, like certain rituals, artwork, and so on.

Read this essay for more thoughts about what myth is.

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Ven. Ñāṇavīra:

In the Kevaddhasutta (Dīgha i,11 <D.i,223>), it is said that the question ‘Where do the four mahābhūtā finally cease?’ is wrongly asked, and that the question should be ‘Where do [the four mahābhūtā] get no footing? Where do nāma and rūpa finally cease?’ Matter or substance (rūpa) is essentially inertia or resistance (see Dīgha ii,2 <D.ii,62>[9]), or as the four mahābhūtā it can be regarded as four kinds of behaviour (i.e. the four primary patterns of inertia—see NĀMA). Behaviour (or inertia) is independent of the particular sense-experience that happens to be exhibiting it…

In itself, purely as inertia or behaviour, matter cannot be said to exist. (Cf. Heidegger, op. cit., p. 212.) And if it cannot be said to exist it cannot be said to cease. Thus the question ‘Where do the four mahābhūtā finally cease?’ is improper. (The question will have been asked with the notion in mind of an existing general material world common to all. Such a general world could only exist—and cease—if there were a general consciousness common to all. But this is a contradiction, since consciousness and individuality [see SAKKĀYA] are one.) But behaviour can get a footing in existence by being present in some form. As rūpa in nāmarūpa, the four mahābhūtā get a borrowed existence as the behaviour of appearance (just as feeling, perception, and intentions, get a borrowed substance as the appearance of behaviour). And nāmarūpa is the condition for viññāna as viññāna is for nāmarūpa. When viññāna (q.v.) is anidassana it is said to have ceased (since avijjā has ceased). Thus, with cessation of viññāna there is cessation of nāmarūpa, and the four mahābhūtā no longer get a footing in existence. (The passage at Salāyatana Samyutta xix,8 <S.iv,192>, …bhikkhu catunnam mahābhūtānam samudayañ ca atthagamañ ca yathābhūtam pajānāti, (‘…a monk understands as they really are the arising and ceasing of the four great entities’) is to be understood in this sense.)


Consciousness (viññāna) can be thought of as the presence of a phenomenon, which consists of nāma and rūpa. Nāmarūpa and viññāna together constitute the phenomenon ‘in person’—i.e. an experience (in German: Erlebnis). The phenomenon is the support (ārammana—see first reference in [c] below) of consciousness, and all consciousness is consciousness of something (viz, of a phenomenon). Just as there cannot be presence without something that is present, so there cannot be something without its being to that extent present—thus viññāna and nāmarūpa depend on each other (see A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §17). ‘To be’ and ‘to be present’ are the same thing.[a] But note that ‘being’ as bhava, involves the existence of the (illusory) subject, and with cessation of the conceit (concept) ‘(I) am’, asmimāna, there is cessation of being, bhavanirodha. With the arahat, there is just presence of the phenomenon (‘This is present’), instead of the presence (or existence) of an apparent ‘subject’ to whom there is present an ‘object’ (‘I am, and this is present to [or for] me’, i.e. [what appears to be] the subject is present [‘I am’], the object is present [‘this is’], and the object concerns or ‘belongs to’ the subject [the object is ‘for me’ or ‘mine’]—see PHASSA & ATTĀ); and consciousness is then said to be anidassana, ‘non-indicative’ (i.e. not pointing to the presence of a ‘subject’), or niruddha, ‘ceased’ (see A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §22). Viññānanirodha refers indifferently to anidassana viññāna (saupādisesa nibbānadhātu, which refers to the living arahat: Itivuttaka II,ii,7 <Iti.38>[12]) and to cessation, at the arahat’s death, of all consciousness whatsoever (anupādisesa nibbānadhātu).[b] Viññānanirodha, strictly speaking, is cessation of viññān’upādānakkhandha as bhavanirodha is cessation of pañc’upādānakkhandhā (i.e. sakkāyanirodha), but it is extended to cover the final cessation of viññānakkhandha (and therefore of pañcakkhandhā) at the breaking up of the arahat’s body.

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Well, so did Sunakhatta! His main criticism of the Buddha was

The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma merely hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him

… and he longed for the mystical and esoterical…

the Buddha never performs any superhuman demonstrations of psychic power for me

the Buddha never describes the origin of the world to me.

… so much so that he found the dazzling practices of other mystics far more satisfying (DN24).

… And in spite of the Buddha explaining to him why and how attachment to the senses must be given up(MN105) as well as the ways in which the doctrines of other mystics and teachers were wrong (DN24) and despite Sunakhatta knowing and admitting that the Buddha’s rational enquiry approach was successful in the complete destruction of suffering (MN12), Sunakhatta…

left this teaching and training, like someone on the highway to hell.

The Buddha’s approach as described in the EBT is primarily rational enquiry (MN60). While Faith is one of the initial qualities one should have, Wisdom must necessarily be developed by knowing and seeing for oneself.

It is primarily the later traditions that contain transcendent, mystical and esoteric teachings - in suttas which are most likely ‘inauthentic’.

Those who read and translate the EBT are monastics and serious practitioners who have put in decades of effort. Preservation and factual presentation of the teachings of the actual historical Buddha is their only agenda. :rose: :pray: :rose:


Thank you very much !

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Thanks you very much. Much appreciated.

At some time i felt an urge to be as close as possible to the original teachings of the Buddha. Because it all became confusing. One teachers says this. Another that. I think we all know this.
Then i started to study the Pali Canon, also some abhidhamma and parts that are considered non- canonical here.

I have never felt they are exclusively rational (i do not suggest that you say that) but i agree with you that a rational sphere is quit dominant in the sutta’s. I think this is due to inclinations of the people who composed the canon. I do not see the Buddha like this.

Yes, i can see how the Buddha makes use of our love for conceiving. Our obsession with it.
He skillfully makes use of this wrong habit. It has no relation at all to purity and the Noble Path, i believe. It can at best pave the Path.

I believe the Buddha knew that the mind is fond of conceiving, delights in conceiving, but in the end it gets also lost in conceiving. And that is the main message of the Buddha. Conceiving is a disease.
The kind of knowledge that relates to conceiving is never true and direct knowledge.
One tends to believe that what one conceives is true and real and Buddha makes use of this, but in the end you have to break through it, right?

To see Nibbana as extinguishment is, i believe, conceiving Nibbana. I do not consider this yet as real knowledge of Nibbana.

wish you well