Is background awareness consciousness aggregate or something else?

Meditation teachers sometimes talk about examining “awareness”. I’m curious where this “backgound awareness” that “there is awareness” fits into the various sutta classifications.

Suttas such as the Satipatthana Sutta SuttaCentral talk about awareness of various aspects of body or mind. Does “awareness of awareness” fit into the consciousness aggregate or the perception aggregate? Is it part of contemplation of mind, or contemplation of dhammas?

Apologies if the question is a little unclear. It’s a little hard to define, which is why I’m trying to figure out how to fit it into the classification schemes.

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I agree, it’s not as easy as it looks when we get into the details. But sanna seems more to be on the side of the perceived objects, so vinnana and especially citta fits better to the medium of perception.

I have more problems with what this ‘awareness’ supposed to be exactly.

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Thanks. Yes it is confusing. This background awareness usually seems very constant, so it’s very easy to identify with.

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Not at all! This problem arises because there is no clear English word for most Pali terms. What follows is my current understanding of the subject.

Most translators use “consciousness” to refer to the term “Vinyana”.

SN12.1

With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form

Vinyana is a short term thing, it comes into being dependent on sense contact, given a working sense receptor and a nervous system… I think of it as the spark that arises when two flints are struck. It quickly gives way to nama/rupa, vedana, sanna …etc etc. Abhidhamma further consolidates this process of mind into the stream of “Chitta” - successive mind moments. Some teachers also refer to this domino like stream as the stream of “Conciousness”. (Note small c for momentary vinyana, capital C for the stream of mind moments).
This stream of Conciousness is constantly changing from moment to moment, formed of the mental elements of Sankhara, Vinyana, Nama Rupa, Vedana, Sanna etc, fueled by Tanha (Craving). Its like a river, formed of individual molecules of water, none of which remain constant from moment to moment, yet the illusion of the river remains. Mental processes need Tanha & Upadana to continue, with the arising of Wisdom & the ending of craving, this stream comes to an end.

SN12.64

If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for contact as fuel … If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for mental intention as fuel … If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for consciousness as fuel, consciousness doesn’t become established there and doesn’t grow. Where consciousness is not established and doesn’t grow, name and form are not conceived. Where name and form are not conceived, there is no growth of choices. Where choices don’t grow, there is no rebirth into a new state of existence in the future. Where there is no rebirth into a new state of existence in the future, there is no rebirth, old age, and death in the future. Where there is no rebirth, old age, and death in the future, I say there’s no sorrow, anguish, and distress.

But then there is the concept of Sati - Sampajanna - variously translated as Mindfulness, Situational Awareness, Knowing, Seeing etc. etc. Some teachers ( esp Luang Por Sumedho) also use the term “Consciousness” to refer to this background awareness. This is not Vinyana. Rather, it is “clear seeing”… or in Luang Por Sumedho’s words - “Its like this”.

SN12.31

“Sāriputta, do you see: ‘This has come to be’? Sāriputta, do you see: ‘This has come to be’?”

“Venerable sir, one sees as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This has come to be.’ Having seen as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This has come to be,’ one is practising for the purpose of revulsion towards what has come to be, for its fading away and cessation. One sees as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘Its origination occurs with that as nutriment.

This background awareness is a Dhamma… It is not Self. Awareness used in this sense is timeless, not specific to any sentient being, yet not separate from sentience, it is the natural corollary of knowing Idapaccayata (in the same way that for matter to exist, space is the natural corollary). After awakening, this is the Awareness that remains within the Arahant while he/she is alive. On parinibbana, this Awareness escapes… whither did it go?

This is how I understand it as of now- forgive me if anything is wrongly explained. :pray::pray::pray:

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‘Awareness’ is a term used by some modern teachers to indicate the non-existent ‘passive mindfulness’. It refers to a supposed ongoing equanimity. MN 101 states that some causes of stress may respond to equanimity, but others require the exertion of active means to accomplish their removal, and even equanimity has an agenda- the removal of unskillful qualities, so there is no passive mindfulness on the Buddha’s path.

“As for equanimity, even though the passage from MN 101 contrasts it with the fabrication of exertion, we have to remember that it’s a mental feeling (SN 36:31), one of the five aggregates (khandha), and so it’s a fabricated phenomenon. When used on the path, it differs from the fabrication of exertion only in that it requires much less effort. In fact, one of the important insights leading to release is that even subtle forms of equanimity are no less fabricated than mental states requiring much more energy. This point is borne out by the fact that when equanimity is employed instead of the fabrication of exertion, it’s used with a particular purpose in mind: to abandon unskillful qualities. This means that it has an underlying agenda, the agenda of right effort, and is not totally free from preference.”—- “ Right Mindfulness,” Thanissaro

That’s exactly the trap that proponents of ‘bare awareness’ fall into. ‘Awareness’ has an agenda and it’s co-producing the phenomena it pretends to so neutrally observe.

I hear my teacher or read the Visuddhimagga etc., the mind creates an image of the range of phenomena it wants to perceive and then actively participates in bringing these about, or to put it differently, it actively filters out the phenomena that lie outside of this range. Seen in this way ‘awareness’ is much closer to ‘intent observation’ than objective neutrality.

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…Aaaand there it is (again)!!

The (in)famous Unity Vs Duality debate.
The source of Schism.:rofl:

Mahayana views all as Emptiness… No thing, No observer.

Theravada views it all as ultimately Samsara/ Nibbana… The ever changing Process being observed in Pure Awareness.

Different interpretations of what is ultimately indescribable, beyond ordinary intellectual comprehension, 0/Infinity, #UNDEFINED.

What did the Buddha have to say?

It really doesn’t matter, my friends…it’s all just Suffering … No matter what View any of us hold, all Views are ultimately impermanent, the source of Dukkha, not worthy of being held onto as ‘mine’ or ‘myself’.

Let us just see these concepts as tools, apply them as the need may be, and focus on transcending our own individual Suffering.
:pray::pray::pray:

I don’t know if this is the same debate as (Non-)duality. But the ‘awareness-question’ is no matter of interpretation. The mind has a reality of functioning and it is essential for spiritual progress to acknowledge realities - when they exist (of course there is still an endless amount of relative concepts…).

For example, it is just a mind-fact that thoughts can bring about emotions, and that emotions can bring about thoughts. Same with attitudes/views <–> thoughts, and attitudes/views <–> emotions. Now if someone says “Actually they are independent, thoughts are thoughts, and emotions are emotions. They have no causal interrelationship”. Do I say “Ah, ok, you have your reality, I have mine”?

I don’t exclude that there is a possibility for a highly developed (actually liberated) ‘pure awareness’ but this is certainly not what 99% of people are practicing when they follow a ‘pure awareness’ approach.

I completely agree!!
Mind is the forerunner of all States.
Yes, Mindfulness/ Awareness does have to have an object. And for most of us, that object should be any of the 4 Satipathanna. This is simply a tool, one piece of the raft, part of the 8 fold Path. Practicing Right Mindfulness we build up our Equanimity, cement our Samadhi, let go of the unwholesome, refine the wholesome.

Purifying ourselves, some person becomes an Arahant.

Now an Arahant is always Mindful. As such, he/she has pure undefiled Awareness, …but of what?

AN4.195

“A mendicant whose mind is rightly freed like this has achieved six consistent responses. Seeing a sight with the eye, they’re neither happy nor sad, but remain equanimous, mindful and aware. Hearing a sound with the ears … Smelling an odor with the nose … Tasting a flavor with the tongue … Feeling a touch with the body … Knowing a thought with the mind, they’re neither happy nor sad, but remain equanimous, mindful and aware. Feeling the end of the body approaching, they understand: ‘I feel the end of the body approaching.’ Feeling the end of life approaching, they understand: ‘I feel the end of life approaching.’ They understand: ‘When my body breaks up and my life has come to an end, everything that’s felt, being no longer relished, will become cool right here.’

Now, what is the object of this Arahant’s experience, as is described in the Sutta?

It is simply Samsara.

That is where the final duality lies… Pure Awareness (Nibbana) // Samsara.

And what when the Arahant passes away? What is that state? Pure Emptiness? 1/ Infinity? Non duality?

I’ll post the answer once I become an Arahant (and you must promise to do the same)!!

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I appreciate the various replies. However, perhaps my question was unclear, because these sort of responses do not seem to address the question I thought I was asking:

My question was not about the pros and cons of particular meditation approaches, it was asking how a particular phenomenon fits into the classification schemes of the suttas, so that I could see what the suttas have to say about it.

The phenomenon I am asking about is the appearance (undoubtedly mistaken - I’m talking about an unawakened mind such as my own) of a constant background awareness. Some phenomena, such as awareness of touch or sounds, obviously come and go quite rapidly. Some, such as mind states (the third satipatthana) do come and go, but much more slowly. For most people I’ve talked to, this background awareness seems constant, and only seems to go away when sleeping. This makes it a prime candidate for identification as “my self”.

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Ah, the passion led me astray…
Not having a definite answer about where to locate this ‘awareness’ in the dhamma, but I’d say: It’s a sankhara, thus also not an ideal meditation object because too subtle.

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I would urge you to hear out Luang por Sumedho. He has explored this background Awareness/ Consciousness/ Sati Pannya in great depth through his Dhamma talks of the past few years. He points out, as you have so clearly noted “It doesn’t change”. It is that which Knows, it is what does the Know-ing and See-ing described in the Suttas, it has the experience of Samsara as its object. Nor is it different from one person to another. It is what remains in the Arahant, once all defilements have been done away with, that which is responsible for his experience of Samsara (Sankhara and Vinyana having already reached non arising status at Nibbana). Luang por Sumedho points out that this Pure Awareness/ Mindfulness is Dhamma. And Dhamma are Not Self - “Sabbe Dhamma Anatta”.

The eightfold is the best of paths, four principles the best of truths,
passionlessness the best of states, the Visionary the best of men.

This is the path, there is no other, for insight and for purity,
you should enter upon this path, this is the confounding of Māra.

Having entered upon this path you will make an end to suffering,
the path was declared by me, the removal of the dart by knowledge.

Your duty is to have ardour declare the Realised Ones,
entering this path meditators will be released from the bonds of Māra.

All conditions are impermanent, when one sees this with wisdom,
then one grows tired of suffering – this is the path to purity.

All conditions are suffering, when one sees this with wisdom,
then one grows tired of suffering – this is the path to purity.

All components of mind and body are without self, when one sees this with wisdom,
then one grows tired of suffering – this is the path to purity.

The one who has not energy at a time for energy,
youthful, strong, but given to laziness,
whose mind lacks right intention and is indolent –
the lazy one does not find wisdom’s path.

Verbally guarded, well-restrained in mind,
not doing a wrong deed with the body,
one should purify these three paths of action,
one should undertake the path shown by seers.

From effort arises wisdom, without effort wisdom is destroyed,
having understood these two paths of development and decline,
one should establish oneself so that one’s wisdom increases.

Cut down the forest of defilements not just a tree, from the forest arises a danger,
having cut down the forest and thicket, you should be without forests, monastics.

For as long as an atom of desire
of a man for a woman is not cut down,
for just so long is the mind in bondage,
like a calf in bondage to mother’s milk.

Cut off any affection for one’s self,
like an autumn lotus plucked with the hand,
develop fully the path to peace and
Nibbāna taught by the Fortunate One.

These Suttas might be relevent;

Mendicants, when it comes to this body made up of the four primary elements, an uneducated ordinary person might become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed.

Why is that?

This body made up of the four primary elements is seen to accumulate and disperse, to be taken up and laid to rest.

That’s why, when it comes to this body, an uneducated ordinary person might become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed.

But when it comes to that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’, an uneducated ordinary person is unable to become disillusioned, dispassionate, or freed.
((Yañca kho etaṃ, bhikkhave, vuccati cittaṃ itipi, mano itipi, viññāṇaṃ itipi, tatrāssutavā puthujjano nālaṃ nibbindituṃ nālaṃ virajjituṃ nālaṃ vimuccituṃ.))

Why is that?

Because for a long time they’ve been attached to it, thought of it as their own, and mistaken it:

‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’
SN12.61

Ven Ananda teaches Ven Udayi how to pull it apart,

“Reverend Ānanda, the Buddha has explained, opened, and illuminated in many ways how this body is not-self. Is it possible to explain consciousness in the same way? To teach, assert, establish, open, analyze, and make it clear how consciousness is not-self?”

“It is possible, Reverend Udāyī.

Does eye consciousness arise dependent on the eye and sights?”

“Yes, reverend.”

“If the cause and condition that gives rise to eye consciousness were to totally and utterly cease without anything left over, would eye consciousness still be found?”

“No, reverend.”

“In this way, too, it can be understood how consciousness is not-self.

Does ear … nose … tongue … body … mind consciousness arise dependent on the mind and thoughts?”

“Yes, reverend.”

“If the cause and condition that gives rise to mind consciousness were to totally and utterly cease without anything left over, would mind consciousness still be found?”

“No, reverend.”

“In this way, too, it can be understood how consciousness is not-self.

Suppose there was a person in need of heartwood. Wandering in search of heartwood, they’d take a sharp axe and enter a forest. There they’d see a big banana tree, straight and young and grown free of defects. They’d cut it down at the base, cut off the root, cut off the top, and unroll the coiled sheaths. But they wouldn’t even find sapwood, much less heartwood.

In the same way, a mendicant sees these six fields of contact as neither self nor belonging to self. So seeing, they don’t grasp anything in the world. Not grasping, they’re not anxious. Not being anxious, they personally become extinguished.

They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’”
SN35.234

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4 posts were split to a new topic: Striving and Satipatthana (diverging from background awareness thread)

Possibly this is descriptive of nupassana, the mode of observation or awareness described in the Satipattana Sutta.
I don’t think this awareness is a type of vinnana, because in the suttas vinnana is basic sense-consciousness. It seems more like the modern idea of “self-awareness”, a sort of higher-level global awareness. Possibly related to panna?

In my experience this mode of awareness has an impersonal and unchanging quality, so it’s not defined or limited by ideas of “me” and “mine”.
I recall Ajahn Chah described it as “the one who knows”. Not really a “true self” (God forbid!), but descriptive of higher ( deeper?) awareness.

The OP raises some interesting questions, though I’m not convinced they are directly addressed by the suttas.

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Yes, it does seem that with the practice of nupassana there develops an observer “separate from the flow”, as you say.
But if this observer is not a self, then what is it?
Who or what is being mindful, who or what is observing?

The funny thing is that the faith follower cannot resolve this conflict easily. If LP Chah or Sumedho are right and there is an non-changing ‘one who knows’ then how the heck it that different is that different than a self? But of course they are master Buddhists and Buddhism says ‘nope to self’, so they must mean something very fancy that is hard to comprehend.

But if we’re not apologetic then it’s just the position of MN 8 “I perceive not-self with self”. Or, if we replace ‘self’ with ‘non-changing observer/knower’ then I guess it’s more palatable, as long as we don’t utter the word that Buddhists shouldn’t use.

I’m not a follower of these Ajahns, but their descriptions do accord with my own experience. It’s nothing fancy in my experience, just a consequence of practising nupassana.
I don’t regard the unchanging observer as a self, because it feels impersonal, and not related to “me” and “mine”.
I don’t find the sutta explanations satisfactory on this question.

I’d guess the background awareness or observing mind appears unchanging because it is a simple function and so each occurrence of it is exactly similar to the last unlike say the occurrence of thoughts or feelings. But it is just another function/event in the mind, rising and passing away with each sense-datum it captures.

I believe it is by means of the apperception aggregate that this simple aspect of the consciousness aggregate is recognized.

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Two comments: That something appears unchanging, doesn’t mean it’s unchanging. Secondly, who says that a ‘self’ feels ‘personal’? As pointed out often before, for the pre-Buddhist Brahmin practitioners atman was nothing personal at all. Remember that it was the link to the cosmic ultimate.

atman is the one who is beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death.
(Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.5.1)

About this atman, one can only say ‘not—, not—.’ He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound (BU 3.9.26 / BU 4.2.4 / BU 4.4.22 / BU 4.5.15).