For nearly thirty years, I have returned from time to time to ponder the question of the so-called anidassana viññāṇa (itself a misnomer), upon which so much ink has been spilled. I feel like I have been slowly creeping towards a solution, and just today, when revising my notes and translations, I feel confident that I can clarify the main issues.
I won’t spend time discussing all the theories about this, but rather will focus on a step-by-step analysis, moving from the known to the unknown, and keeping things as simple and direct as possible. However, shoutout to Ven Sunyo’s excellent essay on this topic, some of which I have adopted, and some of which is orthogonal to the purpose of this essay.
The lines in question pose no grammatical issues, but the sense of the words is not entirely clear. As so often in verse, it is formulated somewhat differently than the prose. Nonetheless, it is possible to settle the meaning of each word with some confidence.
Consciousness. Awareness both in terms of sensory awareness as well as deep states of meditation.
Infinite. A standard descriptor of consciousness as the second of the formless realms.
Just this word alone should establish that the lines refer to the formless realms. The only reason this is not clear is because, to satisfy the requirements of meter, “infinite” has been shifted to the second line. This kind of thing happens all the time. So that means everyone associates “consciousness” with anidassana here, but that is purely an accidental artifact of the literary form.
Where nothing appears. This word appears more commonly in its opposite, nidassana, which means to be visible, be apparent, to manifest, as for example images in a dream. In the suttas it is almost always used in the context of “form” meditation, where it refers to, for example, the blue color or blue “appearance” of the “forms” that appear in meditation, i.e. what is today called a nimitta.
Anidassana meditation is the disappearance of such forms. In fact, rūpa itself lies close in meaning to “appearance”, so it is no surprise to find expressions such as ākāso arūpī anidassano, “space is formless and invisible”. Thus here anidassana is a synonym of arūpa and means that we are in the formless attainments.
It is a tricky term to translate. My previous “invisible” is not really adequate, as all consciousness is invisible. If sleep, for example, is where images appear in a dream, then dreamless sleep is where no images appear. It seems, then, that “appearance” is better, although it doesn’t have a direct negative as “disappearance” has a different meaning. So it seems we have to use a phrase to capture the sense.
Luminous all-round. The meaning of pabhaṁ has been unnecessarily controverted due to the deeply misleading and unhelpful commentary to this passage. But it appears in the suttas in only one sense, namely the mind-made deities of the Brahma realm who are “self-luminous” (sayaṁpabhā). It must have the same meaning here.
The formless attainments are based on the consciousness of the fourth jhana, regularly described as pariyodata, “brilliant all around”, which is essentially a synonym for sabbato pabhaṁ.
Thus we should translate something like:
Consciousness where nothing appears,
infinite, luminous all-round
The passage appears twice, in very similar contexts. In both cases there is a narrative that serves as a challenge to Brahmā’s claims to stand at the apex of existence, manifesting the most pure and powerful consciousness.
The lines appear near the end, but not at the end, as in both cases the text goes on to speak of the Buddha’s teaching of cessation.
It is crucial to understand that, in Buddhist texts about Brahmanical meditation, the formless meditations are considered to be the very highest achievement of the brahmins. Whether it is the Buddha’s former teachers, the sages of the Pārāyanavagga (Snp 5), or elsewhere, the very best of the non-Buddhist sages were believed to practice these meditations.
It should therefore be expected that when discussing the highest reaches of the Brahmanical path, we are speaking of the formless meditations, which the Buddha incorporated as a (optional) part of his path, without taking them to be the highest goal.
Let me sum up the argument of the narrative in the simplest form.
- Q: Where does form end?
- A: Form is suspended in the infinite consciousness of the formless attainments. It ends completely, along with everything else, in the cessation of consciousness.
The series of verses begin and end with different statements about consciousness, forming a ring composition. The opening line speaks of the presence of infinite consciousness, while the concluding line speaks of the cessation of consciousness.
In line with the universal pattern of Buddhist teaching, it is the end that presents the highest teaching, while what comes before is the path. In other words, the development of refined consciousness through the jhanas and formless attainments leads to the cessation of consciousness.
Here the lines appear, not as part of a short series of verses, but quoted in isolation as part of an ongoing debate between the Buddha and Baka the Brahmā.
The narrative context is trickier than in DN 11, because it is unclear who is supposed to be speaking the crucial portion. However, I do not think this is an insoluble problem. It has been discussed in more detail previously by myself, by Ven Sunyo, and by Ven Brahmali, but to sum up: the only reading that is both coherent and attested is that Baka is speaking this portion.
On this understanding, let me summarize the narrative argument.
- The Buddha says he does not identify even with “what does not fall within the scope of all”.
- Baka implies the Buddha doesn’t know what he is talking about.
- Baka then declares his understanding of the Buddha’s statement: “what does not fall within the scope of all” is none other than infinite consciousness.
- Confident in his prowess, Baka declares he will vanish from the Buddha, but is unable to do so.
- The Buddha then explains what he meant by “what does not fall within the scope of all”, namely the cessation of existence.
As with DN 11, the state itself is simply referring to the formless attainments, which Brahmā takes to be the goal, but which the Buddha surmounts by speaking of cessation.
Just a short note on a couple of significant connections with the Upaniṣads, especially with Yājñavalkya’s Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, which is the closest in time, space, and thought to the Buddha.
In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.12, a key statement on the highest goal and one of the most renowned statements in the whole Vedic tradition, Yājñavalkya identifies the highest divinity of the self:
mahadbhūtamanantamapāraṁ vijñānaghana eva
This great reality is but a sheer mass of consciousness, infinite and endless.
While there are other connections with the formless attainments in the Upaniṣads, there is no overall scheme of four formless states, which is probably an innovation of the Buddha. In poetic contexts such as we are discussing here, it is reasonable to take the idea of “infinite consciousness” as standing for the formless states in general.
Another Upaniṣadic connection, which I believe has not been noticed before, is Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.5.19. This is another critical statement defining the highest goal of that system, uniquely identified in the text itself as ityanuśāsanam, “this is the instruction”, an idiom that the Buddha also used to note an especially significant teaching.
ayamātmā brahma sarvānubhūḥ
This self that experiences all is divinity
Here sarvānubhūḥ is clearly the model for the phrasing in the Pali, sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṁ.
The word anubhūta means “experienced”. But once again the plain meaning has been confused, in this case by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoḷi, who gave an ontological meaning to an epistemological term. That is, rather than treating it as about knowing, he treated it as about being.
That the normal meaning of “experienced” applies here is confirmed in the commentaries both in Pali (patta, i.e. attained in meditation) and Sanskrit, where Śaṅkara explains:
What is the self? The inner self that sees, hears, thinks, understands, knows; the perceiver of everything, because as the self of all it perceives everything
The fact that this is a Brahmanical term explains why Baka felt so confident: he was on his home turf.
The Pali phrase is highly idiomatic and hard to capture. Literally it would be:
yāvatā sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṁ tadabhiññāya
Having directly known that experienced as far as the allness of all.
This is never going to be an easy passage, but we can make it a little clearer:
Having directly known that which does not fall within the scope of experience characterized by all.
One final point. It might be objected that Baka is being heretical here. After all, if the Upaniṣad identifies the “all” with the divine self, how can Baka speak of that which is beyond the “all”?
Well, maybe this question is overstepping, as Baka is, after all, a character in a Buddhist text, so we should perhaps temper our expectations. And anyway he fails. But that’s no fun, so let’s take the question seriously within the thought-world of the Upaniṣads.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad tells of creation, opening with, “In the beginning there was nothing whatsover” (naiveha kiṁcanāgra āsīt, 1.2.1). Notice how the language echoes that of the “dimension of nothingness”: “there is nothing whatsoever” (natthi kiñci).
Then “he” (i.e. the immanent divinity) stirred, creating mind, water, earth, fire, sun, breath, the directions, the sky, the year, the breath, speech. And from that speech and that self “he created all; that is, whatever” (sarvamasṛjata yadidaṁ kiṁca, 1.2.5), namely the Vedas, sacrifice, men and animals.
Kiṁca here calls back to the opening, and shows that “all” encompasses the bountiful manifoldness of creation. At the same time, “all” is not a primary principle, but emerges only after the “nothing” has been filled by the creative spirit of divinity.
There is, therefore, nothing heretical in affirming both that the divine self is experience of the all, and in speaking of that which is not encompassed by the all, namely the divine spirit that underlies creation.
- The anidassana verse refers to the formless attainments, especially infinite consciousness, treating them as the highest goal of the Brahmanical system, and as a step towards the Buddha’s teaching of cessation.
- They are not speaking of Nibbana, nor of meditative exotica such as an arahant’s fruition attainment.
- The phrasing makes good sense within both the Buddhist and the Brahmanical systems. While there are difficulties of interpretation and translation, these are not insuperable.