On the consciousness where nothing appears

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.

sabbato pabhaṁ

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:

Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ,
anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;

Consciousness where nothing appears,
infinite, luminous all-round

narrative context

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.

DN 11 Kevaḍḍha

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.

MN 49 Brahmanimantanika

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.

Brahmanical connections

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.


Then by definition the parrinibanna of the buddha is not identical to the cessation of existence.

But apart from that metaphysical quibble I enjoyed all the excellent info and reasoning, and agree, especially with the “optional” aspect of formless attainments :slight_smile:

Namo Buddhaya!

Cakkhuñceva rūpā ca, sotañca saddā ca, ghānañca gandhā ca, jivhā ca rasā ca, kāyo ca phoṭṭhabbā ca, mano ca dhammā ca - idaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, sabbaṁ.

The formless attainments fall within the scope of the all. These are perception states that come under mind & dhammas; form is then not generated, only mano & dhammā are generated, these are the sankharā there, and the contact is at the mind base.

"I thought: ‘It isn’t through mere conviction alone that Alara Kalama declares, “I have entered & dwell in this Dhamma, having realized it for myself through direct knowledge.” Certainly he dwells knowing & seeing this Dhamma.’ So I went to him and said, ‘To what extent do you declare that you have entered & dwell in this Dhamma?’ When this was said, he declared the dimension of nothingness.

I feel the sutta’s try to express that one must not see vinnana as some kind of object. The six sense vinnana’s are just moments of a specific awareness arising. For example, the moment a smell vinnana arises that is the same as the moment that we become aware of a certain smell. There is no difference between that moment of awareness and a sense-vinnana.

That is how one can discern the arising and ceasing of the 6 sense vinnana’s, all the time. In this sense the 6 sense vinnana’s are always visible while they arise and cease because those are the moments we become specifically aware of something.

One cannot really seperate awareness and object of awareness nor the feelings or sensation involved. The six sense vinnana’s are visible in this sense as the sensation/things we specifically experience or become aware of.

I see fourth jhana desribed as:

“It is possible here that with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, some bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the fourth jhana, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity”(Bodhi, MN8 and many others).

You also describe it in MN30 (and other MN sutta’s) as:
“Furthermore, giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, a mendicant enters and remains in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. This too is something better and finer than knowledge and vision”

Where is this description of 4th jhana as brilliant all around ? How many times does this happen?

Have you discussed this with someone who knows fourth jhana and has he/she give you the confirmation that there is indeed a brilliance all around?

You have overly-simplified the question

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

To a mere ‘where does form end?’

Do you not see that the question includes the cessation of name & form, not only form but ‘name’, too?

And what is name? It is any contact, feeling, perception, intention [which is a word for sankhara] and attention, it is the requisuite for consciousness.

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But in DN11 the initial question is about form, citing the four elements:

“Sir, where do these four primary elements cease without anything left over, namely, the elements of earth, water, fire, and air?”

Then, in response the Buddha states the question should not be asked that way and breaks down his reply first into where the four elements find no footing:

“This is how the question should be asked: “Where do water and earth, fire and air [form] find no footing?
And answers: " “Infinite consciousness, that’s where water and earth, fire and air find no footing.”

And then he replies to the second part of how the question should be asked:
" Where do long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly; where do name and form
cease with nothing left over?"
"And that is where long and short,
fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
that’s where name and form
cease with nothing left over—
with the cessation of consciousness,
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
that’s where they cease.”’

Seeing the question and responses in this way appears more in line with the Buddha’s teachings on these aspects rather than combining infinite consciousness with the cessation of name and form.

Ven. Sujato’s annotated comments on these lines are very helpful.


Anyway i think that the verse is clearly talking about a cessation of consciousness and therefore it is more likely that vinnanam anidassana is a reference to ‘consciousness not being apparent’ due to having ceased.

I think this is the most simple reading of the verse.

Alternatively, yes, an extraordinary awareness, consciousness extraordinaire, analog to the pleasure where nothing is felt or the cessation of perception & feeling being described as pleasant.

Namo Buddhaya!

Right, but the intention behind asking is not clear and it can be two fold

  1. He is asking about a temporary suspension of rupa-genesis, such as occurs in the temporary formless perception attainments.
  2. He is asking about a permanent cessation of rupa-genesis such that occurs at parinibbana.

These two are very different questions.

Now if this really was about #1 then
a) gods would know about it because even Alara Kalama, Uddaka Ramaputta and their disciples knew about the formless attainments.
b) why the need to paraphrase the question?

Now if it really was about #2, a full extinguishment without remainder

a) gods don’t know about these cessation attaiments

"He 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]

b) the need to paraphrase becomes obvious because nama & rupa must both be brought to an end

The addition of “without anything left over” by the questioneer is evidently enough to lean towards #2.

And the fact that there is another mention of an attainment unknown to gods, which just happens to be an attainment where name&form cease and consciousness is brought to an end, this is just more evidence than anyone could ask for.

Good points.
Still, if the question was only about parinibbāna, the answer could have simply been the final lines about cessation. So it seems likely that the questioner was asking about final cessation but asked the question inappropriately by having it conform more towards the Arupa-consciousness attainment. The Buddha then clarified the differences between these two.

As i see, the final lines proclaim the cessation whereas the beginning proclaims that in dependence on which it occurs.

Consider the u8.3 passage as an example

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

One could only say that there is an escape without proclaiming the unmade.

Likewise one could just say that namarupa are brought to an end with the cessation of consciousness without proclaiming that in dependence on what the cessation occurs.

If we take D11 verse to proclaim the umade then it is actually a very important verse because it says that it’s luminous & boundless, adding to other suttas which say that there is a pleasure due to nothing being felt and a most extreme pleasure at that.

No, the unnamed mendicant’s question is about where form ends. He doesn’t understand the implications, namely the difference between the suspension of form in formless attainments and the cessation of namarupa.

Jasudho gets it. I didn’t get into all these details because I have nothing to add to what Ven Sunyo has already done.

“mn19:17.1”: "Sukhassa ca pahānā dukkhassa ca pahānā pubbeva somanassadomanassānaṁ atthaṅgamā adukkhamasukhaṁ upekkhāsatipārisuddhiṁ catutthaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja vihāsiṁ. ",
“mn19:18.1”: "So evaṁ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe vigatūpakkilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte

about 100 times.

I don’t need Buddhism 101 explained to me, thanks.


I don’t understand your point here?


I see that you translate almost all the time the description of 4th jhana as: " Furthermore, giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, a mendicant enters and remains in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness"

Bodhi translates: “Again, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the fourth jhana, which has neither pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity”

This is the standard description of fourth jhana in the sutta’s. There is no mentioning of a “brilliance all around” or “radiance all around”.

It took me some time but now i understand that in the descriptions of 4th jhana in the sutta’s you never choice to translate ‘brilliant all around’ or ‘radiant all around’ because that is apparantly not said anywhere, but you choice that this is a synonym of ‘bright’ which sometimes occurs when the 4th jhana is described.

I do not know if this bright is just the same as radiant all around as in DN11. I do not think that in 4th jhana there is a radiance all around. There is no happiness and it is extremely equanimous.

‘Consciousness’ is ‘awareness’?
What definition of ‘consciousness’ is being used here?

As used in the EBTs.

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Ah, yes. To clarify for others, this happens for example in AN10.29, which also mentions perceiving limited and unlimited (appamāṇa) forms: the same idea as MN128, where the context is developing samādhi. I agree, Bhante, that this is another indication that anidassana is a synonym for formless.

The translation “where nothing appears” seems more adequate than “invisible”, certainly in a Buddhist context. But perhaps, if these lines of verse also refer to Brahmanical ideas, the meaning of the term may be wider than that, mostly poetical and not meant to be that technical and specific.

Although I did not give it much importance in the essay you referred to, I think these connections are actually what these two suttas (DN11 and MN49) are actually all about. Both have a very distinct Brahmanical context, with the Brahmā gods being made fun of, and DN11 is also part of the Sīlakkhandha Vagga of the Dīgha, which is completely aimed at converting outsiders, primarily Brahmins.

These suttas are refuting the Brahmanical belief in a nāmarūpa-less consciousness and reaffirm the Buddha’s idea of the cessation of all existence and hence consciousness, including “infinite” ones. Some small translation issues aside, this much is completely certain to me. This is of course one of the running threads in the suttas: what others took as permanent and as liberation, the Buddha saw as impermanent and suffering. This also goes for this infinite (or “unbounded”) consciousness.

The terminology used is also very Upaniṣadic. You already pointed out some connections. In a recent thread I discussed this in more detail:


The only thing I’d take issue with is:

Obviously the Upanishads don’t describe meditation explicitly, and we must assume that is an innovation of the Buddha. But there are so many passages and ideas that seem “meditation-ish”, such as the almost obsessive interest in the breath, and the overall tenor seems to me highly contemplative and reflective. So yeah, I disagree with Jayatilleke on this one.


I also believe Buddha described the cessation of all existence as the cessation of all bhava. But is this the same as a mere cessation? I do not believe this. Because what Buddha refered to as cessation of existence or bhava, is the cessation of a constructed reality, like a building. Dhammapada describes this.

I’ve seen you, house-builder!
You won’t build a house again!
Your rafters are all broken,
your roof-peak is demolished.
My mind, set on demolition,
has reached the end of craving.

Home here is bhava. Tanha is the builder.

The mind that builds is the grasping mind.

Bhava is like a home the mind builds. This happens all the time, in this very life, also. It is constructed. There is, ofcourse, no bhava without grasping because without grasping there is no constructing. Without constructing the home is not build. That is the whole idea, i believe.

The enligtend mind in this life does not construct the home of an angry mindset, a greedy one, a jalous one etc. Is does not grasp arising formations. It shows no becoming. At least not unvoluntairy, because the cause for building a home, attachment, has been abandoned.
In this life it shows no becoming. Also after death it does not make a home. Not the hell realm as home, not the deva realms etc. These are related: building no home in this very life and after this life.
How does one know that one has attained the end of rebirth, because in this very life mind one has the experiential confirmation that mind does not build a home anymore. It is stable. It tastes the deathless.

The message of the Buddha is, i believe, that the mind that does not make a home anymore, that does not construct, that is stable. Because it does not construct it is also not liable to desintegrate. The EBT texts describe this as attaining the signless, emptiness, the uninclined, the unfabricated, unmade etc.

What is refered to as emptiness, signless, the desireless, uninclined, deathless cannot be considered as a bhava ofcourse because it is not result of grasping. It is not build.

So, this also means that the end of all bhava is attained in this very life, i believe. In this very life, while living one makes an end to existence, meaning to bhava, to the mind that grasps and contructs a temporary home.

It is does not mean that one stops to exist because that is not at all the meaning of the cessation of bhava. That only refers to the cessation of constructing, or building. Of building a home.
Bhava is based upon ignorance and tanha, and when this is gone, one cannot say there is still a bhava.

So in EBT there is such a definition of consciousness that it is understood unambiguously and without divergence by everyone in the same way without exception? That’s how your answer should be understood?

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It seems to me that the ideas explored in this discussion of DN11 echo those we discussed earlier about the meaning of AN4.173 viz. “Is there something else beyond the 6 senses?”. They also tie in neatly with the fire simile in MN72. The failure of the Buddha’s contemporaries to grasp just what he was talking about can be attributed to their sakkayaditthi - the insistence that “Some Thing must Exist!

When a fire runs out of fuel, it ceases. Another way of stating this would be to say that when the fire runs out of fuel, it no longer appears. That does not mean that the Fire now Exists unseen on another plane / in another dimension - that would be Eternalism. The fire doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere - it just goes out. Yet, at the same time - that does not mean its annihilated. Fire is a Process, without any Permanent Substance - it cannot die because it was never born.

Similarly, Mind and Consciousness are simply dependently originated natural phenomena - empty of any permanent, enduring, exclusively satisfactory controllable Essence (Self).
They are impermanent (AN10.60) and should be abandoned… but that is hard to do as they are the last bastion of the conceit of Self (SN12.61).


Just a tip, if you didn’t phrase your question as a clumsy gotcha you’d be more likely to get an answer.