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Sense Consciousness arising one at a time

Does each sense consciousness arise one at a time? Is that concept in the suttas? (EBT) If so, could someone please provide a reference? Thanks.
If I explain why am I asking this question, it will turn into a discussion (and not a simple question) because there are several related reasons for asking this question. Suffice it to say that I am skeptical of the necessity of each consciousness arising one at a time in a system that is clearly a distributed parallel processing system (brain/mind).

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As far as I am aware, there is no indication in the Suttas that sense consciousnesses must arise one at a time. I think this idea is similar to the later Abhidhammic concept of momentariness and mind-moments, which in my opinion is not found in the Suttas.

The sense I get from the EBTs is that experience is described more like a flow, with some experiences lasting more than others and possibly overlapping each other as you described.

Wether one might be able to direct attention to different sense impressions at the exact same time is another story, but it has to do with directed attention and not sense consciousness/contact which happen regardless of one’s attention/awareness.

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The phrase ekacaraṁ … cittaṁ (var. ekacāraṁ …) in verse 37 of the Dhammapada is commonly cited by Theravada Abhidhamma teachers in support of this view. Most translators render it as “the mind wanders alone”, but Abhidhamma teachers follow the Dhammapada Atthakathā which takes it to mean that cittas arise singly, one at a time.

Dūraṅgamaṁ ekacaraṁ,
asarīraṁ guhāsayaṁ;
Ye cittaṁ saṁyamissanti,
mokkhanti mārabandhanā.

“Dwelling in the cave (of the heart), the mind, without form, wanders far and alone. Those who subdue this mind are liberated from the bonds of Mara.”

As a “proof text” it doesn’t seem to me very compelling, for it could only be persuasive to someone who’s willing to accept that the word citta here is being used in its technical Abhidhamma sense, rather than as merely a word for “mind” in its everyday sense.

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I don’t recollect seeing this in the EBTs? I would appreciate a reference that makes this understanding explicit?

Are you suggesting that every meeting of an ‘external sense base’ and ‘internal sense base’ produce a corresponding ‘sense consciousness’? My understanding (up until now) is (was) that only some meetings of the ‘external sense base’ and ‘internal sense base’ produce ‘sense consciousness’; further, that the production of ‘sense consciousness’ and the corresponding ‘contact’ is precisely what brings things into the conscious sphere (i.e. one’s awareness).

As far as I know momentariness is not unambiguously mentioned in the suttas. But experience can tell you it is so, and I find it is also implied in suttas such as this: SN35.93

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As far as I remember this is one of those things that isn’t spelled out explicitly in the Suttas and one needs to study all the various instances and definitions for viññāṇa, sañña, manasikāra etc. in order to piece things together.

However, I think one only needs to read this very carefully to understand:

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling.
Feeling is a condition for craving.
Craving is a condition for grasping.
Grasping is a condition for continued existence.
Continued existence is a condition for rebirth.
Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.
(SN 12.44)

Nowhere does it say that one needs conscious awareness for this process to happen or that contact brings things into the conscious sphere.

So the main issue as I see it goes back to how one defines consciousness (viññāṇa).

Much has been discussed about this topic so I will not go into details, but from what I understand (and I think this is also the way @sujato explains this too?) in the suttas viññāṇa simply refers to the aggregate that allows for basic experience, not “conscious awareness”. Just primal, basic experience, and I think this is supported for example by MN 43:

“They speak of ‘consciousness’. How is consciousness defined?”
“It’s called consciousness because it cognizes.
And what does it cognize?
It cognizes ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ and ‘neutral’.
It’s called consciousness because it cognizes.”

Think of a newborn baby. They can’t recognize the objects around them, their perception is not yet developed, yet they are conscious, they have viññāṇa, but they are not “aware”. All they understand is that some things feel good, bad or “meh”. You don’t need conscious awareness as described in modern times for this to happen.

Another example would be someone sleepwalking. By definition they are not “consciously aware” of what’s happening around them. Yet they are conscious in an EBT sense, they still have viññāṇa. They even have sañña since they interact with the world around them. So sense consciousness and contact are still arising in them in order for this to happen, yet they are not “aware” in the modern sense of “conscious awareness”.

I think setting aside the modern conception of conscious vs unconscious can go a long way to help us understand the EBTs more deeply.
This distinction is never found in the suttas as far as I’m aware and words like sankhara for example can mean both unconscious tendencies and conscious choices. The difference is whether sati and manasikāra are present, not viññāṇa.
So in a way you could say that viññāṇa without manasikāra = unconscious/unaware experience (like in the examples above), and viññāṇa + manasikāra = conscious awareness, which is basically sati.

Problem is that you don’t need to be sleepwalking in order to have unconscious/unaware experiences, we do all the time, and that is the huge problem that we try to solve by implementing mindfulness. More on that below.

To go back to the issue of sense consciousness (in the way described above):
Take the Vibhaṅgasutta (SN 12.2) where nāma in nāmarūpa is described as follows:

And what are name and form?
Feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention.

Remember:

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact.

Contact in SN 12.2 is defined distinctly from attention (manasikāra), and distinct from sañña (pereception) which to me means that the process of arising of sense consciousness is independent of attention.
I don’t find instances in the suttas where it is said that the process of sense consciousness arising needs attention in order to happen, or that contact brings about attention.
Same with feeling, perception and intention. You don’t need any of those for the arising of sense consciousness, all you need is an organ and an external stimulus to arouse that organ.
That’s actually the reason you can function without constant conscious awareness, for example washing the dishes while speaking with someone. It just happens in the background.

From what I understand, as explained above, yes.

Say you’re sitting on a chair while working on the computer. Your body is touching the chair so the touch of the chair is activating your touch receptors. According to the suttas as long as these two criteria are met the corresponding touch consciousness must be present, no need for conscious awareness of it.

Say you’re looking at the sky and your mind starts to wonder. Does the light from the sky not touch your eyes when you direct your attention to your thoughts? It still does, therefore the sense consciousness is still active at that point, it’s just in the background, i.e. you are “ignorant” of it.

Therefore, if sense consciousness arises in the background even when you’re not aware of it, then feeling also arises independent of your awareness. If feeling arises independent of awareness then craving arises independent of awareness.

Remember: craving cannot arise without contact. If contact implies conscious awareness as you suggest then only the things that we are aware of would lead to craving, which isn’t the case.

Think about it: how many times do you automatically change position because you body starts to hurt, yet you are so absorbed in your work that you have no idea that you’re feeling the pain, that your craving for relief arises and that you changed your position?
The only way this happens is because sense consciousness arises independent of “awareness”.

The problem is exactly that this process is continuously going on in the background of experience, and that’s why we need to bring mindfulness to it in order understand it and be free from it.
And why multitasking is a disaster.

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I think ‘conscious awareness’ is a bit different than attention which @stu’s question was about.
Furthermore, I wanted to bring your attention to three suttas which suggest that it might not be so simple.

  • AN 8.83, which says ‘manasikāra sambhavā sabbe dhammā’,
  • MN 28, which discusses ‘samannāhāra’ as the necessary condition of consciousness and contact (however, what it is is open to interpretation)
  • SN 47.42, similar to the first, in which the origins of the four satipatthanas are listed, and for the last satipatthana it is manasikāra.

Also one of the suttas you quoted says: ‘The meeting of the three is contact’. Why would the Buddha phrase it like this? I’m of the opinion it’s connected to the issue of manasikāra and samannāhāra mentioned above.

On the other hand, it seems incontrovertible to me that I do need something to be there in order to attend to it in the first place.

So I would say the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and clinging to either extreme might obstruct one’s practice and understanding. Come to think of it, this is actually pretty close to the atthita/natthita duality.

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This is the bit I’m interested in. Can you give me a sutta reference? All I see so far (such as SN 12.44 - “Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights”) is that you need both both external and internal bases present for say, touch-consciousness to come about, not that touch consciousness comes about every time those two are present. Just like my mother and father both needed to be present for me arise, but I didn’t arise every time they were present together. (i.e. Children arise dependent on their mothers and fathers)

Let me try to tie this into some of my (admittedly very old) high school biology to see if I can get a grip on what you are suggesting. So, from a biological point of view, each receptor in each eye (that is excited enough to fire) fires and then rests. The more each receptor is excited by by the outside stimulus, the faster it fires until a maximum firing rate has been achieved (with a corresponding rest between each firing). So are you suggesting that for each firing of each receptor there is a (moment of) sense consciousness arising?

I not sure that I get what you are saying? I (this fathom long body) am clearly aware enough of the discomfort to actually move. If I really was unaware of it, I wouldn’t move would I? There’s “being aware”, and then there’s “being aware that you are aware”, (or more technically speaking: “being aware that you were aware”).

In SN35.23 we get:

1.2“Mendicants, I will teach you the all. 1.3Listen …

1.4And what is the all? 1.5It’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts. 1.6This is called the all.

1.7Mendicants, suppose someone was to say: 1.8‘I’ll reject this all and describe another all.’ They’d have no grounds for that, 1.9they’d be stumped by questions, and, in addition, they’d get frustrated. 1.10Why is that? 1.11Because they’re out of their element.”

Are you suggesting that sati is not included in the sense-base model?

Hello @yathabhutam, welcome to the forum!

Thanks for the suttas referenced.
I’m not sure how those can be interpreted to mean that sense consciousness and contact give rise to conscious awareness?

  • AN 8.83 seems to refer to the fact that “things are produced” when we give attention to them. Which I take to mean that we need to direct attention to things in order to bring them into conscious awareness. Which seems to support what I was trying to say above. It doesn’t mean in my opinion that things affect us and lead to craving only when we give attention to them or that they don’t as long as we don’t give attention to them.

  • MN 28 uses the term ‘samannāhāra’ which as you say is really open to interpretation and doesn’t specify wether this “engagement” needs to be conscious.
    Again, multitasking is engagement in a lot of things at the same time but how much of that engagement is in our conscious awareness?

  • SN 47.42 uses the elusive word “dhamma”. Since as you suggest the sutta seems to speak of the satipatthanas we get into a bit of a rabbit hole as the dhamma section of the satipatthana sutta is different for every reciting lineage whose texts have reached us. I find the comparative work of Analayo to be extremely convincing, but that’s off topic.
    To make matters simpler, we should use the satipatthana version of dhamma found in the Anapanasati sutta which lists dhammas as: impermanence, dispassion, cessation and letting go.
    So with this reading the sutta seems to imply that we are only able to recognize these “dhammas” as long as our attention is engaged. I totally agree and that’s a huge part of the path. If contact automatically gave rise to conscious awareness there would be no need to train the mind to recognize these dhammas in my opinion.

I simply take it to mean that eye + sight + resulting sense consciousness is called contact.
This contact gives rise to feeling.
If contact automatically implied conscious awareness then we would always be aware of all our feelings. What’s the point of practicing the second satipatthana then?

I agree, it is extremely complicated and requires careful study of a huge amount of suttas.
That’s why I didn’t want to get into it in the first place :sweat_smile:

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This depends wether external stimuli and internal sense organ are interpreted as “sufficient” conditions for the arising of sense consciousness or something else is needed. This is not specified in the suttas as far as i know.

I interpret the above to mean that eye and sights are sufficient conditions for the arising of eye consciousness. Why would the Buddha leave out another condition?

The Buddha doesn’t speak of receptors and moments, so I think it’s helpful to stick with the vocabulary in the suttas.

I am saying that from what I understand sense consciousness lasts as long as a stimulus impinges on the sense organ, that’s why it is said to be dependent on these two.

If that’s the case I applaud you :sweat_smile:
But for me and 99.9% of all people as far as I can tell that’s not the case.
I suggest you try an experiment and put a camera in front of your workplace so you can review all the times you moved, scratched an itch et. without realizing.

The fact that the pain might become so unbearable that the stimulus crosses your threshold of awareness is another story, but usually that’s not the case in my opinion.

Another example is eating:
Think about when people are eating while on their phones, totally immersed in facebook etc.
How are they finding the stimulus to lift the fork, put food in their mouth, swallow etc.?
Craving is driving the process. For craving to be there, contact needs to be there, so sense consciousness needs to be there. All this is happening without the stimulus being brought to their conscious sphere.
Actually it makes things worse as people seem to indulge more and eat faster when they are unmindful.

These are all distinctions that are not found in the suttas, alongside things like conscious vs unconscious, meta-consciousness etc…
I think we need to set aside all these ideas and just read what the suttas have to say, and I think the result is much clearer.

I’m not sure what you mean. Sati is not a sense sphere.
It seems clear to me that a huge part of the work needed on the Buddhist path is to intentionality bring awareness (sati) to what’s happening in our body, feelings, minds and reality, which is exactly what the practice of satipatthana is about.
If contact automatically brought things into the conscious sphere then what would be the point in practicing the satipatthanas? We would already automatically be aware of every sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought and their corresponding pleasurable, painful or neutral feelings.
This is clearly not the case, that’s why the work needs to be done.

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I think the Buddha was so brilliant and had such penetrating insight and wisdom in how this works that expressing it in terms that the people of 2500 years ago could understand was a challenge. They didn’t know about neural connections, brain regions and didn’t have fMRI machines to see how things work. He saw firsthand how things arise and work together to create the tangle and he untangled the tangle. For example, in MN 19 the Buddha describes habituated neural pathways as “Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination.”

The human mind is complex and doesn’t work on one cylinder. The Buddha separated our senses into six, an important distinction. Each sense contributes to the overall picture one has in the 5 aggregates of clinging, One sense may dominate more than another in each experience. We know that the visual cortex of the brain accounts for about 40% of sensory processing, so vision is a big part of where we get our sense impressions, but we don’t base all experience on just one sense impression.

The eye doesn’t have a mind and the mind doesn’t have an eye. The eye is a sense organ that captures photons and images and sends that data to the visual cortex to process it and move it to the matrix of brain paths that shapes what consciousness is aware of. Likewise, when a substance is contacted on the tongue, the organ’s receptors sends the signal to the gustatory cortex and contact is made.

NOTE: In the context of sense bases, I suspect that the sixth sense sphere, the mind, refers to the sense organ that generates thoughts, not the “mind” that refers to consciousness that evaluates all the data and comes to conclusions (the consciousness that needs namarupa to get it’s information). One can be in a serene state of mind and a random thought can make contact into awareness and one can be carried away just as if one saw a sight, heard a sound, smelled an odor, tasted a taste or felt a touch.

But being such a tangle, how could our consciousness take just a single sense impression and base all experience on just one thing?

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The parallel is even more suggestive.

Monks, these have the nature of birth, ageing, death, ceasing, and rebirth. Monks, all compounded things are as an illusion, a flame, ceasing in an instant; being not real they come (arise) and go (cease).

“Therefore, monks, with regard to all empty compounded things you should know, rejoice in, and be mindful of (awake to) this:

“All empty compounded things are empty of any permanent, eternal, lasting, unchanging nature; they are empty of self and of belonging to self”.

Perhaps the authors of the early Prajñāpāramitā texts were working with a similar sutra in mind?

Thanks for your input Giovanni. I suspect we are talking at cross purposes. Where you say:

I would say: Why would (How can) an organism scratch an itch if that organism isn’t aware that there is an itch to scratch? On some level awareness is there.

Ah. Well we’ve done the experiments now, we understand the mechanism better, and that theory turns out to be be false. So if the Buddha is really saying this, then it’s something that he got wrong.

We are still using the term awareness in different ways and in my opinion that’s what’s causing confusion.

I agree that there needs to be viññāṇa in order for an organism to respond to external stimuli. I do not think there needs to be manasikāra, sati or sampajañña (what I take to correspond to the modern conception of “conscious awareness”) in order for this to happen.

Since in an earlier post you suggested that “the production of ‘sense consciousness’ and the corresponding ‘contact’ is precisely what brings things into the conscious sphere (i.e. one’s awareness)” I am pointing out why I don’t think this is the case based on how I see these words being used in the suttas. I might be completely wrong, if so please correct me.

I am not familiar with the experiment you are talking about, and again I suspect this is again a matter of the definition for awareness.

Many studies point to the fact that stimuli are received and registered even without awareness and a quick google search will show this.

For example: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12165999_Perception_without_awareness_Perspectives_from_cognitive_psychology

The experimental findings based on all four approaches lead to the same conclusion; namely, stimuli are perceived even when observers are unaware of the stimuli.

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Yes. That’s right I think. I’m using awareness to mean any sense-consciousness and I think you are using it for (certain types of) mind-consciousness (manasikāra, sati, sampajañña) which is fair enough, but likely to lead to confusion.

Yes. Maybe. I was referring to the ‘adaptation of sensory receptors’ and the corresponding experiments in that area.

Absolutely, that’s why I advocate trying to use and understand the vocabulary in the suttas as much as possible before trying to “translate” into our modern ideas and conception.

This is a common misconception in my opinion.
As @Adutiya pointed out above, I believe mind-consciousness simply refers to that aggregate that registers and reacts to thoughts, just like eye-consciousness simply registers and reacts to sights, nothing more.
Manasikāra, sati, sampajañña etc. are not mind-consciousnesses.

Yes, this is an important aspect and I acknowledge it.
As MN 28 points out, there needs to be the possibility of engagement between the organ and the stimulus to result in sense consciousness i.e. one is not dead, one is not in a coma, not in jhana etc… and I would add that the organ needs to remain receptive to stimuli.

***EDIT: I did some brief research into sensory receptor adaptations and it seems that:

Rapidly adapting, or phasic, receptors respond maximally but briefly to stimuli; their response decreases if the stimulus is maintained. Conversely, slowly adapting, or tonic, receptors keep firing as long as the stimulus is present.
(Cutaneous and Subcutaneous Somatic Sensory Receptors - Neuroscience - NCBI Bookshelf)

So, in my opinion, it would seem that it is correct to say that “sense consciousness lasts as long as a stimulus impinges on the sense organ”.***

But this is not 100% relevant to the issue of consciousness (viññāṇa) being present without attention (manasikāra) and the corresponding awareness (sati/sampajañña).

Did you look at the experiment I linked in my edit of the post above?

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I suspect that this is something that we will have to disagree on. Given SN 35.23 (quoted above), for me, manasikāra, sati, and sampajañña need to fit into the sense-base model from an EBT perspective. If they are not (examples of) mind-consciousness, then what (sense-consciousness or otherwise) are they?

Yes. I have now :slight_smile: Thanks. I think this bit is covered by our differing ways of using the term ‘awareness’.

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manasikāra, sati, and sampajañña fit the sutta under the term mind (mano).
But they are not mind-consciousnesses. Mind-consciousness is just another aspect of mano, specifically manoviññāṇa.
(Any)viññāṇa, manasikāra, sati and sampajañña are all different aspects of mano, just like thumb, index and middle fingers are all parts of the hand but the thumb is not part of the index finger.

Anyway as conclusion, I will post a representation of how I think the process works including both the way I think the terms are used in the suttas and the modern conceptions of unconscious/conscious for clarity.

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This has been an excellent discussion to read so far and it expanded and encompassed some issues that I had avoided including in my OP as reasons for asking the question. I hope I am not further side-tracking the discussion but one of the issues I was also thinking about (and maybe relevant to the discussion above between @Giovanni and @stu) was Autonomic Nervous System https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomic_nervous_system
These processes go on irrespective of attention or awareness (irrespective of the nuances in the definition). The mind cannot wait around to process them even when one’s attention and awareness is fixed on other things.
This idea of single sense-consciousness/contact processing at a time seems to be abhidhammic concept and the issue I had was that it becomes a necessity only if each such contact has to deposit its data to a single substratum in a serial fashion (with or without conscious awareness), which very much is a “self-like” mind construct. If there is to be no such construct (no self), there is no need or necessity for events to get processed one at a time.
I hope I am being clear in my description and making sense.
with much metta,

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I agree, nicely put :+1: :clap:
In my opinion seeing how viññāṇa operates outside of one’s awareness leads to a strong insight into its not-self nature. That’s why sati is so important in this regard.

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