Subconsciousness: why is it missing in the suttas

I’m dredging up Western psychology’s use of the notion of the subconscious, especially as it relates to distressing dreams. (No worries – I’m not in distress as I compose this :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:.)

In particular, from the rudimentary exposure I’ve had to Jungian theory over the years, I recall that a person’s dreams are simply a mirror-like reflection of whatever’s hiding out in the psyche. Anything and anyone that shows up in a dream is only that, no matter how distressing it might feel.

I found a couple of older SuttaCentral D&D threads sniffing around at dreams and the subconscious. I’m pulling quotes from one of them below:

Bhante (responding to someone’s question) goes on to cite the one place we might find a related term:

One can see in the Digital Pāli Dictionary (DPD) that the only time viññāṇasota occurs in the suttas is here. So from a dhamma perspective I can see why it’s hard, if not impossible, to talk to a term that occurs only once in the pāli suttas.

As a lay person, the Jungian notion helped me become curious about distressing dreams rather than dismiss them completely. Also, deeply motivated by my Buddhist practice now, I do this because I’d like to know what my awake mind is likely avoiding.

If a dream can tell me that, I feel like it’s a kind of special tool to counter the ignorance fetter. It’s not uncommon that a soft inquiry into a distressing dream becomes a contemplation object during meditation; sometimes it even transmutes into heart-radiating compassion and insight.

Still, I’m stymied by the recurrence of distressing dreams that keep generating the same emotional content. I’ve noticed on multi-day meditation retreats that these types of dreams dissipate or go away completely; however, once I’m back in the thick of things (as they say), I find myself working with this again.

Also, some of the content in distressing dreams feels so old – it has been showing up for as long as I can remember – that I wonder if it is, in part, related to viññāṇasota from past kamma. (How far back does this stuff go?)

Wouldn’t this put a premium on working a bit with distressing dreams (or just dreams in general)? If there’s any validity to the Jungian notion of the psyche – if there’s any compatibility with the dhamma, why does it seem so nowhere in the suttas? Maybe that’s actually the question.

Truly, I’m interested in your kind feedback!



Subconsciousness: why is it missing in the suttas

Because it wasn’t relevant.

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The Buddha said that bad dreams are a result of anger.

Great! That’s exactly how to work through anger :blush: Just make sure to make time for this kind of meditation every day to work through things as they come up so that they don’t accumulate.

Forever :grimacing:

A lot of the workings of the subconscious I would actually classify as saññā: the web of mental associations, memories, and “ready-to-hand” perceptions which present themselves unbidden to consciousness.


Thank you :blush: @Khemarato.bhikkhu! I’m quite interested in this angle … realizing that dream-stuff wasn’t particularly germane to Vedic thought to begin with (thanks for the reminder, @Ceisiwr :joy:) …

… can you expand on any sutta where the Buddha connected the dots between distressing dreams & anger? As you are able…


When anger’s incinerated you sleep at ease.
~ SN 1.71

Though other suttas mention the other two root poisons as well:

A brahmin who is fully extinguished
always sleeps at ease.
~ AN 3.35

This sutta claims that “mere” release through loving-kindness (the antidote to ill-will, no?) ensures a good night’s sleep:

Mendicants, you can expect eight benefits when the heart’s release by love has been cultivated, developed, and practiced, made a vehicle and a basis, kept up, consolidated, and properly implemented. What eight? You sleep at ease. You wake happily. You don’t have bad dreams…
~ AN 8.1


Hi @BethL

The subconsciousness is very important in Dhamma i feel. The mind gets engaged with sense-objects in a subconscious unvoluntairy/instinctive way. In the Pali Canon this is described in different ways: In general, engagement via 3 roots lobha, dosa and moha. And in detail: via 7 anusaya or latent tendencies.

The mind gets subconsciously engaged via 7 anusaya with a sense-object. For example, If pain arises, the dormant or subconscious dosa-anusaya gets triggered and the mind gets via dislike, anger, resistance engaged with that pain. Probably also mana and avijja anusaya are triggered which means that mind also gets engaged with the pain in the sense that there is the perception of Me having pain, me being the owner of that pain.

This subconsciously happening engagement is never a choice of a self or some conscious decision of us or others No, it has a historical ground. From times without beginning sense-objects have certain interests for the mind. This aligns with the evolutionairy perspective. The growl of a lion will, ofcourse, get the interest of the mind. The form of woman has a certain interest for the mind of a man.
So, many sense-object have a historically grown interest of the mind and that often awakens in daily life. Signs.

An arahant is a mind without any unvoluntairy engagement. All subconscious tendencies (anusaya) are uprooted. They do not hook or glue anymore to the perceptions.

In practise, there is almost always an engaged kind of knowing. It is convenient to call this kamma-vinnana and distinguish this from bare sense vinnana’s. MN28 describes this kamma vinnana.
It is conditioned by engagement.

An arahant has no kamma vinnana anymore because all 7 subconscious abiding tendencies are uprooted. So no subconscious engagement takes place. But still vinnana’s as perceptions arise and cease but now detached. This is called Nibbana and Buddha described it as Peak of Peace, Peace of Heart, the sublime state of supreme peace, everlasting, imperishable.

The subconsciousness is an important concept in Dhamma because for the Buddha it was really important that the absence of active defilements (such as anger) does not mean that anger is really absent. It only lies dormant. It is only present in a subconscious way to arise again when conditions are met. Buddha just calls all of this mind. When he says we purify mind he means that we purify these subconscious tendencies. We remove them from the mind.

This is really important in Dhamma because Nibbana is not refered to as the absence of active defilements but the uprooting of these dormant patterns of unvoluntairy or instinctive engagement (anusaya). So things like greed and anger cannot arise in an unvoluntairy way anymore.

Engagement on the level of anusaya is not our choice. This initial attachment via emotions, via views, via conceit happens beyond our control and will. But the next phase, upadana, is different. This phase is about feeding the initial attachment. Fueling it. Upadana is like throwing more wood on a fire.
For example: is it really my choice as a man that i like the woman form and see its beauty and find it attractive? It is just historically grown that way. But i can now choice what to do with it. Feed it or not feed it.

This does not really deal with dreams, but i feel that one can say that the anusaya are Buddha’s way to talk about a subconscious unvoluntairy first engagement with a sense object.


The part about sleep is the same, but there is a slightly longer list of benefits at an11.15, just as an fyi.


asamāhitassa savanti, abhijjhā byāpāda pamāda bahulassa.

@BethL This is an interesting question and one of those avenues that was picked up and explored by later traditions, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. Just goes to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the teachings. Even now practitioners are coming up with their own “methods” and “systems” by focusing on and exploring one or a few aspects. In academia, every year Ph.Ds are awarded on investigating questions like yours! There are too many questions to explore and study :blush: and that is such a great thing!
Anyway, here are many books on the topic as explored by the Tibetan schools, some are free to download:


One thing about dreams in the suttas, they do come up a few places, enough to say a few things about them. But it is really noticeable how the suttas ignore completely the Upanishadic treatment of dreams.

Dreams in the Upanishads are incredibly important, and are directly related to enlightenment. What exactly these passages mean is, in my view, one of the most mysterious questions in reading the Upanishads. Are they really just literal dreams? (sometimes they are!) Or are they metaphors or allegories for meditation states? Or something else (a description of Soma-induced visions???).

Regardless, it is clear the Buddha directly rejected the idea that dreams have any particular spiritual significance. In fact, I believe that the very choice of the word bodhi is deliberately to oppose the Upanishadic dreaming with the Buddhist “awakening”.

Now, that dreams do not have a “spiritual” (i.e. liberating) significance does not mean that they can’t have an emotional and psychological significance. But the modern idea of dream interpretation was over 2000 years in the future, and for all that time people thought of dreams as portents.

FWIW I don’t think the “stream of consciousness” has anything to do with the unconscious. A better fit would be “ignorance”, particularly in its form of the anusaya “underlying tendencies”.

There aren’t any sutta concepts that directly map on the western idea of the unconscious, but the idea of “ignorance” is that we constantly act (i.e. “ignorance conditions choices”), for good or for ill, in ways that we don’t understand. The reasons why we do the things we do lie hidden to us, at least relatively. The more wisdom we have, the more we bring things into the light and can understand our own actions.

Ignorance/unconscious is not inherently bad at a moral level (since a person with ignorance can and often does choose to do good things), but is the source of both good and bad choices. But as people interested in alleviating suffering, both the Buddha and Freud focused on the harmful effects of ignorance/unconscious. For the psychoanalysts this meant bringing dysfunctional dynamics to light and healing the unconscious, whereas for the Buddha it means eliminating ignorance altogether and thus being liberated from all choices both good and bad.

Again, to be clear, I’m not equating these things, simply pointing out that there are genuine similarities which offer an entry point for someone interested to pursue the question.

PSA: The term subconscious is rarely if ever used by Freud and Jung, etc., and in the sense meant here they always use unconscious. Subconscious is used in pop psych and new age.


I believe Buddha’s mother had a spiritual meaningful dream of an elephant entering into her belly? I do not know exactly the dream anymore.

Why do you believe it is important that people know there is no spiritual significance in dreams?

Buddhha answer is that we do not understand the nature of mind. We have never seen its deathless nature. This is why we act this or that way.

Better to live a single day
seeing the state free of death
than to live a hundred years
blind to the state free of death. (Dhp100-115)

Until now we have failed to see this state free of death. This means, we are trapped in a vision of birth, decay, death, while we are identified with body and vinnana. Identified with body and vinnana…how can one feel safe, protected? How can one be not anxious and have peace of heart? We protect body and vinnana as me, mine, my self. This keeps us trapped in that vision of birth, decay, death, fear, unease.

Over time this is ingrained and has become automatic, habit, instinctive pattern (anusaya). It is not really a choice. No one choices for this protectiveness and attachment, and the suffering, unease, affliction that comes with it. Like it is not ones choice to breath in and breath out, initial engagement or attachment with a sense object is also no choice. Habitual forces rule. And those rely on the vision that we are body and vinnana. Seeing body and vinnana as me, mine, my self again feeds those tendencies in the subconsciousness and they become even stronger. Anusaya surely directly map to the unconscious or subconsciousness. Conditioning also refers to that. Like planting seeds but those seeds are not visible and they lie dormant. Kamma seed is also a concept that directly maps to the un/subconsciousness.

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It is heartening to me that the Buddha focused solely on what we can achieve while we are awake – literally and figuratively. Some frustration about dreams is that it feels like I’m not in a place of agency when it comes to the content (especially when it comes to distressing content, not so much neutral content).

This concords with your comment in the Translitteration thread and it reinforces a way to work with the dream & emotional content during awake hours. I.e., working with the anusaya or underlying tendencies.

So the psychoanalytic paradigm presupposes a wound – I mean, that’s why I sought “healing” in that modality in the past, as well as in some others. In particular, emotions of shame, guilt, and loss/grief persisting in the waking hours. Now, not so much after many years of Buddhist meditation. (Granted, the “emotion” terms I use are modern & Western.)

I’ll keep contemplating this … I meet & talk with others who feel as if there is already a wound that needs healing, even though they may be quite functional (vs. dysfunctional). When the only salve in sight is the Buddha’s long path (noble 8fold path here) but someone is clearly in pain, I’m not sensing they can get past the distraction of pain without … adding something else in the beginning (whatever we call that…a modality?).

This thread has been an educational tonic for me! :heart_eyes: :pray:t3: Thanks to Bhante and to all.


Considering dreams, especially bad dreams, as portents is not morally neutral, as some examples in the Jatakas show. King Pasenadi hears frightening sounds in his dreams, and his advisors recommend a great sacrifice with the slaughter of many animals in order to “neutralize” the bad effect of the dream. But the Buddha advises not to sacrifice animals, and instead gives alternative explanations of the bad dreams (Ja 77, 314, and 418; we find an echo of that in SN 3.9).

The only exception could be the five “great dreams” the bodhisatta has shortly before his awakening (see AN 5.196).


I heard first Tibetan teachers in the West were very surprised that the mind of the average westener is so plagued by guild. They do not seem to have this emotion that one deeply feels bad about oneself.
I once saw a tibetan monk/teacher who shared about his relation with a woman. He seemingly felt no guild at all. He was ashamed but felt no guild. No moment he felt bad about himself. Amazing.

I feel most people here in the Netherlands also have a very strong sense of guild and almost all feel fundamentally bad about themselves. I feel this gives us a lot of inner pressure. We even start to do good deeds to feel good about ourselves. It is like we are always compensating that bad feeling.
When we do not do that, that guild becomes like a mental black hole.

Guild is something that is almost characteric to our minds here. Good deeds also do not seem to make an end to that. Good deeds rather consolidate that we feel bad about ourselves.

Namo Buddhaya!

He maintained that acts done in a dream are intentional but the kammavipaka is rather negligible.

Soon afterwards some monks ate fine foods, fell asleep absentminded and heedless, and emitted semen while dreaming. They became anxious, thinking, “The Buddha has laid down a training rule that intentional emission of semen is an offense entailing suspension. We had an emission while dreaming, which is not without intention. Could it be that we’ve committed an offense entailing suspension?” They told the Buddha. “It’s true, monks, that a dream is not without intention, but it’s negligible. SuttaCentral

Based on this i think the correct representation is that dreams have negligible spiritual significance rather than having none.

Right, yes, it is a grey area. Someone can be perfectly “functional” and still there lurks something ready to trip them up!

As a general rule, the eightfold path helps people with a reasonably healthy mind to become even better, like an exercise program. Therapy helps heal those with distress in mind, like medical treatment and rehabilitation. The boundaries are never 100%, but generally a medical professional will consider that when the patient is able to function normally, their job is done.

However, and to continue the metaphor, if someone is attempting to get fitter by jogging, and whenever they run they get chest pains, it’s probably a sign that they need to see a doctor, even if they are normally okay.

Same thing in the Dhamma. If practice is going fine, then good. But if when you meditate, for example, you continually get hit with overwhelming memories or emotions that are distressing, and which do not confine themselves to the meditation, then it’s a sign that you should maybe check in with a therapist. Maybe it’s nothing, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

Indeed yes. The boundary between these different ways of seeing is not as clear cut as we might think. I was simply generalizing, and if the few cases of significant dreams are interesting, it seems to me that the rareness of such cases is also interesting.

Sure, indeed it’s never really the case that moral intentionality is entirely absent.