Viññāṇa anidassana: the state of boundless consciousness

(This essay is also available in the MettāShelf Library in various formats.)


A wide range of opinions has long surrounded two innocent Pali words: viññāṇa anidassana. They are translated variously, as ‘consciousness that is without feature / signless / invisible / non-manifesting / makes no showing / can not be characterized’, et cetera. This variety already indicates that their meaning is somewhat obscure. This obscurity has, however, not stopped interpreters from giving the words a lot of importance, because some see in viññāṇa anidassana a kind of consciousness essentially equal to nibbāna.1 But there are many problems with this, starting with the following:

  • No sutta equates nibbāna to any type of consciousness.
  • Many suttas do the exactly opposite: they relate nibbāna to the cessation of consciousness,2 and equate consciousness to suffering.3
  • There are only two mentions of viññāṇa anidassana in the Pali suttas, and other early suttas don't have the concept at all. This makes the words not only difficult to interpret, but also unlikely to be a core teaching on such a central topic as nibbāna.

Some things are just best explained in writing—hence this essay. I show here that viññāṇa anidassana is not nibbāna, but a poetic description of the state of boundless consciousness, the second “formless” meditation state. Most of the arguments were made before by others.4 I gathered them here, together with a few thoughts of my own.

This essay analyses rare terms in abstract texts. However, it also illustrates the nature of Pali verse, and provides a good example of how to apply the Buddha's advise on deciding what his real teachings were.

For accessibility I have mostly adopted common translations for Pali words—such as ‘form’ for rūpa—even though these may not be my personal preferences.

The Kevaddha Sutta

As stated, the suttas mention viññāṇa anidassana twice: once in the Kevaddha (With Kevaddha) Sutta,5 and once in the Brahmanimantaṇika (Invitation of a Brahmā) Sutta.6 We will look at them separately.

In the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha tells a layman named Kevaddha a story of an unnamed monk who ascends various heavens searching for an answer to a question. This monk's strategy is, to put it mildly, somewhat unusual. Monks ordinarily brought their questions directly to the Buddha or one of his close disciples. The story seems to be symbolic, the monk's astral travels being a metaphor for looking for enlightenment in the wrong place. The story specifically parodies brahmin ideas, because the gods, including Brahmā, all failed to answer the monk's question.

To put a long story short: After visiting higher and higher heavens while never finding an answer, the monk ends up asking Brahmā his question: “Where do the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—cease without remnant?” He essentially wants to know where form (rūpa) ceases, because according to the ideas of the time “all form of whatever kind is the four elements”.7 Brahmā does not know the answer, so he sends the monk to the Buddha, who, when asked the same question, says it should be rephrased. He changes the question from “where do earth, water, fire, and air [i.e. form] cease without remnant?” to “where do earth, water, fire, and air find no footing?” (This change is quite significant, as we'll see later.) The Buddha then also adds a second question, asking where not only rūpa, but nāma ceases too. (Nāma, literally ‘name’, in this context means something like ‘personal characteristics’. It stands for the immaterial aspects of an individual being, excluding consciousness. I will leave it untranslated.)

The Buddha presents the two questions in a six-line verse, and then answers those questions in two separate verses:

[Q1] “Where do earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing?
[Q2] Where do the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
where do nāma and form
fully come to cease?

For that the explanation is:

[A1] Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing.

[A2] Here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”8

(A similar structure of multiple questions and answers exists in Sutta Nipata 4.11.)

But now comes the crux of the matter. Some interpret the two answer verses to contain one single answer—somewhat like this:

[A] “Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing,
here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

This tiny change in punctuation—removing a period—turns it all into quite a riddle. Boundless consciousness now seems to be equal to the cessation of nāma and form, and therefore (if we also ignore the last two lines) to nibbāna.

The underlying problem is that the original Pali manuscripts do not have punctuation such as periods and question marks. Translators have to add these themselves, and it is not always obvious where to do so. In this case the various lines starting with the word ‘here’ can easily confuse. It may even be that the transition between the two answers is somewhat vague on purpose. The Buddha could be saying something like: “I got a lot of money … stolen from me!” The meaning only becomes clear when you come to the end, to the cessation of consciousness. This is a poetical device if anything, and we are talking about poems here.

Either way, there are various more concrete reasons to divide the answer verses into two:

  • All translators seem to recognize there are two sentences in the question verse, because it has two main verbs: ‘find a footing’ and ‘come to cease’. But many seem to miss that these two verbs ask very different things. ‘To find no footing’ means something very different than ‘to cease’. This is exactly why the Buddha made the change in the monk's original question! So, there being two distinct questions, there should be two distinct answers too.
  • The first answer ends with a main verb (gādhati ‘find footing’), which in Pali commonly indicates the end of a sentence.
  • Sentences only rarely run from one verse to the next.
  • The first answer verse mentions the existence of a type of consciousness (boundless consciousness), the second the cessation of consciousness. These opposites are not both part of the same answer.
  • Most importantly, when seen as two seperate answers, the verses become standard teachings found throughout the suttas, not unique ones found only here (which they would be if viññāṇa anidassana were nibbāna).

The rest of this section clarifies this last statement in detail. But first it is important to emphasize that the questions and answers are all verse. Pali verse always needs to fit a certain pattern called ‘meter’. To be able to comply to this meter, verses are very free in their use of words. They often depart from convention or even literal accuracy, using what is known as poetic licence. In the analysis of verse these matters should always be taken into account.

The first question

Let me isolate the first question and answer:

[Q1] “Where do earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing?”

[A1] “Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing.”

Remember, the question essentially asks, “where does form find no footing?” The answer—“boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining”—refers to the state of boundless consciousness, the second so-called formless state of meditation, also known as ‘the base of infinite consciousness’, or sometimes called ‘the sixth jhāna’. This is evident from the words ‘boundless’ (ananta) and ‘consciousness’ (viññāṇa). Not only do these make up the very name of the state of boundless consciousness, they also describe its attainment in the common formula, “focusing on ‘boundless consciousness’, one attains the state of boundless consciousness.”9 The state of boundless consciousness is the only context in the suttas which uses the words ‘boundless’ and ‘consciousness’ together. It also occurs very frequently, so we should naturally assume the Buddha is referring to it here. Otherwise, if he would for example refer to nibbāna, he introduces here a teaching which is totally unique, in obscure verse, in just five words, out of which two would be easily mistaken as something else (namely the state of boundless consciousness).

In Pali the five words making up the answer are:

viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ   (consciousness invisible)
anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ   (boundless fully shining)

These words seem to be forced into their particular order by the meter of the verse, which requires eight syllables in each line. As A.K. Warder, a leading scholar of Pali verse, wrote: “Poetic licence is most noticeable in the freedom of word order in verse.”10 This means ‘boundless’ can be taken as the central adjective describing ‘consciousness’, with ‘invisible’ and ‘fully shining’ being secondary to it. That is to say, the latter two apply not to ‘consciousness’, but to ‘boundless consciousness’ as a whole. It is not consciousness that is fully shining and invisible, it is boundless consciousness that is. I rearranged the words in my translation to clarify this. (Such rearrangement, let it be clear, is done often in translations of Pali.)

The term ‘fully shining’ (sabbato pabhaṁ) is a metaphor, of course. The state of boundless consciousness does not literally give off light. It refers to the absence of the five mental hindrances in deep meditation. As the Upakkilesa (Impurities) Sutta in the Aṅguttara Nikāya says: “when the mind is freed from these five impurities [i.e. hindrances] it is shining.”11 The suttas often compare a mind in deep meditation to something that gives off light, most commonly a fire.12

Aside from the hindrances, another thing that is notably absent in the state of boundless consciousness is perceptions pertaining to ‘form’13 (which I understand to be a subtle mental perception of, not a perception of the body). This is addressed by anidassana, translated here quite literally as ‘invisible’. Since the meaning of rūpa includes ‘appearance’,14 arūpa means ‘without appearance’, thus ‘invisible’. This translation is in accordance with the apparent meaning of anidassana in the Saṅgīti Sutta, which mentions visible form and invisible form (i.e. material form and the more subtle types such as in meditation).15 The only other text that gives a useful context for anidassana is the Kakacūpama Sutta, which says one can not paint the sky because “the sky is without form, invisible” (ākāso arūpī anidassano).16 Here we see anidassana indeed as a synonym of arūpa.17

We should not need to look for a deeper meaning behind anidassana, because, as accurately stated by Warder again, in verse “the need to fit the sentence to the meter influences the choice of vocabulary, so that unusual synonyms and rare words may be used.”18 Anidassanaṁ fits this perfectly: it is a rare and unusual synonym which supplies the meter arūpaṁ and anantaṁ could not. In summary, all it does is metaphorically describe the absence of form in the state of boundless consciousness, the second formless state.

Let's return to the question, “where does form find no footing?” Why is the answer the second formless state and not the first? This is because form can still “find a footing” in the first formless state, the state of boundless space. According to Sariputta in the Nibbānasukha Sutta, a perception pertaining to form can infiltrate this state and bring the mind back to the fourth jhāna: “After the complete transcendence of perceptions of forms, […] focusing on boundless space, a monk attains the state of boundless space. If in that state he begins to perceive or focus back on forms, that will be an affliction to him.”19 The state of boundless consciousness is the lowest meditative state which can not be directly disturbed by such perceptions, and therefore it is “where form finds no footing”.

The state of boundless consciousness is still just a temporary escape from form, however, which explains why the Buddha changed the monk's question from “where does do earth, water, fire, and air [i.e. form] cease without remnant?”, which implies permanent cessation, to “where do do earth, water, fire, and air find no footing?”, which only implies a temporary inability to infiltrate. This change in the question can not be explained if the boundless consciousness of the Kevaddha Sutta were to be a permanent escape from form, like nibbāna.

As sidenote, two other Pali suttas contain verses with the phrase “where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing”20 and one has a similar line in an inspired utterance, which is technically prose, but is still very poetical.21 These three suttas all refer to the cessation of the aggregates (khandhas) after the death of an enlightened one, often called parinibbāna.22 This does not pose any problems for the ideas laid out above, because form not only finds no footing in the state of boundless consciousness, but after parinibbāna finds no footing anywhere either. In other words: “where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing” is just a partial description of parinibbāna that also applies to the state of boundless consciousness. Just because it refers to parinibbāna in these suttas, does not mean it also does in the Kevaddha Sutta. A line of verse can describe one thing in one context, and another thing in another context. This is quite common in the suttas. An example is found right here in the Kevaddha Sutta. The line “the long and short, the small and gross, the fair and ugly”, which has such a deep meaning here, elsewhere simply refers to things one should not steal.23

The second question

Here are the second question and answer again:

[Q2] “Where do the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
where do nāma and form
fully come to cease?”

[A2] “Here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

Remember that this question was not originally asked by the monk, but was added by the Buddha. The Buddha did so to indicate the monk's quest for the cessation of form did not reach far enough. The formless, included in nāma, must cease as well.

The answer reflects a teaching found at least a hundred times elsewhere in the Pali Canon: “when consciousness ceases, nāma and form will cease”—a stock phrase of Dependent Arising.24 So here too, just as with the first question, the Buddha rephrases a teaching his audience would have been familiar with.

We find the same teaching in the Ajita's Question Sutta in the Pārāyana Vagga:25

“As to where nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

This verse is virtually identical to the Kevaddha Sutta. Yet the Ajita's Question Sutta makes no mention of viññāṇa anidassana or anything alike. The verse stands on its own as a complete teaching. This confirms that in the Kevaddha Sutta “where nāma and form fully come to cease” is only connected to the cessation of consciousness, not to viññāṇa anidassana.

Now nearing the end of Kevaddha Sutta, we can assume the astral-traveling monk of the story understood the Buddha's teachings, since after the verses nothing else is asked. And after being told the story, Kevaddha also asks no further. Throughout the suttas the Buddha is repeatedly asked to explain short statements he made, so the fact that neither the monk nor Kevaddha asked for an explanation, indicates that the verses included no concepts that were new to them. They contained standard teachings. And this is how verse always works in the canon: it gives summaries, in florid language that's meant to inspire rather than inform. It does not introduce unique and elevated teachings, especially not on something as central to the Buddha's thought as nibbāna.

The monk and Kevaddha may have only understood things on a theoretical level, though, because neither is said to have gained any noteworthy insights afterwards. This can be taken as another indication that these verses contain nothing special. If they contained a unique, deep teaching, we could expect it to be received with a bang. But instead we are treated with an anticlimax: Kevaddha was just “happy with what the Buddha said”. Compare this for example with the Fire Discourse,26 where a thousand monks are said to have become enlightened. And all this text says about consciousness is that “it is burning”.

For completeness, here are some more technicalities concerning the second question and answer:

  • The phrase “long, short, small and gross, and fair and ugly” is obviously poetical, even in English. Elsewhere the exact same phrase refers to what should not be stolen,27 so it seems to simply mean ‘everything’. This makes contextual sense, since when consciousness and nāmarūpa cease, all suffering ceases.
  • The word nirujjhati (‘cease’) of the monk's original question is not adopted by the Buddha in his question, but changed for the synonomous uparujjhati (‘come to cease’). This is another instance of adjusting to the meter. Uparujjhati is one syllable longer, making the line the required eight syllables long. A change of prefix (in this case upa- for ni-) to make a word fit the meter is common. As Warder states: “[In verse] a prefix may be dropped or added where the meaning of the sentence will tolerate a slight change of nuance.”28 Uparujjhati is almost exclusively used in verse, supporting this case.
  • Contrary to what others have argued, uparujjhati is simply a synonym of nirujjhati, and it does not mean ‘hold in check’ or something alike. This is clear from all other contexts the word is used in. To give one example: “They who understand suffering, the origin of suffering, and where suffering totally, fully comes to cease (uparujjhati) […]”29 Here uparujjhati of course refers to dukkha-nirodha, the cessation of suffering, not its “holding in check”.
  • The word ‘here’ (ettha) can mean ‘here’ in the widest sense of the word: ‘at this place’, ‘in this state’, ‘at this time’, or ‘in this case’. The latter two are applicable here, since the ceasing of consciousness is not a place but an event.

On a more speculative note, the search for the cessation of form is reminiscent of certain ideas found in Brahmanism. Put briefly, some brahmins thought that by shedding their own form they could merge with the Brahman, the universal consciousness.30 This may explain why the Buddha tells Kevaddha a story wherein he shows his knowledge to be superior to Brahmā (who brahmins took as the highest manifestation of Brahman), while specifically mentioning the cessation of consciousness. Interestingly, the brahmin texts, the Upaniṣads, also describe Brahman as ‘boundless’.31

To summarize, the verses of the Kevaddha Sutta poetically rephrase two teachings encountered throughout the suttas: (1) the state of boundless consciousness and (2) the cessation of consciousness along with nāmarūpa.

The Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta

The only other occurrence of viññāṇa anidassana is found in the Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta,32 which portrays a discussion between the Buddha and Brahmā Baka. Here too, just like in the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha shows his knowledge to be superior to a Brahmā god. The passage we are concerned with is abstract and not easy to translate. It says something like this:

“Boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining: that is outside the solidity of earth, outside the wetness of water, the heat of fire, the movement of air, the being of beings, the godhood of the gods, the Creator-hood of the Creator, the Brahmāhood of Brahmā, the Streaming Radiance of [the Gods of] Streaming Radiance, the Refulgent Glory of [the Gods of] Refulgent Glory, the Great Fruit of [the Gods of] Great Fruit, the Overlordship of the Overlord, and outside the allness of all.”33

Given the clarity of the phrase in the Kevaddha Sutta, it would make sense for “boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining” to refer the state of boundless consciousness here too. The four elements and the various worlds mentioned are indeed all part of the realm of forms, existing outside of this formless state.34 “The allness of all” poses a problem, though, as it can be interpreted to include the formless, and thus the state of boundless consciousness itself. But there are some ways to reconcile this.

First option. Although ‘all’ (sabba) elsewhere occasionally refers to the six senses,35 this does not have to be the case here. ‘All’ is an indefinite word which (in both English and Pali) does not have a single fixed meaning. Here ‘all’ could just refer to the four elements and all the heavenly worlds mentioned before it, which together make up all the form realms. Considering how detailed the enumeration of these worlds is, we could expect a similar enumeration for the formless realms, if these were also included in ‘all’. That this does not happen suggests that ‘all’ here only means all the form realms.

The second option relies on the fact that the different Pali versions disagree on who spoke the words quoted above. Only the Burmese edition attributes them to the Buddha; the Thai, Sri Lankan and PTS editions all attribute them to Brahmā Baka.36 Moreover, the Burmese version is broken, missing an iti (end quote marker) after the passage, which is be needed to give the word back to Baka. So it too does not fully attribute boundless consciousness to the Buddha. In the Chinese parallel in the Madhyama Āgama the exchange is very different, but it also has Baka making a claim to be “conscious of boundless elements”, not the Buddha.37

Some translators follow the majority of editions and attribute the lines to Baka,38 while others follow the unique Burmese edition and attribute them to the Buddha.39 The latter might do so because the Buddha spoke the same lines in the Kevaddha Sutta, but there is no reason why Baka could not have spoken them here. Lines of verse continually reoccur throughout the Nikāyas, being spoken by different people. Adopting verses of others seems to have been a common practice of the time.

There are also some good contextual reasons to attribute the words to Baka:

  • When there is an change of speaker in the suttas, the new speaker always addresses the other by name or title. They say for example “Sir Gotama”, “Great King”, or “Venerable”. Throughout this sutta the Buddha continually addresses Baka as “Brahmā”, but the quote above lacks such an address. This indicates the speaker has not changed, and Baka is still speaking.
  • The sutta begins with Baka claiming “this is permanent, this is everlasting, this is eternal … and beyond this there is no other escape.” According to the commentary this refers to Baka's heaven realm.40 However, this is not at all clear from the sutta itself (which is likely why the commentator felt a need to comment). I take Baka to instead refer to viññāṇa anidassana, which he mistakes to be permanent, outside “the allness of all”.
  • After the words are spoken, Baka tries to vanish. This seems a random act, unless we translate anidassana as ‘invisible’ and attribute it to Baka. By attempting to vanish (which he fails to do) he might try to show off his attainment.
  • Just like in the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha here too ends the conversation by alluding to cessation. He says: “I have seen existence will come to an end, so do not welcome any type of existence.”41 Here “any type of existence” includes any type of consciousness, but the Buddha, trying to teach Baka a lesson, was referring especially to boundless consciousness. Moreover, if “boundless consciousness” was already the Buddha's highest teaching on nibbāna, this statement on the cessation of existence would be very much out of place.

To summarize these points, Bhikkhu Anālayo wrote: “A coherent reading of the Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta is possible with the same reference [to boundless consciousness] being attributed to Baka Brahmā.”42

A third option is that neither the Buddha nor Baka ever spoke these words. After all, the suttas are not a flawless record of facts. The Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta is also a very esoteric discourse, one of the most abstract in the entire Canon. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi it could be seen “as a dramatic representation of the same ideas set forth by the Mūlapariyāya [Sutta] in abstract philosophical terms”.43 Someone other than the Buddha may well have been inspired to compose this text. Its anti-brahmanical tone also indicates it to be a piece of later propaganda. The text may have its origin in the Baka Sutta,44 a discourse in the Saṁyutta Nikāya that portrays the same meeting, but with a much more standard story line.

I will let the reader decide which, if any, of these three options they prefer to reconcile the “allness of all” problem. Either way—and may this be the take-home—I think it is unwise to let questionable suttas such as this inform us on something as important as nibbāna. We'd better rely on the hundreds, if not thousands, of passages that mention the impermanence of consciousness.


In the opening of the Kevaddha Sutta the layman Kevaddha asks the Buddha for a superhuman miracle. The Buddha responds monks like him should not show off such things. But there is one miracle he is willing to show, the one he calls “the miracle of instruction”. Of course the Buddha did not show this miracle only in the Kevaddha Sutta. The suttas contain abundant repetitions, synonyms, and definitions, which shows he always took great care to avoid possible confusion and to convey the essence of his teachings many times. As he himself said, he did not have a “close fist”, meaning he did not keep certain teachings for certain occasions only. So when a certain passage is hard to make sense of, we should never assume that it presents something unique. Instead, we should try to interpret it in a way that fits the suttas as a whole, and this is especially the case when dealing with verse. We then follow the advice given in the Mahaparinibbāna Sutta,45 which says questionable teachings should be compared with the suttas before concluding “this is indeed the word of the Blessed One”.

Seeing viññāṇa anidassana as a description of the state of boundless consciousness does exactly that. It results in teachings that resound throughout the discourses: the state of boundless consciousness is a state which is formless (“invisible”) and without hindrances (“fully shining”), but is nevertheless still impermanent and therefore inferior to the cessation of consciousness. And that is indeed the word of the Blessed One.

Back matter


  1. The first to equate viññāṇa anidassana to nibbāna is, to my knowledge, Falk 1943. But this and similar ideas are still very alive today.
  2. E.g. SN 1.2, AN 3.90, Snp 3.12, Ud 8.9
  3. E.g. SN 22.10
  4. Anālayo 2017, Brahmali, Sujato 2011a, and Sujato 2011b, among others.
  5. DN 11
  6. MN 49
  7. AN 11.17
  8. DN 11 at 1.223: ‘Kattha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati? Kattha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ; Kattha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṁ uparujjhatī’ti? Tatra veyyākaraṇaṁ bhavati: ‘Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ, anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ; Ettha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati. Ettha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ; Ettha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṁ uparujjhati; Viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṁ uparujjhatī’ti.
  9. E.g. SN 28.6: ‘anantaṁ viññāṇan’ti viññāṇañcāyatanaṁ upasampajja viharāti.
  10. Warder p.354
  11. AN 5.23: Yato ca kho, bhikkhave, cittaṁ imehi pañcahi upakkilesehi vimuttaṁ hoti […] pabhassarañca.
  12. E.g. MN 140 at 3.243, SN 51.22, AN 3.102, Thag 20.1, Dhp 387
  13. E.g. AN 9.31: “For one who has attained the base of boundless space, the perception of form has ceased. For one who has attained the base of boundless consciousness, the perception present in the base of boundless space has ceased.”. C.f. AN 10.6 where in a list of (gradual) cessation of perception the formless attainments follows the four elements, i.e. form.
  14. Cf. e.g. Rhys Davids, PED: “Rūpa: form, figure, appearance, principle of form, etc.”
  15. DN 33 at 3.217: Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho: sanidassanasappaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ, anidassanasappaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ, anidassanāppaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ, “The threefold classification of form: visible tangible form, invisible tangible form, and invisible intangible form.”
  16. MN 21
  17. Cf. Anālayo 2017 p.13: “This [anidassana] also occurs in a description of space, which is said to be immaterial, arūpa, and invisible, anidassana, a context where the two terms seem to function as near synonyms.”
  18. Warder p.354
  19. AN 9.34
  20. SN 1.27 & Ud 1.10. The Chinese parallels of SN 1.27 (SĀ 601 and 2 176) appear not to have “where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing”. Cf. Sujato 2011b.
  21. Ud 8.1
  22. SN 1.27 mentions the cessation of nāmarūpa. In Ud 1.10 the verses were spoken when monks asked about the faith of the arahant Bāhiya who just passed away. Ud 8.1 mentions the absence of all form and the formless. All other factors in this inspired utterance describe the end of rebirth from different perspectives. So all three texts are about nibbāna after death.
  23. MN 98 at 2.121 & Dhp 409
  24. viññāṇanirodhā nāmarūpanirodho in e.g. SN 12.1.
  25. Snp 5.2: yattha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṁ uparujjhati; viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṁ uparujjhati.
  26. SN 35.38
  27. MN 98 at 2.121 & Dhp 409
  28. Warder p.354
  29. SN 56.22
  30. Cf. e.g. Falk p.15ff.
  31. E.g. Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.1: satyaṁ jñānaṁ anantaṁ brahma, yo veda: “They who know Brahman as Truth, as knowledge, as boundless …”
  32. MN 49
  33. MN 49 at 1.329
  34. Cf. Bodhi in Ñāṇamoli n.509.
  35. SN 35.23. Cf. SN 35.28.
  36. I rely on Anālayo 2010 p.297 n.158.
  37. MĀ 78. Cf. Anālayo 2010 pp.296-297: “According to the Madhyama-āgama discourse, in reply to the Buddha's claim to superior knowledge, Brahmā affirmed to have infinite knowledge, an affirmation not recorded in the Majjhima-nikāya version. In this affirmation, Brahmā proclaims to be conscious of infinite [boundless] elements, to have infinite knowledge, and infinite vision.”
  38. E.g. Horner and Sujato 2018.
  39. E.g. Ñāṇamoli and Thanissaro.
  40. MN-A 2.134
  41. MN 49 at 1.330
  42. Anālayo 2017 p.17
  43. Ñāṇamoli n.499
  44. SN 6.4
  45. DN 16 at 2.125


Anālayo 2010 [1,2]
Anālayo — A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Dharma Drum, 2010.
Anālayo 2017 [1,2,3]
Anālayo — The Luminous Mind in Theravāda and Dharmaguptaka Discourses in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies vol.13, pp. 10–50. 2017.
Brahmali [1]
Brahmali, Bhikkhu — What the Nikāyas Say and Do Not Say about Nibbāna in Buddhist Studies Review vol. 26, pp. 33–66. 2009.
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Falk, Maryla — Nāma-rūpa and Dharma-rūpa: origin and aspects of an ancient Indian conception. University of Calcutta, 1943.
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Horner, I.B. — The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima-Nikāya), vol. 1-3. Pali Text Society, 1954-1959.
Ñāṇamoli [1,2,3]
Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (tr.) — The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A new tanslation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Wisdom, 2005.
Rhys Davids [1]
Rhys Davids, T.W. & Stede, W. (ed.) — Pāli-English Dictionary (PED). Pali Text Society, 1921.
Sujato 2011a [1]
Sujato, Bhikkhu — Nibbana is not viññāṇa. Really, it just isn’t. at Sujato's Blog, 2011a.
Sujato 2011b [1,2]
Sujato, Bhikkhu — Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa at Sujato's Blog, 2011b.
Sujato 2018 [1]
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Warder [1,2,3]
Warder, A.K. — Introduction to Pali, Third Edition. Pali Text Society, 2010.


Aṅguttara Nikāya
Dīgha Nikāya
Madhyama Āgama
Majjhima Nikāya
Pali Text Society edition
Saṁyukta Āgama at T 99
Saṁyukta Āgama at T 100
Saṁyutta Nikāya
Sutta Nipāta

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If anyone can make a better PDF or epub out of the html, please do. I don’t really have the knowledge or software for that. :slight_smile:

Sorry, not all reference links seem to work, both here on the forum and [fixed] in the PDF.

(I was quite happy I could just copy-paste the html here and it seems to work!! mostly.)


So I wrote this a few years ago, but never bothered to share it. But then there was this thread which reminded me.

Please let me know any comments, questions, etc. I consider the essay still a work in progress, so I might incorporate your ideas one day. :slight_smile:

May you be well! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:


If nibbana is consciousness then what’s the problem ?

1 Like

Thank you for these interesting considerations, Venerable! :pray:

… which lead me to a question for Bhante @sujato: Bhante, in your translation of this passage, both in DN 11 and MN 49, the radiance seems to have disappeared from consciousness. In this essay you are still speaking of a consciousness that is “invisible, infinite, and all-radiant”, but now in your translation, this has been “entirely given up” … why?

DN11:85.18: ‘Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ,
“Consciousness that’s invisible,
DN11:85.19: anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;
infinite, entirely given up:

And the same in MN 49.


Awesome essay, venerable, thanks so much. It makes a lot of sense, especially the idea of anidassana being equivalent to arūpa. We’d certainly find, I think, that a closer look at the Upanishads reveals more references to something like the dimension of infinite consciousness.

I also like the idea of swapping the sequence of terms. You are quite right, this is the kind of thing that is done all the time, and clearly ananta should be taken as the primary adjective. Maybe I’ll update my translation.

The term pa[b]haṁ has two readings, from pajahati “giving up” or pabhā “light”. There’s no really strong reason to choose one or the other, so I am open to being persuaded!


I hate to do this but here it goes.

  1. Whatever vinnanam anidsssanam is, it is said to be associated with a uparujjhati [stopping/cessation] of name [contact, perception, feeling, sankhara].

If you were correct it would merely be a uparujjhati of rupa and not of nāmañca.

The arupa jhana are associated with ‘name’, these states are construed, perceived & felt, the contact therein is at the mind base and they are known by that which is called ‘mind, intellect or consciousness’ which is at that time divorced from the five sense faculties.

I don’t know how you arrived at the conclusion that the arupajhana is associated with a cessation of consciousness.

“Consciousness that’s invisible,
‘Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ,
infinite, entirely given up [alt luminous]:
anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ;
Variant: sabbatopabhaṁ → (?)
that’s where water and earth,
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
fire and air find no footing.
tejo vāyo na gādhati.
And that’s where long and short,
Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly—
aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ;
that’s where name and form
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
cease with nothing left over.
asesaṁ uparujjhati;
With the cessation of consciousness,
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
that’s where they cease.”’”
etthetaṁ uparujjhatī’”ti.

  1. The luminousity is likely the same luminosity that is ascribed to a mind that is freed from defimenents;

This mind, mendicants, is radiant.
“Pabhassaramidaṁ, bhikkhave, cittaṁ.
But it’s corrupted by passing corruptions.”
Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhan”ti. - an1.49

  1. The boundless ‘anantaṁ’ property can be explained by there being no limits due to an absence of taints because it is said in mn43;

Greed, hate, and delusion are makers of limits.
Rāgo kho, āvuso, pamāṇakaraṇo, doso pamāṇakaraṇo, moho pamāṇakaraṇo.

To sum up;

The most natural reading of this verse is simply a paradoxical;

Buddha talks about a cessation of consciousness but describes it as “consciousness invisible”

This would be parallel to mn59

There is the case where a monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enters & remains in the cessation of perception & feeling. This is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that. Now it’s possible, Ananda, that some wanderers of other persuasions might say, ‘Gotama the contemplative speaks of the cessation of perception & feeling and yet describes it as pleasure. What is this? How can this be?’ When they say that, they are to be told, ‘It’s not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only pleasant feeling as included under pleasure. Wherever pleasure is found, in whatever terms, the Blessed One describes it as pleasure.’"

Also paradoxical passage here in an9.34;

There he said to the monks, “This Unbinding is pleasant, friends. This Unbinding is pleasant.”

When this was said, Ven. Udayin said to Ven. Sariputta, “But what is the pleasure here, my friend, where there is nothing felt?”

"Just that is the pleasure here, my friend: where there is nothing felt.

Consciousness and feeling are semantically conjoined in the texts and this is a very reasonable conclusion.

“Feeling, perception, and consciousness—
these things are mixed, not separate.
And you can never completely dissect them so as to describe the difference between them.
For you perceive what you feel, and you cognize what you perceive. That’s why these things are mixed, not separate.

Therefore when author asserts;

  • No sutta equates nibbāna to any type of consciousness

He is slipping by these two texts and the semantic properties of the terminology.

This conclusion doesn’t require insisting on overriding the definitively normative usage of the words ‘name’ and ‘all [as in allness of the all]’ which author has done let alone splitting the question into two questions.

There are more contextual problems with that interpretations but nothing as blatant as these assumptions overriding normative use of the terminology and that without evidence. I don’t think it’s even worth entertaining because what is asserted without evidence is likewise dismissed without evidence and the author makes like 5 extraordinary assumptions…

I think it should be obvious that the passage refers to a direct seeing & knowing of the truth of cessation of which god’s don’t know and therefore it is said;

"Absorbed in this way, the excellent thoroughbred of a man 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.’"

He is absorbed in dependence on nibbananirodha principle of course.


Also in regards to

  1. The boundless ‘anantaṁ’ property can be explained by there being no limits due to an absence of taints because it is said in mn43;

Greed, hate, and delusion are makers of limits.
Rāgo kho, āvuso, pamāṇakaraṇo, doso pamāṇakaraṇo, moho pamāṇakaraṇo.

It is also said that

Greed, hate, and delusion are makers of signs.
Rāgo kho, āvuso, nimittakaraṇo, doso nimittakaraṇo, moho nimittakaraṇo.

Therefore it can be inferred that the signless release is also without greed, anger & delusion and is on that account also limitless which semantically related to endless/boundless.

The signless release refers to the apprehension of cessation of perception & feeling because it is said;

“When a monk has emerged from the cessation of perception & feeling, three contacts make contact: contact with emptiness, contact with the signless, & contact with the undirected.” - mn41.6

Commentary to this;

Emptiness, the signless, & the undirected are names for a state of concentration that lies on the threshold of Nibbana. They differ only in how they are approached. According to the commentary, they color one’s first apprehension of Nibbana: a meditator who has been focusing on the theme of inconstancy will first apprehend Nibbana as signless; one who has been focusing on the theme of stress will first apprehend it as undirected; one who has been focusing on the theme of not-self will first apprehend it as emptiness.

As i see it, this explains the verses but each to their own.


OP also makes this assertion;

Since the meaning of rūpa includes ‘appearance’, means ‘without appearance’, thus ‘invisible’. This translation is in accordance with the apparent meaning of anidassana in the Saṅgīti Sutta, which mentions visible form and invisible form (i.e. material form and the more subtle types such as in meditation).

The verse in Sangiti Sutta is thus;

A threefold classification of the physical/form:
Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho—
visible and resistant, invisible and resistant, and invisible and non-resistant.
sanidassanasappaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ, anidassanasappaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ,
anidassanaappaṭighaṁ rūpaṁ.

I am not aware of any evidence that would support the assertion that these invisible forms refer to Arupa jhana. There are much more simple explainations as to what is invisible & tangible form such as Wind or Air element, it’s invisible and resistant [tangible].

This explaination doesn’t override normative definitive usage of Rupa referring to the four great elements & form derived from them.


Great topic :slight_smile:

This is also my understanding.

Bhikkhu K Nanananda also has done a very thorough analysis of this in the NIbbana Sermons, and it is my understanding that it is related to Arahantaphalasamadhi. I’m not at home, with access to my references at the moment, so can’t quote exactly, but it is related to post-awakening experiences of voidness (and the numerous sub-categories of this). Though at this stage the categorisations are so very refined that personally I don’t find it useful to engage in too much definition - it is really a case of it needs to be experienced to be known and for the ‘words/descriptions’ to be understood.

But I totally agree with Ven Sunyo when he says


Excellent essay! It is clear and I think the conclusion you arrive at is solid.

I have no problems at all with your interpretation of the verse at DN 11. It is virtually identical to my view of the matter.

The passage at MN 49 is a bit more tricky, but I think putting the verse in the mouth of Baka the Brahmā is the most plausible interpretation. The evidence you have provided is actually quite strong. I don’t think we need look any further for a solution. Infinite consciousness it is.

There is, however, one solution to this conundrum that you have not mentioned. If the passage in MN 49 is instead spoken by the Buddha, then “all”, in my view, would most likely mean all of samsāric existence. Moreover, we have the fact that anidassana viññāṇa means something like “invisible consciousness”. Again, I would suggest that it is reasonable to understand this as a kind of consciousness that is invisible from a samsāric point of view, similar, perhaps, to saying that the mind is “untraceable here and now” (MN 22).

Now the suttas do speak of a kind of samādhi that fits these constraints, namely, the ariya samādhi spoken of in a number of suttas, such as AN 3.32, AN 9.37, AN 10.6-7, AN 11.7-9 + 18-21. This seems to be a kind of samādhi that takes the idea of nibbāna as its object. As such it cannot be accessed by anyone except ariyas.

Do you have any thoughts on this?


Woah, lots of answers! Thanks everybody. :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: I’ll try to respond to everybody who addressed me.

Well, to that idea the suttas are the problem. :wink:

I’m being facetious here, because, Ratana, I’m not sure what exactly you are asking. If you can clarify, are you referring to some specific passage in the essay?

Thanks, bhante. I also think there’ll be more in the Upanishads. That’s not really my terrain, though.

Wouldn’t pahaṁ (which is an alternative manuscript reading for pabhaṁ, for those not in the know) be a present participle, so its translation would be “giving up” instead of “given up”? … Or am I being dumb today? (Well… I am… but I mean am I Pali-dumb today?) :laughing:

Anyway, I don’t think either participle makes much contextual sense. In boundless consciousness, counsciousness is not “given up” or “giving up”. Not that pabhaṁ (shining) is fully convincing, but that’s just because it’s all somewhat obscure. I do think pabhaṁ is less “heavy” in changing the overall meaning of the passage, if that makes sense. So if we had to choose, that does favor it, in a way.

Hi, :wave: thanks for the comments. No reason for hate! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: (< this is my new favorite emoji)

Only if you take the verses as one single big answer. If you can explain why that is not possible to do, that may help.

If you can quote where you think I say this, please do and I’ll clarify, because I didn’t intend to. I actually think that’s what others are forced to do when they read the two verses as one answer. I’m doing the exact opposite. By seeing two separate answers, i’m disassociating the two. (By the way, if you have some time, I suggest reading the references, as I didn’t come up with this idea myself.)

I read that passage in AN1.49 as the mind being temporarily freed from the hindrances, not defilements. (It was either Analayo or Sujato who came to this conclusion. Sorry, can’t remember the reference.) So in that case, it would also apply to my interpretation of pabham, as a reference to the absence of the five hindrances.

Joke intended, but “natural reading” and “paradoxical”, to me are paradoxical! To describe the cessation of consciousness as a consciousness, to me makes little sense.

That’s on a different level than describing the absence of feeling as a kind of “happiness”, namely happiness not as a feeling but as the absence of suffering, sukha being the opposite of dukkha.

Moreover, in those suttas on feeling, the questioners actually wonder about the paradox: “What is this? How can this be?” and “what is the pleasure here?”. In the suttas on vinnana anidassana there is no such wondering. Quite the opposite, in fact; it all seems taken for granted. Hence I see no reason to assume a paradox in the verses.

Well, even then, going by your interpretation, these two texts don’t directly mention nibbana, which is what I meant by “equate”.

Every translator I know of has done that. (You probably mean splitting into two answers.)

To end this exchange of ours with some harmony, I think this interpretation, although I also don’t agree with it, is far less problematic than another which implies a permanent consciousness existing forever after an arahant’s death. That interpretation was the main focus of my critique. Yours (if I understand it correctly) I consider quite harmless, and wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to argue against. :upside_down_face:

PS. You can address me directly with “you”, if you’d like.

They don’t. I’m just explaining the meaning of the word anidassana. This is a different context, but you can still use different context to arrive at the basic meaning of a word.

Hi Viveka! I’m not very familiar with his works, but from memory the venerable’s ideas rely on translating uparujjhati as ‘held in check’ which just makes no sense if you look at how the word is used elsewhere. I may respond in detail once you have the references.

I agree with this, and I disagree with this.

Too much discussion is not useful. The whole essay, in a sense, I’d rather not have to make.

But I do think you can understand words and descriptions without “experience” (by which I suppose you mean enlightenment). In fact, I’d say the opposite: You can be enlightened and still misunderstand words. Because enlightenment doesn’t give you magical Pali powers. :laughing: In this case, you may be enlightened and still not get the idea to separate the verses into two separate answers.

Hi bhante, thanks! (Sorry for posting here before awaiting your feedback in email… :blush: but maybe it’s more interesting for others to see it “live”. :laughing:)

I don’t know what that would mean, a consciousness invisible from samsaric point of view. All types of consciousness are part of samsara. Arahants are part of samsara, too. Their consciousness is still dependently arisen, in that it still depends on objects of the senses. (Though no longer on sankharas.)

I always thought (and do still think) the Buddha uses samadhi in those texts in a loose sense, not like a definite state of mind akin to the jhanas or arupas. I take it as remembering the insights of stream winning, e.g., knowing that rebirth will end, that the defilements will end, that consciousness will end, and so on, all the aspects of nibbana. And as remembering the total letting go of consciousness, that results in stream entry.

It’s funny. Remembering or envisioning nibbana in one sense is beyond jhanas and arupas (because nibbana itself is beyond those)! But in another sense it isn’t, because it is still quite an “ordinary” mind state (because you can still think and perceive, for one thing). :smiley:

So to me the Buddha is sort of playing with both these ideas. When in AN10.6 Ananda asks “is there a perception beyond neither-perception-nor-non-perception?” the Buddha could simply have said “nope!”, because after neither-perception-nor-non-perception usually comes the cessation of feeling and perception. However, that answer is boring, and Ananda would have known that already. So instead the Buddha is a creative, and says “well if you reflect upon nibbana, in a sense that is a perception beyond all that.” (I love the Buddha :buddha: )

I have difficulty choosing my words carefully here, but that perception is not totally unlike any other type of reflection. It’s unlike others in that it is limited to ariyas, yes, I would agree. But other peeps can still do a somewhat similar thing (have an idea of nibbana); however, it will always be somewhat wrong, somewhat not the real deal.

Does that makes sense, Ajahn? I’m just typing this on the spot, as I never thought about this much, as I didn’t see this issue. So if I misunderstood you, let me know.

Either way, I don’t think this kind of “nibbana samadhi” has to do with anidassana viññana. For one thing, I don’t think the Buddha would have called it a viññana. He doesn’t seem to use the term in such a way. It’s a perception, not a consciousness. (And a perception it is indeed called in AN10.6)


Well, you have already changed your mind from one side to the other, and I didn’t find anywhere an explanation why. I thought you might have had a reason.

I too find it pretty convincing that this passage refers to the infinite consciousness, and it appears more natural to me that “radiance” is attributed to this state of consciousness as a characteristic than “being given up”. Especially if you think of the passage in MN 49 being spoken by Brahmā, the idea of “giving up” consciousness is outside of his realm. The cessation of consciousness is something he can’t imagine.


Yeah, fixed the footnote references! :partying_face:

(See yous all later, at least in the next 2 weeks I won’t be here.)


There are other passages that hinting at that ‘It’s not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only consciousness which is established & associated with contact as included under consciousness. Wherever consciousness is found, in whatever terms, the Blessed One describes it as consciousness.’"

Such as here;

Suppose there was a bungalow or a hall with a peaked roof, with windows on the northern, southern, or eastern side. When the sun rises and a ray of light enters through a window, where would it land?”

“On the western wall, sir.”

“If there was no western wall, where would it land?”

“On the ground, sir.”

“If there was no ground, where would it land?”

“In water, sir.”

“If there was no water, where would it land?”

“It wouldn’t land, sir.”

“In the same way, if there is no desire, relishing, and craving for solid food, consciousness does not become established there and doesn’t grow. …
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.

Also here

“That, bhikkhus, is Mara the Evil One searching for the consciousness of the clansman Vakkali, wondering: ‘Where now has the consciousness
of the clansman Vakkali been established?’ However, bhikkhus, with consciousness unestablished, the clansman Vakkali has attained final Nibbāna.”

Note it is spoken of as a where name & form are not conceived.

It’s sounds awfully a lot like vinnana anidassana where name & form are brought to an end or

There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support. This, just this, is the end of stress.

There is also Bahuna Sutta;

"Freed, dissociated, & released from ten things, Bahuna, the Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness.

  • “Dasahi kho, vāhana, dhammehi tathāgato nissaṭo visaṁyutto vippamutto vimariyādīkatena cetasā viharati. *

Which ten? Freed, dissociated, & released from form, the Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness. Freed, dissociated, & released from feeling… Freed, dissociated, & released from perception… Freed, dissociated, & released from fabrications… Freed, dissociated, & released from consciousness… Freed, dissociated, & released from birth… Freed, dissociated, & released from aging… Freed, dissociated, & released from death… Freed, dissociated, & released from stress… Freed, dissociated, & released from defilement, the Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness.

There is no more danger in asserting this than asserting that cessation of feeling is extremely pleasant. If it’s pleasant then it ought to be cognized somehow, otherwise it wouldn’t be known, just like one person can’t feel what another person feels, one’s awareness is dissociated from the feelings of another and he doesn’t know it.

Nirodha is directly known & experienced by the mind that is directed to the Deathless. It is not some darkness or a memory loss. It is mindblowingly peaceful, beautiful and pleasant and yes nothing there is felt and there is no mind, consciousness or intellect associated with contact. After emerging from the attainmemts based on nibbananirodha principle a person vaguely remembers the peace & vision.

The danger here is only in equating consciousness unestablished with consciousness established or the cessation of feeling with feeling.


How about unpercepient beings ? They don’t have consciousness at all but only a body, do you think they achieve nibbana ?


I am not sure but i think that these are plants, not aware of anything.

They don’t attain nibbana, they grow old & exist as only the physical and are not aware.

They are like simmering coals, neither aflame nor extinguished.

Nibbana is a cessation of existence, an extinguishment.

We shouldn’t go into details about what is nibbana exactly and how it is to be understood because i don’t want to derail this thread from the matters of sutta method of expression.

Either way,

I do think that invisible is a good translation for anidassana and will also leave the forum for a while.


As i understand it this is only partially correct.

I hold that it is not only Arahants who get to see the Unmade/Unestablished as in attaining samadhi based on the nibbananirodhadhatu and furthermore that there is no destruction of taints without it.

I will explain how this can be inferred. Consider first the case of Sariputta’s initial awakening to the truth;

When the Buddha had been in Rājagaha for about half a month. At that time, the great teacher of the wandering ascetics, [Sañjaya], was residing at Rājagaha with two hundred and fifty followers. During this period, the wandering ascetic [Upatissa], the future Chief Disciple Venerable [Sāriputta](and wandering ascetic [Kolita], the future Chief Disciple Venerable [Mahā Moggallāna], happened to be undergoing training in the ascetic practices under this great teacher Sañjaya.

The two ascetics, Upatissa and Kolita, who were childhood friends, found out, on completion of the course of training within two or three days, that the ascetic teacher’s doctrine did not contain any elements whatsoever of the Deathless)

“My friend, this ascetic teacher’s doctrine is fruitless, it is without essence. We will make solemn vow that, from now on, the one who realises first the Deathless Nibbāna should tell about it to the other who is still after it.” The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

Even before encountering The Buddhadhamma they were looking for something Deathless.

The semantic property of this word is very important, it is something that doesn’t die, doesn’t disintegrate, a safety from death, something true and immortal.

As the story goes, Upatissa eventually meets Ven Assaji and after a brief teaching attains something described in these terms;

Then to Sariputta the wanderer, as he heard this Dhamma exposition, there arose the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”

Even if just this is the Dhamma,
you have penetrated
to the Sorrowless (asoka) State
unseen, overlooked (by us)
for many myriads of aeons.

Then Sariputta the wanderer went to Moggallana the wanderer. Moggallana the wanderer saw him coming from afar and, on seeing him, said, “Bright are your faculties, my friend; pure your complexion, and clear. Could it be that you have attained the Deathless?”

"Yes, my friend, I have attained the Deathless. "Upatissa-pasine

Buddha says that the path to abandoning the five lower fetters requires directing the mind to the Deathless element;

“And what, Ānanda, is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters? Here, with seclusion from the acquisitions, with the abandoning of unwholesome states, with the complete tranquillization of bodily inertia, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.

“Whatever exists therein of material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, he sees those states as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumour, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self. He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: ‘This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. Mālunkyāsutta

The verse explaining the directing of the mind to the Deathless for the destruction of five lower fetters, describes the discernment of it as ‘cessation’ and ‘nibbana’ and importantly as a turning away from material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.

In particular we should take note that this is in so many terms a cessation of perception & feeling.

On cessation of perception feeling it is said;

When a monk has emerged from the cessation of perception & feeling, three contacts make contact: contact with emptiness, contact with the signless, & contact with the undirected. Kamabhu Sutta

Commy explains;

Emptiness, the signless, & the undirected are names for a state of concentration that lies on the threshold of Unbinding. They differ only in how they are approached. According to the commentary, they color one’s first apprehension of Unbinding: a meditator who has been focusing on the theme of inconstancy will first apprehend Unbinding as signless; one who has been focusing on the theme of stress will first apprehend it as undirected; one who has been focusing on the theme of not-self will first apprehend it as emptiness.

If we assume that this is correct then signless release is a word for cessation of perception & feeling attainment and it being necessary for the destruction of the five lower fetters.

There is support for this too;

There are, monks, three unskilled ways of thought: thoughts of lust, thoughts of ill-will, thoughts of hurting. And these three unskilled states disappear utterly in him whose heart is well established in the four foundations of mindfulness, or who practices concentration on the signless. Pi.n.dolya.m Sutta: Going Begging

I will here add the general designation for the terms Nibbana and Deathless

“Venerable sir, it is said, ‘the removal of lust, the removal of hatred, the removal of delusion.’ Of what now, venerable sir, is this the designation?”

“This, bhikkhu, is a designation for the element of Nibbāna: the removal of lust, the removal of hatred, the removal of delusion. The destruction of the taints is spoken of in that way.”

When this was said, that bhikkhu said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘the Deathless, the Deathless.’ What now, venerable sir, is the Deathless? What is the path leading to the Deathless?”

“The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the Deathless. This Noble Eightfold Path is the path leading to the Deathless; that is, right view … right concentration.” A Certain Bhikkhu (2)


Thanks for your thoughtful response :slight_smile:

You may well be right

I’m no scholar… I think I’ll just stick to practice. :slight_smile: :pray:


Well, you cannot know a higher level of consciousness without actually attaining it. This is why the jhānas are sometimes called mystical states. Here is the quote from MN 22 that I referred to:

Because even in the present life the Realized One is undiscoverable/untraceable, I say.

Diṭṭhevāhaṁ, bhikkhave, dhamme tathāgataṁ ananuvijjoti vadāmi.

Other suttas make a similar point. For instance at MN 48, the Brahmanimantanika Sutta, Baka the Brahmā says he will disappear from the Buddha, but is unable to do so. The Buddha on the other hand is able to disappear from Baka. This implies that there is a state of consciousness not accessible to Baka.

If the Buddha did use the word samādhi then I think we need to see it as such. But even if we don’t, I am not sure it makes any difference. The point, rather, is that there are mental states that might fit the description of anidassana viññāṇa.

Yes, this is pretty much what I meant by “idea of nibbāna”. Yet I do not think

in these states. This is how this “state” is described at AN 10.7:

One perception arose in me and another perception ceased: ‘The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment. The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment.’
‘Bhavanirodho nibbānaṁ bhavanirodho nibbānan’ti kho me, āvuso, aññāva saññā uppajjati aññāva saññā nirujjhati.

One perception after another, all of the same kind, suggests to me a kind of samādhi.

I don’t think you can make this distinction. I mean, the “sphere of unbounded consciousness” is clearly a perception. In fact, a particular state of consciousness implies a state of perception. The two go together.

I think you have made a very good case that it refers to the second immaterial attainment. Just the words ananta viññāṇa are very suggestive. (And by the way, the idea of prioritizing the adjectives is super-duper.) In a sense the solution is staring us in the face. It’s just that we are either swayed by the commentary (in my case :anguished:) or by our inherent tendency to see eternal minds wherever we can.