What did the Buddha understand viññāṇa to mean?

I’ve been reflecting on dependent origination and the English translations. I’m really struggling with the word viññāṇa and was hoping this subreddit could help. As I understand it from MN 9, there are six types of viññāṇa:

  1. Eye consciousness
  2. Ear consciousness
  3. Nose consciousness
  4. Tongue consciousness
  5. Body consciousness
  6. Mind consciousness

This use of the word, “consciousness” though seems somewhat clunky to me. Surely eye-consciousness is just seeing? In SN 35, the Buddha says that eye-consciousness is dependent on eye and form. In other words, if you blind someone, they would cease to have “eye-consciousness.”

If I see a table, I become aware of the sight and I categorise it as a table (as opposed to something else). This is what we mean by sight. By contrast, let’s say I saw a blur flash past me. A nearby friend asks, “did you see that?” If I was unable to categorise it I’d say, “no, I didn’t, it was moving too quickly.” Unless I’m misunderstanding, the English word seeing or sight seems to capture everything the Buddha meant by eye consciousness.

Dr. Alexander Berzin seems to support this idea noting (here):

Unlike the Western view of consciousness as a general faculty that can be aware of all sensory and mental objects, Buddhism differentiates six types of consciousness, each of which is specific to one sensory field or to the mental field. A primary consciousness cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) of an object, which means the category of phenomenon to which something belongs. For example, eye consciousness cognizes a sight as merely a sight.

If this is true, does the Buddha ever discuss the Western view of consciousness? It seems like Brahmins at the time certainly did. So, for example, we see texts on sakshi (a Sanskrit word meaning witness - often equated with atman). This witness sits prior to sight, hearing, smell, taste, etc. and is simply aware of all things as they arise. It’s what we might call the bare fact of consciousness.

If the Buddha did acknowledge that such a witness exists in the mind, what did he say about it? If he did not, then what are we to conclude from that?

I guess one could make a fairly compelling argument that if one were to be placed in a sensory depravation chamber, where one cannot see, hear, smell, or taste anything, where one is anaesthetised such that one cannot feel the body, and one’s mind is totally clear of thought, that arguably one would not be conscious. If that is the case, this idea of “witness consciousness” is simply a delusion arising from the fact one of the viññāṇa is always present in everyday life.

Why am I asking the question? I appreciate it may sound esoteric. However, I think it really matters. I have always taken the Western notion of witness consciousness as a given. If, in fact, what we call “consciousness” is simply a shadow cast by the presence of one of the six viññāṇa then anicca (impermanence) and anatta (non-self) make much more sense to me.

Very grateful for any thoughts or suggestions on what has probably been an unreasonably verbose question!


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Although the article doesn’t put emphasis on sensory experience, which seems to be the core of your interest, nevertheless it discusses and compare scientific ideas of consciousness and that of Dhamma, so perhaps you could find something which will be of some use for you.

A short while ago you were good enough to send me a copy of Triangle with an article ‘Anatomy of Consciousness’ by the late Prof. Sir Geoffrey Jefferson F.R.S.[1] I sent you my comment upon it in a couple of lines in a postcard; this, of course, was totally inadequate, but I did not at that time find it convenient to say more. I know that I shall now again risk being incomprehensible to you, but I regard the current orthodox attitude of science to the question of consciousness as being such an obstacle (particularly for medical men) to the understanding of the Buddha’s Teaching (and even to a no more than ordinarily intelligent and wholesome understanding of life) that it is a risk I am cheerfully prepared to take. (And, after all, nothing obliges you to read what I have to say if you don’t wish to.) It is a matter of regret to me that, though I have been so well treated by so many doctors in Ceylon, and have found them, as people, so friendly and easy to talk to, I am yet quite unable to get beyond a certain point with them and discuss things that really matter. Always there arises a barrier of uncomprehension, and I perceive that, even though I am still being listened to, communication is no longer taking place. No doubt the question is not easy, but it must be faced; and this article ‘Anatomy of Consciousness’ seems to offer a convenient point of departure for a discussion.

Prof. Jefferson, in his article, tells us that ‘consciousness depends upon (or ‘is the sum of’)[a] the activities of the whole intact nervous system, central and peripheral’; and the article clearly takes it for granted that an elucidation of the nervous system and its workings, if it were complete, is all that would be required for a total understanding of consciousness. ‘We shall agree in the belief’ says Prof. J. ‘that whatever mental qualities human beings display during consciousness are derived in the end from the millions of cells in the cortex and from infinitely elaborate internuncial connections with subcortical structures.’ This is certainly the generally accepted view in scientific circles.

From myself, I can say that descriptions of consciousness are made in suttas either on sense organ, on which it arises, or on the object namely namarupa. That means consciousness is negative in itself and it is always consciousness of something.

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Well, this is how I understand it…

  • Eye consciousness is see -ing
  • Ear consciousness is hear - ing
  • Nose consciousness is smell - ing
  • Tongue consciousness is tast - ing
  • Body consciousness is touch -ing
  • Mind consciousness is know - ing

Vinnana may be understood as ‘that which powers the -ing’. The closest English term is consciousness, hence it is used by most translators. However it is much more restricted in scope than its English counterpart.

Yes. However, ‘eye-consciousness’ does not imply that one knows that one sees or even what one sees.
‘Knowing that a sight has been seen’ is the function of Mind- consciousness.
Making sense of the sight viz ‘what one has seen’ is the function of Sanna - (perception).


Table = form
The visual impression generated due to the contact of this form with the eye is powered by Eye-consciousness.
‘This visual impression is a table’ ie categorization, is the product of Sanna.
Knowing ‘there is a table’ is the product of Mind consciousness being aware of the contact of Sanna at the mind base (Mind is also a sense organ).
“‘I’ have seen a ‘table’” is the product of Sankhara.
Knowing - “‘I’ saw a ‘table’” is the product of Mind consciousness being aware of the preceeding Sanna and Sankhara.

(Keep in mind that all these processes are extremely fast, interdependent and cannot be clearly separated out)

There was Eye-consciousness hence you ‘saw’.
The information conveyed was insufficient, hence Sanna could only classify it as a ‘blur’.
‘I’ saw a ‘blur’… viz subject/object is a product of Sankhara
Knowing that ‘I’ saw a ‘blur’ is product of Mind consciousness acting on the preceeding factors.

Well, technically you did see… and you know you did - you saw ‘a blur’. Due to insufficient information, sanna has categorised it as a ‘blur’. You might have even have ducked to escape its estimated trajectory! One becomes aware after the fact, not in real time as that awareness of having seen, categorized, estimated and reacted is the product of Mind consciousness acting on the objects of cakku vinnana, vedana, sanna and sankhara.

This is simply Mind consciousness being aware of the sankhara of an apparent ‘subject’ viz ‘I’ in relation to incoming sense stimulation. Note that this can also occur in relation to Mind objects viz thoughts ad infinitum. Hence, ‘I’ am the witness of ‘my’ ‘thoughts’ about … ‘me’ ! :rofl:

This can be clarified by reflecting upon - Who is the witness? Can I witness the witness that is witnessing?

(The Abhidhamma gets into this all in great detail in case you are interested!)


Namo Buddhaya!

Suppose someone is talking to me but i am distracted.
They ask ‘Did you hear what i said?’
I say ‘No i was distracted’

Were you without an ear?
No i was not without an ear
Were you unconscious?
No i was not unconscious
Was I not speaking?
No you were speaking

So howcome you didn’t hear me even tho there was sound to be heard, an ear capable of hearing and you were conscious?
Because i wasn’t intent on cognizing the audible due to not giving of attention.

Therefore there is a need to differentiate between the six classes of consciousness.
In the example above I was conscious but i was not conscious of the audible.

Hearing doesn’t occur without the three


Neither of the three is the same thing as ‘hearing’ but ‘hearing’ is also not apart from the three because it is talked about in as far as the three are coming into play.


Well, you were conscious of the audible, but you were not aware of the particular content of it. In many such cases we can even remember that we heard something but we didn’t pay attention to it. Lack of awareness, lack of knowledge about the presence of a particular recognisable aspect of the experience, is not the same as the absence of consciousness, the absence of any such experience at all. The part of the present experience of which we are unaware can even shape our whole state of mind - our mood - without being recognised and known.

For example, we can be anxious or upset without being aware that the cause of that state of mind is some present discomfort in the body that we are not aware of, but which is present and felt nonetheless, and the reason we are not aware of it is because we are not directing our attention to the body to find and recognise that real cause of our state of mind. The visual experience of a fever dream or of visions during sleep paralysis may consist of a mixture of completely alien and unrecognisable forms, and that very inability to recognise what one is seeing can be the source of the extreme fear and panic that often accompanies these states.

Consciousness is simply the presence of experience as a whole. For example, the presence of any auditory experience is the presence of the consciousness of the ear.

The recognition of a part of the present experience as the object - the perception of the object - and the awareness of it requires the presence of prior knowledge of this object, familiarity with it, and the presence of that type of experience in which the object is recognised.

In my understanding.

In my understanding vinnana refers in practice to the dynamic aspect of the mind. The aspect of coming and going of certain perceptions such as ideas, emotions, plans, visuals, sounds, smells, desires, tactile sensations etc. We can see an arising, ceasing and changing of these sensations or perceptions. This element of rise and fall and change is called the sankhata element or aspect. This element must be known says the Buddha.

This stream or flux of perceptions or sensations is not me, not mine, not my self, says the Buddha. One can also notice this. Because while there can be coming and going, a dynamic, a flow, things arising and ceasing, we can still be immovable. If we were this stream of vinnana’s, this flow, that would be impossible, moreover, peace would be the greatest illusion if we were this flow of vinnana’s.

Besides this flow, this dynamic aspect, this manifesting aspect, there is the element or aspect that is not seen arising, ceasing and changing, asankhata. Also this aspect must be seen, known, the sutta’s teach. Non of these two aspects must be seen as me, mine, my self.
Great teachers teach that it is even a bigger mistake to see the immovable element as me, mine, my self then the flow. One must just not see anything as me, mine, my self.

Mind has an obsession with flow, with dynamics, with movement. If something moves outside us, that often immediately attracts attentions. The same internally. The the stream of vinnana’s gives an impression of movement, and often gets immediately attention. But it is interesting to notice that movement does not mean that mind moves. That is also how Buddha defeated Mara’s army under the Bodhitree. He did not react, applied no skillful means, was effortless whatever manifested. He just sat, observed with loving eyes and care. Mara’s weapens became nullified. It may not seem much, seeing all with great care and love, but fighting demons does not work at all. They strenghten. It is like that dragon that grows only more heads when one head is cut off. The Path is not really about fighting, defeating, struggling, surpressing but as long as the mind is really untamed and able to do the most worse deeds that can be skillful. But not really to defeat the demons.

Mind tends to grasp instinctively at the flow, at what arises. Its grasps its own mental projections.
This leads to a limited mind. Contracted. Deluded. When mind does not grasp at the dynamic flow of vinnana’s nor at the immovable groun, it is limitless (AN10.81).
This mind free of limits cannot be a sense vinnana nor a stream of 6 sense vinnana’s.

Maybe it is even better not to call it mind because mind is often seen as what is going on in ones head.
But that cannot be the mind without limits.