Whose consciousness is invisible, infinite, and all-radiant?

Continuing discussion of a number of issues raised by MN 49 Brahmanimantanika from here:

And here:

We have now come to the famous line:

Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ
anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ

Like the previous verse on the sun and moon, this straddles the line between verse and prose. While in Ven Bodhi’s translation it is set as verse, the Pali text contains no close -ti that would confirm it was meant as verse. It’s not unlikely that it, too, was a verse fragment loosely used in a prose sentence. This rhetorical strategy, it should be noted, is especially appropriate in dialogue with Brahmā, as he was the inventor, nay emanator, of the verses of the Vedas, and indeed of the very idea of verse.

Note that this line echoes the two aspects of celestial bodies: their range (“infinite”) and radiance (“all round”). The word for radiance, pabhā, is essentially the same as that used earlier for the sun and moon; in fact, that is the primary use of that term in the suttas.

Various authors have noted that the manuscripts are ambiguous as to the speaker of these lines. The PTS edition, followed by I.B. Horner, attributes the line to Brahmā, which Ven Bodhi says is “surely mistaken” (Middle Length Discourses, note 512). The issue is discussed more fully by Ven Anālayo in Comparative Study p. 297, however he draws no firm conclusions.

In fact I think the weight of textual evidence indicates that the line was, after all, spoken by Brahmā.

  1. The thing that indicates that the line is spoken by the Buddha is a close quote -ti that occurs at the end of the previous sentence, indicating that Brahmā has finished talking. However, this only occurs in the Burmese manuscripts (as cited by the PTS edition, and also in our MS edition), while the Sri Lankan and Thai manuscripts lack it. The Burmese manuscripts tend to be more prone to accommodating the commentarial interpretation in the text, and that may be the case here.
  2. The Chinese parallel at MA 78, while not having the exact phrase, attributes a similar claim to Brahmā. (See Analayo’s discussion.)
  3. If the passage beginning with viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ was spoken by the Buddha, it should be indicated by close -ti. However, none of the manuscripts have this. Surely the agreement of the manuscripts here should be given more weight than the slight support for the -ti earlier.
  4. Finally, and most decisively in my view, the passage lacks a vocative. In dialogue, vocatives are used very regularly and consistently, and it is practically unthinkable that the Buddha would go an entire passage without one. While the occurrence of close -ti as quotation marker is somewhat variable in the manuscripts, a vocative is a much bigger thing to lose. This is only understandable if the passage is spoken by Brahmā, as he has already used the vocative.

Taken all together, this makes quite a strong case that the PTS edition is correct in this, and the verse should be attributed to Brahmā, not the Buddha.

One argument that might be used against this is that the passage claims that such consciousness goes beyond everything, including Brahmā. Surely Brahmā would not be praising something that goes beyond Brahmā?

There are two possible explanations for this. The boring one is that the passage has been mechanically replicated, and the incongruity was not noticed. Such things are rare, but not unprecedented.

The more interesting solution is that Brahmā may have been hinting at the higher, cosmological Self here. That is, the true experience of reality, Brahmā, or whatever, goes beyond the mere personal form in which Brahmā happens to have been incarnate at this time. This would align Baka the Brahmā closely with the Upanishadic teachings of Yajñavālkya, who is the closest touchstone for such advanced Brahmanical philosophies in the Suttas. Yajñavālkya is famous for his doctrine of neti! neti!—“Not that! Not that!” This is the direct precursor of the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, where he rejected and dropped identification with everything, including the limited and temporal manifestations of brahmanical truths, insisting that the only reality worth attention was the “unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower”, i.e. “that sheer mass of consciousness”. In a manner strikingly reminiscent of Yajñavālkya’s dialogues, Baka is being pushed by the Buddha to reveal higher and higher mysteries.

The other occurrence of this line is, of course, in the coda to DN 11 Kevaṭṭa, another sutta that is a dialogue with Brahmā. In the wealth of philosophical discussion of this point, few have pointed out the rather striking literary form, a form which takes a rather different cast if we assume the line was actually spoken by Brahmā.

The sutta consists of an elaborate story of a monk who wants to know where the four elements end, and uses his psychic powers to ascend to the heavens and ask the gods about this. This is, to put it mildly, an unusual tactic. The gods send him to Brahmā. As I noted in a previous essay, the four elements in such passages often represent the jhanas, which is why Brahmā, who was reborn by the power of jhana, knows about them—but doesn’t know where they end. Anyway, Brahmā ends up sending the monk back to the Buddha. Rather than answering directly, the Buddha—for unclear reasons—tells him the question should be rephrased, and gives questions and answers in verse. The whole procedure is highly unusual.

The question is, in fact, three questions, each of two lines, and each beginning with kattha. This is striking, as it results in an unusual verse of six lines.

The answer is then given, introduced with a phrase unique in the suttas (Tatra veyyākaraṇaṃ bhavati). The answer consists of the lines above, followed by the question repeated in full, with each question word (“where?”) replaced by its demonstrative counterpart (“there”).

Finally we have another two lines, where the Buddha states that this all ceases with the cessation of consciousness. Clearly, here the Buddha is merely restating the core Buddhist doctrine, something ignored by those who invoke this verse in support of their eternalist views.

But the interesting thing is that the verse section, which cannot be divided into the usual sets of four lines, should be divided thus: 2, 6, 2. In other words, the middle six lines merely echo the question, while the first two and last two are added.

From the form of the verses it is unclear whether the question is really one question in three phrases, or three separate questions. Given that the three sets of lines appear together in both question and answer, let’s assume they ask one question. But if this is so, why are there two answers, one before, and one after the question, especially since the two answers directly contradict each other? I don’t know any other text that works like this. Rhetorically, it could make sense to answer the question either before or after restating it, but not both. Surely it is saner to assume that there is just one answer. But which one?

Have a look at the Pali text, removing the prose. I am going to highlight one feature of the verses, the pronomial adverbs. Look at how they are distributed in the pairs of lines.

Kattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Kattha dīghañca rassañca,
aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī’ti.

‘Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ,
anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati.
Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhati;
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
etthetaṃ uparujjhatī’”ti

Compare with the closely related verse at SN 1.27:

Kuto sarā nivattanti,
kattha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

Yattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Ato sarā nivattanti,
ettha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhatī”ti.

In this passage, each line or pair of lines in the answer uses an adverb that links it back to the question. And notice that the same pattern occurs in DN 11—except for the viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ phrase. It is the only phrase that has no direct linguistic link with the question. On these grounds, it is possible that this is an alien intrusion into the verses.

Thus the viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ lines, in DN 11 as in MN 49, appear to be a quote or reference to a well-known saying, in the context of a dialogue with Brahmā, perhaps drawing from the Upanishadic tradition, and probably originally attributed to Brahmā.

As to what is behind their appearance in DN 11, this is still unclear. They do appear in the Chinese parallel to these lines, so if they are a late addition, it was still before these two textual lineages split. My best guess is that the whole passage is an attempt to answer the Upanishadic doctrine, but was rather clumsily edited together.

In any case, the Buddha makes his real position clear in the last lines, re-affirming—for the thousandth time—the cessation of consciousness.

As one final note on this, the word anidassana is often translated as “non-manifestive”. However, elsewhere in the EBTs nidassana is invariably used in the sense of “invisible”. Given that radiance is a major theme of this sutta, and that the Buddha just below gets into a literal invisibility contest with Brahmā, it seems ill-advised to simply ditch the plain meaning of the word. Lacking a compelling argument for a more abstract word, I think it is best to keep it concrete and let readers figure out what it means.


Here’s my understanding of this sutta:

"‘If, good sir, you have directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, may it not turn out to be actually vain and void for you.’

Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ
anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ

"'Consciousness, invisible
endlessly illuminating the ‘All

has not been experienced through the earthness of earth … the liquidity of liquid … the fieriness of fire … the windiness of wind … the allness of the all.’"

Sabba, the ‘All’ is mentioned before and after the quote in question. It would be meaningful if Sabbato pabham was referring to the ability of Consciousness (Vinnana), while itself being invisible, to be like a magician (Phena sutta) and illuminate that which arises, and do so endlessly. An example would be the old system of film reels where the light (Vinnana) would illuminate the film frames (Sabba).

Im not a Pali scholar so feel free to ignore if this is not accurate.

With metta


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You may not be a Pali scholar, @Mat, but you’re post sure makes you sound like one! Thank you for your thoughts on the matter! It is always good to see the works through other people’s eyes.

You are welcome! :slight_smile:

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-ato is ablative, with the basic meaning of “from”, here probably meaning “from all sides”. “Illuminating the all” would require the accusative. Sorry to be a downer!


Dear Ven Sujato

I read this and it fell into place:

There seem to be too many parallels to the vedic concepts of vinnana for these two verses to be part of the Buddha’s teaching and it doesn’t sit well with Buddha’s dhamma-vinaya concepts of vinnana.

with metta



Hi bhante @sujato :anjal: (and @everybody else) :slight_smile:

I was reading MN49 the other day and noticed the closing ti missing when the Burmese version attributes anidassana to the Buddha. That made me think of this topic, which previously I only sort of skipped through. I see you also noticed this error, which made me happy because I started doubting myself since neither Bhante Bodhi nor Bhante Analayo made a note. Are you 100% sure it’s wrong? It surely is not following the pattern.

You also mention the lack of address, which is indeed striking. Could it not be explained by the line being poetic and therefore not broken up by such an address?

“The Burmese manuscripts tend to be more prone to accommodating the commentarial interpretation in the text, and that may be the case here.” Is this generally agreed upon to be the case?

A nice analysis of the verses of DN11, and it is good to see some skepticism on whether the anudassana lines were ever spoken by the Buddha. Just puts things in a broader perspective if anything, the perspective of the texts being basically 25 centuries old! Sometimes that’s easy to forget. But I’m not sure I agree with all your ideas.

That some verses are six lines is odd, but is not unique. In fact you quote another one yourself. :slight_smile: (SN1.27) So this doesn’t say much if anything.

If you ditch the anidassana lines then there is no answer to the first Q. So that would leave a mess. And an even weirder verse structure, one of 2 + 6 or something. 4 + 4 can’t work because the first verse would end in the midst of a sentence as I see it.

You say there’s three questions but surely there’s just two since there are two verbs in the question verse. Repetition of Katha and ettha being merely poetic. “The long, the short etc” seems to refer simply to ‘everything’ since in the Dhammapada it is used for things you should refrain from stealing. Everything here being nama and rupa. (thus consciousness)

The question is rather where to separate the answering verses so we get the two necessary answers, but that is most natural after the verb gadhati, which leaves a standard four line verse and a six line one. As I see it, the verses make perfect sense then, with the Buddha saying the anidassana. I don’t think I need to explain it all, but the four line verse basically says the four elements (ie. rupa) find no footing in the boundless consciousness, and the six line says namarupa cease when consciousness ceases: As you say, a standard teaching given hundreds of times, which shows super clearly that the cessation of namarupa should be linked with the cessation of consciousness no matter what. And that thus boundless consciousness can have nothing to do with the cessation of namarupa.

You’ve said “the Buddha—for unclear reasons—tells him the question should be rephrased”. I don’t think these reasons are unclear. The monk asks only for the cessation of rupa, not for the cessation of namarupa, so he does not probe deep enough. The slight change the Buddha makes in the monk’s question is illustrative too. He changes “where does rupa cease without remnant?” to “where does rupa find no footing?”. (and then adds a second, but that is not what needs rephrasing) The point is this: rupa can not cease without remnant (meaning forever, which is what the monk is of course looking for) without nama (and thus consciousness) ceasing too. There is no place where only rupa ceases forever without nama ceasing too, and so the question needs rephrasing. The Buddha however wants to still say were rupa ends temporarily, so instead of asking straight away where namarupa ceases (the second question), he first asks “where does rupa find no footing” – basically adopting the monk’s question but changing the verb so it does not refer to permanent cessation anymore.

So where does rupa find no footing? … (hint: where is rupa not a ‘thorn’?) … Well, one might say the arūpa attainments, but this is wrong because rupa can actually still “find a footing” (invade, or get a grip) in the first one, the base of boundless space. If a perception pertaining to rupa invades there, the mind is draw back to the fourth jhana. These are not my words. Sariputta says it at AN9.34

So the correct answer to the question “where does rupa find no footing?” is the second arūpa: the base of boundless consciousness. That is, viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ. This is really consistent and a perfect answer.

But why is there this anidassana between viññāṇaṃ and anantaṃ? You probably see this as soon as I ask, Bhante, but others may not: It’s verse and viññāṇaṃ anantaṃ would simply not fit the metre. (I’m a newbe at verse, but this much I can see.) So one obvious solution is to split them. Word order in verse is basically bound to no rules except for the metre according to Warder, so that explains it.

That allows anantaṃ to be the main qualifier of viññāṇaṃ, and the anidassanaṃ can be secondary to it. That is to say, the whole concept viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, which is so often discussed on its own, makes no sense really. It’s viññāṇaṃ anantaṃ that is anidassanaṃ, not viññāṇaṃ! You have to take the full phrase into account. Because, anidassanaṃ I’ve argued before seems to be a poetic synonym for arūpa, since it its quite clearly a (near) synonym in MN21 (ākāso arūpī anidassano). Its exact translation may be up for debate, but any proposal should at least not assume anidassanaṃ to be something totally separate from arūpa (as anidassana = nibbaana necessarily does), because that would ignore the only real contextual passage we have, which is this. Yes, ‘invisible’ seems very decent. Also because this is poetry and we don’t need deep philosophical ideas such as ‘non-manifesting consciousness’ to try to make sense of things (that ‘thing’ being mainly based on the quote in the Burmese MN49). Warder also wrote that to fit the metre unusual rare synonyms are used, and anidassana fits all of that: a rare, unusual synonym, which fixes the metre ananta failed to supply. My rendering would thus be: “Boundless consciousness, invisible, shining fully…”.

“Shining fully” (I like ‘shining’, because we say gold is shiny, not radiant) refers to the absence of the five hindrances, not that the base of boundless consciousness is literally giving off light. It’s a poetic metaphor. Which amplifies that anidassana should also not be taken all too literally. (But why not actually? Beings in the state of boundless consciousness are after all invisible, supposedly even to those with the devine eye since they are aruupa.) Also, regarding word order: consciousness is not ‘fully shining’, ie without hindrances, the base of boundless consciousness IS without hindrances. Subtle difference, but important also since the Buddha would never call viññāṇaṃ anything positive at all, unless is viññāṇaṃ anantaṃ which he consistently praises.

To me there is really nothing left in DN11 that doesn’t fit the Buddha’s teaching as a whole. Even that the Buddha used the story of the monk as an example of his “miracle of instruction” I can see. I now see DN11 being very consistent.

But not MN49. This sutta has so many undertones of it being not an original discourse (at least not in full). The difficult passages, the narrative, the whole Mara thing… So I don’t know what to make of it. Given all the evidence its more reasonable to attribute anidassana to Baka. To this we can add that if the anidassana passage was the Buddha’s, then it’s weird he later gives another verse that seems to be a more standard answer to what is beyond the all, the cessation of existence. Unnecessary info if anidassana already gave the answer. This is not how suttas work, two different conclusions.

It’s not impossible that Baka had (thought he) attained the base of boundless consciousness and thought “this is what is permanent”, or as you call it the higher Self. The sutta would still be weird, but at least consistent with the overall Canon re. ideas. (Baka is not the same Great Brahma as the one in DN11 of course. That’s just Mara’s idea.)

A footnote in Horner to the Comy says “Further [than what Baka thinks is permanent] there are three stages of meditation…”. These would presumably be nothingness, neither-non-perception and cessation of perc. and feeling. Don’t have access to the Comy so can’t check even if Horner had it right. If anyone has the Pali that would be great. Would be cool if hundreds of years ago people came to the same conclusion. It’s a samsara of ideas. And that should bring me back to my meditation cushion…

Sorry this is all a bit messy, these are basically just some thoughts written down. Maybe one day I might rephrase it all nicely, at least the DN11 thing.

With kindness,


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Okay, well, here goes. Not sure if I can answer everything satisfactorily, but I’ll give it a go.

Nope. Nothing’s 100%.

That would indeed be the case if it were just the verse line. But the whole paragraph lacks a vocative. Again, it’s not definitive, but the simplest assumption is that it’s the same speaker as the previous and following paragraphs, i.e. Brahma.

It is; I can’t remember the exact source, but you can read remarks on this in the introduction to the Pali text of some PTS editions. Still, it is a weak point. The Burmese manuscripts vary among themselves, and such interpolations in any case are rare. On the whole, they tend to be more common than say the Sinhala manuscripts, but it still tells us little about any particular case. Really all it says is that if the Burmese reading differs this is not unexpected.

I disagree: six line verses are very unusual, and where they occur they are often accompanied by some textual reason. In the example I use, the six-line verse results from the answer echoing the four lines of the question, and adding another two lines with the answer. The point is not that six-line verses are impossible, but that when they appear they frequently show signs like this of being a composite. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re inauthentic; there’s no reason why the Buddha shouldn’t have composed like this. But it is one indication which, together with a range of other indications, raises a flag.

? The question is answered in the last lines of the verse.

I think this is ambiguous. It is a common feature of verse that verbs are omitted, to be filled in from neighbouring lines. Ven Thanissaro discusses this stylistic feature, I think in his introduction to the Dhammapada, where he says it is referred to as a “lamp”, i.e. the verb shines both ways. So we can take it as separate questions with implicit shared verb, or as a single question, or as two.

I would say it refers to rūpa rather than everything.

I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think this is the most natural division. In saying that dīghañca rassañca refer to everything you have folded them in to nāmarūpa. But the list starting with āpo and leading up to subhāsubham is clearly a list of material properties, and apply to rūpa alone. Hence it seems to me that, given this, and given that their literary form is identical, they most naturally fall together. This gives us a pada division of 2 + 4 + 4, which is no less natural than any other, and supports the idea that the initial 2 lines were added.


Thanks for the reply, Venerable.

That would indeed be the case if it were just the verse line. But the whole paragraph lacks a vocative.

That’s what I was thinking.

Still, it is a weak point.

True, but I was also asking just in general.

Thanks. I remembered seeing a couple more, but never thought having a look if there is a specific reason for them being 6 liners.

I see what you mean now. Was too stuck in the other interpretation. (Which I still think works very well.)

Makes sense now. This I did not realize and therefore misunderstood most of your original post.

But this indeed does not really clarify why the Buddha would change the original question. There would be nothing wrong with it. Plus it assumes “find no footing” and uparujjhati would mean basically the same thing. The idea of form finding “no footing” in the second formless attainment, because it still can in the first, also still sticks with me.

Oh well. :slight_smile: I should myself remember what I said in my reply earlier: good to keep in mind these texts are very old. Some things will never be really clear.

Just as a sidenote:

Here’s a quick translation of the idea of there being two questions (for others who are reading).

Q1. Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?
Q2. Where are long and short, small and great, fair and foul–
where are “name-and-form” brought to an end?’

A1. Boundless consciousness, invisible and all-shiny,
Here water, earth, fire, & wind find no footing,
A2. Here long & short, small & large, pleasant & unpleasant -
Here “name-&-form” are all brought to an end:
With the cessation of consciousness all this is brought to an end.

But yes, I also know no other sutta that works like this. :slight_smile:

Yes, I mean really the main point of all this is to simply recognize that this is a complex and difficult passage, and no interpretation is really solid. Simply to quote a line out of context in support of a metaphysical reinterpretation of Buddhism is untenable.


The passage appear to be odd, it seems on sentence structure; probably due to the composer, at one hand praising Jhana, on the other hand seeing the underlying tendency of taking it as true-self; a mixture of liking and aversion.

I guess an issue that may cause complication require delicate handling, in this case a more complex one is used; sort of like calling an embeded subroutine, which is common in programming.
If the text being segregated into 4 parts, like this:

Then the 1 st pack is “variables” that the subroutine 3 rd pack called. Pack 2 is in line with Buddha’s teaching that encourage Jhana as it is fused in N8P. However, it pose tendency of taking Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ as permenant. Such delicate issue would require ‘intervention’ within the text itself.

If we place pack 3 right after pack 1, then the whole passage might means that there is a true-self.

But that is not the sequence presented here. The 3rd pack mirror 1st, so 4th mirror 2nd. By calling subroutine of the 3rd within 2nd and 4th, that answering the 1st; thus the 4th is not a statement that is mirrored as a “destination”, but a direct deny of true-self.

Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ is a description of conciousness that is kind of “neutral”, as the sensual craving is suspended, ie. Jhana. The perspective of “illuminating the all” arises due to the lack of attempts to immediately re-fusion of Jhana when one ends, plus lack of reviewing capacity. With these two skills, it is possible to see the fact is actually ‘from all around’. When craving is still pretty weak, immediate re-fusion is possible. But when unsuccessful, the meditator falls out of Jhana.

What exactly is no footing, I don’t know! But imagine when ekaggata snap; perhaps it is the split moment of this “phantom” of vinnana “getting lost without namarupa”! Which means, the constant flux of self is a delusion?

As i understand this sutta; Viññana, through realizing the nature of no footing, thus not avijja, at the extinguishement of the flame, ultimately comes to an END.

2nd pack.
The different between Brahma and Buddha is; Brahma sees only Jhana [progression], the Buddha sees (Jhana) +(gap)+(Pre-Jhana)+(Jhana) [(progression)+(pre-progression)+(progression)].
In Pre-Jhana, Right Recollection reveals the luminous from everywhere; the beginning until completion of a fusion, though occur in minute split second.

So if “sabbato pabhaṃ”, -ato means from, then, this “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ” is attributed to The Buddha, most likely.

3rd pack.
The could have been simplified by taking out both; “Ettha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati” and “ Ettha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ” plus both that these 2 mirror. If there is an intrusion, I would rather assume to be these 2.

The text has gone a bit far down below the 12 links of Dependent Origination, Birth, aging and death. This two terms is rather just explaining what contribute to “nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṃ uparujjhati”. Perhaps the inclusion is necessary to avoid mis-interpretation of Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ as permenant “the absolute”; by extending a bigger “gap” between “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ” and “Viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṃ uparujjhatī”, I would infer that prolonging “gap” is the solution, by extending cessation, thus cutting off the possible birth due to kamma potency.

Imagine that you have an old model car the does not ignite thru electronic circuit board. As the car is moving, switch the gear to neutral and turn off the power switch, turn it on again but without ignition. Combustion is stop but the car continue to slide, eventually the car will come to a stop. Kamma potency is left “hanging”! If before the car comes to a stop, the gear is switch to engage mode, ignition auto starts and the engine combustion will continue.