The Sense of Consciousness

Sort of an Introduction with Caveat Garnish (tho it’s more like an Afterward since I wrote it after)

This post is about my current area of interest and study. That is related to the Abhidharma. So this is more like a study note and thoughts on the fly than any conclusive thing.  That is true about anything on this blog. All I conclude for sure is that there are no conclusions. No definitive something, no absolute anything. Even the concept of absolute is not. So there’s a caveat.

If this is not of interest to you the 3 digressions from it (to be posted shortly after this) may be more to your liking. The titles will begin with the word Digression…

And here’s another caveat.

As to the relation of the teachings of the Abhidhamma to those of the Sutta Pitaka, two very apt comparisons given in a conversation by the late Venerable Pelene Vajiranana, Maha-Nayakathera of Vajirarama, Colombo, may be added, in conclusion:

The Abhidhamma is like a powerful magnifying-glass, but the understanding gained from the Suttas is the eye itself, which performs the act of seeing. Again, the Abhidhamma is like a medicine container with a label giving an exact analysis of the medicine; but the knowledge gained from the Suttas is the medicine itself which alone is able to cure the illness and its symptoms, namely craving rooted in ignorance, and the suffering caused by it.

from Abhidhamma Philosophy: Concluding Remarks and a Warning by Ven.  Nyanaponika Thera

Studying Abhidharma for me pushes out a lot of poetry-type stuff. (many people call it dry and boring but I don’t think so) And so there’s tangents like that occurring as well in case it stops making sense to anybody but me. (And I’ve been dipping into Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook so there may be a few food references too)

Abhidhamma is mainly concerned with the study of abstract truths in absolute terms.

But in describing the dhammas [things of every sort] in their various aspects, it is not possible to keep to absolute terms only. Inevitably, conventional terms of every day language have to be employed in order to keep the lines of communication open all. Abhidhamma states that there are two main types of conventional usage; the first type is concerned with terms which express things that actually exist in reality and the second type describes things which have no existence in reality.

from What is Abhidhamma Pitaka? at (aka This is Myanmar)

[About the word dhamma (dharma)-am working on a post about 5 usages of that word. Different contexts give a different meaning]

Another aside, for students, always write your essay introductions after you’ve written the essay. Then if you’ve gone off track it looks like you haven’t and it appears that you’ve written exactly what you’d set out to write. Same for articles. It works really well.

The Sense of Consciousness

Using consciousness to contemplate consciousness seems like a weird and illogical thing to do when you really think about it. Sort of like trying to see your own eyeball or smell your own nose or taste your tongue.  All the more reason to do it.

And how does a monk dwell contemplating (the nature of) the mind in the mind in regard to himself?

from Analysis of the Ways of Attending to Mindfulness (Satipaññhànavibhaïgo, Vibh. 7) (pdf) p. 11

That’s pretty much one of the $64,000 questions for anyone doing meditation.

“What is the way to remain established in the meditation on mind as mind?

“When the practitioner’s mind is attached to something, he knows it is attached to something. When the practitioner’s mind is not attached, he knows it is not attached. When the practitioner’s mind hates something, he knows that it hates something. When his mind is not hating, he knows it is not hating. When his mind is confused, he knows it is confused. When it is not confused, he knows it is not confused. When his mind is defiled, he knows it is defiled. When his mind is not defiled, he knows it is not defiled. When it is distracted, he knows it is distracted. When it is not distracted, he knows it is not distracted. When his mind has obstacles, he knows it has obstacles. When it has no obstacles, he knows it has no obstacles. When it is tense, he knows it is tense. When it is not tense, he knows it is not tense. When it is boundless, he knows it is boundless. When it is bound, he knows it is bound. When his mind is concentrating, he knows it is concentrating. When it is not concentrating, he knows it is not concentrating. Before his mind is liberated, he knows it is not liberated. When it is liberated, he knows it is liberated. That. is how the practitioner is aware of mind as mind, both inside the mind and outside the mind, and establishes mindfulness in the mind with recognition, insight, clarity, and realization, and that is called being aware of mind as mind. If bhikkhus or bhikkhunis meditate on mind as mind according to the details of these instructions, then they know how to dwell in the practice of observing mind as mind.

from The Sutra on the Four Grounds of Mindfulness Nian Chu Jing (Sarvastivada)

There are further instructions in that Sutra about contemplating on the objects of the mind as well.  These are part of the four grounds of mindfulness. The first two being body and feelings. It’s all laid out fairly straightforwardly.

Digression #1 Dealing with the Body Before the MindI went on a long digression that I’ve put in the next blog post.

Back to the Mind

So I am momentarily concerned with mind as mind. It’s like a big giant koan. Pretty easy to see where those guys came up with the idea of koan practice. They are like a bite at a time in the reality sandwich.

And then there’s advice such as:

“The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free.” Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

via ryderjaphy on Twitter

which makes the whole paradox even more interesting.

One of the other reasons I am giving this mind as mind situation some consideration is this little bit of information I stumbled across.

The four grounds of mindfulness (you’ll have to read it at the link above or one of the other optional links below) have been categorized in a way for different sorts of temperaments. That is they are like prescriptions for those types.  A handy chart is provided at the Wikipedia page which I’ve duplicated below.

Personality-based typography (applied to Satipatthana Sutta)

According to Analāyo (2006, pp. 24-25) and Soma (2003, pp. xxii – xxiv), the Papañcasudani recommends a different satipaṭṭhāna depending on whether a person:

-tends more toward affective craving or intellectual speculation; and,

-is more measured in their responses or quick reacting.

Based on these two dimensions the commentary’s recommended personality-based satipaṭṭhāna is reflected in the grid below.

experiential orientation (character)
affective (extrovert) cognitive (introvert)
reactivity / temperament slow body mind
quick sensations mental contents

Knowing that I am definitely in the “intellectual speculation” (introvert) category is obvious just by reading this blog. And the temperament part is also obvious to me. Though I dare say some people might disagree if I’ve gone off in their blog comments or in a post here with what sounds like knee-jerking. But there are usually 2-3 other reactions considered over a matter of hours or even days before I let loose just so you know. Probably 70% of the time I just drop the urge to comment or post at all in fact. (that’s how my posts queue gets really long sometimes-like 30+ posts)

Soma (2003, p. xxiv) adds that all practitioners (regardless of their character and temperament) should also practice mindfulness of Postures (moving, standing, sitting, lying down) and Clear Understanding, about which he writes: “The whole practice of mindfulness depends on the correct grasp of the exercises included in the two parts referred to here.”

Putting this all together the prescription would indicate contemplation on the ground of mind. So I’ll look into that here, think on it, meditate on all that for a while.

Digression #2 The Use of Study and Thinking–I went on another long digression that I’ve put in another blog post. I’ll put that one up after Digression #1. It has to do with a couple of related blog posts I came across recently. We can titillate ourselves intellectually with all of this but what is it’s relevance from a practice point of view? So that’s what Digression #2 is about.

Consciousness as a Sense

The Buddha spoke about everything which is real. What he taught can be proved by our own experience. However, we do not really know the most common realities of daily life: the mental phenomena and physical phenomena which appear through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body sense and mind …

The Buddha explained that citta (consciousness) is a reality. We may doubt whether cittas are real. How can we prove that there are cittas? Could it be that there are only physical phenomena and not mental phenomena? There are many things in our life we take for granted such as our homes, meals. clothes, or the tools we use every day. These things do not arise by themselves. They are brought about by a thinking mind, by citta. Citta is a mental phenomenon; it knows or experiences something. Citta is not like a physical phenomenon which does not experience anything. We listen to music which was written by a composer. It was citta which had the idea for the music; it was citta which made the composer’s hand move in order to write down the notes. His hand could not have moved without citta.

from Abhidhamma in daily life by Nina Van Gorkom Part 3 Different Aspects of Citta

Citta [mind] as an arising phenomenon, just like a physical phenomenon and can give rise to physical phenomenon as well. The sense of something that gets attention, registers, causes reaction.

Here is an explanation of citta (consciousness as as a sense and how it functions in a similar fashion:

Awareness is the process of cittas experiencing objects. For a citta to arise it must have an object ( The object may be a color, sound, smell, taste, something tangible, or a mental object. These are the six external objects. Strictly speaking a mental object can be an internal phenomenon, such as a feeling, a thought, or an idea, but as forming the objective sphere of experience they are all classed as external. Corresponding to these external objects there are six internal sense faculties, called “doors” since they are the portals through which the objects enter the field of cognition. These are the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Each of the five physical sense faculties can receive only its appropriate object; the mind door, however, can receive both its own proper mental objects as well as the objects of the five physical senses. When a door receives its object, there arises a corresponding state of consciousness, such as eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc. The union of the object, the door or sense faculty, and the consciousness is called “contact” (phassa). There can be no awareness without contact. For contact to occur all three components must be present — object, door, and consciousness. If one is missing there will be no contact. The process of the arising of consciousness and the subsequent train of events is analyzed in detail in the Abhidhamma. A study of this analysis will show that only “bare phenomena” are taking place and that there is no “self” involved in this process. This is the no-self characteristic of existence.

from The Abhidhamma in Practice by N.K.G. Mendis

Consider giving full attention to everything that the eye encounters, every detail of form, color, juxtaposition, relationship to other things and their attributes. [Maybe some people, with photographic memories for instance, could do that to some greater degree than others-but that’s an exception] Were we to do that continuously it would be something of an information overload. Partly because the point of registering each and every point of light upon the surface of everything would make life impossible. Taken to an extreme it might be like some kind of very extreme OCD where one couldn’t get away from examining something. There would be no time to cook, go to the bathroom, sleep or anything.

Consider what Kodo Sawaki Roshi said:

Don’t we live life from moment to moment? How could we possibly take life, analyze it, systematize it and file it away?

from the quotation Twitter account called SawakiZen

Mind/consciousness as a sense seems to be quite similar. Some thought comes, prompted by who knows what stimulus and it gets examined over and over. [I am noticing this as I am writing this post in fact] It is adjusted and compared with what comes before and after and beside and in digressions and there are billions of little paths it can take. Like billions of little eddies in a huge river.

Getting caught up in those thought eddies is just like being visually dazzled by some 3-D movie or fireworks show. They are scintillating and exciting and engaging and set off a whole brain chemical cascade wave. We may be excited, cheering, yelling, smiling. We want more of it. It’s hard to back off and only note the happening without getting swept away.

Or it can be nightmarish with a feeling developing of being pulled down into murky depths we’d rather not plumb. Rather like driving past an auto wreck and seeing blood on the windshield or suddenly focusing on a parent treating a child abusively in public. We don’t want to see that but we can’t ignore it either. We look, look away, look again, stare, close our eyes, as the scene registers at another level, and a different kind of brain chemical cascade wave occurs. We may be sickened, angry, sad, confused, disoriented, upset. We don’t want this. But again it’s hard to back off and only note the happening without getting swept away.

When thoughts appear it is the same sort of deal. We encounter it, register it, react to it. They may manifest in our heads, but this is the only difference between them and the things that register with the physical senses. They may be made of memory, emotion, hope and imagination (or a strictly bio-chemical process-another theoretical speculation) rather than reflections of light hitting the retina but registration (as in the processes described in Abhidharma) via sense doors is the same.

The starting point of Buddhist thought is the truth of suffering. Suffering is a problem of consciousness; only that which is conscious can suffer. Consciousness is subject to suffering because of ignorance, or fundamental not-knowing, which divides consciousness into subject and object, into a self and an other-than-self (i.e., the objects and people around the self).

In Buddhism, ignorance is defined as the notion of a permanent, independent self and its object. Once we have this division of consciousness into a self and an other-than-self, we have suffering, because tension is created between the two. We also have craving and aversion, because we want those things that support the self and are averse to those things that are not conducive to the self.

This division or discrimination between the self (or subject) and the other-than-the-self (or object) is the fundamental cause of suffering. Such a division is possible because of ignorance — the belief in a real self existing independently and in opposition to the other-than-self. Thus it is not surprising that the Abhidharma should turn first to an analysis of subjectivity and objectivity. Indeed, when we examine the teaching of the five aggregates, we see that form (rupa) is the objective component, while name (nama), consciousness, and the mental aggregates of volition, perception, and feeling are the subjective component…. Mind and matter are forms of experience, not essences.

from The Abhidharma Peter Della Santina, Ph.D. in Section (3) Analysis of Consciousness

That last line “Mind and matter are forms of experience, not essences. ” is incredibly important for a number of different reasons.

A thing is not a thing in itself but is only our experience of what may be called relatively objective matter. The form is registered, then comes all the subjective stuff.

The concept of object is what seems to give some pause. A thought is a thing in this abstract sense then.

The subject, the consciousness, receives objects from within and without. When a person is in a state of profound sleep his mind is said to be vacant, or, in other words, in a state of Bhavanga. We always experience such a passive state when our minds do not respond to external objects. This flow of Bhavanga is interrupted when objects enter the mind. Then the Bhavanga consciousness vibrates for one thought-moment and passes away. Thereupon the sense-door consciousness (Pancadvàràvajjana)arises and ceases. At this stage the natural flow is checked and is turned towards the object. Immediately after there arises and ceases the eye-consciousness (Cakkhu Vinnàõa), but yet knows no more about it. This sense operation is followed by a moment of reception of the object so seen (Sampañicchana). Next comes the investigating faculty (Santãraõa) or a momentary examination of the object so received. After this comes that stage of representative cognition termed the determining consciousness(Votthapana). Discrimination is exercised at this stage. Freewill plays its part here. Immediately after there arises the psychologically most important stage—Impulsion or Javana. It is at this stage that an action is judged whether moral or immoral. Kamma is performed at this stage; if viewed rightly (yoniso manasikàra), the Javana becomes moral; if viewed wrongly (ayoniso manasikàra),it becomes immoral. In the case of an Arahant this Javana is neither moral nor immoral, but merely functional(Kiriya). This Javana stage usually lasts for seven thought-moments, or, at times of death, five. The whole process which happens in an infinitesimal part of time ends with the registering consciousness (Tadàlambana),lasting for two thought-moments—thus completing one thought-process at the expiration of seventeen thought-moments.

from A Manual of Abhidhamma (Abhidhammattha Sangaha) By Narada Maha Thera

Choppy waters unless we are deeply asleep. But even then what of night terrors and the like? To be unconscious is not the same as Bhavanga consciousness it seems to me. If you’ve ever experienced general anesthesia that type of unconsciousness is an emulation of death in which nothing arises or moves. Since we can’t spend our lives in an unconscious state, thereby being free of any of these worries and we also can’t spend our lives completely absorbed with objects to the point of obsession the resolution becomes one of realization of the nature of the game as it goes on experientially.

Each citta which arises falls away immediately to be succeeded by the next citta. Cittas do not last, but there isn’t any moment without citta. If there were moments without citta the body would be a dead body. Even when we are sound asleep there is citta. Each citta which arises falls away but it conditions the next citta and even so the last citta of this life conditions the first citta of the next life, the rebirth- consciousness. Thus we see that life goes on and on.

The next citta cannot arise until the previous citta has passed away. There can be only one citta at a time, but cittas arise and fall away so rapidly that one has the impression that there can be more than one citta at a time. We may think that we can see and hear at the same time, but in reality each of these cittas arises at a different moment. We can verify through our own experience that seeing is a type of citta which is different from hearing; these cittas arise because of different conditions and experience different objects.

A citta is that which experiences something; it experiences an object. Each citta must experience an object, there cannot be any citta without on object. Cittas experience different objects through the six doors of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind.

A citta which experiences a bodily impression experiences this through the body-sense. Through the mind-door citta can experience all kinds of objects. There can be only one citta at a time and citta can experience only one object at a time.

Abhidhamma in daily life by Nina Van Gorkom Part 3 Different Aspects of Citta

We can simplify the seemingly complex mental processes by realizing the above but that is only a first step. What happens from there depends upon what we do with and about our experiences of said “objects”.  As long as there is the push-pull of preferences (desire, aversion) then it’s like being tied to runaway horses. (or oxes)

Suppose that a black ox and a white ox were joined with a single collar or yoke. If someone were to say, ‘The black ox is the fetter of the white ox, the white ox is the fetter of the black’ — speaking this way, would he be speaking rightly?”

“No, my friend. The black ox is not the fetter of the white ox, nor is the white ox the fetter of the black. The single collar or yoke by which they are joined: That is the fetter there.”

“It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how the eye is not the fetter of forms, nor are forms the fetter of the eye, but whatever desire & passion arises in dependence on the two of them: That is the fetter there. The ear is not the fetter of sounds… The nose is not the fetter of aromas… The tongue is not the fetter of flavors… The body is not the fetter of tactile sensations… The intellect is not the fetter of ideas, nor are ideas the fetter of the intellect, but whatever desire & passion arises in dependence on the two of them: That is the fetter there.”

from Kotthita Sutta at Access to Insight

Digression #3 Attempted Extrapolations as to the State of the Non-Suffering Conscious Which means I do wild speculation upon what it would be like to be enlightened. Or more aptly a short history of said speculations throughout my Buddhist career.  I also bash Mother Teresa and Gandhi. (but only a little bit)


What I am trying to get at here is not only the function of consciousness/mind but the origin of suffering within that.

A previously quoted author stated: Suffering is a problem of consciousness; only that which is conscious can suffer.

Here we have then the question of sentience as well as the implications for those who follow the Bodhisattva path.

Understanding the mechanisms involved in suffering, it’s origin in consciousness and its means of relief is what the whole project is about from this perspective.


Abhidhamma in daily life by Nina Van Gorkom Part 3 Different Aspects of Citta  Straightforward explanations and applications.

The Abhidharma by Peter Della Santina, Ph.D. particularly (3) Analysis of Consciousness wherein he discusses sense-sphere consciousness. This treatise is a description, summation and analysis of Abhidharma. Quite intense but interesting none-the-less.

from The Abhidhamma in Practice by N.K.G. Mendis is from Access to Insight. This essay gives a very straightforward introduction to the Abhidhamma. Terms are clearly defined and the main theses are outlined in an easy to understand way.

Analysis of the Ways of Attending to Mindfulness (Satipaññhànavibhaïgo, Vibh. 7) (English only- 43 p. pdf) from the Ancient Buddhist Texts site. Here’s the one with the Pali transliteration included (94 p. pdf)  Here is the same material from three different translators from
Access to Insight. 1.  Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2.   Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness translated from the Pali by Nyanasatta Thera 3.  Satipatthana Sutta: The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness translated from the Pali by Soma Thera

Consciousnesses by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo -a dhamma talk that has been transcribed and translated on the development of consciousness

The Five Aggregates A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (describing their construction and deconstruction)

Five Skandhas -from Wikipedia. Includes a section on 5 Relation to other Buddhist concepts which deals with Four Paramatthas, Twelve Sense Bases, Twelve Nidanas / Dependent Origination,  Eighteen Dhātus.  As well there is a section on 2.3 Release through aggregate-contemplation which is what I am basically talking about in this post.

A Manual of Abhidhamma (Abhidhammattha Sangaha) By Narada Maha Thera One of many of the excellent e-books and other resources available at Buddhanet’s ebook library

The Progress of Insight (Visuddhiñana-katha)by The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw This essay follows Buddhaghosa’s  Visuddhimagga but is simplified and more direct. Even so it is not exactly for beginners which the author states himself.

The Sutra on the Four Grounds of Mindfulness Nian Chu Jing (Sarvastivada) from Madhya Agama (number 26 in Taisho Revised Tripitaka). Translated by Gautama Sanghadeva from Sanskrit into Chinese, and by Thich Nhat Hanh and Annabel Laity into English.

Three Cheers for Tanha by Robert Morrison (Dharmachari Sagaramati) from the Western Buddhist Review Vol. 2  While I strongly disagree with the author’s approach to likening Buddhist concepts to Christian ones (tanha-original sin, Agamma Sutta-book of Genesis, tanha as the apple in the Eden episode, etc.), it only confuses matters, when that is left aside the analysis of the tanha concept is interesting and well researched.

2 comments on “The Sense of Consciousness

  1. So, I guess Zen isn’t just a recipe for soup – to my self-revoking surprise.

    Been playing pick-and-pull-and-scrounge-and-forage here – not displeased with what I’ve found, but perhaps it’s been like trying to make spaghetti out of a tomato, a bag of flour, and a dozen raw eggs. Is it wrong that I would want to make spaghetti, then? I haven’t been sure. It’s been like being adrift, kind of. I’ve even questioned whether the Dharma would call into question the sciences, as if it was all a manifestation of mere attachment? but, unable to found a contrary argument to the question, it has remained – or had, and now I think it is at least called into question, itself, in as I see the question.

    From part of a work that you’d linked into, from The Abhidhamma Philosophy: The Abhidhamma as System and Method[1] by by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera : “A very striking and deeply impressive feature of the Abhidhamma is the analysis of the entire realm of consciousness. It is the first time in the history of human thought that this was undertaken so thoroughly and realistically, without admixture of any metaphysics and mythology. This system provides a method by which the enormous welter of facts included or implied in it, can be subordinated to, and be utilized by, the liberating function of knowledge, which in the Buddha’s teaching is the essential task and the greatest value of true understanding. This organizing and mustering of knowledge for such a purpose cannot fail to appeal to the practical thinker.”

    I say, Indeed? and it’s not just a bunch of new-agey hoohah? and it grows truly out of the Dharma? Liberating!

    PS I would like to mention, in thought of convergence, that I believe there is at least one European philosopher or another (trans: There may be more than one, but I know of one) who has endeavored to use the mind to contemplate the mind. I believe that Descartes would be one of whom, as you might be aware, reader – and I see, now looking into it, that the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum” is accredited to his writing.

    The mind’s reflective function, and the layers of semantics that become entwined with the pursuit of meaning – it’s not just spaghetti soup? Yay!


  2. HI Marnie, good job trying to tackle a complicated subject, if a bit stream of consciousness (pun intended?!) :-)

    Wanted to comment on the “night terrors”. According to Abhidhamma, these would not occur during deep sleep, as during deep sleep, the only citta to arise and pass away (a & pa) is bhavaṅga. Dreams, night terrors/nightmares and all that sorta stuff is mind and object making contact, breaking the flow of a & pa bhavaṅga with mind consciousnesses (manoviññāṇā). For example, one might dream of snow. This COULD, but not definitively, be the result of sleeping in a cold room. So, the body consciousness registers the cold, then the mind picks up that object and creates a winter dreamscape. In entering deep sleep again, bhavaṅga would a & pa until such time as another object impinges on that flow to give rise to another mind consciousness.

Comments are closed.