Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I don't make this easy on myself, do I? Having stated that the Buddha taught that consciousness arises from sanskara, I went on to say that to understand this we need first to define what we mean by "consciousness," by "sanskara," and by "arises from," and I attempted to define sanskara yesterday.  Which now paints me into the more difficult corner of having to define consciousness, a task that has eluded far, far greater minds than mine.

As the philosopher David Chalmers points out, the term "consciousness" is slippery as it can mean many different but closely related aspects of human consciousness, and when we start talking about one aspect, it is very easy to slip into discussion of another aspect and miss the point that we're trying to make.

As examples, consciousness may refer merely to the different states of being awake or being asleep.  Or it may be referring to setting the mind to concentrate on a specific thing or things, as "I am conscious of that fact" or "I am conscious of you standing there."

In it's most intimate sense, consciousness can refer to the luminous and highly individualized experience of perception - not only how we see, hear, and think, but what it's like for us to see, hear, and think.  The fact that we cannot share anyone else's experience is what makes this aspect of consciousness so individualized and so intimate.

There is also consciousness in the sense of being aware of one's own self, of not only experiencing sight, sound, and thought in a highly personalized way, but also of being aware that there is an "I" to experience these sensations.  This awareness of an ego-self is a very subtle aspect of consciousness in that while we're all aware that we "are," we don't typically spend much of our awareness perceiving that existence.  

When the Buddha spoke of consciousness, he used the Sanskrit word vijnana.  Referring again to the Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, vijnana refers to the consciousness that arises from contact of an object with the organ corresponding to a given sense.  Thus, when the Buddha spoke of consciousness, it was always in relation to a sensory perception, and so we have "sight consciousness" and  "sound consciousness," and so on, as well as "mind consciousness," which arises from the perception of thoughts.

Our friend Red Pine (Bill Porter) points out that the vi- in vijnana means "to divide" and -jna means "to know."  Thus, vi-jnana emphasizes knowledge that results from separation, separation of subject from object and one object from another.  Hence, vijnana is sometimes translated as "discrimination."  Vijnana refers to the faculty of the mind in general, the ability to be aware, aware of anything, but always something - form, sensation, perception, memories, and of course, a "self."  

The Buddha did not discuss or analyze vijnana all that much, saying that the mind trying to understand consciousness was like the hand trying to grasp the fist.  But when he did talk about the subject, consciousness was always related to one or the other of the senses.

So what we have here is a consciousness of the intimate, individualized kind, that arises when an object, be it a sight, sound or thought, encounters the appropriate perceptional sense organ.  When there is nothing to be seen or no organ of sight, sight consciousness does not arise.  When there are no sounds or no aural organs, hearing consciousness does not arise.  And finally, in the absence of thoughts, there is no mind consciousness, a theorem that we can each test for ourselves through the practice of meditation.

So given all this, one would be tempted to say that the Buddha taught that consciousness arose from the contact of stimuli (sensation) with the organs of perception, and that is indeed what he said.  However, in his teaching on the so-called Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination, he said that vijnana consciousness arose not from the senses but from our sanskara.

I believe that here the Buddha was referring to a different aspect of consciousness from the experiential, perceptual consciousness that arises from the senses.  The consciousness that arises from sanskara, those templates devised by the mind that I have elsewhere called schemata, is the perception of an ego-self, of the awareness of an "I" that sees, hears, and thinks.  But just as today, the term consciousness refers to both aspects (to the experiential and to self awareness), so did vijnana cover both then.  

So in his teaching of the Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha taught that from the schemata generated in the mind arises our discriminating awareness of an ego-self, of an "I," separate from others, that sees, hears, and thinks.

Having leaped over that hurdle (Did I?  Is it still standing or did I knock it over with my awkward leap?), tomorrow I will attempt to explain my understanding of what it means for something to arise from another thing, and more specifically how  the consciousness of self-awareness arises from the schematic sanskara of our minds.

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