Consciousness (vinnana in Pali) according to the early Buddhist teachings is usually associated with one or another of the six sense-doors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body or mind), and as such is conditioned as is all phenomena in this universe. Eye-consciousness, for example, is conditioned as are the eyes and eye-objects that condition it. And it is the same with the other five kinds of consciousness associated with the sense-doors. Furthermore, like all conditioned things, the six kinds of consciousness are created and will eventually cease to be. Therefore, they do not constitute a permanent self: ultimately we are neither these bodies nor these minds, whatever conditioned form consciousness takes.
All this appears to feed the belief that the Buddha taught a form of atheistic philosophy, and that aside from every conditioned aspect of human existence there is nothing. According to this line of thought, at heart we are literally nothing. However, just as the Buddha taught that eternalism (sassatavada) is a false belief, so too he taught that nihilism (ucchedavada) is not true. So, what is it that survives all this analysis (and survives death, for that matter)? In the early Buddhist scriptures known as the Pali Canon or Tipitaka there are two places that discuss consciousness in a different light, calling it anadassana-vinnana, which has been translated as ‘consciousness-without-signs,’ ‘consciousness-without-showing,’ ‘non-manifest-consciousness,’ and ‘awakened consciousness.’ (For those canonical nuts of you out there the relevant sections of the Canon are Digha Nikaya 11.85 and Majjhima Nikaya 49.25.) In these sutras the Buddha says:
‘In the awakened consciousness –
the invisible, the limitless, radiant.
There it is that earth, water, fire and wind,
And long and short, and fine and coarse,
Pure and impure no footing find.
‘There it is that both nama (mind) and rupa (body) fade out,
Leaving no trace behind.
When discriminative consciousness comes to its limit,
They are held in check therein.’
This awakened consciousness, as pointed out by the Buddha, is not conditioned as with the six kinds of consciousness described above, neither being part of the natural world (earth, water, fire, and wind), nor having size, being neither long nor short; it is without texture, being neither fine nor coarse; it is without moral quality either, being neither pure nor impure; neither is it psychological in nature (nama) nor physical (rupa). It is invisible, limitless, and radiant. To experience this awakened consciousness in meditation is not as difficult as some might think – thinking after all is a process of the mind, and awakened consciousness is beyond the reach of “discriminative consciousness.” One way we can explore experience in search of awakened consciousness is to try the following exercise:
Sitting in a relaxed but upright position – traditional meditation postures are perfect for this purpose, for obvious reasons – close your eyes to limit sensory interference, as the eventual objective here is to focus on awareness not its contents. To do this, pay attention to the contents of the mind, which will probably include sound-consciousness, touch-consciousness, and mind-consciousness at a minimum. Be alert to any sounds present for example, noting their loudness, duration, and other qualities, and then do this with any other forms of sense-consciousness you are aware of. Having done this for at least several minutes, next turn attention around to that which is awake to all of this. So, for example, examine the silence that contains sound-consciousness – does it have any discernible qualities? Look at the contents of the mind in the form of thoughts, memories, fantasies, emotions, and the like. Then, see the no-mind that mental phenomena occur in, taking care to recognize just how different it is to its contents. Is this silent, thoughtless, tasteless, odourless, sightless, and non-tactile awareness with or without conditioned qualities?
Here it would benefit us to recall the three attributes ascribed to awakened-consciousness in the aforementioned canonical extract: invisible, limitless, and radiant. When we compare these descriptions of awakened-consciousness with our experience in the above exercise, do we find that they fit? Here, it certainly seems that they do. This alert silence that lies behind all psycho-physical stimuli is certainly invisible for it has no features whatsoever – visual stuff appear in it, filling it with their forms and colours. As to being limitless, it is experienced without borders, and is therefore capable of containing the limited phenomena that occupy it. Finally, is it ‘radiant?’ Well, radiance is a quality of clarity, a sharpness of knowing, and again that which is alert in meditation does indeed shine with a wakefulness that fills the meditative mind. Reflecting on all of this, this naked knowing does indeed fit the bill as being the very awakened-consciousness that the Buddha talks of in the Pali Canon.
To really benefit from this meditative exercise most of us need to undertake it on a regular basis for at least half an hour a time. Those of you that are ripe to see the way-things-are (Dharma) mat well get the heart of this meditation much quicker, but however swiftly you experience awakened consciousness, it will be of much benefit to repeat the exercise as many times as you can. Discovering the underlying reality that precedes both mind and body, not to mention the normal association that we humans have with mundane conditioned consciousness, is a liberating experience. Being awake this way transcends the limitations of egoistic living, freeing us from the destructive emotions that usually dominate everyday consciousness. Waking up certainly has its benefits!
If all this seems too good to be true, and that the meditative credentials of the author of this article are questionable to the reader, a much better advocate of such meditative explorations of awakened-consciousness (anidassana-vinanna) is the widely-respected Ajahn Sumedho (1934-present). In his Dharma talks at Amaravati and other Buddhist Monasteries, Ajahn Sumedho has repeatedly referred to awakened-consciousness, promoting its investigation to his listeners, whether monks, nuns, or laity. He has said that awakened-consciousness is impersonal in nature, as opposed to our personalities that are full of biases, preferences, and other individualistic mental processes that affect our experience of the world.
According to Ajahn Sumedho, when attention is focused on impersonal awareness as opposed to our identification with being male or female, young or old, American or Chinese, etc. we begin to let go of those attachments to self-identity that cause suffering on a daily basis. This is because awakened-consciousness doesn’t suffer – it’s beyond suffering (dukkha). Associating with being specific people we suffer – it can’t be any other way. But as impersonal awakened-consciousness there’s nobody here to suffer. This may sound a bit like being some kind of robot that has no emotions and is therefore uninterested in the suffering of others. This isn’t how it works, however, for as awakened-consciousness we are not only open to the suffering of all beings but naturally feel compassion for them, as there is no ego here to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’
Regarding the tendency amongst some Theravada Buddhists to take the Pali Canon as a set of dogmas to be blindly followed, Ajahn Sumedho has said that the Canon exists to help us explore our experience of life, rather than as yet another set of ideas to attach to. This is a crucial point that we Buddhists would do well to pay attention to, for both Buddhism’s teachings and practices are tools to assist in our awakening. This principle extends to the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings, including those that refer to the six sense-doors. By remaining open-minded in this way, we are alive to experiencing and accepting the results of meditative practices like the one above, rather than falling into dualistic beliefs such as nihilism and eternalism.
Ajahn Sumedho insists that anidassana-vinanna remains when the world ends – whether in deep meditation or when we physically die. He has described it as “this primal, non-discriminative consciousness.” This reflects the quotation from the Pali Canon above that states that awakened-consciousness endures even “when discriminative consciousness comes to its limit.” As to conditioned phenomena such as the six sense-doors of consciousness, the Buddha says that “they are held in check therein” when in meditation we become fully immersed in awakened-consciousness. This is something that most of us can possibly only achieve after many years (or lifetimes?!) of meditative practice, but in the meantime we can at least have a glimpse or two of unconditioned awareness by devoting some time to practices like the one described above.