We come into the world ignorant of the things we do that end up causing dukkha in our lives, and in particular ignorant of the drive for existence of our sense-of-self: that’s step #1: ignorance, and step #2: sankhara. Sankhara is simultaneously that natural tendency to develop and protect our sense-of-self taken to extremes, and sankharas are the things we do that create and develop that identity. Sankhara, in that dual sense, represents the whole chain of dependent arising: it is the drive and the actions (including our thoughts); everything else is just details.

The third link in the chain addresses the beginning point of the sankhara process. It is usually translated as consciousness, which is a fair enough translation of its Pali term, “vinnana“. But given that it is a very specific kind of consciousness, I actually prefer the term “awareness” as being less confusing when describing what it does (as opposed to in translations).

Here’s Sariputta’s explanation of vinnana, from MN 9, as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi:

There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness.This is called consciousness.

We are back in “a field” again, which serves to nourish the events in the cycle being described, but pointing out the field doesn’t give us detail about what’s actually going on in that consciousnes that’s the issue. It is not every activation of “eye-consciousness” (for example) that is part of the problem, only sankhara-driven instances are.

What is made clear with this list is that this “consciousness” is something that comes in through the senses, and elsewhere we find the Buddha describing that this is something that arises with incoming data, develops, then passes away. This is why I prefer “awareness” as a translation, because we are talking about something that exists only when there is sense data to take note of. We may feel something — say a rumble of hunger in the belly — and then, even as awareness of the feeling fades, we think about it, and as we tell ourselves stories about the hunger, we may go on to thinking about what we should eat though the feeling that triggered the line of thought has long since vanished. Soon some other sensation will replace the hunger, and we’ll be off on another series of thoughts.

Note that describing the process as one that comes, grows, and fades has consciousness/awareness in the role of something that only exists while it is being fed — this is the very epitome of the concept of nourishment and existence that prevailed in the Buddha’s day. The potential for awareness is always there, but it isn’t active (it isn’t “real”) until it is being fed, until it finds what it is looking for.

But we need to remember that this awareness is of a very specific type. As with sankhara, when we look at the field of sense-awareness, not every event that arises is the awareness we’re talking about, but only the sort of sense-awareness that is grounded in sankhara, which is the driving force for this kind of awareness. This is awareness that is seeking whatever is out there that will best serve the needs of its own existence — the drive to protect our self, to know how everything in the world relates to us, to find advantage in it and be wary of disadvantage. Again, we are *not* talking about the most basic survival needs — how to get food, water, shelter — these things in their simplest forms are not the problem; they are not the problem because they are not the things we do that result in dukkha; they are not the problem because they don’t have as their source the beyond-necessity drives of sankhara. It’s when desires around preserving self get taken to extremes that they are sankhara-awareness. For example, the need for power can be seen as wanting to make sure one will always have enough of the basics to never be threatened with having too little, and therefore accumulating goods beyond bare necessities — which results, whether we realize it or not, in a disadvantage to others.

One thing the Buddha emphasizes about this kind of awareness is that it is interdependent with the next step — these are the only two steps described as being interdependent (that is, with each one being a cause of the other) — and it is because the very definition of awareness is of something that does not exist unless it is fed that it is bound up with the next step, because the next step is its food, as we will see in the next post.



Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Linda on May 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Everyone still with me? Away for the long weekend? Or is it that this was so confusing no one knows where to start to comment or question? Or maybe is it clear but unremarkable? Since this and the next post are the two that “lean on each other like two sheaves in the field” — one falls over without the other — I’m hoping for clarity here before we go to the next.

    My thanks to all who have commented — or even read without comment — the series so far.

  2. Candol on May 29, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Still with you.

  3. Mark Knickelbine on May 30, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Well, now that I’m almost finished with your journal article (only 8 pages left!) it’s a lot easier to see where you are going; the whole Brahmanic creation myth thing really helps scaffold your take on the DO stages.

  4. Linda on May 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Yes! So everyone should go purchase a subscription, please, and read the paper! : )

    It just seems to me that to get the reasoning behind seeing the structure the way I do, that incredible amount of wordage I put into the paper is necessary. Talking about how it plays out in practice — which I’m doing in this series — is something that isn’t included in the paper, and can be taken on as a separate subject altogether. But it sort of requires that readers here take on faith that I have good reason for seeing the practical aspects I’m presenting here the way I do. And I’d really rather not be taken on faith. So I encourage readers to go get that paper.

  5. Mark Knickelbine on June 7, 2012 at 7:53 am


    “Plagerising the Buddha’s word is thieving”

    First off, MN 9, which Linda is discussing, quotes Sariputta, not Gotama. Linda is not claiming Sariputta’s words as her own, which is the English definition of plagarism. Or did you mean to accuse Sariputta of plagarism?

    “there is no such thing a secular Buddhism”

    But there is. You see it in action right here. We strive to encorporate the Four Truths in our lives and cultivate the Eightfold Path as the canonical Gotama recommends — in THIS world, in THIS life, in THIS moment, the only one available to us for practice. To that extent, one could conceivably say, “There is no NON-secular Buddhism.”

    “who gives a stuff what you think”

    In the Pali texts Gotama frequently advises his followers to discuss the dharma — in fact, MN 9 is an example of just such a discussion. He did not want his followers to be blind, unquestioning believers in dogma, but to use his teachings as a springboard for exploring their lives. He established the sangha because he knew that practice is always practice with others, and that engaging in Right Speech with spiritual friends is a powerful way to integrate the dharma in our lives. That’s what Linda is doing here, out of compassion for us.

  6. […] Consciousness/awareness (vinnana): Is liberation the end of consciousness? How could that be? […]

  7. RachelAB on June 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I am reading this series way slower than you are posting it & am appreciating the care you are taking with explaining dependent arising, dear Linda! I am working on consciousness/awareness now and am wondering if i “got it.” I have not yet read your article, though i’ll check out how i can get it here in the US.

    Here’s how i am understanding your explanation of awareness. I’ll stick with your hunger example. The sensation of hunger per se is not what produces dukkha, it’s when i become aware of it by thinking “i am hungry” and then go on planning what i’ll eat – maybe even complaining that i don’t have strawberry jam on hand, or honey would be nice, and if that person would just call me, we could have lunch together and… What i am not quite sure i fully understand is the level of awareness required: Is it noticing the sensation, labeling it, adding the story – or all of this? If i notice the sensation and label it “hunger” and then go eat something without adding a story – i don’t think that would lead to dukkha – or does it?

    • Linda on June 16, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying it. Whatever pace works for you is great; I expect the posts will be available for a long while.

      Awareness at this point in the sequence is not easy to pin down, because it is really describing what happens in a sort of multi-layered overview of causes and effects. A little later in the sequence (starting with contact) we get an actual step-by-step breakdown of what’s going on, and it might be easier to get a sense of the examples from that.

      What I can say about it (in answer to your specific questions) is that, because it is driven by ignorance, it is defined as being more on the unconscious level than “awareness” might seem to indicate. If you imagine that there is a sort of Wizard of Oz within you, operating levers and hiding behind a curtain, trying to manipulate the world in a way that results in making it happiest, you could say that *it* is what’s aware. You aren’t conscious of what it’s doing — and that’s part of the problem. It is using you to its own ends.

      What’s interesting about this (I think) is that the “cure” for the problem is a different sort of awareness — the awareness Buddhist practice fosters in us through meditation and mindfulness. We are replacing the subconscious/unconscious/Wizard of Oz’s awareness that drives events with a conscious choice to be aware — and we do this because we are (to some degree) no longer ignorant.

      Using your example though, yes. At the point where you are simply responding to hunger and planning what to eat, there’s probably not a lot of “I” involved in it. *rumble of hunger* “hmmm there is bread and jam…” Things are probably just fine up to that point but if the Wizard became particularly set on that jam (“and I really LIKE jam”) the trouble begins there, in that the Wizard’s going to get angry if there is no jam.

      It is usually easiest to see it through noticing that we are telling ourselves stories about the necessity of whatever we’re thinking about — the necessity to our happiness. It is also at its easiest to spot on this level of the bare sensual experience: we can pretty easily see how making something more important than it really is can lead into trouble; and so it’s really good to get in the habit of noticing this when it happens. But the dukkha we get out of these is usually little tiny dukkha. When the dukkha that results is bigger and more powerful, it is in the things that are harder to see, and the reason they are harder to see is because (in a lovely bit of Buddhist irony) because we are even *more* attached to them than we are to jam — the greater importance we attach to them makes us naturally a little more blind to the problem (this is ignorance feeding ignorance — we’ll meet this in the last post, on the Taints).

      So for example when I’m late to work and driving fast while trying to get that important cup of coffee down without spilling it on me, and I fail to notice a yield sign, and cause someone else to swerve, and they lean on their horn, I’m going to get furious with THEM for being rude and “let them ruin my day” — because all the stories I’m telling are about all the good reasons I have for behaving the way I am (I am a good person, after all) so when things go badly, it can’t be *my* fault.

      The more central to our sense of who we are, the harder it is to see that our self-justifications are just that, and the larger the problems that result. Wars are started from that kind of entrenchment.

      As long as I’m not noticing the way I’m cutting myself slack and blaming others, dukkha can come bite me because I’m unaware, and unable to stop the process. When I replace the ignorantly-seeking awareness with conscious awareness, the whole situation goes better.

  8. charles on June 20, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Linda —
    I just discovered your fascinating and exiting article “Burning Yourself…”.
    I am hoping you can help me understand something, and/or point me to appropriate resources.
    My teachers distinguish Consciousness from Awareness, and even speak of “Bare Awareness”, which I understand to mean awareness with no content.
    You, on the other hand, use Consciousness and Awareness as synonyms, implying to me that there is no such thing as “bare awareness”
    Your usage makes more sense to me because I understand Gautama to consciousness only arises on contact (not sure I have the right word here).
    My question is really about how to evaluate these apparently conflicting claims. My own meditation practice is not advanced enough that I can directly evaluate what is being said. Maybe I should just say that I have no experience of awareness without content. As I read your work, I infer that no-one ever will. Is “Bare Awareness” then just consciousness without the taints of sankaras… which would be just raw undifferentiated sensory data. If that is so, what of the Tibetan (?) concept of “Clear Light Mind” which I understand to be awareness with no content? Is this just an illusion.. eg awareness of a mental construct of an illuminated empty space?
    I know I am mostly expressing confusion here. Any guideposts you can point out would be appreciated.

  9. Linda on June 20, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Hello charles, and thanks for reading my paper! Glad to help out if I can, but please keep in mind I’m not a student of the many schools of practice that are out there. My guideposts are the Pali canon, my practice, and what others tell me of theirs.

    Maybe you haven’t have experienced “bare awareness”, or maybe you have and weren’t aware of it!

    After many years practicing meditation, I have now had plenty of moments in which there are no thoughts, but I’m still aware of what’s going on around me (but there were many years before that when I thought it not possible — I have a busy mind!).

    When in that state, I expect that on some level I’m still “thinking” but that depends on how you define thinking. I define it as being able to stop and look at what was just going on in my mind and say, “Oh, I was thinking about x.” The rest of the stuff — operating my feet as I walk, choosing what direction I go in next, ability to react if a dog jumps out at me, I think of as “processing” rather than “thinking” — and processing runs constantly, whether I’m aware of it or not. But processing is awareness of the world, isn’t it? just on a sort of “unconscious” level.

    So maybe “processing” is what we moderns would call consciousness, and while processing one can be aware of what’s going on around us, even aware of sensations like heat or wetness, without labeling them, or telling ourselves stories about them, without attaching ideas about ourselves to whatever is happening. This is a state in which we can actively look around at the world, and be paying attention, but have no active, wordy thoughts going on in our heads: no storytelling, no labelling, no commentary.

    To me, that would be what is aimed at with “bare awareness”.

    As for the way I see what’s being said about consciousness/awareness in the Pali canon, it is this: that in dependent arising, what the Buddha is describing is the way we normally are in the world, the way we normally are that causes us trouble. In that way of being, consciousness/hungry awareness is usually going about looking for information; labeling and telling stories; and if we stop to check what’s in our minds, we can say what it is we were thinking about just now (“I was thinking that the smell of pizza makes me hungry”).

    Most of the stuff going on in our minds is us trying to process the world in a way that will be to our best advantage — in other words, we are building a map of the world in our minds and every bit of it makes reference to us, to who we are and how the world is to us. (“The smell of pizza affects *me*.”)

    The Buddha saw that sort of consciousness, that sort of awareness, as a problem. I don’t see him as saying that every thinking moment, we are thinking in troublesome ways, but that most of the time our thoughts are oriented towards “me, and how the world relates to me” and most of those thoughts lead to trouble (but not all, not all thinking is a problem).

    However, he felt that we could replace that awareness, that consciousness of the world, with a different one, which is why he put such an emphasis on putting effort into mindfulness and concentration practices. Developing those allows us to replace our busy, self-interested, usually wildly undirected attention, with something that we (at first consciously) direct and focus, awareness that is — and this will sound like a contradiction to what I just said about “focus” but it isn’t contradictory — more wide open, because it is not involved only with “self”.

    So there are effectively two sets of consciousness/awarenesses. The first, the one natural to us, wanders where it will looking for and seeing what relates to it in the world, usually ending up so self-centered that it ends up with a fairly distorted view of the world; and the second sort of consciousness/awareness is what we learn to put forward to replace it, one that is less about “self” and more about unfiltered connection to the world.

    I know that in some traditions it is believed that we already have this open mind, that it is just obscured by the busy mind — that is where “Buddha Nature” comes from, and is perhaps the “Clear Light Mind”. I certainly don’t think there is anything “unnatural” about being able to see the world differently (without all our pre-conceived notions getting in the way) but at the same time, it sure doesn’t come naturally to us! We have to work at learning to do it.

    So by “awareness with no content” I’m thinking we’re just talking about awareness without thinking, without the wordy kind of thinking, without the storyteller/definer talking away constantly. In some traditions, one learns to access this state of mind by imagining an illuminated empty space, but the mechanism for getting there isn’t the thing aimed at. Being able to sustain “no thought” without imagining that space is what’s aimed at.

    If the above isn’t helpful, you are welcome to ask another way, or ask for more detail on any specific bits. I find these subjects are a challenge to express!

    • charles on June 23, 2013 at 10:05 pm

      Linda —
      I am honored and grateful for your long and thoughtful response.

      ‘So by “awareness with no content” I’m thinking we’re just talking about awareness without thinking, without the wordy kind of thinking’

      This is consistent with what I have been noticing in my own mind. Calling this state of mind simply “wordlessness” has helped demythologize it for me. I guess I was looking for reassurance that I was not missing something by oversimplifying it. Your response seems to support my relatively mundane interpretation.

      Thank You

  10. ruedade on June 21, 2013 at 4:48 am

    Here`s an exercise to experience a different way of knowing. Get a copy of Picasso`s drawing of Stravinsky. Turn it upside down and begin to copy it. The focus is on drawing lines.
    Relax. Observe resistance without reacting, take short breaks if you need to. Smile.
    After about 10 – 15 minutes you may observe a shift in consciousness, one in which you see without verbal interference.

  11. Mark Knickelbine on June 24, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    “Bare Awareness” is a complicated term. Certainly all awareness is awareness of something — I think that’s one of the points Gotama is making with his analysis of the aggregates. But when we meditate, we become aware of awareness — we understand that it is a kind of energy that flows in different ways and is colored by perception but isn’t the same thing as perception. So for instance when we become aware of thoughts as thoughts, suddenly it’s clear to us how much of our time we spend being unaware of them as thoughts and that it’s possible (in fact, typical) to be conscious and unaware simultaneously. So I think bare awareness is not without content, but is focused not on content but on awareness itself.

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