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Viññāṇa

Reprinted with permission from
Clearing The Path
Writings of Ñánavíra Thera
Nanavira Thera Dhamma Page

Consciousness (viññána) can be thought of as the presence of a phenomenon, which consists of náma and rúpa. Námarúpa and viññána together constitute the phenomenon 'in person' — i.e. an experience (in German: Erlebnis). The phenomenon is the support (árammana — see first reference in [c] below) of consciousness, and all consciousness is consciousness of something (viz, of a phenomenon). Just as there cannot be presence without something that is present, so there cannot be something without its being to that extent present — thus viññána and námarúpa depend on each other (see A Note On Paticcasamuppáda Ī17). 'To be' and 'to be present' are the same thing. But note that 'being' as bhava, involves the existence of the (illusory) subject, and with cessation of the conceit (concept) '(I) am', asmimána, there is cessation of being, bhavanirodha. With the arahat, there is just presence of the phenomenon ('This is present'), instead of the presence (or existence) of an apparent 'subject' to whom there is present an 'object' ('I am, and this is present to [or for] me', i.e. [what appears to be] the subject is present ['I am'], the object is present ['this is'], and the object concerns or 'belongs to' the subject [the object is 'for me' or 'mine'] — see Phassa and Attā); and consciousness is then said to be anidassana, 'non-indicative' (i.e. not pointing to the presence of a 'subject'), or niruddha, 'ceased' (see A Note On Paticcasamuppáda Ī22). Viññánanirodha refers indifferently to anidassana viññána (saupádisesa nibbánadhátu, which refers to the living arahat: Itivuttaka II,ii,7 <Iti.38>[12]) and to cessation, at the arahat's death, of all consciousness whatsoever (anupádisesa nibbánadhátu). Viññánanirodha, strictly speaking, is cessation of viññán'upádánakkhandha as bhavanirodha is cessation of pañc'upádánakkhandhá (i.e. sakkáyanirodha), but it is extended to cover the final cessation of viññánakkhandha (and therefore of pañcakkhandhá) at the breaking up of the arahat's body.

Consciousness, it must be noted, is emphatically no more 'subjective' than are the other four upádánakkhandhá (i.e. than námarúpa). (This should be clear from what has gone before; but it is a commonly held view that consciousness is essentially subjective, and a slight discussion will be in place.) It is quite wrong to regard viññána as the subject to whom the phenomenon (námarúpa), now regarded as object, is present (in which case we should have to say, with Sartre, that consciousness as subjectivity is presence to the object). Viññána is negative as regards essence (or 'what-ness'): it is not part of the phenomenon, of what is present, but is simply the presence of the phenomenon. Consequently, in visual experience (for example), phenomena are seen, eye-consciousness is not seen (being negative as regards essence), yet there is eye-consciousness (eye-consciousness is present reflexively). In this way consciousness comes to be associated with the body (saviññánaka káya), and is frequently identified as the subject, or at least as subjectivity (e.g. by Husserl [see cetanā [b]] and Sartre [op. cit., p. 27]). (To follow this discussion reference should be made to phassa, particularly [c], where it is shown that there is a natural tendency for subjectivity to be associated with the body. Three distinct pairs of complementaries are thus seen to be superimposed: eye and forms (or, generally: six-based body and externals); consciousness and phenomena; subject and objects. To identify consciousness and the subject is only too easy. With attainment of arahattá all trace of the subject-and-objects duality vanishes. Cf. also attá [c].)


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