From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
(Redirected from Viññāṇa)
Jump to: navigation, search

Vijñāna (P. viññāṇa; T. rnam par shes pa; C. shi; J. shiki; K. sik 識) is translated as "consciousness," "mind," "life force," "integrative function," etc.

It can be defined as:

  • perception, awareness of observable qualities presented to the senses[1]
  • the act of distinguishing or discerning, understanding, comprehending, recognizing, intelligence, knowledge[2]
  • “a way of knowing” (jnana), which is “divided,” “specific,” or “differentiated.”[3]
  • a mental quality as a constituent of individuality, the bearer of (individual) life[4]
  • life--force (as extending also over rebirths), principle of conscious life, general consciousness (as function of mind and matter)[4]

Vijnanna is identified within the Buddhist teachings in the following contexts:

Aspects of vijnana (modes of consciousness)

All schools of Buddhist thought accept a model of vijnana consisting of six modes or aspects. The Yogacara school of thought, which is influential in East Asia and Tibet, also posits a model of eight modes of consciousness.

Six vijñānas

The model of vijnana (consciousness) operating along six modes is accepted by all schools of Buddhism. Alexander Berzin states:

Unlike the Western view of consciousness as a general faculty that can be aware of all sensory and mental objects, Buddhism differentiates six types of consciousness, each of which is specific to one sensory field or to the mental field.[5]

The six modes in this model are:

  1. Visual (or eye) consciousness (Skt. cakṣur-vijñana; Tib. མིག་གི་རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wyl. mig gi rnam shes)
  2. Auditory (or ear) consciousness (Skt. śrotra-vijñana; Tib. རྣ་བའི་རྣམ་ཤེས་,Wyl. rna ba'i rnam shes)
  3. Olfactory (or nose) consciousness (Skt. ghrāṇa-vijñana; Tib. སྣའི་རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wyl. sna'i rnam shes)
  4. Gustatory (or tongue) consciousness (Skt. jihva-vijñana; Tib. ལྕེའི་རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wyl. lce'i rnam shes)
  5. Tactile (or body) consciousness (Skt. kāya-vijñana; Tib. ལུས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wyl. lus kyi rnam shes)
  6. Mental (or mind) consciousness (Skt. mano-vijñana; Tib. ཡིད་ཀྱི་རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wyl. yid kyi rnam shes)

In this model, for example, when an eye consciousness makes contact with an object such as a cup or a vase, there is a moment of just seeing the raw data without any discrimination about what is being seen. In the next moment, the raw data is transmitted to the mental consciousness, which interprets the data and forms the thought of a "cup" or a "vase".

Eight vijñānas

The Yogacara school identifies two additional types of vijnana:

  1. the defiled consciousness, klistamanas
  2. the storehouse consciousneess, ālayavijñāna

Rupert Gethin explains:

Early Buddhist thought analysed consciousness as consisting of six basic types corresponding to the five senses and the mind. Building on the traditions of the earlier Ābhidharmikas, Yogācārin thinkers give what amounts to a rather more complex account of the sixth, mind consciousness, focusing on what are in effect the deeper layers of the mind. The active or surface level of the mind continues to be seen as comprising six type of consciousness: our primary awareness of five types of sense data and our conscious thoughts, which for human beings are mostly related to the former in various ways. But underpinning these types of active consciousness are two further types of consciousness which are crucial in creating the world as we ordinarily experience it. The first is ‘the defiled mind’ (kliṣṭa-manas), so called because it is afflicted with four basic defilements: the view of individuality, the conceit ‘I am’, clinging to self and delusion. The object of this defilement, what the defiled mind in some way takes as the self, is the eighth consciousness, ‘the store consciousness’ (ālaya-vijñāna).41 Below the threshold of consciousness proper, the store consciousness is the particular repository of all the seeds sown by the defilements of a being’s active consciousness; it is the result of a being’s past karma, the accumulation of all past tendencies, strong or weak, to greed, hatred, and delusion; as such the store consciousness is also the condition for the perpetuation of these defilements in present and future active consciousness; it thus continually interacts with active consciousness according to the principles of dependent arising.[6]

Alexander Berzin states:

The Chittamatra schools add two more types of primary consciousness to make their list of an eightfold network of primary consciousnesses (rnam-shes tshogs-brgyad): deluded awareness (nyon-yid), alayavijnana (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, all-encompassing foundation consciousness, storehouse consciousness). Alayavijnana is an individual consciousness, not a universal one, underlying all moments of cognition. It cognizes the same objects as the cognitions it underlies, but is a nondetermining cognition of what appears to it (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive cognition) and lacks clarity of its objects. It carries karmic legacies (sa-bon) and the mental impressions of memories, in the sense that both are nonstatic abstractions imputed on the alayavijnana. The continuity of an individual alayavijnana ceases with the attainment of enlightenment.[5]

According to Walpola Rahula, the "store consciousness" of Yogacara thought exists in the early texts as well, as the "citta."[7]


The amalavijñāna, "immaculate consciousness", is considered by some Yogācāra schools as a ninth level of consciousness.[8] This "pure consciousness is identified with the nature of reality (parinispanna) or Suchness."[9] Alternatively, amalavijñāna may be considered the pure aspect of ālāyavijñāna.


The vijnana-skandha (aggregate of consciousness) comprises the six types of vijnana (consciousness):

  • eye-consciousness (Skt. cakṣur-vijñana)
  • ear-consciousness (Skt. śrotra-vijñana)
  • nose-consciousness (Skt. ghrāṇa-vijñana)
  • tongue-consciousness (Skt. jihva-vijñana)
  • body-consciousness (Skt. kāya-vijñana)
  • mind-consciousness (Skt. mano-vijñana)

Alexander Berzin explains:

Most Western cognitive theories discuss consciousness as a single factor that can cognize all categories of cognitive objects – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and purely mental objects such as when thinking. In contrast, the scheme of five [skandhas] specifies different types of...consciousness in terms of the cognitive sensor it relies on to arise.

[Vijnana] cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) or type of phenomenon that something is. For example, eye consciousness cognizes a sight as merely a sight.[10]

Nina Van Gorkom states:

Vinnana-kkhandha (citta) is real; we can experience it when there is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, receiving impressions through the body-sense or thinking. Vinnana-kkhandha arises and falls away; it is impermanent.[11]

Vijnana within the twelve links

is one of the

12 Links wide icon 124px.png

Vijnana is identified as the third link within the twelve links of dependent origination. In this context:

  • Vijnana arises in dependence upon the mental formations (samskara)
  • Vijnana is a condition for the arising of name and form (nama-rupa)

StudyBuddhism states:

The third link of dependent arising I call not just simply "consciousness," but "loaded consciousness" (rnam-shes), to make it clearer. This link is divided into two parts. The first part is, literally, loaded consciousness at the time of the cause (rgyu-dus-kyi rnam-shes). It refers to our mental continuum – our moment-to-moment individual, subjective experiencing of things – that is loaded with the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, which can act as a cause for a future rebirth. It is the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, not the throwing karma itself, that throws us into our next rebirth. Technically, the karmic aftermath of throwing karma "ripens" (smin-pa) to bring about the five aggregates of our next rebirth state and our experiences in that state.[12][note 1]

"Life force" aspect and rebirth

According to the Pali tradition, past intentional actions establish a kammic seed within consciousness that expresses itself in the future. Through consciousness's "life force" aspect, these future expressions are not only within a single lifespan but propel kammic impulses (kammavega) across samsaric rebirths.

For example, the "Serene Faith Discourse" (Sampasadaniya Sutta, DN 28), Ven. Sariputta references not a singular conscious entity but a "stream of consciousness" (viññāṇa-sota) that spans multiple lives:

"... [U]nsurpassed is the Blessed Lord's way of teaching Dhamma in regard to the attainment of vision.... Here, some ascetic or Brahmin, by means of ardour, endeavour, application, vigilence and due attention, reaches such a level of concentration that he ... comes to know the unbroken stream of human consciousness as established both in this world and in the next...."[14]

The "Great Causes Discourse" (Mahanidana Sutta, DN 15), in a dialogue between the Buddha and the Ven. Ananda, describes "consciousness" (viññāṇa) in a way that underlines its "life force" aspect:[4]

"'From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.' Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. If consciousness were not to descend into the mother's womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?"
"No, lord."
"If, after descending into the womb, consciousness were to depart, would name-and-form be produced for this world?"
"No, lord."
"If the consciousness of the young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form ripen, grow, and reach maturity?"
"No, lord."
"Thus this is a cause, this is a reason, this is an origination, this is a requisite condition for name-and-form, i.e., consciousness."[15]

Alternate translations for "vijñāna"

  • consciousness
  • mind
  • integrational function (Goodman, The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening)
  • integrative functioning, differentiated knowing, channel-specific processing (Goodman, The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening)
  • primary consciousness[10]
  • life force
  • mind[4] or
  • discernment[16]

Other terms for mind (in the Pali tradition)

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the post-canonical Pali commentary uses the three terms viññāṇa, mano and citta as synonyms for the mind sense base (mana-ayatana); however, in the Sutta Pitaka, these three terms are generally contextualized differently:

  • Viññāa refers to awareness through a specific internal sense base, that is, through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind. Thus, there are six sense-specific types of Viññāṇa. It is also the basis for personal continuity within and across lives.
  • Manas refers to mental "actions" (kamma), as opposed to those actions that are physical or verbal. It is also the sixth internal sense base (ayatana), that is, the "mind base," cognizing mental sensa (dhammā) as well as sensory information from the physical sense bases.
  • Citta includes the formation of thought, emotion and volition; this is thus the subject of Buddhist mental development (bhava), the mechanism for release.[17]

See also


  1. Berzin defines throwing karma as follows: "Throwing karma (‘phen-byed-kyi las) is an urge that will throw us to a future life. To be more specific, it is an urge to do something that is so strong that its karmic aftermath can throw us to a future life. It can shape the type of rebirth that we take, for instance as a dog or as a human."[13]


  1. Herbert Guenther (see RW icon height 18px.png རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་)
  2. RW icon height 18px.png རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་
  3. Goodman 2020, p. 161.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 618, entry for "Viññāa," retrieved on 2007-06-17 from the University of Chicago's "Digital Dictionaries of South Asia". University of Chicago
  5. 5.0 5.1 Berzin, Alexander. "Mind and Mental Factors: the Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness". Berlin, Germany; June 2002; revised July, 2006: Study Buddhism. Retrieved 4 June 2016. 
  6. Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. Section: "Ideas only"
  7. Walpola Rahula, quoted in Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66, [1].
  8. Buswell, Robert Jr; Lopez, Donald S. Jr., eds. (2013). Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (amalavijñāna). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780691157863. 
  9. Paul, Diana (1981). The Structure of Consciousness in Paramārtha's Purported Trilogy, Philosophy East and West, 31/3, 310
  10. 10.0 10.1 StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregates, StudyBuddhism
  11. Nina Von Gormkom, The Five Khandhas
  12. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png The Twelve links, StudyBuddhism
  13. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Main points about karma, StudyBuddhism
  14. Walshe (1995), pp. 419-20, para. 7. In an end note on p. 606, n. 865, Walshe states that viññāṇa-sota is "a rare expression which seems to equate with bhavanga, the (mainly) commentarial term for the 'life-continuum' (Ñāamoli)." The error of attributing to the Buddha a teaching that consciousness across life spans is a singular entity is the mistake made by a bhikkhu named Sati who is publicly upbraided for this misconstrual by the Buddha in the "Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving" (Mahatanhasankhya Sutta, MN 38; trans. Ñāamoli & Bodhi, 2001, pp. 349-61). Note that the phrase "steam of consciousness" here refers to successive, interdependent conscious states as opposed to Western psychology's use of "stream of consciousness" to refer to successive, interdependent conscious thoughts.
  15. Thanissaro (1997a).
  16. Apte (1957-59), p. 1434, entry for "vijñānam"; and, Monier-Williams (rev. 2008), p. 961, entry for "Vi-jñāna"
  17. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 769-70, n. 154.


  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997a). Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15). Retrieved 2007-11-02 from "Access to Insight".[2]
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997b). Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising (SN 12.2). Retrieved 2007-11-02 from "Access to Insight".[3]
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997c). Upaya Sutta: Attached (SN 22.53). Retrieved 2007-11-20 from "Access to Insight".[4]
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1998). Chachakka Sutta: The Six Sextets (MN 148). Retrieved 2007-06-17 from "Access to Insight".[5]
  • Walshe, Maurice (trans.) (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.

Supplemental references

External links

This article includes content from Vijñāna on Wikipedia (view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikipedia logo