2022-04-01 Satipaṭṭhāna (52) The Fifth Aggregate-Consciousness
4:53PM Apr 1, 2022
Hello. We come to the fifth and final talk on the five groupings, the five khandas, aggregates. This is an exercise in the discourse on the four foundations for awareness, for cultivating a lucid, clear, present moment awareness. The last one is usually translated into English as "consciousness." It is very likely that that is not the best choice as an English translation. Partly because, I think, very few people either know what consciousness is, or people who study consciousness can agree on. I think there are so many different opinions, ideas, and efforts to try to pin down what consciousness is.
Interestingly enough, it was not a task for people, only for the last 200 years or so. The modern usage of the word "consciousness" is relatively recent. Around that concept is gathered these different ideas or associations.
The Pali word is "viññāṇa." It is a word that existed in India before the Buddha. It seems to have meant things like (at least many translators of the ancient Hindu Upanishadic texts will translate it as) "understanding." Sometimes it is "intellect." The Buddha very rarely defines it. It is possible that the word "viññāṇa" is used in different ways in different contexts, which makes it more difficult to pin it down to what it is.
In these five khandas, five aggregates, it seems to be a knowing that differentiates. To know – if you are looking down at a bowl full of mixed beans, red beans, black beans, white beans, pinto beans, all kinds of beans – the ability to recognize the distinct kinds of beans from each other. To separate out. Rather than one big blur of beans, separate out this, this, this, this. The Buddha talked about consciousness being what differentiates between salty and not salty, bitter and sweet.
This is not very satisfying for a modern English audience that has a little more grand idea of what consciousness is. It seems to be a heightened knowing, clear knowing of direct experience. It is related to the third grouping, sañña, or recognition, the concept we have. It is related to that, but maybe it can be more primitive, prior to the concepts we add on top of things. Or a heightened clarity, where we know with more understanding what is happening.
An ancient analogy – a child might be given a counterfeit coin, and simply recognize it as a coin, not realize it is counterfeit. A merchant, who is expert in how people counterfeit coins, will immediately recognize that is a counterfeit coin. The recognition that it is a coin is there, but it is heightened with a clarity of knowing this is not real, or this is not what we do.
The Buddha talked about six kinds of consciousness. There is a consciousness that is knowing that happens when we see. Knowing through seeing, knowing through hearing, knowing through smelling, tasting, knowing through a tactile experience of the body, and knowing what is going in the mind. Rather than calling them all knowing, it is six distinct kinds of knowing, the six consciousnesses or six viññāṇas.
This is in contrast to what some meditators, some people, even some spiritual traditions, will emphasize what consciousness is, as a continuous, unitary field of knowing. The idea that consciousness is always there. Everything is coming and going, everything is impermanent, but it is all occurring on this screen that is always there. Or consciousness is like the ocean, and everything else is just the rain falling on the ocean, temporarily there. The waves coming and going on the ocean, but the ocean itself is always there. Just under the surface it is vast, still and quiet.
The Buddha seems not to have emphasized this kind of consciousness whatsoever. In fact, I believe, at least the Theravāda and early Buddhist understanding of this would be that the mind is a constructing activity. Whatever this consciousness is, that is emphasized in the fifth aggregate, is part of this constructed activity. It is not innate. It is not inherent. It is not always there. It does not go from one life to to another. It is something also that comes and goes, arises and passes.
In its arising, it is partly a construct of the mental functioning. It is a condition of mental functioning, as opposed to something that is independent of the vagaries and changing nature of the mind itself. Certainly, in this fifth exercise of Satipaṭṭhāna, of the aggregates, what the meditator is meant to see is that this consciousness, or this knowing, appears and disappears, appears and passes away. We are looking at something that is changeable and impermanent, inconstant.
What kind of consciousness is that way? What kind of knowing? How is that different from recognition? I have suggested in the meditation that it is very simple, but very clear. There is a knowing that knows all the other aggregates. It knows there is a sensation. It knows there is a feeling tone. It knows that there is recognition happening at this moment. It knows that there are mental constructs happening. And it knows that it knows.
You can get caught up in an infinite regress of knowing – knowing that I know that I know – but do not bother with that. Just very simple, relaxed. That kind of knowing – a sound arises – there is a knowing of the sound that arises with the sound. When the sound goes, maybe the knowing goes. Or maybe the knowing goes faster, if we get distracted by something else.
We see something, we hear, we taste something, we touch something, we think something, we feel something. With each, there is a knowing that arises. A simple knowing. The important aspect is not exactly what consciousness is, what exactly all this is. Rather, whatever way in which we know, there is a recognition that it comes and goes. It is not constant. It is not permanent. As we start seeing its inconstant nature, then we will not cling to it. That is the hope. That is the direction we are going.
Consciousness also can be an object of clinging. Sometimes people can easily let go of all things except consciousness, if they are strongly identified with consciousness as being their true self. "This is who I am." "This is how I survive." "This is how I will always exist," or something.
The deeper Vipassana practice goes, the less we can recognize or find this continuous, ever present field of consciousness. Everything is seen in its momentary aspect, coming and going. Whether there is a consciousness that persists over time, in a sense, that is not so very interesting for early Buddhism to specify, whether there is or not. What is important is in our direct experience, as we practice deeper and deeper, we will not find it. That does not mean we have to decide there is none. It just means we do not find it.
The purpose for not finding it is so that we will let go of clinging to it. We are trying to let go of all clinging. The functional aspect of this practice is all about the end of clinging – not to come to a philosophical conclusion about what consciousness is or is not.
In terms of what consciousness is or is not, what I am talking about today just barely scratches the surface of a fascinating concept. I hope that it gives you just enough information, ideas of practicing, to somehow begin appreciating the miracle of knowing in the simple ways – knowing hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and the mind, knowing the mind knowing things.
And then seeing how objects or experiences arise in these six sense doors. They come and go, and the knowing of it comes and goes. Sometimes the knowing comes and goes faster than the object. That knowing can be very relaxed, easeful, just being with what is obvious, and free of all the self-referencing, where we get tripped up, slip, get caught, and suffer. We are pointing here to a simplicity of being – with all our senses, all our experience – very simple and free.
Thank you. We will continue. We have three more exercises to do before we finish this, the four foundations of mindfulness. Next week we will do the six sense bases and the fetters, the knots, that get formed around them. Thank you.