- Analysis of Consciousness
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
Because of its importance and scope, I will dedicate three chapters to
the analysis of consciousness within Abhidharma philosophy. In this chapter I look at some
of the systems for classifying consciousness and also at the sense-sphere consciousness in
particular. To understand why we begin our Abhidharmic analysis of experience with
consciousness, it is important to remember the therapeutic concern of Buddhist philosophy
in general and the Abhidharma in particular. The starting point of Buddhist thought is the
truth of suffering. Suffering is a problem of consciousness; only that which is conscious
can suffer. Consciousness is subject to suffering because of ignorance, or fundamental
not-knowing, which divides consciousness into subject and object, into a self and an
other-than-self (i.e., the objects and people around the self).
In Buddhism, ignorance is defined as the notion of a permanent,
independent self and its object. Once we have this division of consciousness into a self
and an other-than-self, we have suffering, because tension is created between the two. We
also have craving and aversion, because we want those things that support the self and are
averse to those things that are not conducive to the self.
This division or discrimination between the self (or subject) and the
other-than-the-self (or object) is the fundamental cause of suffering. Such a division is
possible because of ignorance--the belief in a real self existing independently and in
opposition to the other-than-self. Thus it is not surprising that the Abhidharma should
turn first to an analysis of subjectivity and objectivity. Indeed, when we examine the
teaching of the five aggregates, we see that form (rupa) is the objective component, while
name (nama), consciousness, and the mental aggregates of volition, perception, and feeling
are the subjective component.
Before looking at how this division affects the Abhidharmic analysis of
consciousness, we must be clear about what it means. In Buddhism, this division does not
mean that we have an essential, irreducible duality of mind and matter. Buddhism is not
concerned with mind and matter as ultimate metaphysical facts but with mind and matter as
they are experienced. Mind and matter are forms of experience, not essences. This is why
Buddhism is a phenomenological, not an ontological, philosophy, and why the division of
mind and matter in Buddhism is a phenomenological division.
There are two systems for classifying consciousness in the Abhidharma:
objective and subjective. Objective classification refers to the objects of consciousness,
while subjective classification refers to the nature of consciousness. Objective
classification primarily takes into account the direction in which consciousness is
oriented. Within this objective scheme, there is a division into four classes of
consciousness: (1) the sense-sphere consciousness, or consciousness directed toward the
world of sense desire (kamavachara); (2) the consciousness directed toward the sphere of
form (rupavachara); (3) the consciousness directed toward the formless sphere
(arupavachara); and (4) the consciousness directed toward nirvana (lokuttara).
The first three classes of consciousness are worldly (lokiya) and are
concerned with the world of conditioned things. The fourth class, also known as
supramundane consciousness (alokiya chitta), refers to the transcendental direction of
consciousness (lokuttara) and is the consciousness of the four types of noble ones--the
stream-winner, once-returner, non-returner, and liberated one (see Chapter 35).
The object of the kamavachara is material and limited; the object of
the rupavachara is not material but is still limited; and the object of the arupavachara
is not material and is unlimited. If we look at these three in order, we find (a) a
material and limited object, (b) an immaterial but still limited object, and (c) an
immaterial and unlimited object of consciousness. All three types of consciousness are
directed toward mundane objects. There is a progressive unification and homogenization in
the object of each consciousness. The object of the consciousness of the sphere of sense
desire is the most proliferated and differentiated, those of the form and formless types
of consciousness are increasingly less proliferated. The fourth type of consciousness is
directed toward a transcendental type of object.
Let us now look at the subjective classification of consciousness. This
consciousness has to do with the nature of the subjective consciousness itself and is also
divided into four classes: the wholesome consciousness (kusala), the unwholesome
consciousness (akusala), the resultant consciousness (vipaka), and the ineffective or
functional consciousness (kiriya). The wholesome and unwholesome classes are karmically
active classes of consciousness; in other words, they have karmic potential. The resultant
and functional types of consciousness are not karmically active and do not have karmic
potential. The resultant class cannot bring about results because it is itself the result,
while the functional class cannot do so because its potentiality is exhausted in the
We can thus place the wholesome and unwholesome categories in the more
general category of karmically active consciousnesses, and the resultant and functional
types into the category of passive consciousnesses that do not have karmic potential. It
might be useful to look for a moment at the meaning of the terms 'wholesome' (kusala) and
'unwholesome' (akusala), and then at the definition of the wholesome and unwholesome
categories of subjective consciousness. Wholesome means 'what tends toward cure' or 'what
tends toward desirable results.' Here we are again reminded of the therapeutic concern of
Buddhist philosophy. Unwholesome means 'what tends toward undesirable results' or 'what
tends toward perpetuation of suffering.' The terms 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome' are also
related to skillful and unskillful, or intelligent and unintelligent, moments of
However, for convenience, people still sometimes refer to wholesome and
unwholesome consciousness as good and bad, moral and immoral. 'Wholesome' and
'unwholesome' can also be defined with reference to the three wholesome and unwholesome
root causes (non-greed, non ill-will, and non-delusion, and greed, ill-will, and delusion,
respectively). Greed, ill-will, and delusion are the derivative forms of fundamental
ignorance, which is the mistaken notion of a self as opposed to what is other-than-self.
Ignorance in its fundamental sense might be likened to the root of a tree, and greed,
ill-will, and delusion to its branches.
The karmic potential of a moment of consciousness conditioned by any of
the three unwholesome causes is unwholesome, while the potential of a moment conditioned
by any of the three wholesome causes is wholesome. These wholesome and unwholesome classes
of consciousness are karmically active, and they are followed by a resultant class--in
other words, by the ripened results of those wholesome and unwholesome actions. The
inactive or functional class refers to actions that are not productive of further karma,
and that also do not result from wholesome and unwholesome karma, such as the actions of
enlightened ones--the Buddhas and Arhats--and deeds of indifferent or neutral karmic
In addition to these two general systems for classifying
consciousness--the objective, which classifies consciousness according to its object and
direction, and the subjective, which classifies consciousness according to its nature--we
have a third system in which consciousness is distinguished according to feeling,
knowledge, and volition.
In the classification according to feeling, every conscious factor
partakes of an emotional quality: agreeable, disagreeable, or indifferent. These three can
be expanded into five by dividing the agreeable category into mentally agreeable and
physically agreeable, and the disagreeable category into mentally disagreeable and
physically disagreeable. There is no category of physically indifferent consciousness
because indifference is primarily a mental quality.
In the classification in terms of knowledge, again we have a threefold
division: conscious factors accompanied by knowledge of the nature of the object,
conscious factors unaccompanied by knowledge of the nature of the object, and conscious
factors accompanied by definite wrong views about the nature of the object. These can also
be called the presence of correct knowledge, the absence of correct knowledge, and the
presence of erroneous knowledge.
Finally, in the classification according to volition, there is a
twofold division into automatic and volitional consciousness--in other words, moments of
consciousness that are automatic in nature, and moments that have an intentional element.
Let us now look at the sense-sphere consciousness (kamavachara). There
are fifty-four types of consciousness in this category, which divide into three groups:
The first group consists of twelve factors that are karmically active and that have
unwholesome karmic potential. The twelve can be subdivided into factors conditioned by one
of the three unwholesome conditions of greed, ill-will, and delusion.
The second group consists of eighteen reactive or passive factors of
consciousness, which can be further broken down into those that are resultant and those
that are functional. Fifteen of the eighteen are resultant, and refer in general terms to
experiences that are agreeable or disagreeable, the result of wholesome or unwholesome
factors experienced through the five physical senses and the sixth mental sense. The
remaining three are functional, having no karmic potential and not being the consequence
of karmically active wholesome or unwholesome factors.
The third category consists of twenty-four wholesome factors of
consciousness that are karmically active and thus have karmic potential conditioned by
non-greed, non-ill-will, and non-delusion.Within the class of sense-sphere consciousness,
therefore, we have fifty-four types of consciousness that can be analyzed in terms of
active and passive, wholesome and unwholesome, resultant and functional, and even in terms
of feeling, knowledge, and volition.
I want to conclude by spending a few moments on the multivalent nature
of terms in the Abhidharma in particular and in Buddhism in general. The factors of
consciousness listed in the Abhidharma, and the terms used to describe them, have
different values and meanings according to the functions they perform. Failure to
understand this leads to confusion about Abhidharmic classifications.
Even in the early years of the Abhidharma, there were critics who
failed to understand that the factors in it are classified functionally, not
ontologically. What this means is that if you survey the factors of consciousness listed
in the Abhidharma literature, you find the same factor occurring in different categories.
Your initial conclusion may be that there is a great deal of repetition in Abhidharmic
material, but this is not the point. The presence of the same factor in different
categories is due to its functioning differently in each one.
The commentary to the Dhammasangani (Classification of Factors) records
the objection of repetition raised by an opponent. It replies with the analogy that when a
king collects taxes from people, he does so not on the basis of their existence as
identifiable individuals, but of their functions as earning entities. (This is also the
case today, when one pays taxes on the basis of being a property owner, a salaried worker,
on the earnings of one's stocks and bonds, and so forth.) In the same way, the factors
enumerated in the Abhidharma occur in different categories because in each case it is the
factor's function that counts, not its essence.
This is also the case with terms. We need to understand terms in
context--by the way they are used--rather than imposing rigid, essentialistic, and
naturalistic definitions. Take, for instance, 'suffering' (dukkha) and 'happiness'
(sukha). In the analysis of the factors of consciousness, these terms mean physical
suffering and physical happiness. Yet when we talk about dukkha in the context of the
first noble truth, it includes not only four physical sufferings but also four mental
sufferings. Similarly, sankhara means simply 'volition' in one context but 'all compounded
things' in another.
Thus when we study the Abhidharma, we need to understand the words in
context. If we keep this in mind, we will be adopting the phenomenological spirit of
Buddhist philosophy and will find it easier to approach the significance of what is being
said. Otherwise, we will find ourselves trapped into rigid, unworkable definitions of
terms and rigid, unhelpful ideas about factors of experience.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 2911972].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing