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Viññāṇa Anidassana
Bhikkhu Sunyo

Viññāṇa Anidassana

Viññāṇa Anidassana

Introduction

A wide range of opinions has long surrounded two innocent Pali words: viññāṇa anidassana. They are translated variously, as ‘consciousness that is without feature / signless / invisible / non-manifesting / makes no showing / can not be characterized’, et cetera. This variety already indicates that their meaning is somewhat obscure. This obscurity has, however, not stopped interpreters from giving the words a lot of importance, because some see in viññāṇa anidassana a kind of consciousness essentially equal to nibbāna.1 But there are many problems with this, starting with the following:

  • No sutta equates nibbāna to any type of consciousness.
  • Many suttas do the exactly opposite: they relate nibbāna to the cessation of consciousness,2 and equate consciousness to suffering.3
  • There are only two mentions of viññāṇa anidassana in the Pali suttas, and other early suttas don't have the concept at all. This makes the words not only difficult to interpret, but also unlikely to be a core teaching on such a central topic as nibbāna.

Some things are just best explained in writing—hence this essay. I show here that viññāṇa anidassana is not nibbāna, but a poetic description of the state of boundless consciousness, the second “formless” meditation state. Most of the arguments were made before by others.4 I gathered them here, together with a few thoughts of my own.

This essay analyses rare terms in abstract texts. However, it also illustrates the nature of Pali verse, and provides a good example of how to apply the Buddha's advise on deciding what his real teachings were.

For accessibility I have mostly adopted common translations for Pali words—such as ‘form’ for rūpa—even though these may not be my personal preferences.

The Kevaddha Sutta

As stated, the suttas mention viññāṇa anidassana twice: once in the Kevaddha (With Kevaddha) Sutta,5 and once in the Brahmanimantaṇika (Invitation of a Brahmā) Sutta.6 We will look at them separately.

In the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha tells a layman named Kevaddha a story of an unnamed monk who ascends various heavens searching for an answer to a question. This monk's strategy is, to put it mildly, somewhat unusual. Monks ordinarily brought their questions directly to the Buddha or one of his close disciples. The story seems to be symbolic, the monk's astral travels being a metaphor for looking for enlightenment in the wrong place. The story specifically parodies brahmin ideas, because the gods, including Brahmā, all failed to answer the monk's question.

To put a long story short: After visiting higher and higher heavens while never finding an answer, the monk ends up asking Brahmā his question: “Where do the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—cease without remnant?” He essentially wants to know where form (rūpa) ceases, because according to the ideas of the time “all form of whatever kind is the four elements”.7 Brahmā does not know the answer, so he sends the monk to the Buddha, who, when asked the same question, says it should be rephrased. He changes the question from “where do earth, water, fire, and air [i.e. form] cease without remnant?” to “where do earth, water, fire, and air find no footing?” (This change is quite significant, as we'll see later.) The Buddha then also adds a second question, asking where not only rūpa, but nāma ceases too. (Nāma, literally ‘name’, in this context means something like ‘personal characteristics’. It stands for the immaterial aspects of an individual being, excluding consciousness. I will leave it untranslated.)

The Buddha presents the two questions in a six-line verse, and then answers those questions in two separate verses:

[Q1] “Where do earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing?

[Q2] Where do the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
where do nāma and form
fully come to cease?

For that the explanation is:

[A1] Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing.

[A2] Here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”8

(A similar structure of multiple questions and answers exists in the Sutta Nipata.)9

But now comes the crux of the matter. Some interpret the two answer verses to contain one single answer—somewhat like this:

[A] “Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing,
here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

This tiny change in punctuation—removing a period—turns it all into quite a riddle. Boundless consciousness now seems to be equal to the cessation of nāma and form, and therefore (if we also ignore the last two lines) to nibbāna.

The underlying problem is that the original Pali manuscripts do not have punctuation such as periods and question marks. Translators have to add these themselves, and it is not always obvious where to do so. In this case the various lines starting with the word ‘here’ can easily confuse. It may even be that the transition between the two answers is somewhat vague on purpose. The Buddha could be saying something like: “I got a lot of money … stolen from me!” The meaning only becomes clear when you come to the end, to the cessation of consciousness. This is a poetical device if anything, and we are talking about poems here.

Either way, there are various more concrete reasons to divide the answer verses into two:

  • All translators seem to recognize there are two sentences in the question verse, because it has two main verbs: ‘find a footing’ and ‘come to cease’. But many seem to miss that these two verbs ask very different things. ‘To find no footing’ means something very different than ‘to cease’. This is exactly why the Buddha made the change in the monk's original question! So, there being two distinct questions, there should be two distinct answers too.
  • The first answer ends with a main verb (gādhati ‘find footing’), which in Pali commonly indicates the end of a sentence.
  • Sentences only rarely run from one verse to the next.
  • The first answer verse mentions the existence of a type of consciousness (boundless consciousness), the second the cessation of consciousness. These opposites are not both part of the same answer.
  • Most importantly, when seen as two seperate answers, the verses become standard teachings found throughout the suttas, not unique ones found only here (which they would be if viññāṇa anidassana were nibbāna).

The rest of this section clarifies this last statement in detail. But first it is important to emphasize that the questions and answers are all verse. Pali verse always needs to fit a certain pattern called ‘meter’. To be able to comply to this meter, verses are very free in their use of words. They often depart from convention or even literal accuracy, using what is known as poetic licence. In the analysis of verse these matters should always be taken into account.

The first question

Let me isolate the first question and answer:

[Q1] “Where do earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing?”

[A1] “Boundless consciousness,
invisible, fully shining:
here earth, water,
fire, and air find no footing.”

Remember, the question essentially asks, “where does form find no footing?” The answer—“boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining”—refers to the state of boundless consciousness, the second so-called formless state of meditation, also known as ‘the base of infinite consciousness’, or sometimes called ‘the sixth jhāna’. This is evident from the words ‘boundless’ (ananta) and ‘consciousness’ (viññāṇa). Not only do these make up the very name of the state of boundless consciousness, they also describe its attainment in the common formula, “focusing on ‘boundless consciousness’, one attains the state of boundless consciousness.”10 The state of boundless consciousness is the only context in the suttas which uses the words ‘boundless’ and ‘consciousness’ together. It also occurs very frequently, so we should naturally assume the Buddha is referring to it here. Otherwise, if he would for example refer to nibbāna, he introduces here a teaching which is totally unique, in obscure verse, in just five words, out of which two would be easily mistaken as something else (namely the state of boundless consciousness).

In Pali the five words making up the answer are:

viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ (consciousness invisible)

anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ (boundless fully shining)

These words seem to be forced into their particular order by the meter of the verse, which requires eight syllables in each line. As A.K. Warder, a leading scholar of Pali verse, wrote: “Poetic licence is most noticeable in the freedom of word order in verse.”11 This means ‘boundless’ can be taken as the central adjective describing ‘consciousness’, with ‘invisible’ and ‘fully shining’ being secondary to it. That is to say, the latter two apply not to ‘consciousness’, but to ‘boundless consciousness’ as a whole. It is not consciousness that is fully shining and invisible, it is boundless consciousness that is. I rearranged the words in my translation to clarify this. (Such rearrangement, let it be clear, is done often in translations of Pali.)

The term ‘fully shining’ (sabbato pabhaṁ) is a metaphor, of course. The state of boundless consciousness does not literally give off light. It refers to the absence of the five mental hindrances in deep meditation. As the Upakkilesa (Impurities) Sutta in the Aṅguttara Nikāya says: “when the mind is freed from these five impurities [i.e. hindrances] it is shining.”12 The suttas often compare a mind in deep meditation to something that gives off light, most commonly a fire.13

Aside from the hindrances, another thing that is notably absent in the state of boundless consciousness is perceptions pertaining to ‘form’14 (which I understand to be a subtle mental perception, not a perception of the body). This is addressed by anidassana, translated here quite literally as ‘invisible’. Since the meaning of rūpa includes ‘appearance’,15arūpa means ‘without appearance’, thus ‘invisible’. This translation is in accordance with the apparent meaning of anidassana in the Saṅgīti Sutta, which mentions visible form and invisible form (i.e. material form and the more subtle types such as in meditation).16 The only other text that gives a useful context for anidassana is the Kakacūpama Sutta, which says one can not paint the sky because “the sky is without form, invisible” (ākāso arūpī anidassano).17 Here we see anidassana indeed as a synonym of arūpa.18

We should not need to look for a deeper meaning behind anidassana, because, as accurately stated by Warder again, in verse “the need to fit the sentence to the meter influences the choice of vocabulary, so that unusual synonyms and rare words may be used.”19Anidassanaṁ fits this perfectly: it is a rare and unusual synonym which supplies the meter arūpaṁ and anantaṁ could not. In summary, all it does is metaphorically describe the absence of form in the state of boundless consciousness, the second formless state.

Let's return to the question, “where does form find no footing?” Why is the answer the second formless state and not the first? This is because form can still “find a footing” in the first formless state, the state of boundless space. According to Sariputta in the Nibbānasukha Sutta, a perception pertaining to form can infiltrate this state and bring the mind back to the fourth jhāna: “After the complete transcendence of perceptions of forms, […] focusing on boundless space, a monk attains the state of boundless space. If in that state he begins to perceive or focus back on forms, that will be an affliction to him.”20 The state of boundless consciousness is the lowest meditative state which can not be directly disturbed by such perceptions, and therefore it is “where form finds no footing”.

The state of boundless consciousness is still just a temporary escape from form, however, which explains why the Buddha changed the monk's question from “where do earth, water, fire, and air [i.e. form] cease without remnant?”, which implies permanent cessation, to “where do earth, water, fire, and air find no footing?”, which only implies a temporary inability to infiltrate. This change in the question can not be explained if the boundless consciousness of the Kevaddha Sutta were to be a permanent escape from form, like nibbāna.

As a sidenote, two other Pali suttas contain verses with the phrase “where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing”21 and one has a similar line in an inspired utterance, which is technically prose, but is still very poetical.22 These three suttas all refer to the cessation of the aggregates (khandhas) after the death of an enlightened one, often called parinibbāna.23 This does not pose any problems for the ideas laid out above, because form not only finds no footing in the state of boundless consciousness, but after parinibbāna finds no footing anywhere either. In other words: “where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing” is just a partial description of parinibbāna that also applies to the state of boundless consciousness. Just because it refers to parinibbāna in these suttas, does not mean it also does in the Kevaddha Sutta. A line of verse can describe one thing in one context, and another thing in another context. This is quite common in the suttas. An example is found right here in the Kevaddha Sutta. The line “the long and short, the small and gross, the fair and ugly”, which has such a deep meaning here, elsewhere simply refers to things one should not steal.24

The second question

Here are the second question and answer again:

[Q2] “Where do the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
where do nāma and form
fully come to cease?”

[A2] “Here the long and short,
the small and gross, the fair and ugly—
here nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

Remember that this question was not originally asked by the monk, but was added by the Buddha. The Buddha did so to indicate the monk's quest for the cessation of form did not reach far enough. The formless, included in nāma, must cease as well.

The answer reflects a teaching found at least a hundred times elsewhere in the Pali Canon: “when consciousness ceases, nāma and form will cease”—a stock phrase of Dependent Arising.25 So here too, just as with the first question, the Buddha rephrases a teaching his audience would have been familiar with.

We find the same teaching in the Ajita's Question Sutta in the Pārāyana Vagga:26

“As to where nāma and form
fully come to cease:
when consciousness ceases,
then those come to cease.”

This verse is virtually identical to the Kevaddha Sutta. Yet the Ajita's Question Sutta makes no mention of viññāṇa anidassana or anything alike. The verse stands on its own as a complete teaching. This confirms that in the Kevaddha Sutta “where nāma and form fully come to cease” is only connected to the cessation of consciousness, not to viññāṇa anidassana.

Now nearing the end of Kevaddha Sutta, we can assume the astral-traveling monk of the story understood the Buddha's teachings, since after the verses nothing else is asked. And after being told the story, Kevaddha also asks no further. Throughout the suttas the Buddha is repeatedly asked to explain short statements he made, so the fact that neither the monk nor Kevaddha asked for an explanation, indicates that the verses included no concepts that were new to them. They contained standard teachings. And this is how verse always works in the canon: it gives summaries, in florid language that's meant to inspire rather than inform. It does not introduce unique and elevated teachings, especially not on something as central to the Buddha's thought as nibbāna.

The monk and Kevaddha may have only understood things on a theoretical level, though, because neither is said to have gained any noteworthy insights afterwards. This can be taken as another indication that these verses contain nothing special. If they contained a unique, deep teaching, we could expect it to be received with a bang. But instead we are treated with an anticlimax: Kevaddha was just “happy with what the Buddha said”. Compare this for example with the Fire Discourse,27 where a thousand monks are said to have become enlightened. And all this text says about consciousness is that “it is burning”.

For completeness, here are some more technicalities concerning the second question and answer:

  • The phrase “long, short, small and gross, and fair and ugly” is obviously poetical, even in English. Elsewhere the exact same phrase refers to what should not be stolen,28 so it seems to simply mean ‘everything’. This makes contextual sense, since when consciousness and nāmarūpa cease, all suffering ceases.
  • The word nirujjhati (‘cease’) of the monk's original question is not adopted by the Buddha in his question, but changed for the synonomous uparujjhati (‘come to cease’). This is another instance of adjusting to the meter. Uparujjhati is one syllable longer, making the line the required eight syllables long. A change of prefix (in this case upa- for ni-) to make a word fit the meter is common. As Warder states: “[In verse] a prefix may be dropped or added where the meaning of the sentence will tolerate a slight change of nuance.”29Uparujjhati is almost exclusively used in verse, supporting this case.
  • Contrary to what others have argued, uparujjhati is simply a synonym of nirujjhati, and it does not mean ‘hold in check’ or something alike. This is clear from all other contexts the word is used in. To give one example: “They who understand suffering, the origin of suffering, and where suffering totally, fully comes to cease (uparujjhati) […]”30 Here uparujjhati of course refers to dukkha-nirodha, the cessation of suffering, not its “holding in check”.
  • The word ‘here’ (ettha) can mean ‘here’ in the widest sense of the word: ‘at this place’, ‘in this state’, ‘at this time’, or ‘in this case’. The latter two are applicable here, since the ceasing of consciousness is not a place but an event.

On a more speculative note, the search for the cessation of form is reminiscent of certain ideas found in Brahmanism. Put briefly, some brahmins thought that by shedding their own form they could merge with the Brahman, the universal consciousness.31 This may explain why the Buddha tells Kevaddha a story wherein he shows his knowledge to be superior to Brahmā (who brahmins took as the highest manifestation of Brahman), while specifically mentioning the cessation of consciousness. Interestingly, the brahmin texts, the Upaniṣads, also describe Brahman as ‘boundless’.32

To summarize, the verses of the Kevaddha Sutta poetically rephrase two teachings encountered throughout the suttas: (1) the state of boundless consciousness and (2) the cessation of consciousness along with nāmarūpa.

The Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta

The only other occurrence of viññāṇa anidassana is found in the Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta,33 which portrays a discussion between the Buddha and Brahmā Baka. Here too, just like in the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha shows his knowledge to be superior to a Brahmā god. The passage we are concerned with is abstract and not easy to translate. It says something like this:

“Boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining: that is outside the solidity of earth, outside the wetness of water, the heat of fire, the movement of air, the being of beings, the godhood of the gods, the Creator-hood of the Creator, the Brahmāhood of Brahmā, the Streaming Radiance of [the Gods of] Streaming Radiance, the Refulgent Glory of [the Gods of] Refulgent Glory, the Great Fruit of [the Gods of] Great Fruit, the Overlordship of the Overlord, and outside the allness of all.”34

Given the clarity of the phrase in the Kevaddha Sutta, it would make sense for “boundless consciousness, invisible, fully shining” to refer the state of boundless consciousness here too. The four elements and the various worlds mentioned are indeed all part of the realm of forms, existing outside of this formless state.35 “The allness of all” poses a problem, though, as it can be interpreted to include the formless, and thus the state of boundless consciousness itself. But there are some ways to reconcile this.

First option. Although ‘all’ (sabba) elsewhere occasionally refers to the six senses,36 this does not have to be the case here. ‘All’ is an indefinite word which (in both English and Pali) does not have a single fixed meaning. Here ‘all’ could just refer to the four elements and all the heavenly worlds mentioned before it, which together make up all the form realms. Considering how detailed the enumeration of these worlds is, we could expect a similar enumeration for the formless realms, if these were also included in ‘all’. That this does not happen suggests that ‘all’ here only means all the form realms.

The second option relies on the fact that the different Pali versions disagree on who spoke the words quoted above. Only the Burmese edition attributes them to the Buddha; the Thai, Sri Lankan and PTS editions all attribute them to Brahmā Baka.37 Moreover, the Burmese version is broken, missing an iti (end quote marker) after the passage, which is be needed to give the word back to Baka. So it too does not fully attribute boundless consciousness to the Buddha. In the Chinese parallel in the Madhyama Āgama the exchange is very different, but it also has Baka making a claim to be “conscious of boundless elements”, not the Buddha.38

Some translators follow the majority of editions and attribute the lines to Baka,39 while others follow the unique Burmese edition and attribute them to the Buddha.40 The latter might do so because the Buddha spoke the same lines in the Kevaddha Sutta, but there is no reason why Baka could not have spoken them here. Lines of verse continually reoccur throughout the Nikāyas, being spoken by different people. Adopting verses of others seems to have been a common practice of the time.

There are also some good contextual reasons to attribute the words to Baka:

  • When there is an change of speaker in the suttas, the new speaker always addresses the other by name or title. They say for example “Sir Gotama”, “Great King”, or “Venerable”. Throughout this sutta the Buddha continually addresses Baka as “Brahmā”, but the quote above lacks such an address. This indicates the speaker has not changed, and Baka is still speaking.
  • The sutta begins with Baka claiming “this is permanent, this is everlasting, this is eternal … and beyond this there is no other escape.” According to the commentary this refers to Baka's heaven realm.41 However, this is not at all clear from the sutta itself (which is likely why the commentator felt a need to comment). I take Baka to instead refer to viññāṇa anidassana, which he mistakes to be permanent, outside “the allness of all”.
  • After the words are spoken, Baka tries to vanish. This seems a random act, unless we translate anidassana as ‘invisible’ and attribute it to Baka. By attempting to vanish (which he fails to do) he might try to show off his attainment.
  • Just like in the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha here too ends the conversation by alluding to cessation. He says: “I have seen existence will come to an end, so do not welcome any type of existence.”42 Here “any type of existence” includes any type of consciousness, but the Buddha, trying to teach Baka a lesson, was referring especially to boundless consciousness. Moreover, if “boundless consciousness” was already the Buddha's highest teaching on nibbāna, this statement on the cessation of existence would be very much out of place.

To summarize these points, Bhikkhu Anālayo wrote: “A coherent reading of the Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta is possible with the same reference [to boundless consciousness] being attributed to Baka Brahmā.”43

A third option is that neither the Buddha nor Baka ever spoke these words. After all, the suttas are not a flawless record of facts. The Brahmanimantaṇika Sutta is also a very esoteric discourse, one of the most abstract in the entire Canon. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi it could be seen “as a dramatic representation of the same ideas set forth by the Mūlapariyāya [Sutta] in abstract philosophical terms”.44 Someone other than the Buddha may well have been inspired to compose this text. Its anti-brahmanical tone also indicates it to be a piece of later propaganda. The text may have its origin in the Baka Sutta,45 a discourse in the Saṁyutta Nikāya that portrays the same meeting, but with a much more standard story line.

I will let the reader decide which, if any, of these three options they prefer to reconcile the “allness of all” problem. Either way—and may this be the take-home—I think it is unwise to let questionable suttas such as this inform us on something as important as nibbāna. We'd better rely on the hundreds, if not thousands, of passages that mention the impermanence of consciousness.

Conclusion

In the opening of the Kevaddha Sutta the layman Kevaddha asks the Buddha for a superhuman miracle. The Buddha responds monks like him should not show off such things. But there is one miracle he is willing to show, the one he calls “the miracle of instruction”. Of course the Buddha did not show this miracle only in the Kevaddha Sutta. The suttas contain abundant repetitions, synonyms, and definitions, which shows he always took great care to avoid possible confusion and to convey the essence of his teachings many times. As he himself said, he did not have a “close fist”, meaning he did not keep certain teachings for certain occasions only. So when a certain passage is hard to make sense of, we should never assume that it presents something unique. Instead, we should try to interpret it in a way that fits the suttas as a whole, and this is especially the case when dealing with verse. We then follow the advice given in the Mahaparinibbāna Sutta,46 which says questionable teachings should be compared with the suttas before concluding “this is indeed the word of the Blessed One”.

Seeing viññāṇa anidassana as a description of the state of boundless consciousness does exactly that. It results in teachings that resound throughout the discourses: the state of boundless consciousness is a state which is formless (“invisible”) and without hindrances (“fully shining”), but is nevertheless still impermanent and therefore inferior to the cessation of consciousness. And that is indeed the word of the Blessed One.

References

Anālayo 2010
Anālayo — A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Dharma Drum, 2010.
Anālayo 2017
Anālayo — The Luminous Mind in Theravāda and Dharmaguptaka Discourses in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies vol.13, pp. 10–50. 2017.
Brahmali
Brahmali, Bhikkhu — What the Nikāyas Say and Do Not Say about Nibbāna in Buddhist Studies Review vol. 26, pp. 33–66. 2009.
Falk
Falk, Maryla — Nāma-rūpa and Dharma-rūpa: origin and aspects of an ancient Indian conception. University of Calcutta, 1943.
Horner
Horner, I.B. — The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima-Nikāya), vol. 1-3. Pali Text Society, 1954-1959.
Ñāṇamoli
Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (tr.) — The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A new tanslation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Wisdom, 2005.
Rhys Davids
Rhys Davids, T.W. & Stede, W. (ed.) — Pāli-English Dictionary (PED). Pali Text Society, 1921.
Sujato 2011a
Sujato, Bhikkhu — Nibbana is not viññāṇa. Really, it just isn’t Sujato's Blog, 2011a.
Sujato 2011b
Sujato, Bhikkhu — Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa Sujato's Blog, 2011b.
Sujato 2018
Sujato, Bhikkhu (tr.) — Translations of the Pali Canon at SuttaCentral, 2018.
Thanissaro
Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (tr.) — Translations of the Pali Canon at Access to Insight, 2014.
Warder
Warder, A.K. — Introduction to Pali, Third Edition. Pali Text Society, 2010.

Abbrevations

ANAṅguttara Nikāya
DhpDhammapada
DNDigha Nikāya
Madhyama Āgama
MNMajjhima Nikāya
MN-APapañcasūdanī
PTSPali Text Society edition
Saṁyukta Āgama at T 99
SĀ-2Saṁyukta Āgama at T 100
SNSaṁyutta Nikāya
SnpSutta Nipāta
ThagTheragāthā
Tr.Translator
UdUdāna

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