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Aspects of Consciousness

Garry Thomson, Middle Way (Volume 69:1 p. 43) May 1994

I once dreamt that I was in a museum of jewels. Some cases of jewels were let into the floor. Why were they let into the floor? They clearly needed more light. Nowadays, thanks to Freud and his followers we tend to regard the unconscious as a store-house, more or less locked, of past experiences which we don't want to think about, but which, nevertheless have a powerful influence on our actions. The dream told me that there are jewels in the unconscious which can be happily brought to light.

I mentioned this because talking about consciousness involves the unconscious. The unconscious can simply be thought of as all of the mind's activity that is not conscious. And it is better to call it the 'unconscious' rather than the 'subconscious' because the term 'subconscious' seems to emphasize the lower parts of the mind only. The dream reminded me that the unconscious holds images, of wisdom and beauty as well as frightening suppressed experiences.

And we need also to distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness. If we regard consciousness as awareness of the surrounding world, all beings must be conscious merely to survive. Consciousness is consciousness of something. Even the humble bee keeps a flower-map in its tiny mind: as could a computer equipped with suitable sensors. Of course a computer is as much in touch with the world as a bee is, yet far from realisation.

Self-consciousness, on the other hand, has been defined as 'the ability of an individual to perceive their own mental life.' Other-consciousness is the other side of the same coin, and implies that we are aware that other beings have feelings like our own. Apparently this faculty is frequently weak or absent in criminals and people who misuse their power. They regard others as no more than cardboard figures to be manipulated.

There are several words in Pali which are never fully explained, or had to await commentators writing several centuries after the Buddha's death. Such words as khandha, sanna, sankhara are consequently difficult to translate, despite massive entries in both Rhys Davies' and Childers' Pali/English Dictionaries. However there is ready agreement that the Pali word vinnana should be translated as consciousness.

The cultivation (bhavana) of an ability to pierce through self-illusion is basic to the Buddhist path. Perhaps we could use the term open consciousness - meaning the apparently hopeless attempt to look at all things within and without as an aware witness. So now, just as we thought things were comfortably tied up and labelled, we had better take a look at what the Buddha had to tell us about consciousness.

In the first place it would be a mistake to suppose that the Buddha ever defined his terms as would an academic philosopher. He taught practice with as little theory as possible. But on one occasion he came close to a definition, and that was the time that he roundly, even harshly, criticized Sati the fisherman for spreading a mistaken belief (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 38). (The name, Sati, joyful, is quite different to sati, awareness.) Now Sati's belief about consciousness would be quite acceptable to most people who think in terms of rebirth, both today and at the time of the Buddha: "It is what speaks and what feels and what experiences the fruits of kamma, good and bad." Furthermore he supposes that consciousness is that which continues through life and from life to life. In other words he wants to maintain that there is a continuity of consciousness, or, even if consciousness ceases temporarily, as, in deep sleep or between rebirths, he wants that same consciousness to reappear on waking or on rebirth as recognisably the same person.

The Buddha pronounced something so basically different that it needs to be carefully digested:

"Monks, on account of whatever is the origin of consciousness arising, by that it is named. If consciousness arises because of an eye and material shapes, then it is known as eye-consciousness. If consciousness arises because of an ear and sounds then it is known as ear-consciousness..." And similarly with the other senses, including the sixth sense (which is concerned with the interior world).
"Monks, on account of whatever is the origin of a fire burning, by that it is named. If a fire burns because of wood chips then it is known as a wood-chip fire. A fire made of grass is a grass fire. A fire made of cow-dung is a cow-dung fire..." and so on...

The two phenomena are seen as parallel: fire and consciousness. A bonfire is lit: fire arises. The eye sees a tree: eye-consciousness arises, the fire goes out. Consciousness ceases. Another fire arise elsewhere, feeding this time perhaps on petrol in your car. A bird is singing, and this causes ear-consciousness to arise. And so on...

Two points to bear in mind: firstly that consciousness is intermittent, secondly that it has no separate individuality. There are many kinds of fire, but, if anywhere, the individuality is in the things that are burnt, not in the flame. So it is with the "flame" that we call consciousness. It has no individuality, no personality.

There is another and very popular flame analogy:

"But how, Venerable Sir, can rebirth take place without passing over of anything? Please illustrate me this matter."
"If, O King, a man should light a lamp with the light from another lamp, does in that case the light of the one lamp pass over to the other lamp?"
"No, Venerable Sir."
"Just so, O King, does rebirth take place without transmigration."
(Milinda-Panha, chapter 3)

How can the flame carry over any of the characteristics of the previous candle? To me this is not a useful metaphor.

So, if something continues from birth to birth, it is certainly not consciousness. Later commentators, unable to resist a little speculation, have suggested the term bhavanga to represent a sort of life continuum. We ourselves could be tempted to describe bhavanga as 'psychic genes'. We now understand that our body and mind have been modelled by our parents' genes. But we don't regard these genes as "me". Perhaps a set of non-material 'psychic genes' carries essential characteristics to the newly-conceived babe. But, as with the parental genes there is no personality until all this is put together:

"Why do you then harp on the word 'person'? Mara, you are starting from the wrong premises. There is nothing but a lot of processes (sankhara); no 'person' is found here. For just as the word 'chariot' is used when its parts are put together, so the word person' is commonly used when the five factors (khandha) are present.
(Samyutta Nikaya, 1 -135)

Rupert Sheldrake has used the analogy of a TV set being examined by aliens unfamiliar with our technology. They are trying to explain the moving pictures, Every item, every connection is exhaustively examined to find where the pictures come from. Of course the possibility of using radio waves, the realisation that the pictures originate far away outside the TV set, cannot be countenanced by these particular aliens. It would be heresy to their basic scientific thinking.

Churning over all these ideas and definitions, we might reasonably conclude that a lot of different vinnanas or consciousnesses are chasing each other around. We have consciousness as recognition of the world; self-consciousness for the humanís ability to stand back and look at himself/herself as a separate being; open consciousness for the consciousness which is beginning to understand that the boundary between self and the outer world is a construction of the mind, and doesn't correspond with reality. And then we're cut down to size by the Buddha's admonition to Sati and his fellows, firstly, that there is nothing permanent about consciousness, and, secondly, that individuality and personality are ultimately illusory.

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