From New World Encyclopedia
Translations of


English: consciousness,
mind, life force
Chinese:識(T) / 识(S)
Japanese:識 (shiki)
Vietnamese:識 (thức)
Thai:วิญญาณ (winyaan)
Buddhism Glossary

Vijñāna (Sanskrit: meaning "consciousness," "life force" or simply "mind") is a Buddhist concept that refers to the mental force of awareness that animates the physical body. Consciousness (Vijñāna) is one of the five classically defined experiential "aggregates" (Pali: khandha; Skt.: skandha) in the Buddha's analysis of everyday life. The four other aggregates are material "form" (rupa), "feeling" or "sensation" (vedana), "perception" (sanna), and "volitional formations" or "fabrications" (sankhara). According to the Buddha's analysis, viññāa includes the following characteristics: (1) there are six types of consciousnesss, each unique to one of the internal sense organs, which arise as a result of the material sense bases (āyatana), (2) consciousness is aware of its specific sense base (including the mind and mind objects), (3) viññāa is a prerequisite for the arising of craving (tahā), and (4) to vanquish suffering (dukkha), one should neither identify with nor attach to viññāa.

The term Viññāna is also used in Thai Buddhism to refer specifically to one's consciousness or life-force.

Pali literature

Throughout early Buddhist literature written in the Pali language, the term viññāa[1] denoted the mental force that animated the otherwise inert material body.[2][1] In the Pali Canon's "Discourse Basket" (Suttapitaka), viññāa (generally translated as "consciousness") is discussed in at least three related but different contexts:

(1) as a derivative of the sense bases (āyatana), part of the experientially exhaustive "All" (sabba);
(2) as one of the five aggregates (khandha) of clinging (upadana) at the root of suffering (dukkha); and,
(3) as one of the twelve causes (nidana) of "Dependent Origination" (paticcasamuppāda), which provides a template for Buddhist notions of [[Karma|kamma, rebirth and release.[3]

In the Pali Canon's Abhidhamma and in post-canonical Pali commentaries, consciousness (viññāa) is further analyzed into 89 different states that are categorized in accordance with their kammic results.

Sense-base derivative

In Buddhism, the six sense bases (Pali: saḷāyatana; Skt.: ṣaḍāyatana) refer to the five physical sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body), the mind (referred to as the sixth sense base) and their associated objects (visual forms, sounds, odors, flavors, touch and mental objects). Based on the six sense bases, a number of mental factors arise including six "types" or "classes" of consciousness (viññāa-kāyā). More specifically, according to this analysis, the six types of consciousness are eye-consciousness (that is, consciousness based on the eye), ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness.[4]

For instance, when an ear (the internal sense base, or sense organ) and sound (the external sense base, or sense object) are present, the associated consciousness (ear-related consciousness) arises. The arising of these three elements (dhātu)—ear, sound and ear-consciousness—lead to what is known as "contact" which in turn causes a pleasant or unpleasant or neutral "feeling" (or "sensation") to arise. It is from such a feeling that "craving" arises.

In a discourse entitled, "The All" (Sabba Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 35.23), the Buddha states that there is no "all" outside of the six pairs of sense bases (that is, six internal and six external sense bases).[5] The "To Be Abandoned Discourse" (Pahanaya Sutta, SN 35.24) further expands the All to include first five aforementioned sextets (internal sense bases, external sense bases, consciousness, contact and feeling).[6][7] In the famed "Fire Sermon" (Ādittapariyāya Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 35.28), the Buddha declares that "the All is aflame" with passion, aversion, delusion and suffering (dukkha); to obtain release from this suffering, one should become disenchanted with the All.[8]

The Aggregates

 Figure 1:
The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)

according to the Pali Canon.
form (rūpa)
  4 elements


  mental factors (cetasika)  



  • Form is derived from the Four Great Elements.
  • Consciousness arises from other aggregates.
  • Mental Factors arise from the Contact of
    Consciousness and other aggregates.
 Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001)  |  diagram details

In Buddhism, consciousness (viññāa) is one of the five classically defined experiential "aggregates" (Pali: khandha; Skt.: skandha). As illustrated (See Fig. 1), the four other aggregates are material "form" (rupa), "feeling" or "sensation" (vedana), "perception" (sanna), and "volitional formations" or "fabrications" (sankhara).

In the Buddhist text Samyutta Nikaya 22.79, the Buddha distinguishes consciousness in the following manner:

"And why do you call it 'consciousness'? Because it cognizes, thus it is called consciousness. What does it cognize? It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, alkaline, non-alkaline, salty, and unsalty. Because it cognizes, it is called consciousness."[9]

This type of awareness appears to be more refined and introspective than that associated with the aggregate of perception (saññā) which the Buddha describes in the same discourse as follows:

"And why do you call it 'perception'? Because it perceives, thus it is called 'perception'. What does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. Because it perceives, it is called perception."[10]

Similarly, in the traditionally venerated 5th century CE commentary, the Visuddhimagga, there is an extended analogy about a child, an adult villager and an expert "money-changer" seeing a heap of coins; in this analogy, the child's experience is likened to perception, the villager's experience to consciousness, and the money-changer's experience to true understanding (paňňā).[11] Thus, in this context, "consciousness" denotes more than the irreducible subjective experience of sense data suggested in the discourses of "the All" (see prior section); here, "consciousness" additionally entails a depth of awareness reflecting a degree of memory and recognition.

All of the aggregates are to be seen as empty of self-nature; that is, they arise dependent on causes (hetu) and conditions (paticca). In this scheme, the cause for the arising of consciousness (viññāa) is the arising of one of the other aggregates (physical or mental); and, the arising of consciousness in turn gives rise to one or more of the mental (nāma) aggregates. In this way, the chain of causation identified in the aggregate (khandha) model overlaps the chain of conditioning in the Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppāda) model, described more fully below.[12]

Dependent Origination

Consciousness (viññāa) is the third of the traditionally enumerated Twelve Causes (nidāna) of Dependent Origination (Pali: paṭiccasamuppāda; Skt.: pratītyasamutpāda).[13] Within the context of Dependent Origination, different canonical discourses represent different aspects of consciousness.[14] The following aspects are traditionally highlighted:

  • consciousness is conditioned by mental fabrications (saṅkhāra);
  • consciousness and the mind-body (nāmarūpa) are interdependent; and,
  • consciousness acts as a "life force" by which there is continuity across rebirths.

Numerous discourses state, "From fabrications [saṅkhāra] as a requisite condition comes consciousness [viññāa]."[15] Additionally, the text of the Samyutta Nikaya has the Buddha highlight three particular manifestations of saṅkhāra as particularly creating a "basis for the maintenance of consciousness" (ārammaṇaṃ ... viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā) that could lead to future existence,[16] to the perpetuation of bodily and mental processes,[17] and to craving[18] and its resultant suffering. As stated in the common text below (in English and Pali), these three manifestation are intending, planning and enactments of latent tendencies ("obsessing"):[19]

In the "Intention Discourse" (Cetanā Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12.38), the Buddha more fully elaborates:

Bhikkhus, what one intends, and what one plans, and whatever one has a tendency towards: this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis there is a support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is the production of future renewed existence. When there is the production of future renewed existence, future birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.[20][21]

The language of the post-canonical Samyutta Nikaya commentary and subcommentary further affirm that this text is discussing the means by which "kammic consciousness" "yield[s] fruit in one's mental continuum."[22] In other words, certain intentional or obsessive acts on one's part inherently establish in present consciousness a basis for future consciousness's existence; in this way, the future existence is conditioned by certain aspects of the initial intention, including its wholesome and unwholesome qualities.

Conversely, in the "Attached Discourse" (Upaya Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 22.53), it states that if passion for the five aggregates (forms and mental processes) are abandoned then:

"... owing to the abandonment of passion, the support is cut off, and there is no base for consciousness. Consciousness, thus unestablished, not proliferating, not performing any function, is released. Owing to its release, it is steady. Owing to its steadiness, it is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he (the monk) is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'"[23][24]

Numerous Buddhist discourses state:

"From consciousness [viññāa] as a requisite condition comes name-and-form [nāmarūpa]."[15]

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.

In the "Serene Faith Discourse" (Sampasadaniya Sutta, Digha Nikaya 28), the Venerable Sariputta references not a singular conscious entity but a "stream of consciousness" (viññāa-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...."[25]

The "Great Causes Discourse" (Mahanidana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 15), in a dialogue between the Buddha and the Ven. Ananda, describes "consciousness" (viññāa) in a way that underlines its "life force" aspect:[3]

"'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."[26]

Discourses such as this appear to describe a consciousness that is an animating phenomenon capable of spanning lives thus giving rise to rebirth.

An Anguttara Nikaya discourse provides a memorable metaphor to describe the interplay of kamma, consciousness, craving and rebirth:

[Ananda:] "One speaks, Lord, of 'becoming, becoming'. How does becoming tak[e] place?"
[Buddha:] "... Ānanda, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for consciousness of beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving to become established in [one of the "three worlds"]. Thus, there is re-becoming in the future."[27]

Abhidhammic analysis

The Patthana, part of the Theravadin Abhidharma, analyzes the different states of consciousness and their functions. The Theravada school method is to study every state of consciousness. Using this method, some states of consciousness are identified as positive, some negative and some neutral. This analysis is based on the principle of karma, the main point in understanding the different consciousness. All together according to the Abhidhamma, there are 89 kinds of consciousness, 54 are of the "sense sphere" (related to the five physical senses as well as craving for sensual pleasure), 15 of the "fine-material sphere" (related to the meditative absorptions based on material objects), 12 of the "immaterial sphere" (related to the immaterial meditative absorptions), and eight are supramundane (related to the realization of Nibbāna).[28]

More specifically, a viññāa is a single moment of conceptual consciousness and normal mental activity is considered to consist of a continual succession of viññāas.

Viññāa has two components: the awareness itself, and the object of that awareness (which might be a perception, a feeling etc.). Thus, in this way, these viññāas are not considered as ultimate (underived) phenomena as they are based on mental factors (cetasika). For example, jhānic (meditative) states are described as based on the five ultimate mental factors of applied thought (vitakka), sustained thought (vicara), rapture (piti), serenity (sukha) and one-pointedness (ekaggatā).

Overlapping Pali terms for mind

Whereas some Pali commentaries use the three terms viññāa, mano and citta as synonyms for the mind sense base (mana-ayatana): the Sutta Pitaka, however, differentiates these three terms in different contexts:

  • 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 viññāa. It is also the basis for personal continuity within and across lives.
  • mano 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.[29]

Across Buddhist schools

The Buddhist scriptures known as the Sutta Pitaka identify six vijñānas related to the six sense bases:

  1. Eye consciousness
  2. Ear consciousness
  3. Nose consciousness
  4. Mouth consciousness
  5. Body consciousness
  6. Mind consciousness describe the consciousness of "ideas" - Buddhism describes not five but six perceptions.

While most Buddhist schools accept these six modes of consciousness, some Buddhist schools have identified additional modes. For example, the Yogacara school considers two more modes of consciousness, identified as follows:

  1. klistamanas, the consciousness that gathers the hindrances, the poisons, the karmic formations.
  2. ālāyavijñāna, the consciousness "basis of everything" or "store consciousness." Every consciousness is based on this one. It is the phenomenon that explains rebirth.

Moreover, some Yogācāra's schools consider the amalavijñāna as a ninth consciousness. It is the pure state associated with the nirvāna. However, some schools considers the amalavijñāna to be the pure aspect of the ālāyavijñāna.


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Pali term viññāa will be used when discussing the Pali literature, and the Sanskrit word vijñāna will be used when referring to either texts chronologically subsequent to the Pali canon or when discussing the topic broadly, in terms of both Pali and non-Pali texts.
  2. Bodhi 2000b, 769-770, n. 154, also mentions this generalized use of viññāa in the Abhidharma Pitaka and commentaries.
  3. 3.0 3.1 University of Chicago's "Digital Dictionaries of South Asia."
  4. See, for instance, Majjhima Nikaya 148 (Thanissaro, 1998). Retrieved February 19, 2009. In this framework, the Pali word translated as "consciousness" is viññāa and the word translated as "mind" is mano. Thus, the faculty of awareness of the mind (the base of, e.g., abstractions sythesized from physical sensory experience) is referred to as mano-viññāa ("mind-consciousness").
  5. Bodhi 2000b, 1140; and Thanissaro (2001c). According to Bodhi (2000b), p. 1399, n. 7, the Pali commentary regarding the Sabba Sutta states: "...[I]f one passes over the twelve sense bases, one cannot point out any real phenomenon." Also see Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), 680, "Sabba" entry where sabbaŋ is defined as "the (whole) world of sense-experience." References to the "All" (sabba) can be found in a number of subsequent discourses including Samyutta Nikaya 35.24, 35.25, 35.26, 35.27 and 35.29.
  6. Bodhi 2000b, 1140; and Thanissaro (2001b). These five sextets are implicitly referenced as the bases for clinging (upādāna) and fetters in other discourses such as "Advice to Anāthapiṇḍika Discourse" (Anāthapiṇḍikavāda Sutta Majjhima Nikaya 143; Ñāamoli & Bodhi, 2001, 1109-1113) and the "Great Discourse on the Sixfold Base" (Mahāsaāyatanika Sutta Majjhima Nikaya 149; Ñāamoli & Bodhi, 2001, 1137-1139).
  7. In the "Six Sextets" discourse (Chachakka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 148), a further expansion can be seen where the "six sextets" (cha-chakka) include the five aforementioned sextets plus feeling-dependent craving (ta). (For MN 148, see Ñāamoli & Bodhi 2001, 1129-1136; and Thanissaro (1998).) Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  8. Thanissaro (1993). Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  9. Thanissaro, 2001a, Khajjaniya Sutta ("Chewed Up," Samyutta Nikaya 22.29) Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  10. Thanissaro, 2001a, Khajjaniya Sutta ("Chewed Up," Samyutta Nikaya 22.29) Retrieved February 19, 2009; Regarding SN 22.79's typifying perception (saññā) through visual colors and consciousness (viññāa) through assorted tastes, Bodhi (2000b, 1072, n. 114) mentions that the Samyutta Nikaya's subcommentary states that perception grasps appearances and shapes while consciousness "can grasp particular distinctions in an object even when there is no appearance and shape."
  11. Buddhaghosa 1999, 435-436)
  12. This overlap is particularly pronounced in the Mahanidana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 15) where consciousness (viññāa) is a condition of name-and-body (nāmarūpa) and vice-versa (see, e.g., Thanissaro 1997a).
  13. Not all canonical texts identify twelve causes in Dependent Origination's causal chain. For instance, the Mahanidana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 15) (Thanissaro, 1997a) (Retrieved February 24, 2009) identifies only nine causes (omitting the six sense bases, formations and ignorance) and the initial text of the (Thanissaro, 2000) Nalakalapiyo Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.67) Retrieved February 19, 2009; twice identifies ten causes (omitting formations and ignorance) although its final enumeration includes the 12 traditional factors.
  14. For instance, similar to the sensory-specific description of consciousness found in discussing "the All" (above), the "Analysis of Dependent Origination Discourse" (Paticcasamuppada-vibhanga Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12.2) describes viññāa ("consciousness") in the following manner:
    "And what is consciousness? These six are classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, intellect-consciousness. This is called consciousness." Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  15. 15.0 15.1 For instance, see the Paticcasamuppada-vibhanga Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2) (Thanissaro, 1997b), Retrieved February 24, 2009. Square-bracketed Pali terms were added. Also see various other discourses in the Samyutta Nikaya's chapter 12.
  16. punabbhavābhinibbatti ("for again becoming reborn"), mentioned in "Volition (1) Discourse" (Bodhi 2000b, 576)
  17. nāmarūpassa avakkanti ("for entry of name-and-form"), mentioned in "Volition (2) Discourse" (Bodhi 2000b, 576-77).
  18. Nati (literally, "bending" or "inclination"), which the Samyutta Nikaya commentary states is synonymous with "craving, called 'inclination' in the sense of inclining ... towards pleasant forms, etc.," mentioned in "Volition (3) Discourse" and its end notes (Bodhi 2000b, 577, 761 n. 116).
  19. ca ceteti ca pakappeti ca anuseti: Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25) translate this as "to intend, to start to perform, to carry out" (pp. 268-269, entry for "Cinteti & ceteti" (Cinteti & ceteti Retrieved February 24, 2009); Bodhi (2000b) translates this as "intends ... plans ... has a tendency towards" (pp. 576-577); and Thanissaro (1995) (Cetana Sutta, Retrieved February 24, 2009) translates it as "intends ... arranges ... obsesses about." Thanissaro (1995), n. 1, further elaborates:
    "The seven obsessions are: the obsession of sensual passion, the obsession of resistance, the obsession of views, the obsession of uncertainty, the obsession of conceit, the obsession of passion for becoming, and the obsession of ignorance. See Anguttara Nikaya 7.12."
  20. Bodhi 2000b, 576.
  21. Also see Cetana Sutta Thanissaro (1995). Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  22. Bodhi 2000b, 757-759 n. 112.
  23. Thanissaro (1997c). Parenthetical phrase "(the monk)" is in the original translation.
  24. Also see Bodhi 2000b, 890-91. Note that "unbound" is Thanissaro's translation of "nibbāna" (Pali; Sanskrit: nirvana); thus, Bodhi (2000b, 891) provides the alternate translation of "Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna."
  25. Walshe 1995, 419-420; In an end note on page 606, n. 865, Walshe states that viññāa-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, Majjhima Nikaya 38; trans. Ñāamoli & Bodhi, 2001, 349-361). 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.
  26. Maha-nidana Sutta Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  27. Anguttara Nikaya 3.76 (Nyanaponika and Bodhi 1999, 69.)
  28. Bodhi 2000a, 28-31.
  29. Bodhi 2000b, 769-770, n. 154.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Seattle, WA: Buddhist Publication Society, Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1928706029.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. (Part IV is "The Book of the Six Sense Bases (Salayatanavagga)".) Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861713311.
  • Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli). 1999. The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: Buddhist Publication Society,, Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1928706002.
  • Ñāamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) 2001. The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 086171072X.
  • Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2001. Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. ISBN 1888375140.
  • Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.). 1999. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An anthology of Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0742504050.
  • Walshe, Maurice (trans.). 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861711033.


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