In the Pāli Canon's Sutta Pitaka's first four nikāyas, viññāṇa is one of three overlapping Pali terms used to refer to the mind, the others being manas and citta. Each is used in the generic and non-technical sense of "mind" in general, but the three are sometimes used in sequence to refer to one's mental processes as a whole. Their primary uses are, however, distinct.
Throughout Pali literature, viññāṇa can be found as one of a handful of synonyms for the mental force that animates the otherwise inert material body.
In a number of Pali texts though, the term has a more nuanced and context-specific (or "technical") meaning. In particular, in the Pali Canon's "Discourse Basket" (Suttapitaka), viññāṇa (generally translated as "consciousness") is discussed in at least three related but different contexts:
In the Pali Canon's Abhidhamma and in post-canonical Pali commentaries, consciousness (viññāṇa) is further analyzed into 89 different states which are categorized in accordance with their kammic results.
In Buddhism, the six sense bases (Pali: saḷāyatana; Skt.: ṣaḍāyatana) refer to the five physical sense organs (cf. receptive field) (belonging to the 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 (viññāṇa-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.
In this context, for instance, when an ear's receptive field (the proximal stimulus, more commonly known by Buddhists as a sense base, or sense organ) and sound (the distal stimulus, or sense object) are present, the associated (ear-related) consciousness arises. The arising of these three elements (dhātu) – e.g. ear, sound and ear-consciousness – lead to the percept, known as "contact" and in turn causes a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral "feeling" to arise. It is from such feeling that "craving" arises. (See Fig. 1.)
In a discourse entitled, "The All" (Sabba Sutta, SN 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). 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). In the famed "Fire Sermon" (Ādittapariyāya Sutta, SN 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.
Hence, in this context, viññāṇa includes the following characteristics:
In Buddhism, consciousness (viññāṇa) is one of the five classically defined experiential "aggregates" (Pali: khandha; Skt.: skandha). As illustrated (Fig. 2), the four other aggregates are material "form" (rupa), "feeling" or "sensation" (vedana), "perception" (sanna), and "volitional formations" or "fabrications" (sankhara).
In SN 22.79, the Buddha distinguishes consciousness in the following manner:
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:
Similarly, in a 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; the child's experience is likened to perception, the villager's experience to consciousness, and the money-changer's experience to true understanding (paňňā). 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); it 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 (viññāṇa) 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.
Consciousness (viññāṇa) is the third of the traditionally enumerated Twelve Causes (nidāna) of Dependent Origination (Pali: paṭiccasamuppāda; Skt.: pratītyasamutpāda). Within the context of Dependent Origination, different canonical discourses represent different aspects of consciousness. The following aspects are traditionally highlighted:
In three discourses in the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha highlights three particular manifestations of saṅkhāra as particularly creating a "basis for the maintenance of consciousness" (ārammaṇaṃ ... viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā) that could lead to future existence, to the perpetuation of bodily and mental processes, and to craving and its resultant suffering. As stated in the common text below (in English and Pali), these three manifestations are intending, planning and enactments of latent tendencies ("obsessing")
Thus, for instance, in the "Intention Discourse" (Cetanā Sutta, SN 12.38), the Buddha more fully elaborates:
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." 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.
In addition, a few discourses state that, simultaneously, the converse is true:
As described above in the discussion of mental fabrications' conditioning of consciousness, 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.
Discourses such as this appear[according to whom?] 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:
The Patthana, part of the Theravadin Abhidharma, analyzes the different states of consciousness and their functions. The Theravāda 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 consciousnesses. Altogether, according to the Abhidhamma, there are 89 kinds of consciousness. Fifty-four 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).
More specifically, a viññāṇa is a single moment of conceptual consciousness and normal mental activity is considered to consist of a continual succession of viññāṇas.
Viññāṇa 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 viññāṇas 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).
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the post-canonical Pali commentary uses the three terms viññāṇa, mano and citta as synonyms for the mind sense base (mana-ayatana); however, in the Sutta Pitaka, these three terms are generally contextualized differently:
As described above, in reference to the "All" (sabba), the Sutta Pitaka identifies six vijñānas related to the six sense bases:
The amalavijñāna (阿摩羅識), "immaculate consciousness", is considered by some Yogācāra schools as a ninth level of consciousness. This "pure consciousness is identified with the nature of reality (parinispanna) or Suchness." Alternatively, amalavijñāna may be considered the pure aspect of ālāyavijñāna.
Viññāna is used in Thai Buddhism to refer specifically to one's consciousness or life-force after it has left the body at the moment of death. Thais differentiate between winyaan and "jid-jai" (จิตใจ), which is the consciousness while it is still connected to a living body. Even though the jid-jai leaves the body while you dream at night and can also externalize during advanced meditation practice, it is still connected to the body.
Ayon Maharaj has characterized Sri Ramakrishna's views as manifesting what he called a "philosophy of Vijñāna Vedānta". In his book Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality (2018), Maharaj describes six major tenets of Ramakrishna's Vijñāna Vedānta. These include the notion that "the vijñānī returns from the state of nirvikalpa samādhi and attains the richer, world-affirming nondual realization that God has become everything.":38–39
Based on ancient texts, V.S.Apte (1890, rev. 1957-59) provides the following definition for vijñānam (विज्ञानम्):
In addition, Monier Williams (1899; rev. 2008) provides the following definition: