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Conscious of Everything or Consciousness Without Objects? A Paradox of Nirvana


Seemingly contrary ideas of Nirvana are found in early Buddhist literature. Whereas some texts describe one who attains Nirvana as being conscious of everything, others depict Nirvana as a state in which consciousness has no object but emptiness or Nirvana. In this paper I deal with this paradox of Nirvana consciousness by exploring the correlations between several statements in early Buddhist texts. A number of sutta passages are cited to show that they contain doctrinal elements which, when considered collectively, may cast valuable light on how to reconcile this paradox. Two pivotal notions are ‘non-abiding consciousness’ and ‘consciousness that is infinite, pervasive all around’. These two notions are connected to each other and seem to subsume or bridge the two strikingly distinct forms of Nirvana consciousness mentioned above. Nirvana consciousness said to be ‘non-abiding’, which is analogous to ‘without object’, does ‘not abide’ (non-abiding) in any objects in the sense that it does not cling to them or rest on them. The ‘infinite, all-pervasive’ consciousness, based on stopping normal consciousness, does not depend on any sense objects, and hence it is unconditioned by them and operates unhindered. Nirvana consciousness thus constitutes the infinite realization free from all conditioning and hindrance. This resonates with the idea that one who attains Nirvana is conscious of everything.

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  1. Norman (1971, p. xxxi) says that the verses collected in the Therīgāthā ‘were uttered over a period of about 300 years, from the end of the 6th century to the end of the 3rd century B.C.’ For the Udāna, see note 30.

  2. Particularly Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) literature as illustrated by Walser (2018, pp. 163–187, 195–197, 234–238, etc.).

  3. MW 557 s.v. nir-√vā, °vāṇa.

  4. Gombrich (1996, p. 65), Johansson (1969, p. 58). For textual references, see SN IV 20 and 251.

  5. E.g. DN III 135; Itivuttaka 38 in the Khuddaka Nikāya. von Hinüber (1997, p. 47) describes the Itivuttaka as a ‘perhaps very old text’.

  6. MN II 262: saṃvattanikaṃ viññāṇaṃ.

  7. Here ‘a continuous form of awareness’ refers to ‘consciousness’ rather than ‘mindfulness’ according to Collins (ibid., p. 42): ‘Enlightenment is supposed to be a matter neither simply of possessing knowledge (which at times must necessarily be unconscious …), nor of knowledge-events that exist only for a certain length of time.’ His denial (neither) of ‘unconscious’ alludes to ‘consciousness’ and his denial (nor) of ‘exist only for a certain length of time’ alludes to ‘a continuous form’.

  8. Harvey (1989, p. 87) and Albahari (2006, p. 46) already used the phrase ‘nibbānic consciousness’.

  9. Westerhoff (2018, p. 80) says: ‘The Sautrāntikas, in disagreement with the Sarvāstivāda and the Sthaviravada [sic], held that nirvāṇa, being a mere absence (abhāva), is not a fundamentally existent thing (dravya).’ In this paper, I adopt the Theravāda view that Nirvana is a real entity. As Collins (1998, pp. 167–172) explains, the Udāna (pp. 80–81) states that Nirvana exists and the Udāna commentary asserts ‘the existence (atthibhāva) of the Unconditioned Element [i.e. Nirvana] in the ultimate sense’.

  10. The commentary (MA I 32) says: ‘Here “beings” signifies only living beings below the heaven of the Four Great Kings.’ (trans. Bodhi 2006, p. 59)

  11. Gethin (1998, p. 122) says: ‘Beings in the lowest realms (hell, animal …) can only experience sense-sphere consciousness; beings in the human realm and the heavens of the sense-sphere characteristically experience sense-sphere consciousness but can in special circumstances (i.e. when attaining dhyāna) experience form and formless-sphere consciousness.’ The jhānas (dhyānas) and immaterial attainments (formless spheres), i.e. the sphere of infinite space up to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception listed above, can be attained by worldlings according to Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001, p. 1322 note 1067).

  12. See also MA I 38.

  13. According to this sutta, a sekha directly knows (abhijānāti) earth as earth, etc., but is urged to refrain from conceiving and delight, and is urged to fully understand earth, etc.

  14. In the case of the Buddha, Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001, p. 1167 note 28) observe that whereas the Pali Text Society edition reads pariññātaṃ (has fully understood) as in the case of an Arahant, two other editions and MA read pariññātantaṃ (has fully understood to the end).

  15. My translation mostly follows Bodhi (2012, p. 951).

  16. Bodhi (2012, p. 307) takes abhiññā as a noun and translates it as ‘with direct knowledge’. However, Allon (1997, p. 235) treats abhiññā sacchikatvā upasampajja as three absolutives. Moreover, M. Cone in her dictionary also regards abhiññā in such contexts as an absolutive of abhijānāti (DOP I 194 s.v. abhijānāti). Therefore, I render abhiññā as ‘having directly known’.

  17. As Allon (1997, p. 364) observes, the authors of Pali suttas ‘tended to expand the wording and create strings or sequences of similar word elements …’ The syllable lengths of these three words (3+4+5, Allon 1997, p. 235) are in accordance with the waxing syllable principle proposed by Allon (1997, p. 191): ‘as the sequence progresses the syllable length of each subsequent element may be equal to or greater than what precedes it.’

  18. Bodhi (2006, p. 3) says: ‘The twenty-four objects or “bases” (vatthu) of cognition cover the entire scale of experiential data.’

  19. Baka is unconscious of their existence as Bodhi explains an earlier passage: ‘His denial of an “escape beyond” is a rejection of the higher jhāna planes, the paths and fruits, and Nibbāna, none of which he even knows exist.’ (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, p. 1247 note 500) Bodhi further explains that Baka Brahmā’s realm pertains only to the first jhāna, while Streaming Radiance, Refulgent Glory and Great Fruit are realms of rebirth pertaining to the second, third and fourth jhānas. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, p. 1248 note 509)

  20. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001, p. 1162 note 5).

  21. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001, p. 1163, note 6) state: ‘MA paraphrases this text thus: “Having perceived earth with a perverted perception, the ordinary person afterwards conceives it … through the gross proliferating tendencies (papañca) of craving, conceit, and views, which are here called ‘conceivings.’ …”’

  22. Kalupahana’s remark echoes the following words in MSAbh 94: ‘“Free from the perception of duality [dvaya]” means that it is free from the perception of subject [grāhaka] and object [grāhya] … His awareness of his sameness with beings (is attained) in (their common) selflessness [nirātmatā] …’ (trans. Thurman et al. 2004, pp. 181–182).

  23. Jayatilleke (1963, p. 59) renders draṣṭavyaḥ as ‘seeing or perceiving’ and śrotavyaḥ as ‘hearing or learning’. Seeing and hearing belong to the process of perception according to the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta as discussed above.

  24. e.g. MN I 135 and verses 793, 798, 802, 813, 901 of the Sutta-nipāta.

  25. Harvey (2013, p. 60); Buswell and Lopez (2014, p. 42).

  26. Cf. Gethin (1998, p. 176); Kuan (2012, pp. 49–50).

  27. Bodhi (2000, p. 1440, note 280) sees these three terms as synonyms: (1) signless concentration of mind (animitto ceto-samādhi), (2) signless deliverance of mind (animittā ceto-vimutti, rendered as ‘signless liberation of mind’ by Bodhi), and (3) signless concentration (animitto samādhi). As Kuan (2013, pp. 58–60) elucidates, ceto-vimutti (liberation of mind) originally referred to final liberation, but later came to denote ‘temporary liberation’, which refers to various meditative (including concentrative) states.

  28. Bodhi says: ‘the “signless element” is Nibbāna, in which all signs of conditioned things are absent.’ (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, p. 1239 note 449)

  29. Professor Mark Siderits suggests: ‘This presupposes that nirvana is a real entity. Some would say that it is no more than a mere absence.’ In this paper Nirvana is treated as a transcendent reality, a real entity. See “Introduction” section and footnote 9.

  30. Woodward (1935, p. v) says: ‘… ascribed to the Teacher [i.e. the Buddha]. In the case of the Udāna the verses may well be genuine, but it does not follow that the prose part is right in its application in each case.’ What Woodward calls ‘verses’ are actually udānas (solemn utterances), which are italicized in his translation. The Udāna passage quoted above is prose, but it is indeed italicized in his translation (Woodward 1935, p. 97) and is preceded by bhagavā…imaṃ udānaṃ udānesi, ‘the Blessed One uttered this solemn utterance’. Norman (1983, p. 61) points out that while many udānas are verses, some of them are prose, including our passage in sutta 8:1 of the Udāna. Anālayo’s (2009, pp. 40–46) comparative study of the Pali and Chinese versions of the Udāna also indicates that the prose narratives were added to the udānas at a later stage.

  31. atthi, bhikkhave, tad āyatanaṃ, yattha n’eva paṭhavī, na āpo, na tejo, na vāyo, na ākāsānañcāyatanaṃ, na viññāṇañcāyatanaṃ, na ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ, na nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṃ, n’āyaṃ loko, na paraloko, na ubho candimasūriyā. tatrāp’āhaṃ, bhikkhave, n’eva āgatiṃ vadāmi, na gatiṃ, na ṭhitiṃ, na cutiṃ, na upapattiṃ; appatiṭṭhaṃ, appavattaṃ, anārammaṇam eva taṃ. es’ ev’ anto dukkhassā ti.

  32. Harvey (1995, pp. 186–187) says: ‘the “grasped at” personality-factors, including feelings, must be associated with nibbāna during life, even though they undergo cessation in the actual experience of nibbāna. As the “grasped at” personality-factors recur once the experience is left, they can be said to be associated with nibbāna in life … At S.IV.98, the Buddha … describes a state where each of the six sense-organs “stops (nirujjhati)” and cognition of its sense-object “fades (virajjati)”, this being a state “to be known”, which surely implies a feeling-transcending state known during life.’

  33. Williams et al. (2012, p. 114).

  34. MSAbh 93–94.

  35. Trans. Thurman et al. (2004, p. 185).

  36. MSAbh 96.

  37. MW 1193 s.v. 2. saha, -cārin.

  38. MSAbh 85–86. Trans. Thurman et al. (2004, p. 167).

  39. The Pali reading pahaṃ should not be seen as a variant of pabhaṃ, ‘luminous’. In some phrases equivalent to the Pali viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pahaṃ, the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese counterparts of pahaṃ all mean ‘pervasive’. See Anālayo (2017, pp. 19–20 notes 31–33).

  40. DN I 223: viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pahaṃ;ettha āpo ca paṭhavī tejo vāyo na gādhati;ettha dīghañ ca rassañ ca, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;ettha nāmañ ca rūpañ ca, asesaṃ uparujjhati; viññāṇassa nirodhena, etth’ etaṃ uparujjhatī ti.

  41. Commenting on this passage, Rhys Davids (1899, p. 284 note 1) says: ‘That viññāṇa, when qualified by such adjectives as those here used, can be meant for the viññāṇa of a man who has attained to Nirvāṇa …’

  42. Ñāṇananda (1971, pp. 65–66) and Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001, p. 1250 note 513).

  43. A verse at SN I 35 is translated by Bodhi (2000, p. 126) thus: ‘Where name-and-form ceases, Stops without remainder: … They cut through the bondage of existence.’

  44. Similarly, Gethin (1986, p. 42) suggests that such expressions as loka (world) and the six internal āyatanas (senses) ‘represent different ways of characterising … conditioned existence’. Likewise, according to Shulman’s (2014, pp. 69–70) comment on the Samiddhi-loka-pañha Sutta (SN IV 39–40), the early Buddhist notion of the world (loka) is heavily dependent on subjectivity; there is no possibility of a world that is detached from such subjective elements as the senses and their objects.

  45. Williams (2009, p. 49) says: ‘there is a reasonable possibility that the Vajracchedikā in some form or another dates from a very early phase of Prajñāpāramitā literary activity.’

  46. Harrison and Watanabe (2006, p. 120): bodhisatvena evaṃ cittam utpādayitavyaṃ apratiṣṭhitaṃ <|> na rūpapratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyaṃ | na śabdagandharasaspraṣṭavyadharmapratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyam | na kvacitpratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyam |

  47. As Makransky (1997, pp. 337–338) observes, it may have taken some time for this idea to develop and become dominant.

  48. Dhammadinnā (2017, p. 158).


References to Pali texts are to the Pali Text Society editions

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A preliminary version of this paper entitled ‘Consciousness of Everything or Consciousness Without Object? A Paradox of Nirvana’ (pp. 1–18) was presented at the workshop ‘Buddhist Philosophy of Consciousness: Tradition and Dialogue’ held at National Chengchi University, Taipei, in March 2016. I thank Dr Ching Keng and Prof. Chen-kuo Lin, who organized this workshop, and the two participants, Ven. Dhammajoti and Prof. Chien-hsing Ho, who directed me to useful sources. My gratitude also goes to the following people: Prof. Peter Harvey scanned his article and sent it to me. Prof. Mark Siderits, Dr William Pruitt and the three reviewers provided invaluable comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Kuan, Tf. Conscious of Everything or Consciousness Without Objects? A Paradox of Nirvana. J Indian Philos 48, 329–351 (2020).

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  • Nirvana
  • consciousness
  • six senses
  • early Buddhism
  • non-abiding