Is there such a thing as a ‘basic space of awareness’ or is awareness momentary?…

Warning! This is a long and technical Q & A… Perhaps only enter into it if you are really interested in this topic!

Q: In today’s Youtube guided meditation, you spoke about the “basic space of awareness”. This term leaves me somewhat confused. In your understanding, is there such a thing as a “basic space of awareness” consisting of a permanent consciousness outside the five Khandas (a concept also found in Ajahn Mun’s and Tibetan teachings), or is awareness itself a momentary occurrence, a perfected aspect of Mano vinyana?

In meditation I have a strong feeling that even the most basic, intuitive form of knowing is dependently originated, and that the only thing that is unconditioned, unborn, undying etc. is the law of Dhamma itself, the very fact that everything, awareness included, is subject to the three characteristics. In other words, I feel that “knowing the way things are” is simply knowing that knowing itself is empty of inherent existence. I hope this question makes sense! It belongs to the agonies of the intellect, but somehow I seem to have to work my way through it…

A: [Jitindriya] Thanks for this question, it’s actually very important, as this subject confuses practitioners endlessly due to all the different ways we hear it being taught and discussed (on top of our own basic confusion too of course). I will no doubt just be another voice in that field with a particular take on this, but since you asked me, I’ll share with you my understanding of this (at least, to date!).

Firstly, I would say that this territory must be grappled with for clarity on the path, sooner or later. Or, perhaps one’s own direct insight might just shatter any confusion about it all.

I’ll take your questions/thoughts one by one to comment on below:

In today’s Youtube guided meditation, you spoke about the “basic space of awareness”. This term leaves me somewhat confused...

Yes, I don’t regularly use this term; it is one I’ve heard mostly in Longchenpa’s and sometimes Padmasambhava’s teachings, (and some other Dzogchen teachings)… It just popped into last week’s meditation 😊! However, I often use the term ‘awareness itself’ — i.e. to recognise, rest in, or just to notice awareness itself. And it works in meditation… in terms of recognising the space or field of awareness, within which our experience unfolds, or within which we are aware of experiences. It’s clearer to see once the thinking settles down a bit. Before we get to the question of: ‘is it an actual space?’ or ‘doesn’t consciousness just arise with each individual object of mind?…’ — in our direct empirical experience, we can recognise awareness as the field, basic space, or ground of sense experience/sense contact as it is seen/known to arise and cease. This is, of course, to be explored in meditation, not to be taken on belief. You seem to be aware of this aspect of meditation practice, i.e. observing the arising and ceasing of phenomena… So we can enquire, to encourage the investigation: What is aware of sense contact or sense experience arising and ceasing?

Even ‘arising’ ‘ceasing’ are moments of cognition (manovinnana), but as we keep investigating and mindfulness strengthens, it’s as if the knowing/awareness element starts to separate out from its objects (so to speak) and is seen more clearly in and of itself.

In the Pali suttas, the Buddha encourages us to be mindful (aware) of and know directly the arising and ceasing of sense consciousness (the 6 kinds of sense-consciousness — of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind consciousness (manovinnana). In our experience, we can be aware of the arising and ceasing of manovinnana in just a thought appearing and disappearing, for example. And we can know that reflexively, through concept, which I see as another moment of manovinnana. We can also come to recognise awareness itself as the non-moving aspect of ‘mind’ which is simply aware/knowing (for want of a better word). It’s hard to describe in words but it is distinct from moments of manovinnanna, yet we cannot say it is completely separate as it is simultaneously the basis of manovinnana. This unmoving ‘awareness’ or ‘lucidity’ is not necessarily classed within sense-consciousness (conditioned consciousness – i.e. that arising in dependence on and due to causes and conditions), as it is present before, during, and after moments of sense-consciousness.

(Added note: If we try to grasp this unmoving awareness conceptually, it is merely manovinnana and conditioned; rather, it can only be known directly and comprehended through insight).

Mano has mental movement (or mental constructs) as its object, and manovinnana arises and ceases in dependence on its sense base and object, with sense contact (phassa). By contrast, that which is referred to as pure awareness (for want of a better term) – awareness free of confusion and obscuration – is referred to in a variety of ways in different traditions… Vijja, Vidja, and Rigpa are the Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan terms respectively.  There is also a term in the Pali suttas (not used regularly but in a few key places)- vinnanam anidassanam (variously translated as ‘consciousness unmanifest [or invisible/unseen]’, or ‘non-appearing consciousness’, or ‘awareness without feature’…). Ultimately speaking, it refers to the unconditioned, primordial, non-conceptual knowing/awareness, which is empty of substantial existence, knowing or luminous by nature, boundless /unconfined, timeless – the deathless element, the Dhammadhatu, etc; the direct penetration/experience of which is known as Nibbana, ‘that which is beyond the conditioned world’. While this nature is timeless and ever apparent, it can only be known by individuals for themselves when seen or penetrated internally with wisdom.

Is this purified manovinnana? It depends, I guess, on what one means by that term. I suspect different traditions will have different takes. In MN140, Dhatuvibhangasutta, it seems that ‘purified manovinnana’ is the mind temporarily clear of defilements, with full mindfulness and equanimity, but not yet clear of ignorance (avijja). It is fully possible to realise nibbana (the Deathless) and shed delusion at this level, however not inevitable, unless one engages wisdom with regard to the conditioned nature of experience and volitional activity of mind, and penetrates to the unmoving, unagitated, stable Dhamma through non-volitional non-clinging.

As you can see, my view of things here tends to fall in line with those of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Maha-Boowa, Upasika Kee, and the bulk of the Thai Forest tradition Masters, and in general with the Dzogchen view (although these particular teachings take things to an even higher ultimate perspective in their paradigm than the former – extremely profound!).

In your understanding, is there such a thing as a “basic space of awareness” consisting of a permanent consciousness outside the five Khandas (a concept also found in Ajahn Mun’s and Tibetan teachings), or is awareness itself a momentary occurrence, a perfected aspect of Mano vinyana?

The way you put your question first needs to be clarified… The Deathless element, as mentioned above in various terms, is not (in my view) another type of ‘consciousness’ that can be described as ‘permanent’ or ‘outside of the five khandas’ (though there may be some teachers who’ve expressed it in such a way…). The Nibbana element, or Dhammadhatu, is beyond the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, and anatta, (as Ajahn Maha Boowa has expressed)… as these characteristics apply to all conditioned things, to all phenomena that arise and cease — so they (and their opposite terms) do not /cannot apply to that which is non-arising, ‘unborn, uncreated, unformed, unconditioned’ (are you familiar with the Pali suttas?). Because ‘permanent’, as the opposite of ‘impermanent’, still implies a something existing in time, perpetually. However, the Dhammadhatu, deathless reality, is timeless, empty of substantial essence, unconstructed, yet ‘luminous’ or ‘knowing/aware’ – and cannot be pinned down by the definitions of being either existent or non-existent, or being a ‘something’ or ‘nothing’…

While the quality of timelessness can imply it being ‘outside of’ or ‘separate from’ the 5 khandas (which are bound by or appearing in ‘time’), and one may even come to experience it as such within the view/perspective of the early Buddhist practice paradigm, one can also come to recognise/see that ultimately whatever ‘appears’ and ‘disappears’, whatever is cognised and known through manovinnana, cannot truly be separate from the very basis of mind/awareness, the most fundamental, undivided, unmoving, non-dual aspect of mind, being what is called the Dhammadhatu, or amatadhamma (deathless element / reality). [The difference here is really just in the paradigms used to describe reality… through which, concepts get pinned to experience].

This truth is virtually impossible to describe in words and concepts however, as language almost always constructs subject-object dualities. The Buddha himself said that the truth of Nibbana and the nature of the fully enlightened being is beyond the scope of language to describe… He used epithets and metaphors to convey meaning, or talked of his way of realisation as a path that goes between the extreme views/positions of existence (eternalism) and non-existence (nihilism), as well as other dualistic views or notions. None of this can actually be explained adequately in words, or by logic, but can only be experienced in meditation or with insight to be truly understood, as the conceptual mind constructs edifices of paradigms in trying to figure it all out, which ultimately obfuscate the truth to be known and seen directly, here and now.

Nevertheless, we seem to need a description of a path that can help us find the way to realisation.

Generally speaking, I see the Pali sutta practice path and the Dzogchen paths as taking somewhat different access points/viewpoints at the outset.  The Buddha in the Pali suttas (for the most part, though not exclusively) teaches a way of directly examining our own experience of phenomena in terms of the three characteristics of conditioned existence, in order to clear up any attachment and confusion with regard to them. In, and by way of this process, the Nibbana element or unconditioned reality can be realised directly, and the person is then fully freed of attachment and confusion with regard to the conditioned and the unconditioned. In this way/path, one practices on the growing strengths of faith, confidence and gradual insight/ wisdom.

In the Vajrayana Dzogchen path, the goal, or truth, is strongly affirmed as already present within one, as one’s true nature – only that our vision is hindered by false notions and mental and emotional obscurations. One is encouraged to practice recognising directly Awareness itself, Rigpa, as the ground of reality. It is not yet liberation until one has fully comprehended it and cleared up confusion, but is nevertheless affirmed/recognised as already present.

This is a strong point of difference in the two traditional paths. However, I see the Thai Forest tradition’s path and way of teaching as straddling the two… particularly with the Forest Tradition’s emphasis on relying on awareness (poo-roo in Thai) and recognising awareness itself. (It should also be said that in the past, it seems that Dzogchen may have only been taught to students who had already developed the more fundamental practices and studied the Dhamma extensively to be prepared for the shaved-down, direct-access approach.)

Classically, one’s confusion in either of these paths/directions/ viewpoints (i.e. the traditional Theravada and Dzogchen) can take on either nihilistic tones (in the former) or eternalist tones (in the latter), but such tones are the effect of confusion yet to be fully seen through and dispersed, not the result of the path fully realised. But even if and when fully realised, that person’s description of the way and the goal will tend to be reflective of the language of the path/tradition they have come by, which can perpetuate any paradigms and language that may inadvertently support or lean toward either a nihilistic interpretation or an eternalistic one.

In meditation I have a strong feeling that even the most basic, intuitive form of knowing is dependently originated, and that the only thing that is unconditioned, unborn, undying etc. is the law of Dhamma itself, the very fact that everything, awareness included, is subject to the three characteristics...

OK, that’s fine… but you’ve got to follow up on your sense of things in meditation and enquire into what is not yet fully clear. So, if that’s your strong feeling, where’s that feeling coming from? Is Awareness itself really subject to the three characteristics? Can you actually find the condition it is dependent on, (given the above discussed distinctions between ‘manovinnana’ as a sense-consciousness, and ‘Awareness itself’)?

What knows things as they are? Investigate each sense-contact in meditation, especially the contact of mano (mind-base) with mental movement (mind-object), such as thoughts, perceptions/memories, etc… and its corresponding/simultaneous ‘cognition’ (manovinnana)… (the three coming together is called phassa – sense-contact). What knows/sees the arising and ceasing of such moments of sense contact, cognition, and their corresponding feeling tones (vedana)?… When all these cease, what remains?… When there is interest in these things it’s the best time to investigate… (But be wary of just thinking about these things… let your meditation bring you to a good degree of stillness, and the emerging clarity of mind will notice things as they appear, with the wisdom factor directing the enquiry).

In other words, I feel that “knowing the way things are” is simply knowing that knowing itself is empty of inherent existence...

Yes, knowing itself is empty of inherent existence, that’s right… (whether as manovinnana or Awareness itself). Awareness itself is empty, yet a primordial unmoving presence; timeless, without manifesting beginning or end, centre or edge; the very fabric of all, yet beyond the limitations of the conditioned, constructed world. Our coreless core… the coreless core of all. Aren’t words so limiting! (Some teachers have used the terms ‘pure consciousness’ or ‘universal consciousness’ which can be misleading in other ways…).

I hope this question makes sense! It belongs to the agonies of the intellect, but somehow I seem to have to work my way through it…

Yes, it’s great!… we do have to work our way through it! And whether my words and responses in these rather lengthy ramblings have helped or hindered, ultimately that won’t matter, but at least it can act as a further goad or springboard to investigating the truth of these things for yourself, in your own experience.

Part Two – for the die-hards – (it gets more technical!)

Response from questioner:

I don’t know how to thank you for your reply to my question!  Doubt has been a major obstacle for me, partly due to previous religious conditioning and partly due to hearing different teachings…

Lately I have really focussed on the Thai Forest teachings of Ajahn Man, Ajahn Maha Boowa, Ajahn Chah and the wonderful Upasika Kee Nanayon, all thanks to Jayasara’s recordings.  This along with your meditations and the very helpful insights you have just given me is really enabling me to overcome that obstacle.  I am truly grateful for your kindness.

For a beginner, the difficulty with Buddhist teachings is the lack of consistency with which different teachers use different terms.  Listen for example to what Ajahn Maha Boowa has to say [re: mano, citta, and vinnana] in this Dhamma talk (Q&A’s, 24 minutes into the recording):

A: Yes… ‘citta, mano, and vinnana…’ – and the somewhat confounding use of these terms that many have grappled with over the centuries, it seems (myself included).

In my understanding, when Aj Maha Boowa says in this recording that these three terms are generally considered as synonyms, it seems it is taught this way academically based on a few scriptural references and, of course, the abhidhamma and commentarial categorisations. (Most scholars will say this BTW, based on their studies, but, it must also be recognised that scholars aren’t necessarily meditation practitioners!) And yet, Aj Maha Boowa himself doesn’t tend to use all those terms in that generalised way so much in his teaching of Dhamma, as you would have noticed.
(Have you listened to the recording of excerpts of his teachings on Citta? Well worth it… found here:  )

Aj Maha Boowa’s general use of Citta and Vinnana seems to be more in line with the colloquial use of the terms in Thailand, and with the way Ajahn Mun taught – which is perhaps more associated with the Forest tradition practice, i.e. such language is based more on meditation experience and not necessarily on scriptural learning and categorisations.  It’s not too different from the suttas, but there’s much more emphasis on the ‘knowing’ of the ‘citta’ as the fundamental knowing/aware nature of mind.

This use of language happens naturally, in terms of the ways of communicating within our respective cultural milieus. I am sure the Buddha too, moving around different regions as he taught, had to communicate in various dialects and maybe used different terms at different times to communicate his intent. Obviously, there would have been both common and different understandings of these respective terms in his culture, based on their use in the Vedas and other teachings current in his day, and perhaps varying idiomatic usage of them in different places. Many different spiritual views abounded in his time actually… so he had to use terms that people understood, and he also often redefined current terms in use to point to aspects of his own understanding which would lead to liberation of mind (i.e. liberation of the citta, as in ceto-vimutti).

Just as nowadays in fact, we can use all the terms ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’ and ‘mind’ in a generalised way to point to this experience we call ‘mind’ and its functions or qualities. And in such a way we can say they are virtually synonyms here… and we all know in a general sense what we are referring to… (i.e. this conscious experience of mind…).  But, when it comes to drilling down to what exactly these terms are actually pointing to, especially in meditation and investigation of the mind and dhamma, we need to get more specific about what we are seeing and experiencing… where to aim attention, and also how to ‘wisely reflect’ (yoniso manasikara) on our experience. And so did the Buddha… When he taught on ‘vinnana-khanda’ it seems it was always in reference to the experience of the six-sense vinnana / sense-consciousness, or sense-cognition, arising dependent on one or other of the six-sense media. ‘Mano’, whilst it is also a general term for ‘mind’, in a more technical sense it seems it was mostly used in reference to the mind-base as the sixth sense-base, and mind-consciousness (mano-vinnana) as the cognition / momentary sense-consciousness arising dependent on that base. It’s also referenced as the aspect or function of mind associated more with the intellect or mentation, mental volition and thinking. I often just use the term ‘the thinking-mind’ in English to reference this aspect or function of the mind in our direct experience. (Of course, we can only know this aspect through the function of vinnana, cognition, in the space of, or in reliance on awareness, citta!… I refer more to this further on…)

Note that in the suttas, the Buddha doesn’t mix these terms when referencing vinnana-khanda or mano (with regards to mind-base or mind-object) when it comes to investigating our experience and reflecting with wisdom as to the impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self nature of these dependently arisen phenomena… Vinnana is never used to refer to mind base or object, but only as a co-arising condition that comes together with a functioning sense base and object in range; nor are terms like mano-khanda or citta-khanda ever used with regard to referencing vinnana, or to the arising/ceasing of sense-consciousness / cognition.

So as far as my experience of these things go, these are separate aspects of experience to be ascertained and discerned in our meditative experience in order to understand the way things work, particularly with regard to the three characteristics and the four noble truths to be seen there. We have to rely on awareness (and mindfulness-wisdom / sati-panna) in our practice to do this and it’s referred to as such in terms of ‘cultivating the citta‘ — citta, as mind (in general terms) or awareness (more specifically), it works either way. I generally concur with the Forest tradition’s use and expression of citta as awareness, or ‘the knowing’ (Thai: poo-roo)… It is our general sense of awareness (in the present) in meditation that has to be relied on, and where sati-panna is cultivated in reference to all these aspects, even whilst being dependent on them!

Further, with regard to these three Pali terms, in the suttas it is citta that is released/freed from defilements… It is citta that is obstructed by, or influenced by the kilesa, which are not inherent to the citta, but enter into it or are mixed in with it… but they are clearly not of the citta’s own inherent nature (AN 1.49-52)… i.e. they are not native to awareness itself. As mind/awareness is purified of all obscurations/ kilesa, when ignorance is uprooted or disbanded, it is citta/awareness that is freed from the mental and cognitive distortions and limitations of the conditioned/phenomenal world of appearances (AN 10.81). It is never said to be ‘vinnana’ that is freed or ‘mano’ that is freed in such a way!

I hope these additional reflections help to clarify further your contemplations on this subject. However, if any of it seems confounding or confusing, please just leave it aside for now, and just follow your own line of inquiry in meditation to come to your own understanding here (as you should regardless, anyway!). Like you, I too have found that Ajahn Mun’s teaching helped a great deal in my own contemplations in meditation, as well as the teachings of Aj Maha Boowa, Aj Chah, and Upasika Kee.

May your own path be supported and assisted by the great wisdom of these masters!

NB: For our readers, here is an earlier Q&A that also speaks to this territory:

Q: Can you please explain the difference between ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’?