(Venerable Sariputta, Nalakalapiyo Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12:67, Tipitaka)
Sometimes, modern spiritual teachers claim that consciousness is it, that is to say that our true identity that lies behind all experience is consciousness, and that this is somehow eternal and separate from the world. In a world where traditional ideas of God & soul are falling at the sword of empirical science, times can seem rather bleak. What’s the point in it all if there’s no God to welcome our eternal souls into heaven? We work hard, try to be good partners, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and model citizens, only for it all to fade to dust upon our demise. Eternal life is a comforting idea, but if science has squeezed God & soul out of existence, what’s left to be never-ending?
Well, consciousness is often seen as the modern equivalent of a soul, as it is lies behind the experience of the body, the personality, memories, thoughts, emptions and dreams, but is somehow apart from them; a nebulous ‘ground of being’ or canvas upon which these other aspects of self are painted. This fits in quite well with some traditional, albeit mystical, interpretations of the self (often written as Self to emphasis its apparent ‘cosmic’ nature). Known as Atman in Sanskrit, this Self is said to be identical with Brahman, the prime being or entity from which the universe springs, summed up by its most famous proponent Adi Shankara (788–820), thus: “Brahman alone is real, the world is not independently existent, and the individual Self is not different from Brahman.” This form of Hindu philosophy is known as Advaita, ‘Not-two’ or ‘Non-dualism.’ These ideas are often identified with forms of theistic mysticism found in Christianity, Islam and other religions, as well as some forms of Buddhist philosophy.
So, is this Self identical to ‘pure consciousness’ as is often claimed? Well, there are different ways to answer this question. We could form an opinion about it based on our biases and belief systems, but this would simply be a set of thoughts arising in this consciousness, wouldn’t it? It isn’t actually investigating the question to test its validity, but merely formulating concepts around it and then identifying with them, reacting to alternative views with attachment and aversion. This won’t do. Alternatively, we might actually look into experience and examine it to see whether this idea that consciousness is the true Self is true or not. Looking at present experience, what is accompanying consciousness? In other words, what is it conscious of? Consciousness can be aware of sights, sounds and tactile sensations; smells, tastes and mental stuff may be the focus of consciousness also. Whatever consciousness is conscious of, however, it’s always conscious of something, isn’t it? Consciousness is never conscious of itself, or of nothing.
Try this little experiment: Observe an object that is in front of you, noting its size, shape, colour, and features. Note that consciousness of the object is present; otherwise there’d be no awareness of anything at all, would there? Now, turn attention around and try to observe consciousness in the same way as above, noting its size, shape, colour, and features. Can this be done? What size is consciousness? What shape is it and what colours? Such questions cannot be answered, can they? In fact, upon reflection they seem rather ridiculous – of course consciousness cannot grasp itself. There’s nothing to be grasped!
The above experiment can be undertaken with other faculties than vision; hearing, smelling, tasting, touching & thinking all work out the same. Consciousness can be conscious of something else, but it cannot be conscious of itself. This applies to mental as well as physical phenomena, with emotions, thoughts, memories, imagination & dreams experienced in conjunction with consciousness. Objects and consciousness are interdependent; we cannot have one without the other. In Buddhism, the main way to classify consciousness reflects this interconnectedness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, skin-consciousness & mind-consciousness. But, there’s no consciousness-consciousness.
In the quote at the top of this article, it is stated that when consciousness ends so does “name-and-form,” and vice versa. Here, name-and-form indicates the totality of our experience. ‘Name’ indicates mental phenomena and ‘form’ points to physical phenomena. A rough equivalent to ‘name-and-form is the modern term psycho-physical. What this statement is saying, then, is that without psycho-physical stimuli, there is no consciousness. Buddhism teaches that consciousness is a dependent faculty or process. Indeed, the human condition is generally described by Buddha as a set of interdependent processes as opposed to a being in a universe. The claim of Buddhism is that if we practice mindfulness & meditation to their conclusion this truth can be experienced.
So, what is Buddha’s response to those claims that consciousness or Self is the ultimate truth of our being? Essentially it is to deny it, but rather than through belief or dogma, it is to actually look & see that this claim about consciousness is in error. Consciousness is a natural process which is best described using the three characteristics of existence as taught by Buddha: it is impermanent (anicca), imperfect (dukkha) & impersonal (anatta). Moreover, as a natural process, consciousness is the universe being aware of itself through this human form. There’s nobody separate & eternal hiding somewhere in this body, nor is there a cosmic consciousness that contains experience; consciousness arises in the reaction between mind (‘name’) & world (‘form’). And if perfectly understood, release from suffering is achieved, which is nirvana, the ‘blowing-out’ of the delusion of a self.