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One major differing point between Hinduism and Buddhism is the understanding of the self. Buddhist reject the Brahminical notion of an eternal, non-material soul substance that is distinct from the mind, body and sense organs. How then, is consciousness explained? Acts of cognition must occur from a cogniser, a subject that knows, because consciousness does not belong to the body or the mind. Could it not be therefore inferred that this cogniser exists as the self - a non-material soul? How can Buddhism explain consciousness?

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10 Answers 10

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Acts of cognition do not require a "cogniser, a subject" that knows (apart from the mind itself), because consciousness belongs to the body & mind.

The original question contains an implicit assumption that is invalid.

Cognition results from consciousness; just as a mirror reflects without a self.

Buddhism explains there are five aggregates (khandha) that compose a human life. SN 22.81 explains the idea of 'self' is ignorantly created by the 'sankhara khandha' (mental forming aggregate) and not the 'vinnana khandha' ('consciousness aggregate'). SN 22.59 clearly states each aggregate is 'not-self'. The sankhara created 'self' is a temporary product of ignorance (SN 22.81) & suffering (SN 5.10).

Despite ideas contained in later-day Buddhism about 'relinking' or 'stream of consciousness', the Pali suttas report the Buddha taught there can be no arising of consciousness without sense organs (MN 38), without other aggregates (SN 22.53) and without a mind-body (SN 12.67).

Also, the suttas do not explain a 'cause' ('hetu') of consciousness, i.e., the parts or sub-elements that create consciousness (similar to how water, clay & pain are the parts used to make a cup or how ignorance, craving & attachment mix together to create suffering). The suttas only state consciousness has a requisite 'condition' ('paccaya'), which is the mind-body ('nama-rupa') & sense bases ('salayatana').

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Remember the Buddha refuses to answer "Is there a self?" and "Is there no self?". He frequently points out things which are not self which is in line with his teaching "sabbe sankhara annata" (All compounded things are not-self).

What you experience as consciousness is not-self because you cannot control it which is explained in the annata-lankana sutta

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: 'Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.' And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: 'Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus

Consciousness is also impermanent. You can theorize all you want about whether consciousness is a self but if you attach to the way your consciousness is then you will suffer. When you go to sleep your consciousness stops, that is a sign of impermanence. When you drink a lot of alcohol you can fade in an out of consciousness, your consciousness is hazy, if you were attached to your consciousness being a specific way then when you drink you'll suffer.

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In Buddhism, a being is subdivided into five aggregates.

Rupa(Body/Form)

1. Rupa - Materiality(earth element, water element, fire element, air element etc.) 

Nama(Mind)

 2. Vedana  - Feeling(pleasant, unpleasant, neutral)
 3. Sanna - Perception(of form, of sound, of smell etc.)
 4. Sankhara - Mental Formation(greed, anger, delusion, love, kindness etc.)
 5. Vinnana - Consciousness(eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness etc.)

'Consciousness' here means the bare awareness. Awareness is a caused phenomenon just like the rest of the five aggregates. It is not under your domain.

ex: when you open your eyes, you cannot prevent from being aware of form. If you close your eyes or if there's no light, you cannot make eye-consciousness to arise. If you can control awareness you should be able to be aware of only pleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes etc. But you can't.

"Acts of cognition must occur from a cogniser"

Not! That is an assumption one makes due to paying unwise attention(Ayoniso Manasikhara) to experiences. When congnising happens, it should be noted in the most unadulterated form. It is simply 'cognising'.

"I am cognizing" is a fabrication or a perverted thought. It does not reflect reality.

According to Buddhism there are 4 such false views of 'self'.

  1. Owner
  2. Dweller
  3. Doer
  4. Experiencer

'Consciousness' is merely a momentary mental phenomenon that arises due to causes and performs the task of being aware. Nothing more, nothing less!

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One way to view consciousness is e.g. as described in this Wikipedia article: Vijñāna.

My paraphrase is there are three things for each of the six senses:

  • An internal sense-organ (e.g. "ear")
  • External sense-objects (e.g. a "sound")
  • Corresponding sense-consciousness

There's something translated as "contact", if and when all three touch (e.g. if an "ear" and a "sound" contact each other, together with "auditory consciousness").

I suppose you can theorize that any of these three might (or might not) exist independently of such contact: e.g. maybe a sound-object exists even where there isn't an ear, or an ear without a sound, or ear-and-sound without consciousness, or consciousness without ear-and/or-sound, etc.

Anyway there's "contact" when all three coincide. Contact is something with arises-and-dissolves.

I say "six senses" because I think that "idea and mind" are viewed as a sixth "sense": i.e. the mind perceives an idea (or series of ideas), in a similar way to the eye perceiving a sight (or series of sights).

So, given those definitions ... is such consciousness (i.e. sense-consciousness) "me", is it worth viewing it as self or as a non-material "soul"? Would you say for example, "there's a sight, and there's an eye seeing it, there's contact/consciousness of seeing it, the object being seen has the form and name of (i.e. it is, and it is called) "a tree" for example, or "a car", or whatever the external object is?

Is such consciousness "eternal", in your opinion? And would viewing consciousness as "self" lead to liberation and/or realization?

Buddhism argues that views of self (i.e. seeing anything as "me") leads to a "thicket of views" and other problems -- for example, quoting from the Alagaddupama Sutta

  1. "You may well accept, monks, the assumption of a self-theory[27] from the acceptance of which there would not arise sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. (But) do you see, monks, any such assumption of a self-theory?" — "No, Lord." — "Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such assumption of a self-theory from the acceptance of which there would not arise sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair."

My paraphrase of that is, "You're welcome to have a view about the self from which sorrow doesn't arise ... but do you see any such view? Because your answer is 'no', because you don't see such a view (i.e. a view of self from which sorrow doesn't arise) then don't assume such views (don't assume views of self from which sorrows do arise).

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In the teaching of the Buddha consciousness and mind aren't strictly distingushed, mind (mano) is subsumed under consciousness (vinnana) which constitutes one of 5 aggregates (khandhas, processes which comprise the entire human experience)

An act of cognition is performed by consciousness being conditioned by contact (phassa) of the 5 senses with the phenomena or of the mind with ideas. There's no necessity in existence of a permanent independent entity for the act of cognition.

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This is how consciousness happens in Buddha's teachings.

Seeing

  1. There is object to see
  2. Eye

When Eye and object meet, consciousness of seeing happens. This moment is very short and consciousness of seeing is stop being exist and replace by memorize. After memorization is done, judging happens whether the object seen is good or not. After judging, deciding happens whether the seer likes the object seen or dislikes.

From this sequence, the moment of consciousness of seeing is very short not even last for a second. If you are looking for notion of an eternal, non-material soul substance that is distinct from the mind, body and sense organs in that sequence, you will find none because it does not even exist. For example, there are few people who is blind at birth. The consciousness of seeing will never happen for him/her.

The sequence of mind for Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, Touching, Thinking follows the same way as Seeing does. In Buddhist literature this is called Law of sequence of mind and it is constant and not mutable by any means. You cannot find "self-ness" in this sequences what you everyday have. Collectively, you can say "I see", "You see", "He/she see", but upon disintegration to details level, you cannot find the idea of "self" called Atta which is your own, controllable by you or which is own by the creator, controllable by creator. Because of this pure sequence of mind, you cannot find the sense of cogniser in anywhere.

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Consider this.

Without thinking or thoughts, there is no thinker. Without experiencing or experiences, there is no experiencer. Without an object, there is no subject.

These things are like 2 sides of a coin. The subject/consciousness cannot stand alone. "Who hears/sees?" is not a valid question based on a wrong assumption. A valid question would be "How does hearing/seeing occur?". All processes without an inner core.

Quote:

in many ways I have said of dependently co-arisen consciousness, 'Apart from a requisite condition, there is no coming-into-play of consciousness.'

"Consciousness, monks, is classified simply by the requisite condition in dependence on which it arises. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the eye & forms is classified simply as eye-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the ear & sounds is classified simply as ear-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the nose & aromas is classified simply as nose-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the tongue & flavors is classified simply as tongue-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the body & tactile sensations is classified simply as body-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the intellect & ideas is classified simply as intellect-consciousness.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html

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Acts of cognition must occur from a cogniser

Really? The shining of the sun is happening naturally without the need for a "shiner"

Where does cognizing happen?

Or even better, if you drink a cup of tea, where is the drinker?

Is the drinker in the hand?
In the tea?
In the cup?

Buddha Shakyamuni taught that there is no independent, lasting self, which is what selflessness alludes to from the perspective of pure wisdom.

The fact is, even a single action by a single person requires the rest of the universe to come into alignment at all.

Now, when coming to consider our very personal and intimate experience of the world, we find that we all have proclivities, patterns, and pathways or courses through life that are distinct and fairly individual. However, all beings wish for freedom from pain and discomfort, and yearn for bliss and happiness, we all just go about it in ways that may be contrary to our goals, and the Buddha taught true causes, true effects, true pathways to where we want to go. One of the contemplations taught by the Buddha was the contemplation of selflessness.

Without faith, it is not possible (in my limited perspective and ignoramus opinion) to realize selflessness. With doubt we can sharpen our perception and acumen to a degree, but when one sits down to try and realize truths that were illuminated by the Lion of Speech (another pet name for the Buddha), doubt is a huge obstacle.

So rather than doubt whether or not selflessness is true, we can doubt the notion of a self.

We can investigate: if there is a self, where does it dwell? Does it dwell in the body, does it dwell in the mind? Is it the same as the body? Is it the same as the mind? When your attention is focused on a sound or on a flavor or on a taste, would this experiencing be a Self? What happens when the experience dissolves or the rest of the cosmos transitions. Where did this "lasting self" go? Was it ever actually there?

We may be fooled and think selflessness means that we have no agency or power in the universe, but it is precisely because identity is not a static thing that we can grow and make our way towards Awakening.

So consider with any phenomenon: where is its self nature. Does it perhaps come into being based on all the phenomena around it? Does this computer exist in the way we think it to, or does it arise due to the circumstances and all the parts and intentions coming together?

anatman may be translated as selflessness or identitylessness and both terms are great for meditating. If they are difficult to accept as truth or reality, then we must contemplate them over and over and ask questions. Finally, when we have faith that there is no alternative to all forms of existence exhibiting the (three) marks of existence [selflessness/identitylessness being one of the three marks] then we can sit down to meditate with great faith and inspiration and gratitude to the Buddhas.

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Without repeating everything above, I'd like to add something very simple to the discussion, amongst the many quotes from suttas and texts :-)

Consciousness is an Illusion. The assumption that one's experience of the Universe somehow necessitates "Consciousness" is not valid, since it requires an absolute.. aka. Consciousness, to make it.

It is an infinite regress, and thus must be illusory. Or.. at least.. that conclusion seems closer to Truth.

The question becomes then, if Consciousness is illusory, what the heck is going on? How are any of us even making assumptions in the first place?

And that is just what Buddhism is trying to figure out. I suppose we'll all be let in on it when it does :-)

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On some levels this entire discussion causes me sadness. I have spent decades considering just this issue and it wasn't until I stepped back and used some objectivity that I found my answer.

First, it is neither my place nor even my intent to disparage the understanding and beliefs of others. We each have our own worlds that we build and reside within and while they do affect one another I feel we should respect that others may see things in a different light than ourselves.

That said - I take solace in the views of Buddha concerning attachment. Shakyamuni Buddha understood that his views themselves may be improved upon or further expounded. Thus we see avenues of divergence such as the Theravada and Mahayana views on the anatman. There is certainly nothing to say that these are the only two views that may be taken. Far from the case actually.

I have settled upon another view taken from study of the upanishads and the dhammapada. While I agree on the 5 aggregates of existence, I differ on most views regarding the 5th skandha - consciousness. I consider the consciousness to be the self so referenced in the Katha upanishad. The chariot driver. The one which is AWARE. In fact, I believe it much more accurate and eases understanding to just call it "awareness".

Thousands of years ago we were not blessed with the scientific knowledge that we have today. We did not understand the biological basis behind many of the things that we defined such as feelings and urges and desires. With ALL of the physical stripped away we still have the "experiencer". The driver. And at that point we can identify all of the physical components so listed in the 5 aggregates - leaving only awareness.

At this point is where we find the conflict of "self". I find the eternalism view here to be the correct one for MY understanding. As proscribed in Isha the "self" is one and everywhere. But it would be, again, more accurate to merely refer to this as pure awareness. Much like collecting air in a bag and closing off the open end. Awareness that WAS everywhere and one now has a portion trapped in a vessel of limited perceptions. Whereas before it was eternal and everywhere, now a portion of it is subjected to limitations and the ravages of time. This is actually the self. And it IS an illusion. Because it's really not an individual any more than a bottle of water is different from the ocean. Once free of these constraints it may emerge back into the whole again - provided it is not colored (for lack of another word to use) with karma that keeps it from remerging into the ether.

There are many areas of confusion that arise in the definitions of words from culture to culture and century to century. One must learn not to be overly attached or bound to specific words and focus more on the machinations and ideas themselves and see how they comport with what we understand today. As our science and even philosophy and social knowledge increases we lend credence and support to many teachings of the past as well as discovering misgivings in others.Physical basis for consciousness? new studies

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