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This article offers a broad survey of the Buddhist interpretations of consciousness as an integral component of the various taxonomies of animate life, and as it evolves and functions in its karmic or mundane, and its purified or supramundane conditions. It discusses the concepts set out in the texts of Abhidharma, and their interpretation by different schools. It shows the complex and intricate discussion among Buddhist thinkers of the nature and different aspects of consciousness, and suggests that they still leave some problems unresolved.
Religions of South Asia 8.1 (2014) 53-81
ISSN (print) 1751-2689
doi:10.1558/rosa.v8i1.53 ISSN (online) 1751-2697
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014, Oce 415, The Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheeld S1 2BX.
The Buddhist Permutations of Consciousness
SOAS, University of London
London WC1H 0XG
ABSTRACT: This article oers a broad survey of the Buddhist interpretations of
consciousness as an integral component of the various taxonomies of animate life,
and as it evolves and functions in its karmic or mundane, and its puried or supra-
mundane conditions. It discusses the concepts set out in the texts of Abhidharma,
and their interpretation by dierent schools. It shows the complex and intricate
discussion among Buddhist thinkers of the nature and dierent aspects of con-
sciousness, and suggests that they still leave some problems unresolved.
KEYWORDS: bodhicitta; citta; consciousness; dharma; luminosity; nonduality; sote-
riology; taxonomy; vijñana.
The Buddhist expositions of consciousness do not follow the approaches of
medical science or psychology, but stem from the Buddhist doctrinal assump-
tions about the nature of existence, and from the Buddhist soteriological
In Buddhist doctrine, existence (saṃsāra) is permeated by impermanence
(anitya), suering (duḥkha), and insubstantiality or selessness (anātma). In
this context, the primary concern of the Buddhist teachings is to demonstrate
that consciousness is merely a stream of evanescent mental experiences, that
it is the source of suering by producing karma, and that it has no permanent
status of any kind.
In terms of soteriology, Buddhist teachings set forth the eightfold path that
leads to the cessation of suering and the attainment of emancipation, which
is immune to suering, and is epitomized by such terms as arhatship, nirvāṇa,
and enlightenment (bodhi). In this context the Buddhist teachings propound
the purication of consciousness from its existential or karmic entanglement,
which is entirely due to delements (kleśa) and ignorance (avidyā). They also
1. Tadeusz Skorupski is a retired Reader in Buddhist Studies, School of Oriental and African
Studies, University of London. His academic pursuits focus on Buddhist doctrines, litera-
ture, rituals, and iconography.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
explain how the ux of consciousness must be brought to a complete cessa-
tion and non-recurrence in phenomenal existence.
In Buddhist sources consciousness does not have one single name, and does
not include all conscious activities. Essentially, it is classed as one single entity
or element (dharma) that functions in association with its mental concomi-
tants, which inuence its behaviour and ethical qualities. Thus, the totality of
conscious experiences is split into consciousness and mental concomitants.
Among several terms in Buddhist texts denoting consciousness, three
occupy a primary position: citta, manas and vijñāna.2 It is said in the canoni-
cal texts and rearmed in the Abhidharma sources that these three terms are
synonyms (ekārtha) (e.g. SN 2.95; VM 14.82; AK 2.208). However, although they
refer to the same thing, namely consciousness, their interpretations as given
in dierent contexts and taxonomies are not the same.
The Abhidharmakośa and its commentaries state that the terms citta, manas
and vijñāna refer to the same thing, but have dierent etymologies (nirvacana):
citta accumulates (cinoti), manas thinks (manute), and vijñāna cognizes (vijānāti).
The AK explains that when citta serves as a support it is manas, and when it is
supported it is vijñāna. Then it further claries that citta accumulates whole-
some and unwholesome dharmas, and that it is accumulated (cita) by the pure
and impure elements (dhātu). When it acts as a support (āśraya) it is manas, and
when it is supported (āśrita) it is vijñānas (AK 2.208); this is explained more fully
later on.
The Pāli sources also arm the synonymy of these three terms, and explain
their etymologies in similar ways to the AK. Here we present two denitions
of citta that neatly encapsulate the Abhidhamma perception of the basic char-
acter and function of consciousness.
In its evidently cognitive process, the term citta is explained in three spe-
cic ways: as agent, instrument and activity. As agent, it cognizes (cinteti) in
the sense that it knows objects (vijānāti). As instrument, it serves as a medium
through which its concomitants (cetasika) cognize objects. As activity, it
constitutes a process of thinking or cognizing (cintana). This process of cog-
nizing is the primary characterization of citta (AAS 27; Vibhāvinī 57). In the
second description that largely reects its latent process, the term citta is
also dened in three ways. Citta is so called because it is the cause of diver-
sication (vicitta), or because it is itself diversied. Secondly, it is amassed
2. In western studies the term citta is often rendered as ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’, manas as
‘mind’, and vijñāna as ‘consciousness’. In this article I follow these renderings, but frequent-
ly retain the Sanskrit terms for the sake of clarity and precision. For a philological and
linguistic study of these three terms in the Pāli and Brahmanical sources, see Piyananda
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
or heaped up (cita) by kamma and delements, or it shelters what has been
amassed. Thirdly, citta is said to accumulate (cinoti) its own mental stream or
continuity (santāna), and to have a diversity of objects (Vibhāvinī 57, quoting
The above denitions of citta, manas and vijñāna are not comprehensive,
but are indicative of how the Abhidharma works understand their character
and function. The usage and interpretation of these three terms in dierent
taxonomies are discussed below in the section on the existential congura-
tions of consciousness.
Taking into consideration the Buddhist theories of momentariness (kṣaṇikatva),
some schools invented certain dharmas or types of consciousness to explain the
continuity of the evanescent ux of consciousness and the accumulation of
karma. In the Pāli sources, the continuity of consciousness is attributed to one
of the 14 functions of the citta called life-continuum or subliminal conscious-
ness (bhavaṅga-citta).3 The Vaibhāṣikas invented two dharmas, non-intimation
(avijñapti) (AK 1.37, 4.568, 4.578, 4.593, 4.605) and acquisition (prāpti) (AK 2.209-
20), to account for karmic dispositions and the overall cohesion of the individual
stream of consciousness. They also introduced the concept of an intermedi-
ate being (antarābhava) (AK 3.405, 3.410, 3.419, 3.423, 3.426), to serve as a link
between death and rebirth. The Mahāsāṅghikas are said to have postulated
a root-consciousness (mūlavijñāna), compared to the roots sustaining a tree
(MYS 26-28; VMS 178). Some Sautntika masters armed the existence of a
subtle consciousness (sūkṣmacitta), which passes from one existence to anoth-
er, until it discontinues upon nirvāṇa (KSP 31.59; Lamotte 1988: 608). Accord-
ing to Vasumitra, the Mahīśāsakas postulated an aggregate that endures till
the end of saṃsāra.4 The controversial Pudgalavādins asserted the existence
of a person (pudgala), which persists throughout all existences in the course
of saṃsāra. Finally the Yogācāra school postulated the store consciousness
(ālayavijñāna) as the subliminal repository of all pure and impure dharmas
(MYS 12-26).
Although the above types of consciousness are attributed varied periods
of durability, most of their proponents maintained that they are not perma-
nent but constantly evolve, and ultimately cease to exist. In spite of assert-
ing the evanescent character of consciousness, at least some of the above
3. Or in some sources bhavaṅga-viññāṇa.
saṃsārakoṭiniṣṭha-skandha, or āsaṃsārika-skandha. This sect postulated three kinds of skandhas:
momentary aggregates in the form of dharmas that arise and perish from moment to moment;
aggregates that persist for one lifetime (ekajanmāvadhi); and an aggregate that endures until
the end of saṃsāra (Bareau 1955: 187).
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
types of consciousness were criticized as being the ātman in disguise. Even
if one accepts any of the above explanations as plausible, ultimately the spe-
cic mechanism of the continuity of consciousness remains unresolved, and
is open to further speculations.
From the Buddhist perspective, human and other living beings are not en-
dowed with some permanent entity dwelling in a perishable body, but rather
are conglomerates of specic components functioning together as one whole
governed by the law of dependent origination. The Buddha and his succes-
sors devised several taxonomies of animate entities such the ve aggregates
(skandha) or the 18 elements (dhātu). In this section we survey the character
and function of consciousness as part of these two and other taxonomies.
In the group of the ve aggregates, vijñāna denotes the aggregate of con-
sciousness. The AK briey denes it as a recognition (prativijñāpti) of each
object, and as an apperception (upalabdhi) in the sense of apprehending the
object alone (vastumātra); the specic characteristic (viśeṣa) of the object is
grasped by the sensation and other concomitants (caitta) (AK 1.50). The aggre-
gate of consciousness is said to include the same six vijñānas, which are speci-
ed below among the 18 elements. Buddhaghosa says that everything that
has the characteristic of cognizing should be understood as appertaining to
the aggregate of consciousness. After this laconic characterization of this
aggregate, he states that vijñāna, citta, and manas are one in meaning, and
promptly proceeds to analyse the aggregate of consciousness into 89 cittas
(VM 14.82), which will be explained later on.
In the group of the 12 bases (āyatana), it is the mind-faculty (mana-indriya)
that denotes consciousness. In this group the manas is basically arranged as a
cognitive faculty along with the ve material sense faculties, but at the same
time it is said to include the same six vijñānas as the aggregate of conscious-
ness. Commenting on manas as one of the 12 bases, Buddhaghosa explains
that it is the bhavaṅga-citta that constitutes the manas which arises at the ini-
tial phase of the cognitive process. Later he states that if manas is classied
as wholesome, unwholesome and undetermined, it amounts to the same 89
cittas as mentioned in the previous paragraph (VM 15.3, 15.10, 15.14).
In the group of the 18 elements, consciousness is divided into seven ele-
ments: the mind-element (manodhātu), the ve sense vijñānas, and the mind-
consciousness (manovijñāna). In the context of this classication, Buddhaghosa
explains these seven kinds of consciousness in terms of their respective capaci-
ties in the process of cognition (VM 15.36, 15.37, 15.42), which is explained later
on in this paper. The AK also ascertains their respective functions in the pro-
cess of cognition, and asserts that there is no manas or manodhātu apart from
the six vijñānas. Then it explains that whenever any of the six vijñānas ceases,
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
it serves as an antecedent support of the vijñāna that immediately follows it.
Just as the sense faculties support their respective kinds of sense conscious-
ness, the vanishing vijñāna serves as the support of the subsequently arising
vijñāna. Although the six vijñānas constitute manas, and manas is not dierent
from them, it is classed as separate in order to serve as a support of the mind-
consciousness; in this way there are six supports and six vijñānas (AK 1.50-51).
According to the Pāli sources it is not the manas but the material heart-base
(hadayavatthu) that serves as the physical support for the mind-element and
for the mind-consciousness (VM 14.60, 14.78, 14.108). As we will see later the
manas or manodhātu cognizes objects, and serves as the mind-portal through
which the cognized objects are conveyed to the mind-consciousness (VM
In the context of the 22 faculties (indriya), the AK explains that the mind-
faculty (mana-indriya) has sovereignty over the process of rebirth (punar-
bhava), and over all dharmas. As evidence it quotes a canonical text, which
says that the citta (!) dominates and manipulates the world, and that all
dharmas are subject to it (AK 2.138). Similarly, Buddhaghosa explains that
the function of the mind-faculty is to exert control over the co-nascent
dhammas (VM 16.10). According to the Vibhaṅga the mind-faculty includes
the same vijñānas as the aggregate of consciousness (Vibh 220).
The Pāli Abhidhamma sources identify 81 conditioned dhammas and one
unconditioned dhamma, which are divided into four major categories: matter
(rūpa), consciousness (citta), mental concomitants (cetasika), and nibbāna. In
this conguration the consciousness is classed as one single dhamma, and all
other sentient or mental states are classed as mental concomitants number-
ing 52. Thus, we have here altogether 53 dhammas that cover all conscious or
mental states (AAS 23.76).
The Sarvāstivāda school identies 72 conditioned and three unconditioned
dharmas, divided into ve categories (AK 2.180): matter (rūpa), consciousness
(citta), concomitants associated with consciousness (caittas),5 concomitants
dissociated from consciousness (citta-viprayukta), and three unconditioned
dharmas.6 In this classication, consciousness is also classed as one single
dharma, and all other mental states are included among the 46 associated and
14 dissociated concomitants. In this conguration 61 dharmas account for all
mental states (AK 2.185, 2.209).
According to the Pāli Abhidhamma, consciousness cannot arise separately
from its mental concomitants, and conversely the concomitants cannot
5. Or citta-saṃprayukta.
6. Space (ākāśa), cessation through knowledge (pratisaṃkhyā-nirodha), and cessation without
knowledge (apratisaṃkhyā-nirodha). The disjunction from the impure (sāsrava) dharmas is
called pratisaṃkhyā-nirodha or nirvāṇa. The cessation without knowledge essentially con-
sists in the obstruction of the arising (utpāda) of the dharmas in the future. It is not gained
through the knowledge of the four noble truths, but it occurs because of the insuciency
of the causes of rebirth (pratyayavaikalya) (AK 1.19-22).
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
arise without consciousness. They always arise and cease together and have
the same object. The mental concomitants assist the consciousness in their
respective capacities. Some concomitants such as contact, sensation, percep-
tion and volition assist the consciousness in the process of cognition and in
interaction with the cognized objects. Contact and sensation are mental fac-
tors through which consciousness comes into contact and experiences the
object. Perception perceives and interprets the object. Volition is concerned
with the volitional aspect of consciousness, and its function is to accumu-
late kamma. The ethical quality of the above four concomitants is variable,
depending whether they arise in conjunction with wholesome or unwhole-
some cittas. The 12 unwholesome concomitants endow the consciousness
with ethically negative qualities; they include greed, hatred, delusion, wrong
views, and conceit. The 25 wholesome concomitants endow consciousness
with ethically positive qualities; they include non-greed, non-hatred, non-
delusion, faith and mindfulness.7
Although the Sarvāstivāda classication is dierent, it basically comprises
the same categories of mental concomitants that assist the consciousness in
the process of cognition and inuence its ethical qualities. The 14 dissoci-
ated concomitants are an innovation, and they include such factors as the
homogeneity of dierent types of living beings, the life-force, and the four
characteristics of conditioned dharmas: origination, persistence, decay and
In terms of correlations, the Abhidharma masters say that the aggregate
of consciousness is the same as the mind-faculty in the 12 bases, the mind-
element and the six consciousnesses in the 18 elements, the mind-faculty
in the 22 faculties, and the citta in the dharma classication. According to
the AK the aggregates of feeling (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā) and forma-
tion (saṃskāra), and the asaṃskṛta dharmas are included in the twelfth base
(dharmāyatana) and the twelfth element (dharmadhātu) (AK 1.50). Allowing for
minor modications the above correlations are the same in the Pāli sources
(DhS paragraphs 6 and 17; Vibh 167). In its explanation of the aggregate of
formation, the AK says that it includes all the formations (saṃskāra) except
for those that are assigned to the other aggregates, notably sensation and
perception. However, after a rened discussion it is asserted that all the asso-
ciated and dissociated concomitants must be included in the aggregate of
formation.9 In the Pāli classication into the four categories of dhammas, the
7. For a detailed exposition of the 52 cetasikas see AAS, ch. 2.
8. For a detailed exposition of the Sarvāstivāda concomitants see AK 2.185-95. Stcherbatsky
(1979: 96–107) gives a convenient listing of the Sarvāstivāda classication of dharmas.
9. The Buddha dened the aggregate of formation as six kinds of volition (cetanā): volitions
for forms, sounds and so on (SN 3.60). As this denition excludes all other formations, the
AK (1.48-49) argues that since the Buddha said that all dharmas must be known in order to
gain emancipation, the associated and disssociated concomitants must be included in this
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aggregates of sensation, perception and formation are included among the 52
concomitants (AAS 26).
Asaṅga disagrees with the Abhidharma assertion that citta, manas, and
vijñāna are the same thing, arguing that since manas and vijñāna are two dif-
ferent things, the citta must also be treated as a separate thing (MYS 15, 29).
In his system the aggregate of consciousness includes all three. He identi-
es citta with the store consciousness (ālayavijñāna), which serves as the sub-
liminal continuity of consciousness. This is said to have no starting point
(anādikālika) and to ow in an uninterrupted succession throughout all exis-
tences. It abandons the body at death, appropriates a new body at conception,
and sustains the conscious activities during the lifetime. From the perspec-
tive of karma, it is a repository of all karmic potentialities (bīja) deposited in it
by the cognitive consciousness. Conversely, by maturing these karmic poten-
tialities, the store consciousness acts as a generative cause that gives rise
to cognitive consciousness. The second component, manas, is dierentiated
into mind-element (manodhātu) and stained mind (kliṣṭa-manas). The rst is
equated with the mind-element of the AK as explained above. The second is
stained with four delements (kleśa),10 and serves as the support of the con-
tamination process (saṃkleśa) of the vijñānas. The third component, vijñāna,
is identied with the ve sense vijñānas and the manovijñāna, which Asaṅga
jointly calls the evolving or cognitive consciousness (pravṛttivijñāna). In terms
of their combined functions, manas and vijñāna essentially cognize and expe-
rience things, and discharge their karmic permutations (vāsanā) into the store
consciousness (AS 11-12; MYS 12-22, 46, 80).
The above discussion shows that when the terms citta, manas and vijñāna
are employed individually, they denote consciousness alone, but not all other
mental states which are classed as separate aggregates or elements. Thus, in
the scheme of the ve aggregates, vijñāna denotes consciousness, and sen-
sation, perception and formation are classed as separate aggregates. In the
schemes of the 12 bases, it is manas that denotes consciousness and all other
sentient factors are included in the dharma-base as its object, and in the
Abhidharma fourfold scheme the citta stands for consciousness as one dharma,
and all other mental factors are classed as its concomitants. When they are
employed in conjunction, their synonymy is rather tenuous, because they are
clearly assigned dierent functions. In the scheme of the 18 elements, the
mind-element and the six kinds of consciousness are assigned dierent func-
tions, although the AK insists that they are the same. Asaṅga asserts that citta,
manas and vijñāna are three dierent things, with three dierent functions.
He agrees with the AK that manas and vijñāna are the same, yet he assigns to
manas two specic functions. Finally, in the Pāli sources, as part of the cogni-
10. Manas is associated with the following delements: the erroneous view of personality
(satkāya-dṛṣṭi), pride of ‘I am’ (asmimāna), attachment to the self (ātmasneha), and ignorance
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tive process, manas performs the function of cognizing objects and of convey-
ing them to the mind-consciousness, as explained later on.
Although the Abhidharma sources class the citta as one single dhamma, they
distinguish a variety of cittas when they analyse consciousness in relation
to other factors, such as the three existential spheres (traidhātuka), and the
wholesome and unwholesome concomitants.
Taking into account its occurrence or non-occurrence in the three exis-
tential spheres, the Pāli sources distinguish four grades or levels (bhūmi) of
consciousness: three mundane and one supramundane. The three types of
consciousness that occur each in one of the three spheres (kāmāvacara-citta,
rūpāvacara-citta, arūpāvacara-citta) are mundane consciousness (lokiya-citta),
and the single type of consciousness that does not appertain to any of the
three spheres is supramundane (lokuttara-citta) (AAS 29-31).
Taking into account its ethical qualities (jāti) acquired under the inu-
ence of its concomitants, consciousness is also classied into four categories:
unwholesome (akusala), wholesome (kusala), undetermined (avyākata), and
supramundane (lokuttara) (VM 14.82, 14.88; AAS 29).
Consciousness is classed as unwholesome when it arises in association
with the three unwholesome roots (akusalamūla): greed, hatred, or delusion.
This type of consciousness is said to be mentally sound, ethically deled,
and productive of negative results in the Kāmāvacara. When it is associated
with the three wholesome roots (non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion), it is
wholesome; it is morally blameless and productive of pleasant results. In rela-
tion to the existential spheres, the unwholesome consciousness is mundane,
and arises only in the Kāmāvacara. The wholesome types of consciousness
are mundane or supramundane. The kammically wholesome consciousness is
mundane; it can occur in all three spheres. Wholesome consciousness that is
rened and puried from delements and kamma is supramundane; it does
not appertain to any of the three spheres (AAS 31).
The undetermined category is further subdivided into resultant (vipāka-
citta) and functional (kriyācitta) types of consciousness. The resultant types
of consciousness are classed as undetermined to distinguish them from
their causes, which are either wholesome or unwholesome. When they
occur in the existential spheres, they are mundane, and when they occur as
the fruition of the four transcendental paths, they are supramundane. The
functional types of consciousness are classed as undetermined, because
they are merely mental activities without any kammic potency. They may
occur in all three spheres.
The Abhidhamma sources identify 12 types of unwholesome conscious-
ness, which occur in association with one of the unwholesome roots, the sen-
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
sation of either mental joy or equanimity, in association or dissociation with
wrong views, and motivated by spontaneous or instigated volitions.11 Instead
of discussing all of them individually, two examples are given here to illus-
trate the above taxonomic principle. When a man is in a state of mental joy,
holds the wrong view of not perceiving evil in sense pleasures, and sponta-
neously indulges in sense pleasures, his unwholesome deed is accompanied
by mental joy, associated with wrong view, and spontaneous. When the same
man is in a state of mental indierence, does not place in the foreground of
his mind the wrong view about sense pleasures, and indulges in sense plea-
sures with some eort or by instigation, his unwholesome deed is accom-
panied by equanimity, dissociated from the wrong view, and instigated (VM
14.89-93; AAS 32-39).
The 12 unwholesome types of consciousness yield seven resultant types
of unwholesome consciousness (akusala-vipāka-citta). During the lifetime,
these seven types of resultant consciousness occur in the cognitive process
as the ve kinds of sense consciousness, the mind-element, and the mind-
consciousness (VM 14.101, 17.127). At the time of conception, they occur
as the rebirth-linking consciousness in one of the unhappy destinies (VM
17.18 0).
In the Kāmāvacara there arise eight types of wholesome consciousness.
They are associated with one of the three wholesome roots, accompanied
by either mental joy or equanimity, associated with or dissociated from cor-
rect knowledge, and assisted by spontaneous or instigated volitions. The
production of these types of consciousness is explained mainly with refer-
ence to merit-making (puṇya). Thus, when a person is happy upon seeing a
suitable item to give, holds the view that there is merit in giving, and gives
away the item without any hesitation, then his wholesome deed is accompa-
nied by mental joy, associated with the right knowledge, and spontaneous.
These eight types of wholesome consciousness are meritorious: they produce
good results and inhibit the force of delements. They arise in good ordinary
people, and in the three lower grades of trainees or noble persons (VM 14.83-
85; AAS 46-47). They do not arise in arhats and Buddhas, because they have
transcended the cycle of kamma and future rebirths.
The above eight types of wholesome consciousness yield eight resultant
types of consciousness, which occur in the cognitive series during the life-
time, and in the latent series at the time of conception as the rebirth-linking
consciousness in the happy places of the Kāmāvacara (VM 14.95-10, 17.134;
AAS 48). As stated above, they do not arise in arhats and Buddhas. However, in
their case there arise eight types of corresponding functional consciousness,
which perform their respective functions without generating any kammic
deposits (VM 14.106, 14.107-109; AAS 49).
11. Spontaneous (asaṅkhārika) volitions arise as it were habitually or naturally; instigated
(sasaṅkhārika) volitions are induced by oneself or others.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
In the Rūpāvacara there are ve types of wholesome consciousness, each
occurring in one of the ve absorptions.12 In the rst absorption, the con-
sciousness is associated with the following ve meditational factors: initial
application, sustained application, zest, happiness, and one-pointedness.
In the second absorption, the initial application is absent, and in the third
absorption, the initial application and sustained application are absent. In the
fourth absorption, the consciousness is accompanied by happiness and one-
pointedness, and in the fth it abides in equanimity and one-pointedness.
These types of wholesome consciousness can be gained and experienced by
advanced meditators who are capable of entering the absorptions (VM 14.86;
AAS 52).
In the Arūpāvacara there occur four wholesome types of consciousness,
which respectively take as their object the plane of innite space and the
three higher planes. They occur in beings reborn in these planes, and in
accomplished meditators who are capable of gaining the four formless attain-
ments (VM 10.1, 10.12, 10.16, 10.20, 10.23, 10.25, 10.32, 10.40, 10.49, 14.87; AAS
The ve types of wholesome consciousnesses of the Rūpāvacara yield
their respective types of resultant consciousness in the same sphere. These
resultant types of consciousness occur in beings reborn in this sphere as a
consequence of developing the absorptions. In an existence they occur as
the rebirth-linking, bhavaṅga and death types of consciousness (AAS 52; VM
14.103). The four types of resultant consciousness of the formless sphere
occur in the same way as in the Rūpāvacara (VM 14.104; AAS 51, 52, 60, 68).
The resultant types of consciousness of these two spheres are classed as func-
tional for the same reason as the resultant consciousness in the Kāmāvacara
(VM 14.109).
There are eight types of supramundane consciousness, which comprise
four types of wholesome consciousness and four types of resultant conscious-
ness. These appertain to the process of liberation from saṃsāra, and to the
attainment of nibbāna. All eight types are expressive of the four stages of spir-
itual attainment: stream-entry, once-return, non-return, and arhatship. The
four types of wholesome consciousness constitute the four transcendental
paths called the path-consciousness (maggacitta), and the four resultant types
of consciousness constitute their fruition called the fruition-consciousness
(phalacitta). The object of these eight types of consciousness is the same,
namely nibbāna, but their functions are dierent. The function of the whole-
some types of consciousness is to eradicate specic delements and impure
mental states, and the four types of fruition-consciousness perform the func-
tion of experiencing the four corresponding degrees of liberation. The four
paths and their fruitions occur in the cognitive series of consciousness, and
12. While in the Pāli suttas there are four basic absorptions (jhāna), the Abhidhamma texts dis-
tinguish ve, by dividing the second absorption into two.
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are gained through purication from delements, and through the develop-
ment of wisdom. The dierentiation into these four paths is largely deter-
mined in relation to the levels of purication, and also to the degree and
intensity of concentration in which the consciousness is puried and rened
into these four grades (VM 14.88, 14.105; AAS 65-68, 72).
In summary, the Pāli Abhidhamma identies 89 types of consciousness:
81 mundane and eight supramundane. The majority of them, 54, occur in
the Kāmāvacara where the ux of consciousness is highly diversied. In the
higher spheres in which consciousness is concentrated and rened, there are
fewer and only wholesome cittas: 15 in the Rūpāvacara, and 12 in the high-
est sphere. The eight supramundane cittas are also classed as wholesome, but
they do not appertain to any of the three existential spheres. Finally, 21 types
of consciousness are wholesome, 12 unwholesome, 36 resultant, and 20 func-
tional (VM 14.110; AAS 51, 68).13
While the Pāli sources identify 89 types of consciousness, the Sarvāstivāda
masters identify only 12 types: four in the Kāmadhātu, three in the Rūpadhātu,
three in the Ārūpyadhātu, and two types of pure consciousness.14
The wholesome consciousness of the Kāmadhātu is accompanied by 22
concomitants: the ten universals including sensation, perception, and voli-
tion, and the ten wholesome concomitants including non-greed and non-
hatred (AK 2.195).15
The unwholesome consciousness occurs only in the Kāmadhātu, and is
of two types. The rst is associated with ignorance (avidyā), or with one of
the three erroneous views.16 In both cases the consciousness is accompanied
by the ten universal concomitants, the six major delements (kleśa) which
include carelessness (pramāda) and indolence (styāna), and by the two univer-
sally unwholesome delements: shamelessness and immodesty. The second
type is associated with one of the major delements such as greed or pride,
and with the same concomitants as the rst one (more details in AK 2.197-98).
Of the two types of undetermined consciousness in the Kāmadhātu, the
tainted-undetermined consciousness is associated with the false view of per-
sonality (satkāyadṛṣṭi) or with one of the extreme views (antagrāhadṛṣṭi): eter-
13. For the functional cittas that are not fully explained in this article, see VM 14.106-108.
14. Kāmadhātu: (1) wholesome (kuśala), (2) unwholesome (akuśala), (3) tainted-undetermined
(nivṛta-avyākṛta), (4) untainted-undetermined (anivṛta-avyākṛta). Rūpadhātu: (5) whole-
some, (6) tainted-undetermined, (7) untainted-undetermined. Ārūpyadhātu: (8) whole-
some, (9) tainted-undetermined, (10) untainted-undetermined. Pure (anāsrava): (11) trainee
(śaikṣa), (12) arhat (aśaikṣa) (AK 2.195, 2.357). These 12 cittas are further subdivided into 20
(AK 2.362).
15. All the Kāmadhātu cittas are associated with the initial application (vitarka) and the sus-
tained application (vicāra), which as such are classed among the undetermined (aniyata)
16. Namely adherence to views (dṛṣṭiparāmarśa), adherence to observances and rituals
(śīlavrata parāmarśa), and false views (mithyādṛṣṭi).
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nalism or annihilation.17 This consciousness is associated with the ten universal
concomitants and the six major delements. The untainted-undetermined
consciousness is associated with the ten universal concomitants (AK 2.195,
2.198). These two types of consciousness arise as results (vipākaja); this term
denotes the dharmas which arise as results in the mental series of living beings
The types of consciousness in the spheres above the Kāmadhātu are pro-
gressively more rened and subtle. They are associated with the wholesome
concomitants, and with a limited number of delements classed as unde-
termined (AK 2.199, 5.793). In these spheres the quality and content of con-
sciousness are determined in relation to the meditative absorptions and
The two types of consciousness appertaining to trainees and arhats are not
explained as part of the 12 types of consciousness, mainly because the mental
training and the acquisition of those grades of mental purity are explained in
ch. 6 of the AK.
This survey of the Sarvāstivāda classication of consciousness is rather
succinct, but hopefully shows that it is considerably dierent from the clas-
sication given in the Pāli sources. The basic taxonomic principles of these
two traditions are essentially the same. Consciousness and its concomitants
are classied as wholesome and unwholesome in relation to the wholesome
and unwholesome roots and to the three spheres of existence. Consciousness
itself is not classied as wholesome or unwholesome, suggesting that its nat-
ural or innate state is not ethically qualied, although this is not stated in the
consulted sources. However, the natural purity of consciousness is asserted in
Mahāyāna sources, as discussed later on.
In the Pāli sources the stream of consciousness from conception to death is
dierentiated into two interlinked series: cognitive19 and latent.20 These two
series do not evolve concurrently, but alternate in a subtle and intricate way.
Consciousness does not arise at random, but evolves in a consistent sequence,
referred to as the xed order of consciousness (cittaniyāma). It performs 14
functions (ākāra), 11 in the cognitive and three in the latent series.21 In the
17. In the Kāmadhātu the view of personality, the two extreme views, and ignorance associated
with them, are classed as undetermined, because they do not oppose the practice of good
deeds such as generosity and morality (AK 5.794).
18. For a fuller exposition of the terms vipākaja and vipākahetu see AK 1.11, 2.320, 2.327, 2.330.
19. vīthicitta ‘process-consciousness’, or cittavīthi ‘consciousness-process’.
20. vīthimuttacitta ‘process-free consciousness’.
21. The 11 functions in the cognitive series (3-13), and the three functions in the latent series
(1, 2, 14) are as follows: (1) rebirth-linking (paṭisandhi); (2) bhavaṅga; (3) adverting to an ob-
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
cognitive series, its functions are cognizing, experiencing, and responding to
the encountered world of objects and ideas. In the latent series its functions
are rebirth-linking, life-continuum, and death. It is during these two series
that the 89 types of consciousness occur in specic circumstances and dier-
ent congurations.
The 11 functions of the cognitive series constitute one single process of
perception and reactive interaction with the cognized object. It is during this
process of sensorial and mental experiences that the karmically predisposed
consciousness is prone to exhibit volitional responses that yield wholesome
or unwholesome actions.
To account for the momentary ow of existence, the Abhidhamma mas-
ters postulate that one moment of material phenomena is 17 times longer
than one mental moment. It is explained that during one moment of mate-
rial impingement on any of the ve sense organs, one sense perception is
executed in 17 mind moments. It is further explained that the bhavaṅga-citta
is the factor from which the cognitive series arises, and into which it lapses
once the activity of perception is completed.
There are basically seven functions during one single cognition of material
objects. However, the Abhidhamma masters list 11, by assigning specic func-
tions to each of the ve kinds of sense consciousness.
When a material object impinges on one of the ve sense organs, there
occurs and vanishes one mind moment characterized as the past bhavaṅga.
Then the bhavaṅga vibrates for two moments called bhavaṅga-vibration and
bhavaṅga-interruption. After that the cognitive process arises and evolves in
the following seven phases. (1) Once the bhavaṅga is interrupted, the mind-
element directs itself towards the impinging object for one moment, and
performs the function called adverting: it directs its attention towards the
impinging object.22 (2) In the fth moment, the respective sense conscious-
ness arises and intercepts the impinging object. It is a rudimentary sensa-
tion of the object with no conceptual content. When the object is undesirable,
then this consciousness, as well as the receiving, investigating and register-
ing types of consciousness, is unwholesome, and when the object is desirable
they are wholesome. (3) The mind-element arises and receives the object. In
this phase the object enters the focus of the mind-element and is distinctly
recognized. (4) The mind-consciousness arises without the root-cause (non-
greed), and investigates the object received by the mind-element. (5) During
the eighth moment, the functional mind-consciousness without the root-
cause determines the object. (6) In the sixth phase seven consecutive impul-
ject (āvajjana); (4-8) sensorial seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching; (9-11) receiving
(sampaṭicchana), investigating (santīraṇa), and determing (votthapana) the object; (12) seven
impulsions (javana) that sweep over and apprehend the object; (13) registration of the ob-
ject (tadārammaṇa); (14) death-consciousness (cuti) (AAS 122-29; VM 14.114-24).
22. When an immaterial object presents itself to the mind-element, it is the mind-consciousness
that performs the function of adverting.
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sions occur, apprehending the object. These seven impulsions, all of the same
kind, sweep over the object in a way of apprehending it. The term impulsion
(javana) denotes all types of consciousness that can arise in this phase. From
the ethical perspective, this phase is the most critical, because it is here that all
wholesome, unwholesome, functional and path cittas arise (VM 14.121). In the
case of ordinary people, these impulsions are either wholesome or unwhole-
some, and in the case of arhats they are undetermined. While the ethical
quality of the sense consciousness and some types of resultant consciousness
are governed by the quality of the experienced objects, the impulsions are not
governed by the quality of the objects. When desirable or undesirable objects
come into focus, the ethical quality of the impulsions varies with the dispo-
sitions of the perceiving agent. Upon perceiving a desirable or undesirable
object, some people produce wholesome states of consciousness and some
unwholesome. This wholesome or unwholesome reaction to the experienced
object is largely determined by the relevant concomitants accompanying the
consciousness. From the perspective of kamma, it is good or bad kamma that
inuences the response. (7) Once the phase of the impulsions is completed,
the apprehended object is duly registered in two mind moments, and the cog-
nitive process lapses into the bhavaṅga. (VM 14.115-22; AAS 122-25, 149-67).
The latent series of consciousness is also explained in relation to the exis-
tential spheres and in terms of the kammic quality of consciousness. The
spheres are not just perceived by consciousness, but are constantly repro-
duced by and correspond to the levels of consciousness. Living beings are
reborn in particular planes of existence, because in their previous lives
they have generated the kamma leading to rebirths in those planes. Thus,
ultimately the existential spheres are formed and sustained by the mental
activities of living beings. At the same time they provide the platform for con-
sciousness to persist and evolve in new personalities and circumstances. Each
sphere is connected with a particular type of rebirth-linking consciousness,
which occurs as bhavaṅga during the lifetime and as death-consciousness at
the moment of dying. The kamma that matures in any of the spheres gener-
ates the rebirth consciousness that arises in the same sphere. It is essentially
the kamma potentiality that determines the place where the consciousness
arises at conception (AAS 188).
In connection with the latent process of consciousness, the Pāli sources
distinguish four planes (bhūmi) of rebirth: one unhappy, and three happy.23
In relation to these four planes, they distinguish four major types of rebirth-
linking consciousness, further subdivided into 19. In the case of rebirths in
the unhappy plane, the unwholesome types of resultant consciousness occur
as the rebirth-linking consciousness at the moment of descent into this plane.
23. (1) the unhappy plane (apāya) includes four realms: hell, animal, tormented spirits (peta),
titans (asura) (AAS 189-90); the three happy planes are (2) humans and the six classes of the
kāmadevas, and (3-4) the two higher spheres (AAS 191-92).
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Once its function is completed, this consciousness lapses into the bhavaṅga,
and becomes the death-consciousness at the end of an existence in this plane
(AAS 194; VM 14.113). The eight resultant types of wholesome consciousness
occur as eight types of rebirth-linking consciousness in the happy plane of
the Kāmāvacara (AAS 195; VM 14.111).24 Similarly the nine types of resultant
consciousness of the two higher spheres arise as the rebirth-linking, bhavaṅga
and death consciousness (AAS 197-99; VM 14.112).25
The function of the rebirth-linking consciousness is to connect the new
existence with the past existence. Once this is accomplished at the moment
of conception, it is followed by the bhavaṅga consciousness, which preserves
the continuity of the individual existence. The bhavaṅga arises and disap-
pears every moment during lifetime when the cognitive process is inopera-
tive, and in the states of dreamless sleep. When the cognitive process arises,
the bhavaṅga is arrested, and when the cognitive process is completed, the
bhavaṅga supervenes and ows until the next cognitive process intervenes
(AAS 122-23, 228; VM 14.114).26
The death-consciousness is said to arise and pass away in the manner of
dying; it abandons the body and departs. It is explained that at the moment of
death, the consciousness is faced with a particular kind of powerful kamma, a
sign of kamma, or a sign of a particular destiny. The powerful kamma consists
of a good or bad deed accomplished during the lifetime. The sign of kamma
consists of an object or a token reminiscent of a good or bad deed, and the
sign of destiny appears as a vision indicative of a particular destiny. Any of
these three objects appears in the impulsion phase of the cognitive process.
The death consciousness grasps this object and passes away. Once the dying
stage is completed, the rebirth-linking consciousness arises and becomes
established in a new existence, either in the same or a dierent destiny. These
three types of consciousness are essentially the same, and the rebirth-linking
and bhavaṅga take the same object which appears at the moment of dying
(AAS 219-24; VM 14.123, 17.163-64).
In the Pāli sources the exposition of the dynamic ow of consciousness is
ingenious, coherent and intricate. However, the Theravāda theory of percep-
tion was criticized and rejected by other schools, particularly the assertion
that the duration of one moment of matter is equal to 17 mind moments.
In the AK the exposition of the dynamics of consciousness is complex, and
is given as part of the analysis of the ve aggregates and other taxonomies, in
particular the 18 elements. Consciousness is not dierentiated into cognitive
and latent series as in the Pāli sources, but is mostly treated as one coherent
and integrated ow of the ve aggregates as conscious experiences.
24. One additional rebirth-linking consciousness is specied in the case of those reborn as de-
formed or handicapped humans.
25. AAS 197 species one more type of rebirth-linking consciousness in the case of unconscious
beings (asañña-sattva).
26. For dierent opinions on the concept of bhavaṅga, see Gethin (1994: 11–35).
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The stream of consciousness of individual beings is referred to as ‘one’s
own stream’ (sva-saṃtāna), as distinct from the streams of consciousness of
other beings (para-saṃtati). The rst six bases (āyatana) are identied as the
basic nucleus of a living being (maula-sattva-dravya), and are classed as inter-
nal or personal (ādhyatmika). The rst six elements (dhātu) and the six types
of consciousness are similarly classed as personal. The remaining bases and
elements are external. To clarify the term ‘personal’, it is explained that since
consciousness (citta) is the support of personal conceit (ahaṃkāra), it is meta-
phorically called ātman (AK 1.57, 1.104-105).
The Vaibhāṣikas postulate the existence of the dharmas called acquisi-
tion (prāpti) and non-acquisition (aprāpti), which as it were keep the record
of all the dharmas that are included or excluded from the individual stream
of consciousness, maintaining its distinctive content and identity.27 They also
hold that the stream of consciousness evolves through four consecutive exis-
tences: death, intermediate state, birth or conception, and lifetime (AK 3.405).
The Vaibhāṣika inventions of the above dharmas and the intermediate state
were disputed and rejected by some of the other schools.
As the AK’s exposition of the ux of consciousness (saṃtāna) is complex
and tenuous, we sketch here only the basic patterns.
In terms of their mutual interaction (kāritva-bhajana), the senses, objects,
and vijñānas perform the following activities. The eye and the other senses
perform the activities of seeing, hearing and so on. The activity of the
objects is to appear as objects of the respective vijñānas, and the activity of
the vijñānas is to cognize (vijñātṛtva) (AK 1.108).
The internal co-ordination between the citta and its concomitants (caitta)
is explained as follows. They have supports (sāśraya), namely the sense facul-
ties. They have a leaning (sālambana) because they grasp their object (viṣaya).
They have aspects (sākāra), because they grasp the aspects of the same object.
Finally they are associated in ve identical ways (samatāprakāra), as explained
In terms of their respective functions, consciousness (vijñāna) cognizes
(vijānāti) objects (vastu), for instance blue or yellow. The precise meaning is
‘it apprehends’ (upalabhate). The sensation (vedanā) experiences that object,
the perception (saṃjñā) determines it (paricchinatti), and the volition (cetanā)
assesses it (abhisaṃskaroti). Alternatively, consciousness grasps the object’s
general form (sāmānyarūpa), sensation experiences its distinctive character
(viśeṣarūpa), and perception grasps its particular character (paricchedyatārūpa).
As for their ve identical associations, they are associated in terms of the
same support, object, aspect, time, and stu. Whichever support gives rise
to consciousness (citta), also gives rise to the sensation and the other con-
comitants. The same is said about their object. When the consciousness
(citta) assumes its aspect of the blue (nīlākāra), the concomitants assume their
27. For more details on prāpti see AK 2.210-26.
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aspects of the same blue. They always arise at the same time but never at dis-
cordant times. As for their stu, it simply means that there arises only one
single kind of consciousness (cittadravya), and a single kind of each concomi-
tant: one citta but not two or three, one sensation but not two or three, and so
forth (AK 2.208-209).
As one of the concomitants, contact (sparśa) is described as touch (spṛṣṭi) or
collision (saṃnipāta) between the sense faculty, the object, and the correspond-
ing vijñāna. As a concomitant, sensation is classed as being threefold: pleasant,
unpleasant and impartial. As one of the aggregates, it is threefold as above, or
sixfold. The six sensations arise from the contact (saṃsparśaja) between the
ve sense organs, the manas, and their corresponding objects. They are said to
be the experience or enjoyment (anubhūti, upabhoga) of consciousness (citta)
or person (pudgala) (AK 1.48). In the group of the 22 faculties, we nd ve sen-
sations: bodily pleasure, bodily pain, mental contentment, mental dissatisfac-
tion, and impartiality (AK 1.132).28 As a concomitant, perception is said to grasp
the mark (nimitta) or distinct character (viśeṣarūpa) of an object. As an aggre-
gate it is said to grasp the mark or distinctive condition (avasthāviśeṣa) of an
object, such as blue, long, man, friend, happy, or painful (AK 1.48). As a con-
comitant, volition is described as mental action (manaskarma), and as trem-
bling of consciousness (cittapraspanda) (AK 2.187).
How are the external objects perceived or cognized? The Vaibhāṣikas say
that the eye, not the eye consciousness, sees shapes and colours, although
they concede that the eye sees when it is associated with the eye conscious-
ness. They argue that if the eye consciousness sees the external objects, then
since it cannot be obstructed by physical objects, it should also see objects
hidden behind other objects. The same is said about the other four senses.
Their opponents disagree, and postulate that it is the eye consciousness that
perceives visible objects; a protracted debate ensues (AK 1.113-17).
The Vaibhāṣikas assert that the eye sees, the ear hears and so on, and
the manas discerns (vijānāti) (AK 1.118). They further assert that the eye,
ear and manas perceive their objects, but without actually ‘attaining’ them
(aprāptaviṣaya). The eye sees objects from a distance, and the ear hears sounds
from a distance. The manas is incapable of attaining its objects because it is
immaterial (arūpitva). The three remaining senses come into direct contact
with their objects (AK 1.119-20).
The ve sense consciousnesses and their corresponding objects (viṣaya)
are present simultaneously (vartamāna). The supports (āśraya) of these con-
sciousnesses are also co-extensive (sahaja) with them, and they are of two
kinds: the ve senses and manas. Thus the ve sense consciousnesses have
two supports. The mind-consciousness is supported only by the past mind-
28. It is explained elsewhere that as triple, pleasant sensation induces greed (rāga), unpleasant
sensation induces hatred (pratigha), and impartial sensation induces ignorance (avidyā) (AK
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element (manodhātu) as discussed above. Its objects can be past, present or
future (AK 1.124-25).
The ve sense consciousnesses are supported by their respective senses
but not by their objects. This is because they become modied (vikārin) in
conformity with the modications of the senses. When the senses are alert
or feeble, in pain or in comfort, their corresponding consciousnesses duly
become alert or feeble, and are associated with painful or pleasant sensations.
The sense consciousnesses are named after the senses, precisely because they
are sustained by them. The senses and their corresponding consciousnesses
have a unique character (asādhāraṇatva), being included in the streams of
consciousness of individual beings. By contrast the external forms and other
objects have a common character, because they can be also perceived by other
beings (AK 1.126-27).
Out of the 18 elements (dhātu) the ve external elements (form, sound etc.)
are cognized (vijñeya) by two types of consciousness (vijñāna). They are expe-
rienced (anubhāva) by their respective sense consciousnesses, and cognized
by the mind-consciousness (manovijñāna). The remaining 13 elements are
not objects of the ve sense consciousnesses, and are cognized solely by the
mind-consciousness (AK 1.131-32).
This does not cover the full treatment of consciousness as given in the
AK. However, it does endeavour to encapsulate the major aspects of the
Sarvāstivāda analysis of the dynamics of consciousness, which is consider-
ably dierent from that of the Pāli sources.
While the Abhidharma sources largely analysed the character of conscious-
ness in terms of its ethical qualities, the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna pay more
attention to the inner propensities of consciousness. In its innate condition,
consciousness is understood as being pure or luminous irrespective of the
ethical qualities that it may acquire. Considered on its own, it abides in a state
of non-duality, but when it is deled, it arises and functions in the form of
duality. Its appearance in a dual form is attributed to ignorance (avidyā) as the
main source of delement and misconceptions. The ultimate goal is not just
the purication of consciousness from delements, but also the attainment
of omniscience by awakening its pristine potentialities. Doctrinally, omni-
science is largely understood as the elimination of all conceptual polarities,
and the attainment of the buddha-attributes (buddhadharma) in order to ben-
et all living beings.
We begin our exploration of the innate character of consciousness with a
canonical passage which has decisively inuenced the Mahāyāna interpreta-
tions of consciousness.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
Monks, this mind is naturally luminous (prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta), but it is contam-
inated by adventitious delements. Monks, this mind is naturally luminous, and it
is released from adventitious delements.
(Aṅguttara Nikāya 1.10)
Although this statement of the Buddha is recorded in the canonical sources,
the Abhidharma masters did not seem to pay much attention to it. There is
just one isolated passage in the Atthasālinī which says that the mind is pure
and clear (paṇḍara) with reference to the bhavaṅga, and that even when it is
unwholesome it is called clear, because it arises from the bhavaṅga, just as a
tributary of the Ganges is like the Ganges (AtthaS 140). However, apart from
this identication with the bhavaṅga, one does not nd in the Abhidharma
works any theoretical formulations. By contrast the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna
theories of consciousness are largely based on the armation of its natural
luminosity. Let us see some examples how the Mahāyāna texts interpret the
luminosity of the mind.
In the Pañcaviṃśati (121-22) the mind’s luminosity is explained as follows:
This mind (citta) is no-mind (acitta), because its natural character is luminous.
What is this state of the mind’s luminosity (prabhāsvaratā)? When the mind is
neither associated with nor dissociated from greed, hatred, delusion, proclivi-
ties (anuśaya), fetters (saṃyojana), or false views (dṛṣṭi), then this constitutes its
luminosity. Does the mind exist as no-mind? In the state of no-mind (acittatā),
the states of existence (astitā) or non-existence (nāstitā) can be neither found
nor established… What is this state of no-mind? The state of no-mind, which is
immutable (avikāra) and undierentiated (avikalpa), constitutes the ultimate real-
ity (dharmatā) of all dharmas. Such is the state of no-mind. Just as the mind is
immutable and undierentiated, in the same way the ve aggregates, the twelve
bases, the eighteen elements, the dependent origination, the six perfections, the
thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment (bodhipakṣika), the attributes of the Buddha
(buddhadharma), and the supreme and perfect enlightenment are immutable and
Here, the mind’s luminosity is explained not just as the mere absence of
thought, but is suggestively equated or perhaps paired with dharmatā as the
ultimate reality, and with the Buddha attributes.
In the Bhadrapāla-sūtra, consciousness is compared to the wind element
and the sun-rays. Although formless and imperceptible, the wind element
exists and manifests itself when it shakes trees or blows cold or warm air. It
carries pleasant and unpleasant fragrances, but remains stainless and form-
less. Similarly, although formless, the element of consciousness (vijñānadhātu)
accomplishes all forms and penetrates all things. Due to its power there
arise sensations and volitions, and through them the realm of phenomena
(dharmadhātu), wholesome and unwholesome. However, as such conscious-
ness is pure, and although it penetrates all things, it is not clad in them. While
29. For insightful comments on this passage see AAA 37-40.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
it operates through the sense faculties and the ve aggregates of clinging, it
is perceived as deled, but itself remains unaected by bad karma, just as the
stainless sun-rays remain undeled by any impurity.30
While the Pañcaviṃśati provides a philosophical exposition of the mind’s
luminosity, and while the Bhadrapāla-sūtra explains its purity through
metaphors, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra explicitly equates the buddha-nature
(tathāgagarbha) with the store consciousness. It is luminous and pure, and
endowed with the 32 major marks (lakṣaṇa). It is, however, disguised in the
body of each being, like a gem wrapped in a dirty cloth. It is enveloped by
the aggregates, and stained with the impurities of greed, hatred, delusion,
and false imagination (LAS 77-78). It holds within itself the cause (hetu) of
wholesome and unwholesome things, and produces all forms of existence
(janmagati). Since it is covered with latent permutations (vāsa), it is iden-
tied with the store consciousness and its retinue of seven vijñānas (LAS
According to the Yoga Tantra class, Śākyamuni Buddha as Siddhārtha
attained supreme enlightenment through visualizing his mind as a lunar disc
(candra), and through a set of ve mystical realizations (abhisaṃbodhi) (STTS
7-8). Commenting on Siddhārtha’s enlightenment, Indrabhūti provides the
following interpretation of the mind as a lunar disc:
Being luminous by nature, this mind is similar to the moon’s disc. The lunar disc
epitomies the knowledge (jñāna) that is luminous by nature. Just as the waxing
moon gradually becomes full, in the same way the mind-jewel (cittaratna), being
naturally luminous, also becomes fully perfected. Just as the moon becomes fully
visible, once it is freed from the accidental obscurations, in the same way the
mind-jewel, being pure by nature (prakṛti-pariśuddha), once separated from the
stains of delements (kleśa), appears as the perfected buddha-qualities (guṇa).
(JñS 82)
In the above texts, the mind’s natural luminosity is rmly asserted; it is not
seen as a metaphor but as its innate state, and is equated with the buddha-
nature and qualities.
The concept of bodhicitta is central to the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna theory
and practice, being essential for the realization of enlightenment. It is
the seed of buddhahood, which is brought to eorescence during the
Bodhisattva career.
In Mahāyāna sources the concept of bodhicitta incorporates pairs of com-
plementary factors, such as aspiration for enlightenment and its implemen-
30. Bhadrapālaśreṣṭīparipṛcchā-sūtra, TTP, vol. 24, 169.5.4-170.4.2. This sūtra deals mainly with the
pure and deled states of consciousness, and the process of rebirth.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
tation, emptiness and compassion, wisdom and means, and its conventional
(saṃvṛti) and absolute (paramārtha) forms.31
The above pairs are said to incorporate all the requisites that are necessary
to attain the state of buddhahood. Commenting on the rst pair, the texts
explain that the bodhicitta as an aspiration for enlightenment consists of an
intense volition (cetanā) to become a Buddha and to benet living beings. This
aspirational thought (praṇidhicitta) encapsulates the seminal cause, potenti-
ality, and outcome of enlightenment. It is the mind that arouses its pristine
potentialities and energies that are necessary to gain buddhahood. The imple-
mentation amounts to the gradual maturation of enlightenment during the
Bodhisattva career. The texts identify 22 varieties of bodhicitta. The twenty-
second bodhicitta is said to be associated with the absolute body (dharmakāya),
which reveals itself as the manifested body (nirmāṇakāya) in order to bene-
t living beings (more details in AAA 16-27; BCAP 11-13). Prajñākaramati says
that the aspirational citta is a volition in the form of a wish for buddhahood
and the benet of other beings, and that its implementation is the progress
towards buddhahood (BCAP 11-12).
In the next two pairs, the components of emptiness and wisdom denote
the perfection of wisdom, and the components of compassion and means
incorporate the other ve perfections. The texts also speak of the Bodhisat-
tva’s accumulation of merit and knowledge (puṇya-jñāna). In this congu-
ration the accumulation of merit consists in the practice of the rst ve
perfections, and the accumulation of knowledge focuses on the perfection
of wisdom. The conventional and transcendent forms of bodhicitta have
variant interpretations, but in terms of the Bodhisattva path, the conven-
tional bodhicitta accumulates merit, and the transcendent bodhicitta denotes
the ultimate insight into the state of all phenomena (Saṃvṛti; Param; Kamala;
Which type of consciousness occurs at the time of cittotpāda? According to
Vimuktisena, it is the manovijñāna that grasps all pure dharmas, and becomes
aware of the mind’s ultimate realisation (cittādhigama) (AAV 31). Asaṅga says
that cittotpāda is a volition of mighty enthusiasm, initiative, purpose, out-
come, and a double objective (dvayārtha): the supreme enlightenment and the
benet of other beings (Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra 4.1). Commenting on Asaṅga’s
statement, Haribhadra explains that cittotpāda denotes the citta grasping a
pre-eminent object in association with volition as a concomitant consisting of
zest. He further explains that it is the citta grounded in an earnest wish char-
acterized by zest for all wholesome dharmas (AAA 24).
31. In some texts the bodhicitta is said to be fourfold: all the samayas are comprised in the bod-
hicitta which is fourfold, namely bodhicitta, anuttara bodhicitta, Samantabhadra’s bodhicitta,
and vajrabodhicitta (Dīpaṅkaraśrījñāna’s Sarvasamayasaṃgraha, TTP, vol. 81, 211.3). The ben-
et of the monastic vows is said to be arhatship, that of bodhicitta the attainment of bud-
dhahood, and that of the vidyādhara vow the attainment of buddhahood in this very life
(Vibhūticandra, TTP, vol. 81, 215.3.6).
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
The above sources rmly stress that cittotpāda is the mind unwaveringly
set on buddhahood. When one takes into consideration the two components
of bodhicitta, they seem to broadly correspond to the cognitive and latent
aspects of consciousness. Ultimately, emptiness denotes the attainment of
enlightenment and dharmakāya, and the practice of compassion accumulates
merit for the attainment of a physical buddha-body (rūpakāya). Thus, while
the deled consciousness erroneously perceives the nature of existence and
produces karma, the bodhicitta abides in wisdom and compassion, and strives
to mature them in the form of omniscience and buddha-attributes. It is the
transcendent merit and knowledge that supplant the workings of mundane
karma and ignorance.
In the Tantras, the bodhicitta is predominantly interpreted as a mystical
experience, which consists in the union or blending (saṃyoga) of wisdom
and means. In these texts, the pair of wisdom and means is identied with a
number of specically tantric pairs such as vajra and bell, or male and female.
The bodhicitta is also described as the melting of the male and female deities,
or it is hypostasized in the form of Vajrasattva as the supreme deity epito-
mizing ultimate reality. The consciousness as bodhicitta is also identied with
the innate forces circulating within the body, such as psychic channels (nāḍī)
and centres (cakra), or as semen (bindu). The tantras emphasize the yogic
experience of bodhicitta within the body. Its ultimate character is described
as the inexpressible reality, beginningless and endless, neither existent nor
non-existent, non-substantial like emptiness and space, as the essence of the
Tathāgatas or Samantabhadra.32 Since all dharmas are non-substantial and
identical, the bodhicitta is unborn, devoid of existence, nondual, vajra, lumi-
nosity, enlightenment, and Vajrasattva (Prajñ 2.29, 4.17).33
The above discussion of bodhicitta shows how the innate energies and
potentialities of consciousness can be aroused and directed towards the
attainment of the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna forms of enlightenment.
In Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna the concept of nonduality is largely rooted in doc-
trinal assumptions which assert that all discursive dierentiations into polar-
ities such as impurity and purity, subject and object, or saṃsāra and nirvāṇa
are defective, because they do not reect the true state of existence. In the
context of consciousness, its duality and nonduality are largely explained
with reference to citta and caittas, or citta, manas and vijñāna. Of the various
expositions of duality and nonduality of consciousness, we present here the
interpretation based on selected texts from Yogācāra sources.
32. For a variety of descriptions of bodhicitta see ch. 2 of GST.
33. See also Indrabhūti’s JñS, in particular pp. 82–84 where he quotes a number of sources.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
In chapter 1 of the Saṃdhinirmocana the Buddha states that all phenomena
are without duality: the conditioned phenomena are neither conditioned nor
unconditioned, and the unconditioned are neither conditioned nor uncon-
ditioned. The term conditioned is metaphoric and imaginary, an expression
of ordinary experiences or mental imaginations which do not correspond to
anything absolute; hence conditioned phenomena do not exist. The same is
said of unconditioned phenomena.
There is an inexpressible or ineable nature of phenomena (anabhilāpya-
dharmatā) about which noble persons have perfected knowledge. However,
in order to teach others about the true reality of phenomena, they have
coined the term ‘unconditioned’. Ordinary people who have no wisdom and
no vision of the ineable nature of phenomena, when they are confronted
with conditioned and unconditioned phenomena assume that such phe-
nomena exist. Relying on what they see or hear, they arm the phenomena
as real or false. By contrast, those who have wisdom and vision of the inef-
fable nature of phenomena think that the conditioned and unconditioned
phenomena do not exist; they are mental fabrications labelled as condi-
tioned and unconditioned.
The noble persons know ultimate reality (paramārtha) through intuition,
but among the profane it is the subject of speculations. Ultimate reality is
the domain without characteristics (animittagocara); it is ineable and escapes
ordinary experience. By contrast, speculations are the domain with charac-
teristics (nimittagocara), and appertain to the domains of speech and of ordi-
nary experience.
Having explained that the terms ‘conditioned’ and ‘unconditioned’ are
mental constructs, and demonstrated the dierence between ultimate reality
and speculations, the Buddha proceeds to show that the identity or distinc-
tion between ultimate reality and mental formations (saṃskāra) is tenuous
and inadmissible.
Since its character is profound, ultimate reality transcends identity with
mental formations or dierence from them. The arguments for their identity
or dierence are erroneous, because it is impossible to understand and real-
ize ultimate reality. If ultimate reality and mental formations were identical,
then the profane would all perceive the truth and gain nirvāṇa; but they do
not. If they were dierent, then the truth seekers would not become sepa-
rated from the character of mental formations, from the bonds of that charac-
ter, and from the bonds of negative dispositions (dauṣṭhulya). Thus they would
not become enlightened; yet they do discard and eliminate these bonds,
and gain nirvāṇa and enlightenment. Again, if absolute reality and mental
formations were identical, absolute reality would be classed among dele-
ments together with the formations. If they were dierent, absolute reality
would not constitute the common character of all the formations. However,
it does constitute the common character of the formations, but is not classed
among delements. Once more, if they were identical, the formations would
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
be classed as undierentiated, just as absolute reality is undierentiated in
the formations. Consequently, absolute reality and the formations are neither
identical nor dierent, and it is erroneous to assert their identity or dier-
ence (SNS 169-77).
In the above discourse, the main thrust of argumentation is to demonstrate
that the treatment of phenomena in terms of dualities, such as conditioned
and unconditioned, is awed, and that ultimate reality and mental forma-
tions cannot be considered to be identical or dierent. Their nonduality is
asserted and demonstrated as the impossibility of explaining their relation-
ship in terms of oneness and plurality. In the Yogācāra treatises, this some-
what negative strand of the Sandhinirmocana thought is recast into positive
expositions of the nonduality of consciousness, as discussed below.
In the Yogācāra sources, the nonduality of consciousness is explained as
an integral part of the expositions of deceptive ideation, the three forms or
aspects of consciousness, and the three natures. We begin with the treatment
of deceptive ideation.
It is said in the consulted sources that in the case of ordinary beings, the
deceptive ideation (abhūtaparikalpa) is synonymous with the deled stream
of consciousness (saṃtāna), and that in relation to the entire existence, it is
In terms of consciousness, the deceptive ideation includes ālayavijñāna,
manas and vijñāna. The store consciousness constitutes the subliminal aspect
of consciousness, and serves as the foundation of all karmic potentialities,
which give rise to manas and vijñāna. From the perspective of karma, the manas
is called the stained mind (kliṣṭamanas), because it perceives the store con-
sciousness as the ātman.34 From the perspective of perception it is the mind-
element (manodhātu), which serves as the support of the six vijñānas. The six
vijñānas essentially cognise the empirical world, and jointly with manas they
produce karmic propensities (vāsanā).
In terms of its existential permutations, the deceptive ideation is said to
encompass the three natures (trisvabhāva): perfected (pariniṣpanna), depen-
dent (paratantra), and imagined (parikalpita). In this conguration the decep-
tive ideation corresponds to the dependent nature. The perfected stands for
emptiness, nirvāṇa, and the dharma-nature of consciousness (cittadharmatā).
The dependent basically denotes the stained manas as a living entity obscured
by ignorance and controlled by the law of dependent origination. The imag-
ined denotes the empirical world which is illusory. Duality is the deceptive
ideation that appears in the form of subject and object. The dependent is the
egocentric subject, and the imagined is its unreal and imaginary object. This
apparent duality does not exist, but emptiness exists in the deceptive ide-
34. Manas denotes the sense of selfhood and is associated with four delements: view of self
(ātmadṛṣṭi), delusion of self (ātmamoha), pride of self (ātmamāna), and attachment to self
(ātmasneha) (MYS 16; VMS 225). See footnote 9.
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ation, and conversely the deceptive ideation exists in emptiness. In some pas-
sages it is said that the deceptive ideation corresponds to the deled process
(saṃkleśa) and saṃsāra, and emptiness to the purication process (vyavadāna)
and nirvāṇa. In some other passages, it is said that the dependent in its condi-
tioned state is the imagined or saṃsāra, and in its unconditioned state is the
perfected or nirvāṇa (MYS 87-125; MVB ch. 1; VMS 90, 225, 514-33).
According to one text, the nonduality of the three natures consists in the
expulsion of the imagined from the dependent, and the infusion of the depen-
dent into the perfected. Their nonduality is expounded with reference to the
ultimate reality itself (paramārtha), which is said to be nondual (advaya) in
ve ways. In terms of existence and non-existence, it is not existent from the
perspective of the dependent and the imagined natures, and it is not non-
existent from the perspective of the perfected nature. In terms of oneness
(ekatva) and plurality (nānātva), it is not one because there is no oneness of the
perfected with the dependent and the imagined, and it is not varied because
the perfected is not dierent from the other two. In terms of production and
cessation, it is neither produced nor destroyed, because the absolute realm
(dharmadhātu) has no characteristic of creativity (anabhisaṃskṛtatva). It is nei-
ther increased nor decreased, because it remains as it is amidst the production
and cessation of delement and purication. Finally, it does not become puri-
ed, because of its naturally stainless nature (prakṛty-asaṃkliṣṭatva), and yet
it is not entirely without purication, because it is released (vigama) from the
adventitious delements (Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra 6.1 and the commentary).
The realization of nonduality is chiey explained as the transmutation or
transformation of the foundation of consciousness (āśrayaparāvṛtti), namely
of the store consciousness. This transmutation of consciousness occurs in the
dependent nature; it essentially consists of the expulsion of its deled pro-
cess (saṃkleśa) and transformation into its puried state (vyavadāna) (MYS 259-
261, 268). All conditioned dharmas are the dependent nature, and the store
consciousness is the foundation or support of both the deled and undeled
dharmas, which respectively correspond to the imagined and perfected natures.
The transmutation of the support consists of a double operation: the expulsion
of the imagined and the acquisition of the perfected. It is through the assiduous
repetition of non-conceptual knowledge (nirvikalpaka-jñāna) that one removes
the wickedness (dauṣṭhulya) of the two obstacles35 from the root consciousness
(mūlavijñāna). Thus it is non-conceptual knowledge that transmutes the foun-
dation of consciousness through the removal of the imagined which is in the
dependent, and through the acquisition of the perfected which is also in the
dependent. Through the removal of the obstacles of delements, one acquires
mahāparinirvāṇa, and through the elimination of the obstacles to knowledge,
one realizes supreme enlightenment (mahābodhi) (VMS 610-12, 661-67).
35. The obstacle of delements (kleśāvaraṇa), and the obstacle to knowledge (jñeyāvaraṇa). VMS
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The nonduality of consciousness is also reected and integrated into
the exposition of nonduality as one of the attributes of the absolute body
(dharmakāya). This nonduality is explained in three ways: with reference to
existence, conditionality, and diversity. The absolute body is not existent
because the dharmas do not exist, and it is not non-existent, because empti-
ness as the ultimate reality does exist. It is not conditioned because it is not
produced by karma and delements, and yet it has the power to manifest itself
in the guise of the conditioned dharmas. Thirdly, as the support of all the Bud-
dhas, it is undivided (abhinna), and yet countless streams of consciousness
(saṃtāna) gain the state of enlightenment (MYS 271-72).
In the tantras the state of nonduality is gained through the mystic union
of wisdom and means, as briey discussed above in the section on bodhicitta.
Two representative quotations aptly encapsulate the spirit of the tantras:
One’s mind (svacitta) is primordially unborn and empty by nature, because due
to its sameness with the selessness of dharmas, it is immune from all existences,
and divested of the aggregates, bases, elements, subject and object. These exis-
tences are unarisen, there are no dharmas and no dharmatā. Selessness is similar
to space, and this is the unwavering course of enlightenment.
(GST 2.4-5)
The union of wisdom and means denotes the union of citta and caittas undieren-
tiated into internal and external. It is the union of emptiness and compassion, the
union of vajra and lotus, the union of diusion (prapañca) and fusion (saṃgraha),
and the union of Heruka and Nairātmyā. It is the undivided reality of saṃsāra and
nirvāṇa, and it does not have the dual form of man and woman. It is the unity of the
conventional and ultimate realities, and the knowledge that is naturally luminous
(prakṛti-prabhāsvara-jñāna) (Saṃp).
In the Sandhinirmocana, as discussed above, the Buddha asserts the nondual-
ity of phenomena, but his main argumentation aims to demonstrate that ulti-
mately it is impossible to explain the nature of phenomena in terms of polari-
ties. It is dicult and indeed futile to make dualistic distinctions, because
ultimate reality as such is not susceptible to being dierentiated. Then again,
as ultimate reality constitutes the common character of all phenomena, ulti-
mate reality and phenomena are co-extensive, but it is dicult to grasp or
explain their relationship in terms of identity or dierence.
The Yogācāra sources do not dwell on the diculties voiced by the
Buddha. Instead they endeavour to explain the character of consciousness
in terms of its composition or duality, and then they demonstrate how the
bifurcated strands of consciousness can be transformed or transmuted into
the state of nonduality. The Yogācāra exposition of the nonduality of con-
sciousness as the expulsion of the imagined from the dependent, and the
infusion of the dependent into the perfected, is ingenious and sophisti-
cated. However, it is questionable whether it resolves the diculties raised
by the Buddha.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
In the course of this survey of Buddhist perceptions of consciousness, no sus-
tained eort is made to provide a critical analysis or evaluation of the materi-
al. As stated at the outset, this article mainly endeavours to amass and collate
a whole range of relevant sources from dierent traditions, in order to formu-
late a broad vision of the complex and intricate interpretations of the nature
and dierent aspects of consciousness. The presentation is somewhat terse
and condensed in some sections, and presumes a fair amount of knowledge
on the part of the reader. However, hopefully, the sequential arrangement and
the content of the individual sections are clear and meaningful, enabling the
reader to see the overall historical progression in the interpretation of con-
sciousness, and to understand the main doctrinal and other issues.
I wish to oer one general reection on Buddhist perceptions of conscious-
ness. I think that within the Buddhist doctrinal parameters, the Buddhist
masters have explored a great variety of theoretical and mystical venues, and
produced a number of formidable and rened interpretations of the inner
permutations of consciousness. One certainly learns many things about its
deled and enlightened conditions. However, one is frequently confronted
with a number of discordant contentions and opinions on specic and often
crucial issues, such as the innate continuity of consciousness or the process of
cognition. This variety of opinions voiced by the Abhidharma and Mahāyāna
traditions suggests that there are certain aspects of consciousness which still
remain unresolved, and that the Buddhist tradition as a whole does not oer
one coherent and doctrinally agreed interpretation of consciousness.
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Wogihara. Tokyo: The Toyo Bunko, 1932–1935.
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AK Abhidharmakośa of Vasubandhu. Cited by chapter and
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© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2014.
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