Buddhism A–Z
What is Consciousness in Buddhism?

English language dictionaries define consciousness as a state of being awake and aware. Or, it may be defined as an awareness of a particular thing (e.g., Jack was aware of Bill’s presence).  But Buddhism uses the word a bit differently. We might think of consciousness as just one thing, and we either have it, or we don’t. But in Buddhism there are many consciousnesses. Further, more than one consciousness may be active in your body at the same time.

Most of the time, when a Buddhist text or scripture refers to consciousness, it’s referring to vijñana (in Pali, viññana). And most of the time, vijñana is the “awareness” that links a sense organ to a sense object to create a sensory experience. In Buddhism there are six sense organs and six corresponding objects. There are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The corresponding objects would be something visible, sound, scent, taste, something to touch, and an idea or mental object.  Vijñana is the awareness that is the sensory experience of seeing, hearing, and so on. Each of these six kinds of sensory experiences is considered a separate type of consciousness.

The Fifth Skandha

Vijñana is also the fifth of the five skandhas, or the five aggregates of factors that make an individual being. This consciousness is simply the quality of being aware of sensory experiences as they happen. It’s important to understand that vijñana is not a “self” of any sort and is not directing the senses or the other skandhas in any way. Intellectual recognition and identification of the sensation is not a function of vijñana but of the third skandha, perceptions or samjña.

Yogacara and the Eight Levels of Vijñana

Yogacara (also spelled yogachara) is a major philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in the 4th century CE. It is sometimes called the Mind Only school. Yogacara teachings are found in Tibetan (Vajrayana) and Mahayana Buddhism but usually are not part of Theravada. Yogacara is also sometimes called Vijñanavada, or the “doctrine of consciousness.” Yogacara scholars developed complex explanations of how awareness and experience interact.

Yogacara proposes eight levels or forms of consciousness. The first six are the same as in early Buddhism – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. To this Yogacara scholars added two more. The sixth is deluded awareness, manas-vijñana or klesha-manas. This is self-centered awareness that gives rise to arrogance, selfishness, and the belief in a permanent, separate self. 

The eighth consciousness is called the “storehouse consciousness,” or alaya-vijñana. This consciousness holds our mental and emotional habits and conditioning. It contains all the impressions of previous experiences, which become the seeds of karma.

Consciousness and the Twelve Links

Consciousness is also a part of the twelve nidanas or links, which is a chain of causation that describes the cycle of birth, death, rebirth. The first link is ignorance, avidya, the ignorance of the true nature of reality. Ignorance is linked to samskara, or volitional action, formation, impulse or motivation. The next link is vijñana, which is followed by nama-rupa, name and form. Nama-rupa is the stage at which the five skandhas come together to form the illusion of an individual, independent existence. The chain continues through eight more links until the last, old age and death. And then the cycle begins again. 

Related Reading

Consciousness Is Perfectly Clear

An excerpt from "Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind" on Buddhist understandings of consciousness.

The Four Layers of Consciousness

Abhidharma, Buddhism’s map of the mind, is sometimes treated as a topic of merely intellectual interest. In fact, says Thich Nhat Hanh, identifying the different elements of consciousness, and understanding how they interact, is essential to our practice of meditation.

What Are the Eight Consciousnesses?

Mahayana Buddhism breaks the mind into eight separate consciousnesses. What are they?

Christof Koch explains the neuroscientific view of consciousness to the Dalai Lama.

Leading neuroscientists & Buddhists agree: “Consciousness is everywhere”

New theories suggest Buddhist teachings on consciousness may be correct, and the implications for science could be huge.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.