A Beam of Light that Doesn’t Land

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

SN 43 contains a list of 33 names for nibbāna. One of them is anidassana, which A Dictionary of Pali defines as invisible and not accessible to sight. However, most of the citations the dictionary gives for this definition are drawn from the Abhidhamma and later texts. If we want to know what it means in the context of the suttas, we have to look exclusively there. And it turns out that the term appears in only three other sutta passages: once as a standard attribute of space, and twice as an attribute of a special kind of consciousness.

It’s obvious that in calling nibbāna anidassana, the suttas are not saying that nibbāna is identical to space, but the reference to space as anidassana, in MN 21, gives a clear picture of what the word might mean:

“Suppose, monks, that a man were to come along carrying lac, yellow orpiment, indigo, or crimson, saying, ‘I will draw pictures in space, I will make pictures appear.’ Now, what do you think? Would he draw pictures in space & make pictures appear?”

“No, lord. Why is that? Because space is formless & anidassana. It’s not easy to draw pictures there and to make them appear. The man would reap only a share of weariness & disappointment.”

Now, the reason why you can’t draw pictures in space is not because it’s invisible or not accessible to sight. It’s because space doesn’t have a surface. So in this case, anidassana would mean, “without surface.”

But as I noted above, the term anidassana is also used to describe a type of consciousness. This raises a question: What would it mean for consciousness to be without surface? The answer is suggested by a pair of similes in SN 12:64. There the Buddha is describing the difference between consciousness that has passion for the four nutriments of consciousness, and consciousness that has no passion for those nutriments.

The simile for passionate consciousness picks up MN 21’s image of painting pictures, although here there is a surface:

“Just as—when there is dye, lac, yellow orpiment, indigo, or crimson—a dyer or painter would paint the picture of a woman or a man, complete in all its parts, on a well-polished panel or wall or on a piece of cloth; in the same way, where there is passion, delight, & craving for the nutriment of physical food… contact… intellectual intention… consciousness, consciousness lands there and increases. Where consciousness lands and increases, there is the alighting of name-&-form. Where there is the alighting of name-&-form, there is the growth of fabrications. Where there is the growth of fabrications, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging, & death, together, I tell you, with sorrow, affliction, & despair.”

The simile for consciousness without passion for the four forms of nutriment—awakened consciousness—removes the wall:

“Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?”

“On the western wall, lord.”

“And if there is no western wall, where does it land?”

“On the ground, lord.”

“And if there is no ground, where does it land?”

“On the water, lord.”

“And if there is no water, where does it land?”

“It doesn’t land, lord.”

“In the same way, where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food… contact… intellectual intention… consciousness, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or increase. Where consciousness does not land or increase, there is no alighting of name-&-form. Where there is no alighting of name-&-form, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.”

The fact that this is a simile for awakened consciousness is reinforced by the word the Buddha uses here for “not landing”: appatiṭṭhita, literally, “unestablished.” This is an adjective used in several suttas to describe the consciousness of an awakened one. For example:

Then the Blessed One went with a large number of monks to the Black Rock on the slope of Isigili. From afar he saw Ven. Vakkali lying dead on a couch. Now, at that time a smokiness, a darkness was moving to the east, moving to the west, moving to the north, the south, above, below, moving to the intermediate directions. The Blessed One said, “Monks, do you see that smokiness, that darkness…?”

“Yes, lord.”

“That’s Māra, the Evil One. He’s searching for the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman: ‘Where is the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman established?’ But, monks, through unestablished consciousness, Vakkali the clansman has totally unbound.” — SN 22:87

“If a monk abandons passion for the property of form… feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness, then owing to the abandoning of passion, the support is cut off, and there is no establishing of consciousness. Consciousness, thus unestablished, not increasing, not concocting, is released. Owing to release, it is steady. Owing to steadiness, it is contented. Owing to contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he (the monk) totally unbinds right within. He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’

“For one knowing in this way, seeing in this way, monk, there is the immediate ending of effluents.” SN 22:55

So the image of consciousness without surface would appear to be the same as unestablished consciousness, i.e., the consciousness of an awakened one. One of the two references in the suttas to consciousness without surface seems to bear this out:

[The Buddha is reporting a conversation with Baka Brahmā:] “‘Having directly known the all as the all, and having directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, I wasn’t the all, I wasn’t in the all, I wasn’t coming forth from the all, I wasn’t “The all is mine.” I didn’t affirm the all. Thus I am not your mere equal in terms of direct knowing, so how could I be inferior? I am actually superior to you.’

“‘If, good sir, you have directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, may it not turn out to be actually vain and void for you.’

“‘Consciousness without surface,

without end, luminous all around,

has not been experienced through… the allness of the all.’” MN 49

The word “all” in this passage has to be understood in line with how it’s defined in SN 35:23:

“What is the all? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the all. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this all, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain and, furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”

This means that consciousness without surface is not known through any of the six internal or external sense media that constitute the “all.” Although nothing beyond this “all” can properly be described, MN 49 makes it clear that what is not experienced through this “all” can be directly known. In fact, it’s this direct knowledge that makes the Buddha—and by extension, all those who are fully awakened—superior to the Brahmās. This fact has to be kept in mind when reading other passages in the suttas that allude to this direct knowledge, because translators who don’t believe in this possibility have tended to render these passages in ways that deny it. Take, for instance, SN 35:117:

“Therefore, monks, that dimension should be experienced where the eye ceases and the perception of form fades. That dimension should be experienced where the ear ceases and the perception of sound fades. That dimension should be experienced where the nose ceases and the perception of aroma fades. That dimension should be experienced where the tongue ceases and the perception of flavor fades. That dimension should be experienced where the body ceases and the perception of tactile sensation fades. That dimension should be experienced where the intellect ceases and the perception of idea fades. That dimension should be experienced.” SN 35:117

Here I’ve rendered the word veditabbe as “to be experienced.” Some translators, believing that nothing can be experienced outside of the six sense media, have rendered veditabbe as “to be understood” or “to be inferred.” But this verb is more normally translated as “to be known” or “to be experienced.” And because (1) the Buddha is obviously talking about nibbāna in this passage, and the duty with regard to nibbāna is to realize it, not just to understand or infer it; and (2) as we have seen, this dimension can be directly known, then “to be experienced” seems to be the proper translation here. The Buddha didn’t simply infer or understand nibbāna. He directly knew it. In fact, even those who have attained just the first level of awakening, achieving the level of one in training, have directly known it as well (MN 1).

Another example of a similar type of mistranslation deals with the following sentence from MN 38:

“Worthless man, haven’t I, in many ways, said of dependently co-arisen consciousness, ‘Apart from a requisite condition, there is no coming-into-play of consciousness’?”

The Pali here is:

“Nanu mayā moghapurisa anekapariyāyena paṭiccasamuppannaṁ viññāṇaṁ vuttaṁ, ‘Aññatra paccayā n’atthi viññāṇassa sambhavoti’?”

The way I’ve translated this sentence, with the Buddha modifying “consciousness” (viññāṇaṁ) with the adjective “dependently co-arisen” (paṭiccasamuppannaṁ), leaves open the possibility that there might be a consciousness that is not dependently co-arisen, in the same way as modifying the word “guitar” with the adjective “acoustic” leaves open the possibility that there are other types of guitars aside from acoustic ones. Modifying “consciousness” in this way would leave room for a consciousness, such as consciousness without surface, that’s not dependent on conditions.

However, translators who don’t believe in the existence of such a consciousness translate the passage in such a way as to rule out that possibility altogether. For instance, here is one such rendering:

“Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be dependently arisen since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness?”

But as I have pointed out in a footnote to my translation of MN 38, this rendering doesn’t do justice to the syntax of the Pali. The discussion in that footnote is technical, and repeating it here would weigh down the current discussion. If you’re interested in the details, you can consult the footnote. Here we can simply note that if the Buddha meant to leave open the possibility that there could be a consciousness not dependent on conditions, he would have done so in other parts of the Canon as well.

And when we check the standard way he defines the consciousness aggregate—i.e., consciousness dependent on conditions—we find that he does just that, many, many times throughout the suttas.

Here’s the definition:

“Any consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: All [sabbaṁ] consciousness is to be seen as it has come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’” SN 22:59

The word, “all,” as we have seen, is limited to the range of the six sense media. Because the consciousness aggregate is limited to “all” consciousness, that means that consciousness without surface, which is not experienced through the all, would lie outside the range of the consciousness aggregate.

Further, because the definition of the consciousness aggregate covers all consciousness in space and time—“far or near,” “past, future, or present”—consciousness without surface would have to lie outside of the dimensions of space and time. And several descriptions of the dimension where the “all” ceases show that it’s a dimension in which the basic defining factors of space and time, in fact, do not appear.

For instance, a passage in Ud 8:1 states that this dimension contains none of the activities that define the experience of time, such as coming, going, or staying in place.

“And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [or: object].” — Ud 8:1

A passage in Ud 8:4, which is repeated in MN 144 and SN 35:87, adds that this dimension also lacks the coordinates that define space—“here,” “there,” or “between-the-two”:

“There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

The fact that this dimension lacks any of the features that define any experience of space and time may explain the fact that even though the Canon often makes the point that nibbāna is unchanging (SN 43), it never describes it as “eternal” (sassata). After all, eternity is a measure of time, so it wouldn’t properly apply to anything outside of space and time.

Now, because this dimension is unconditioned and lies outside of space and time, it can’t arise or pass away. That means it possesses the characteristics of the unfabricated:

“Now, these three are unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated. Which three? No arising is discernible, no passing away is discernible, no alteration while staying is discernible.” AN 3:48

The passages cited here, taken together, don’t merely leave open the possibility that there are two types of consciousness—(1) that contained in the consciousness aggregate, and (2) that not contained in the consciousness aggregate—they actually flesh out the picture of what that second kind of consciousness would be like: without surface—i.e., free from objects, free from passion—outside of space and time, unconditioned, unestablished, and unchanging.

These considerations provide the background for understanding the second of the two passages in the Canon that make reference to consciousness without surface. In this passage, the Buddha poses two questions and then provides a three-sentence answer to both:

	  	“‘Where do water, earth, fire, & wind 
			have no footing?
		Where are long & short,
			coarse & fine,
			fair & foul,
		—where are name & form—
		brought to a stop without trace?
	“‘And the answer to that is:
		“‘Consciousness without surface,
				without end,
			luminous all around:
		Here 	water, earth, fire, & wind
			have no footing.
		Here 	long & short,
			coarse & fine,
			fair & foul,
		here	name & form
		are brought to a stop without trace.
		With the cessation of consciousness,
			each is here brought to a stop.’” DN 11

The verses giving the answer here contain a paradox. On the one hand, they refer to consciousness without surface as the place where name and form—mental and physical phenomena—are brought to a stop. On the other, they say that these phenomena are brought to a stop with the cessation of consciousness.

There have been some attempts at resolving this paradox based on the assumption that nibbāna is not a type of consciousness. Two in particular are worth discussing.

• The first assumes, in effect, that consciousness without surface is the answer to both of the questions posed by the Buddha. In other words, it’s where the four physical properties of water, earth, fire, and wind find no footing, and it’s also where name and form are brought to a stop. However, this interpretation goes on to assume that nibbāna is not a type of consciousness, so “consciousness without surface” must refer to the arahant’s meditative experience of nibbāna, rather than to nibbāna itself. This, however, would make nibbāna an object of the sixth sense, the intellect (manas). That means that it would come under the term, the “all.” But as MN 49 makes clear, consciousness without surface is not experienced through the “all.”

Also, because this interpretation assumes that consciousness without surface comes under the consciousness aggregate, it would have to end at death. But given that this consciousness is independent of the “all,” and that the death of the arahant is simply described as, “this all grows cold right here,” (Iti 44), then the growing cold of the “all” would have no effect on it.

So for these reasons, this first interpretation can’t be accepted.

• The second interpretation asserts that consciousness without surface is the answer only to the Buddha’s first question, and not to his second. Those who propose this interpretation argue that “consciousness without surface” refers to the level of concentration called the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, which is where the four physical properties have no footing. They go on to argue that name and form are brought to a stop only with the cessation of the aggregate of consciousness, which, according to them, covers consciousness both with and without surface.

This interpretation, however, doesn’t make rhetorical sense, nor does it fit in with the context provided by MN 49.

To address the rhetorical issue first: This interpretation assumes that both mentions of the word “here” (ettha) at the beginning of both lines in the second sentence of the Buddha’s answer refer solely to the cessation of any possible form of consciousness, and not to the presence of consciousness without surface. In other words, they refer to a noun, “cessation,” in the following sentence, and not to the noun in the sentence that precedes them.

However, ettha in Pali functions as a pronoun that usually refers to its antecedent. In the first sentence of his answer, the Buddha already used the word “here” clearly to refer to its antecedent, consciousness without surface. This established a precedent, leading any listener to assume that the repeated use of “here” in the second sentence would refer to the same antecedent as the “here” in the first. If had had meant for the word “here” in the second sentence to refer to something else—the cessation of any possible form of consciousness, mentioned only in the third sentence—he wouldn’t have wanted to confuse his listeners by repeating it so emphatically at the beginning of each line immediately after using it to refer to consciousness without surface.

And we should note that there’s nothing corresponding to the word “but” to separate the repeated “here’s” in the second sentence from the “here” in the first.

Aside from rhetorical issues, though, there’s the issue of context. Nowhere in the Canon is “consciousness without surface” used as a name for the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. This state of concentration takes as its object the perception, “Infinite consciousness,” which is known through the sixth sense medium, the intellect. However, as we have seen, MN 49 states that consciousness without surface is not experienced through any of the six sense media. Therefore it can’t be identical with a state of consciousness known through any of those media.

So this second interpretation, too, has nothing to recommend it.

When we approach these verses with the understanding that consciousness without surface doesn’t lie under the consciousness aggregate, then the Buddha’s answer makes rhetorical sense: The “here’s” in the second sentence refer the same antecedent as the “here” in the first sentence: Consciousness without surface is where name and form are brought to a stop without trace.

At the same time, the paradox contained in the answer, understood in this way, is easier to resolve. When the last lines mention the cessation of consciousness, they’re referring to the cessation of the consciousness aggregate. But because consciousness without surface doesn’t arise or cease, it’s not affected by that cessation. In fact, it’s what’s uncovered when the consciousness aggregate is allowed to cease. Again, it’s where name and form—along with all their inherent suffering and stress—are brought to a stop without trace.

This interpretation raises two questions.

• The first is, given that consciousness without surface lies outside the “all,” how can it properly be described in the first place?

The answer, as best as I can see, is that the Buddha needed to describe the goal of the path he was teaching to at least some extent, so that (1) his listeners would feel motivated to follow the path, and (2) they could judge their meditative attainments to see whether they had actually reached the goal. To get around the fact that, strictly speaking, the goal lies beyond description, the Buddha would most often point at it in other ways, apart from straightforward description: through metaphors, paradoxes, and negative descriptions—i.e., saying what it’s not or what it’s devoid of, and rarely stating directly what it is.

One of the points he had to address so that his listeners would recognize the goal when they encountered it in their practice was whether it’s characterized by consciousness or lack of consciousness. Had he said that the goal is devoid of consciousness, that would have counted as a description, too. Either way, this was an issue he had to address.

The terms he chose to use in this case—consciousness “without surface” that “doesn’t land” or “isn’t established”—are, like the term “nibbāna” itself, metaphorical. Without defining what “surface” he’s talking about, the term “consciousness without surface” calls to mind the simile of the light beam in SN 12:64 and it serves the positive purpose of showing that nibbāna is not a state of unconsciousness or total blanking out. These metaphors are supported by the many instances in which the Buddha and his disciples use images of light, awakening, and absence of darkness (SN 56:11; SN 1:7; Ud 1:10), knowing and seeing (DN 15; AN 10:96)—rather than images of darkness, sleep, or oblivion—to describe the attainment of the goal.

This point is important for all those who practice, because there are states of mind—corresponding to the state of the non-percipient beings—in which all consciousness and perception is blotted out (DN 1; DN 15). These states could easily be—and frequently have been—mistaken as noble states of cessation, although DN 1 makes clear that they’re not related to the noble attainments at all and, in fact, can form the basis for serious wrong view. Any passion for the oblivion of such states would count as a form of craving for non-becoming, which, as the Buddha frequently pointed out, simply leads to more becoming (SN 56:11; MN 49). Knowing that nibbāna does involve a type of consciousness that doesn’t fall under the consciousness aggregate can help to counteract this dangerous pitfall.

• The second question is, why would the Buddha have wanted to use a paradox in his answer in DN 11? Wouldn’t his answer have been easier to understand without it?

Here, again, we can only guess at his reasons, but they seem to be related to an opposite misunderstanding. There are states of luminous, immeasurable, non-dual consciousness that nevertheless are fabricated (AN 10:29). These, too, would be easy to mistake for a noble attainment, even though they come under the consciousness aggregate. The result of such a misunderstanding would be that any lingering passion for this type of consciousness would get in the way of finding what’s truly unfabricated. On reaching these states of concentration, meditators would fasten on them, through a subtle craving for becoming, and stop looking any further in their practice.

So when you gain an experience like that, you have to make sure that you have no passion for it at all. This requires a willingness to thoroughly abandon passion for any and all forms of consciousness—no matter how luminous or immeasurable—allowing them all to cease. So, in effect, the Buddha’s paradox in DN 11 is alerting you to the fact that if you want to attain consciousness without surface, you have to—in the words of SN 23:2—“smash, scatter, & demolish consciousness and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for consciousness—because the ending of craving is unbinding.” Given that consciousness without surface can’t cease and can’t be destroyed, it’ll stand up to rough treatment.