In conversation with a friend, a couple days back, the issue of whether consciousness is one or many – singular or multiple – came to the fore. He was citing the Buddhist six-consciousness or eight-consciousness model(s) as evidence for the plurality of consciousness. And I was aligning with a more Advaitan view in which Consciousness or Awareness (with a capital “C” or “A”) is, if not “singular,” then at least non-dual.
Apples & Oranges?
And I began to wonder: Are our respective positions actually at odds with one another, or are we simply, as the saying goes, “talking apples and oranges”? As the conversation unfolded, we discovered that it was, in large part, the latter: we were defining our terms differently, and approaching the question from differing conceptual/linguistic paradigms.
The Six-Consciousness Model
In the Buddhist six-consciousness model, the term “consciousness” has meaning only in relation to the six sensory organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) and their corresponding sensory objects (visual forms, sounds, odors, flavors, touch and mental objects). When a sensory organ comes into contact with a sensory object, the resulting “awareness of” or “knowing of” that particular object via that particular sensory organ is what is referred to as a moment of “consciousness.”
So for instance: when the eye comes into contact with a visual form in a way that results in a “knowing awareness of” that particular visual form, this is called “eye-consciousness.” When the ear comes into contact with a sound in a way that results in a “knowing awareness of” that particular sound, this is called “ear-consciousness.” And so on, in the case of nose/odors, tongue/flavors, body/touch, and mind/mental-objects.
The six consciousness model, then, is basically a way of describing our human perceptual experience: our knowing awareness of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, kinesthetic sensation and mental phenomena (thoughts and internal images). And in the context of this model, the term “consciousness” is always intertwined with a specific sensory organ/object pairing. There is no place, within this model, for consciousness separate from a sensory organ/object pairing.
Gates Of Perception
As an aside, it’s interesting to consider some of what we now know – via contemporary scientific studies – about the perceptual process. In particular: how only a very small percentage of all sensory input (i.e. everything that, say, the eye as a recording device, is in any moment capable of recording) actually makes it – via the various levels of perceptual/cognitive processing – into our knowing awareness of a visual phenomenon. In other words, for every 100 visual objects/events that my eye, in a given moment, is recording, only five or six (as an approximation) will arise within my knowing awareness, as how I would then describe “what’s happening” within my visual field.
Consciousness As Such?
The important point – in terms of our exploration of consciousness as singular or plural – is that the eye-consciousness is considered different from ear-consciousness, and different from tongue-consciousness, etc. – by virtue of the different categories of sense-organs/objects under consideration. Within this six-consciousness model, there is no consciousness as such: as something existing independently from sensory experience.
The way that I understand this model is that it is describing different functions of a single consciousness, i.e. how a single knowing Awareness (what I call “I”) functions via six distinct channels of sensory experience. Unless I’m schizophrenic in a really strange way, the “I” (the knowing awareness) that sees a tree is the same “I” that hears the bird singing from its branches; and is the same “I” that smells the fragrance from its blossoms. Across the content of perception, and across the various sense organs of a human body-mind, there is a single knowing Awareness – within which these perceptual objects arise and dissolve.
While there may be no separate “knower” of a perceptual event, there is a knowing aspect to perceiving — which is why we employ the word “consciousness” to describe it. If “seeing” were no more than the human eye functioning like a mechanical recorder, then the human experience of seeing would be equivalent to an iPad recording a movie.
The “I” That Knows This Body
Similarly: The knowing Awareness (the “I”) that perceives my six-year-old body is the same knowing Awareness (the same “I”) that perceives my forty-six-year-old body. Even though the content of this sensory perception (e.g. the size and weight of the body, and its cells which have all “died and been reborn” countless times) is quite distinct – from the six-year-old body to the forty-six-year-old body), the knowing Awareness (the deepest sense of “I”) is the same (beyond the same/different conceptual polarity).
In The Cave: Darkness & Light
Many years ago, when I was on a tour of a cave somewhere in the southwest United States (Arizona, maybe?) our tour guide – after an appropriately kind warning – turned off all artificial lighting within the cave. The ensuing darkness was deeper and more complete than anything I had previously experienced. It was the kind of darkness that obliterated completely any and all visual content. No matter how close to my face I brought my hand, it remained completely invisible. While I could feel that my eyes were “open” – i.e. my eyelids were not covering the eyeballs – the only “object” within my visual field was the color black; and the absence of any and all distinct visual forms. And yet the “knowing awareness” component of experience was as vivid as ever – perhaps even more so.
I don’t know how this experience would be categorized in terms of the six-consciousness model. Was this an instance of a total absence of eye-consciousness, since the utter darkness was preventing contact between the sensory organ (my at least theoretically still-functioning eyes) and sensory objects (all now “hidden” from the eye’s recording prowess). Or does the recording of an absence (the homogeneous color black) count as an instance of eye-consciousness?
The Light Of Awareness
In any case, what made this in-the-dark cave experience memorable was the heightened alignment with a luminous Awareness that stands independent from the presence or absence of any given phenomena. And though my other senses (hearing, touch, smell etc.) in that moment seemed heightened — as compensation, perhaps, for the sudden absence of seeing — it wasn’t hard to imagine each one of them in turn also being “turned off” – until only Pure Awareness was shining.
Bringing it back to the conversation with my friend …. After clarifying our differing definitions of consciousness; and agreeing that there seems to be an element of “knowing awareness” that stands independently of any specific sensory/cognitive content; we identified our remaining differences of opinion as being more-or-less consistent with the Rangtong/Shentong distinction – with he leaning toward the former, and me toward the latter. And we then ended the conversation with a hug, and appreciation for how our playful-serious debate had helped us both to clarify things, in a way that felt useful and enjoyable.