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From Consciousness to Awareness
From vijñāna (consciousness) to jñāna (awareness)

Janvier 2011

Zhihua Yao, The Buddhist Theory of Self-Cognition,
New York, Routledge, 2005 (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism),
Chapter 3 "Refutation: Sarvâstivâda," pp.42–96;
spécialement pp.68–70

(68) "But what exactly does it mean to say that one is "to know", while the other is "to apprehend"? Are awareness and consciousness the same or different? One opinion simply holds that "consciousness (vijñāna) is awareness (jñāna) and their only difference is that the former has a prefix vi-. This is because jñāna becomes vijñāna when a prefix vi- is added. From a Vaibhāṣika perspective, however, the prefix vi- suggests that awareness and consciousness are substantially different, since the prefix means "division, distinction, distribution, or opposition".

The major difference between awareness and consciousness, as is stated in a Sūtra source cited in Mahāvibhāṣa, is that "awareness is associated with consciousness". This does not mean that they are mutually associated. The Vaibhāṣikas make it very clear that "awarenesses are associates of consciousnesses. But consciousnesses are not associates of awarenesses". This is because awareness is closely linked with wisdom (prajñā), a mental associate or activity, and thus belongs to the group of mental activities (caitta), while consciousness is the same as the mind (citta). This distinction is stated by some Sarvāstivāda scholars in the following way: "The word 'awareness' refers to all mental activities; the word 'consciousness' refers to the mind". The view that the consciousness is classified as mind is also supported by the Vaibhāṣikas, who understand the mind (citta), thought (manas) and consciousness (vijñāna) as synonym. It says in Mahāvibhāṣa: "Mind is thought and thought is consciousness. These three mean the same, though they sound different". Later, Vasubandhu restates this view by adding the word vijñāpti to the list. He says: "Mind (citta), thought (manas), consciousness (vijñāna) and representational consciousness (vijñāpti) are all synonyms".

The Vaibhāṣikas also admit another difference between awareness and consciousness: awareness is fundamentally an undefiled [pur, non souillé] dharma, while consciousness is a defiled [souillé] dharma, as it is said in Mahāvibhāṣa: "Awareness is the foundation of all undefiled things, and consciousness is the foundation of all defiled things". This view is also carried on by the later Yogācāra thinkers, who take the alaya consciousness as the foundation that gives rise to all dharmas in the defiled realm; while the four awarenesses of mirror-like (ādarśa), equality (samatā), observation (pratyavekṣaṇā) and accomplishment (kṛtyānusthāna) are the vehicles to the undefiled state. The whole purpose of Buddhist practice, in their view, is to transform consciousness into awareness."