Sunday, March 7, 2010

The 12 Levels of Consciousness

The traditional Theravadin Buddhist teachings have 8 levels of consciousness, though the other four are implied in their teachings. I prefer to name 12 levels of consciousness in order make a few points clear, like the difference between basic enlightenment (satori) and supreme perfect enlightenment (anuttara samyak samadhi). My personal feeling is that basic enlightenment is not hard to attain and should take at the most 3 years of dedicated daily meditation practice. Supreme perfect enlightenment, which involves complete cleansing of all afflicted samskaras from the subconscious mind, has been rare and may take even lifetimes of practice to fully attain. I feel that there are different degrees and kinds of enlightenment that are possible. The achievement of physical immortality and the attainment of the light body are higher than basic enlightenment and supreme perfect enlightenment. I have some hesitation, though, when I talk about enlightenment in terms of attainment. They are more "growths" that our natural mind moves into and through. They do require our free choice and intentionality to make happen. Life brings us to a certain point where we have a sense of our free choice. Further growth then needs our freely given consent to go further. The element of real freedom is part of our Buddha nature and it is part of what grows within us. There is a triad within our core identity that is understanding, awareness, and intentionality. When these three are in alignment with each other, then a basic enlightenment appears. This may be called "entering the stream". When we learn how stay in the evolutionary process and are never tempted to quit, then we become a "nonreturner". When the process evolves to the third eye level, then we are in the "last necessary lifetime" (if we return back to incarnation, then it is because of choice and not karma). When the process reaches self recognition, then we have the full maturity of our awakening.

The first five levels of consciousness are really on the same level. They are the sense consciousnesses involves with seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Traditional Buddhism also talks about the sixth consciousness. This is a kind of sensory mind. I call this sensory mind "the summarizer". This mind takes the five channels of sensory information and synthesizes their input into one unified experience. If you take time, right now, to focus on each channel, you can get a feeling for this mind. Focus, for instance, on what you are seeing, notice how it feels to read these words, notice that you are reading these words. Now notice what you are hearing right now. Now notice what you are feeling or touching. Notice, for instance, how your body contacts the chair you are sitting in or whatever ground that is supporting your body. Notice what your tongue is tasting right now, even if it is only the wetness inside the mouth. Notice whatever smells that are in the air. We can focus on each "sense gate" separately. The other senses fall into the background, but are still available. This background is inside the summarizer. This also means that there is a subtle set of five senses inside the summarizer that allows input from the five consciousnesses. There is a mode of training where the summarizer can disconnect from the five consciousnesses and tune into the world through these subtle senses. When a person learns how to do this, then he or she develops his or her "psychic abilities". There is a case, mentioned in THE WAY OF THE PILGRIM, where a blind person was able to learn how to see through developing the suble eye consciousness within the summarizer. It was partly accidental for this person, who was doing the Christian mantra, "Kyrie Eleieson" and most likely focusing attention on the third eye. This part is not mentioned in the book, but it is part of Hesychasm to use attention on the third eye and heart chakra as part of their practice.

Beyond the summarizer is what I can the "interpreter" (seventh). This is our usual thinking mind and is the home of the ego or ordinary sense of self. We tend to identify with our thinking mind and we form what Krishnamurti called "the me put together by thought". He also said that "the thinker is the thought". We imagine there is a me separate from our thinking that does the thinking, but the thinker is really its thoughts. When we have a deep aware moment without any thinking, then the sense of self that we usually identify with ends completely and another sense of being appears, as if waking up from a sleepy trance. When this happens, then we have become enlightened. We wake up from what Buddha called "the illusion of self". I sometimes call this, "the clearing of the conscious mind". The interpretive function of this mind continues to be usable to our being. It actually functions more sanely after this awakening, because its thought process no longer functions under an illusion or a hypnotic trance.

Beyond the interpreter is the subconscious mind (eighth). It is called "storehouse consciousness", because it stores all the samskaras that cause us sorrow. We can get a feeling for this mind by noticing when we get triggered or activated by something. Let us say a person says something to us and it activates a feeling of being hurt. A sensory experience (the person saying something to us) activated a samskara (potential conditioned reaction) manifested as a felt experience of feeling hurt. We might continue the reaction by saying something back to the person or we might, especially if we are trained in meditation, "remain with the sensation" and notice that we have been activated. If we are able to do this, then the samskara can dissolve and we can be released from its grip. We can also get caught in a chain reaction, where one samskara can activate another and then another. For instance, the feeling of hurt may activate a self pity thought process inside us and this, in turn, may activate anger about how life constantly treats us. The chain reaction can end at any point where we introduce a "moment of consciousness" and remain with the sensation.

What happens when a samskara gets activated is that a conditioned reaction appears in the interpreter. In a sense it gets downloaded to the interpreter from the subconscious mind. We often upload and make samskaras too. How we behave in the present moment becomes our mental conditioning. We can learn how to react to certain things and when they happen without clear conscious choice, then those behaviors become samskaras, ready to be triggered by the right sensory input. The uploading and downloading shows how the conscious and subconscious mind have a fluid barrier. They evolve out of each other. The game "Simon says" that children play illustrates how easily it happens. The rules of the game are simple. One child is the leader who says, "Simon says," and names some behavior, like "touch your nose". The leader then demonstrates this behavior by touching his or her nose. The other children are supposed to do the same thing, but only when the leader says, "Simon says". After doing a few, the leader says something like, "Clap your hands" (without saying "Simon says") and sees if any of the other children get caught clapping their hands. Any child who claps has made the instruction into an automatic conditioning. The game shows that if we maintain a certain level of alertness that we do not become conditioned.

The next level beyond the subconscious mind is the "silent witness" (ninth). This is roughly equivalent the atman of Hinduism. It is sometimes called "the root of attention". When we transcend the thought self inside the interpreter, we temporarily become this witness consciousness. This is when we are able to see all internal and external phenomena as transitory and selfless. The witness is usually hypnotized into believing that it is whatever thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are arising. It gets caught up in them and is taken away by them or resists them and reacts to them. When we are able to watch thoughts, emotions, and sensations like clouds floating in the sky, then we are relaxing into simply being this witness. When we are caught up in phenomena, then we have fallen into a kind of trance or dreaming sleep, called ordinary life. It is similar to sleep walking.

There is still a subtle thought holding the witness. This is the subject/object duality. There is a kind of basic structure to thought. It organizes experience into a subject, verb, and object, and then builds up this with adverbs, adjectives, and other modifiers. This dualistic mechanism creates a feeling of isolation from the life process and a subtle sadness. This sense of separateness sometimes dissolves, because the separate ego is ultimately an illusion and it cannot be maintained indefinately. The Sufis have found, if we are aware and sensitive, that 2 out of every 12 seconds we are are free from the sense of isolation. These are called "moments of [natural] freedom." If we become sensitive to them, we can use this microtime as a kind of gate and expand into unity from there. Interestingly, when a person practices always abiding in the witness and lets go of all attachment to everything, when the last attachment is released, then the witness explodes into infinity. The sense of separateness dissolves. This is because it needed something to attach to in order to maintain the tension of duality. So sacred aloneness becomes unity.

The next consciousness is oneness (tenth). This is where the subject and object tension ends. There is a feeling of oneness and kinship with everything. This is sometimes felt between sexual and loving partners. There is a natural deep concentration where two lovers drop into a deep feeling silence with each other and all sense of isolation ends. There is a warm feeling of oneness. There are three levels of this. There is karma mudra when the connection is physical and energetic. There is jnana mudra when visualized dream bodies are involved. There is mahamudra when this feeling of oneness is with the whole cosmos and with the dharmakaya (the invisible energy that permeates all life). The loving partnership can be the focus or seed for all three of these levels. In the Gospel according to Saint John, chapter 17, Jesus prays and wishes his disciples discover this level of unity. The kind of knowing he wants them to enter is gnosis. He uses the verb form of this word in this chapter. This word represents the knowing that arises between two lovers in sexual intimacy. It is not intellectual and academic knowledge. It is direct immediate experience where the thinking mind is no longer analyzing.

The next consciousness is called "returning to body and mind" (eleventh). This is where Buddha, having directly experienced the deepest nirvana, sees the planet Venus in the morning sky. The plant Venus is a beautiful symbol, being the goddess of love. We go into a love affair with normal life. This is the Zen level of "chopping wood, carrying water." The feeling of unity is in the background and our ordinary lives are in the foreground. This is the level of "ordinary mind is enlightenment" of Zen and "Earthly desires are enlightenment" of Nicherin Buddhism. The skandhas, factors of ordinary consciousness, which caused us sorrow are transformed into factors of enlightenment and are simply lived. They become the five Buddha mandala. The Buddha returns to simply having a mind and body. It is also related to when Jesus says, "Unless you become converted and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God." A Buddha is like a wise child. We regain our ability to be simply spontaneous and alive. What we do, instead of coming out of a mental chatter and adult worries, comes out of the luminous creative void. Words come out of silence. Actions come out of stillness. Love emerges from oneness.

The last level is the light body (twelfth). This is where the miraculous powers appear. This is a little greater than the psychic powers of the detached summarizer. There is a feeling of faith in life, in the One Power that is all, and the ability to command it through thought. There is a strange verse in the Old Testament, in Isaiah, where Yahweh says to Isaiah, "Command me." In reverses the sense of us needing to obey, surrender, and follow what is higher than us. This is because we are taking our place in the unity and living from this. We are already deeply surrendered into this energy and now we can also guide this energy. We can guide the energy because we are part of this energy. This is also behind, "Love and do what you will." Miracles are not a violation of universal law, but its highest expression. On this level, the mechanism of karma which operated unconsciously become the mechanism of conscious creation.

Kobodashi, who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan, when asked about how many levels of consciousness there were, said, "One, Eight, Ten, Infinite." I like his answer. Because he acknowledges the traditional Eight levels, but points beyond this framework too. He prefered naming ten levels. I prefer naming twelve. But when we go deep within, then we feel like there is just one consciousness that we are living from. When we think of growth, it seems that there are infinite levels. There is always more to learn. I do gather that once we are grounded in the light body that there is still growth that can happen. But the growth that happens is without strain, without fear and anger, and without sorrow. There is a feeling of always floating and being weightless. The body is experienced differently, as a hologram, and as being "hollow". Transitional is learning to not age and kill our physical body.

The levels of consciousness, too, are not airtight compartments. There unfold out of each other. We sometimes have "flash forwards" into states we will eventually grow into and integrate. Basic enlightenment happens when we transcend the thinking mind and experience "radiant awareness". Although this basic enlightenment is not hard to attain, it gives us a feeling understanding of all the other levels. We are no longer running our spiritual lives on an intellectual guess or mental belief.


  1. you should try giving this a read,

  2. Dear James, Thank you for your thoughts. The article quoted in the reference comes from another blog discussing "Why does one feel afraid?". This other blog discussion is actually more related to another section of this blog where fear is discussed more directly in terms of evolution. The human brain (which has evolved an "interpreter") and animal brains have evolved in fear. Both anger and fear arise inside individual consciousness from a body survival function. We have glands that produce chemicals that mobilize us for "fight, freeze, or flight" in response to perceived danger. What happened with human beings is that they evolved a third cortical brain. We are tri-brained beings. Most animals can let go of their fear when the perceived danger is not part of their sensory here and now, but our cortical brain can extrapolate long term potential threats, either accurately or delusionally, and continue to worry. The three brains have yet to learn how to get along with each other. From this tri-brain interaction emerges "self clinging" which has trouble accepting and making peace with the possibility of dying (in its final form as actual death or its lesser form as partial deaths, like losing a job, losing a loving relationship, or just losing a part of personal life that one cherished, like a possession). From understanding the movement of fear inside us, we can understand a lot how the levels of consciousness interact with each other and what can change for us in this regard. In Tantric Buddhist emotional alchemy, fear transmutes into wisdom, which is already its deeper aspect when it is not confused. The other blog article also gave an interesting thought about how Christians try to explain fear appearing in terms of a literal space/time fall in Eden, and yet does not explain why animals have fear, since they did not fall. Buddhism does have a psychophysical view of the universe that includes animals in the possible cycle of rebirths for all sentient beings and naturally includes animals in their total vision. Yet I do find it interesting that Saint John wrote in his epistles, "Perfect love casts out all fear". This thought feels psychologically relevant, because the depths of love does release our attachment to self and does end a certain kind of fear.

    I would invite people who comment on this blog to bring their thoughts into the blog itself. I do not mind the comments referring out to other sites, but sometimes, over time links get broken. I would like enough info in the comment lines so that when this happens that the thread can still be followed. I am indirectly quoting the external reference and commenting on it. I would have pasted the info from the other blog to this site, but I not sure how the copyright issues work yet.

  3. Hi Will
    Quoting from other sources is perfectly legit as long as you link back to the full article or mention the book, etc. (ie: give credit) Copying the entire article is not OK unless you have permission to repost. A variation on this is the "guest post" where another authors work is posted here.

    Thanks for the summary of the levels. As the elements are developed sequentially, it's fair to describe the associated 'consciousnesses' as "levels". But its not really separate levels of consciousness but rather separate identification with the individual senses and their objects. This is similar with the next 3. One consciousness identified variously with levels of creation. Awakening can be seen as a progressive deidentification with these, perhaps sequentially.

    Beyond the 8, it's not really the same thing. Then it becomes stages rather than states, stages of depth of the awakening/ enlightenment.

    I've seen similar issues with current understanding of Vedic models as well.

    Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts on both the 12 consciousness model and on copyright. I do think it is good to be cautious here, because it is quite a hot item politically and legally. Your suggestions sound safe. There is also a growing body of public domain material as well. I do recommend that people choose to quote books over websites, since many of the latter disappear when monthly fees are not kept up. I sometimes try to find a relevant passage that summarizes what is said on some websites, just in case they do disappear and create a broken link, so that at least what is shared is intelligible if the original site is lost.

    I like your sensitivity to the model. The words "levels" and "states" are not completely accurate for the 12 consciousness model, since the first 5 are on the same level, and the ones above the 8th in some sense evolve out of the 8th (which is why Buddha only taught that there were 8). I prefer to see that the last 3 evolve out of the 9th, though this is not quite right either, since the 9th is really the 10th with the subject-object subtle thought superimposed on experience (and even the 10th is really the 11th with the individual body-heart-mind negated or eclipsed, while the 11th integrates the feeling of unity with the experience of individuality). And the 12th is really the 11th when we are "activated" and fully aware of the potential of our consciousness in terms of creative activity. I have not seen anyone leap from the 7th consciousness ego construction all the way to 12th consciousness creativity on one leap. It seems that there is something natural to the stages of unfoldment. Yet, on the other hand, any "miracle" is the 12th consciousness shining through in what I call a "flash forward". It seems every state first comes in flashes, small experiences, which deepen and become more frequent as our meditation process matures. In any case, it seems useful to name 12 because they are qualitatively different from each other.

    Thanks again for your sharing.