[L. 86 | 93] 25 January 1964

The infinite hierarchy of consciousnesses, one on top of the other, is always there, whether we are engaging in reflexion or not. The evidence for this is our consciousness of motion or movement, which does not require reflexion—we are immediately conscious of movement (of a falling leaf, for example)—, but which does require a hierarchy of consciousness. Why? Because a movement takes place in time (past, present and future), and yet we are conscious of the movement of the falling leaf as a present movement. This is perhaps too short an explanation, but it is not very important that you should grasp it.[1] When we wish to reflect (we often do it almost automatically when faced with difficult situations) we make use of this hierarchy of consciousness by withdrawing our attention from the immediate level to the level above.

The reason why we cannot say 'consciousness is' or 'consciousness of consciousness' is simply that the only thing (or things) that consciousness (viññāna) can be consciousness of is name-and-matter (nāmarūpa). Consciousness is the presence of the phenomenon, of what is manifested in experience (which is nāmarūpa), and we cannot in the same sense speak of 'consciousness of consciousness', which would be 'presence of presence'; in other words, the nature of the relation between consciousness and name-and-matter cannot be the same as that between one consciousness and another (the former relation is internal, the latter external).

What we have in the pre-reflexive hierarchy of consciousness is really a series of layers, not simply of consciousness of ascending order, but of consciousness cum name-and-matter of ascending order. At each level there is consciousness of a phenomenon, and the different levels are superimposed (this is not to say that the phenomenon at any one level has nothing to do with the one below it [as in a pile of plates]; it has, but this need not concern us at present). The relation between two adjacent layers of consciousness is thus juxtaposition—or rather super-position, since they are of different orders. In reflexion, two of these adjacent layers are combined, and we have complex consciousness instead of simple consciousness, the effect of which is to reveal different degrees of consciousness—in other words, different degrees of presence of name-and-matter. This does not allow us to say 'consciousness is present' (in which case we should be confusing consciousness with name-and-matter), but it doesallow us to say 'there is consciousness'. Successive orders of reflexion can be shown verbally as follows:

Immediate experience:
'A pain', i.e. 'A pain (is)' or
'(Consciousness of) a pain'.
First order reflexion:

'There is a (an existing) pain' or
'There is (consciousness of) a pain';
and these two are each equivalent to
'Awareness of a pain'—but note that awareness (sampajañña)
is not the same as consciousness (viññāna).
Second order reflexion:
'There is awareness of a pain'
'Awareness of awareness of a pain'
Third order reflexion:
'There is awareness of awareness of a pain'
'Awareness of awareness of awareness of a pain'

 And so on. (In your illustration you pass from immediate presence ('Pain is') to reflexive presence ('There is consciousness of pain'). But these two do not correspond. If you say immediately 'Pain is', then reflexively you must say 'There is existing pain'; and only if you say immediately 'Consciousness of pain' can you say reflexively 'There is consciousness of pain'. As you have put it you make it seem as if consciousness only comes in with reflexion.)

I am very far from being in a position to give an opinion of the nature of viññānañcāyatana and the transition to ākiñcaññāyatana,[2] but I feel it might be wiser to regard your conclusions as still to some extent speculative—which raises the question whether I should discourage you from speculation. For my part I have given up thinking about things that are out of my reach, since I have no way of checking my conclusions, and I find this a source of frustration. That the question presents difficulties from the theoretical point of view can be seen from the fact that ākiñcaññāyatana is still a conscious state—it is the sattamī viññānatthiti, or 'seventh station of consciousness' (Mahānidāna Suttanta, D. 15: ii,69)—and so long as there is consciousness I don't see how the layers can be removed; indeed, in so far as the transition may be regarded as involving a conceptual abstraction, the layers would seem to be necessary for the abstraction (which is a reflexive act) to be possible. But this, too, is verging on the speculative.

P.S. If you succeed in seeing clearly why reflexion cannot be consciousness of consciousness, I will give you an A.

Editorial notes:

[86.1] Apparently the author was not acquainted with Edmund Husserl's Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, originally written as lectures from 1904 to 1920 and compiled and published by Martin Heidegger in 1928. An English translation by James S. Churchill, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, was published in 1963 (the year of this letter) by Indiana University Press. Husserl had developed a similar idea concerning the present movement of time. [Back to text]

[86.2] ākiñcaññāyatana: Beyond the four jhāna states are the four higher attainments or perceptions, the perceptions of the limitlessness of space, of the limitlessness of consciousness, of the sphere of nothingness, and of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. It is the second and third of these to which the author refers. [Back to text]