What is Consciousness vs. Awareness?

What is consciousness? Science seems perplexed when it has to address this question because it really doesn’t have an answer. But according to Buddhism, the appearance of objects in the mind is known as consciousness. You can also say that the conceptualization of objects within/as consciousness is known as “mind.” Without that content we colloquially say there is no mind.

Before the appearance of objects we still have awareness, but it is empty. Awareness when it touches objects becomes consciousness. So awareness without objects is the aprior state before consciousness and is the ground state that “supports”  consciousness. Awareness is always empty in a not-knowing state. It just shines or illuminates. That’s called effulgence, which means radiance, brightness, illumination or shining. Without touching objects, awareness just remains in its own body and shines, it be-s itself, it just is. That’s “presence” or being. That’s also self-effulgence so effulgence is the nature of awareness. It’s like a great bodyless body of not-knowing knowing. You cannot identify it as either existence or non-existence, as either real or not real because it transcends all these descriptions. It is without these two attributes because that is its purity. Awareness is an ever shining function of our real ultimate essence of being. It allows us to know and understand because it allows us to be aware of consciousness - all the moving stuff.

On the other hand, “our mind” is something more objective because “mind” means clear differentiation and understanding. “Mind” involves clear discrimination—that which discriminates the characteristics of objects. So we use the mind to understand things because mind understands the manipulation of consciousness. Mind is a pattern of consciousness which is born from awareness which is in turn a function of our original nature. At least that’s the explanation of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, which have had thousands of years to work out robust definitions and explanations.

In terms of the teachings of spiritual schools, consciousness isn’t yet our ultimate ground state of being because consciousness knowing isn’t our ultimate original nature; it is a looking outward to objects rather than a state resting in itself as its real essence without elaboration. We mistakenly think that knowingness or consciousness, which we colloquially term the “mind,” is our real self but it is not. It cannot be because it is inconstant and does not always stay. It's just flitting all the time. There is still something ultimate behind consciousness, there is something that transcends the oridnary mind, there is still something behind knowing and what is behind it that spiritually transcends it is ever present, never moving, always empty, shining awareness. In fact, the highest secret of the Zen school of Buddhism is that our consciousness and then even awareness are not the ultimate, fundamental “host” or “Self.” Consciousness and awareness are still a “guest,” they are still a function of the Absolute nature.

The realm of consciousness is only a projection of the original nature. It’s still a dependently existing construction, which means it depends upon other elements for its existence. It is just a function of the original nature, or God, or Self, or however you wish to word it. And because consciousness depends upon other things for its existence, it cannot be the ultimate state of reality. As to the actual  realm of the enlightened, the Buddha Manjushri said, “It is not something that can be known by consciousness, nor is it an object of the mind.”  It transcends consciousness, it is aprior. You cannot find This Ultimate One with the mind of thoughts, so how do you find It? By no-mind, no-thought, by not attaching to thoughts but letting them just be there when they are, but never attaching to them while maintaining presence.

These are deep words that science has not yet fathomed. At best psychiatry and psychology deal with the mental events of the mind, trying to put them into groups having this or that shape or meaning. Cognitive science is still puzzling how objects “out there” turn into mental events inside the brain and then consciousness, so it has not proceeded far in this direction either. In this new century, the best advice we can give neuroscience and cognitive science is to examine the ancient schools of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta to discover what they have to say about consciousness and the many various modalities of the mind.


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