The Alaya Consciousness -- Neither Matter nor Spirit
named my tea room, my place for retreat and quiet thought, Yuishikian, or the
Hut of Consciousness Only because I regard the Buddhist philosophy of Consciousness
Only as the bible for the Philosophy of symbiosis that we need to transcend the
dualism of Modernism. The philosophy of Consciousness Only is one of the major
supports of Mahayana Buddhism, which is deeply rooted in Japan. When we consider
the essence of the Buddhist teaching, we see that the philosophy of Consciousness
Only occupies perhaps the most important place within that religion.
The appearance of the Buddha wrought a great change of the world of Indian thought and religion. Prior to the Buddha, the concept of samsara, or transmigration, had been one of the central concepts of the Indian tradition. Transmigration meant that all phenomena were bound to repeat themselves infinitely over the long and cyclical span of cosmic time. Another important feature of pre-Buddhist thought in India was, as articulated in the Upanishads, the concept of the absolute self, atman, and its identity with the ultimate truth of the cosmos, or Brahman. NOTE 1 The atman was destined to pass through life after life, its fate decided by the good and evil deeds of the self.
The Buddha, however, denied the existence of the absolute self. He taught that no self-existing, integral, unchanging, and imperishable subject existed. All that did exist was a series of selves, born and extinguished from moment to moment. This was the revolutionary Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatman), which denied the existence of samsara as a substantial entity.
It was the philosophy of Consciousness Only which eventually reconciled the opposing notions of samsara and no-self. According to the teachings of Consciousness Only, the subject that migrated was not a self but a consciousness -- or, specifically, the alaya consciousness. The alaya consciousness was a part of the human subconscious, a source of inexhaustible possibilities and potentialities. NOTE 2 The sources of all existence and all events are in the alaya consciousness. These sources are known as bija, or seeds.
As the capacity of the seeds ripens and they come into contact with causes and conditions, they appear as actual phenomena. At the same time, those phenomena produce instant feedback in the alaya consciousness. The alaya consciousness is not only the source of all matter but the source of all spirit as well. In sharp contrast to Descartes' declaration that all existence can be divided into matter and spirit, the philosophy of Consciousness Only insists that matter and spirit are both nothing more than the manifestations of a certain primal existence. I see the alaya consciousness, neither matter nor spirit, as akin to DNA -- a life code, a life energy. How fascinating it is that the intuitions of the religious philosophers of ancient India have reached across the boundaries of time and agree to agree with the discoveries of modern science.
Gook, Evil, and the Intermediate, Neutral Zone
beginnings of the teaching of Consciousness Only can be traced back to Nagarjuna.
NOTE 3 Before Nagarjuna, there was a school of Buddhist thinkers centered around
the numerous Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, sutras. They are now sometimes
called the Madhyamikas, or those of the Middle View. Their philosophy was based
on the concept of emptiness (sunyata) taught in the Prajnaparamita sutras. According
to the early Madhyamikas, all phenomena were no more than conventional names.
Since the names lacked substantial existence, the phenomena they identified also
lacked substantial existence. The material world was a phantasmal thing, a parade
of names and concepts without true existence.
Nagarjuna revised and systematized this school of thought, rescuing the concept of emptiness from falling into mere nihilism. In his Mulamadhyamika Sastra, he states, "I am not a nihilist. By rejecting both being and non-being, I illuminate the path in nirvana." Nagarjuna articulated his "unobstructed middle way," in the famous eight negations of the Middle way, and from his interpretation of the concept of emptiness originated a philosophy that transcended Western dualism.
Sometime after his death, in about 300 A.D., Nagarjuna's stream of thought took shape as the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, which is also regarded at the first scripture of the Consciousness Only school. In the centuries that followed, three great Buddhist thinkers appeared who fully developed and firmly established the Consciousness Only philosophy: Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubhandu. NOTE 4 The central concept of the Consciousness Only philosophy, the alaya, is described in the Sandhinirmocana Sutra as "the undefiled and ethically indeterminate consciousness that contains all seeds." Unlike Christianity, with its sharp distinction between good and evil, the Consciousness Only philosophy recognizes three categories: goo, evil and the ethically indeterminate. An intermediate zone exists between good and evil, a zone that is neither. The "consciousness that contains all seeds" is an existence that, like DNA, contains the seeds of all things.
A Creative, Vague State Which Is Neither This Nor That
think that many creative possibilities are concealed in the vague state of the
"ethically indeterminate," possibilities for today. From now on, people
will constantly be forced to choose new systems of values. Because of that, we
will repeatedly find ourselves in an ambiguous situation in which it is impossible,
at least from the present perspective, to make clear choices. Action based on
a simple yes-no dichotomy is no longer an adequate response to society's demands.
I believe that a trichotomy, in which a third, neither-yes-nor-no element is added
to yes and no, will become necessary. The state of neither yes nor no is the state
of thinking, when a conclusion might be reached, or might not be. But compared
to either yes or no, when thinking stops and becomes action, it is an extremely
The principle of majority rule, the modus operandi of democracy, does not value vagueness. As such, it encourages the suppression of thought. It forces us to choose either yes or no, and the simple majority wins, even if the final vote is, for example, fifty-one in favor and forty-nine opposed. But if an indeterminate category were allowed, people would be able to show that they wanted to think the issue over further. And the results of their deliberations might well be the opposite of a premature yes-or-no vote. We can even conceive of cases in which the best answer to a question being voted on is, in fact, neither yes nor no. There have no doubt been many such errors in our majority rule decisions so far, and the risk of ignoring the possibilities of neither yes nor no will only increase in the future. How we meet that risk and handle it in our social policies will be a major issue from now on.
The Buddhism that has been nurtured in Japan over the centuries is mainly Mahayana Buddhism. As the core of Mahayana Buddhism, the philosophy of Consciousness Only has also made deep inroads into Japanese thought and culture. Its teachings are the key to transcending dualism.
The Symbiosis of Life and Death
Some time ago, in a televised discussion
between a well-known film director and a critic, the director spoke of his experience
of living on the African savanna and described the mixture of life and death he
observed there, and I paraphrase his remarks below.
The animal realm is one of eating and being eaten. It was completely natural to see a lion, for example, kill a giraffe and eat it. Of course the giraffe cries out when it is killed, but only for a moment. Once the lion is finished with his meal and his stomach is full, quiet returns to the veldt and other giraffes nearby go on peacefully grazing.
In contrast to this intimacy of life and death in the animal world, human beings are convinced that single human life is the most important thing in the world, a thing of the greatest value. In that belief, a rigorously dualistic view of life and death can be detected. The human fear of death is nearly hysterical when compared to other animals. Isn't it Modernism that has inflated that fear to the highest degree?
I was deeply impressed by the director's remarks to this effect. The Buddhist teaching of migration is linked to a view of life in which the lives of human beings, animals, plants, and even Buddhas are given life by a great life that transcends phenomenal life and death. The Buddhist teaching of impermanence does not only mean that all if vanity; it suggests that since all is vanity we must live in symbiosis in the cycle of that great life. It may well be that the time is coming when we human beings must arrive at reconciliation, a philosophy of the symbiosis of life and death. The Modernism and the West has taught us that death is fearful and hell is frightening, so we have denied death and pursued life with all our might. Death has come to be thought of as nothingness, non-being, or something even more fearful. Perhaps it is time to relax just a bit and look this greatest dualism of human existence, life and death, in the face.
1. The Upanishads are group of sacred texts that have been appended to the Vedas, the ancient texts of the Brahman religion in India. One of the most striking teachings of the Upanishads is that each human being possesses an absolute self (atman) which is identical to the great universal self Brahma), and that the two can be unified through religious practice. The Upanishads also are the first Indian text to offer a theory of karma, or deeds and their results.
2. The alaya was conceived of as a stream of continuity, but in orthodox Buddhist philosophy it is said to by "empty" -- that is, have no substantial existence. The concept of the alaya is a recognition of process apart from substance.
3. Nagarjuna lived in the mid second century in southern India. Of Brahman birth, he converted to Mahayana Buddhism. The central concepts of Nagarjuna's writings are the "middle" and emptiness. Emptiness means that no phenomena has substantial existence; and the mean refers to the Middle Way between all dualistic extremes, such as illusion and enlightenment, or nonexistence and existence.
4. Maitreya (not to be confused with Bodhisattva of that name) was a Buddhist scholar of fourth century India. He was the teacher of Asanga, who also lived in the fourth century, in west India (Gandhara). In his many writings he taught that the stream of the alaya consciousness could be purified, transforming our consciousness into enlightenment itself. His brother Vasubandhu was the most prolific writer of the three and with him the philosophy of Consciousness Only reached its completion. His doctrinal innovations included distinguishing the sense of self from the alaya consciousness and his encyclopedia listing of the afflictions that pollute the human mind.