Ālaya-Vijñāna | Storehouse Consciousness
Ālaya-Vijñāna is the Sanskrit term denoting, roughly, “storehouse” consciousness, a conception of unconscious mental processes developed by the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism in the 3-5th centuries CE.
Ālaya-Vijñāna appears in such “Yogācāra” scriptures as the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, but is most systematically treated in the scholastic treatises of Asaṅga (c. 315-390) and Vasubandhu (c. mid-4th to mid-5th centuries).
It originally addressed problems surrounding the continuity of karmic potential (karma-upacaya) and the latent afflictions (anuśaya) that had been generated by the abhidharma emphasis upon momentary, manifest processes of mind.
How, after all, could these 2 essential aspects of one’s saṁsāra existence:
- the potential for karma to ripen and
- for the afflictions to arise
- be uninterruptedly present until their elimination far along the path to liberation
if one’s mind (or, more precisely, one’s “mental stream,” santāna) were comprised solely of whatever phenomena (dharma) were manifest at the present moment?
Their manifest presence would preclude any salutary states of mind from arising, and thus prevent progress along the path, while their complete absence would be tantamount to liberation itself.
The Ālaya-Vijñāna thus came to comprise the various potentialities that must continuously underlie each moment of the traditional 6 modes of cognitive awareness - now called manifest, arising, or functioning consciousnesses (paravṛtti-vijñāna) in contradistinction to the continuous yet subliminal Ālaya, the home, base, or storehouse consciousness (Ālaya-vijñāna).
Combining traditional analyses of Consciousness (Vijñāna) as an awareness (not a faculty) that arises either in dependence upon karmic formations (saṁskāra) or as a result of the concomitance of one’s cognitive faculties and their correlative objects,
Ālaya consciousness is described in classical Yogācāra treatises as arising from moment to moment in dependence on the material sense faculties and the various cognitive and affective formations (saṁskāra) that constitute one’s on-going existence,
as well as on its own subliminal cognitive object: an indistinct (aparicchinna) or imperceptible (asaṁvidita) apprehension of an external world (bhājana-loka).
Ālaya-Vijñāna is thus a complexly conditioned mode of cognitive awareness that simultaneously supports (āśraya) and informs all occurrences of manifest consciousness.
Also consonant with traditional characteristics of consciousness, Ālaya-Vijñāna is said in the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra to “grow, develop, and increase”
due to the seeds (bījā) of karmic potential and the predispositions (vāsanā) of the afflictions that have accumulated “since beginningless time” from the karmic activities associated with the 6 modes of manifest cognitive awareness.
The potential or “seeds” for the future arising of afflictions or of karmically resultant dharmas, such as sensations or consciousness itself, are thereafter “stored” in this evolving Ālaya - level of mind.
While this subliminal Ālaya consciousness thus enjoys a simultaneous and causally reciprocal relationship with the manifest modes of cognitive awareness,
it still retained, in most Indian Yogācāra treatises, its original character as the locus of accumulated karmic potential and latent afflictions,
virtually defining one’s saṁsāra existence and serving, in effect, as the “subject” of saṁsāra (also similar to earlier notions of Vijñāna).
Sentient beings therefore typically (mis)take Ālaya consciousness as a substantive self (ātma-dṛṣṭi), a form of ignorance so continuously present that it too soon came to be conceived as a distinct strata of subliminal - and karmically neutral - afflictions called “afflictive mentation” (Skt., kliṣṭa-manas), now considered a “7th consciousness,” making Ālaya-Vijñāna the 8th.
More broadly, Asaṅga’s Mahāyāna-saṁgraha describes how the “common aspects” (sādhāraṇa-Iakṣaṇa) of Ālaya Consciousness help to structure the arising of our common “world” (bhājana-loka).
Our distinctively human world appears similarly to us because we have accumulated similar karma,
which results in both our similar cognitive faculties as well as whatever cognitive and affective formations similarly condition the arising of each individual’s Ālaya-Vijñāna, such as the impressions of language (adhilāpa-vāsanā).
Together, these conditions delimit the range of stimuli that may instigate manifest consciousness, and thus also the very forms in which our common, species-specific world (loka) typically appear.
In this way, the Ālaya-Vijñāna - ‘the mind with all the seeds” (sarvabījaka-citta) that represents our accumulated potentialities for karmic results - serves as the “common support (samāśraya) of all phenomenal experience (dharma).”
Although in its systematic treatments the Ālaya-Vijñāna is largely commensurate with traditional Indian Buddhist analyses of saṁsāra consciousness, as we have seen,
the very metaphors used to describe the Ālaya-Vijñāna - an evolving “repository” form of mind (citta) that receives and “stores” karmic seeds and thereby serves as both support and cause (hetu) of all dharmas
- invited its interpretation as a foundational mind serving as the sole basis or ground from which the entire phenomenal world arises.
These tendencies were particularly pronounced in certain Chinese and Tibetan traditions, influenced no doubt by the explicit identification - in scriptures such as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and, more importantly, the apocryphal Awakening of Faith - of Ālaya-Vijñāna with Tathāgata-garbha, the womb or matrix of the Tathāgata.
Although this identification went largely unchallenged in later Chinese Buddhism, it is not found in the classic treatises of Indian Yogācāra.
The 6th century Indian translator Paramārtha’s response to this discrepancy was to preserve the Ālaya-Vijñāna as a defiled 8th consciousness, which is eliminated upon awakening,
while interpolating into his translations an additional, undefiled 9th consciousness, an Amala- Vijñāna, which persists after the Ālaya- Vijñāna ceases.
One of 7th century Xuanzang’s aims in retranslating Yogācāra texts was to recover the earlier, and to his mind orthodox, interpretation of Ālaya-Vijñāna as a locus of defiled consciousness unrelated to the notion of Tathāgata-garbha.
Similar tendencies occurred in the Tibetan schools that teach “extrinsic emptiness” (Shentong), which extrapolating upon Indian Yogācāra models, posited a primordial Ālaya wisdom (Skt., ālaya-jñāna) prior to and apart from all defiled and discursive modes of consciousness (Skt., vijñāna), such as Ālaya-Vijñāna.
These varying notions of post- (or non-) saṁsāra forms of consciousness, typically expressed as transformations of Vijñāna into Jñāna, echo similar ideas found in the earliest Buddhist texts
in which the Consciousness of a Buddha or Arhat is no longer bound by grasping or appropriation (anupādāna), but is said to be “non-abiding” or “unsupported” (appatiṭṭhita-viññāṇa).
In sum, this core Yogācāra concept touches upon some of the central concerns of Buddhist soteriology and analyses of mind, but its interpretation varies considerably depending upon which century, which school, and even which text one is investigating.