3. 8 consciousnesses | Yogācāra

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1. 8 consciousnesses

Yogācāra gives a detailed explanation of the workings of the mind and the way it constructs the reality we experience.

One of the most famous innovations of the Yogācāra School was the doctrine of 8 consciousnesses.

These 8 bodies of consciousnesses (aṣṭa vijñāna-kāyāḥ) are:

  1. the 5 sense-consciousnesses,
  2. citta (mentality),
  3. manas (self-consciousness),
  4. the storehouse or substratum consciousness (Skt: ālaya-vijñāna).

Traditional Buddhist descriptions of consciousness taught just the first 6 vijñānas, each corresponding to a sense base (āyatana) and having their own sense objects.

Standard Buddhist doctrine held that these 18 dhātus or components of experience, exhaust the full extent of everything in the universe, or more accurately, the sensorium.

These 6 consciousnesses are also not substantial entities, but a series of events, arising and vanishing, stretching back from beginningless (Anadi) time.

Buddhist Abhidharma expanded and developed this basic model and Yogācāra responded by rearranging these into their own schema which had 3 novel forms of consciousness.

The 6th consciousness, mano-vijñāna, was seen as the surveyor of the content of the 5 senses as well as of mental content like thoughts and ideas.

The 7th consciousness developed from the early Buddhist concept of manas, and was seen as the defiled mentation (kliṣṭa-manas) which is obsessed with notions of self.

2. Ālaya-vijñāna

The 8th consciousness, ālaya-vijñāna (storehouse or repository consciousness), was defined as the storehouse of all karmic seeds, where they gradually matured until ripe, at which point they manifested as karmic consequences.

Because of this, it is also called the mind which has all the seeds (sarva-bījakam cittam), as well as the basic consciousness (mūla-vijñāna) and the appropriating consciousness (ādāna-vijñāna).

According to the Saṅdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, this kind of consciousness underlies and supports the 6 types of manifest awareness, all of which occur simultaneously with the ālaya.

Some scholars see this simultaneity of all the modes of cognitive awareness as the most significant departure of Yogācāra theory from traditional Buddhist models of vijñāna, which were thought to occur solely in conjunction with their respective sense bases and epistemic objects.

The ālaya-vijñāna, being a kind of vijñāna, has an object as well (as all vijñāna has intentionality):

That object is the sentient being's surrounding world, that is to say, the receptacle or container (bhājana) world.

This is stated in the 8th chapter of the Saṅdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, which states that the ādāna-vijñāna is characterized by an unconscious (or not fully conscious?) steady perception (or representation) of the Receptacle (*asaṁvidita-sthira-bhājana-vijñapti).

The ālaya-vijñāna is also what experiences rebirth into future lives and what descents into the womb to appropriate the foetal material.

Therefore, the ālaya-vijñāna's holding on to the body's sense faculties and profuse imaginings (prapañca) are the 2 appropriations which make up the kindling or fuel (lit. upādāna) that Saṁsāric existence depends upon.

Yogācāra thought thus holds that being unaware of the processes going on in the ālaya-vijñāna is an important element of ignorance (avidya).

The ālaya is also individual, so that each person has their own ālaya-vijñāna, which is an ever changing process and therefore not a permanent self.

This consciousness, seen as a defiled form of consciousness (or perhaps sub- or unconsciousness), is personal, individual, continually changing

and yet serving to give a degree of personal identity and to explain why it is that certain karmic results pertain to this particular individual.

The seeds are momentary, but they give rise to a perfumed series which eventually culminates in the result including, from seeds of a particular type, the whole ‘inter-subjective’ phenomenal world.

Also, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu write that the ālaya-vijñānaceases’ at awakening, becoming transformed into a Pure Consciousness.

While there were various similar concepts in other Buddhist Abhidharma schools which sought to explain karmic continuity, the ālaya-vijñāna is the most comprehensive and systematic.

The ālaya-vijñāna concept was probably influenced by other theories, particularly the Sautrāntika theory of seeds and Vasumitra's theory of a subtle form of mind (Sūkṣma-citta).