Consciousness, Theories of

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The English word consciousness usually translates the Sanskrit word vijñāna (Pali, viññāna), although in some contexts vijñāna comes closer to the concept of subconsciousness. In Buddhism in general (except in the Yogācāra tradition), vijñāna is considered to be synonymous with two other Sanskrit words—citta and manas—that roughly correspond to the English word mind. Buddhism denies the existence of a substantial and everlasting soul (ātman), but unlike materialistic traditions, Buddhism never negates the existence of consciousness (or mind). From a Buddhist point of view, consciousness is differentiated from the soul in that the former is an ever-changing, momentary, and impermanent element. Consciousness, however, is considered to continue like a stream and is thought to be somehow transmitted from one life to the next, thus enabling karmic causality over lifetimes. This continuity of consciousness represents, in a sense, the personal identity. Consciousness also keeps the body alive and distinguishes animate beings from inanimate elements. Therefore, consciousness is one of the key factors of Buddhism.

When the word consciousness is used, it appears to refer mainly to the cognitive function directed to its object. Thus, this word is defined in the Saṃyuttanikāya (Kindred Sayings) III:87 as: "Because it recognizes [something], it is called consciousness."

More specifically, six types of consciousness are enumerated in Buddhist texts: visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, gustatory consciousness, tactile consciousness, and mental consciousness. These six consciousnesses must be supported by the corresponding, unimpaired sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) in order to recognize their respective objects (color/form, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, and concepts). When these three elements (sense faculty, object, and consciousness) come together ("contact," sparśa), cognition comes about.

The word consciousness, however, often appears without specification regarding sense faculty or object, as, for example in the list of the five skandha (aggregate): body/matter (rūpa), sensation (vedanā), ideation (saṃjñā), volition (saṃskāra), and consciousness (vijñāna). This type of bare "consciousness" is also found in several other important contexts.

Rebirth and the theory of dependent origination

The notion of consciousness plays a cardinal role in the context of rebirth, within the large framework of pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination). In those early scriptures that propound very simple forms of Buddhist causation there are two basic patterns: one centering on consciousness and psycho-physical existence (nāmarūpa), and the other centering on desire (tṛṣṇa) and appropriation (upadhi, upādāna). According to the scriptures that put forth the first pattern, as long as the consciousness has objects (ālambana) to be conceived and to be attached to, it stays in the realm of saṂsĀra, and the psycho-physical existence will enter the womb (i.e., one will be reborn in the next life without being liberated from samsara). Scriptural admonitions to guard the "doors" of one's sense faculties so that one does not grasp at cognitive objects would be closely related to this idea of consciousness.

Since several expressions meaning desire also appear in the context of consciousness attached to its objects, these two patterns are in fact closely related. Eventually these two patterns were combined into more developed systems of dependent origination, consisting of ten or twelve items. Even the full-fledged system of the twelve causal links basically consists of two portions: the first (one through seven; ignorance through sensation) centering on consciousness, and the second (eight through twelve; desire through old age and death) centering on desire. (Later Sarvāstivāda and Yogācāra interpretations of dependent origination, though differing greatly from each other, also support this division.) Therefore, the full-fledged theory of dependent origination is in a way an elaboration of the simpler causation theories described above. In this system also, the third item, consciousness, is usually understood as the consciousness at the moment of conception, and thus it retains its nature as described in the very early texts.

According to Yogācāra tradition, at the time of one's death, a powerful attachment to one's own existence arises and makes one's consciousness grasp the next life. Furthermore, according to both the Sarvāstivāda and Yogācāra schools, the consciousness in the intermediate state sees the parents making love. If the being is about to be reborn as a boy, he is attached to the mother and hates the father. If the being is about to be reborn as a girl, she is attached to the father and hates the mother. Driven by this perverted thought, the being enters the womb, and the consciousness merges with the united semen and "blood," after which the semen-blood combination becomes a sentient embryo. Even when a being is about to be reborn in a hell, it misconceives the hell as something desirable, and driven by its attachment to the "desirable place," it hastens to the hell. Thus, in these cases also, the basic structure of consciousness attached to some object and bound to the realm of saṃsāra resembles the structure of consciousness found in the less developed stage of Buddhist causation theory.

The ālayavijñāna theory and the theory of the eight consciousnesses

In the YogĀcĀra school, consciousness that merges with the semen-blood combination is understood as the storehouse consciousness (Ālayavijnana). According to this school, the storehouse consciousness, the deepest layer of one's subconsciousness, maintains all the residue of past karma (action) as "seeds," which will give rise to their fruits in the future. This theory enabled the Yogācāra school to explain the problems of reincarnation and karmic retribution without resorting to the concept of substantial soul.

The storehouse consciousness is also linked to the idealistic theory propounded by Yogācāra. Buddhism had an idealistic tendency from the early stages of its history, and the state of the external world was linked to the collective karma/desire of sentient beings. An interesting example is found in a Buddhist cosmogonical legend, which states that as the desire of sentient beings became more gross, the surrounding world became less and less attractive. On the basis of meditative experiences, the Yogācāra tradition elaborated this tendency into a sophisticated philosophical system in which the world that people experience is actually a projection of their own consciousness. The seeds kept in the storehouse consciousness are considered to be the source of this projected world.

Another important function of the storehouse consciousness is the physiological maintenance of the body. Since the early stages of Buddhism, consciousness was considered to be the element that distinguishes animate beings from inanimate matter. Unless consciousness appropriates (i.e., maintains) the body, the body becomes a senseless corpse. Since, however, the stream of consciousnesses on the surface level is sometimes interrupted (as in the states of dreamless sleep, fainting, or deep absorption), it was difficult to explain how the body is maintained during those unconscious periods. Because the storehouse consciousness continues to operate even when the surface consciousnesses do not arise, the introduction of the storehouse consciousness solves the problem of physiological maintenance of the body.

In addition to the storehouse consciousness, the Yogācāra school introduced another subconscious layer of mind, namely the defiled mind (kliṣṭamanas). This is a subconscious ego-consciousness that is always operative in the depths of the mind. According to the Yogācāra system, the defiled mind is always directed to the storehouse consciousness and mistakes the latter for a substantial self. By introducing the concept of defiled mind, the Yogācāra school pointed out that the subconscious ego-mind is hiding behind the scene even when one is trying to do good things on the conscious level. Thus, from this point of view, the minds of deluded, ordinary sentient beings are always defiled, regardless of the moral nature of the surface consciousnesses. Thus, in addition to the conventional six types of consciousness, the Yogācāra school introduced two subconscious layers of mind—defiled mind and storehouse consciousness—and constructed a system of eight types of consciousness. These eight consciousnesses are linked to citta, manas, and vijñāna in the following way: The storehouse consciousness corresponds to citta, the defiled mind to manas, and the conventional six consciousnesses to vijñāna.

Simultaneous versus successive operations of plural consciousnesses

Since the Yogācāra model of eight consciousnesses means that two layers of unconscious mind are always operating behind the conventional six consciousnesses, it naturally presupposes the simultaneous operations of different types of consciousness. This position, however, was not uncontroversial among Buddhist traditions. Since the stream of consciousness represents a personal identity in Buddhism, there was a strong opinion that more than one stream of consciousness could not exist simultaneously in any sentient being at a given moment. According to this position, strongly advocated by the Sarvāstivāda school, when one feels, for example, that one is seeing something and listening to something at the same time, the visual consciousness and the auditory consciousness are in fact operating in rapid succession and not simultaneously.

It is recorded that some schools belonging to the Mahāsāṃghika lineage did not share this opinion, but it seems to have been widely accepted by other schools. The SautrĀntika (Those Who Follow Sūtras) tradition, which, according to the common view, was an offshoot of the Sarvāstivāda school, was considered to have shared the Sarvāstivāda opinion on this matter, but this has been questioned recently by some scholars.

Sautrāntika theories of consciousness

The exact identity of the tradition called "Sautrāntika" is one of the biggest problems in current Buddhist scholarship. Sautrāntika is commonly believed to have been preceded by a tradition called Dārṣṭāntika (Those Who Resort to Similes). However, the exact relationship between these two traditions is a matter of dispute.

Generally speaking, both Dārṣṭāntika and Sautrāntika seem to have had nominalistic tendencies; thus they challenged the realistic system of Sarvāstivada on many points. For example, in both the Sarvāstivada and Yogācāra schools, consciousness (es) are considered to be associated with various psychological factors (caitta), such as lust and hatred, which are themselves distinct elements. The Dārṣṭāntika tradition, on the other hand, treats psychological factors as something not distinct from the consciousness itself. The Dārṣṭāntika and Sautrāntika traditions also tend not to admit a causal relationship between two simultaneous elements. In order for a cause to bring about a result, the cause must be at least one moment prior to the result. Thus, the cognitive object, which is considered to be a cause of consciousness, must precede the cognition of that object. In addition, what one perceives is the cognitive image of an object within one's consciousness; one cannot directly perceive the object itself. The existence of the external object, however, is inferred from its cognitive image.

Theory of consciousness in Buddhist epistemology

The Dārṣṭāntika and Sautrāntika traditions are considered to have exerted a strong influence over Buddhist epistemologists such as DignĀga (ca. 480–540) and DharmakĪrti (ca. 600–660). At the same time, Dignāga also clearly inherited the idealistic system of Yogācāra, as is shown in the theory of cognition cognizing itself (svasaṃvitti) in the Pramāṇasamuccaya (verses 1.8cd–12).

Further, one of Dignāga's important contributions (Pramāṇasamuccaya [Collected Writings on the Means of Cognition], verses 1.2–8ab) was the redefinition of perception (pratyakṣa) and its strict differentiation from inference (anumāna). He maintained that the cognition of the five sense consciousnesses (from visual through tactile) are always perception, and that the mental consciousness operates in both perception and inference. This distinction between the five sense consciousnesses and the mental consciousness is in line with the theories of Sarvāstivāda and Yogācāra.

Relationship with the tathāgatagarbha theory

Another development in the theory of consciousness is the association of the storehouse consciousness with the tathĀgatagarbha (embryo of tathāgata, or buddha-nature) theory. The storehouse consciousness was originally conceived as the root of the deluded mind and the defiled world, and thus is itself defiled. It was to be transformed into pure wisdom when one attains awakening, but the storehouse consciousness before the transformation was not considered to be a pure element in the original Yogācāra system. However, some lines of the Yogācāra tradition, most notably the position presented in the LaṄkĀvatĀrasŪtra (Discourse on the Occasion of the [Buddha's] Entry into Lan˙ka) came to associate, and even identify, the storehouse consciousness with the tathāgatagarbha, the pure element latent in deluded, ordinary beings. Since some Indian masters who transmitted the Yogācāra doctrine to China, most notably ParamĀrtha (499–569), were heavily influenced by these lines of thought, the exact relationship between the storehouse consciousness and the tathāgatagarbha became an important issue in Chinese Buddhism.

See also:Anātman/Ātman (No-Self/Self); Philosophy; Psychology; Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda


Aramaki, Noritoshi. "On the Formation of a Short Prose Pratītyasamutpāda Sūtra." In Buddhism and Its Relation to Other Religions: Essays in Honour of Dr. Shozen Kumoi on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Kumoi Shozen Hakushi Koki Kinenkai. Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1985.

Hattori, Masaaki, ed. and trans. Dignāga, on Perception, Being the Pratyakṣapariccheda of Dignāga's Pramāṇasamuccaya from the Sanskrit Fragments and the Tibetan Versions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Kritzer, Robert. Rebirth and Causation in the Yogācāra Abhidharma. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 1999.

Schmithausen, Lambert. Ālayavijñāna: On the Origin and the Early Development of a Central Concept of Yogācāra Philosophy. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1987.

Nobuyoshi Yamabe

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Consciousness, Theories of

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