Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Buddhism: the layers of consciousness

In Buddhism we speak about the Eight Consciousnesses which are generated when our senses encounter their objects: 1) consciousness of sight, 2) consciousness of hearing, 3) consciousness of smell, 4) consciousness of taste, 5) consciousness of touch, 6) consciousness of mind, 7) impure (mind) consciousness, 8) the alaya (storehouse) consciousness.
The meaning of the first five consciousnesses is easy to comprehend, so I will not dwell upon them.

The consciousness of mind integrates the perceptions of the five senses in concrete images and takes decisions concerning the exterior world.

The impure (mind) consciousness is the source of clinging and so the origin of the sense of ego as well as of the other illusions which are born from the fact that the man takes as real something which is merely apparent.

The alaya consciousness or storehouse consciousness is the place where all the actions and experiences in this life and the previous lives generated by the seven consciousnesses are stored as karma, being the only consciousness which comes along with every birth. This consciousness influences at the same time the workings of the other seven consciousnesses.

We take this alaya consciousness with us in all our births in the various realms of existence. It contains the seeds of various types of karma, and it is the storehouse of the habitual evil karmic tendencies that we have cultivated for eons. Because of the karmic seeds contained in the alaya consciousness one may die a premature death, be stricken with unexpected disease or inexplicable misfortune, overcome by strong desires, aversions and obsessions, can think and do things that one should never even imagine, etc. So strong is the influence of the alaya consciousness. ..
When Shinran is recorded as saying in chapter 13th of Tannisho: “a person may not wish to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people”, he is in fact referring to the influence of past karma contained in the alaya consciousness.

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"The most fundamental layer of consciousness is the ninth or amala consciousness. Unstained by the workings of karma, this consciousness represents our true, eternal self. The revolutionary aspect of Nichiren Buddhism is that it seeks to directly bring forth the energy of this consciousness--the enlightened nature of the Buddha--thus purifying the other, more superficial layers of consciousness."

A Karmic River

Buddhism posits that our thoughts, words and deeds invariably create an imprint in the deep layers of the eighth consciousness. This is what Buddhists refer to as karma. The eighth consciousness is therefore sometimes referred to as the karmic storehouse--the place where these karmic seeds are stored. These seeds or latent energy can be either positive or negative; the eighth consciousness remains neutral and equally receptive to either type of karmic imprinting. The energy becomes manifest when conditions are ripe.
Positive latent causes can become manifest as both positive effects in one's life and as positive psychological functions such as trust, nonviolence, self-control, compassion and wisdom.
Negative latent causes can manifest as various forms of delusion and destructive behavior and give rise to suffering for ourselves and others.

While the image of a storehouse is helpful, a truer image may be that of a raging torrent of karmic energy. This energy is constantly moving through and shaping our lives and experience. Our resultant thoughts and actions are then fed back into this karmic flow. The quality of the karmic flow is what makes each of us distinct beings--our unique selves. The flow of energy is constantly changing, but, like a river, it maintains an identity and consistency even through successive cycles of life and death. It is this aspect of fluidity, this lack of fixity, that opens the possibility of transforming the content of the eighth consciousness. This is why karma, properly understood, is different from an unchanging or unavoidable destiny.

The question, therefore, is how we increase the balance of positive karma. This is the basis for various forms of Buddhist practice that seek to imprint positive causes in our lives. When caught up in a cycle of negative cause and effect, however, it is difficult to avoid making further negative causes, and it is here that we turn to the most fundamental layer of consciousness, the ninth or amala consciousness.

This can be thought of as the life of the cosmos itself; it is also referred to as the fundamentally pure consciousness. Unstained by the workings of karma, this consciousness represents our true, eternal self. The revolutionary aspect of Nichiren Buddhism is that it seeks to directly bring forth the energy of this consciousness--the enlightened nature of the Buddha--thus purifying the other, more superficial layers of consciousness. The great power of the ninth consciousness welling forth changes even entrenched patterns of negative karma in the eighth consciousness.

Because the eighth consciousness transcends the boundaries of the individual, merging with the latent energy of one's family, one's ethnic group, and also with that of animals and plants, a positive change in this karmic energy becomes a "cogwheel" for change in the lives of others. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda writes, "When we activate this fundamentally pure consciousness, the energy of all life's good and evil karma is directed toward value creation; and the mind or consciousness...of humankind is infused with the life current of compassion and wisdom." Nichiren identified the practice of chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the basic means for activating the ninth consciousness in our lives.

As the layers of consciousness are transformed, they each give rise to unique forms of wisdom. The wisdom inherent in the eighth consciousness allows us to perceive ourselves, our experience and other phenomena with perfect clarity and to profoundly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. As the deep-rooted delusions of the seventh consciousness are transformed, an individual is enabled to overcome the fear of death, as well as the aggression and violence that spring from this fear. A wisdom arises which enables us to perceive the fundamental equality of all living beings and to deal with them on an unchanging basis of respect. It is this type of transformation and wisdom that is sorely required in our world today.

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