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The Turning About in the Deepest Seat of Consciousness

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 12: the Turning about in the Deepest Seat of Consciousness

So Far We Have Certainly Thought of conversion in Buddhism in very radical terms. It is not enough to convert to Buddhism; we need to experience conversion within the context of our Buddhist practice, at ever deeper levels. It is not enough to think in terms of our own spiritual development; we need to think in terms of the spiritual welfare of all living beings. And we can think of conversion in more radical terms still. We can think of it in terms of a shift in the very nature of our experience of the world.

The ordinary experience which we have almost all the time is firmly and securely based on subject-object dualism. All our knowledge, all our thinking, takes place within the framework of this dualism - subject and object, me and you, `me in here' and `the world out there'. But the Enlightened mind is completely free of such dualism. It's an experience of just One Mind - cittamatra, `mind only' to use the terminology of the Yogacara, one of the two main schools of Mahayana Buddhism in medieval India. The experience of the one mind is like a great expanse of water, absolutely pure, absolutely transparent, with nothing in it, not a single speck, other than the water itself.

Between the experience of One Mind and our ordinary, everyday consciousness, based as it is on subject-object dualism, there is obviously a great gulf. To go from one to the other requires a tremendous change, a complete and absolute reversal of all our usual attitudes. The Yogacara insists on this very strongly. The spiritual life doesn't consist in a little chipping away here, a little chipping away there, a slight improvement here, a slight improvement there. It involves a complete turning about, even a complete turning upside-down. Before we can make the leap from ordinary mind, empirical mind, to the One Mind, all our established values and attitudes and ways of looking at things have to be turned topsy-turvy.

This reversal, this great change, this great death and rebirth, is what the Yogacara terms the paravritti, and this technical term gives us an entirely different angle on the meaning of conversion in Buddhism from those we have so far examined. Some scholars translate paravritti as `revulsion', but this is not really satisfactory because it implies a psychological process rather than a spiritual and metaphysical one. It is much better to use the literal translation of paravritti - `turning about'.

The paravritti, the turning about, is synonymous with conversion in the very deepest and most radical sense of the term. It is the central theme of the Lankavatara Sutra, and indeed we may say that it is the central theme, the central concern, of the spiritual life itself. If the spiritual life doesn't turn you upside-down, if you don't feel as though you're hanging head downwards in a void, then it isn't the spiritual life. If you feel all safe and secure and firm and nicely going ahead, step by step, you haven't yet begun to live the spiritual life in earnest.

Before going into the nature of this turning about, let's have a brief look at its scriptural source, the Lankavatara Sutra. In Nepal, continuing an originally Indian tradition, they have a list of ten canonical scriptures which they regard as constituting the fundamental Mahayana canon, and the Lankavatara is one of them, so we can say that it is one of the ten most important sutras in the Mahayana tradition. In fact, it was not only the Nepalis who had a high regard for this particular sutra. It was a seminal work for the Yogacara, and it was also central to the development of Ch'an (or Zen), having been taken from India to China (so it is said) by Bodhidharma, the founder of Ch'an Buddhism. According to the legends, Bodhidharma went wafting over the ocean from India to China on a reed, and didn't take anything with him but his robe, his bowl, - and a palm-leaf copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. It was no doubt by reason of its tremendous emphasis on personal experience and inner realization that the sutra exerted such a strong influence on Zen. Indeed, whole schools of Buddhism have devoted themselves to the study of just this one text; it is certainly one of the most exhaustive and profound sutras in the Buddhist canon.

The full title of the work is the Saddharma-lankavatara Sutra. Sutra means a discourse of the Buddha, saddharma means `the good law', or `the real truth', and lankavatara means `entry into Lanka', so we can render the whole title as `The Buddha's discourse on the entry of the real truth into Lanka'. Lanka is a city or castle situated on a mountain-top in the ocean somewhere off the Indian coast. In Indian literature, of course, Lanka usually stands for what we call Sri Lanka, but here no such specific identification can be inferred; in this sutra we are in the realm of myth rather than geography.

The sutra is a fairly lengthy work of nine chapters, the English translation by D.T. Suzuki running to about 300 pages.<$FThe Lankavatara Sutra, trans. D.T. Suzuki, Routledge, London 1932.> It contains a large number of extremely profound and valuable teachings, though in a rather scattered form, the text being an anthology of extracts or excerpts in no systematic order. But of the immense number of topics with which the sutra deals, we are here concerned with only one: the paravritti, the turning about.

The first chapter of the Lankavatara is called `The Invitation of Ravana', Ravana being the king of the Rakshasas, the beings who inhabit the island of Lanka. In Buddhist texts Ravana appears as a wise sage, a great disciple of the Buddha, but it is interesting to note that in Hindu texts such as the Ramayana he is the villain of the piece; this only goes to show that there is always more than one way of looking at not only a particular religious doctrine but even a particular individual. According to the introduction to the sutra, Ravana invites the Buddha to preach (a conventional Buddhist procedure - one is generally invited to preach rather than taking the initiative oneself). In response the Buddha delivers a succinct and profound discourse, as a result of which Ravana experiences the paravritti.

It seems to him that the whole universe vanishes and all that is left is an expanse of absolute consciousness, or absolute mind, within which there is no differentiation of subject and object.

Furthermore, he hears a voice proclaiming that this is the state which has to be realized. It is this experience, this change in Ravana's consciousness from awareness of the ordinary external universe in all its discreteness and diversity to awareness of absolute mind, free from all distinction between universe and void, which constitutes what is called the paravritti.

To understand how this process of turning about happens, we need to refer to a rather technical but absolutely fundamental aspect of the Yogacara teaching called the system of the eight vijnanas. Vijnana is usually translated as `consciousness', but that is not exactly accurate. The prefix vi- means `to divide' or `to discriminate', and jnana means `knowledge' or `awareness', so we can translate vijnana as `discriminating awareness'. Vijnana therefore refers to awareness of an object not just in a pure mirror-like way but in a way which discriminates the object as being of a particular type and belonging to a particular class, species, or whatever. In the Yogacara teaching there are eight of these vijnanas, eight forms of discriminating awareness or consciousness. The first five are the five `sense vijnanas', the modes of discriminating awareness which operate through the five senses - through the eye with respect to form, the ear with respect to sound, and so on.

The sixth consciousness is called the mano-vijnana. Mano means simply `mind', so this is discriminating awareness functioning through mind. Mind, by the way, is usually classified in Buddhism as a sort of sixth sense, so it doesn't have a special elevated position above the five sense consciousnesses. According to Yogacara psychology, there are two aspects of mano-vijnana. The first of these is awareness of what we might describe as `ideas of sense' - in other words, the mind's awareness of impressions presented to it by the five senses. And the second aspect is awareness of ideas which arise independently of sense-perception, out of the mind itself. This latter aspect of mano-vijnana is of three kinds. First of all, there are the ideas and impressions which arise in the course of meditation, as when one experiences light which doesn't have its origin in any sense impression but comes from the mind itself. Then secondly there are functions such as imagination, comparison, and reflection. And thirdly there are the images perceived in dreams, which again come not from sense impressions but directly from the mind itself. All this is the mano-vijnana.

Seventhly, there is the klishto-mano-vijnana. Klishto means `afflicted', or `suffering', and it also means `defiled', because defilement is a source of suffering. This mode of awareness, therefore, is afflicted or defiled by a dualistic outlook. Whatever it experiences, it interprets dualistically in terms of a subject and an object - subject as self, and object as world or universe. So everything is seen in terms of pairs of opposites: good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, existence and non-existence, and so on. This dualistic mode of discriminative awareness or consciousness is, of course, what characterizes the way we usually live and work.

The eighth consciousness is called the alaya-vijnana. Strictly speaking, however, this is not a vijnana at all, because in it there is no discrimination, but just awareness. Alaya literally means a repository or store, or even treasury; we are all familiar with the word in the compound ...

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