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The Turning About in the Deepest Seat of Consciousness

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by Sangharakshita

... `Himalaya', which means `the abode of snow' or `the repository of snow'. This `store consciousness' has two aspects: the `relative alaya' and the `absolute alaya'. The relative alaya consists of, or contains, the impressions left deep in the mind by all our previous experiences. Whatever we have done or said or thought or experienced, a trace or residue of it remains there; nothing is absolutely lost. The relative alaya, in fact, is not unlike Jung's collective unconscious, although this is a very approximate analogy which cannot be pushed too far. The Yogacarin School conceives of the impressions which are deposited in the alaya-vijnana, the consequences of our various thoughts and deeds, as `seeds' (bijas). In other words, these impressions are not passive; they are not just like the impression left by a seal in a piece of wax. They are active impressions, left like seeds in the soil, and when conditions are favourable they sprout up and produce fruits.

Alaya in its absolute aspect is Reality itself, conceived of in terms of pure awareness free from all trace of subjectivity and objectivity. It is a pure, continuous, and non-dimensional - or even multi-dimensional - awareness in which there is nothing of which anyone is aware, nor anyone who is aware. It is awareness without subject and without object, something which is very difficult for us to apprehend.

It is at the level of the alaya - the `deepest seat of consciousness' as Suzuki calls it<$FD.T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism, Grove Press, New York 1960, p.14.> - that the turning about with which we are concerned takes place. We can say (although the Lankavatara itself does not actually say this explicitly) that the turning about takes place at the borderline separating the relative alaya (that is, alaya as a sort of collective unconscious) from the alaya as Reality, as pure awareness.

How this actually takes place is not at all easy to describe, but the texts give us some hints. What we can say is that as we go through our lives, we have all sorts of experiences of one kind or another, all the time, every day, every hour, every minute; and as a result more and more impressions accumulate in the relative alaya. These impressions are known as `impure seeds', because the thoughts, words, and deeds which deposited or sowed them are defiled by our dualistic outlook, especially - to put it in more ethico-psychological terms - by our craving, our aversion, and our fundamental spiritual ignorance.

However, just as, in consequence of our ordinary actions, we can deposit impure seeds, so we can also deposit and accumulate `pure seeds'. These are pure impressions or traces, produced by our more spiritual thoughts, words, and deeds. The more we devote ourselves to the spiritual life, the more we accumulate spiritual impressions or traces - or pure seeds - in the relative alaya.

There comes a point when so many of these pure seeds are amassed in the relative alaya that the absolute alaya (which `borders' on the relative alaya) starts to push on them. And as the absolute alaya presses on the pure seeds, they in turn bring their weight to bear upon the impure seeds, and in the end they push them right out. It is this pushing out of the impure seeds that constitutes the turning about within the alaya, within the deepest seat of consciousness. Once this has taken place, a complete transformation is set up within the entire vijnana system, and the eight vijnanas are transformed into what are called the five jnanas, usually translated as the five knowledges or wisdoms. The eight modes of discriminating awareness are transformed into five modes of pure - that is, non-discriminating - awareness or wisdom.

Hence the term jnana. Vijnana means discriminating awareness, but jnana means simply awareness.

These five jnanas or wisdoms represent the five aspects of Enlightenment, and they are personified in Buddhist iconography as five Buddhas of various colours. The first five vijnanas, the sense-consciousnesses, are collectively transformed into what is called the All-performing Wisdom. This wisdom, which is capable of doing anything, is personified by the green Buddha, Amoghasiddhi, whose name means `Infallible Success'. So the five ordinary sense consciousnesses start functioning as the all-performing wisdom, or the all-performing awareness. The next one, the mano-vijnana, the mind consciousness, is transformed into Distinguishing Wisdom, the wisdom which appreciates the infinite variety of existence down to even the minutest differences. This is personified by the red Buddha, Amitabha - `Infinite Light'.

As for the klishto-mano-vijnana, the defiled mind consciousness, this is transformed into the Wisdom of Equality. It is a characteristic of the defiled mind consciousness to see things in terms of subject-object duality, in terms of opposition or conflict, but once the turning about has taken place, this is transformed into an awareness which sees everything as equal, sees everything with complete objectivity, and has the same attitude of compassion towards all. It is not that differences are obliterated, but one becomes aware that running through the differences - and even not different from the differences - is a thread of unity, of sameness. All things are equally void, equally one pure mind. This is personified by the yellow Buddha, Ratnasambhava, whose name means `Jewel-born One'.

The relative alaya is transformed into what is called the Mirror-like Wisdom, which reflects everything impartially and without distortion, which does not stick or cling to anything, but sees things just as they are. This wisdom is personified by the dark blue Buddha, Akshobhya, `the Imperturbable'.

The absolute alaya, of course, is not transformed at all, because it does not need to be transformed. It is equivalent to the fifth wisdom, the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, the wisdom of the universe perceived as fully pervaded by Reality, the Absolute Wisdom. This is personified by the white Buddha, Vairocana, whose name means `the Illuminator'. Just as white is composed of all the colours of the rainbow, so this is the basic wisdom of which the other four are aspects.<$FFor more details of the iconography and symbolism of the Five Buddhas, see Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas, Windhorse, Glasgow 1993, Part 2.> In this way, after the turning about at the alaya level has taken place, the eight consciousnesses become the five wisdoms, and one is utterly transformed - transformed into an Enlightened being, a Buddha, functioning in these five different ways, with these five modes of awareness. In other words, as a result of the paravritti, as a result of this turning about, this conversion, one's whole being and one's whole consciousness is transformed, translated, from an unenlightened level to an Enlightened level.

There still remains unanswered, of course, the usual practical question. How do we bring about the paravritti? It can hardly come about by accident. According to the Yogacara, although we have eight modes of consciousness, we normally function only on the basis of the first seven. Our five sense-consciousnesses function vigorously all the time we are awake, the mind consciousness keeps on functioning whether we are awake or asleep, and the defiled mind consciousness is of course very active indeed. But the alaya - the relative alaya and especially the absolute alaya - is normally hidden from us.

The highest level of consciousness to which we normally have access is the klishto-mano-vijnana, the level of the mind defiled by duality, by seeing things in terms of opposites, especially subject and object, self and other. So this is the level on which we have to operate. We have to work with the tools that lie to hand.

It is at this level, therefore, with this dualistic outlook, that we take up various spiritual practices. For instance, when we take up meditation our ultimate goal is non-dualistic, but our practice is necessarily dualistic. Here we are sitting meditating, while the object of our meditation - our breathing, or maybe a mantra - is, as it were, over there. The basis is dualistic because that is how we are constituted, that is the level on which we are functioning. All our various religious practices and spiritual exercises, especially meditation, are taken up on the level of the defiled mind consciousness. But by means of these practices on that level, impressions of a better type are left; pure seeds, as the Yogacarins call them, are accumulated. And eventually, as we practise day by day, week by week, year by year, enough pure seeds are deposited in the relative alaya for the turning about to take place.

We should not feel discouraged at the thought of all the time and effort this will take. It's rather like dropping a depth charge. If you are out at sea in a boat and you want to cause an explosion right down in the depths, you may have to spend hours or even days assembling the various component parts of the depth charge, and priming and adjusting the mechanism. And you do all that on the deck, even though you want to produce an effect many fathoms below. It's no use getting impatient and thinking: `Why waste all this time putting it all together here on deck? Why not just throw the stuff overboard and hope for the best?' Spiritual practice is rather like that. It is easy to get discouraged, and think: `I've been meditating (or doing some other practice) for all these weeks and months and years, but I'm still not Enlightened. I haven't even entered the Stream. What's going on?' Even when we feel we're not getting anywhere, though, the important thing is to carry on, because all this work has to be done at the level of the defiled mind consciousness in order to produce the required result at the level of the alaya.

This reminds me of a story I heard when I was in ...

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