Ālaya-vijñāna and Early Buddhism

The Yogacāra school proposed the idea of what later came to be known as the “eight consciousnesses.” That is, the five sense-organ and sixth mind-organ consciousnesses, as well as the ‘manas,’ often called ego-consciousness, followed by the ālaya or warehouse consciousness. Scholars such as David Kalupahana have argued that interpreting these last two as separate “consciousnesses” is a later notion that Vasubandhu was not exactly proposing. And there have been scholars, such as Dan Lusthaus, who extensively research Yogacāra and try to dispel myths about it being “idealist” or claiming that consciousness is the substance making up our reality.

I won’t get into all of the later exegesis here. I highly recommend Kalupahana’s ‘The Principles of Buddhist Psychology’ which has chapters on Vasubandhu and the notions of consciousness, as well as the relevant articles by Dan Lusthaus, Lambert Schmithausen, and Nobuyoshi Yamabe. I’d like to begin this discussion from a primarily EBT point-of-view for the sake of ease and convenience.

So here’s the idea: Many schools of Early Buddhism recognized that, if consciousness arises dependent on the individual sense organs and ceases accordingly, there are some problems. For one, the cessation of perception and feeling (saññāvedayitanirodha-samāpatti). If, in this attainment, feeling (vedanā) and perception (saññā) cease, it would seem that consciousness (viññāna) would also be absent. But, how would that person arise from the attainment? Sometimes people mention something like the ‘momentum of karma,’ which is not a bad answer, but it doesn’t actually address the problem: if things have ceased, how is there some underlying momentum that makes them re-arise?

Moreover, when consciousness in that body does re-arise, why is it in the same physical body as before? What is the difference between dying — all sensory consciousness in this existence ceasing, and continuing / re-arising elsewhere — and entering an attainment where all sensory consciousness shuts off? If it has to do with karma, how does that work or fit in with our model of consciousness and epistemology?

There’s also the issue of memory. Again, in the cessation of perception and feeling, if consciousness merely shuts off and then later re-starts, it would be like amnesia. There would simply be no memory whatsoever. And yet there does seem to be a space where one is capable of recognizing that consciousness ceases temporarily within the larger stream of consciousness that was not cut off. Of course, there is recalling the moments leading up to the attainment and what caused one to enter it, but still the experience seems to be described and understood differently than say, remembering receiving a dose of a drug and then waking up without any recollection of what happened between.

Then there’s the problem of memory in general, especially past life memories. Take eye-consciousness. If eye consciousness is the dependently arisen awareness of visible sights that arises and ceases accordingly, how is that accessible via memory; it would seem to just be a stream of occurring phenomena arising dependently and then forgotten as they vanish.

Other examples are being knocked ‘unconscious,’ like before with the example of drugs, head-injury, deep dreamless sleep, etc. And then there’s the idea of physical impairments. Say someone is blind — no eye-consciousness. But in the next life, there will have eye-consciousness. So clearly eye-consciousness, once having ceased, can re-arise. But how? And what are the implications? Clearly it’s not so accurate to conceive of each sensory consciousness as a separate thing or substance, but rather modalities of the larger aggregate of consciousness which seems to be able to manifest in various ways according to present and past conditions.

The above relates to the connection between rebirth and the brain as well. Consciousness in this life seems to depend on the brain, but Buddhism acknowledges that the brain is not the origin or creator of consciousness. Whereas our current mano-viññāna seems based in physicality (in the commentaries the heart, whereas most people nowadays focus on the brain), the ālaya-viññāna or karmic consciousness is that stream of experience that goes beyond particular current sense bases and can be accessed or ‘tapped into.’

On a similar note, there are ‘asaññī’ or non-percipient beings, found occasionally in the Pali/Chinese suttas and in the commentaries. These beings are also said to lack perception and consist only of the aggregate of form (rūpa). They are mentioned also in DN1 in how someone recalling past lives may believe they arose from nothingness or that there was a beginning. But, as will be clear from the above examples, how does this work?

Then there is connecting all of this with the implications of the cessation of consciousness of the arahant or liberated being at death.

My understanding of one reading of the idea of ālaya-vijñāna in its theoretically earlier conception is that it is essentially referring not to a ‘kind’ of consciousness, like a separate substance from nose-consciousness, but rather a sort of layer or modality to consciousness (i.e. experience). It is like the ‘stream of consciousness’ — the underlying flow of fluctuating experience that receives ‘impressions’ and perfuming from our conscious input and karmic activities. ‘Ālaya’ originally seems to refer to ‘grasping,’ opposite of ‘anālaya,’ in that it is related to how we ‘take up’ forms of nāmarūpa and how consciousness is ‘stationed’ (DN15) on different planes according to our karma. Despite the individual fluctuation of particular consciousnesses, there is this ‘current’ or karmic stream that flows onward and is maintained via upādāna. Therefore, cessation of individual consciousnesses can re-arise, be recalled within the stream of memory as moments in ‘time,’ there can be dreamless sleep, etc.

This could be understood as neither the same as nor different from ‘mano-viññāna.’ In one sense it is a inseparable from mano-viññāna, as it is merely a known experience or aspect of experience via the mind, but on the other hand it may be said to be a deeper layer of mano-viññāna as the former can cease without the stream of consciousness ceasing. In fact, the (temporary) cessation of mano-viññāna can leave impressions and have effects on the stream of consciousness.

So: the ‘stream of consciousness’ refers to and contains the arising, persisting and ceasing of the sensory consciousnesses, and is thereby not a separate ‘substance’ from them. And yet, it is not identical to them. It is closer to an inferential description of the laws of consciousness and the stream of experience more than it is a realm consciousness itself.

In Yogacāra, as I understand, samsāra is maintained via the ego-aspect of mind which grasps onto the underlying stream of consciousness (ālayavijñāna), thereby maintaining the dependency on manifestations of consciousness and existence, as well as being tied to the laws of karmic retribution and creation. With the cessation of upādāna and the appropriation of this general stream of experience, there is the relinquishment of the basis for the arising of further existence, and yet this layer of consciousness can be seen to remain until ceasing (i.e. an arahant can enter the cessation of perception and feeling, and still re-arise from it, etc. and yet there is no basis for further arising at death).

Attainments such as insight into the noble truths of the cessation of perception and feeling — understood to be transcendental in nature — are understood as not just the cessation of mano-viññāna which could happen to anybody several times a day even, but rather seeing through the stream or basis of consciousness itself (i.e. ālaya-viññāna). In Zen/Chan traditions, there is sometimes mention of ‘shattering’ or ‘breaking through’ the ālaya-vijñāna for deep insight.

This is more a series of questions and tentative explorations. I’d like to hear others thoughts and comments. I think that something along these lines is implicit in the Buddha’s description of reality and consciousness, and narrowing down consciousness to arising experiences at the sense gates — while not untrue as one lens for analyzing our experience — is not entirely complete in and of itself. There is also the karmic dimension.



Hi Ayya :slight_smile:

Isn’t the implication that consciousness depends on causes?

If you’ve ever used a wood stove; sometimes the fire goes out but there’s still wood inside smoldering, but it happens sometimes that the wood starts burning again by itself. Probably because the smoldering happens in a way that opens up for more air flow, increasing heat and thus re-igniting the fire, or something like that.

It’s not clear to me why consciousness should behave differently than other phenomena when it comes to causality? If some necessary causes of e.g. eye-consciousness are gone temporarily, eye-consciousness will be gone temporarily. If they’re gone forever, eye-consciousness is gone forever. :slight_smile:

As Master Eckhart says (here “soul” stands for consciousness):

Through this presented image, the soul approaches creatures - an image being something that the soul makes of (external) objects with her own powers. Whether it is a stone, a horse, a man, or anything else that she wants to know, she gets out the image of it that she has already taken in, and is thus enabled to unite herself with it.

But for a man to receive an image in this way, it must of neces­sity enter from without through the senses. In consequence, there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself. Accordingly, one master says that the soul can neither create nor obtain an image of herself.

Therefore she has no way of knowing herself, for images all enter through the senses, and hence she can have no image of herself. And so she knows all other things, but not herself. Of nothing does she know so little as of herself, for want of mediation.
In strictly phenomenological approach Master Eckhart observation can be stated as follows:

Ven Nanavira: The reason why we cannot say ‘consciousness is’ or ‘consciousness of consciousness’ is simply that the only thing (or things) that consciousness can be consciousness of is name-and-matter (nàma-rupa). Consciousness is the presence of the phenomenon, of what is manifested in experience (which is nàmarupa), and we cannot in the same sense speak of ‘consciousness of consciousness’, which would be presence of presence’; in other words, the nature of the relation between consciousness and name-and-matter cannot be the same as that between one consciousness and another (the former relation is internal, the latter external).

What we have in the pre-reflexive hierarchy of consciousness is really a series of layers, not simply of consciousness of ascending order, but of consciousness cum name-and-matter of ascending order. At each level there is consciousness of a phenomenon, and the different levels are superimposed (this is not to say that the phenomenon at any one level has nothing to do with the one below it [as in a pile of plates]; it has, but this need not concern us at present). The relation between two adjacent layers of consciousness is thus juxtaposition—or rather super-position, since they are of different orders. In reflexion, two of these adjacent layers are combined, and we have complex consciousness instead of simple consciousness, the effect of which is to reveal different degrees of consciousness—in other words, different degrees of presence of name-and-matter. This does not allow us to say ‘consciousness is present’ (in which case we should be confusing consciousness with name-and-matter), but it does allow us to say ‘there is consciousness’. Successive orders of reflexion can be shown verbally as follows:

Immediate experience: A pain’, i.e. ‘A pain (is)’ or ‘(Consciousness of) a pain’.

First order reflexion: ‘There is a (an existing) pain’ or ‘There is (consciousness of) a pain’;

and these two are each equivalent to ‘Awareness of a pain’—but note that awareness (sampajañña) is not the same as consciousness (viññāna).

Second order reflexion: ‘There is awareness of a pain’ ‘Awareness of awareness of a pain’ ‘There is awareness of awareness of a pain’ ‘Awareness of awareness of awareness of a pain’

And so on. (In your illustration you pass from immediate presence (‘Pain is’) to reflexive presence (‘There is consciousness of pain’). But these two do not correspond. If you say immediately ‘Pain is’, then reflexively you must say ‘There is existing pain’; and only if you say immediately ‘Consciousness of pain’ can you say reflexively ‘There is consciousness of pain’. As you have put it you make it seem as if consciousness only comes in with reflexion.) L 86

Another useful observation:

While in sleep we breathe, and while in sleep we are conscious; for we can be woken out of sleep by a noise. If we did not in some sense hear the noise, we should not awaken, and if we hear it we must be conscious: a noise cannot provoke consciousness, it can only disturb it. L 76 (Again Nanavira).

But Ālaya-vijñana, enters the field of metaphysical speculation. This is quite different language

Nanamoli Thera:

The more I examine and observe experience (What else can one do? Build castles?), the more I find that I can only say of consciousness (and in this I find a notable confirmation in the Pali Suttas) that it seems only describable (knowable) “in terms of what it arises dependent upon” (i.e. seeing-cum-seen … mind-knowing-cum-mind, known or mind cum-ideas), that is, negatively as to itself. And so, instead of being said to appear, it should rather be called that negativeness or “decompression of being” which makes the appearance of life, movement, behaviour, etc., and their opposites, possible in things and persons. But while life, etc. cannot be or not be without the cooperation of the negative presence of consciousness, which gives room for them (and itself) to “come to be” in this way (gaining its own peculiar form of negative being, perhaps from them)—the only possible way of being—they are, by ignorance, simultaneously individualized in actual experience.

Unindividualized experience cannot, I think, be called experience at all. Thus there appears the positive illusion also of individual consciousness: “illusion” because its individuality is borrowed from the individualness of (1) its percepts, and (2) the body seen as its perceiving instrument.

Unindividualized perception cannot, any more, I think, be called perception at all. The supposed individuality of consciousness (without which it is properly inconceivable) is derived from that of its concomitants. This illusory individualization of consciousness, this mirage, manifests itself in the sense both of “my consciousness” and of “consciousness that is not mine” (as e.g. in the sensation of being seen when one fancies or actually finds one is caught, say, peeping through a keyhole, and from which the abstract notion of universal consciousness develops). The example shows that the experience of being seen does not necessarily mean that another’s consciousness is seeing one, as one may have been mistaken in one’s fancy owing to a guilty sense (though the experience was just as real at the time), before one found no one was there. To repeat: my supposed consciousness seems only distinguishable from the supposed consciousness that is not mine on the basis of the particular non-consciousness (i.e.
material body, etc.) through which its negativity is manifested and with which it is always and inevitably associated in some way. It is impossible, I think, to overemphasize the importance of this fact.



Such speculations may be useful or not, depends on our approach. If it helps us to understand the nature of consciousness that’s fine:

“What is the difference, friend, between wisdom and consciousness, these states that are conjoined, not disjoined?”“The difference, friend, between wisdom and consciousness, these states that are conjoined, not disjoined, is this: wisdom is to be developed, consciousness is to be fully understood.” MN 43

I find English does not lend itself readily to talking the following way, but we can try.

Any awareness is also an experience, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Pleasant experience is quite another from unpleasant experience.

Any awareness is also in a certain way, aware this way is quite another from aware that way. By this I mean sanna

If any should talk of alaya vinnana they should also speak if alaya vedana, alaya sanna and so forth.

PS: this also applies to ‘unconditioned mind’ , which is a contradiction in terms. These dhammas interdepend on each other. In this case I take unconditioned to mean highly developed viraga bhava or anchored by very strong mula dhammas , Alobha, Adosa and Amoha. This is just a personal opinion, I mean no disrespect by this.

What is the difference between alaya-vijnana of Yogacara and bhavanga (or vinnana-sota, “stream of conciousness”) of Theravada Abhidhamma?

I think alaya-vinnana is a nice way to declare where anusaya for example lie dormant. Like seeds that can any time sproud with sense contact as condition. A subconscious as it were.

(Sannavedayitanirodha (svn)keeps being problematic. I think it is unfortunate that no one who knows this state can talk about it. This causes that all kinds of speculations circulate and we never come to some agreement of what this state is alike. Even wrong views about it are not corrected this way. This is, i feel, not good. If people here or else keep believing that there is no awarness at all in svn, and this would just be wrong, well, there must be someone who tell this. A part of being a teacher is to correct wrong views? But now nothing is corrected. Maybe one feels not an authority but then we must invite anyone who is. There are all kinds of ever persisting Dhamma issues, like the nature of svn, that are never solved and only leads to increasing defilements. I do not exactly understand why the leaders of this Sangha or community do not make an end to all this. It is not that these issues cannot be solved)

I feel the best is to see vinnana as projections of the mind. Conscious moments of the mind. Mind is the forerunner. And when we become unconcious, mind does not disappear or cease. But only conscious moment cease.

To reduce life, or our lifes to only the conscious moments seems not wise.

In the Mahāyānasaṃgraha Ven. Asaṅga equates them (seems he was aware of the Theravādin Abhidhamma). He also references the Mahāsāṃghika’s mūlavijñāna and the Mahīśāsaka’s “skandha that lasts as long as Saṃsāra” both of which appear in their āgama texts. In addition he quotes from some EĀ sutra which talks of beings clinging to the “Ālaya”. He acknowledges that other traditions interpret this to mean the aggregates, or sensual pleasures (similar to the Theravādin explanation of the term) but he then goes on to argue why this isn’t a satisfactory explanation.

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Hello, everyone :slight_smile:

Of course! The question is just a matter of what the conditions for consciousness are. My point is that consciousness seems not to be only dependent on the individual sense organs and sensory stimuli. This is obvious enough, as even though light comes into range of an eyeball, the person must be alive for consciousness to register. It’s just a matter of drawing out and connecting the different implications.

I would say that consciousness in early Buddhism is described in two overlapping ways. One is a description of the domains of consciousness, i.e. the six sensory domains. The other is a description of the karmic stream of consciousness conditioned by volition and nāmarūpa. We could say that the first answers “where and how” and the second says “why and who”. Both combined tell us “what” viññāna is.

I think that it is potentially the over-emphasis on the first description that lead some historical Buddhists to posit more detailed theories about the latter.

The example with the fire smouldering is good. In that case, there is still some heat remaining, as well as a basis for the heat (i.e. the wood fuel and oxygen). In this case, the wood is like the sense organ, as the fire arises in dependence on the wood pile. The oxygen is like the sensory stimuli, as it comes in the vicinity of the sense organ to stimulate the fire. The fire is like consciousnesses, which burns in dependence on the two and gives off light.

But imagine that there were no heat remaining or smouldering. The fire has completely gone out. We could analogize this to the cessation of perception and feeling. And then, all of a sudden, the fire re-emerges from cold wood and no particular contact w/ oxygen to cause combustion. This would stand for the re-arising from a cessation attainment.

In this case, we would need to update our understanding of the conditions for fire to arise and persist. Note that it still arises w/ the wood pile and in an oxygenated environment, so the fire — so long as it is burning — still depends on the internal and external conditions, never otherwise. But there is some other component here, a third condition, that is necessary.

I believe this is why ‘saññāvedayitanirodha’ is not called ‘the cessation of consciousness.’ ‘Saññā’ and ‘vedanā’ are said to be inseparable and fundamental to the structure of ‘viññāna.’ So if one of these disappears, the others by extension also would not be present. However, ‘viññāna’ here would imply the whole stream or aggregate of consciousness, or the principle of samsāric existence. It parallels ‘bhava’ in dependent arising. So the cessation of viññāna really only seems to be used to refer to nibbāna, as any other temporary cessation does not imply viññāna coming to a real end.

The Pāli texts explain this attainment as saying that the faculty of life (jīva) is not gone. In some parallels available in Chinese, it also says that consciousness has not left the body, or something along those lines. I’d say both of these would be referring to ‘viññāna’ as the principle of continued existence conditioned by volition/kamma and dependent on a particular psycho-somatic structure (nāmarūpa). The individuation of this stream is the ‘who,’ i.e. the karmic conditions and the particular psycho-somatic organism it is dependent on (and it turns out this ‘who’ is a conditioned temporary process, hence anattā). The grasping and ignorance-influenced volitions also tell us why it continues to arise at the sense organs, compared to a dead body, and across lives when some prior sense organs may cease.

It’s important to note that both of these two overlapping dimensions of ‘viññāna’ have to be borne in mind. If we understand only in terms of the ‘where’ of the six domains, several problems arise. But if we understand only in terms of a stream that continues, it’s possible to conceive of consciousness as some kind of solid/permanent transmigrating entity, as at MN 38, where the Buddha goes on to describe how the actual experience of consciousness is still of a conditioned plurality, despite there being a degree of continuity in terms of kamma & rebirth. Just like the fire re-arising at the wood pile with oxygen, and there not being any kind of higher secret fire invisible there.

What I said above should clarify and respond to some of what you’ve said. Conscious experience is completely intertwined with vedanā and saññā, yes. But what I was pointing to in my main post and above is that the term ‘viññāna’ is also used in a broader sense than mere individual instances of awareness in sensory domains, while also not going beyond those sensory domains to posit some kind of “higher” consciousness. With the concept of ‘ālaya-viññāna’ here then— it is not that it is designating a form or domain of conscious experience, but that it is describing the karmic stream of consciousness which is made up of those same sensory consciousnesses.

An example would be of a literal stream, or river. Let’s imagine it is only made of ‘water,’ excluding dirt and so forth. We could say that the stream is made of individual drops of water, but by “stream” we do not mean individual drops of water nor is a bunch of drops of water sufficient to quality as a “stream.” There has to be some momentum, flow, or movement going on whereby the water that makes up the stream is carried forward.

In the same way, viññāna is comprises of awareness in the six domains, but it also entails more than just those parts. There is another condition, this being the karmic momentum and stationing of it within particular births and sustained by upādāna. We might ask: what is the difference between someone being knocked completely unconscious in all six domains, then waking up, and someone understanding the cessation of the six sense domains / consciousness? I would say that it is the difference between mere parts and a meaningful whole: one has to give up the stream or continuation of consciousness itself, which entails some relinquishment of ‘upādāna.’ Without this condition, even if all consciousness(es) cease, there is still that third condition (sankhara/upādāna) which allows it to re-arise, like with the fire analogy above.

Likewise, based on previous stationing / kamma, this conscious stream is tied to a current nāmarūpa (or alternatively described as the four stations of consciousness—the four other aggregates). So long as these persist, consciousness is karmically bound to them—not any particular domain of consciousness, but the general stream of consciousness.

This is not my own idiosyncratic usage of terms. As I mentioned before, we have reference in the suttas to ‘asaññāsattā,’ or beings who are reborn with no saññā. That is, this is a ‘domain of consciousness,’ explained in tradition as comprising only the station of form (rūpa). Obviously, there must be some continuity of the stream of consciousness, otherwise this would completely disrupt the flow of kamma and so forth as understood in early Buddhism. But there is no sensory consciousness arising at that time.

I can’t answer this to accurate satisfaction. But as I referenced in the post, I think there are/were different understandings of “ālaya-vijñāna” within and without the Yogācāra tradition. I am not trying to confirm any of those positions, but am taking the concept and ideas behind the discussion of ‘ālaya-vijñāna’ as a spring board to look more deeply at those questions from the perspective of the early discourses.

Thank you everyone for your contributions. :slight_smile: I hope this has helped shine light on the implications a particular model of consciousness has for the ideas of early Buddhism—from kamma and continuity all the way to liberating wisdom and liberation. Ultimately, we want something practical and descriptive, both of which I believe are accurate terms for the model that seems to be presented in the EBTs. It says just enough.

EDIT: Another reference to this usage of ‘viññāna’ is in the list of abhiññās (higher knowledges), where one is said to be seeing how consciousness is tied up with the physical body, with the simile of a beryl gem attached to a string. Here ‘viññāna’ is not any particular instance of sensory awareness, but stands for the larger aggregate and stationing of consciousness w/ nāmarūpa.

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Hi, question: Does this mean cessation of feeling perception or cessation of feeling and perception? Thank you :pray:

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Hi :slight_smile: It means more literally

(the) cessation of perception and what is felt.

It’s often translated as ‘the cessation of perception and feeling,’ but the word here is ‘vedayita, not plain vedanā. However, even the above translation is not quite the most concrete IMO.

A more concrete rendering of the connotation would be ‘the cessation of awareness and what is felt’ or something along those lines. Because ‘saññā’ is used to mean general awareness/consciousness often in these contexts (like being saññī or asaññī), and ‘vedayita’ or ‘what is felt’ really implies ‘what is experienced’ as well, generally.

As I said above, I think the reason ‘viññāna’ is not used here is because as many scholars have noted before, ‘viññāna’ has the connotations of rebirth and the stream of life, not just sensory awareness.

You should read the Mahāyānasaṃgraha by Ven. Asaṅga. He makes many of the same arguments.

Thank you. I wasn’t expecting such a thorough response. I appreciate it.

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The way I am thinking about this is difficult for me to explain in English.

For example , let’s take being mindful of the breath. The way i am thinking, it’s equally valid to say passati, manasi karoti, viditam karoti etc.

And ‘nevasaññānāsañña’ , it s equally valid to say, nevaphassonāphasso , nevavedanānāvedanā etc.

Yes, I would also use ‘intertwined’ , but probably the meaning I have in mind is quite different.

In Xuanzang’s Demonstration of Consciousness Only (成唯識論), he draws those types of connections as well. He references doctrines of the Mahasamghika (root consciousness), Sthavira / Vibhajyavada (bhavanga consciousness), Mahisasaka (“skandha that lasts as long as samsara”), and Sarvastivada (alaya). He traces the Sarvastivada use of alaya to their Ekottarika Agama.