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Transformation at the Base (Talk 1 of 8)

A series of talks on the Mind Only school of Buddhist thought

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 31, 2003
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
Zoketsu comments on Thich Nhat Hanh's Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness. - a readable version by Nhat Hanh of the complicated Buddhist teachings on “Mind Only” philosophy, the nature of mind and karma.
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Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Zoketsu Norman Fisher

May 2003

Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrageer 

 

Yogacara philosophy is difficult philosophically. It was useful to the Buddhists who wrote it, because whole Buddhist universities were involved in ongoing debates. It was very important to them to be able to prove and refute positions based on the principles that they had established and that Buddha had established long before. The academic side seemed germane to them, but it seems less so to us today. 

That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh wrote his own text, I think. He realized that commentaries on Vasubandhu’s Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness – the source of Yogacara thought – would be important in terms of our practice and what this philosophy has to do with practice. So he wrote verses to emphasize the practice side. 

The Mind Only teachings say that although we see our mind and our understanding of the world as rather small by virtue of our being conscious beings, our mind and our experience are much deeper and wider than we give credit for. Our own capacity, our own understanding, our own experience, and the nature of our own mind are bigger than we experience. We all think of ourselves as small, separate, modest persons living in a big, overwhelmingly complicated world. 

In fact, on one level, while this may be the true story, on another level we contain the whole world within us. When you recognize that the nature of your consciousness is rooted in consciousness itself and that consciousness itself is the whole of reality, it really makes things different. It puts your problems in a very different context, when your experience is that your mind and soul are rooted in that consciousness. 

According to the Mind Only schools of Buddhism — actually they are more accurately called “Manifestation Only” – everything is just a manifestation of mind. According to these schools, there is only consciousness. Everything is consciousness, and the variety of things in this world are simply different manifestations of consciousness. There are no real distinctions. This includes the big distinction between mind and matter. According to Yogacara, mind and matter are not fundamentally different things. They are both “transformation of consciousness.” The whole world is an evolution, a transformation of consciousness. Different kinds of matter are not fundamentally different from one another. So, within the tremendous diversity of this world, there is an underlying and fundamental unity. 

Unity and diversity are not really contradictions. The image often given is waves and the ocean. A wave is just a manifestation of the ocean. A wave is not actually a graspable, separable, real thing. A wave is something where causes and conditions come to bear on the ocean, and the wave is produced. The wave crests for just a moment and falls back into the ocean. While you could say ocean and wave are two different things, on another level, they are not different at all. A wave is just an expression of the ocean. There is no ocean without waves; there is no wave without ocean.

So differentiation and unity are not opposites. They are not two different conditions or two opposing forces. There can’t be unity without diversity; there can’t be diversity without unity. They can’t possibly be separated. 

We are like a wave, right? We are an individual manifestation. We might all agree that a wave is quite temporary and in motion. There’s no moment in which the wave is not utterly changing its shape; it breaks and is gone. So, none of us would think that we could get a very large box and go run out to the ocean and put a wave in a box. It’s a ridiculous idea. And yet we think of ourselves as that which can be put into a box. We say, This is myself. This is how I am. This is what I am. From this point of view, we’re like a wave that can be put in a box. But actually, each one of us is just a manifestation of consciousness. We are inseparable from the whole endless stream. Consciousness is very mysterious and beyond all categories and all definitions. 

In keeping with the model of oneself as a separate entity, we believe that consciousness is something going on in my brain. But in this philosophy, consciousness is not that at all. Consciousness is indefinable. It cannot be an object. So something is going on in my brain, but it’s just a manifestation of something much wider. If we really appreciated that, we would view our life quite differently than something that could be put in a box. 

So we might ask ourselves: What is it, in us, that doesn’t experience this reality? How come we don’t experience this reality? And then more importantly: How could we find a way to understand the wholeness of consciousness and live in accord with it? How could we find a way to really recognize the nature of consciousness more clearly and to live it more fully? 

The Thirty Verses is the most famous text of the Mind Only school. It is a poem by Vasubandhu, consisting of thirty rhymed verses in Sanskrit. Later, Mind Only pundits wrote commentaries to the Thirty Verses. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote Fifty Verses and his own commentary. I thought I would quote the very beginning of Thirty Verses

So here is the first stanza of the thirty stanzas, as translated by Cook in the book published by the Numata Center. 

The metaphor of self and dharmas evolves in various ways upon the transformation of consciousness. 

That’s the first point: dharmas, which is the world, is a metaphor! 

In our western psychology, we have an idea of self and an experience of self; we have a developed sense of subjectivity. So to have a teaching that denies that the self is real is more difficult for us to grasp than a teaching that says: It’s not that the sense of self is not real and you should deny your experience of it; it’s just that you should understand that experience as a metaphorical experience rather than a fundamental experience. 

We really experience a sense of exile from the world. The Yogacara teaching says: We understand that you have such an experience. This is a human experience, but recognize it as a metaphorical, evolving experience. It’s not a static experience. The underlying unity and its transformation into waves and water gives rise to these very convincing experiences that are essentially metaphorical. 

The stanzas continue:

The transforming of consciousness is three-fold. Retribution is the first, thought is the second, and the third is perception of the external realm. 

What is the nature of that transformation that gives rise to these metaphors? It’s threefold: retribution, thought, and perception of the external realm. The transformation of consciousness specifically means the metaphors of evolving and separating into a subjectivity and an objectivity. So consciousness, which is unitary, seems to transform into two different streams of subject and object – myself and the world. This is interesting, because that means that there is no subject without an object. There can’t be a you without a medium in which you would exist. And conversely there can’t be an objective world without a subject.

 

The transformation of consciousness transforms into three layers, or three realms. The first one, retribution, means manifestation. Something appears on a primordial level. This primordial appearance is the unity that is the source of the first transformation into subject and object. Existence itself is consciousness: all inclusive, primordial, including the potential for all individual being. It’s also called the alaya consciousness, the eighth storehouse consciousness. It stores the seeds of all potentials and manifestations of anything, including the manifestation of individual thoughts and memories.

 

The second realm is called, “thought,” or “manas,” which comes from this great unity of consciousness. Manas is the subject, the thought and perception of external reality – that is, the world.  

 

The third realm is called perception of an external realm.

 

I think it is interesting that in early Buddhism, there are six consciousnesses. The six are the five sense consciousnesses plus the mind. There is some recognition that the mental faculty is somewhat different from the five sense faculties, but they’re considered to be in the same realm. There is no idea of self as a consciousness. The difficulty with that thought – especially for us as western people with a very developed sense of subjectivity and psychology – is that in this teaching the self does not exist; it’s not even part of the system. It’s a fiction.

 

So from our point of view, given our preconceptions and our predispositions as people in the west, this teaching from early Buddhism is tough. We think, Oh, so then I don’t exist and my goal is to disappear. In the Mahayana school, however, there is a recognition inspired by compassion. Let’s recognize that there is an experience of being a self, being a person, and rather than say it’s a fiction, let’s account for it in a way that leads to healing and transcendence. Let’s talk about oneness. Let’s talk about the embracing of the world instead of nirvana – the fiction of the self.

 

So these things are really two different maps of the same territory. But you can see the advantages of the Mahayana map for us. If our goal in the end is belonging and compassion, then we want to see the world this way. Whereas if we see the world in terms of nirvana and the fiction of the self, this might tend to be less inspiring to us to be compassionate and to engage with others.

 

It should be said that these ways of experiencing consciousnesses are metaphors. There’s no sense in which these are actually things that exist. They’re descriptions and metaphors, which if we follow them, lead us to liberation; whereas, the metaphor of self and world, if we follow it to its logical conclusion, leads to pain and suffering. If we see that the self and the world are at odds with each other – a small self over here in the face of a tremendous crushingly difficult world – this is bad news.

 

To understand the metaphor of the eight consciousnesses and the transformation of consciousness, is to be involved in a process by which we transform the nature of the self. Instead of metaphorically ripping the self out from the unity of being, the self – seen as a metaphor – recognizes embraces the unity of being. The suffering inherent in this separation and ripping out (of the self) is replaced with a kind of embracing. This metaphorical system has potential for healing.