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Transformation at the Base (Talk 2 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) Talk 2 of 8

Zoketsu Norman Fisher

May 2003 

Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

 

We’re going to go into some detail on the nature of consciousness and the text. I was musing on this today, and I wondered, “What is consciousness?” I thought: it’s awareness, it’s identity, it’s attitude. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, consciousness means, “the sense of identity.” That’s interesting: the sense that we feel as a subject. Consciousness means we feel like a subject. There is an object that we are cognizing. So consciousness is, “a sense of identity, especially the complex of attitudes, beliefs, and sensitivities held by or characteristic of a group or individual.” In order to transform consciousness, we transform our attitudes, our beliefs, and our sensitivities.

Consciousness is also defined as “awareness itself or sensitivity.” Then I looked up “attitude”: “An attitude is a state of mind or a feeling, a disposition.” It’s interesting to think about that. Our life’s experiences force us into a particular state of body and mind. We have a particular attitude, which then becomes a sense of identity. And we are convinced that this is the way the world is. This is the way I am. This is how things are. And then we’re wondering, Why are things tough? So then it really becomes quite important to understand how an attitude gets built up, what it comes from, and what it takes to work on it so it can change.

The dictionary definition of mind is: “The human consciousness which is seated in the brain manifested in thought, perception, emotion, will, memory, and imagination.” This is also very interesting. You see all the different associated concepts here with the words “mind” and “consciousness.” But in all these cases, the focus is on a person’s consciousness and mind. There’s nothing here that is not included in the Buddhist idea of consciousness, except that the Buddhist idea of consciousness has a much bigger scope. All beliefs, attitudes, ideas and perceptions are transformations of this huge, beyond definition, consciousness.

In Buddhism, the word “consciousness” vijnyana, comes from the root meaning “to cut.” And that’s why consciousness is always consciousness of something, because there is always a division in consciousness; there’s always a gap in consciousness between the knower and that which is known. The knower and the known are not different things, but they’re cut in order for there to be any knowing. So the very act of what we call consciousness – cognition and perception – is the root of suffering. The exile. The gap between the seer and the seen, the listener and what’s heard. Between us, between two people. Between ourselves and the world.

Remember that the Mind Only schools divide consciousness into eight different consciousnesses, which are understood to be conceptual. They are eight ways of looking at consciousness. They are not really things that exist so much as they are explanations, so that we can understand the nature of consciousness.

The eighth consciousness is the largest consciousness. It’s called the alayavijnana[ , storehouse consciousness. It holds the seeds that eventually manifest in the physical or mental world depending on whether the conditions that cause them to manifest are present. Thich Nhat Hahn uses the metaphor of a seed and water. When a seed is watered, it manifests. If it’s not watered, it’s still there as a seed. It is still there as a potential, but it doesn’t appear unless it’s watered.

As long as we have the idea of a container, which has something outside of it and something inside of it, we would not be appreciating the actual nature of alayavijnana. We have the idea of inside and outside, because we have the idea of space and time, but alayavijnana includes within it the seeds of space and time. It’s not subject to those seeds. It includes that within it.

The seventh consciousness is manas, sometimes called the selfor mind. There’s a reflex that goes on within the eighth consciousness, in which a part of the consciousness is viewed as if it were a separate thing. From beginningless time, a part of the eighth consciousness is grasped and held as separate. All senses of separateness and subjectivity come from this manas, this sense of self, which is the underlying basis for all thinking and perception.

The sixth consciousness is the mental activity that occurs because of this. It’s called a “revulsion” and the goal of practice is to turn it around. That is why a line in the Heart Sutra is translated as “inverted views.” The seventh consciousness has inverted itself and separated itself out from the real consciousness, and it needs to be turned around. So terms like “taking the backwards step” all refer to this idea of turning the mind around, so that which has been separated out can be seen as connected.

The metaphor of self and dharmas.

As we discussed last week, the self is a metaphor. There is a self. This is the beauty of this teaching: it doesn’t deny the existence of the self; it just says self is actually a metaphor. We are metaphors within the unity of reality. Our lives are beautiful metaphors, but our separation is not real.

The eighth consciousness is the karmic result of the sum total of everything that has ever occurred. That’s the first transformation of consciousness. The second one is thought or mentation, and the third one is the external world. The external world is not exactly denied as a reality; it’s just seen as a transformation of consciousness. So the fact that this is hard (Norman knocks on a wooden table) is not denied; it’s just that this experience of being hard is actually occurring within this sphere of consciousness.

The eighth consciousness is called alaya, which means “storehouse consciousness.”  It is the storehouse of all “seeds.” That which it grasps and holds, its location and its perceptions are all imperceptible.You can’t say anything about it. You can’t pin it down. It’s not like the world we know.

 It is always associated with mental contact, attention, feeling, conceptualization and volition.

There is something going on but it’s unperceivable; it’s not graspable.

In it the only feeling is one of indifference.

 I would not translate it as that; I would say it’s more equanimity. In other words, there’s no agitation; there’s no problem; there would be no reason whatsoever for any difficulty to arise within this first transformation of consciousness.

It is undefiled and morally neutral.It always evolves like a flowing stream and is abandoned in the state of arhat.

Alaya is beyond good or bad. The same is true of awakening.It’s an ongoing, rushing stream of imperceptible reality. In the achievement of awakening, even this is abandoned.

The second transforming consciousness is called manas or self. It evolves supported by that store consciousness and with it as its object. It has the nature and character of thinking, or subjectivity or mentation. It is always associated with four passions: delusion about self, view of self, self-conceit, and love of self along with others such as contact and the rest. It is defiled.

“Defiled” means it is a problem. It’s morally neutral; it’s not creating bad karma, but its underlying foundation is the prerequisite for all kinds of trouble.

The third transforming consciousness with its six-fold distinction, its nature and character, are that of the perception of the object. It is good, bad or neither.

In the world of perception, karma comes in. The implication is that in our lives, we have the potential to tap back into reality – because we are not separate from that – and create good karma. We can water seeds, positive seeds, all the way up to the point of awakening. But we also have, because we are subjects and selves, the possibility of watering seeds of delusion, and confusion will cause those tendencies to grow stronger.

So it’s very important what ethical choices we make. These ethical choices are not only ethical choices, but they go right to the heart of reality. With our watering seeds of goodness, we are moving toward a deeper sense of reality that will be liberating. With our watering seeds of confusion and suffering, we are only increasing our ignorance and confusion. So here morality is the root of liberation.

So, a few things about seeds. (This is mostly from Thich Naht Hahn.) The seeds are nothing other than alaya, and alaya is nothing other than the seeds. It’s not like there are seeds inside the alaya. The alaya is the sum total of the seeds. So these seeds might be manifested or latent, according to the causes that are produced. When the causes that water the seeds are there, the seed sprouts; if not, the seeds remain latent.

For instance, we all have the seeds of anger in us. Something happens, and right away we get angry. Water the seeds of anger in us, and anger comes up. If we didn’t have those seeds in us, that same thing might happen to us, but anger wouldn’t arise, if the seed were not there.

Similarly, we have within us the seeds for awakening and perfect wisdom. The more we water the conditions of those seeds, the more they will sprout and will produce fruit. So this is important right? It’s really a moment-by-moment proposition. This is not about gross, large decisions, it’s the moment-by-moment decisions about how we will organize ourselves in relation to our choices.

The seeds manifest in various realms and worlds, all of which we participate in: meditative realms, hell realms, desire realms, peaceful realms. There are traditional definitions of all these different realms.

Where do the seeds come from? And are we in control? Did we produce them? There are different kinds of seeds. Some of the seeds come from the ancient primordial past—from the beginningless beginning – deeply engrained things like instincts and the whole human perceptual apparatus. You didn’t create your eye; you didn’t create the way the human eye sees. That comes from a deep, evolutionary history.

When we are born, our parents hugely imprint us with seeds. We can’t even speak, and already we have imprinting from our parents. And our parents are only products of a whole culture, right? So we have an evolutionary and cultural history by the time we utter our first word. The childhood seeds that are planted are really powerful. They’re probably more powerful than later seeds.

All the seeds are of indeterminate nature. In other words, seeds are neither good nor bad. It’s the conditions that water them that cause them to manifest as good or bad. But the seeds in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. It’s only the habit energies associated with them that take the seed in a particular direction, but the seed in and of itself is neutral. So the seeds are activated by various kinds of actions.

So, as I always say, the good news about all this is that whatever is going on is not your fault. One of the main things about karma is that we are all sitting here now in a particular situation. That situation in which we find ourselves at this moment is absolutely not our fault. Even though a great part of it was created by previous moments of ourselves, still those previous moments of ourselves no longer exist. That was another person. But beyond that, most of what motivated us in our lives up to this moment came from seeds that were watered and really had nothing to do with our volition.

So this is really the good news and the bad news. The bad news is: we are stuck with this. This is it. We didn’t choose it. We didn’t say, I wanted to be born a human being looking like this. It happened. But now what are we going to do about it? So we have ultimate responsibility but really no blame. I think that’s good news.

We are ultimately responsible. When you consider the fact that the seeds are universal, the seeds all relate to each other. The seeds are not separate seeds, like this seed has nothing to do with that seed. The seeds all mutually influence each other and are beyond concepts of time and space. So we are in this moment. This is really the profundity of this teaching. In this moment, we are absolutely responsible, not just for our own life, but for all of life. Not only here and now, but throughout the whole past and future.

So it’s an amazing thought, that through our conduct now we can redeem the past, our own past, as well as the past many generations back. We can save our parents and grandparents many years after they are gone. We can save them through our own actions, and our own actions in the present moment can have an immense influence everywhere. Every moment everything is redeemed with every action no matter how large or how small.