The buddhist unconscious
This work focuses upon an explicit notion of unconscious mind formulated by the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism in a series of texts from the third to the fifth centuries CE.
These texts describe and defend this “Buddhist” unconscious through a variety of exegetical and metapsychological arguments whose rationales are analyzed in terms of their historical and contemporary context.
The work thus first presents the multivalent conception of consciousness (vijñana) within the early teachings of the Buddha, and then demonstrates how the Abhidharma emphasis upon momentary and conscious processes of mind was widely understood to make the continuity and multidimensionality of consciousness problematic in several crucial ways.
The Yogacara thinkers addressed these multiple problems with a new model of mind centered upon the Buddhist unconscious, whose meaning and purpose is now made accessible to Western readers for the first time. William S. Waldron received his PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin after studying extensively in India, Nepal, and Japan.
He currently teaches South Asian religions and Buddhist philosophy at Middlebury College, Vermont. His research areas include the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism, and comparative psychologies and philosophies of mind.
Charles S. Prebish and Damien Keown
RoutledgeCurzon Critical Studies in Buddhism is a comprehensive study of the Buddhist tradition.
The series explores this complex and extensive tradition from a variety of perspectives, using a range of different methodologies. The series is diverse in its focus, including historical studies, textual translations and commentaries, sociological investigations, bibliographic studies, and considerations of religious practice as an expression of Buddhism’s integral religiosity. It also presents materials on modern intellectual historical studies, including the role of Buddhist thought and scholarship in a contemporary, critical context and in the light of current social issues.
The series is expansive and imaginative in scope, spanning more than two and a half millennia of Buddhist history. It is receptive to all research works that inform and advance our knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist tradition.
The alaya-vijñana in the context of
Indian Buddhist thought
William S. Waldron
Our lives in this world are prescribed in countless ways.
As human beings, we have certain capabilities, such as speech, but not others, such as natural flight or sonic navigation. As males or females, we inherit obvious as well as some not so obvious biological and social conditions. As Americans, Chinese, Indians, or Russians, we are acculturated from birth into particular world-views, with all of their attendant behavioral norms, cognitive regularities, and moral imperatives.
Our actions in this life have done little to create the conditions in which we are born and raised, which nevertheless strongly circumscribe the parameters of our daily experiences. This is no less true for our capacities of mind.
The range of our normal perceptions, our typical array of appetites and aptitudes, even our capacities for our highest worldly achievements – to the extent that these are species-specific – are in large part already inscribed by the time we are born as human beings.
Most of us, for example, cannot choose whether or not to see the sun as yellow or to feel pain when injured, or to become fearful or angry when physically assaulted. Most of this happens automatically, without our conscious choice and relatively impervious to our conscious intentions.
This “unconscious structuring of experience” has been recognized to varying degrees, and with varying degrees of sophistication, in different times and places.
The essay that follows is the story of one such time and place – fifth-century CE India – where an awareness of this area of unawareness, and the challenges it poses to conscious self-transformation, were developed to an extraordinary degree.
So much so that the Indian Yogacara Buddhists who first systematically conceptualized this awareness of unawareness, if you will, felt able to describe its dynamics and delineate its contours in considerable detail.
They not only explicitly differentiated a dimension of unconscious mental processes – called “alaya vijñana, the “basal, store, or home” consciousness – from the processes of conscious cognitive awareness – called pravgtti-vijñana.
They also articulated a variety of experiential, logical, and exegetical arguments in support of this concept of unconscious mind, arguments which we will examine in considerable detail in the several Yogacara chapters below, which form the core of this work.
This “Buddhist unconscious,” however, did not arise out of a vacuum.
The description of this “alaya” consciousness, as well as the problematics driving xii its development and the rationales offered in its defense, all evolved within a particular intellectual and religious milieu: the sophisticated traditions of Abhidharma Buddhism (roughly 200 BCE to 600 CE). Despite their (sometimes deserved) reputation for a scholasticism “as dry as dust,” Abhidharma traditions evinced great intellectual vitality.
Driven by religious conviction, informed by yogic practice, and expressed in a systematic, albeit painstaking, idiom, Abhidharmic modes of analysis have indelibly influenced Buddhist thought and practices ever since.
These traditions developed philosophical analyses of mind and mental processes to such a degree that its practitioners became acutely aware – experientially as well as intellectually – of the underlying conditions and constraints of ordinary, and even extraordinary, forms of conscious awareness.
It was within this milieu that the complex concept of alaya consciousness developed, and within which the intricate and interwoven rationales supporting this “Buddhist unconscious” are most intelligible.
The rationales for this concept are too dense, assume too many doctrines, and are simply too technical to be fully appreciated outside of this Abhidharma context. The second chapter is therefore devoted to providing the indispensable specifics of this originating context.
The Abhidharma traditions did not develop out of a vacuum either.
They represented, more or less, a systematization of the teachings passed down from the Buddha himself. In these early teachings there was no overt distinction between consciousness (Sanskrit: vijñana; Pali: viññafa) as waking, objectoriented cognitive awareness and as a persisting, underlying level of basic sentience.
The single term “vijñana” encompassed both these connotations.
This distinction is discernable, however, through careful analysis of these early teachings, particularly in the light of later developments. This was, in fact, exactly how the Yogacarins justified their innovative distinction between conscious and unconscious mental processes: by examining the earlier teachings in the light of the later, more sophisticated perspectives of Abhidharmic analysis.
We follow in these illustrious footsteps and turn first to the earliest teachings of the Buddha, focusing in particular on the concept of vijñana (viññafa) – rendered there equally appropriately as either “consciousness” or “cognitive awareness.”
This, along with materials introductory to the basic Buddhist world view for the benefit of non-specialists, comprises the bulk of Chapter 1.
Although we by no means set out to replicate or validate the Yogacara interpretation of the early concept of vijñana, our study of these same teachings led us to similar conclusions: the “two aspects” of vijñana which were originally undifferentiated in the early texts became increasingly, and untenably, problematic within the Abhidharma context, eliciting in its wake various conceptions of non-conscious mental processes, only one of which was the “alaya” vijñana.
We will therefore briefly examine these other responses to the same set of problems – the continuity of karmic potential and the latent afflictions, and their gradual purification along the path of liberation – together with the other Abhidharma materials in Chapter 2, before turning our attention squarely on the alaya-vijñana itself, as it is most systematically presented and described in key Yogacara texts, in Chapters 3–5. PREFACE xiii
We, of course, do not work out of a vacuum either. Whatever else they may think of Freud’s and Jung’s other theories, most scientifically educated people readily acknowledge that many if not most mental processes take place unconsciously.
Indeed, a concept of a “cognitive unconscious” is now widely accepted within cognitive science and philosophy of mind.1 Although our study focuses exclusively upon the “Buddhist unconscious,” one of our aims is to introduce this fascinating concept into current Western discussions of unconscious mind. In order to address this wider audience, the first and second chapters in particular present many basic concepts which, while well known to Indian and Buddhist specialists, serve as the indispensable building blocks for the larger argument that follows.
These early materials are central to this larger argument for another reason as well. Since our main thesis is that the alaya-vijñana arose in response to the Abhidharmic developments of earlier Buddhist doctrines, we need to examine those earlier doctrines, first in order to appreciate the nature of the Abhidharmic innovations and the problems they generated, and second to see exactly how the concept of alaya-vijñana addressed these problems by skillfully integrating the Abhidharma innovations with the earlier conceptual framework.
It is this synthesis of early and Abhidharmic treatments of mind that most distinguishes the alaya-vijñana complex, and is the main reason, we reiterate, why it is necessary to examine this ancient background and its contemporaneous context in order to fully appreciate the alaya-vijñana within the context of Indian Buddhist thought.
This is thus very much a synthetic work, tying together materials spanning some one thousand years of Indian Buddhist thought.
Though most of these materials are familiar to specialists, they remain widely scattered in disparate publications in a host of languages around the globe.
There remains, therefore, a serious lacuna that this book strives to fill. There is still no single work in any Western language that has brought together the multiple and variegated strands comprising the complex notion of the alaya-vijñana and woven them into an integrated, accessible,2 and compelling narrative.
And this notion is indeed multiple and variegated. Such a bewildering array of synonyms and attributes has congealed around this “conceptual monstrosity,” as Conze (1973: 133) characteristically described it, that the alaya-vijñana remains an abstruse topic even for those relatively well versed in related areas of Buddhist thought.
We have therefore taken a chronological approach, in which the various attributes of the alaya-vijñana, and the problems they address, are gradually introduced and accumulated over time, ultimately resulting in a complex and richly interwoven model of mind, to be sure, but one whose structuring components have each been examined in their own right. By the time the reader reaches the Yogacara 1 Kihlstrom (1987); Lakoff and Johnson (1999: 9–15); Flanagan (1992: 173):
“There is agreement that most mental processing is unconscious and occurs in parallel.” 2 We have previously addressed many of these issues for a more specialized audience, expressed nearly exclusively in their Sanskritic and Abhidharmic terms, in Waldron
chapters themselves, in Part II, the outlines of this model will have already begun to fall into place, so that the alaya-vijñana may ironically seem the most parsimonious way of addressing the daunting array of experiential, exegetical, and doctrinal conundrums (for which see Appendix II) generated by the innovative developments of Abhidharma Buddhism.
In any study of this duration, an author accumulates a debt of gratitude to mentors, colleagues, friends, and family, many more than can reasonably be named.
A few, however, must be.
Although cast in an idiom he would scarcely have appreciated, this study’s deepest themes reflect my father’s predominate concerns: the possibilities for, and the conditions inhibiting, human happiness and freedom.
My Buddhist teachers will more readily recognize their influences, although they are hardly responsible for the errors of commission or omission that inevitably accompany it. Geshe Lhundrup Sopa first taught me Tibetan and provided a solid introduction to Gelukpa curriculum, which was reinforced by further study with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen in Sarnath. Both are inspiring examples of the continuing and compelling vitality of Buddhism in the modern world.
I have also enjoyed exemplary mentors from the world of Japanese Buddhist scholarship, whose methodological influences subtly pervade this work like abhilapa-vasana.
My graduate advisor, Professor Emeritus Minoru Kiyota of the University of Wisconsin, encouraged me to cultivate my own intellectual interests and facilitated the financial support to follow them through. Professors Ogawa Ichijo and Miyashita Seiki of Otani University in Kyoto supervised my thesis research on the alaya-vijñana, past incarnations of which form the basis of this book. Professor Miyashita in particular selflessly shared his extensive philological and philosophical expertise on Indian Buddhism during several years of reading Buddhist texts together.
It was he who provided the rudder with which to navigate through the limitless ocean of Abhidharma and Yogacara literature, and the awesome Japanese scholarship concerning it.
I have also benefitted by numerous discussions with, in alphabetical order, Aramaki Noritoshi, Nagao Gadjin, Odani Nobuchiya, Yamabe Nobuyoshi, and Yasutomi Shin’ya. I wish to thank the Japanese Ministry of Education for several years of funding, as well as Otani University itself, where, under the auspices of its Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute, I enjoyed three years of productive research.
This first stay at Otani was the single greatest contribution to this study, and I am delighted to be applying its finishing touches once again near old friends in Kyoto. xv
Middlebury College has in the interim provided an intellectually stimulating atmosphere in which to continue this work and a supportive sabbatical program through which to complete it. I enjoyed stimulating discussions with my colleagues at Middlebury, particularly Rick Arthur, Jeff Dunham, Marc Garcelon, and, whilst warding off the inevitable corruption of our perishable nama-rjpas, David Stahl.
I especially wish to thank John Keenan, an old friend but a new mentor, who, like Chuang Tze’s giant bird, P’eng, leaps over several seemingly separate realms in a single bound. Appreciation on the part of countless students of Buddhism must also be expressed toward the editors of the Critical Studies in Buddhism, Charles Prebish and Damien Keown, for providing the series with its originating vision and the editorial labor to bring it to realization.
Special thanks go to my dear friend David Patt, who helped separate the wheat from the chaff of a very unwieldy manuscript at a critical stage in its development.
Finally, gratitude to my wife and children who have been forced to cultivate unreasonable amounts of khanti-paramita during the long years of my absent presence. I dedicate whatever merit this work may accrue for the benefit of all beings. William S. Waldron
Kyoto, Winter 2002
A Buddhist critique of the construction of self and world
The Buddha offered an understanding of the actions that perpetuate the repetitive behavioral patterns called “samsara” that differed from contemporaneous Indian yogic traditions in several key respects.
In the Buddhist view,1 what keeps beings trapped in these cyclic patterns is both the deep-seated but mistaken apprehension that we are (or have) an unchanging, independent, self-subsistent entity or “self ” (atman), as well as the misguided activities motivated by attachment to such a self. These activities are misguided, the Buddhists assert, because no permanent and independent individuality can actually be found in our worldly existence.
Instead, sentient beings are thought to consist of aggregations of everevolving physiological and psychological processes which arise and persist only as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them persist.
Chief amongst these sustaining conditions are, paradoxically, the very ignorance of these basic facts of life, and the futile desires and activities to deny or overcome them through attempting to grasp onto something permanent – making actions informed by ignorance and desire the “driving forces” of cyclic existence.
This view of the delusions and activities that keep beings trapped in the vicious cycle of repetitive behavior patterns was already quite clear in the early discourses of the Buddha, to which we shall return shortly.
Shorn of their metaphysical dimension, however, these themes are readily understandable in modern, humanist terms, which we will briefly entertain in the next few pages. Buddhist thought thoroughly critiques our attempts to attain permanence, independence, and self-subsistence by identifying with transient, conditioned phenomena, whether material, psychological, or conceptual.
We impute intrinsic meaning and value onto these phenomena, the Buddhists assert, and imagine that their possession somehow augments our essential worth or well-being.
This entails that we bifurcate our world of experience into two discrete dimensions, the objective and subjective. That is, we experience the world in terms of “objective” things – which are inevitably mediated through linguistic, cultural, and social conventions – and we imagine that they possess intrinsic power to impart happiness, health, and well-being.
These “things” possess, in other words, a symbolic value2 above and beyond their mere physical existence.
Enthralled by these enduring yet abstract objects, we create, as it were, a life-world of seemingly solid, yet unavoidably mediated “things.”
Man,3 the symbol-making creature, constructs a world of his own in which to make his home. But this is only half the picture.
We also build up an image and an idea, and a deep-seated attachment to, an equally symbolic sense of “self” which can experience and enjoy these apparently independent objects and which seems to possess equally independent, intrinsic existence.
We imaginatively create a locus of subjective experience, an enduring referent to the notions of self and “I” with which we can identify and hold as our own. We imagine that we actually are an enduring subject which exists independently of the external objects around it, which it can possess and enjoy. Our entire world of experience is experienced in reference to this self-wrought self.
Man, the “self-making” creature, constructs the subject of his own existence which may dwell within his self-constructed home.
These parallel processes of the reification of object and subject constitute the main target of the Buddhist (and particularly the Yogacara) critique of ordinary, worldly consciousness.
On the one hand, we impute the actual existence of apparently external objects, transforming them from immediate experiences into abstract objects which putatively possess inherent power and worth, constituting them within our culturally mediated, symbolic universe.
On the other hand, we create an equally abstracted sense of self-identity, based upon an accumulation of experiences, memories and feelings, which possesses apparent coherence and continuity.
This sense of enduring identity is the subjective counterpart of the enduring objects one apprehends and objectifies.
There must be an independent “someone” in order to possess or experience a separate “something.” Now, we must ask, how does all this come about? Why do we construct reality in this way, abstracting static, symbolic modes of subjective and objective experience from the on-going continuum of living processes, bifurcating them into the twin reifications of subject and object?
What purposes does such creative activity serve for us as individuals, as societies, or as a species? And what drawbacks accompany these processes? Confronted with the transiency of experience and the ever-present physical and psychological threats to our integrity and survival, organisms with higher nervous systems such as ourselves must be able to recognize and comprehend recurrent patterns underlying our variegated forms of experience, and to construct working models capable of anticipation, predication, and premeditation.
In this sense, the emergence of a “self ” from the stream of inchoate experience into a relatively stable locus of self-reference and self-awareness, with all its regular and regulated cognitive and affective processes, is one of the most remarkable achievements of biological evolution and constitutes perhaps the most fundamental human technology.
The Buddhist critique of these twins constructions of “self ” and “world,” however, rests largely upon their deleterious consequences. We typically fail to recognize, the Buddhists contend, that the twin reifications of “self ” and “object” achieved through our linguistically and culturally mediated symbol systems are
simply skillful means, highly practical tools for getting a handle on the whirlwind world within and without for the purpose of serving our own relative purposes.
In our constant struggle to secure a stable, predictable, and prosperous life, we mistake these pragmatic tools and provisional purposes for actualities and ultimate ends: by imagining that we actually are such a self, we fail to fully appreciate the evolving and constructed nature of all experiential phenomena.
Hence, while our sense of self addresses one set of problems, that of coherence and continuity, it simultaneously raises another, that of our underlying anxieties bred of transience: just because it is a product of complex interactive relationships which are continuously evolving, our culturally mediated symbolic selves are also continuously slipping away, just beyond our grasp, like an optical illusion that disappears as soon as one looks straight at it.
A nagging fear of our possible non-existence, a sense of the sheer fragility of this constructed “self,” is always lurking around the corner, underlying all our thoughts and actions.
So we grasp all the more onto our pains, our attachments, our identities, all the while vaguely sensing that the only thing standing between us and non-existence is indeed this self-wrought self. If this were lost – or so we fear – so would be who and what we think we are.
So man responds, in Ernest Becker’s terms, by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power.
They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody. (Becker, 1973: 55)
But this requires that we constantly reconstruct this sense of self, rehearsing our past experiences through memory and emotion and anticipating our future experiences through desire and imagination.
We must continuously endow our “selves” with a history and a future, without which, as brain-damaged patients so poignantly illustrate, we would hardly be human.
Ironically, it is our very attempt to hold onto this self-wrought self, to maintain its existential integrity, that insures our unending anxieties and insecurities, and instigates our activities to perpetuate its constructed patterns.
Man, the “history-making” creature, transforms the raw materials of immediate experience and constructs the solidifying structures of worldly existence.
Our constructed character, our self-identity is, in other words, a vital lie, “a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation” (ibid.: 55),
Becker continues, which is constructed “for the precise purpose of putting it between [ourselves] and the facts of life” (ibid.: 59).
This sense of an underlying subject of experience, however constructed, is so basic and so habitual as to occur mostly automatically, outside of our conscious awareness.
This unconscious self-clinging underlies all conscious, intentional activities, insuring that our energies are constantly directed toward the continuation of the habitual
thought patterns – the twin reifications of self and world – that produce and perpetuate their own frame of reference.
In this respect, virtually all cultures, belief systems, and especially characters and habits, are like a comfortable web [that] keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center.
All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. (Becker, 1973: 55)
Cultures as well as characters can thus be seen as symbolic wish-fulfillments: if we cannot get what we really want – actual individual, autonomous existence – then we substitute symbols for realities and achieve our aims by surrogates means.
Rather than facing the facts of impermanence and insecurity and accepting the transient and contingent nature of our lives, we attempt to avoid awareness of them by constructing enduring symbols of wealth and meaning, of life and pleasure, in reference to which our putative permanent selves exist as equally undying, and hence inevitably lifeless, subjects. If things themselves have no sustainable existence, then at least their consensually mediated symbols do.
If our life itself has no apparent permanency, then at least the abstract symbol of “self ” that stands for it does.
We live, that is, as in a symbolic world constructed by our own imaginative powers. We are always actively, albeit unconsciously, ignoring the radically interdependent nature of our existence and setting up in its place the “false idol” of a self, the undying and therefore unliving symbol that represents our unrequited desires for permanent, personal autonomous existence. This is, of course, no deliberate course of action.
It is merely the extension of those deeply embedded cognitive and affective capacities that have otherwise proved so conducive to human survival.
This is the tragic vision common to so many cultural and religious traditions. It is our very success that plagues us, for, as Becker avers, these are necessary and vital lies, providing necessary skills and serving vital, albeit worldly, interests.4
But lies they are, clothing the world in fabricated illusions, interpreting all experience in reference to our own constructed self-view. We are as drunk with our own god-like powers of self- and world-creation, inebriated by a hubris which dares to call itself homo sapiens, the wise one.
We have, in this way, bound the bonds of our own bounded, worldly existence.
These themes, so clearly and incisively expressed in various streams of modern thought, are strikingly similar to the ideas discussed in these pages, and we shall T
return to them again and again in their Buddhist guise.
Indeed, they suggest an initial working glossary of the core concepts used throughout this text: klihia-manas, “afflictive mentation,” unconscious self-grasping which occurs in every moment of worldly existence, which is itself informed by:
kleka, the afflictive cognitive and emotional attitudes that color most of our activities, in particular: the conceit “I am” (asmimana);
the view of self-existence (satkayadghii);
attachment to self (atmasneha);
ignorance (avidya). Activities instigated by these give rise to: sadskara, karmic formations, the constructed physiological and psychological structures which have been built up by past activities and reinforce their own reoccurrence, and which, in some contexts, also refers to those very activities themselves.
These are often accompanied by: upadana, appropriation or grasping, the process of taking the body, thoughts, or feelings as one’s own, as well as the “objects” so taken.
And these underlie or support the arising of: vijñana, consciousness or cognitive awareness, which gives rise to our common world of reified “subjects” and “objects” – which in turn instigate the afflictions leading to further activities that reinforce the whole process, creating the vicious circle called “samsara.”
In contrast with modern humanistic approaches, however, Indian religious systems consider that the processes of creating our “selves” and our “world” – the bifurcation of experience into subject and object – entail actual cosmogonic (cosmos creating) or ontological consequences.
As Lama Govinda explains, in the Buddhist world-view it is on account of our clinging to these forms of life that again and again we produce them.…It is our will, our ardent desire which creates the world in which we live, and the organism which corresponds to it. (Govinda, 1969: 54)
This book is an extended examination of these processes and the consequences they set in motion, centering on the Yogacara concept of the alayavijñana, the subliminal “base, store, or home” consciousness,5 which is always accompanied by an unconscious apprehension of self.
The alaya-vijñana primarily represents this persisting locus of habituated yet unconscious reifications of self and world and hence constitutes the main obstacle to liberation from the bonds of cyclic existence.
Like the other yogic traditions developed in classical Gupta-era India, as Eliade described them, the Yogacara thinkers discovered that “the great obstacles to the ascetic and contemplative life arose from the activity of the unconscious, from the sadskaras and the vasanas – ‘impregnations,’
‘residues,’ ‘latencies’ – that constitute what depth psychology calls the contents and structures of the unconscious” (Eliade, 1973: p. xvii).
Although we will not discuss at any length either the practices toward or the results of liberation from these obstacles, our examination of the alaya-vijñana will at least clarify exactly what, in the Yogacara view, one is to be liberated from: the dynamic cognitive and behavioral patterns perpetuating the vicious cycle of repetitive behavioral patterns called samsara.
In order to understand the historical developments through which the alayavijñana came to represent these habitual behavioral patterns, however, we must first examine these ideas as expressed in the early discourses of the Buddha.
We will find here, in incipient form, nearly all of the basic elements that would later comprise the Yogacara model of unconscious mind, the alaya-vijñana. This topic is addressed in our first chapter. THEMATIC INTRODUCTION
THE BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA
THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND
The three marks of existence
Dissatisfaction, dis-ease, and suffering, in Pali dukkha (Sanskrit: duckha),1 that ubiquitous quality of our conditioned existence,2 is the leitmotif of all Buddhist teaching, its cessation its overriding purpose.3 Understanding the conditions that bring about this suffering, and undertaking the activities that lead to its cessation, constitute the contents and aims of the buddha-dharma, the teachings and practices passed down in the name of the Buddha.4
The fundamental causes of this dissatisfaction and suffering are ignorance (P. avijja; S. avidya), a basic misunderstanding of how things actually are; craving or thirst (P. tan.ha; S. tghn. a) for pleasure and for continued existence; and the unhealthy actions (akusalakamma) these first two bring about.
This essay on the development of a Buddhist concept of unconscious mental processes afflicted with such delusions and desires is nearly exclusively concerned with the dynamic interplay between these basic causes, which constitute the contents of the second Noble Truth, the Arising of Suffering.
Ignorance is traditionally defined as regarding what is impermanent as permanent, what is suffering as pleasure, and what is non-self as self, since, the Buddhists insist, what is impermanent, filled with disease, and devoid of intrinsic self-identity, cannot afford any independent and lasting satisfaction.5
Ignoring these basic realities, we nevertheless attempt to escape from such transience and such suffering, and to attain permanent and pleasurable states by identifying ourselves with and becoming attached to what are ultimately impermanent and unpleasant phenomena.
Clinging to their apparent solidity and stability, we bind ourselves to such phenomena, and thereby increase and perpetuate our own deluded existence. As the Buddha6 declared: Whoever…saw anything in the world that seems lovely and pleasant as permanent, saw it as happy, saw it as good, saw it as health, saw it as safety, they made craving to grow.
They in making craving to grow made the basis [of existence (upadhi)] to grow; in making the basis grow, they make suffering grow; in making suffering to grow, they were not liberated from birth, from old age, from sufferings,
from sorrows, from despairs – yea, I declare, they were not liberated from ill. (S II 109. PTS) Above all, we reify or substantialize the continuity of our lives, imagining that there is, or we are, a permanent, substantive self, an unchanging locus of experience which can enjoy permanent, pleasurable states. We mistakenly think, as the Buddha put it:
That which is this self for me that speaks, that experiences and knows, that experiences, now here, now there, the fruition of deeds lovely or depraved, it is this self for me that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, that will stand firm for ever and ever. (M I 8 PTS)7
In the Buddhist view, however, no such permanent, unchanging self can be found. Instead, our ever-changing mental and physical processes are likened to a stream that arises, flows, and passes away depending upon nothing but the various conditions that create and sustain it.
The processes which constitute human existence are categorized into five groups, which the Buddha called the “aggregates of grasping” (upadana-khandha) since we tend to identify with and grasp onto them as our “self.”
These are the aggregates of form, feeling, apperception, karmic formations or volitions, and cognitive awareness or consciousness (rjpa, vedana, sañña, sankhara, viññan. a). As the term “aggregate” indicates, however, these are not independent elements or entities in and of themselves but rather distinct classes of processes.
None of them should be conceived of in relation to a permanent self (S III 46), nor should such a self be conceived of apart from these processes, for all of them are characterized by the so-called three marks of existence: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and non-self.8 Nevertheless, we tenaciously cling to such notions of a self, and to the objects that seem to support it, imagining they somehow secure lasting satisfaction.
Ironically, it is just this preoccupation with a self, with identifying something as “I” or “mine,” that, in the Buddhist view, brings about suffering, not ease, bondage, not liberation.
As the Buddha observed, He regards feeling as self…apperception as self…volitional formations as self…consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That consciousness of his changes and alters.
With the change and alteration of consciousness, his consciousness becomes preoccupied with the change of consciousness.
Agitation and a constellation of mental states born of preoccupation with the change of consciousness remain obsessing his mind. Because his mind is obsessed, he is frightened, distressed, and anxious, and through clinging becomes agitated. (S III 16 f.)
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA
This is, of course, a vicious circle: in craving for what is “happy, good, healthy and safe,” in imagining a self that enjoys them, we inadvertently increase the conditions that lead to suffering, anxiety, and distress.
For as long as there is craving for and attachment to self, the Buddha declared, so will there be further distress, in response to which there will be further actions that lead to further distress and so on.
It is, in short, our misguided desires for some truly lasting, satisfactory existence within this conditioned world, along with the actions taken to secure it, that keeps us continuously bound to the repetitive cognitive and behavioral patterns called “samsara.”
The way out of the vicious cycle, the Buddhists suggest, comes through understanding their underlying causes – the interactive dynamics between ignorance and grasping, the actions they instigate, and the results these lead to – and gradually reversing their deleterious results. And this is the fundamental aim of the formula of dependent arising.
The formula of dependent arising
The relationship between action and mind, and mind and action, has intrigued philosophers and mystics for millennia.
What is the relationship between our actions and our thoughts, our awareness and our behavior? Do thoughts always direct behavior, or is it, perhaps, the other way around?
Does one have priority over the other?
Is one fundamental while the other merely epiphenomenal?
Early Buddhist traditions considered either of these alternatives objectionable and depicted instead a reciprocal relationship between mind and actions, a relationship in which our past actions affect our present states of mind, our present states of mind affect our present actions, and these present actions in turn affect future states of mind.
This reciprocal relationship, perhaps the earliest conceptualization of what we now call feedback, is depicted in the well-known formula of dependent arising (P. paiicca-samuppada; S. pratntya-samutpada), arguably the most distinctive aspect of early Buddhist thought and one whose ramifications will continue to unfold throughout the history of Buddhist thought.
In this chapter we will examine this formula and its implications at some length, not only because the notion of dependent arising expresses the core of Buddhist thought – that all phenomena arise in dependence upon other phenomena – but also because the multifarious formulations of dependent arising (in its varying lengths and alternate members) touch upon all the key concepts and problems later associated with the alaya-vijñana model of mind.
We will therefore use this formula of dependent arising to provide the basic framework for our extended examination of the meanings and functions of viññan. a (S. vijñana) – as both “consciousness” and “cognitive awareness” – as well as its complex and interactive relationship with action, that is, karma, and with the cognitive and emotional afflictions (kilesa; S. kleka) that instigate these actions.
To adumbrate our argument, viññan.
a (S. vijñana) as described in the various
formulas of dependent arising exhibits two discrete aspects or functions: as “consciousness” and as “cognitive awareness.” The first refers to viññan. a as an
underlying sentience which flows in an unbroken stream of mind throughout multiple lifetimes, while the second refers to viññan.
a in terms of six modalities of cognitive awareness which momentarily arise in conjunction with discrete cognitive objects.
Although the early texts evince no overt distinction, let alone discordance, between these two “aspects” of viññafa, such a distinction can be – and in later commentaries nearly always was – discerned through careful textual and conceptual analysis.
This distinction is crucial to our reconstruction of the development of the alaya-vijñana for two reasons.
First, subsequent Abhidharma analyses of mind focused primarily upon manifest cognitive awareness, making the aspect of viññan. a as “consciousness” conceptually problematic – a situation to which the alaya-vijñana was, in large part, a response. Second, the two “aspects” of viññan.
a that are discernable in these early texts also clearly foreshadow the bifurcation of viññan.
a (vijñana) in the Yogacara school into a subsisting, subliminal, and accumulating consciousness, represented by the alaya-vijñana, and the momentary, supraliminal forms of awareness, represented by “manifest cognitive awareness” (S. pravgtti-vijñana). We thus find the antecedents of these later notions in the earlier Buddhist texts. These two “dimensions” of viññan.
a are also closely related to a similar distinction among the cognitive and emotional afflictions (P. kilesa; S. kleka), between their persisting, latent forms as underlying tendencies (P. anusaya; S. anukaya) and their momentary, active forms as “manifest outbursts”
(P. pariyuiihana; S. paryavasthana) – a distinction that became problematic in Abhidharma discourse for much the same reasons vijñana did.
This eventually led the Yogacara school to conceptualize a distinct strata of unconscious self-grasping called “afflictive mentation”
(S. klihia-manas), one that roughly parallels the alayavijñana itself. We will thus also briefly examine the role that these self-centered afflictions played within the early Buddhist doctrines.
Together, they articulate a vision of circular causality between consciousness, the cognitive and emotional afflictions, the activities these instigate, and the results that they collectively accrue, a vision expressed in the series of dependent arising.
The theory of dependent arising (paiicca-samuppada) seeks to understand the dynamic relationship between ignorance, the afflictions, and their ensuing actions, by analyzing the patterns through which they arise, persist, and pass away in dependence upon their supporting conditions. That is, the processes that perpetuate our conditioned existence are neither completely random nor completely determined; rather, they follow regular and discernable patterns of arising.
It is these patterns that are expressed in the formula of dependent origination, an understanding of which was considered indispensable for reversing their
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA 12
deleterious consequences. The simplest expression of this arising in dependence on conditions is formulated as follows:
When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.
(M II 32)9
As we can see, this is formulated in two directions: the conditions that lead from the existence of one factor to the arising of the next (anuloma), and, in reverse order, the conditions that lead to their cessation (paiiloma).
This theory of causality is neither solely simultaneous nor exclusively sequential, it is a theory of concomitant conditionality: when X is, Y comes to be; when X arises, Y arises, and so on. In a text called Nidana-vagga or the Sayings on Causes, the Buddha presents the traditional twelve-member series of dependent arising in this same fashion, first describing the conditions leading to the arising of this world of suffering, and then, in reverse order, those leading to its cessation:
And what, monks, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, karmic formations [come to be]; with karmic formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, nameand- form; with name-and-form as condition,
the six sense-spheres; with the six sense-spheres as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition,
craving; with craving as condition, grasping; with grasping as condition, becoming; with becoming as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
This, monks, is called dependent origination. But from the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of karmic formations; with the cessation of karmic formations, cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense-spheres; with the cessation of the six sensespheres, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling;
with the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of grasping; with the cessation of grasping, cessation of becoming; with the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. (S II 1)10
Although this twelve-member series was eventually to became the standard version, variations of it are found throughout the early Buddhist texts, many of which we shall examine below.
The Nidana-sadyutta itself, however, briefly describes each of the twelve members or limbs (amga) of the series: Ignorance (avijja) is defined in terms of the four Noble Truths, as “ignorance concerning suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering” (S II 4).
That is to say, one of the conditions for the arising of this world of sorrow and suffering is ignorance regarding the dissatisfactory nature of worldly existence itself, of the origins of these dissatisfactions, of their cessation, and of the path leading toward their cessation. Ignorance conditions the arising of karmic formations (sankhara), formative structures of body, speech, and mind.
This complex concept denotes both formations that have been formed from past actions as well as the formative actions that give rise to future formations, exhibiting a “process–product” bivalence we shall further examine below.11 Sankhara is one of the core concepts of Indian Buddhist thought and plays a particularly important role within the alayavijñana complex of mind. These karmic formations condition the arising of consciousness or cognitive awareness (viññan.
a). Although viññan.
a is glossed in this text as the six modes of
sensory and mental cognitive awareness, in this place in the series it is usually considered12 a rebirth consciousness which descends into, “takes up,” and thereafter animates the newly forming fetus, as described in this dialogue with the Buddha: ‘I have said that consciousness conditions name-and-form.…Were, Ananda, consciousness not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form coagulate there?’
‘Were consciousness, having descended into the mother’s womb, to depart, would name-and-form come to birth in this life?’ ‘No, Lord.’
(D II 62f.; PTS)
The next limb, name-and-form (nama-rjpa), usually refers to the psychological and physiological aspects of human experience that begin developing during the intra-uterine stage and continue throughout a single lifetime. These represent the basic processes of the human mind and body and correspond closely to the five “aggregates of grasping” (upadana-khandha)13 mentioned above.
In traditional interpretations stemming from the commentarial period, the first two factors in the series, ignorance and the karmic formations, denote karmic conditions that have carried over from a past life, while the consciousness (viññan. a) which enters the womb and conditions the development of nameand- form marks the beginning of a new life.
This form of consciousness will later be considered the alaya-vijñana by the Yogacara school. These first three factors also represent the initial steps in the feedback relationship between afflictive
factors (ignorance), the actions they influence (karmic formations), and the results they give rise to (the arising of consciousness) – a relationship we will examine at considerable length below. Succeeding steps in the series depict how consciousness, the results of previous actions, in turn conditions the arising of the further afflictions and further karmic actions (see Appendix I).
The next four factors in the series – the six sense-spheres, contact, feeling, and craving – all depend upon the presence of a living psycho-physical organism (name-and-form). Collectively, these summarize the typical perceptual process. That is, perception in the early Pali texts is explained in relation to the six sense-spheres or sense-domains, those of the five senses plus mind.
When something impinges upon any of these, contact or sensation (phassa) arises. This sensation is experienced as a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling (vedana), which (if pleasant) in turn conditions the arising of craving or “thirst” (tan.ha) for that “object.”14 These factors not only epitomize the basic cognitive process, but they also lead to the important afflictive factors that, typically, instigate further karma-creating activities. Craving, as we saw above (S II 109), is one of the dynamic factors driving the cycle of death and rebirth.
Thus, conditioned by craving, grasping or appropriation (upadana) arises. Although the text presents the traditional enumeration of grasping as “grasping to sensual pleasure, grasping to views, grasping to rules and observances, and grasping to a theory of ‘self’ ” (kamjpadana, diiihjpadana, snlabbatjpadana, attavadjpadana), upadana has much wider connotations than mere “grasping” might suggest.
It also refers to a “substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive or going” (PED 149), in this case, the process of an endless succession of rebirths. Upadana thus forms a natural link with the processes of newly “becoming” (bhava), the next member of the series. Both of these senses of upadana will also have important roles to play in the alaya-vijñana model of mind.
Becoming (bhava), often translated as “being” or “existence,” is defined (A I 223) as “repeated rebirth in the future” (ayatim punabbhava-abhinibbatti) into any of the three realms of existence.15
Becoming marks the transition to another lifetime, the third and last in the commentarial interpretation of the series into a three lifetime sequence (Appendix I). Becoming thus conditions a new birth ( jati), which our Sutta explains as: The birth of the various beings in the various orders of beings, their being born, descent [into the womb), production, the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense spheres.
This is called birth. (S II 3) The final member of the series, aging-and-death, etc., is straightforward.
There is considerable uncertainty regarding the original form and scope of this formula. It occurs in so many different formulations in the early texts that it is not at all clear what form, if any, it may originally have had.16 What all the
variations do illustrate, however, is that the arising of our phenomenal world, especially our world of dissatisfactory experience, is brought about not by any single cause alone, but by the concomitance of a number of conditioning factors arising in discernibly repeated patterns.
This picture of causality is not only concomitant, however, it is also circular. Not only does the formula as a whole recursively reinforce itself, leading to the nearly endless rounds of rebirth called samsara, but core components within the formula do so as well. As we shall see, the karmic formations (sankhara) and consciousness (viññan. a) can be understood to occur twice in this series, at first explicitly between the second and third members, and then again, implicitly and in reverse order, when the processes involved in cognition (the sense-spheres, sensation, etc., that epitomize the arising of cognitive awareness) give rise first to feeling and then to the karmically productive processes of craving, appropriation, and becoming.
In other words, karmic formations first condition consciousness, which is then centrally involved in the karmic activities that give rise to yet further karmic formations, and so on. We will examine this relationship, which clearly depends upon the multivalence of the key terms involved, more closely below.
Whatever the historical origins of the formula, most Indian Buddhist schools came to use the twelve-member series (and its three lifetime interpretation) as an important teaching tool, illustrations of which, in the form of the “wheel of life,” are still found in temples throughout the Buddhist world.
As a heuristic device for outlining the whole of Buddhist teaching, the twelve factors succinctly summarize a broad range of doctrines whose deeper implications in any case need to be fleshed out in more specific contexts.
In the following sections we will therefore analyze key components of this formula, examining how consciousness continues from one life to the next propelled by self-reinforcing cycles of karmic action and reaction.
What we shall see is a complex feedback relationship between our misunderstanding of who we are, the actions this misunderstanding instigates, and the psychological and “psycho-ontological” results that these lead to.
But first, we must clarify what karma refers to, and address the perennial question, if there is no real “self,” who or what might be reborn? Causation and continuity without a self “Sadsara” literally means a turning, a going around.
What keeps the cycle turning are the energetic processes of karma,17 that is, intentional actions and their consequences. Put another way, what the series of dependent arising describes is the way karmic actions arise, the results they accrue, and how these in turn lead to yet further actions – in short, the vicious circle called samsara.
- * *
Although a richly textured term central to all Indian religious systems, karma is much less straightforward that it first appears. As with many other terms inherited
from his Indian milieu, the Buddha reinterpreted the Sanskrit term karman, meaning “religious act or rite,” and gave it a new, more psychological, sense: Monks, I say karma is intention; having intended, one does karma through body, speech, and mind.
(A III 415)18
More specifically, karma refers to intentional actions (sañcetanika-kamma) which eventually bring about consequences, a stipulation that will affect all the debates that follow:
Where there are [[[deeds]] of ] the body, [[[speech]], and mind,] Ananda, personal happiness and suffering arise as a consequence of the intention of the [[[deeds]] of ] the body, [[[speech]], and mind). (S II 39–40. PTS)
Intention (cetana) then is necessary for an action to accrue results, for it to be a karmic action. So, for example, inadvertently crushing insects underfoot while walking down the street or unknowingly killing hair mites while scratching one’s head does not accrue the karma of killing, since there is no intention to kill them.
Swatting mosquitos or executing criminals does. The meaning and use of the term karma, however, entails an unavoidable ambiguity, even in these early Buddhist texts. Karma refers to a relational complex, to “the deed with reference to both its cause and its effect” (PED 191).19
Thus, although karma often refers specifically to an action as cause (in later terminology, karma-hetu), in other contexts it refers to the result of an action (i.e. karma-phala, “the fruit of karma,” or karma-vipaka, “the matured result of karma”).
Such distinctions, however, are not always explicitly made, sometimes causing considerable ambiguity. Leading to even more ambiguity, in other contexts karma may also refer to a potential for karmic results, that is, to the interim period between having performed a karmic deed (as cause) and prior to its coming to fruition (as result). In this sense, karma is said to be built up and accumulated: one “accumulates karma” or amasses “a stock of good karma.”
This important sense of karma eventually became as problematic as it remained indispensable. Overcoming the influences of this accumulation of karmic potential is one of the central concerns of Buddhist practice, since cyclic existence is perpetuated by and largely defined in terms of such actions, their results, and the everpresent potential for further results.
Thus the Buddha says: I declare, monks, that actions willed, performed and accumulated will not become extinct as long as their results have not been experienced, be it in this life, in the next life or in subsequent lives.
And as long as these results of actions willed, performed and accumulated have not been experienced, there will be no making an end to suffering. (A V 292. Nyanaponika, 1999: 265)
This is no strict determinism, however, for that would lead to the fatalistic attitude so often projected onto Indian religion, but here rejected by the Buddha: those who have recourse to past action as the decisive factor (sarato paccagacchatad) will lack the impulse and effort for doing this and not doing that.
Since they have no real valid ground for asserting that this or that ought to be done or ought not to be done…[they] live without mindfulness and self-control. (A I 174, III 61. Nyanaponika, 1999: 62)
A deterministic view of karma, moreover, would preclude the very possibility of liberation from karmic conditioning, against which the Buddha also cautioned: If one says that whatever way a person performs a kammic action, in that very same way he will experience the result – in that case there will be no (possibility for) the holy life, and no opportunity would appear for making a complete end to suffering.
But if one says that a person who performs a kammic action (with a result) that is variably experienceable, will reap its result accordingly – in that case there will be (a possibility for) the holy life, and an opportunity would appear for making a complete end to suffering. (A III 110. Nyanaponika, 1999: 315, n. 70)20
Thus, in the early texts the Buddha taught that karmic activities conduce to, but do not wholly determine, results that are consonant with the motivations instigating them.
- * *
Nevertheless, one key question still remains: If there is no continuing self, who is it that experiences these karmic effects?
This question is unavoidable and, as we shall see from the intra-Buddhist controversies concerning it, its answer was not as obvious as it seems. As with many other issues, the Buddha steered a middle path here between two extremes. Portraying an individual as a continuous stream of psychophysical processes which arise and cease depending upon their causes and conditions, the Buddha declared that it is neither the exact same person nor a completely different one who experiences the results of karma.
Just as one cannot step into exactly the same river twice, since the flowing water is always changing from one moment to the next, so too are we never exactly the same person, because the conditions and processes which constitute our lives are also always changing from moment to moment.
On the other hand, neither are we completely different, because, like the stream whose currents fall into consistent patterns depending upon the consistency of their supporting conditions, so too the continuity of
individual “mind-streams” depends upon the continuity of their causes and conditions.
Thus, even if we are never exactly the same person we were a moment ago (or last week, or last year, or last lifetime), neither are we wholly different; rather, what we are is the continuously evolving result of a multitude of past actions and events, whose “heirs” we are.21 Thus, the Buddha declared: This body does not belong to you, nor to anyone else. It should be regarded as [the results of] former action that has been constructed and intended, and is now to be experienced. (S II 64)22
Thus, instead of an autonomous subject as an unchanging locus of experience independent of this changing, conditioned world – the contemporaneous view of self (atman) in ancient India – the Buddha taught that we can best understand the continuity of sentient existence in terms of the cause-and-effect relationships expressed in the concept of karma and exemplified in the recurrent patterns of dependent arising. In other words: ignorance conditions the karmic formations, the karmic formations condition consciousness, and so forth.
That is to say, the workings of karma and its consequences as depicted in the series of dependent arising is the Buddhist theory of continuity, the continuity of the dependent relations between the karmic formations, the arising of cognitive awareness, and so on.23
Though there was no serious departure from this basic perspective in mainstream Indian Buddhist thought, there were innumerable disputes over its details. Indeed, one of the rationales of the alaya-vijñana was that – given this particular notion of selflessness – only it could account for the continuity of karmic influences.
This was accomplished primarily by reformulating, within an Abhidharma framework, the relationships already expressed in the early texts between consciousness and karma (in all their senses). Since these karmic influences were thought to persist from one lifetime to the next through an unbroken stream of mind, which was closely connected with consciousness (viññan. a), we must carefully examine this key relationship. For it was the multiplicity of roles and the multivalency of the concept of viññan. a, we argue, that laid the groundwork for the Yogacarin idea of the alaya-vijñana.
Viññan. a in the formula of dependent arising
In this key section we will analyze the reciprocal and karmically generative relationship between the karmic formations (sankhara) and consciousness (viññan. a)
within the series of dependent arising.
That is to say, the formula depicts a vicious cycle between our past actions, the forms of consciousness these actions result in, and the afflictive actions these elicit – which lead to yet further karmic formations and forms of consciousness, and so on.
We must keep this larger picture in mind as we immerse ourselves in the complex but fascinating details of the relationship between consciousness and the karmic formations.
Perhaps the entire notion of the alaya-vijñana arose out of the ambiguities surrounding the early concept of viññan.
a, for it exhibits two distinct ranges of meaning.
The Sanskrit term vijñana, cognate with the Pali viññan. a, is composed of the prefix vi-, denoting “separation” or “division” (related to the Latin dis-), plus the verbal root jña, “to know” (cognate with the Greek gnosis, the Latin (co)gnitio, and the English know). Vi- together with jñana thus means “the act of distinguishing, discerning, knowledge” (PED 287, 611; SED 961).
Although “discernment” may be a more literal translation, “cognitive awareness” comes closer to denoting its sense as an awareness of a specific object within a specific sense-field, while “consciousness” highlights the aspect of viññan. a as a subsisting sentience which persists from one lifetime to the next.
Two distinct senses can thus be discerned in the way viññan. a occurs in the early texts and in the formulations of dependent arising, aspects which Pali scholar O. H. de A. Wijesekera calls “sadsaric viññan. a” and “cognitiveconsciousness”
(1964: 254 f.).24 This first, “samsaric viññan. a,” is consciousness
per se, the basic sentience necessary for all animate life, which in Buddhist thought is always dependent upon supporting conditions and perpetuated by karmic activities. In this sense, viññan. a descends into the incipient fetus at the time of rebirth, inhabits the body throughout life, and departs at the time of death, initiating the transition to another life.
This “aspect” of viññan. a is nearly always mentioned without reference to cognitive objects. In contrast, “cognitive viññan
a” refers to the forms of conscious cognitive awareness that occur in nearly every moment of life, and which in human beings arise in six modalities, the five senses and mind.
It is nearly always defined in terms of its specific objects, one of its requisite conditions.25 The differences between these two are succinctly expressed in two typical formulations for the arising of viññan. a:
Depending on karmic formations (sankhara) viññan. a arises. (S II 2)
Depending on eye and forms visual viññan.
a arises. (S II 73)
On further analysis, however, we can discern a deeper and unexpected relationship between these two “aspects” of viññan.a: they virtually condition each other. On the one hand, “samsaric” viññan.a constitutes one of the preconditions for any “cognitive” viññan. a to occur in the first place, since sentience is necessarily concomitant with all animate life, that is, only living beings have cognitive awareness. On the other hand, viññan.
a as cognitive awareness is at the center of
the various processes within which karmic activities arise.
That is, cognitive processes typically lead, via afflictive intentions, to the karmic activities that ultimately perpetuate the samsaric “aspect” of viññan. a, which, accordingly, continues in an unbroken stream throughout one’s nearly infinite lifetimes. As we shall see, the complex relationship between these two “aspects” of viññan. a – in
conjunction with the karmic activities informed by craving, etc. – forms the center of a self-perpetuating feedback cycle that is largely explicable in terms of the intradynamics of mind itself. In the alaya-vijñana model in later centuries, these
two aspects of viññan.
a will be explicitly distinguished and their relationship explicitly described in terms of their mutual and simultaneous conditionality (anyonya-sahabhava-pratyayata) – a relationship that, we believe, is best understood as a systematization of the complex interactions between the two “aspects” of viññan. a first adumbrated in these early texts.
Although these “two aspects” of viññan. a remained largely undifferentiated in the early teachings, analyses of the distinct semantic and functional contexts within which they occur led most exegetes, both traditional and modern, to precisely these same conclusions. In order to demonstrate this, we need to analyze viññan. a’s twin roles – as consciousness and as cognitive awareness – in the context of the formula of dependent arising, focusing in particular on the complex relationship between these forms of viññan.
a and the karmic formations, the sankharas. In the process, we will discern three distinct but interrelated areas in which viññan. a plays crucial
roles: (1) psychological – the ordinary processes of perception, conception, intention, etc.; (2) “psycho-ontological” – the causal relationship between these psychological processes (and the karmic activities they instigate) and the longterm destiny of an individual life-stream within cyclic existence; and (3) soteriological – the cessation of viññan. a together with the karmic energies that perpetuate such existence. We shall briefly discuss the psycho-ontological and soteriological dimensions of viññan.
a as “consciousness” before proceeding to examine its more overtly psychological aspects.
a as consciousness
In the early texts, viññan.
a as consciousness or sheer sentience is virtually coterminous with one’s samsaric existence as a whole.
It occurs uninterruptedly throughout all of one’s worldly lifetimes. It “descends” into the mother’s womb at the beginning of each life and “departs” at its end.
And it only comes to a complete cessation with the end of samsaric existence itself, that is, with nirvana.
These characteristics will all later be attributed to the alaya-vijñana as well.
Viññan. a is closely associated with the continuity and perpetuation of cyclic existence in a variety of ways.
First, as one of the four sustenances – along with edible food, sensation, and mental intention – consciousness “sustains” each single life as well as one’s stream of lives.26 Driven by craving, the sustenance of viññan. a becomes one of the preconditions for rebirth itself: “if there is delight, if there is craving for the…viññan.
a sustenance” the Buddha declared, then consciousness becomes established (patiiihita) there and comes to growth. Wherever consciousness becomes established and comes to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form. Where there is a descent of name-and-form, there is the growth of karmic formations.
(S II 101)27 Viññan.a is thus a precondition not only for the development of a new sentient body (name-and-form) in this life but also for “the growth of karmic formations”
(sankhara). After birth, viññan.
a and other accompaniments of life, the “life
factor” (ayu) and “heat” (usma), continue uninterruptedly throughout that lifetime until, upon their departure, one passes away.28 Thereafter, in dependence upon these same conditions, “consciousness being established and growing, there comes to be renewed existence in the future” (S II 65).29
Wijesekera thus remarks: [T]he conclusion is difficult to avoid that the term viññan. a in Early Buddhism indicated the surviving factor of an individual which by re-entering womb after womb (gabbha gabbhad: Sn. 278, cp. D. iii 147) produced repeated births resulting in what is generally known as Sadsara. (Wijesekera, 1964: 256, emphasis in original)30
While the processes of viññan.
a grow and increase, thereby sustaining samsaric life, they can also be calmed, pacified, and brought to an end, marking the end of the cycle of birth and death. Indeed, the destruction of viññan. a (along with the other four aggregates) is virtually equated with liberation in one passage:
“By the disgust, the dispassion (viraga), the cessation of viññan. a, one is liberated
without grasping (anupada) – one is truly liberated” (S III 61).31 This cessation of viññan.
a is brought about through Buddhist practice, which counters the karmic activities perpetuating samsaric existence.32 As a result of such practice, viññan.
a is no longer increased by grasping; on the contrary, a monk “who is without grasping [or appropriation, anupadana] attains Nibbana” (M II 265).33 Thus, “when that consciousness is unestablished, not coming to growth, nongenerative (anabhisankhara), it is liberated” (S III 53).34 A Buddha or Arhat therefore differs from a worldly being, for whom viññan. a is still continually established in samsara, in that their viññan.
a no longer has a support in cyclic existence (appatiiihita-viññafa)35 – a notion the Yogacarins will also subsequently associate with the cessation of the alaya-vijñana. Upon realizing nirvana at the end of the process of karmically driven rebirth, viññan. a, the stream of worldly consciousness which persists throughout one’s countless lifetimes, also comes to an end, or is at least radically transformed.
The cessation of viññan. a is hereclosely identified with the destruction and cessation of the “karmic activities” (anabhisankhara, S III 53) which, we shall see, are necessary for the continued perpetuation of cyclic existence.36 Karmic formations and craving increase viññan.
a and perpetuate samsara
It is karmic activities – actions instigated and informed by the cognitive and emotional afflictions – that cause consciousness to attain growth and become established in cyclic existence. But what are the karmic activities that do this and how do they lead to the “stationing” or persistence of viññan. a? And BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE
what has this to do with the feedback relationship between consciousness and karma?
Although it is not obvious at first glance, the karmic formations, the sankhara, serve to perpetuate the cycle in two ways in the series of dependent arising: they constitute both the basis for samsaric continuity as well as the causes of perpetuating the cycle. These twin roles are implicit in the process–product nature of the concept of sankhara itself. Generally, sankhara (S. sadskara) denotes intentional actions, that is, following the definition of karma noted above (A III 415), actions that generate results. But sankhara also refers to what results from such action. Hence, while one of the most important terms in Indian Buddhism, sankhara is also one of the most difficult to comprehend, particularly in translation. Compounded of the prefix sad, meaning “with” or “together with,” and a form of the verbal root kg, “to do” or “make,” sadskara literally means “put or made together” or, more simply, “formation.” Like many participial nouns in Pali and Sanskrit (and like English terms such as “painting” or “building”) sankhara demonstrates a “process–product” bivalence. That is, it has both an active sense, “the act of forming,” and a nominal sense, “that which is formed.” In this latter sense, sankhara refers most broadly to the entire phenomenal world insofar as everything that exists has been formed from various causes and conditions. In the psychological sense, however, sankhara refers more narrowly to the volitions, dispositions, and actions that constitute human activities, insofar as these are both constructed complexes formed from past actions, as well as constructive and formative influences conditioning present and future actions. Edgerton thus describes sankhara (sadskara) as “predispositions, the effect of past deeds and experience as conditioning a new state,” as both “conditionings [and] conditioned states” (BHSD 542).37 It may seem contradictory for something to be both a cause and result at the same time, to be both constructed and constructing, conditioned and conditioning. However, these two properties are simultaneously found in many processes, especially those of living organisms, which develop and perpetuate themselves through their own interactive feedback processes embodied in patterns of circular causality, as is now widely understood in the natural sciences.38 We can use our analogy of a river again to illustrate how easily the results of previous actions or events may become the basis, and even the cause, for succeeding ones. A river is gradually formed through the continuous flow of water. At first, runoff water from rain flows haphazardly, directed only by the continuous forces of gravity and inertia, the particular lay of the land, and assorted obstacles in its path. As the water flows, it gradually erodes furrows in the ground beneath it, so the water from each succeeding rainfall is more likely to flow into these furrowed channels. Over time, deeper channels are formed which guide the direction and flow of each succeeding rainfall, which in turn erodes deeper channels collecting more water, and so on; eventually these two create, and constitute, the “river” itself. But even though it is the current form of the riverbed that now directs the flow of water, this riverbed was itself primarily formed by the previous flow of THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 23
water. In this way, the entire river came into being through nothing but its own interactive, feedback processes: what was formed by previous events becomes the basis for, and thereby conditions, succeeding ones. Similarly, in the early Buddhist world-view the various kinds of bodies we inhabit, with their specific types of cognitive and sensory dispositions and apparati, are also built up over the course of countless lifetimes in the particular conditions of cyclic existence. The paths our continued embodied existence take are directed by the accumulated results of our past actions, which are continually reinforced – which increase and “grow” – by our afflictive activities in the present, which themselves are deeply informed by the underlying currents of our various dispositions. In Buddhist terms, these activities are conditioned by the powers of desire and craving, the inertial forces propelling cyclic life, while their deeply furrowed paths are the sankharas, the riverbed constructed through countless lifetimes of previous existences, which both result from past actions and serve as the basis for present ones. These sankharas are thus formative influences which not only continuously condition our bodily forms, but also our intentional activities, the nature and direction of our mental and spiritual energies as well. That is, contoured by these banks, our stream of consciousness continuously flows with both the bubbling surface of its swift, churning waters and the deeper, hidden currents flowing beneath its surface – both of which subtly yet continuously make their mark upon the contours of that very riverbed and its banks, scouring out pockets here, accumulating deposits there. Together, the river and riverbed constitute a continuous, mutually conditioning relationship that has been built up by nothing more than the history of their own previous, continuous interactions. Sankharas built up from the past serve as the continuous basis for our current activities. This is an extremely apt analogy for the basic Indian Buddhist view of mind, all the more so since it also illustrates early Buddhism’s radically depersonalized view of causality. Who, after all, created the river? This question would not even be asked in any naturalistic context. Such an ill-formed question would be rephrased as: “What forces, what combination of causes and conditions, brought about this great river?” As with the river, so too it makes little sense to ask – within an early Buddhist context – “Who built the sankharas?” “Who produced this consciousness?” “Whose body is this?” As Buddha said: This body does not belong to you, nor to anyone else. It should be regarded as [the results of ] former action that has been constructed and intended and is now to be experienced. (S II 64)
- * *
The karmic formations (sankhara) are more than just constructed complexes, however, they are also constructive factors in a positive psychological sense, and BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA 24
as such condition the arising of cognitive awareness in a number of ways. Although their most prominent role is near the beginning of the standard series of dependent arising, where the karmic formations from previous lifetimes serve as a basis for further existence by directly conditioning consciousness in the rebirth process, the sankhara also more actively bring about the “growth” of consciousness in their capacity as intentional actions. In some passages, in fact, the karmic formations are virtually equated with intention (sañcetana, cetana) itself,39 the defining characteristic of karma. This sense of sankhara as intentional actions also conditions the arising of viññan. a in many formulations of dependent arising.
In one short passage, for example, the Buddha depicts the processes whereby intention (cetana), conception (pakappana), and the underlying tendencies (anusaya) perpetuate consciousness within cyclic existence: Monks, what one intends (ceteti), and what one plans, and whatever one has a tendency towards (anuseti): this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis, there is a support (arammafam) for the establishing (ihitiya) of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form.…Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. … But, monks, when one does not intend, and one does not plan, and one does not have a tendency toward anything, no basis exists for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is no basis, there is no support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is unestablished and does not come to growth, there is no descent of name-and-form.…Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. (S II 67) But how could intentions, conceptions, and tendencies create a “support” for consciousness to take rebirth in the future? And how do they make consciousness “grow”? This happens because they are related to craving and the karmic activities it instigates. As we have seen, not all of one’s activities generate karma, only the activities informed by afflictions such as craving (tafha) do. Without this afflictive dimension, without the cognitive and emotional afflictions (kilesa; S. kleka) to instigate actions, there would be no cyclic existence. Craving in fact is so central to Buddhist thinking that it is enshrined in the second Noble Truth, the origin of suffering: And what is the origin of suffering? It is craving, which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being, and craving for non-being. This is called the origin of suffering. (M I 49) THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND
That is, it is actions motivated by desire and craving – rather common aspects of human experience – that entail psycho-ontological consequences, that is, continued rebirth.
Craving leads to rebirth in the series of dependent arising in two ways. In the standard formula, sense-impressions and feeling give rise to craving (tafha), which in turn conditions the arising of appropriation (upadana); these last two are afflictive influences which instigate karmic activities, thereby indirectly conditioning the arising of “samsaric” consciousness. In other contexts, however, craving directly conditions the growth of consciousness, leading directly to further rebirth. A text that closely parallels that cited at the beginning of this section (S II 66) states that when there is pleasure in or craving for any or all of the four kinds of sustenances (ahara) of those who are already born or who desire to come to be (sambhavesinad), then consciousness becomes established there and comes to growth. Wherever consciousness becomes established and comes to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form. Where there is a descent of name-and-form, there is growth in the karmic formations (sankhara). Where there is growth in the karmic formations, there is the production of future renewed existence. (S II 101)40
We have thus seen two forces that cause viññan. a to be supported and grow: first,
the active karmic formations of intending (cetana), etc. (S II 66 cited above), provide the support (arammafa) for establishing (ihitiya) consciousness in this world; and here (S II 101), it is the afflictive element of craving for the nutriments such as consciousness that causes it to be established and grow. It is these two factors – intentional actions (karma) and the affective, afflictive powers (kilesa, S. kleka) which inform them – that generate the energies propelling consciousness and perpetuating cyclic existence. But how do these processes actually promote the “growth” of consciousness, leading to further rebirth? The Buddha used a series of simple vegetative metaphors to describe this, metaphors the Yogacarins will similarly use to describe the alaya-vijñana. In one text, he asks: If these five kinds of seeds are unbroken, unspoilt, undamaged by wind and sun, fertile, securely planted, and there is earth and water, would these five kinds of seed come to growth, increase, and expansion? Yes, venerable sir. Monks, four stations (ihitiya) of consciousness41 should be seen as like the earth element. Delight and lust should be seen as like the water element. Consciousness together with its nutriment should be seen as like the five kinds of seeds. (S III 54)42
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA
A similar passage effectively glosses these fertile images: Karma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for the consciousness of beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving to become established in the lower [[[intermediate]], or lofty] realm. Thus there is rebecoming in the future. (A I 223, III, 76, Nyanaponika, 1999: 69)
As these vegetative metaphors illustrate, the seeds of consciousness are established or “planted” in the fertile fields prepared by karmic deeds and watered by the bountiful founts of desire and craving – in short, it is karma and kilesa (afflictions) that condition consciousness. This metaphorical equation of consciousness with seeds, which the Yogacarins will also use in connection with the alaya-vijñana, suggests a close association between karma and viññan. a, an association which, while equivocal, merits some attention.
Consciousness and the potential for karmic fruition Although such metaphors are certainly suggestive, they hardly indicate what the relationship between consciousness and karma actually is. It is frequently said, for example, that karma is accumulated (upacita) and passed on, that “beings are heirs” to their actions (A V 292; M I 390, III 203), but, in the early texts at least, it is never said exactly how. Pali scholar Johansson concludes that viññan. a is the “transmitter of kamma” (1965: 195 f.), the “collector of kamma effects” (1979: 61), but there are, as far as we know, no passages that explicitly state that viññan.
a receives or maintains seeds or potentials for
karmic results. Nevertheless, an examination of the passages that do discuss karma and consciousness, although individually ambiguous, together suggest that they are closely connected indeed, especially if we take into account that viññan. a is the only process that explicitly continues across multiple lifetimes.
First of all, viññan.
a itself is said to be directly affected by the quality of a karmic action: “If an ignorant man undertakes meritorious actions [his] consciousness will go to merit, and [if he] undertakes demeritorious actions, [his] consciousness will go to demerit” (S II 82).43 These suggest that viññan. a takes on the qualities of karmic action, whose potentials, we have seen, accumulate until they come to fruition. Viññan.
a, moreover, seems to be the only process that
is explicitly described as leaving one body at death and entering another one at conception.44 For karmic potential to adhere to an individual life-stream and persist throughout one’s series of rebirths, then it seems as if it must do so in conjunction with viññan. a – at least, in any case, during the crucial juncture between death and rebirth. Though to my knowledge this is never explicitly stated in the early Pali texts, such conclusions were commonly drawn by later exegetes and THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 27
modern scholars alike. Hence, Johansson declares, with perhaps equal license and justification, that
it is taken for granted that our existence is accumulative…and our present state is continually changed through the effects of the past. Viññan. a
is the carrier of these accumulations, and is conceived as a stream flowing ceaselessly in time if not made to stop.
(Johansson, 1970: 66)
This crucial question, with all its ambiguities, remains unanswered in the early texts, and will return to haunt Buddhist thinkers in an era exacting more precision and rigor, that is, the era of Abhidharma and Yogacara scholasticism.
- * *
In this section we have seen, on the one hand, that viññan. a as consciousness
accompanies all animate existence and that its repeated “stationing” in this world is coterminous with one’s samsaric destiny. At the time of rebirth, consciousness is directly conditioned by the sankhara, the constructed karmic formations projected from previous actions; and during this life the afflictive factor of craving, together with the actions it impels, propel the growth of consciousness toward a further rebirth. Consciousness is thus the result, the product, of karmic activities both at the beginning of one lifetime and in the transition to the next. Moreover, since viññan. a is the only process explicitly said to continue during rebirth, it is closely, albeit indefinitely, related to the accumulation and transmission of karmic potential over multiple lifetimes. On the other hand, viññan.a may also be pacified and brought to an end, a condition that is virtually equated with liberation. Therefore, as both Johannson and Wijesekera have concluded as well, viññan. a is a subsisting constituent of individual existence which plays a central role in the early Buddhist conceptions of samsara and nirvana. And, as we shall see, every one of these characteristics will later be predicated of the Yogacara version of subsisting sentience – the alaya-vijñana – which also stands in sharp contrast to the transient, discrete functions of an object-oriented cognitive awareness, the second major aspect of the term “viññan. a.” It is to this sense of viññan.
a that we now turn.
Viññan.a as cognitive awareness
In these early texts, viññan.a also refers to cognitive awareness insofar as it arises in conjunction with specific objects. Whereas the “samsaric” aspect of viññan. a is usually discussed in terms of what has resulted from past actions (i.e. sankhara), “cognitive viññan.
a” is typically discussed in the context of its present objects.45 But that is not all. “Cognitive awareness” is also directly involved with the processes that generate new karma, and it is this karma that, in turn, causes “samsaric viññan. a” to continue being established in cyclic existence, thereby completing the vicious circle constituting the formula of dependent arising.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA
In this context, viññan.
a is better rendered “cognitive awareness,” since it is an awareness that arises in conjunction with specific cognitive objects. That is, a specific form of cognitive awareness arises when an appropriate object enters into its respective sense-sphere, impinging on its respective, unimpaired sense faculty (indriya) and there is sufficient attention thereto.46 Sense-object and senseorgan (or faculty) are thus correlatively defined: a visual object, by definition, is that which impinges upon the eye. These cognitive modalities are, however, distinguished and classified by their object: “Cognitive awareness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent upon which it arises,” the Buddha declared. “When cognitive awareness arises dependent on the eye and forms, it is reckoned as eye-cognitive awareness…,” and so on (M I 259). Cognitive awareness for human beings is analyzed in terms of six specific modalities – visual-, audio-, olfactory-, gustatory-, tactile-, and mental-cognitive awareness – based upon the five senses and mind. All of these arise in dependence upon the concomitance of their respective organs with their corresponding objects. We must note, however, the asymmetry of the sixth cognitive modality (manoviññafa), which is based upon the faculty of mind (mano), for this arises in conjunction with not one, but two kinds of cognitive object. When a cognitive awareness of a sensory object occurs, it is often followed by an awareness of that awareness, that is, a reflexive awareness “that such and such a sensory awareness (viññafa) has occurred.”47 This is one of the “objects” of mental cognitive awareness (mano-viññafa). Mental cognitive awareness, however, also arises in conjunction with cognitive objects that occur independently of the sensory cognitive system, such as thinking, reflection, or ideas.48 Thus, mental cognitive awareness arises in conjunction with two kinds of objects: with a previous moment of sensory cognitive awareness as an object and with its “own” kind of object, that is, mental phenomena. Insofar as these latter are mental, as opposed to sensory objects, they are termed dhammas (S. dharma) – an increasingly important term we shall further examine in the Abhidharma chapter. Generally speaking, the category of mental cognitive awareness was broad enough that other schools attributed to it many of the characteristics the Yogacara Buddhists would attribute to the alaya-vijñana. Mental cognitive awareness (mano-viññafa) is, however, no more a permanent, abiding agent or self than the other processes in the early Buddhist analysis of mind are, and for the same reasons: In dependence on the mind and mental phenomena (dhamma) there arises mental cognitive awareness. The mind is impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise; mental phenomena are impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise. (S IV 69)
This passage highlights the fact that all forms of viññan. a are seen as dependent upon the conditions that give rise to them. They occur, rather than act. That is, THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND
when an object appears in a sense-field and impinges upon its respective sensefaculty, that specific kind of cognitive awareness automatically arises.49 This is equally true for the sixth cognitive modality, mental cognitive awareness (manoviññafa). When sensory phenomenon give rise to sensory cognitive awareness, a second cognitive awareness may occur which depends upon that first cognitive awareness as its object. Despite its apparently reflexive character, however, mind is not “cognizing itself.” Mental cognitive awareness no more “cognizes” dhammas than the forms of sensory cognitive awareness “cognize” objects; neither of them are agents or faculties, nor, for that matter, actions at all. This is as much an interpretive and philosophical question as a terminological one, for it goes to the heart of the Buddhist view of dependent arising. It is common, though misleading at this stage of Buddhist thought, to think of cognition (viññafa) as an agent that acts upon its objects by “cognizing” them. In the causal syntax of dependent arising, however, cognitive awareness does not cognize anything – it is simply an awareness that arises when requisite conditions come together.50 Cognitive awareness is thus not an act of cognition, it simply is cognitive awareness itself.51 Failure to appreciate this impersonal, passive nature of cognitive awareness – to interpret it as an act rather than an event, as listening rather than hearing, or watching rather than seeing – is to overlook the most distinctive feature of early Buddhist thought: its radically depersonalized model of mind, its understanding of experience without a subject. For if cognitive awareness is not an act that one does but an event that occurs, then there is no need for an agentive subject. In this sense, the traditional Buddhist refusal to acknowledge a substantive, independent agent who “acts” or “perceives” (anatman) is as much a reflection of its mode of analysis as a metaphysical position. And since cognitive awareness (viññafa) does not act, it does not in and of itself accrue karma. Only intentional activities generate karma. Thus, even though intentional activities are almost inevitably instigated by the affective accompaniments of cognitive awareness – which we shall see seldom occurs without them – viññan. a itself is not the cause of karma; it is conceptualized altogether separately.
It is apparent, moreover, that cognitive awareness arises depending, on the one hand, on specific objects within a particular cognitive domain, as well as, on the other hand, on karmic formations (sankhara) such as the sense faculties that result from previous karmic activities. Even apparently simple sensory cognitive awareness (viññafa) therefore depends upon the patterns and structures garnered from past experience at the same time that it continuously arises in conjunction with present objective phenomena (an obvious point that will be fully systematized in the alaya-vijñana model of mind). This is merely another way of saying that new experiences are continuously conditioned by our pre-existing physiological and psychological structures, which have themselves been formed through previous activities and experiences. And these are the very patterns described in the formula of dependent arising.
Cognitive processes and the production of Karma
While “samsaric” viññan.
a is largely a product of past karmic activities, such as the karmic formations and craving, “cognitive” viññan. a is involved in the production
of these karmic activities. In the standard series of dependent arising, it is the factors which follow the descent of consciousness into name-and-form that set these processes into motion. In fact, the first several of these – the six sense-spheres, contact, and feeling – closely parallel the factors associated with the arising of cognitive awareness itself: cognitive awareness arises in conjunction with the six sense-faculties and contact, and typically gives rise to feeling.52 These are so closely related that one text states that feeling, along with apperception (sañña) both considered karmic formations of mind (sañña ca vedana ca cittasankharo, M I 301) – are virtually inseparable from viññan. a: Feeling, apperception, and cognitive awareness – these factors are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is impossible to separate each of these states from the others in order to describe the difference between them. For what one feels, that one apperceives; and what one apperceives, that one cognizes. (M I 293)53
In the standard formula, the affective factor of feeling then typically gives rise to the afflictive factor of craving, so crucial for perpetuating cyclic existence. Accordingly, another text simply places viññan. a itself at the beginning of a causal chain that leads to the “origin of the world”: And what, monks, is the origin of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-cognitive awareness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, grasping; with grasping as condition becoming; with becoming as condition birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. This, monks, is the origin of the world. (S II 73)54 We can see here, in the direct progression from cognitive awareness to feeling, to craving (tafha), and on to appropriation (or grasping, upadana) and becoming, etc. the crucial relationship between the cognitive and affective dimensions of mind, the afflicted karmic activities they typically give rise to, and the deleterious results that follow. Thus, while not karmically causal itself, cognitive viññan. a is centrally involved in the processes that are: the afflictive factors of craving and grasping and the karmic factor of becoming.55
In another respect, these factors can also be considered varieties of karmic formations (sankhara), in their causal rather than resultant character, as processes THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 31
rather than products. For without karmic activities, there is no perpetuation of cyclic existence. This is epitomized by a passage already cited, in which sankhara serves as the only link between name-and-form and renewed existence – that is, sankhara replaces all the components of the cognitive processes in the standard twelve-member formula (i.e. the six sense-spheres, contact, feeling), together with the afflictive factors that they elicit (craving and appropriation): Wherever consciousness becomes established and comes to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form. Where there is a descent of nameand- form, there is growth in the karmic formations (sankhara). Where there is growth in the karmic formations, there is the production of future renewed existence. (S II 101)
This underscores the profoundly bivalent nature of sankhara as “the effect of past deeds and experience as conditioning a new state” (BHSD 542). That is, insofar as they represent what results from past actions – the sentient body (name-andform) with its six sense-faculties, our emotional predispositions, and so forth – the karmic formations constitute the indispensable basis for new cognitive experiences and the powerful emotions they elicit. And insofar as they themselves are intentional actions – intention being the defining characteristic of karma – the sankhara represent the dynamic components that keep beings enmeshed in samsaric life. The causal dynamics underlying the arising of new karma, however, still needs to be analyzed in terms of its individual components, that is, conditioned by feeling, craving arises, conditioned by craving, grasping (upadana) arises, followed by becoming, which leads directly to a new birth. Since it is grasping that forms the key link leading from one lifetime and the next, we must briefly examine this core concept. Grasping or appropriation (upadana) is a complex, multivalent term, equally important in early Buddhist and Yogacara analyses of mind. Like sankhara, it may refer both to something produced from past actions and to an active process in the present, both a conditioned and a conditioning state. It thus not only means “fuel, supply, the material out of which anything is made,” and even “substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive or going” (PED 149), but also, more actively, “appropriation, grasping, attachment, and taking up.” Although as a translation, the term “appropriation” lacks the graphic immediacy of “grasping,” it serendipitously encompasses both the nominal sense of “that which is taken, seized, appropriated” (an appropriations bill, for example, seizes money by exacting taxes), as well as the verbal sense of grasping or, even more suggestively, “taking as one’s own” (ad-proprius).56 This appropriation, this “taking as one’s own,” is, in the Buddhist view, the basic attitude we take towards the aggregated material and psychological processes (“the five aggregates of grasping,” pañc’ upadanakkhandha) which comprise our sentient existence.57 As an attitude which colors all our actions,
however, grasping is not merely a pervasive psychological process, it also entails powerful psycho-ontological consequences. In the following passage, upadana equally denotes fuel, substratum, or grasping – all of which are deemed necessary for continued rebirth: Just as a fire burns with fuel (upadana) but not without fuel, so Vaccha, I declare rebirth for one with fuel [or grasping (upadana)] not for one without fuel…When, Vaccha, a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, I declare that it is fueled by craving (tan.hupadanad). For on that occasion craving is its fuel. (S IV 399)58 Without such craving and grasping, on the other hand, one may become liberated:
If a monk seeks delight in [[[visible]] forms (rjpa)], welcomes them, and remains holding to them, his consciousness becomes dependent upon them and grasps to them. A monk with grasping [or appropriation] does not attain Nibbana.…If a monk does not seek delight in them, does not welcomes them, and does not remain holding to them, his consciousness does not become dependent upon them or grasps to them. A monk without grasping [or appropriation] (anupadano) attains Nibbana. (S IV 102; translation altered)
Thus, appropriation (upadana) lays the foundation for future rebirth in two ways: by serving as the basis, the substratum or fuel, for future lives, as well as by being an indispensable afflictive (kilesa) component in the production of new karma. And like other core Buddhist concepts, appropriation or grasping operates both within the psychological processes of ordinary life, while also entailing “psychoontological” results into the future, that is, by supplying the fuel for those who have “not yet been reborn in another body.” Moreover, the cessation of grasping is closely associated with Nirvana, the cessation of cyclic existence. This concept of upadana will also later play an important part in the complex model of mind centered around the alaya-vijñana. The underlying tendencies (anusaya)
So far we have examined the complex and reciprocal interrelationship between viññan.
a and the karmic formations (sankhara), observing that the arising of viññan.
a (in its two senses) is both based upon and perpetuated by the karmic formations (in both of its senses), which it in turn also serves to elicit. That is, on the analogy of the river and riverbed, the previous interactions between viññan.a and sankhara lay the groundwork for those same patterns of interaction THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 33
to reoccur, continuously building upon each other in a constructive and selfperpetuating process. In this sense, the relationship between mind, actions, and their results – between viññan. a and sankhara (and kilesa) in all their complexity – is the core dynamic sustaining cyclic existence. But in one sense the materials we have examined have stated rather than demonstrated how this arises. How do these interactive processes actually facilitate their own repetition? That is, why do we keep repeating the same thing over and over? Why are we bound to keep looking for freedom and happiness in the wrong places? What, in other words, are the underlying and recurrent tendencies that keep us caught in vicious circles? In early Buddhist thought, these are discussed in terms of the anusaya, the “underlying tendencies” or “latent dispositions.” These tendencies form the essential link between the arising of cognitive awareness, with its affective responses, and the afflictive karmic activities that these latter typically elicit. As we have seen in the formula of dependent arising, the cognitive processes involving contact (phassa) and feeling (vedana) give rise to craving (tan.ha) and grasping (upadana). Although this sequence is usually stated without elaboration, the close connection between feeling and these afflictive responses – so essential to the perpetuation of samsara – lies within these underlying tendencies. These latent tendencies represent the infrastructure, as it were, of the cognitive and emotional afflictions, those indispensable elements underlying the generation of new karma. Our focus on the underlying tendencies (anusaya) here is inspired by the important, and problematic, role they played in later developments in Abhidharma doctrine59 – for it was the doctrinal debates over the status of these dispositions that, in large part, inspired the Yogacarins to postulate a distinct locus of unconscious affliction roughly paralleling the alaya-vijñana itself. Nevertheless, these tendencies were important in early Buddhism in their own right. For insofar as they represent the potential, the tendency, for cognitive and emotional afflictions (kilesa) to arise, the anusaya60 are effective in the same dimensions that viññan. a and appropriation (upadana) are: (1) psychologically, they are involved in the karma-generating activities elicited by cognitive processes; and thus (2) “psycho-ontologically” are instrumental in perpetuating samsaric existence; whereas (3) soteriologically, their gradual eradication is closely linked to progress along the path to liberation. In their psychological dimension, these tendencies underlie our usual affective responses to ordinary cognitive processes. This is stated particularly clearly in one formulation of dependent arising: Monks, dependent on the eye and forms, eye-cognitive awareness arises; the meeting of the three is contact; with contact as condition there arises [a feeling) felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant. When one is touched by a pleasant feeling, if one delights in it, welcomes it, and remains holding to it, then the underlying tendency to lust lies within one. When one is touched by a painful feeling, if one
sorrows, grieves and laments, weeps beating one’s breast and becomes distraught, then the underlying tendency to aversion lies within one. When one is touched by a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, if one does not understand as it actually is, the origination, the disappearance, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in regard to that feeling, then the underlying tendency to ignorance lies within one. (M III 285) In other words, we are disposed to respond to certain kinds of stimuli in certain habitual ways. That is, particular predispositions represent a potentiality for that affliction to arise in response to the specific kind of feeling with which it is associated. This close relationship between types of feeling and the types of affliction they elicit is succinctly summarized in another passage: The underlying tendency to lust underlies pleasant feeling. The underlying tendency to aversion underlies unpleasant feeling. The underlying tendency to ignorance underlies neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. (M I 303)61 The implications of these passages are as obvious as they are odious: our cognitive processes nearly always involve affective responses (M I 293, cited above), such as feeling or sensation, which – as long as the dispositions continue to underlie them – tend to provoke the underlying potential for the afflictive responses of lust, aversion, etc. to arise, which, in turn, typically lead to new karmic activities, which result in more sensations, and so on. These dispositions, these habituated patterns of afflictive response to everyday experience, therefore play an essential role in the perpetuation of our bounded cyclic existence. Accordingly, these underlying tendencies evince the same psycho-ontological consequences other dynamic factors in early Buddhism do. One text, for example (similar to S II 65 above), depicts the underlying tendencies as instigating an entire chain of dependent arising all by themselves: If, monks, one does not intend, and one does not plan, but one still has a tendency towards (anuseti) something, this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis, there is a support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form. With name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases [come to be].…Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. (S II 66)
One who has, on the other hand, eliminated these underlying tendencies, these dispositions to passion, anger, and ignorance, no longer responds in the THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND
time-worn, habitual ways to whatever pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings may arise. And since the dispositions no longer lie latent within these feelings, one no longer generates the karmic activities that perpetuate cyclic existence. The cessation of the underlying tendencies is therefore equated in this same discourse with liberation, with the end of suffering itself: But, monks, when one does not intend, and one does not plan, and one does not have a tendency towards anything, no basis exists for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is no basis, there is no support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is unestablished and does not come to growth, there is no descent of name-and-form. With the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of the six sense bases…Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. (S II 66) The task of the Buddhist practitioner, then, is not merely to attain right understanding of the truths of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, but to fully eradicate the afflicting passions such as ignorance, lust, and aversion at the deeper, more entrenched level of unconscious dispositions. As the Buddha declares: Monks, that one shall here and now make an end of suffering without abandoning the underlying tendency (anusaya) to lust for pleasant feeling, without abolishing the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling, without extirpating the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, without abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge – this is impossible. (M III 285) But, in contrast, if one were to eliminate all these underlying tendencies, then a complete end to this suffering would indeed be possible. And when this is accomplished one is said to have entered the true dhamma and attained perfect view.62 The underlying tendency “I am” and conceptual proliferation (papañca) These tendencies and their associated afflictions are not only emotional, however, they are also cognitive, in the broadest sense; and the combination of the two is a potent brew indeed. Recall that ignorance is, along with craving, one of the two main conditions for samsaric existence. Foremost amongst our cognitive mistakes, in the Buddhist view, is a deep-seated tendency to identify with our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts. Each of us harbors an almost innate sense that we actually are one or more of the five aggregates.63 But since this sense of selfidentity occurs at the deepest levels of consciousness, it is difficult to even discern, let alone radically remove. Accordingly, even an Aryan disciple, a Buddhist saint who has already removed the five lower fetters tying him to this
world, is said to have subtle remnants of the conceit “I am.” As the Buddha explains:
Suppose, friends, a cloth has become soiled and stained, and its owners give it to a laundryman. The laundryman would scour it evenly with cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung, and rinse it in clean water. Even though that cloth would become pure and clean, it would still retain a residual (anusahagata) smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung that has not yet vanished. The laundryman would then give it back to the owners. The owners would put it in a sweet-scented casket, and the residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cow dung that had not yet vanished would vanish. So, too, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, still, in relation to the five aggregates subject to clinging, there lingers in him a residual conceit “I am,” a desire “I am,” an underlying tendency “I am” that has not yet been uprooted. (S III 131)64 Moreover, this underlying tendency to personally identify with aspects of one’s existence, the tendency toward “I am,” is at the center of another, even more complex set of feedback relationships between consciousness, language, and selfidentity, and actions and their results: all of these give rise to an unending series of conceptual or ideational proliferation (papañca; S. prapañca). This pattern also recurs at the center of the alaya-vijñana model of mind. The sense “I am” is closely connected with the reflexivity of mental cognitive awareness (mano-viññafa), the only cognitive modality not directly based upon one of the sense faculties but upon the faculty of mind or mentation (mano).65 Mental cognitive awareness, as noted above, arises in conjunction with two kinds of event: the occurrence of sensory cognitive awareness, which gives rise to a reflexive mental awareness “that such and such a cognitive awareness has occurred,” as well as its “own” objects, dhammas, which are associated with reflection or thinking (vitakka-vicara). These latter are both considered sankhara of speech (vitakka-vicara vacnsan.khara, M I 301), and arise in conjunction with mano, with mentation (see n. 48). The reflexivity that mental cognitive awareness provides, based on such mentation (mano), is thus bound up with our capacities for language, which was considered in early Indian thinking, as elsewhere, as the very medium of thought and ideas.66 Like language itself, however, this awareness invites endless rounds of recursivity, of papañca, mental or conceptual proliferation67 – even in regard to objects of sensory awareness: Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one apperceives. What one apperceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, apperceptions and THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 37
notions tinged by mental proliferation [papañca-sañña-sankha] beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye, [and so on, up to:] mind-objects cognizable through the mind. (M I 111 f.)68 We have already seen intimations of a close relationship between cognitive awareness, apperception,69 and linguistic use. Cognitive awareness, feeling, and apperception, M I 293 declares, “are conjoined, not disjoined…For what one feels, that one apperceives; and what one apperceives, that one cognizes.” Moreover, A III 413 states that “apperceptions (sañña) result in conventional usage (vohara). As one comes to know a thing, so one expresses (voharati) oneself, ‘Thus I have apperceived.’ ”70 Now, in M I 111, cognitive awareness, contact, and apperception give rise first to thinking and then to mental or conceptual proliferation (papañca). And, with such proliferation as the “source,” further apperceptions and proliferations arise in respect to other objects of cognitive awareness. That is, what one has cognized, apperceived, and thought about becomes, via mental proliferation, a condition for further cogitation, conceptualization, and so on. Cognitive awareness, language, and thought are thus so inseparable that they give rise to a runaway recursivity in their own right. Indeed, conceptual proliferation itself is so multiply entangled in its own reciprocal relationships – (1) with contact (which sometimes conditions the arising of cognitive awareness)71; (2) with apperception (which always accompanies it)72; and (3) with thought itself 73 – that it is often a synonym for phenomenal, cyclic existence as a whole.74 The most deeply entrenched source of these recursive possibilities, which also doubles back to generate its own recursivity, is no doubt our reflexive sense of self-existence, the sense “I am” (which is always expressed as speech, iti). As one text declares, the notion “ ‘I am’ is a proliferation; ‘I am this’ is a proliferation; ‘I shall be’ is a proliferation” (S IV 202 f.; Bodhi, 2000: 1259). Not only is “the label ‘I,’ ” as Bhikkhu Ñan. ananda puts it, an “outcome of papañca” (Ñan. ananda,
1971: 11), but the thought “ ‘I am” is also, in the early Pali text the Sutta-nipata, the very root of proliferation. In other words, as long as the thought “I am” persists – this thought whose residual underlying tendency lasts until far along the path to purification (S III 131, cited above) – so long will the feedback cycle between cognitive awareness, apperceptions, conceptual proliferation, and further apperceptions, etc. continue, thereby perpetuating cyclic existence. Accordingly, the Sutta-nipata declares: With what manner of insight, and not grasping anything in this world, does a monk realize Nibbana? Let him completely cut off the root of concepts tinged with the prolific tendency (papañca), namely, the thought ‘I am.’ (SN 915–16)75
These subtle remnants, “the residual conceit ‘I am,’ a desire ‘I am,’ an underlying tendency ‘I am’ ” (S III 131) will, however, be uprooted when the disciple rightly
contemplates the arising and ceasing of the five aggregates and clearly sees the futility of identifying “I am this” with any internal or external phenomena whatsoever.76 Thus,
Monks, as to the source through which perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion…to views…to doubt…to conceit…to desire for being…to ignorance. (M I 109)
The debate over latent versus manifest
The persistence of the latent tendencies until far along the path to liberation, however, immediately raises a number of questions that will challenge later Buddhist analyses of mind. If they are so persistent that one continuously harbors such tendencies until reaching liberation – which is implicit in the foregoing and explicit to differing degrees in succeeding schools – then why would they not affect all of one’s activities, making all of them afflictive, karmic activities (and, in the process, making liberation impossible)? But if they do not, then how do they exist when they are not actively affecting one’s activities? Although such questions were not raised, and hence went unanswered, until Abhidharma analyses forced the issue, the outlines of the problem are evident enough in the early texts. While many texts are ambiguous on these points, one at least, the Mahamalumkya-sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya, is more suggestive. The Buddha is depicted here correcting the misguided views of his disciple Malunkyaputta, who thought that one is only bound by the afflicting dispositions when they are patently manifest, but not otherwise.77 The Buddha first responds by declaring that the underlying tendencies exist even in a baby boy, although in a latent state, suggesting that these underlying tendencies may be innate78 to human beings: For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘personality’ so how could personality view (sakkayadiiihi) arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to personality view (sakkayadiiihanusayo) lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘teachings,’ so how could doubt about teachings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to doubt lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘rules,’ so how could adherence to rules and observances arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to adhere to rules and observances lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘sensual pleasure,’ so how could sensual desire arise in him? Yet the underlying THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 39
tendency to sensual lust lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings,’ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him. (M I 433)
The Buddha (M I 434) then contrasts this situation with that of the “untaught ordinary person…[who] abides with a mind obsessed and enslaved by personality view” (sakkayadiiihi-pariyuiihitena cetasa viharati) [[[doubt]], etc.]. “When that personality view [etc.] has become habitual and is uneradicated in him,” the Buddha warns, it serves as a fetter tying him to this world (orambhagiyad sadyojanad). The learned monk, on the other hand, well practiced in the Buddha’s teaching and well trained in meditation, does not abide with a mind obsessed and enslaved by personality view [[[doubt]], etc.]; he understands as it actually is [yathabhjtad] the escape from the arisen personality view, and personality view together with the underlying tendency to it [sanusaya] is abandoned in him. (M I 434, emphasis added)79 These passages certainly seem to distinguish between the afflictions in a subsisting, latent state (anusaya) and the state of being overwhelmed by their outbursts (pariyuiihana). While the underlying tendencies subsist in the infant only in latent form, in adults they have developed into an abiding capacity to “obsess and enslave” us, tying us to this world. The advanced monk or nun, however, has rid themselves of the overwhelming manifest appearances of these afflictions, together with their deeper, more trenchant form as underlying tendencies. These tendencies persist throughout one’s lifetime and for as long as one exists within samsara, until they are gradually eliminated along the path and only fully eradicated upon final liberation. As we shall see, later schools will disagree about the differences between the latent afflictions (anusaya) and the active outbursts (pariyuiihana),80 drawing opposite conclusions from texts such as these, which remain, in any case, somewhat equivocal. What is clear though is why these underlying tendencies were so important in early Buddhist thought: they connect the results of previous karma with the causes of new karma, constituting a third crucial dimension to our vicious cyclic existence, this one centered upon the cognitive and emotional afflictions. That is, feelings or sensations result from previous karma (A II 157),81 within which the underlying tendencies lie ever ready, as it were, to be triggered into activity. Thus, when certain feelings arise they tend to elicit the underlying tendencies associated with them, causing their respective afflictions – such as the three unhealthy roots of lust, aversion, and ignorance – to burst forth (see Table 1.1). The actions that are instigated or informed by these afflictions create more karma, which in turn lead to further results, such as feeling, and so on. Insofar as
they represent the potential to repeat afflictions that already “have become habitual and uneradicated,” the underlying tendencies are therefore both conditioned, that is, constructed by past actions, as well as conditioning, that is, conducing to present actions. In this sense, they constitute the indispensable afflictive link to the dependent arising of “this whole mass of suffering,” without which actions could not accrue karmic results. Reciprocal causality between the two aspects of viññan.a In the introduction to this section, we argued that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the “two aspects” of viññan. a (summarized in Table 1.2). That is, for as long as the cognitive processes give rise to feeling, from which follows craving, grasping, and the activities that create and sustain the “samsaric viññan.
a,” so long will the cycle of rebirth be perpetuated – at the center of which is the continuity of viññan.
a itself. And for as long as this samsaric viññan. a persists,
so long will it provide the ground or basis for the continued occurrence of those very cognitive processes, with all of their attendant affective and afflictive responses.82 In this sense, there is – clearly but implicitly – a reciprocal, yet temporal feedback relationship between these two aspects of viññan. a in the series of dependent arising. They are, in this temporal sense, causal conditions of one another.
We drew these conclusions, however, only through inference and analysis, since there are no extant passages in the early Buddhist texts that explicitly differentiate these two, nor relate them in this fashion.83 It is, however, sufficient for our purposes – to understand the background and context of the Yogacara concept of the alaya-vijñana – to be able to delineate two regularly occurring and consistently distinct contexts in which these “aspects” of viññan. a appear in the materials which later thinkers drew upon in formulating their own innovative theories of mind. All the major Abhidharma schools drew upon roughly the same materials and came to roughly the same conclusions (with some important differences, as we shall see) regarding these “two aspects” of viññan. a. Only THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND
Table 1.1 The relation between feeling (vedana) and the underlying tendencies (anusaya) M III 285
Cognition→sensation→feeling → underlying tendency viññan.
M I 303
Pleasant feeling → tendency to lust
Painful feeling → tendency to aversion
Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling → tendency to ignorance (adukkamasukha-vedana) (avijjanusaya)
the Yogacarins formalized this distinction into a complex model of mind in which these two “aspects” were systematically distinguished and the relationship between them characterized in terms of their reciprocal and simultaneous conditionality. We will take up these developments soon enough in succeeding chapters. But first we wish to briefly discuss the studies of at least one modern scholar, Rune Johansson, who (along with Wijesekera) came to many of the same conclusions later Buddhist thinkers did regarding these “two aspects” of viññan. a. In contrast to our approach, however, which focuses on the systemic relations between these aspects of viññan.
a in the various formulations of dependent arising, Johansson cites a number of texts which suggest these two aspects of viññan. a in the
very same passage. And, in spite of his judicious reluctance to speak of two “aspects” of the singular term “viññan.
a,” careful exegesis, he concludes, compels it. Both aspects of viññan.
a seem to occur together in several rather similar passages. The first occurs in a discourse where the Buddha is recommending that a dying disciple relinquish attachment to anything that could serve as a support for viññan. a to be reborn into this world, enumerating a long list of such phenomena within which viññan.
a also occurs, first as a form of cognitive awareness: “I will not cling to eye-viññan.
a (etc.) and my viññan.
a will not be dependent on
a (etc.)” (M III 260).84 This is then repeated for all five aggregates (khandha), ending with consciousness (viññan.
a): “I will not cling to consciousness,
and my consciousness will not be dependent on consciousness.”85 Johansson interprets the second consciousness in both these passages as “viññan. a in its
rebirth-aspect” (1965: 198).
Table 1.2 The relationship between the “two” viññan. as in the formula of dependent arising
First step: Factors 2–4: past actions condition a new life beginning with consciousness.
Conditioned by the sankhara (karmic formations), samsaric viññan. a descends into a
new body (nama-rjpa).
Second step: Factors 5–7: conscious body (saviññafakaya) conditions cognitive processes.
a supports the arising of cognitive viññan.
a, which only occurs in
a is recapitulated in the six sense-spheres, sense-impression, feeling).
Third step: Factors 8–10: cognitive processes collectively condition samsaric consciousness.
a instigates the affective and afflictive karmic activities that perpetuate rebirth (bhava), whereby samsaric viññan. a goes onto future existence.
Whole cycle: conditioned by the sankhara, viññan. a is reborn in a new body; samsaric
a conditions cognitive viññan.
a, which in turn leads to karmic activities that lead samsaric viññan.
a to further existence.
The next passage makes a similar point: desire for the five aggregates of grasping, the last of which is viññan.
a, provides a “support” for viññan.
however, disappears along with that desire:
If a monk has abandoned lust for…the consciousness (viññafa) element, with the abandoning of lust the basis is cut off: there is no support for the establishing of consciousness.
When that consciousness is unestablished, not coming to growth, nongenerative, it is liberated. By being liberated…he personally attains Nibbana.
(S III 53, Bodhi, 2000: 891)
Johansson interprets this similarly:
This could mean that through freedom from the sense-perceptionviññan. a (together with the other khandha [[[aggregates]])), viññan. a (in its
rebirth-aspect) is without support and – as the text continues – becomes anabhisankhara (free from kamma accumulation) and parinibbayati (attains parinibbana [[[Nirvana]])).
(Johansson, 1965: 199)
Both of these passages suggest that viññan.
a has two distinct aspects and that
its cognitive or “sense-perception” aspect is central to the perpetuation (or conversely, the cessation) of its samsaric or “rebirth-aspect.” This causal dependency also works the other way around. Not only do the activities associated with cognitive viññan. a bring about the renewal of samsaric
a, but the presence of samsaric viññan.
a is also a precondition for any cognitive
processes to arise. That is, all of one’s previous actions and experiences serve – through the medium of the constructed forms of body and mind – to influence one’s immediate cognitive processes. A specific occurrence of viññan. a, in other words, is not only conditioned by its present cognitive object, which is just one of its conditions. It is also informed by the whole complex of conditions (S II 2: “Depending on karmic formations viññan. a arises”) bearing on that particular moment, for all of our physical, sensory, and mental apparati, constructed and conditioned from past actions, contribute to the range and content of experience in this life. As we have suggested, all our inherited physiological and psychological structures, the sankharas as well as “samsaric viññan. a,” condition the forms in which “cognitive viññan.
a” currently arises.86
Buddhist analysis of mind, therefore, even at this early stage, is no simple empiricism in which some autonomous cognitive faculty cognizes external objects pre-existing “out there” in time and space. Rather, the theory of dependent arising suggests that mind and object dependently arise. A visual cognitive awareness, for example, only arises in response to something “visible,” which is defined by the capabilities of the eye-faculty, and so on. As Johansson points out, “if we did not have the power of experiencing, the power of forming mental images [[[sañña]]), then the object, seen through the eye, would not produce its conscious counterpart” THE EARLY BUDDHIST BACKGROUND 43
(1979: 85). Our sankhara are therefore a “necessary condition for viññan. a to
function at all” (ibid.: 139). In other words, our experience of cognitive objects is a result of constructive87 activities whose enabling structures have been built up through the processes of countless lifetimes and which continuously condition our present forms of experience. Johansson emphasizes this in his interpretation of a passage in which viññan.
a depends upon feeling born of contact, rather than the other way around (M III 260: cakkhusamphassaja vedananissitad viññan. ad):
Perception is produced through the confrontation of a neural message with memories stored in the nervous system. The information supplied through the senses can be interpreted only by being compared with this stored information; this information can from a Buddhist point of view be envisaged as provided by viññan. a and therefore present before the
stimulus; it is activated only through the contact, phassa. Viññan. a is…
a precondition of perception.…The dimension of consciousness is the condition of sensation, and the concrete content is the result of it. (Johansson, 1979: 92 f., emphasis in original) This is hardly surprising. How else but through some ongoing “dimension” of mind could the mass of memories, the accumulation of karmic potential, and (perhaps) the afflictive dispositions which constitute samsaric continuity, persist when the momentary cognitive processes of seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. are otherwise preoccupied with their own object-specific operations? On the other hand, how else could these potentials for karmic accumulation, these underlying tendencies, etc. be generated, strengthened, and increased, except through the fateful cognitive and afflictive activities within which cognitive viññan. a plays a central role? Johansson suggests this very reciprocity while fleshing out his metaphor of the “dimension” of consciousness: Viññan.
a refers mainly to the stream of conscious processes which characterizes the human mind, but it is also…responsible for the continuity both within this life and beyond. [I]t is probably more adequate to call it the dimension of consciousness.…It is by nature dynamic and continually changing.…It may become more and more dependent on the stimuli from the external world and may be stuffed with contents and memories, which transform viññan. a to the new personality of the next birth.…In the former type of context [the ‘dimension’ of viññan. a], it is more of an inner
functional unit, inner space, store-room; in the latter, more of concrete, conscious processes which are the inhabitants of this inner room. (Ibid.: 63 f.)
These are precisely the two aspects of viññan. a we have delineated above: a continuous
“dimension” of samsaric viññan.
a, which “preconditions” the second,
momentary object-oriented, cognitive viññan.
a, which, in turn, “stuffs it with
These aspects of mind, moreover, not only reciprocally condition each other in the extended temporal range of samsaric continuity (the “psycho-ontological” sense), but their reciprocity would seem to function within the momentary processes of immediate cognition as well – that is, they ought to condition each other simultaneously. If, as the metaphors of a “dimension” of mind and its “contents” suggest, cognitive viññan. a is a particular, transient and object-specific occurrence of an otherwise unceasing, accumulative, and relatively non-intentional sentience, then why should all those accumulated potentialities, memories, and impressions associated with this sentience, this samsaric viññan. a, simply cease when some object-specific form of cognitive viññan. a arises? And what would
happen to samsaric continuity if they did? Though the early texts nowhere say so, Johansson for one does not shrink from the simplest and most straightforward answer to these questions. There are, “according to the early Buddhist analysis, two layers of consciousness: what we called the momentary surface processes, and the background consciousness. The latter is an habitual state…always there” (1970: 106 f.)88 (emphasis added). Johansson has thus summed up the diverse functions of viññan. a within the
early Pali texts. In his analysis viññan.
a is characterized as:
1 a continuously flowing process…
2 principally conscious, but with a subconscious component, because most of the content is not always present…
3 transmitter of karmic effects, modifiable by experiences, 4 a free-moving force (e.g., connected with dreams and free imagination), 5 an explanation of rebirth in terms of consciousness, 6 a process that can be stopped, and thereby end the whole karmic process. (Johansson, 1965: 192) As we shall see, the Yogacara writers will attribute every one of the characteristics of viññan.
a listed above to alaya-vijñana, with the explicit and obvious exception of (2), which refers to “cognitive” viññan. a. Both the mass of textual
materials we have examined, and important contemporary studies concerning it, lead to the same conclusions, motivated perhaps by similar syncretic aims, that we shall later find in the complex concept of alaya-vijñana. We must admit, however, that these conclusions, in fact this entire mode of analysis, are far from the spirit and tenor of the early texts. They reflect a systematic perspective, a style of thinking more properly belonging to the scholastic period of Buddhist thought which followed. These ideas lay latent like seeds in the earliest traditions, waiting to be grasped and sown in the fertile fields of later minds where they would, watered by not a little sectarian contention, eventually bear fruit in the multi-dimensional model of mind centered upon alaya-vijñana[]. We have examined the background of this model; now we must examine its context, the context within which these simple metaphors of streams and seeds and fruits, and even the very term “viññan. a” itself, would become problematic indeed.
THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
Religio is false without philosophy, in just the same way as philosophy is false without religio.
(St Augustine, Epitome)
The Abhidharma project and its problematic
We have examined the important role of vijñana (P. viññan. a; note: hereafter we will
use primarily Sanskrit terminology, reflecting the original language of our sources) within the series of dependent arising, as both the subsisting dimension of individual samsaric existence, and as a core component of the cognitive processes that typically lead to actions perpetuating such existence. This is not the whole picture, however, for the samsaric round would come to a halt if there were no afflictive passions (kleka) instigating karma-inducing activities. Thus, as essential as vijñana may be for the continuity of samsaric existence, it is the pernicious influences of the afflictions (kleka), together with the karmic actions they inform, that are essential for its perpetuation.1 In other words, while samsaric vijñana may be the product of one’s past actions, it is the presence of the afflictive energies (kleka) in one’s present activities that creates new karma. And since these are only activities that one can affect, religious effort is necessarily oriented towards controlling one’s motivations and directing one’s activities in the here and now. The early Buddhists thus concentrated upon an analysis of one’s present actions and the motivating intentions behind them, relying upon the relatively simple analyses of mind we surveyed in the first chapter. In the centuries following the Buddha’s lifetime, these analyses developed into increasingly explicit and systematic methods of discerning the underlying motivations, and hence the karmic nature, of each and every intentional action. Over time, the Buddhists transformed what was originally a straightforward and largely descriptive psychology into a highly complex, systematic, and self-conscious meta-psychology – still with the explicit aim of eliminating the afflictive, karma-creating energies that perpetuate cyclic existence. This is, in brief, the Abhidharma project.2 In this approach, the Abhidharma emphasis upon the active processes of mind seemed to overshadow the subsisting yet subtle influences from the past – particularly the underlying tendencies toward the afflictions (anukaya) and the accumulation of karmic potential (karma-upacaya). To grossly simplify the situation, these subsisting influences came under the purview of Abhidharma analysis only insofar as they overtly affected immediate processes of mind. But these subsisting influences could not, by their very nature, all be active, or even discerned, within one’s mental processes at any given moment; they were by definition latent or potential for most of the time, and hence unavoidably obscure. Thus, two main factors that were indispensable to the Buddhist view of samsaric continuity across multiple lifetimes – the persistence of the latent afflictions and the accumulation of karmic potential – were not easily ascertained in an analysis which focused exclusively on present and active processes of mind. The existence of these subsisting factors, their patterns of arising, and their possible influences on all one’s mental processes until attaining liberation – all these became problematic within the Abhidharmic analytic. And they became problematic, we shall argue, because of the inherent tension between Abhidharma’s ultimate aim and its immediate method; between the overriding religious aim of stopping the inertial energies of samsaric life altogether, and the means to that end – the systematic description of the momentary and present processes of mind. The unavoidable distinction between the persisting influences from the past and the active processes in the present would eventually bring about an explicit recognition of the kinds of influences that underlie and enable every action yet which remain inaccessible to analyses limited to immediate mental processes – it brought about, in short, a recognition of unconscious mind. Both “aspects” of vijñana which we analyzed in the first chapter – vijñana as “consciousness” and vijñana as “cognitive awareness” – were central to these problems. It was the fateful disjunction between these two originally undifferentiated aspects of vijñana – with exclusive validity accorded to momentary cognitive processes at the expense of subsisting consciousness – that eventually led to the postulation of a distinct category of vijñana, a “repository” or “base” consciousness, an “alaya” vijñana, to represent those subsisting aspects of mind which had become marginalized within the new Abhidharma analytic. We focus on the Abhidharma project at such length because it was within the historical and conceptual context of Abhidharma scholasticism that the Yogacara school arose, and within whose terms the notion of the alaya-vijñana was expressed. An understanding of this context, of its technical terms, and of the problematic issues it gave rise to is thus indispensable for untangling the interwoven logical and exegetical arguments for the alaya-vijñana, which, we shall see, are almost wholly products of the “Abhidharma Problematic.” Background of the Abhidharma We must first briefly sketch the historical background to Abhidharma Buddhism. The doctrines we examined in Chapter 1 belonged to the Sjtra-piiaka, the THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
Collection of Discourses, purported to be the words of the Buddha himself.3 Almost all later traditions of Indian Buddhism descended from these early teachings, either directly or indirectly, and most of them have sought validation for their distinctive doctrines by recourse to this or that passage in these early sjtras. These discourses have thus served as a counterbalance by which divergent doctrines were weighed and judged, lending South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, despite its huge historical, geographic, linguistic, and cultural variety, a certain unity of thought and practice. But just because the Buddha’s teachings were given at different times, to diverse audiences, and in varying circumstances, the discourses preserved many teachings that were not readily reconcilable with each other, did not expound a topic in a complete or systematic fashion, or were not of equal benefit to those most assiduously practicing the Buddhist path. Consequently, possibly even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the Buddha’s followers began composing more consistent and systematic presentations of his teachings. The initial attempts in this direction are preserved in a collection of texts, some of which are considered to be the Buddha’s words, called the Abhidharma-piiaka, the Collection of Higher Doctrine.4 As it was several centuries before any of the three Collections (including the Collection of Discipline, vinaya-piiaka) were actually written down, these “texts”5 were transmitted orally in typical Indian fashion, with different groups of monks committing different Collections to memory. In such circumstances, divergent versions of the early discourses tended to increase as the centuries passed and as various implications of the teaching continued to be drawn out. This was particularly true in the case of the Abhidharma texts, which were constantly undergoing a process of systematization and refinement. Moreover, and just as important, there was no central authority to determine exactly what was or was not orthodox doctrine. This process of diverging interpretations and their proliferating implications was instrumental in the gradual rise of different schools of doctrine and practice. Though it is certain that these processes – the gradual divergences of doctrine, the composition of new Abhidharma texts, and the formation of different schools of interpretation – were well under way in the centuries following the Buddha’s demise, the available documentary evidence gives us only the barest outline of its early history.6 The processes through which the various schools, traditionally numbering eighteen, came into existence are largely lost in the mists of Indian history.7 We possess extensive textual materials from this period only from the Sthaviravada /Theravada school,8 predominant in present-day Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and from the Sarvastivadins, the predominant Abhidharma school in classical India (but whose texts are primarily extant only in Chinese translation).9 We reach surer historical ground only in the first few centuries CE, the second half of Buddhism’s first millennium, when we are blessed with a large body of Abhidharma texts from a variety of schools. Outstanding in terms of its
comprehensive scope, systematic organization, and continuing influence through the centuries, is the work of the fourth-to-fifth century CE Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, the Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharma-koka).10 With a few major exceptions (the early Theravada text, the Kathavatthu, and some of their distinctive doctrines) we will limit our examination of Abhidharma to the viewpoints expressed in the Abhidharma-koka. These are traditionally thought to represent those of the Sautrantikas, the “Followers of Sjtra,” as well as those of the Sarvastivada, the “All-Exists” school. We focus upon the Abhidharma-koka for two reasons. First, Vasubandhu was, with his half-brother Asanga, one of the two founding figures of “classical” Yogacara. His corpus of work, his recurrent religious and philosophical concerns, even his technical vocabulary, bridge both of these traditions. Moreover, the relationship between the Yogacara and Sautrantika schools is currently being re-examined, leading one scholar to wonder whether “Vasubandhu’s so-called Sautrantika opinions are, in fact, Yogacara abhidharma in disguise” (Kritzer, 1999: 20). Both of these make the Abhidharma-koka an exceptional contemporaneous witness to the wider problematics surrounding and leading to the conceptualization of the alaya-vijñana. Although it might seem strange for those concerned with the disjunction between the Hnnayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism to contextualize the “Mahayana” Yogacara school in terms of “Hnnayana” Abhidharma, the continuity and overlap between them, in India at any rate, is larger than their differences. The Yogacara school should, in fact, be considered one of the “Abhidharma” schools, as it produced a corpus of Abhidharma literature11 parallel to and contemporaneous with that of the other Abhidharma schools, chiefly the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins. Although these three bodies of Abhidharma literature differed in many of their details, they nevertheless shared the same basic presuppositions, carried out their analyses in a similar fashion, and expressed themselves in nearly the same terminology. They belonged, in short, to a single intellectual milieu. And they were all, accordingly, troubled by much the same systemic problems; it was primarily their solutions to these problems that differed. In order to understand the rationale and arguments used to defend and describe the alaya-vijñana, it is therefore essential that we look at this common basis of doctrine in the Abhidharma traditions – their most important concepts, the problems those led to, and the various solutions the different schools offered for them. Only then will we be able to fully appreciate the complex set of arguments put forward by the Yogacara thinkers themselves.12 And we shall see that, in important respects, the alaya-vijñana is quite the most original solution to the Abhidharmic Problematic – a solution that, while remaining faithful to the presuppositions of the Abhidharma analytic, also harks back to, or rather self-consciously resuscitates, the two dimensions of vijñana first found undifferentiated in the early teachings of the Pali texts. THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
The aim and methods of Abhidharma: dharma as
irreducible unit of experience
There is little doubt, as Stcherbatsky (1956) suggested long ago, that the central notion of Abhidharma is the concept of dharma. There is considerable doubt, however, as to what this elusive term actually refers to. We will suggest a synthetic, and slightly idiosyncratic, interpretation of the term, which we believe usefully elucidates the Abhidharma materials, fully aware of the diversity of interpretations concerning this central, yet – after twenty centuries – still hotly debated notion. The Abhidharmists took the early Buddhist idea that the beings and things of the world are impermanent, selfless, and dependently arisen and extrapolated it to apply to all phenomena whatsoever. They argued that referring to anything in terms of entities or wholes (e.g. tables, persons, or even thoughts) is merely a conventional way of designating continuing yet provisional collocations of simpler, more fundamental elements or factors, which alone could be said to truly exist. Accordingly, the Abhidharmists, when speaking technically at least, supplanted the everyday conventional expressions found in the early discourses with descriptions of experienced things “as they really are” (yathabhjtam). That is, elaborating upon the term used to denote the objects of the sixth, mental mode of cognitive awareness, they described experience in terms of their irreducible dharmas. Formulating the doctrine in terms of dharmas was of cental importance in Abhidharma, because, as the Abhidharma-koka claims, “apart from the discernment of the dharmas, there is no means to distinguish the defilements (kleka), and it is by reason of the defilements that the world wanders in the ocean of existence” (AKBh I 3).13 Those topics of the traditional discourses that were not formulated in, or could not be transposed into, dharmic terms were considered to be merely provisional or conventional truth (sadvgtisatya), whereas the doctrine (dharma)14 as formulated in purely dharmic terms was considered to be the “higher doctrine,” the “abhi” dharma, because it is turned toward the ultimate dharma (paramartha-dharma), that is, towards Nirvana.15 This analysis of experience in terms of its irreducible constituents, its dharmas, was to irrevocably alter the style and content of Buddhist doctrinal discourse. Among the many subjects discussed in the Abhidharma literature, particular attention was paid to the analysis of mental processes and their associated activities, since it is these that generate karma. What had begun in the early discourses as a relatively simple if insightful “folk psychology” was gradually transformed into a systematic analysis of the entire world of experience in terms of its momentary and discrete constituents. This involved systematically formalizing the terms used in earlier analyses of mind, such as feeling, apperception, cognition, desire, and so forth, by defining their distinguishing characteristics, specifying the circumstances that condition their arising, and delineating their complex interrelationships. In this way, the ongoing processes of mind were exhaustively analyzed into momentary and discrete units or constituents of experience, discernable through the trained eye of higher insight – they were analyzed, that is, into dharmas.
Abhidharma thus became, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words, a “phenomenological psychology” whose “primary concern…is to understand the nature of experience, and thus the reality on which it focuses is conscious reality, the world as given in experience” (Compendium, 1993: 4). But what does a “phenomenological psychology” mean? And what is a “unit or constituent of experience”? And how is all of this related to vijñana, the central concept of this book? Consonant with the analytic tenor of the Abhidharma traditions, we must systematically reformulate our earlier approach to cognitive awareness. One of the standard definitions of cognitive awareness (vijñana) is that it arises as “the discrete discernment [of objects)” (AKBh I 16, vijñanad prativijñaptic). Two important implications follow from this. The first is articulated well enough in early Buddhism: that all conditioned phenomena appear impermanent and changing. The second is brought out more clearly in the Abhidharma traditions: that cognitive awareness is not only conditionally arisen, but it arises as a function of discerned distinctions. If we examine the implications of this definition, we can more deeply appreciate the nature of the Abhidharma project, the status of its dharmas, and the entire series of theoretical problems that followed from this innovative mode of analysis. As we have seen, cognitive awareness arises when a stimulus appears within an appropriate sense domain, impinges upon the sense-faculties (or mind), and there is attention thereto. Cognitive awareness would not arise without the occurrence of this stimulus, without some impingement upon the sense organs and faculties. To speak of the arising of cognitive awareness is therefore to speak of an event, a momentary interaction between sense organs and their correlative stimuli. To say that “everything is impermanent,” then, is not so much a declaration about reality as it is, as a description of cognitive awareness as it arises. Cognitive awareness is thus – by definition – temporal and processual. It is also discriminative. Gregory Bateson makes a suggestively analogous point: our sensory system…can only operate with events, which we can call changes…it is true that we think we can see the unchanging…the truth of the matter is that…the eyeball has continual tremor, called micronystagmus. The eyeball vibrates through a few seconds of arc and thereby causes the optical image on the retina to move relative to the rods and cones which are the sensitive end organs. The end organs are thus in continual receipt of events that correspond to outlines in the visible world. We draw distinctions; that is, we pull them out. Those distinctions that remain undrawn are not. (Bateson, 1979: 107, emphasis in original)
Without an awareness of such distinctions, without such stimuli, there would be no discernment of discrete objects, no separate “things.” This is arguably already implied in the term vi-jñana, whose prefix, vi-, imparts a sense of separation or THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 51
division (cognate with Latin “dis”), suggesting a “discerning or differentiating awareness” (PED 287, 611; SED 961). Cognitive awareness, in other words, necessarily arises as a function of discernment (prati-vijñapti).16 As Bateson observes: “perception operates only upon difference, all receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference” (1979: 31 f., emphasis in original). That is to say, that unless some distinctive stimuli – marked off from others in terms of temperature, brightness, intensity, and so forth – impinges upon the sense faculties and organs, there will be no arising of cognitive awareness.17 This is not to say that “discrete objects are actively cognized” (see Ch. 1, n. 51), but rather, more subtly, that the contextual distinctions that make stimuli distinct are themselves constitutive of cognitive awareness in the same way that change is. Thus, just as a moment of cognitive awareness arises as a temporally distinct event, so too does it arise in response to contextually distinct phenomenon. These distinctive events are therefore – by the very logic of this mode of analysis – momentary and discrete. And it is these events, we suggest, that are called dharmas. A dharma refers to each of these momentary18 and distinct events insofar as they give rise to, or perhaps more precisely co-arise with, a moment of cognitive awareness. An awareness of differences, we see, does not arise outside of a context, since differences are only meaningful between phenomenon. “Objects”, that is, give rise to cognitive awareness only insofar as they stand out within a surrounding context. But a distinction is not a “thing.” “Difference,” as Bateson points out, “being of the nature of relationship, is not located in time or in space… Difference is precisely not substance…difference…has no dimensions. It is qualitative, not quantitative” (Bateson, 1979: 109 f., emphasis in original). This applies, we submit, to dharmas as well. That is, dharmas are neither substances nor “things” in and of themselves. As Piatigorsky points out: a dharma, in fact, ‘is’ no thing, yet a term denoting (not being) a certain relation or type of relation to thought, consciousness or mind. That is, dharma is not a concept in the accepted terminological sense of the latter, but a purely relational notion. (Piatigorsky, 1984: 181, emphasis in original)
These distinctive events, these dharmas that co-arise with cognitive awareness, are relational in yet another, more reflexive, sense as well: while dharmas may ultimately refer to experiential phenomena, what counts as a dharma in any system of description must itself be distinguished from other dharmas. That is, individual dharmas only occur within a larger context which functions not only cognitively, in conjunction with the forms of sensory cognitive awareness, but – even more importantly – conceptually, within a system of interrelated yet mutually distinctive definitions. In other words, although we can, and must, speak of the definition of each single dharma, we cannot speak of what a dharma “truly is” outside of a given system of analysis wherein such definitions are meaningful.
The meaning and function of any particular dharma is, in other words, dependent on all the other dharmas with which it is contrasted. Each dharma is therefore defined in terms of, or perhaps more precisely as, its own distinguishing mark or identity, its svalakhan.a,20 which sets it off from other dharmas. These do not represent unchanging substrates possessing specific attributes, since dharmas are “relational notions,” not substances; rather, the distinguishing characteristic (svalakhan.a) of a dharma is inseparable from the dharma itself.21 Like the spaces on a chessboard, each dharma thus marks off a notional, logical, and psychological space within a system of description which, in theory, encompasses the entire domain of relevant experience. And it is this notion of dharmas – as discrete events which carry their own “mark” in conjunction with the arising of cognitive awareness – that became the basic “unit” with which Abhidharma philosophy outlined and analyzed the processes of mind. This thus entails one further level of reflexivity: an awareness of doing analysis. That is to say, extrapolating from dharmas as the second kind of object that gives rise to a moment of mental cognitive awareness, dharmas here also refer to objects of thought and reflection inasmuch as they too impinge upon mind. That is, insofar as the discrete factors that condition the arising of cognitive awareness themselves become objects of thinking about cognitive awareness, then these too become dharmas.22 This is the sense in which Piatigorsky calls Abhidharma a “metapsychology,” a system of thought that self-consciously “deals with the various concepts and categories of consciousness as the primary objects of investigation” (1984: 8). This is what we, and we presume Bhikkhu Bodhi, mean by a “phenomenological psychology.” In sum, Abhidharmic discourse expressed in terms of dharmas has several distinct and interrelated characteristics:
(1) it depends upon a phenomenological analysis of experience in descriptive terms; (2) it is metapsychological in the sense of being a self-conscious, systematic analysis of experience; (3) it is a comprehensive description of experience in systemic terms, that is, in which all of its items are mutually defined and distinguished from one another; and
(4) finally, Abhidharma thinkers considered an analysis of experience in terms of dharmas as the only ultimate account of “how things really are” (yathabhjtam). This “dharmic discourse” provided a common language, a shared outlook, for an entire era of Buddhist thinking in India. For while different schools held radically different positions regarding the ontological status of dharmas, their distinctive definitions, and the interrelationships between them, it was only because they shared more or less these same basic assumptions that they could even hold such debates in the first place. This is why, for example, the Yogacarins, THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 53
who are usually considered idealists, could argue with the Sarvastivadins, who held to a realist position, or with the Sautrantikas, who were akin to nominalists. 23 For despite all their differences, they inhabited a shared universe of discourse based upon the primacy and privileging of this specific mode of existential analysis. Although this notion of dharma may be considered merely an elaboration of traditional Buddhist teachings on impermanence and selflessness, it entails a radically different set of implications. As Stcherbatsky provocatively describes this brave new dharma world: The elements of existence [[[dharmas]]) are momentary appearances, momentary flashings into the phenomenal world out of an unknown source. Just as they are disconnected, so to say, in breadth, not being linked together by any pervading substance, just so are they disconnected in depth or in duration, since they last only one single moment (khan.a). They disappear as soon as they appear, in order to be followed the next moment by another momentary existence. Thus a moment becomes a synonym of an element (dharma), two moments are two different elements. An element becomes something like a point in timespace.… Consequently, the elements do not change, but disappear, the world becomes a cinema. Disappearance is the very essence of existence; what does not disappear does not exist. A cause for the Buddhists was not a real cause but a preceding moment, which likewise arose out of nothing in order to disappear into nothing.24 (Stcherbatsky, 1956: 31) Strange as it may seem, these are precisely the consequences of a phenomenological psychology so construed: the “differences that make a difference,” as Bateson famously puts it, that are “not located in time or in space” (1979: 110), that exist only disjunctively and hence relationally, and only insofar as they are transitory events, as they momentarily impinge upon the various sense faculties – these dharmas are, as the sjtras continuously state, evanescent like a “dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a lightning flash or a cloud.” As an explanatory system, however, this analysis of experience in terms of such momentary dharmas raises a number of difficult conceptual problems. If dharmas are “disconnected in breadth,” to whom or what do they apply? And if they are “disconnected in duration,” how can causal conditioning function over time? These became major explanatory challenges for the Abhidharmists, topics that shall be addressed in one form or another throughout the remainder of this book. The Abhidharmists only discussed the first question, that of the referent of personal identity, in fairly limited ways, since it is so largely subsumed within the second question, that of causal continuity. Stcherbatsky suggests the basic Abhidharma approach to this problem, however, when he states above that “a cause is not a real cause but a preceding moment.” For although dharmas
are insubstantial, discrete, and last no longer than an instant, some of the causal and conditioning influences operating between them, both simultaneously and over succeeding moments, necessarily have longer-lasting effects. Some dharmas, that is, are more equal than others. It is to these sets of problems that we now must turn. The basic problematic: two levels of discourse,
two dimensions of mind
This notion of dharmas as momentary, discrete, and ultimately real constituents of experience created a powerful analytic for ascertaining the characteristics and components of our mental processes; accordingly, Abhidharma theory analyzed the processes of mind and body almost exclusively in these terms. For, as Vasubandhu claims (in AKBh I 3), there is no other way of pacifying the afflictions (kleka) than through the discernment of dharmas, the sole purpose for which Abhidharma was taught.25 Abhidharma is thus the systematic analysis of the phenomenal world in terms of such discrete and momentary dharmas, directed by the overriding soteriological aim of discerning and eradicating the afflictive emotions (kleka) and thereby abandoning the karmic actions they instigate. For all its analytic power, however, this analysis of mind in terms of dharmas inadvertently created a host of systemic problems. Although they are complex and tightly interwoven, we will group the problems pertinent to our concerns into two sets:26 (1) those pertaining to the analysis of momentary, overt processes of mind, enshrined in “dharmic discourse” itself, and (2) those pertaining to the subsisting aspects of the mental stream, which, being nearly inexpressible in dharmic discourse, remained more or less couched in traditional terms.27 These two sets of doctrinal issues – and their respective discourses – correspond roughly to the two senses of vijñana discerned in the first chapter: that of momentary cognitive awareness, and that of a subsisting samsaric sentience. We shall return to this point soon enough. But first we must briefly outline these two problematic areas. First, dharmic analysis dissects experience into discrete components in order to discern how they co-operate, that is, how they operate together within a single moment of mind. This enables one to ascertain whether or not that moment of mind is influenced by the cognitive and emotional afflictions (kleka). This is the paramount aim of analysis because, we remember, it is the afflictions that influence the karmic nature of an action, making it karmically skillful or unskillful. We shall call this analysis of the dharmic factors discernable at any particular moment synchronic analysis or dharmic analysis, and its doctrinal expressions synchronic or dharmic discourse – a discourse expressed exclusively in terms of dharmas which last merely a moment and interact only with other simultaneously existing dharmas, or with those of immediately preceding and succeeding moments. The problems that synchronic discourse raises for our purposes primarily concern the ongoing status of the underlying tendencies and the accumulation of karmic potential, and the compatibility of both of these with THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 55
karmically divergent moments of mind – issues that become particularly acute in connection with the gradual nature of the path to liberation. In other words, the strictures of dharmic discourse created severe problems in accounting for all the pertinent aspects of the mental stream at any given moment. The second set of problems is in effect the inverse of the first: since only dharma discourse describes “how things truly are,” it is only the strictly momentary dharmas that are ultimately real at any given moment. But the indispensable relationship between causal conditioning and temporal continuity, of how the past continues to effect the present, becomes nearly inexpressible in a discourse in which only momentary, currently effective, dharmas are considered to be truly real. Again, this was particularly problematic for such traditional continuities as the accumulation of karmic potential and the persistence of the afflictions in their latent state – continuities whose elimination was the stated purpose of Abhidharmic analysis in the first place. The Abhidharmists, in other words, had from the beginning contextualized their ultimate, dharmic analysis within a larger framework of conventional terms and expressions. In particular, they relied upon such conventional referents as “persons,” “mind-streams” (citta-santana), or “bases” (akraya), in order to refer to the ongoing “subjects” of samsaric continuity, all the while recognizing that these could not themselves be considered dharmas, 28 momentary and discrete factors of experience which carry their own mark. We shall call this continued reliance upon traditional continuities diachronic or santana discourse. The persistence of these modes of expression in the face of Abhidharmic claims to ultimate discourse represents more than mere vestiges of pre-Abhidharmic thinking, however; it also reflects the inherent difficulties of the Abhidharma project as a whole. This created a dilemma for Abhidharmic theory. On the one hand, the active influences of the afflictions and the type of actions they instigate are expressible in ultimate dharmic terms only to the extent that they are immediate factors of experience. As Piatigorsky rightly observes, “the Abhidhamma is a ‘theory of consciousness’ ” (1988: 202, n. 17); anything outside of the arising of conscious awareness is inexpressible in dharmic terms. On the other hand, the continuity of the factors constituting individual samsaric existence in toto can only be described in the more conventional, non-dharmic terms of the diachronic mental stream. But by its very method, Abhidharma explicitly privileges the first discourse at the expense of the second. And this exclusive validity accorded to the synchronic analysis of momentary mental processes threatened to render that very analysis religiously vacuous by undermining the validity of its overall soteriological context – the diachronic dimension of samsaric continuity and its ultimate cessation.29 This is, in short, the Abhidharmic Problematic. We shall examine the development of the synchronic analysis of mind-moments, its continued reliance upon the diachronic discourse of samsaric continuities, and the multiple problems provoked by the fateful disjunction between them. We shall find that this disjunction became more untenable as the implications of the exclusive adherence to synchronic, dharmic analysis became more fully
realized. And we shall see that here too, vijñana is not only central to both of these discourses, but that these discourses correspond closely to the two aspects of vijñana we discerned in the early texts. In contrast to materials in the Pali texts, however, their differentiation in the Abhidharma was explicit, the problems it raised were recognized, and some kind of solution to those problems was proposed by nearly all of the schools we have sufficient knowledge about (see Appendix II). Although the various Abhidharma schools acknowledged and addressed these problems, they were understandably loath to forego the analytic power of dharmic discourse. It was, roughly speaking, this continued disjunction – entailed by a dogged adherence to the exclusive validity of dharmic discourse in the face of the acknowledged and obvious dependence upon diachronic, santana discourse – that, in our analysis, generated the Abhidharmic Problematic toward which the alaya-vijñana was addressed. To appreciate this, however, we must examine the specific systems of mental analysis and particular terms in which these issues were couched. Analysis of mind and its mental factors
Abhidharmic analysis focuses upon citta, roughly “mind,” and the mental processes that occur simultaneously with it at any given moment. The term citta, “thought” or “mind,”30 has an ancient pedigree in the earliest Buddhist texts, denoting the basic process of mind31 which can become contaminated or purified by the nature of one’s actions, and, for some at least, eventually liberated.32 It is what we might loosely call the “subject” of samsara. The karmic nature of each moment of citta is determined by the particular kinds of mental processes or factors (caitta or cetasika, derived from citta, meaning “mental”) that occur with and accompany it. As with citta itself, all of these mental factors (caitta) are dharmas, that is, momentary events arising in conjunction with cognitive awareness and discerned in analytic insight. Most of them, such as sensation, intention, feeling, apperception, etc., were already used in earlier Buddhist doctrine. These mental factors, these caitta, play an especially important role in Abhidharmic analysis because it is the particular kind of relationship they have with the central locus of mind, with citta, that determines the karmic quality of that mind-moment.33 Generally speaking, a moment of citta and its concomitant mental factors (caitta) stand in reciprocal relation with each other,34 a relationship which is karmically neutral; that is, they simply co-occur. However, when particular mental processes arise in reference to the same cognitive object and through the same perceptual faculty, they so closely follow and envelop (anuparivartana) that central locus of mind (citta) that that moment of citta as a whole takes on the karmic qualities of the factors accompanying it (Stcherbatsky, 1956: 25–6). This close relationship is called “conjoined” or “associated” with mind (cittasadprayukta). 35 In other words, it is the processes that are “associated” with a moment of citta that determine the karmic nature of the actions in that THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 57
moment. For example, when afflictive emotions such as anger or lust arise, they are “associated” with that moment of citta, karmically coloring whatever actions (including mental actions) they accompany. Consonant with the earlier definition of karma as intentional action, it is therefore the intention (cetana, one of the primary mental factors) which accompanies and motivates an action that determines its karmic nature,36 that determines what effects it will accrue for the future. Accordingly, these moments of mind and their associated mental factors, together with the actions they instigate, are classified in terms of the results they lead to: actions that produce pleasant or desirable results are called “skillful” or “healthy” (kukala); actions that produce unpleasant or undesirable results are “unskillful” or “unhealthy” (akukala);37 and actions which produce neither are considered neutral or indeterminate (avyakgta). In this fashion, all moments of mind were categorized according to their motivating intentions, the actions they accompany, and the results they potentially lead to.38 The complete Abhidharma analysis of mind and its processes, which quickly becomes extremely complicated and technical,39 is beyond the scope of this study. The main point for our purposes is that the karmic quality of each mindmoment as a whole is determined by, and hence categorized in terms of, the particular relationship between the citta and the mental factors that accompany it. That is, its karmic quality is determined by whether those accompanying processes influence and envelope that citta in the karmically significant relationship called “associated” (citta-sadprayukta), or whether they accompany mind in one of several less influential, and hence karmically neutral, relationships such as being simultaneous (sahabhj) with, or being “disjoined” or “dissociated” from mind (citta-viprayukta). This last is particularly noteworthy. While most ordinary active mental processes directly influence that moment of citta, and are therefore “associated with mind” (citta-sadprayukta), the Abhidharmists realized that there are many other processes which co-occur in a moment of citta that are much less obtrusive and thus have little or no karmic influence. Some of these were categorized as “karmic formations dissociated from mind” (cittaviprayukta- sadskara),40 a category consisting primarily of such anomalous factors as “life power” (jnvitendriya), or the very nature of dharmas to arise, abide, and fade away (jati-, sthiti-, jara-lakhan.a). This indeterminate category was flexible enough to encompass dharmas of various kinds and often on radically different grounds. It comprised, in effect, whatever processes were needed to give a coherent account of the continuity of experience, but not influential enough to affect it in a karmically determinate manner; hence they were called karmically “indeterminate” (avyakgta). The very existence of such a category already suggests some of the difficulties a purely synchronic analysis of mind entails. For an analysis of the overt and obvious activities of mind alone necessarily neglects many factors that are essential to, and constitutive of, experience at any given moment. It was for this reason that the ongoing influence of the underlying tendencies (anukaya) and accumulated karmic potential, for example, were often discussed in connection with this category. Indeed, these particular topics became the
focus of considerable debate in the Abhidharma-koka, a debate in which an underlying, karmically neutral basis of mind called “alaya” vijñana eventually participated as well.
The initial formulation of the problematic in its synchronic dimension: the accumulation of karmic potential, the presence of the underlying tendencies, and their gradual purification in the Kathavatthu By asserting that the ultimate account of “how things actually are” comprises only the processes discernable at the moment, synchronic dharmic analysis not only renders individual continuity problematic (to which we will return shortly), but it undermines the integrity of the individual mind-stream at any particular moment. For it precludes any ultimate account of the very factors that define one’s samsaric existence: the presence of accumulated karmic potential (karmopacaya) and the persistence of the underlying tendencies, both of which – by definition – are not fully active in every single moment. Following the strictures of dharmic analysis, however, they must be ascertainable in the moment-to-moment analysis of mind in terms of dharmas in order to be considered ultimately true. Clearly, the present, active, and overt processes of mind, with all their associated and karmically determinative mental processes, cannot comprise the entirety of any individual “mental stream.” If they did, this would lead to either of two equally unacceptable consequences. On the one hand, if even a single moment of mind arose that was associated with skillful mental factors, this would, in and of itself, sever the continuity of the accumulated karmic potential and the latent afflictions – and this would virtually constitute liberation. But if, in order to uphold their continuity, one held that the persisting accumulation of karmic potential and latent afflictions were continuously active, karmically, then all moments of mind would have to be afflicted and karmically skillful processes would never be able to occur. This raises several vexing questions: if these potentialities were not active, then in what way could they still be present, in order to accord with the Abhidharmic criteria for dharmas? But if they were present, then why would they not influence that citta in a karmically effective way? Moreover, how could the latent tendencies together with both skillful and unskillful accumulated karmic potential co-exist in the same moment of mind, if that moment is to be characterized as exclusively skillful, unskillful, or neutral? The answer seems clear enough: the present and active processes of mind described in dharmic analysis simply cannot comprise the entirety of mind at any given moment. These issues were raised earlier in our discussion of the latent tendencies in the early Pali texts, but here they are couched in terms of the Abhidharma analytic, which renders them particularly problematic. These problems were recognized at a very early stage in the Abhidharma literature and were crucial in the development of the concept of the alaya-vijñana.
We can trace the debate over these three specific issues – the persistence of the latent tendencies toward the afflictions, the persistence of accumulated karmic potential, and the gradual elimination of these afflictions along the path to liberation – as far back as the Kathavatthu (Disputed Matters), the fifth book of the Pali Abhidhamma-piiaka, still associated with the present-day Theravadins. As its name suggests, the Kathavatthu is a compendium of disputes with various opponents, presented from the Sthaviravada/Theravada point of view and ostensibly dating from the second–third century BCE. The fact that these issues were recognized as problematic at such an early date41 demonstrates their centrality for Abhidharma dogmatics: for they are framed in the Kathavatthu in nearly the same fashion, and discussed in nearly the same technical vocabulary, as they are in the Abhidharma-koka, some seven centuries later. Nothing so clearly illustrates the common parameters of the Abhidharma Problematic throughout the early Indian Buddhist world as the continuity, ubiquity, and specificity of these debates, from the Kathavatthu to the Abhidharma-koka to the Yogacara texts on the alaya-vijñana. The Kathavatthu provides us, therefore, with a brief preview of these issues.
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First, the accumulation of karmic potential. In the Abhidharma-koka Vasubandhu distinguishes between an action that is fully accomplished and its mere accumulation (upacaya).42 Accumulation is defined there as the accumulation, until their fruit ripens, of those intentional actions which necessarily give a result.43 That is, it refers to the potentiality for the results of some specific karmic action to come to fruition at some time in the future. The distinction between karmic action and its accumulated potential, as well as the way this accumulated potential may persist, can be traced to such early passages as seen in Chapter 1: “I declare, monks, that actions willed, performed and accumulated will not become extinct as long as their results have not been experienced” (A V 292). The extent of this distinction, however, and the precise status of this accumulated karmic potential within both the momentary processes of mind and the continuity of the mental stream, were “disputed matters.” The Kathavatthu (XV 11, Kammjpacayakatha) preserves an interesting debate on just this question: How can there be a distinct accumulation of karma within the mental stream which does not simultaneously influence the moment-to-moment processes of mind? The interlocutors who are heterodox from the Theravadin perspective respond with two innovative suggestions. First, they suggest that, in contrast to action (P. kamma; S. karma) itself, its mere accumulation (upacaya)44 occurs simultaneously (sahaja) with, but not conjoined to, active processes that are karmically incompatible with it – on the grounds that the nature of the accumulation is not determined by the nature of the actions with which it co-exists. And, also unlike action, which is bound to the present moment of citta, the accumulation of karmic potential does not cease when each moment of citta with which it co-occurs does. Therefore, this karmic accumulation is neither associated
(P. sampayutta; S. samprayukta) with that citta, nor does it arise in conjunction with an epistemic object (anaramman.o).45 According to the commentary, the accumulation of kamma is therefore karmically neutral.46 In other words, in these schools’ view at least, the influences from past actions persist relatively independently of other overt processes of mind.47 Much the same conclusions are found in discussions (IX. 4; XI. 1) concerning the nature, persistence, and eradication of the latent afflictions. The underlying tendencies to the afflictions (anusaya) are said to be dissociated from mind (cittavippayutta), without an epistemic object (anaramman.o), and karmically neutral; they too are therefore compatible with present mental processes with which they are karmically heterogeneous.48 It thus follows, according to the heterodox position, that these latent dispositions should be distinguished from their more active, manifest counterparts, the “outbursts” of the afflictions (pariyuiihana),49 a distinction we saw was intimated in the early Pali texts and which will be explicitly made in the Abhidharma-koka. The latent and manifest afflictions were distinguished not only for these reasons, but also due to the inability of synchronic analysis to account for their gradual purification along the path toward liberation, the third major conundrum of Abhidharma synchronic analysis. Consider, for example, the case of an Aryan, one who is well on the way to liberation and has already largely eradicated the afflictions, but who has a momentary relapse, an outburst of an ancient affliction. From what causes could this relapse arise, the interlocutor asks, if that outburst were not conditioned by the underlying tendency to that affliction? The question implies that if no distinction were made between their latent and manifest conditions, then the latent afflictions should have been completely eradicated at the same time as the Aryan eradicated the manifest afflictions. In other words, if there were no difference between the manifest and latent afflictions there could be no partial eradication; and if there were no such partial eradication there could be no backsliding and a true Aryan would therefore never be able to have such an unskillful moment of mind.50 But, all the schools seem to agree, this is not the case – relapses happen. As we can see, even at this early stage problems arose from the exclusive validity accorded to the analysis of manifest activities at the expense of the latent influences from the past and their continuing potential to influence present and future experience. How could actions performed in the distant past continue to affect the present and future if the only truly real dharmas are those discernible in an analysis of momentarily discernible processes of mind? Conze has aptly summed up the entire problematic created by the synchronic analysis: The fact that a mental state is definitely abandoned or definitely established lies outside the momentary series of states, and so does permanent ownership or potential ownership of a spiritual skill.…It looks as if not only actualities but also potentialities must be accepted as real. People not only do things but have the ‘power’ to do or not to do them. THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 61
A person can call upon such powers, in the same way in which one is said to ‘know’ French, although no French word may occur in the present moment of consciousness. It is very hard to maintain the view that a person should at any given time be identified with just the one [set of ] dharma[s] which is in him from moment to moment.…the dogmatic assertion of instantaneousness could be made credible only by introducing a number of pseudo-permanencies. (Conze, 1973: 138)
In short, this system had to be modified. Either it must be admitted that each moment of mind is comprised of multiple processes encompassing mutually contradictory factors, some latent and some active, some skillful and some unskillful, such as the heterodox schools in the Kathavatthu suggest; or else it should be admitted that the synchronic analysis of mind expressed solely in terms of present, manifest processes is unable to account for all the pertinent aspects of one’s mental stream. That is, either some of the presuppositions of analysis must be fundamentally altered, or else dharmic analysis alone must be seen as inadequate and its claims to be an ultimate account of “how things really are” (yathabhjtam) must be compromised or complemented by non-dharmic elements. We shall see examples of both of these strategies in the approaches of different schools below. To compound the problem even further, the claims for the exclusive validity of synchronic analysis not only made the presence of the underlying tendencies and accumulated karmic potential difficult to account for, but it also rendered their persistence over time problematic as well – which in turn rendered samsaric continuity in general problematic. But to understand why these became problematic in diachronic as well as synchronic terms, we must look more closely at the categories the Abhidharmists developed to describe the causal and conditioning influences that permeate and guide the continuous flow of dharmas from one moment to the next. For it was the difficulties of combining this doctrine of radical momentariness with the strictures of conditioned succession over time that generated the specifics of the Abhidharma Problematic. The problematic in its diachronic dimension: immediate succession versus the continuity of karmic potential It is apparent that the synchronic analysis based upon dharmic discourse is, by itself, an incomplete account of samsaric existence, since it is necessarily embedded within the larger temporal context of samsaric continuity (and cessation) wherein it finds its ultimate meaning and purpose. It is, for example, only within the context of the ongoing continuity of mind that our responses to stimuli develop into the habits that keep us bound to cyclic existence. These entrenched “habits of the heart” can be neither fully described nor even fully discernible in terms of an analysis that limits itself to strictly transient, momentary phenomena. An angry reaction to a moment of pain, in other words, may readily be BACKGROUND AND
seen as a dharma, but the disposition to get angry, an angry temperament, may not; it belongs to a different level of discourse. Specifically, it is only over the long term that the inertia of accumulated karmic potential, the persistence of the ingrained afflictive dispositions (anukaya), and their gradual elimination along the path to liberation, become fully discernible. The ultimate soteriological aim of the synchronic analysis, its very raison d’être, is thus established only in reference to the diachronic stream of mind (citta-santana) coursing through samsaric existence. A snapshot of our status quo reveals neither the direction nor the intensity of our karmic trajectory. This requires a longer view. The synchronic analysis of mind depends upon the diachronic dimension in deeper and more specific ways as well. Insofar as it represents the relationship between cause and effect, karma has no meaning outside of this extended temporal dimension, for the karmic nature of an action is established only by reference to its (expected) future result.51 Even more crucially, the continued functioning of karma (as this relation between cause and effect) requires not just continuity in general but, in Abhidharma dharmic discourse, an unbroken stream of causal links until their fruit ripens of the potential to give rise to future results.52 This simply follows from the constraints of the system: since dharmas last for only an instant, they neither endure nor change into other dharmas; rather, as with the formula of dependent arising, they condition the arising of succeeding dharmas. As Stcherbatsky pointed out above, “a cause…[is] not a real cause but a preceding moment” (1956: 31). Therefore, it was imperative for dharmic discourse to be able to explain how the ongoing processes of mind could continuously condition the arising of succeeding processes – to explain, that is, how our accumulated potentials and behavioral tendencies are able to continuously perpetuate themselves in terms of moment-to-moment patterns of succession. For, in the context of dharmic discourse, our world of experience must be sufficiently explicable in terms of the moment-to-moment succession of one configuration of dharmas after another in order for us to fulfill the stated purpose of “discerning the dharmas in order to extinguish the afflictions.” As we observed in the first chapter, describing the patterns of causal or conditional arising is exactly what the series of dependent arising is all about. It outlines the conditions under which concomitant factors typically give rise to certain phenomena, that is, “visual cognitive awareness arises dependent upon the eye organ and a visual form,” and so on. As with other doctrines inherited from the early discourses, the Abhidharmists analyzed these simple patterns of conditional arising and categorized the causal relationships between them into complex systems of causes, conditions, and results (hetu, pratyaya, phala).53 By this means, the Abhidharmists described the patterns and processes which continuously condition the evolving stream of momentary phenomena that constitute our worldly experience. These articulated relationships of causal arising – the interrelations between the causes, conditions, and results – are the woof that threads the warp of momentary processes into the recurrent patterns of everyday experience. THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
In general, then, the totality of dharmas of each moment must not only reflect the entire trajectory of the mental stream from moment to moment and from life to life, including the persistence of the latent dispositions and the karmic accumulation that accompany it. The dharmas must also arise in an unbroken stream or chain of causal links that proceeds from moment to moment, conditioned by nothing other than these discrete, instantaneous, yet exclusively ultimate dharmas themselves. In other words, the Abhidharma project must not only account for how these latent processes can be continuously present, in terms of the synchronic analysis of mind examined above, but also how they can be uninterruptedly continuous in this larger diachronic sense. This is, roughly, what the system of causes, conditions, and results sets out to do. Although any comprehensive account of causal conditionality within Abhidharma theory needs to examine the entire system of the causes, conditions, and results, we can only focus upon those that were crucial to the development of the concept of the alaya-vijñana, particularly those underlying the arguments presented in its defense. These primarily involve incompatibilities between the “homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition” (samanantara-pratyaya), on the one hand, and the crucial relationship between the cause and result of karmic maturation (vipaka-hetu and -phala) on the other hand. The homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition designates the conditioning influences that a particular dharma exerts upon an immediately succeeding dharma of the same type; a moment of anger or apperception, for example, conduces to the arising of another moment of anger, and so on. The relationship between the cause and effect of karmic maturation, by contrast, refers to the fundamental relationship in which karmic causality is thought to operate over extended periods of time. As the very kernel of karmic theory, this relationship is crucial to the entire Abhidharma system and, in one way or another, to every Buddhist system.54 But it also conflicts with the characteristics of the “homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition,” for the results of maturation are neither homogeneous nor immediately antecedent. A “cause of maturation” (vipaka-hetu) is an intentional action which eventually leads to a “ripened” or “matured fruit,” a “result of maturation” (vipakaphala). 55 Unlike their originating causes, these results are not intentional actions and are therefore karmically indeterminate (avyakgta-dharma), that is, they are neither unskillful (akukala) nor skillful (kukala), and thus entail no karmic fruit of their own. The matured fruit differs from its cause in this way: it is karmically “heterogeneous” to it (the sense of the prefix vi- here). Moreover, and most importantly, this fruit reaches maturation neither simultaneously with nor immediately succeeding its initiating cause, but only after an intervening period.56 In order to connect these events of cause and effect – in order for karma to work – there must be an unbroken stream of karmic potentiality, a stream of dharmas, flowing between its initiating cause and its final fruit, regardless of the nature of the other dharmas that arise in the meantime. The fruit of karmic maturation is thus both heterogeneous to and temporally distinct from its cause. These two characteristics together raise some serious problems.
Generally, mental processes tend to give rise to succeeding processes of a similar kind; a karmically skillful (kukala) process gives rise to another karmically skillful one rather than an unskillful one (akukala). This is the kind of succession that the homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition refers to.57 For heterogeneous fruition to work, however, that is, for karma to work, succession cannot be both “homogeneous” and “immediately antecedent” at the same time.58 The fruit of karmic maturation comes to fruition after an intervening period of time, following dharmas that are typically of a different karmic nature (since the fruit of karmic maturation is always karmically neutral). This raises two now familiar sets of problems – synchronic and diachronic. First, if these heterogeneous results (vipaka-phala) were not conditioned by their immediately antecedent homogeneous conditions, then they must be conditioned by causes that occurred at some earlier time. But the original action, the cause of karmic maturation (vipaka-hetu), would have already disappeared. So how could actions that occurred in the distant past be capable of conditioning the occurrence of resultant dharmas in the present?59 In other words, in order for these resultant dharmas to arise there must be some present dharma which conditions their present arising. And this dharma is itself the present link of that unbroken chain of links that continues from moment to moment between the cause of karmic maturation and its effect. But where or how can this present causal influence be accounted for in the momentary analysis of mind based upon present, discernable dharmas? What is its exact status? The second question is that of succession. Not only must there be a continuous stream of dharmas linking the cause and effect of karmic maturation, but the effect of maturation comes to fruition mediately, not immediately, after its cause. It thus arises immediately after some other dharma which is karmically unrelated to it. Karmic maturation, in short, typically occurs by means of heterogeneous succession – the immediate succession of dharmas of divergent natures. But, if this maturational fruit is not brought into fruition by the immediately preceding dharma, what exactly is the cause of its current arising? In sum, not only is the presence of these forces problematic in the synchronic sense, as we first observed, but so is their continued persistence in the diachronic sense. These are, in effect, two sides of the same coin, since continuity requires moment-to-moment links in the present in order to persist, while present existence, even in a latent state, requires continuous antecedent conditions in order to exist. Such were the problems dharmic discourse raised for karmic theory. The same kinds of question were also raised by the long-term persistence of the latent dispositions: how can they continue in an unbroken series if they are not present in each moment? Yet how could they be “present” if they were not somehow effective? This also raised corollary questions concerning the graduated nature of the path to liberation: Can a simple, karmically skillful state ever be completely free of the latent dispositions? If so, then their continuity would be cut and they would no longer have any immediately antecedent conditions for their future arising. And if the continuity of the latent dispositions was totally severed in this THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 65
way during a moment of karmically skillful mind, then why would one not immediately become liberated? A corollary to this question is that, if only momentary mental processes are ultimately true, the continuity of attainments acquired along the path – some of which would not reach full fruition until many lifetimes later60 – could hardly be maintained during the diverse types of mental processes that occur in the meantime. All three of these – the relationship between maturational cause and effect, the persistence of the latent afflictions, and the graduated path to purification – necessarily concern potentialities rather than actualities. They belie the consonance between the exclusive reliance on the dharmic analysis of momentary states and the inescapably temporal dimensions of samsaric continuity, and betray the dissonance between synchronic and diachronic levels of discourse. That is, even though the synchronic dharmic analysis was considered the only ultimate discourse, Abhidharma could not dispense with the diachronic context that provided its larger soteriological framework. For, as stated in the Abhidharma-koka and consonant with the traditional themes of Indian Buddhist thought, the ultimate purpose of this synchronic analysis was to ascertain the underlying motivations, and thus the karmic nature, of one’s actions, in order to diminish the overpowering influence of the afflictions, cease accumulating karmic potential, and thereby gradually progress along the path toward liberation. And all of these are only intelligible in terms of diachronic discourse – in terms, that is, of continuities within one’s own mental stream. Moreover, like traditionalists everywhere, Abhidharma authors were loath to dispense with these traditional teachings; so they also faithfully preserved and transmitted the teachings that contextualized their innovative dharma discourse. It was the continuing validity, nay the necessity, of just these traditional doctrines that, when juxtaposed with the newer analytic, raised so many controversial questions and propelled so many doctrinal disputes. Abhidharma doctrine had thus reached an impasse. What was needed was a single system of dharmic analysis that could overcome these contradictions by either incorporating elements of diachronic discourse into the newly authoritative, synchronic analysis; or, conversely, by modifying Abhidharma’s claims for exclusive ultimacy and acknowledging the equal authority of traditional diachronic discourse. Each of these approaches was taken by the two opposing schools represented in the Abhidharma-koka. The first strategy was attempted by the “pan-realist” Sarvastivadins, who posited both the atemporal reality of dharmas in the past, present, and future (hence, their name, the “All-Exists School”), as well as an ad hoc dharma called “possession” (prapti) which, appropriately enough, held everything together. The Sautrantikas, on the other hand, took the second tack and sidestepped dharmic exclusivity altogether (consistent with their name, “Those Who Followed Sjtras” instead of Abhidharma). They introduced the avowedly provisional, non-dharmic concept of “seeds” (bnja) as a metaphor for both the potential of karmic fruition and the underlying dispositions. This fertile metaphor was not only an offshoot from canonical vijñana theory, but also
became the seminal notion around which the alaya-vijñana system of mind grew and developed. The alaya-vijñana system in turn represents the third, and in some senses most innovative, approach to the Abhidharma Problematic: by combining aspects of the other two, the Yogacarin thinkers created a single, integrated model which fully embraced the synchronic analysis of momentary dharmas, while at the same time incorporating the diachronic elements describing the continuity of the karmic potential and the persistence of the latent dispositions symbolized by the metaphors of seeds and scents (vasana). Before we approach these developments, however, we need to examine how much Abhidharma doctrine continued to rely upon diachronic discourse for its larger metaphysical context, and how this too helped shape the various responses to the Abhidharma Problematic. For the notion of alaya-vijñana developed both in dialogue with, and by building upon, these other particular responses. The persistence of traditional continuities: karma and kleka in the Abhidharma-koka
We have introduced important parts of the newer synchronic analysis of mind and discussed some of its tensions with the more traditional continuities equally preserved and revered by the Abhidharma writers. These traditional doctrines, and the discourses of the Buddha through which they were transmitted, were constantly cited in Abhidharma texts as the basis for this or that particular idea or interpretation. Abhidharmic ideas were typically presented, not as the innovative departures they often were, but as a more systematic and precise interpretation of the discourses upon which they commonly drew.61We will now examine some passages of the Abhidharma-koka that preserve these traditional doctrines, particularly concerning the key issues we have been discussing: the persistence of the underlying tendencies, the accumulation of karmic potential, and the gradual nature of the path to liberation. These issues were, however, interpreted quite differently by the two schools represented in the Abhidharma-koka, the Sautrantikas and the Sarvastivadins.62 Since they epitomize in so many ways the diachronic and synchronic discourses, respectively, their approaches well illustrate the general parameters of the Abhidharma Problematic. What, then, does the Koka have to say about karma and kleka? As in early Buddhism, the afflictions (kleka) remain indispensable for the perpetuation of samsaric existence. According to the Koka, it is the actions performed, permeated and influenced by the afflictions, that increase the mindstream and propel the wheel of life: In accordance with the projective [[[cause]]) (akhepa-[[[hetu]])) the mental stream (santana) increases gradually by the afflictions and karma and goes again into the next world.…Such is the circle of existence without beginning. (AKBh III 19a–d)63
THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
And what is it that gives rise to the afflictions and the karmic actions they inform? As we found discussed in the Pali texts many hundreds of years earlier, and in the Kathavatthu in between, it is the underlying dispositions (anukaya) that play this critical role. “From what causes do the afflictions arise?” the Koka asks: The affliction with complete causes [arises] from non-abandoned underlying dispositions, from the presence of an object, and from incorrect comprehension (ayoniko manaskara).
(AKBh ad V 34)64
That is, the circle of birth and death would not continue without the underlying dispositions giving rise to active cognitive and emotional afflictions, arising in conjunction with specific objects and (mis)informed by ignorance. Amongst these conditions, it is the underlying dispositions that are paramount. Indeed, they are given an astoundingly important cosmogonic role65 in the Koka: It is said [AKBh IV 1] that the world in its variety arises from action (karma). It is because of the underlying dispositions that actions accumulate (upacita); but without the underlying dispositions they are not capable of giving rise to a new existence. Thus, the underlying dispositions should be known as the root of existence (mjlad bhava). (AKBh ad V 1a)66 The underlying dispositions are the “root of existence” because it is they that give rise to the afflictions which, with the actions they inform, propel “the circle of existence without beginning.” The Abhidharma-koka thus preserves the same cyclic pattern – of action, results, afflictive reaction to these results, leading to further afflicted action and so on – that we found in the early Pali texts, but it elaborates upon this, particularly on the relationship between the underlying dispositions and the manifest afflictions, in an interesting and compellingly modern way. Actions, we have seen, are analyzed into the kind of results they lead to: skillful (kukala) actions lead to agreeable results, ease and well-being; unskillful (akukala) actions lead to disagreeable results, dis-ease and ill-being; and neutral actions to neither. In other words, actions are categorized by whether they conduce to (-nnyam) a pleasant feeling (sukhavedannyam), an unpleasant one (duckhavedannyam), or neither, since, as in the Pali texts, one of the predominant (pradhanac) results of actions, is feeling (vedana).67 And closely connected with the particular feelings that results from these actions, also in accordance with the early texts, are the latent dispositions – that is, the latent disposition toward “passion underlies (anukete) pleasurable feeling, aversion underlies unpleasant feeling, and ignorance underlies neutral feelings” (AKBh V 45).
The Abhidharma-koka analyzes these processes, however, in considerably more detail than in the early texts. What is particularly suggestive is its elaboration of the relationship between these underlying dispositions and the conditions, the particular “objects,” that provoke them. A disposition to sensual desire, the text states (nearly tautologically), is activated whenever a dharma that provokes an outburst of sensual desire (kamaraga-paryavasthannya-dharma) appears in the appropriate sense field and one has not abandoned or correctly understood the latent disposition thereto (raganukaya) – all of this, of course, being rooted in ignorance.69 Why is it, though, that certain phenomena (dharma) provoke an outburst of a particular affliction as long as one has not abandoned the disposition toward that affliction? In a passage closely resembling psychoanalytic conceptions of “invested” (besetzen, usually “cathected”) objects, the Koka says that “the latent disposition of a certain person is disposed toward a certain object; he is bound to it by that [disposition].”70 That is, each type of affliction, even in its latent state, reacts to certain objects in certain habitual ways because, the text continues, “that [disposition] which is associated (sadprayukta) with that [[[dharma]]) is attached (sadprayoga) to it.”71 When one abandons an affliction and its latent disposition, however, one is no longer attached to these objects (dharma) and that affliction does not arise depending upon them.72 This is brought about through the complete understanding that is progressively realized along the Buddhist path toward liberation.73 The close and productive relationship between karma, the afflictions (kleka), and the continuous turning of the wheel of death and rebirth is now painfully clear: karma that is instigated by the afflictions accumulates the potential for results to be experienced in accordance with their originating intentions. These results (vipaka) are experienced as pleasant or unpleasant feelings or sensations (vedana), since feeling is the predominant result of karma. Underlying these particular feelings are particular tendencies, so that whenever these feelings arise, as a result of past karma and in connection with dharmas that provoke their related afflictions (kamaraga-paryavasthannya), these feelings tend to provoke the underlying afflictions, which in turn are necessary for creating fresh karma. In short, karmic action creates results which are experienced as feelings, which evoke the active counterparts (kleka) of the afflictions underlying them, which then lead to more karmically productive activities, which produce more results, and so on, ensuring the perpetuation of cyclic existence. No wonder the latent dispositions are considered the root of existence. They permeate the mental stream and increase it through the accumulation of projective karma, setting up an energetic (vipacyate)74 process that creates its own momentum, perpetuating the circle of life in endless cycles of action–results– reaction–more action. These two factors – the mass of accumulated potential karma ready to come to fruition, and the latent afflictions predisposed to flare up when it does – constitute the underlying energetic potential that perpetuates, indeed virtually constitutes, individual continuity within samsara. Though this mass of accumulated karma and affective habits is nothing more than what has THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 69
been constructed out of previous afflicted activities, it has momentum, energy, and inertia. It persists, moreover, in a latent or potential fashion, constantly conditioning and provoking manifest mental processes. These manifest processes, informed by past experience and driven by the inertia of habitual responses played out in the patterns of dependent arising, in turn reinforce that very inertia, those very patterns, just as the ongoing current of water creates and deepens its own stream-bed, while the stream-bed in turn influences the direction and flow of current. This stream-bed of constructed behavioral patterns directing the flow of the mind-stream, which in combination with external conditions also gives rise to the surface waves of mental activity, will be made quite explicit in the Yogacara model of mind centered around the alaya-vijñana. This much, however, can be considered more of an elaboration of the dynamics underlying dependent arising than any real departure from its earlier expressions. But it raised serious problems for Abhidharma dogmatics by bringing to center-stage those processes that were least expressible in terms of the synchronic analysis of mind. The status of the accumulation of karmic potential and the persistence of the underlying dispositions were thus hotly debated in the Abhidharma-koka. While the debates remained largely within the parameters (and even the vocabulary) adumbrated centuries earlier in the Kathavatthu, the positions presented in the Koka offer two distinctive and instructive approaches to the persisting Abhidharma Problematic. Abhidharmic responses to the problematic
This connection between the underlying tendencies, their manifest afflictions, and the accumulation of karmic potential, clearly continued to play a fundamental role in the metapsychology and soteriology of Indian Buddhist thought. These became problematic, however, once there was any serious attempt to describe these processes in terms of the synchronic dharmic analysis. Limited to momentary dharmas, Abhidharma discourse seemed unable to account for these ongoing continuities of samsaric existence. In response to this situation, the two schools represented in the Abhidharma-koka, the Sarvastivadins and Sautrantikas, each postulated some mode of mental continuity that could subsist without being karmically involved with the overtly active processes of mind (i.e. without being “associated with mind,” citta-sadprayukta). The particulars of these responses take us well beyond the positions, though hardly the issues, we first saw in the Kathavatthu, and in so doing introduce two important new approaches. The Sarvastivadins gave priority to Abhidharma analysis. Consonant with the orthodox position in the Kathavatthu, they simply equated the underlying tendencies (anukaya) with the manifest afflictions (kleka), reflecting their strong commitment to dharmic discourse and a corresponding reluctance to course in any mental factors, dispositions, or potentialities inexpressible in those terms. Distinguishing between the active and latent conditions of the afflictions is, in their
view, simply mistaken. The Sautrantikas, on the other hand, citing scripture, insisted upon the distinction between the latent dispositions (anukaya) and their manifest counterparts (kleka). This not only reflects their loyalties to “sjtric” teachings over Abhidharmic theory, but also calls upon their major innovation, the concept of seeds (bnja) as a metaphorical or “nominal entity” (prajñaptidharma) representing the continuity of the latent afflictions and accumulated karmic potential. In succeeding chapters we will see how the Yogacarins built upon this metaphor of seeds and wove it into the Abhidharma analysis of the six modes of cognitive awareness. But first we will examine the grounds of the dispute. The controversy over the latent versus manifest (kleka/anukaya) nature of the afflictions ranges over several pages in the Abhidharma-koka (V 1–2), centering on the proper interpretation of the compound “underlying disposition of sensual desire” (kamaraga-anukaya) – whether one should interpret this phrase according to a passage cited from a sjtra, or whether one should follow an Abhidharmic reading of it. The discussion can be paraphrased as follows: Does this Sanskrit compound “kamaraga-anukaya” mean “the underlying disposition which is itself sensual desire” (kamaraga eva anukayac), or is it “the underlying disposition of sensual desire (kamaragasya anukayac)”? In other words, is the underlying disposition (anukaya) just a different name for that particular affliction (kleka), or is it something distinct from the active outburst (paryavasthanad) of that affliction? The Sarvastivadins argue that the compound should be understood appositionally (karmadharya), that is, that the two members are equated, just as the expression “the city of New York” simply means “the city which is New York.” This supports the first interpretation, “the underlying disposition which is itself sensual desire.” But this would contradict a sjtra passage (sjtravirodhac), like that cited in the first chapter, which states that the outburst of sensual desire (kamaragaparyavasthanad) is “eliminated along with its underlying disposition” (sanukayad prahnyate)75 – a passage which seems to distinguish between the latent afflictions and their manifest counterparts and upon which the Sautrantikas, in contrast, rely for their interpretation. Yakomitra, the main commentator of the Abhidharma-koka, remarks that this is because the Sautrantikas take sjtra (scripture) as more authoritative than kastra (scholastic treatise)76 – as their name, “Those Following Sjtra,” would suggest. If, on the other hand, the compound were interpreted as “the underlying disposition of sensual desire” (a genitive tatpuruha), this means that it is clearly distinguished from its active outburst, which would entail that the underlying dispositions are also dissociated from mind (viprayukta). This, however, would contradict an Abhidharma passage (abhidharmavirodhac) that states that the dispositions are associated THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 71
(samprayukta) with the three feelings.77 The Sarvastivadins call upon this Abhidharma passage to interpret the scriptural passage, and so are able to maintain that the latent and manifest afflictions are simply two names for the same thing.78 The Sarvastivadin theory of possession (prapti)
Having equated the latent dispositions with the active afflictions, the Sarvastivadins79 had to directly respond to the Abhidharmic Problematic: how could the dispositions and the accumulation of karmic potential persist in the mental stream without also negatively influencing every moment of mind? Their attempt to reconcile the dharmic analysis of mind with the diachronic phenomena of karma, kleka, and their gradual removal along the path, is closely related to the doctrine from which they get their name: those who hold that all dharmas exist (sarva asti). They proposed that dharmas throughout the three times, past, present, and future, are always existent, only their temporal condition changes. They argued for this, among other reasons, on the grounds that if past causes did not in some sense actually exist, they could not lead to current karmic results. In other words, if past actions were absolutely non-existent, then, since they were no longer present at all, they could not give rise to present results.80 But if all dharmas always exist, how can one account for the arising of karmic results at one time rather than another? To explain the appearance of karmic results after extended periods of time, the Sarvastivadins proposed a mediating dharma called “possession” (prapti), which, unlike past actions, persists in the mental stream by continuously replicating itself. When the fruit of past action arises, or, as they put it, “falls into its own mental stream” (svasantana),81 it does not arise directly from that past causal dharma, since its efficacy no longer exists; rather, it arises due to the present possession of that dharma,82 which continuously maintains its casual efficacy. That is to say, rather tautologically, that the karmic efficacy of a past cause maintains a presence in the mental stream in the guise of its “possession.” In this way, the potential for karmic fruition continuously persists in an ongoing stream of its own present dharmas, that is, as “possession.” The dharma of possession, however, is not entangled in the active mental processes with which it simultaneously occurs. It is a karmically neutral dharma that is considered to be, as we would expect, “dissociated from mind” (citta-viprayukta); accordingly, it is able to coexist with either skillful or unskillful states of mind.83 By exploiting the ambiguity inherent in the category of dharmas “dissociated from mind,” possession is able to describe the continuous presence of the accumulated karmic potential in terms of the synchronic discourse of momentary dharmas. The Sarvastivadin used this same approach to address the problem of the persistence of certain afflictions until far along the path. The potential for these afflictions to arise is signified by the presence of their “possession.” The problematic status of their latency – how they can have unbroken continuity without BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA 72
undue influence – has effectively shifted to the problem of the status of possession, so there was no need to distinguish between the active afflictions (paryavasthana) and their latent counterparts. The Sarvastivadins simply equated the two, claiming they were two names for the same thing and that all references to the latent dispositions found in the sjtras were actually references to “possession” by another name84 – a prime example of prioritizing Abhidharma theory over sjtric teaching. This concept of possession could also address problems raised by the gradual nature of progress along the path, particularly in cases where Aryans, Buddhist saints who have realized certain supramundane attainments, may nevertheless experience decidedly mundane states of mind, that is, by “backsliding.” What distinguishes an Aryan in such a mundane moment from an ordinary being (pgthagjana) whose state of mind appears equally mundane is their respective “possession” of the appropriate dharmas. The two are distinguished by the complete absence in the one case, or the continuing presence in the other, of the “possession” of the afflictions in their respective mind-streams.85 In this way, the concept of possession allowed the Sarvastivadins to describe in dharmic terms the two indispensable doctrines – kleka and karma – that presuppose, indeed require, reference to some kind of continuity outside the Abhidharmic analysis of momentary mental states. The concept of possession seems, in fact, to have been devised for the express purpose of providing such an explanation. In effect, however, this simply moved the onus of explanation away from the systematized scheme of cause, condition, and result (hetu, pratyaya, phala) – whose specific strictures brought about the problematic – and placed it onto a concept that was not fully integrated into that scheme, suggesting its ad hoc nature and inviting Vasubandhu’s open disdain.86 Thus, despite its ascribed status as a real dharma in the Sarvastivadin analysis of mind, its explanatory value remained questionable. As the ultimate arbiter of the presence of karmic accumulation, the afflictions which instigate it, and their gradual eradication along the path, “possession” remained remarkably indeterminate, prompting Conze to conclude, “the prapti theory thus proved to be a dead end.”87 The Sautrantika theory of seeds (bnja) in the mental stream (santana)
The Sautrantikas took a radically different approach to these same issues, utilizing the explicitly metaphorical notion (prajñapti-dharma) of seeds (bnja) to represent both the latent afflictions and the accumulation of karmic potential within the mental stream. In effect, the Sautrantikas expressly sidestepped the dharma discourse advocated by the Abhidharmists and relied instead upon more traditional expressions drawn from the earlier texts, such as we saw in Chapter 1. This turned out to be a very suggestive metaphor indeed, leading, as we will see, to the model of mind centered on the alaya-vijñana. We will therefore examine several key passages in the Abhidharma-koka which introduce the metaphor of seeds and its related concepts.
Addressing conundrums first outlined in the Kathavatthu, the Sautrantikas used the metaphor of seeds to signify the latent dispositions, and thus to maintain a distinction between the latent and the manifest afflictions: The affliction (kleka) which is dormant is called a ‘latent disposition’ (anukaya); that which is awakened, an ‘outburst’ (paryavasthana). And what is that [[[affliction]]) which is dormant? It is the continuity (lit.: ‘bound along with,’ anubandha) in a seedstate (bnja-bhava) [of that affliction) which is not manifest. What is awakening?
It is being present.
What is called a ‘seed-state’?
It is the capacity (kakti) of that individual (atmabhava) for an affliction to arise born from a [previous] affliction, as is the capacity for memory to arise born from experiential knowledge (anubhava-jñana), and the capacity for sprouts, etc., to produce a grain (phala) of rice bred from a [previous] grain of rice. (AKBh ad V 1d–2a)88
In apparent agreement with the sjtra materials examined in the first chapter, and in sharp contrast to the Sarvastivadins, the Sautrantikas distinguish between the latent afflictions and their manifest outbursts, crediting the dispositions in their “seed-state” with the capacity or power (kakti) to give rise to new afflictions. The metaphor of seeds stems, of course, from the early texts and is here explicitly equated with the latent dispositions (anukaya). The seeds are also explicitly continuous, being “bound along with” (anubandha) the mental stream.89 The Sautrantika concept of seed is also used to represent the potential for karmic result: What is called a ‘seed’?
Any psycho-physical organism (nama-rjpa) that is capable of producing a fruit, either mediately or immediately, through a specific modification of the mental stream (santati-parifama-vikehajat.). What is called a ‘modification’? It is the mental stream being in a different state. What is called the ‘mental stream’?
It is the karmic formations (sadskara) of the three times existing as cause and effect.
(AKBh ad II 36d)90
For the Sautrantikas, both karma and kleka, or more precisely their underlying presence as potential factors, are represented by “seeds” persisting in the mental stream. The expression mental stream (santana) is glossed here as “the karmic formations (sadskara) of the three times existing as cause and effect,” or, in
another suggestive passage, as the “continued production of citta from earlier action (karma).”91 A seed, then, is whatever brings about a fruit through a modification or change in the mental stream, in the karmic formations “existing as cause and effect.” We must stress that this is not adding any new concept to Buddhist doctrine. The metaphor of seeds is simply another way of talking about the karmic relationship between cause and effect. All intentional actions, if unimpeded, bring about some result, “some modification in the mental stream.” Therefore, there are virtually no intentional actions that are not involved in the production and eventual fruition of seeds, that is, which do not involve some kind of modification of the basic structures of one’s mind and body (sadskara). This is obviously a constant, ongoing process. It is, in fact, one way of talking about growth and development (i.e. the growth and development of cyclic existence) which not only takes time, but, like seeds, often produces fruit only after long periods of imperceptible gestation and maturation. And since the growth and development of individual samsaric existence is largely equated with this mass of accumulated karmic potential (karmopacitam), the inertia of the latent predispositions, and their influences upon the behavioral and cognitive patterns of karmic formations (sadskara), liberation is conversely defined as the eradication of the seeds. Thus, in further agreement with the teachings of the early texts,92 the Sautrantikas express the eradication of the afflictions with the image of seeds rendered infertile by fire, here by contrasting the mundane and supramundane paths: The basis (akraya) of the Aryan has been transformed due to the force of the [[[supramundane]]) Path of Seeing, so the destroyed afflictions (kleka) will not be able to sprout again. It is said that the basis is without seeds, the afflictions having been destroyed [by the supramundane Path of Seeing) like [[[seeds]]) burned by fire, whereas the seeds are [merely] damaged by the mundane path. (AKBh ad II 36c–d)93
The Sautrantikas describe the state of having fully eliminated the afflictions, not in Sarvastivadin terms of having eliminated the “possession” of those afflictions, but rather in terms of having eliminated the “seeds” of those afflictions, seeds which are nothing but “the capacity…for an affliction to arise born from a [previous] affliction.” In this case, not only are the active afflictions absent from present processes of mind, but the very possibility of them arising again from their seeds has also been eliminated. The Sautrantikas thus use the metaphor of seeds for the same purposes the Sarvastivadins use the concept of possession for – to express the capacities for the latent dispositions and karmic fruit to arise.94 But the similarities end here, and in a very telling way. For, in contrast to the concept of possession, neither the seeds, nor for that matter even the mental stream, refer to dharmas, to “real existents” THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 75
(dravya) in and of themselves. Rather, the seeds are explicitly considered mere designations (prajñaptisat) for the power or capacity (kakti) for the fruit of karma or the manifest afflictions to arise.95We must not be misled by the substantiality of the metaphor. A “seed” merely designates the potential for karmic results to occur, for the dispositions of the afflictions to arise. As “potentials” and “dispositions,” the commentary points out, these are not ultimately true factors, not “real dharmas” at all. They are merely nominal entities established through designation, convention, or common usage.96 They are, in short, not part of dharma discourse at all. In contrast to the Sarvastivadins, the Sautrantikas have in effect responded to the Abhidharma problematic by simply opting out of the dharma system (on these issues at any rate). In so doing they have highlighted, in the opposite way from the concept of possession, the basic tensions between these two distinct levels of doctrinal discourse. For ultimately, in order to be a ultimate account of “how things really are” (yathabhjtam) – for the purpose of discerning the dharmas in order to extinguish the afflictions – the synchronic, dharmic discourse requires what it cannot accept: some way of ultimately describing, in terms of dharmas, the conventional continuities of the underlying afflictions and potential for karmic fruition represented by the metaphors of the mental stream and its accompanying seeds. These tensions, therefore, to that extent remain unresolved. Questions raised by consciousness,
seeds, and the mental stream
As attractive as the metaphor of seeds may have been, it did not resolve the Abhidharma Problematic. Of course, as a metaphor it was never meant to be a real dharma; it evaded rather than addressed the underlying problematics of Abhidharma doctrine. But as soon as this explicit metaphor was taken as an explanatory concept, that is, as soon as the interrelationships between the seeds, the mental stream, and consciousness (vijñana) were used as if they were dharmic terms, other, more demanding questions came uncomfortably to the fore. These issues initially concerned the continuity of mind, but soon enough broadened into wider questions concerning the two “aspects” of vijñana and their relationship with the two types of discourse. For, insofar as the continuities that the seeds represented were primarily associated with the diachronic dimension of consciousness, 97 their ambiguous relationship with the synchronic dimensions of vijñana became problematic as well. The disjunction between these two aspects of vijñana – both of which were equally essential in the Abhidharma-koka – had not yet been sufficiently bridged, leading to some vexing questions. The diachronic dimension of consciousness (vijñana) is as essential to samsaric continuity in the Abhidharma-koka as it is in the early Pali texts: continued occurrence of vijñana is considered concomitant with continued existence in samsara. As the continuous basis (akraya) of sentient life, vijñana is considered the
“common element” (sadharafabhjtac) which persists, along with heat and vitality, throughout one’s lifetime from the moment of “reconnection” (pratisandhi-citta) and descent into the womb at rebirth until its departure from the body at the moment of death.98 In between, vijñana (or citta) is thought to take up or appropriate (upatta or upadana) the body and its sense organs throughout one’s lifetime. 99 Vijñana, moreover, is coterminous with sentient life in its cognitive aspect as well: it arises at any time when the sensory organs or mind of a living body are impinged upon – and the constant motion of our eyes and of our circulatory and nervous systems alone ensure that their associated faculties are being stimulated at every moment. There are thus almost no moments when the sense organs and mind are not being impinged upon in some way and when cognitive awareness does not arise accordingly.100 In both senses, therefore, as “consciousness” and as “cognitive awareness,” vijñana is inseparable from the sheer processes of living and is virtually equated with sentient life itself. In certain places in the Koka vijñana is also closely connected with the potency of the seeds to perpetuate cyclic existence. One brief passage depicts the close relationship between the generation of seeds from intentional karmic activities, their “infusion” into consciousness (vijñana), and their subsequent power to project continued existence. As in the early teachings, vijñana is the result of the sustaining and propelling energies of karma and craving, but is now, in addition, their explicit medium as well. The text is discussing the four nourishments (ahara) that sustain samsaric existence – edible food, sensation, mental intentions, and consciousness. The first two sustain this present existence, the text states, while the latter two, mental intentions and consciousness, are for projecting and producing another existence, respectively.… Mental intention (manacsañcetana) projects (akhepa) renewed existence; that [[[existence]]) which is projected is, in turn, produced from the seed (bnja) of vijñana which is infused (paribhavita) by karma. Thus, these two are predominant in bringing forth the existence which is not yet arisen. (AKBh III 41c–d)101
Echoing similar metaphors from the early Pali texts (“Karma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for… rebecoming in the future,” A I 223), Vasubandhu explicitly portrays the continuity of samsaric existence in terms of the relationship of the seeds – representing the latent potencies of karma and the kleka – and consciousness. That is to say, mental intention (which is mental karma102) “infuses”103 consciousness with seeds and thereby lays the basis for further rebirth and continued existence – a process parallel to that found in series of dependent arising where the effects of intentional activities propel vijñana into the next life. In this way, the Koka states, “the series of consciousness (vijñana-santatis) goes into such and such a realm of rebirth because of the power of the projection of action.”104 THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
Consciousness is therefore essential to samsaric continuity in the Koka, as it is – allowing for the differences regarding causal mechanisms – in Abhidharma in general. But equating the series of vijñana (or the mental stream and its seeds) with samsaric continuity as a whole, as the Sautrantikas suggested, generated its own set of problems. For if the seeds are more than a simple metaphor, that is, if they are to be taken as a concept with explanatory power in the dharmic sense, then they must be systematically integrated into other parts of the doctrine. In other words, as soon as the Santrantikas tried to transpose the underlying continuities traditionally couched in diachronic discourse into ultimate dharmas couched in synchronic discourse, more exacting questions were asked and more precise answers were demanded. What, for example, is the relationship between this continuous “series of vijñana” with its seeds and the momentary aspect of vijñana as cognitive awareness analyzed in synchronic dharmic discourse? Are they the same vijñana? If these were exactly the same, if the mental series were just one moment of vijñana following another, as Vasubandhu suggests (see n. 97), then what is the relationship between the continuity of accumulated karma and the latent afflictions represented by the seeds and the six momentary modes of cognitive awareness? But if the mental stream were not simply metaphorical, and referred to some heretofore unspecified level of mind distinct from these six modalities, then what is the relationship between them? Are these just two distinct phenomena, separately but equally described by diachronic and synchronic discourses, respectively? In either case, this would not lessen the need to delineate the precise relationships between the continuity of the mental stream and all its seeds and the ongoing, moment-to-moment processes of mind. Systematic thought, the essence of the Abhidharma method, required that these two distinct discourses, centered around these two essential dimensions of samsaric life – consciousness and cognitive awareness – should somehow be reconciled within a single, allencompassing framework. They needed, in short, to explicitly integrate the diachronic and synchronic discourses. These issues were brought to a head in discussions surrounding certain forms of meditative absorption in which all overt mental activities were thought to cease, a condition which called the continuity of mind as a whole into question. In Indian Buddhist traditions this condition was thought to occur during two distinct states of deep meditation: the “attainment of non-apperception” (asamjñika-samapatti) and the “attainment of cessation” (nirodha-samapatti).105 Such cessation raised several thorny theoretical problems, and generated some suggestive responses. In orthodox Abhidharmic analysis, continuity consists of nothing more than the moment-to-moment conditioning influences between immediately succeeding moments. In these absorptions, however, all mental activities come to a halt so that the continuity of the mental stream appears to be completely broken. The first moment of mind that arises on emerging from these meditations would therefore not have an immediately preceding mind-moment that could serve as its immediately antecedent and homogenous condition
(samanantara-pratyaya). That is, if the mind-stream were completely cut during these meditative states, it would lack all the conditions necessary for it to reoccur, since its “mind support” (mana akrayac), its immediately antecedent mental cognition,106 would be absent.107 Moreover, since in the Sautrantika point of view the seeds also follow along (anubandha) with the mental stream (as citta/vijñana) in some still undefined way, their continuity would also cease along with the cessation of all mental activity. But if the seeds actually disappeared during these attainments, then all of the accumulated karma and the latent afflictions they represented would also be destroyed, never to rise again – and this would be tantamount to liberation. What then would ensure the continuity of karmic and afflictive potential following these meditative states even though all mental activities had ceased within them?108 And third, since vijñana is considered the support of existence and the common element (sadharan.abhjtac) from the time of conception until death, its cessation within the body ought to result in death. But the body remains intact and alive during and after these meditative states. What kind of mental process, then, keeps the body alive during these absorptions in which all ostensible mental activities come to a halt? What prevents the practitioner from dying? Standard Abhidharma doctrine did not have a ready answer to these questions, and was forced, in one way or another, to either modify some of its basic postulates about the relations between samsaric continuity and the mental stream, or to redefine some of its key terms and suppositions. As we shall see, these responses, despite their variety, all share a common search for a dimension of mind that could subsist in some fashion independently of the traditional six modes of cognitive awareness, yet remain consistent with the basic assumptions of dharmic discourse. The positions of these schools were discussed in a long exchange in the Abhidharma-koka (ad II 44d), which we shall paraphrase:109 Since mind is interrupted for a long time in these two kinds of attainment, how can the moment of mind (citta) that emerges from this absorption have a past moment of mind as its homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition, since it has already ceased for a long time? The Sarvastivadins hold that the first moment of mind which arises upon emergence from the attainment is directly conditioned by the last moment of mind immediately preceding that meditative attainment, regardless of its duration, since for them all past dharmas currently exist insofar as their ‘possession’ (prapti) currently exists. Consequently, it is the citta prior to the meditative attainment, that is, the citta that enters into that state, which serves as the homogeneous and immediately antecedent condition for the citta that emerges from that state.110 Immediacy, in other words, need not be strictly immediate. The Sautrantikas reject the notion that the first citta that emerges from the mindless attainments has the citta immediately prior to that state for its antecedent condition. They suggest instead that that newly THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 79
emerging citta arises from the body together with the material faculties (sendriya-kaya) as its support (akraya). Vasubandhu quotes unnamed “ancient masters” (pjrvacaryac) to the effect that, “two dharmas are the seed of one another (anyonyabnjaka): these two dharmas are the citta and the body together with its material organs.”111 That is to say, the mind and body contain the seeds of each other, ‘carrying’ each other along when one of them temporarily ceases.112 Homogeneity, in other words, need not be wholly homogeneous. The last position suggests an entirely different approach: one master, Vasumitra, maintained that since one would die if vijñana completely ceased, there must be a subtle form of mind (sjkhma-citta) that subsists without apparent functioning during the attainment.113 Thus the fully functioning manifest citta which arises upon emergence from the attainment of cessation directly arises from the never wholly suspended subtle citta, thereby fulfilling both the required conditions of being immediate and homogeneous (since a moment of mind, however subtle, still directly conditions another moment of mind). But, here too, the cessation of all mental activities need not mean they completely cease. As Yakomitra, one of the commentators of the Abhidharma-koka, points out, this last position corresponds closely to the Yogacara conception of the alayavijñana, 114 which in a sense combined the Sautrantika’s and Vasumitra’s notions into a continuous and subtle level of mental processes which maintains the seeds of both body and mind together. In sum, there were three responses to this problem: (1) to reject immediate succession in favor of atemporal causality, via the Sarvastivadin notion of possession (prapti); (2) to reject homogeneity (mind to mind, body to body) via the Sautrantika notion of mind/body non-dualism;115 and (3) to reject the standing definition of cessation – that is, that all mental processes strictly come to a halt – in order to accommodate subtle forms of mind that continuously maintain the seeds of karmic accumulation and latent afflictions. This last position is, of course, most consistent with the aspect of vijñana as a simple sentience closely connected with living bodily processes. In effect, these various solutions represent sophisticated and systemic answers to the same questions – posed in nearly the same terms and couched in nearly the same vocabulary – which were first posed in the Kathavatthu some seven centuries earlier. Without any real change in the underlying presuppositions of the system, however, the Abhidharma Problematic, in both its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, seemed relatively resistant to resolution. There was, however, one more systemic approach to these issues, and that was the “life-constituent mind” (bhavamga-citta) of the Theravadins, which displays some surprising similarities with, as well as distinct differences from, the alayavijñana. We will examine this last alternative before turning our attention to the development of the alaya-vijñana itself.
The Theravadin theory of life-constituent
Although the most systematic revision of the traditional Buddhist model of mind is to be found, we shall argue, in the alaya-vijñana complex, the concept of the bhavamga-citta revises that model far more than either the Sarvastivadin notion of “possession” (prapti) or the Sautrantika metaphor of seeds. While these latter appear as ad hoc solutions directed toward a particular set of problems, the concept of bhavamga-citta recasts the entire Theravadin theory of continuity and perception.116 First of all, the bhavamga-citta, a form of citta considered the “life constituent” or “factor of existence” (bhava-amga), demonstrates the same conditioned/conditioning bivalence found in many other Buddhist concepts, such as the karmic formations (sadskara), appropriation (upadana), perhaps even citta itself (see n. 30). That is, this “factor of existence” is a conditioned, resultant form of mind (citta) that is reborn conditioned by past karma, and which consistently reoccurs in the same form throughout a particular lifetime. And as a conditioning state of mind, it serves as the basis or condition (paiicca) upon which each momentary occurrence of perception arises.117 In this way, it addresses a number of metapsychological issues in interesting and innovative ways. Most Abhidharma schools, for example, considered the mind which reconnects (pratisandhi-citta) at rebirth (upapatti) to be a moment of mental cognition (manovijñana). The Theravadins emended this with the idea that this “mind as factor of existence” (bhavamga-citta)118 takes on a particular character at the time of rebirth, to which it naturally and repeatedly reverts whenever active, perceptual processes come to a rest. Since it is a product of the generative karma ( janaka kamma; i.e. past sadskaras) that ripens at the moment of rebirth, each moment of the bhavamga-citta which subsequently occurs throughout that lifetime also enjoys the same karmic character – it is a resultant (vipaka) and thus karmically neutral state – and is accompanied by the same associated factors (sampayutta-dhamma) and cognitive objects (arammafa).119 The continuity of the bhavamga-citta, however, is interrupted whenever cognitive objects enter the range of the sense fields (and mind) and give rise to a specific type of cognitive awareness. When this occurs, the bhavamga-citta serves as one of the conditions for that new cognitive awareness to arise. The classic Theravadin Abhidhamma text, the Visuddhimagga, thus emends the standard formula for the arising of cognitive awareness with the addition of this previous moment of mind, declaring that, for example, a “mental cognition arises dependent on bhavamga-mind, a mental object [[[dhamma]]), and attention.”120 And since the bhavamga-citta is a karmically neutral form of mind which immediately conditions each moment of cognitive awareness, it also serves as a “buffer-state” between karmically incompatible states, thereby directly addressing the problem of heterogeneous succession.121 Thus in its role in the rebirth process, during objectless sleep, and as an intermediary buffer state during ordinary cognitive processes, “the bhavamga functions quite literally as a ‘stop-gap’ in the sequence of moments which constitutes mental continuity” (Collins, 1982: 245). THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 81
The bhavamga-citta in the Visuddhimagga, however, is not an independent, continuous stream of mind that underlies the active cognitive processes, nor does it arise concurrently with those processes whose occurrence it conditions.122 The bhavamga-citta and the forms of manifest cognitive awareness are mutually exclusive: the former ceases when the latter arises.123 The English translator of the Abhidhammatthaa-sangaha, Shwe Zan Aung, therefore warns: it must not be supposed that the stream of being [bhavamga-citta] is a subplane from which thoughts rise to the surface. There is juxtaposition of momentary states of consciousness, subliminal and supraliminal, throughout a life-time and from existence to existence. But there is no superposition of such states. (Compendium, 1979: 11–12)
Unlike the ill-defined relation between the mental stream and the six modes of cognitive awareness in the Abhidharma-koka, this seems to be patently clear. What remains unclear, however, are questions about the continuity of the latent dispositions and karmic potential. For their continuity to remain unbroken, they must also be associated in some fashion with the bhavamga-citta – at least during those intervals in between manifest active cognitive processes. This has led several scholars to interpret the bhavamga-citta from a broader perspective. Cousins, for example, states: We may interpret its continuance throughout life as the natural mode to which the mind continually reverts as indicating its role of ‘carrying’ the essential features of the individual – those tendencies which remain apparently unchanged in a particular individual throughout a given life.…Evidently it is seen either as storing past experience or as having direct access to the past (or future). In the first case we might understand it as an unconscious storehouse. The mind as a whole is certainly envisaged as accumulating tendencies, but it is not clear how far this would include experiences. (Cousins, 1981: 28–30)
In discussing this possible relation between the bhavamga-citta and past karma, Nyantiloka departs even further from its classical textual descriptions. The bhavamga-citta, he explains, is in the Abhidhamma commentaries explained as the foundation or condition (karafa) of existence (bhava), as the sine qua non of life, and that in form of a process, lit. a ‘flux’ or ‘stream’ (sota), in which since time immemorial all impressions and experiences are, as it were, stored up, or better said functioning, but as such concealed to full consciousness, from where however they as subconscious phenomena occasionally
emerge and approach the threshold of full consciousness, or crossing it become fully conscious. This so-called ‘subconscious life-stream’ or undercurrent of life, which certain modern psychologists call the Unconscious or the soul, is that by which might be explained the faculty of memory, the problem of telekinesis, mental and physical growth, karma and rebirth, etc. (Nyantiloka, 1980: 27–28)
This latter passage contradicts Shwe Zan Aung’s conclusion that the bhavamgacitta is not “a subplane from which thoughts rise to the surface.” There is obvious disagreement over a number of other points as well, points which, since they resemble characteristics of the alaya-vijñana in many ways, require some clarification. These are: (1) the extent to which the bhavamga-citta is a basis from which or upon which cognitive awareness arises;
(2) the extent to which the bhavamga-citta is closely connected with the accumulation of karmic potential and the latent dispositions; (3) the extent to which the bhavamga-citta is related to motivation and intention – that is the performance of active karma; (4) the extent to which the bhavamga-citta is simultaneous with cognitive awareness (i.e. as Nyantiloka puts it, “all impressions and experiences are, as it were, stored up, or better said functioning, but as such concealed to full consciousness”). From our investigation, we see that the classical doctrine of bhavamga-citta is unambiguously characterized only by point (1); perhaps necessarily, but only intermittently, by point (2) (and that no more so than the manifest forms of cognitive awareness); and not at all by (3) and (4). The question of karmic potential is the most crucial. Certainly, the bhavamga-citta can be thought in some way to “carry the essential features of the individual,” since these are fixed for a particular lifetime at the time of conception. But for that very reason, it is not portrayed as directly receiving or accumulating impressions or tendencies. Moreover, since the bhavanmga-citta is intermittent and occurs only when the other cognitive processes are inactive, it cannot – in and of itself – afford unbroken continuity of these features. Questions about the persistence of latent dispositions and accumulation of karmic potential thus remain: once the cognitive processes are activated, are they transmitted through the six modes of cognitive awareness? If so, why do they not influence these forms of mind? If not, how do they persist from one moment of bhavamga-citta to the next without some contiguous conditioning medium? The bhavamga-citta does not directly address these persisting questions, adumbrated in the Kathavatthu so many centuries before. Nor, to my knowledge, do subsequent Theravadin Abhidhamma traditions discuss these questions in dhammic terms. THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT
For this reason, Collins is circumspect about characterizations such as Nyanatiloka’s. He cautions that while the bhavamga-citta should be considered as a separate, subliminal level of mental functioning, it should be done so “only in relation to a systematic account of perception, and not of motivation.” Because, while many aspects of the Buddhist attitude to motivation do resemble some Freudian themes, they are nowhere related systematically to the bhavamga in the Theravada tradition before modern times. Accordingly, the modern comparison between bhavamga and the psychoanalytic unconscious must be developed as part of what one might call ‘speculative’ or ‘creative’ Buddhist philosophy, rather than by historical scholarship. (Collins, 1982: 244) Neither, he warns, should we consider the bhavamga mind as the “connecting thread” of karma, since it is intermittent and ceases to function whenever the overt cognitive processes occur. Rather, Collins concludes, karmic continuity in the Theravada “is simply a string of beads…which have no underlying connecting thread, save the overall force of karma which creates them” (ibid.: 248) – a force transmitted, we might note, through nothing but the unbroken succession of “a juxtaposition of momentary states of consciousness, [alternately] subliminal and supraliminal” (Compendium, 1979: 11–12, cited above), or, during the mindless absorptions in which all mental activities cease, through the material life-faculty itself.124 This notion of the “force of karma,” however, does not answer the Abhidharma Problematic either. The concept of force as effective energy is certainly implicit in much of early Indian Buddhism, and becomes quite explicit in the Abhidharma era. Indeed, it is one of Vasubandhu’s favorite metaphors for the notion of karma: the concepts of seeds and the “specific modification of the mental stream” (santati-parifama-vikeha) are regularly glossed as kakti and sometimes as samartham, both roughly “power, force, capacity.”125 But, by itself, force has no systemic definition in Abhidharma, and hence no explanatory power; it remains, like the other responses to the Abhidharma Problematic we have examined, ambiguously metaphorical. The continuity of karma, in any case, is not directly related to the bhavamgacitta, save for (possibly) during its short tenure as a “stop-gap” between successive moments of mind. To this extent, Theravadin Abhidhamma has not followed some of the other schools in attempting to connect karmic potential with the overt processes of mind in a systemic, that is, dharmic manner. Rather, like the Sautrantikas, they make do with the imagery of vegetative metaphors. Collins contrasts these unsystematized “live” metaphors with the “deadened” terminology of the Yogacara and Mahasadghika schools: In these ideas, the original metaphor inherent in the use of such imagery becomes deadened, and the words take on the character of dry technical terms. In Theravada, on the other hand, the imagery of seeds
and fruit is never regularized to the extent of becoming technical terminology built into the ultimate account of continuity; correspondingly, the metaphor remains more alive. Theravada tradition does speak of a type of mental phenomenon which assures continuity – the bhavamga-mind; and it does have a preferred metaphor to represent it – the image of a stream or river. (Collins, 1982: 224)
There is no doubt much truth to this – despite the obvious incompatibility between the intermittent occurrence of the bhavamga-citta and the continuous flow of a stream or river – and Collins has skillfully demonstrated how such metaphors for continuity in the Theravadin tradition both pre-dated and coexisted with the more technical dhamma discourse. There are, as well, several passages in the Abhidharma-koka in which the living processes whereby seeds gestate, develop, and mature into final fruition are also used to describe the path of karma from its inception to its final fruit – passages in which the “seed” is used primarily metaphorically.126 And as Collins also rightly points out, this contrasts with the more technical usage of seeds in both the kleka/anukaya controversy and the definition of karma in terms of the specific modification of the stream (santatiparifama- vikeha) – passages in which the seeds appear with a systematic meaning and function. However, despite this transformation into a technical term in the Sautrantika-leaning sections of the Abhidharma-koka, the metaphorical nature of the seeds is never far removed, for whenever the Sarvastivadins pressure them to explain how exactly seeds work, the Sautrantikas fall back on straightforward vegetative analogies. The Abhidharmic Problematic, therefore, still remains effectively unresolved. Conclusion
Collins’s observation that in Theravada “the imagery of seeds and fruit is never regularized to the extent of becoming technical terminology built into the ultimate account of continuity,” points directly to the issues raised by the Abhidharma analytic as a whole. Since all dharmas are momentary, Abhidharma does not readily attribute ultimate validity to descriptions of any mental phenomena outside the momentary and manifest processes of mind.127 But the doctrines referring to the continuity of karma and kleka examined above all depend upon their relation to concepts – mental stream, basis, name-and-form, and individual existence (citta-santana, akraya, nama-rjpa, atmabhava)128 – that only have currency outside of dharmic discourse, that is, in diachronic discourse. And the seeds were arguably never intended to be part of dharmic discourse in the first place, since they were not real existents (dravya) but simply metaphors for the underlying capacities (kakti or samartham) of mind expressed in terms of the life-processes of insemination (paribhavita), growth (vgddha), and eventual fruition (vipaka-phala). The fact that every school found it necessary to juxtapose systematic technical language with such conventional and naturalistic THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 85
metaphors in order to account for the most basic and fundamental doctrines of their traditions testifies not just to the systemic limitations of purely dharmic discourse, but to the ubiquity of the Abhidharma Problematic. Nyanaponika Thera, unwittingly no doubt, displays remarkable agreement with this conclusion in a passage in his Abhidhamma Studies. After discussing what he calls “breadth,” the simultaneous relations (sahajata-paccaya) between dharmas, and “length,” the “sequence of observed, consecutive changes stretching forward in time” (anantara-paccaya) (which correspond roughly to our synchronic and diachronic discourses, respectively), he also speaks of a third dimension, “depth”: The spatial world of qualified analysis is limited to the two dimensions of breadth and length. Bare or qualified analysis dare not admit those conditioning and conditioned phenomena which are bound up with the third dimension, that of depth.…By ‘depth’ we understand that subterraneous flow of energies (a wide and intricate net of streams, rivers and rivulets) originating in past actions (kamma) and coming to the surface unexpectedly at a time determined by their inherent life rhythm (time required for growth, maturing, etc.) and by the influence of favourable or obstructive circumstances. The analytical method, we said, will admit only such relational energies as are transmitted by immediate impact (the dimension of breadth) or by the linear ‘wire’ of immediate sequence (the dimension of length). But relational energies may also arise from unknown depths opening under the very feet of the individual or the object; or they may be transmitted, not by that linear ‘wire’ of immediate sequence in time-space, but by the way of ‘wireless’ communication, traveling vast distances in space and time.… (Nyanaponika, 1976: 29 f.)
Our question here is not whether this third dimension is adequately, or even eloquently, expressed in terms of such metaphors as “depth,” “flow,” “growth,” or even “energy,” but rather, to what extent they are compatible with the stated aims and expressible within the circumscribed range of Abhidharma discourse.129 If the Abhidharma is the ultimate account of “how things truly are” (yathabhjtam) that it claims to be, then how, even contemporaneous critics asked, could such a philosophic discourse express these “subterraneous flow of energies” from whose “unknown depths” they arise through “wireless” transmission? If such living metaphors are necessary in order to describe this transmission of karmic energy, then they too should be expressed, from the Abhidharmic perspective, in terms of ultimately real, albeit momentary, dharmas; if not, then they are either irrelevant to the aims or inexpressible in the terms of Abhidharma discourse. In either case, on this set of issues at least, Abhidharma seems to be – on its own terms – either inadequate or incomplete.130 Thus, a modern commentator like Nyanaponika recognizes the same limitations of Abhidharma analysis that were intimated some twenty-odd centuries ago, at first vaguely in the Kathavatthu, BACKGROUND AND
then more specifically by the Sautrantikas, and finally explicitly and systematically by the Yogacarins themselves. Nyanaponika himself lays bare the embedded tensions that “bare…analysis dare not admit.” Central to these tensions lies the concept of vijñana, with its two temporal aspects seen from the earliest times: as momentary cognitive awareness, and as a continuous, bare sentience accompanying all animate life. To the extent that Abhidharma represents the exclusive validity of synchronic analysis over diachronic discourse, it so removes its dharmas from any greater temporal context as to be nearly ahistorical – for anything more than the immediate succession of momentary dharmas was literally indescribable, only nominally or figuratively true; in fact, even immediate succession itself was problematic, since issues such as heterogeneous succession are ultimately inseparable from those surrounding the fruition of past karma, the persistence of latent dispositions, and the emergence from the absorption of cessation. Abhidharma analysis by its very method undermined its own soteriological aims, within which alone it was meaningful and coherent. The Abhidharma project as a whole is thus at stake here. And it is at stake because Abhidharma theory cannot fully account for all the unmanifest factors “bound along” (anubandhu) in the mental stream that virtually constitute individual samsaric existence. It was this tension between these two levels of analysis and discourse, focused upon the momentary and continuous processes of mind, respectively, that foreshadowed and – in large part – stimulated the conceptualization of the alaya-vijñana. For it is the stream that carries all the seeds and thereby insures doctrinal as well as empirical coherence.131 Yet this stream cannot constitute any “ultimate account of continuity” (Collins), since ultimate validity is preserved exclusively for momentary dharmas. To overcome these problems, while simultaneously preserving the synchronic analysis of momentary and discrete dharmas developed by generations of scholars and adepts, the metaphors of the stream and its seeds needed to be systematically worked into dharmic discourse, so that together they might more comprehensively and consistently describe the persistence and continuing influences of the afflicting passions, the accumulation and fruition of karmic potential, and the gradual nature of purification along the path to liberation. And for this a wholly new model of mind was called for, one that could articulate the simultaneous existence of both of these temporal dimensions, that could perform all of those functions of the traditional vijñana of the Pali texts, but still retain all of the analytic detail and systematic rigor of Abhidharma thought; that is, a model that would integrate the diachronic discourse exemplified by “samsaric” vijñana with the newer dharmic discourse exemplified by “cognitive” vijñana. Of all the notions proffered, only the alaya-vijñana attempted to explicitly and systematically integrate – or rather reintegrate within the context of the Abhidharma analytic – these sharply differentiated aspects of mind originally undifferentiated in the early discourses. And this is what was first achieved in the momentous Saddhinirmocana Sjtra. THE ABHIDHARMA CONTEXT 87
THE ALAYA-VIJÑANA IN THE YOGACARA TRADITION
Whoever would maintain the idea of pure observation…might collect thousands of things which could be verified but he would not for that reason be able to understand what is actually happening in the present. One is enabled to speak of that which is most vital in the present, of that which makes the present a generative force, only insofar as one immerses oneself in the creative process which brings the future out of the past. (Paul Tillich)
The origins of the alaya-vijñana
Before we enter into the Yogacara materials themselves, presenting the alayavijñana in the complexity of its textual history, the profusion of its associated concepts, and the rationales underlying its explanation, we should reiterate the aims of this essay. Our primary aim is to understand the alaya-vijñana within the context of Indian Buddhist vijñana theory, first by outlining its background and context in the early Buddhist and Abhidharma traditions, respectively, and then by examining the set of Yogacara texts that most thoroughly and systematically espouse this intricate theory of unconscious mind.1 Neither the concept of the alaya-vijñana itself, nor its elaborate defense – a complex blend of exegetical, logical, and phenomenological arguments – can, we believe, be adequately understood without reference to this larger historical context. It is only in the light of the Abhidharma Problematic as a whole, arising out of the discrepancies between the newer dharmic analytic and the traditional doctrines preserved in the early Pali texts, that we can understand why the questions of the latent affective dispositions, the nature of karmic potentiality, and the gradual progress along the path to liberation became problematic at this point in Indian Buddhist thought – and, even more importantly, why they came to be addressed in terms of the two “aspects” of vijñana first found in those early texts. Most of the responses to these questions either implicitly or explicitly pointed toward some kind of multi-dimensionality of mind, a “common interest in the deeper strata of conscious life…,” Guenther observes, which “reflects the collective spirit or Zeitgeist of this epoch in Indian Buddhist thought” (1989: 19).2 In this respect, the concept of alaya-vijñana can be seen as merely the most comprehensive and systematic of the many innovative ideas proffered within the intellectual milieu of fourth–sixth centuries CE Buddhist India. The origin or even first occurrence of the term alaya-vijñana is unclear. The Saddhinirmocana Sjtra is traditionally regarded as the first Yogacara sjtra, announcing the advent of the special doctrines associated with that school and receiving, at least from their fellow Mahayanists, the veneration due to the sacred words of the Buddha. Most of the early Yogacara literature dates from the second or third to the fifth centuries CE,3 but establishing firmer dates for Indian Buddhist texts is notoriously difficult. We shall not, however, attempt our own chronology of the Yogacara school or of the minute developments within each stage of the alaya-vijñana, but will roughly follow Lambert Schmithausen’s careful reconstruction,4 which, if debatable on this or that particular point, is persuasive enough in its basic outline to serve our more general purpose of introducing the doctrinal developments and demonstrating the psychological and philosophical significance of the concept of the alaya-vijñana in the context of Indian Buddhist metapsychology.5 The beginnings of the alaya-vijñana and of the Yogacara school as a whole are closely connected with the voluminous Yogacarabhjmi, attributed to (though likely only compiled by) Asanga. He was the half-brother of Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharma-koka and, following his own “conversion” to Mahayana Buddhism, many major Yogacara texts as well. In all probability parts of the Yogacarabhjmi pre-date the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra, while other parts were composed or compiled afterwards.6 We shall be drawing most heavily upon selected sections of the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra and the Yogacarabhjmi in the first chapter of Part II, before proceeding in the succeeding chapters to developments of the alaya-vijñana in the Mahayana-sadgraha, also written by Asanga. It is in the Basic Section of the Yogacarabhjmi (the Saptadakabhjmika) that the term alaya-vijñana seems to have been first used. In what Schmithausen takes to be its initial occurrence,7 the alaya-vijñana is portrayed as a kind of basal consciousness which persists uninterruptedly within the material sense-faculties during the absorption of cessation (nirodha-samapatti). Within this form of consciousness dwell, in the form of seeds, the causal conditions for manifest forms of cognitive awareness to reappear upon emerging from that absorption. In its most important terminological innovation, these modes of manifest cognitive awareness are now collectively called forms of “arising,” or “manifesting [[[forms]] of ] cognitive awareness” (pravgtti-vijñana), insofar as they intermittently arise or become manifest in conjunction with their appropriate objects, and in contrast to the abiding, uninterrupted stream of sentience newly called “alaya” vijñana. The distinction we discerned as merely implicit within the early Pali concept of vijñana – between an object-specific cognitive awareness on the one hand and an
abiding sentience on the other – is now terminologically explicit. It represents the Yogacarins’ basic departure from earlier Buddhist models of mind. The newly coined terms “alaya-vijñana” and “pravgtti-vijñana” are telling in themselves. The term alaya conveys two distinct semantic ranges serendipitously united in Pali and Sanskrit. Alaya means “that which is clung to, adhered to, dwelled in,” and thus derivatively “dwelling, receptacle, house.” Yet it also retained an older sense from the early texts – whose nuances will resurface in due time – of “clinging, attachment, or grasping.”8 This new kind of vijñana, which dwells in or sticks to the material sense-faculties, contrasts with the traditional six types of “manifest cognitive awareness” (pravgtti-vijñana) insofar as they “arise, come forth, manifest, issue, originate, occur, commence” (pra-vgt, SED 693) in conjunction with objects impinging upon their respective sense-fields. In this initial passage, alaya-vijñana is closely connected with bodily existence, as we would expect for any kind of process which persists during a meditative state in which all mental processes are said to come to a halt. Even in its most complex formulations, alaya-vijñana never entirely loses this somatic dimension. This reflects one of the roles attributed to vijñana in both the Pali and Abhidharma texts we have already examined: for as long one as is alive, consciousness (vijñana) takes up or “appropriates” (upadana) the body, the material sense-faculties, thereby preventing death; in this sense, it constitutes, along with heat (uhma) and the life-force (ayus), one of the indispensable concomitants of any sentient being.9 At this stage, the conception of alaya-vijñana seems to be little more than a combination of the Sautrantika view that the body is the carrier of the seeds during the absorption of cessation10 with Vasumitra’s position that a subtle form of mind (sjkhma-citta) subsists at that time without apparent functioning. In effect, as Schmithausen (1987: 30) puts it, it transforms the notion of “the Seeds of mind lying hidden in corporeal matter to a new form of mind proper.” As a simple “hypostatization” of the seeds, this depiction of alaya-vijñana is not yet a distinct vijñana, nor is it systematically related to the traditional six modes of cognitive awareness; its status outside of the absorption of cessation, moreover, remains undefined.11 Thus, questions remain. On emerging from the attainment of cessation, how do these six forms of “arising cognitive awareness” arise again from the seeds that are within this “alaya” vijñana? And where or how does this alaya-vijñana function outside of that attainment of cessation? Is it a discontinuous kind of cognitive awareness that, like the bhavamga-citta, only occurs when the manifest modes of cognitive awareness do not, or does it continuously occur throughout all states of mind? If the latter, then how are the seeds that are associated with this new kind of vijñana related to the traditional six kinds of cognitive awareness? And in what way might this alaya-vijñana function as a vijñana itself, as a distinct species of cognitive awareness? In other words, if alaya-vijñana were to be more than a hypostatization of the seeds, if it were to become a new genre of consciousness in its own right, it would have to be related to traditional conceptions
of mind in much more specific detail. These kinds of questions were not asked in the earliest sections of the Yogacarabhjmi, but responses to them were effectively outlined in the momentous developments found in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra. The new model of mind in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra The Saddhinirmocana Sjtra12 addresses these questions in a few succinct passages which fundamentally restructured the Buddhist model of mind around the notion of alaya-vijñana. It accomplished this by combining the diachronic characteristics already associated with the “samsaric” aspects of vijñana in the early Pali texts (and in Abhidharma as well), designating them “alaya” vijñana, and then initiating their gradual integration into the synchronic discourse expressed in purely dharmic terms. While the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra presents only the outlines of this model, later developments will gradually draw out its deeper implications, slowly but systematically reintegrating the diachronic and synchronic treatments of mind found within the first millennium of Indian Buddhist metapsychology. Adding significantly to its