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In Buddhism, consciousness-only or mind-only (Sanskrit: vijñapti-mātratā, vijñapti-mātra, citta-mātra; Chinese: 唯識; Pinyin: wéi shí; Tibetan: sems tsam) Japanese: yuishiki) is a theory according to which unenlightened conscious experience is nothing but false discriminations or imaginations. Thus, the notion of consciousness-only is an indictment of the problems engendered by the activities of consciousness. This was a major component of the thought of the school of Yogācāra, which had a major effect on subsequent schools after its introduction in East Asia.



In contrast to the Self teachings of the Upaniṣads, the Buddha stated clearly that all ontological speculations regarding a Self are detrimental to spiritual progress.[1] He stated that all thoughts about self are necessarily, whether the thinker is aware of it or not, thoughts about the five aggregates or one of them.[2] As one scholar has written,

The mysticism found in the Pali discourses ... goes beyond any ideas of 'soul' in the sense of immortal 'self' and is better styled 'consciousness-mysticism.'[3]

Furthermore, early Buddhism was not subjective idealistic.[4] Some have misinterpreted the Yogācāra school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed the consciousness-only approach as a form of metaphysical idealism, but this is incorrect. Yogācāra thinkers did not focus on consciousness to assert it as ultimately real (Yogācāra claims consciousness is only conventionally real since it arises from moment to moment due to fluctuating causes and conditions), but rather because it is the cause of the karmic problem they are seeking to eliminate.[5]

The standpoint of consciousness-only starts by explaining the world that presents to each being is regulated by and according to the seeds underlying in each being's ālaya consciousness (the eighth consciousness, the seed consciousness). One special species of the innumerable seeds, which will be activated when proper conditions are reached, are evolving from the accumulation of traces of sense perceptions and our behaviors in previous lives which then become seeds and stored in the eighth consciousness as "karma seeds" (there are still numerous other kinds of seeds, which can be considered as numerous different functions,such as the seed of eye-consciousness which, of course,produces eye-consciousness when activated. Unlike karma-seeds, seeds like eye-consciousness cannot be perfumed). When activated, these seeds drains from the eighth consciousness just like data stored in the hard disk turn or appear in the monitor as all kinds of illusions or appearances, and in a substantive way ,one for one, these seeds produce, or better describes as induce, new "seeds" (bīja) similar to themselves after being perfumed by the external and interactive world, according to a regular pattern, as seeds produce(induce) plants. Each being possesses a store of perceptions and beings which are generically alike will produce similar perceptions since their first five of Six Sense-organs (Six Indriyas), which are produced by the eighth consciousness according to the karma seeds, are similar to each other. The external world is created when the store consciousness (ālaya) is "perfumed" (薰) by activated seeds, i.e. the effects of good and evil deeds.

To summarize, the seeds behave in three ways:

1 Seeds, when activated, produce the external (material, physical) world and the internal (spiritual, mental) world, in total, the Eighteen Fields.

2 Seeds (or, to be more precise, Alaya consciousness) are perfumed by the three karmic activities of deed, word and thought (Three practices).

3 Seeds induce seeds.

And this gives the solution to the original paradox. The conception of "self", the false atman, is produced from seeds which are stored in the eighth consciousness(store-house consciousness" ,Sanskrit: ālāyavijñāna). Actions in this world, good, bad and neutral deeds, perfume (or mutate) these seeds. The seeds then produce or induce new seeds, with some seeds tainted by one's actions, and others unaffected. Even after death, the impressions of deeds — their karma — linger on in the seeds of alaya consciousness. As long as the four defilements of mental function (心所法), viz. self-delusion (我癡), self-view (我見), egotism (我慢), and self-love (我愛), of the seventh consciousness of certain being remain polluted, his/her reincarnation in the Three Realms (Sanskrit, Trailokya) will never cease. An Arhat is someone who has managed to obliterate all impressions of himself, verified for himself that the Eighteen Fields or the five skandhas(five aggregates,Sanskrit: pan~cāskandha ) are all illusory and empty of "self nature" or "essence" (Sanskrit: Svabhāva), and any desire to clamp on any of them should be and can be extinguished, thus at the last moment of his life , when the seeds of the other seventeen Fields stored in the eighth consciousness stop being activated through the determination of the seventh consciousness(The manas consciousness) and all the body functions stop concurrently; finally the seventh consciousness decides that it itself should cease being activated also and thus the eighth consciousness stops draining out the seed of the seventh consciousness, and so the whole Eighteen Fields gets extinguished after all, with the eighth consciousness alone existing in a state called as "never born and therefore never will die" or "no beginning and no ending ", in other words, Nirvana (涅槃) . It is extremely important for us to remember, that while we may say that such Arhat has escape the wheel of samsara and will not reborn again in the Three Realms, there is definitely no such Arhat or any being that stopped existing here and get reborn anywhere else. In contrast to that, a Buddha is someone who manages to get enlightened (eg. to verify for Himself the true existence of His ālaya consciousness) first, and after the verification or enlightenment, through innumerable karmic lives and non-karmic lives as a Bodhisattva, clears and substitutes all of His polluted seeds while they are activated until all of the seeds stored in the eighth consciousness are pure and clean. Through the dispolluting process, the Bodhisattva also manage to apprehend and verify all the individual and interactive functions of each seeds until He thoroughly masters them and attains the All-inclusive wisdom (一切種智); Such alaya consciousness fully cleansed of karmic sediment is renamed as amalavijñâna(菴摩羅識), or "pure consciousness"(無垢識).

The doctrine of consciousness-only thus reduces all existence to one hundred dharmas ( or factors) in five divisions (五位百法), namely, Mind(心法), Mental function(心所法), Material(色法), Not associated with mind(心不相應行法) and Unconditioned dharmas(無為法). The consciousness-only school thus sets out to enumerate and describe all these dharmas in detail.

An alternative explanation to the truism that "man has no soul" lies in a simple but powerful extension and paradigm shift: "man has no soul, rather, the soul has man." In other words, we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not human beings having a spiritual experience. Assertions that "man" has a "soul" are necessarily false because man's physical existence, which "man" most predominantly identifies with, is merely an observable artifact of the true spiritual reality.

Another important contribution of the consciousness-only thinkers was that of the three natures of imaginary, provisional and real. See three natures or Trikaya for details.


The major framework of Yogācāra theory was developed by the two brothers Vasubandhu 世親 and Asaṅga 無著 in such treatises as the Abdhidharma-kośa-bhāsya 倶舍論, the Triṃśikā Vijñaptimātratāsiddhiḥ (Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only) 唯識三十頌, Mahāyāna-saṃgraha 攝大乘論, and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra 瑜伽師地論. Dharmapala's Vijñaptimâtratâsiddhi-shâstra is an important commentary that resolved several doctrinal disputes that had risen out of the original texts.

Consciousness-only doctrine was also defined in sutras such as the Samdhinirmocanasutra 解深密經 and Śrīmālā-sūtra 勝鬘經. The Mahāyāna-saṃgraha, for example, says, "All conscious objects are only constructs of consciousness because there are no external objects. They are like a dream." (如此衆識唯識 以無塵等故 譬如夢等) 〔攝大乘論T 1593.31.118b12〕.


  1. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy. See Point 3, [1]. The Canon quote Thanissaro Bhikkhu draws attention to is the Sabbasava Sutta, [2].
  2. ^ Nanavira Thera, Nibbana and Anatta. [3]. Early Writings -> Nibbana and Anatta -> Nibbana, Atta, and Anatta.
  3. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 100. The full quote is: "If one would characterize the forms of mysticism found in the Pali discourses, it is none of the nature-, God-, or soul-mysticism of F.C. Happold. Though nearest to the latter, it goes beyond any ideas of 'soul' in the sense of immortal 'self' and is better styled 'consciousness-mysticism.'"
  4. ^ Ian Charles Harris, The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogacara in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. E.J. Brill, 1991, page 133.
  5. ^ Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogācāra." [4].

Further reading

  • Zim, Robert (1995). Basic ideas of Yogacara Buddhism. San Francisco State University. Source: [5] (accessed: October 18, 2007).

See also


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