Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only
Seen by Eye of Healing
Why Consciousness-Only is Psychology?
“Consciousness-only (Vijñapti-mātra)” is the psychology of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Buddhism considers “Consciousness-only” and “Contemplation of the Middle Way” as two major philosophies of Buddhism. That is because psychology has a very short history with philosophy. That does not mean that when the Buddha taught his disciples, his teachings or method of teaching should not be considered psychology, but philosophy or religious studies. It is because the Buddha’s teachings were also psychological and healing in nature that he is also called the “King of Doctors.”
The way the Buddha taught and the content of his teachings can be considered perfect modern psychotherapy. That is why Western psychotherapists today accept Buddhist meditation practices and actively promote it for its healing qualities. It has been less than 200 years since the term “psychology” came into being. In the late 1800s, Wilhelm Wundt of Germany was the first doctor to view psychology as separate from philosophy. The psychology of that time was called constructivist psychology. However, modern Western psychologists no longer use that term. There may be many reasons for that, but one important reason may be that it did not develop psychotherapy techniques for clients.
The main factor in constructivist psychology was “mind.” It focused on what the mind is made up of, so in that respect it was similar to early Abhidharma Buddhism. However, Abhidharma psychology is far superior to constructivist psychology in scope, history and organization. In general, when we start to study something, we will first look at what our subject consists of. As a Buddhist, I was also interested in who I was and what I was composed of. In Buddhism, an individual’s existence consists of earth, water, fire and wind, the four primary elements of early Indian thought. On the other hand, the Buddhist exploration of what constitutes the mind can be regarded as the birth of Abhidharma Buddhism, which represents early Buddhist psychology.
Once our understanding of the structure of mind matured, we could see how those components of mind functioned. Therefore, it is neither philosophy nor religion. Abhidharma Buddhism organized and summarized the content of Buddha’s teachings about the real problems we face, the fundamental causes of suffering (anxiety, pain, etc.), ways to heal ourselves and ultimately, ways to free ourselves from them. The Buddha’s teachings can be considered religious, philosophical or psychological depending on who uses and applies them. However, the Buddha’s teachings should not be confined to any fixed category such as philosophy, religion or psychology. There is also Buddhist music, Buddhist art, Buddhist literature, etc. Buddhist teachings and methods can be used and applied in a variety of ways to create empathy and solve the realistic and existential problems facing us. That is because they can be applied differently depending on the circumstance.
Among Buddhist scriptures, one of the most psychological and healing texts I can recommend is the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only. Next would be the Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith and the Lotus Sutra. However, in my estimation the most complete in structure and content from a psychotherapeutic point of view is the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only. That is why I consider it a text on Mahayana Buddhist psychology. Both Oriental psychology and Western psychology basically have two components: theory and practice. Theory explains human behavior, especially how the mind is structured, how it works, and the pathological structure of the mind, as well as the mental and physical models involved in developmental models, health, and malaise. It is the technique and practice about what is health, and how to maintain health and prevent and treat ill health. In Buddhism, theory is dealt with through study and scholarship, which is separate from actual practice.
As I have already stated, the best textbook representative of Buddhist psychology is the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only. It consists of 30 short verses, and verses one through 25 explain the theoretical aspects very well. The theoretical aspects deal with how the mind is structured and how it works, the origin, structure, and phenomenon of ignorance and the suffering of sentient beings. It deals in depth into the structure and functioning of both pathological and healthy minds. Verses 26 through 30 explain how we should act and strive to have a healthy mind, and how to treat a sick mind. These verses describe the five steps needed to transform the mind of a suffering and ignorant sentient being into an enlightened mind that manifests Buddha-nature. They also explain the practices and actions desired at each stage.
When Western psychotherapists apply the teachings of Buddhism to a client, they use Western psychotherapy to describe the illness in detail and Buddhist teachings to focus on health and achieving a healthy mind. I think that Buddhist teachings explain well the mechanism for maintaining and developing a healthy mind. Therefore, many Western psychotherapists believe that Buddhism and Western psychotherapy are complementary and put a lot of effort into integrating them into actual treatment. Unlike other Buddhist scriptures, the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only devotes five-sixths of its total content to explaining the structure and function of the human mind.
The Structure of the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only
As we have already explained the meaning of “mind-only (consciousness-only),” if we do not understand that we experience and understand situations differently from others, we will tend to hate and negate those who know and understand differently from us. This may cause tension and stress. It also results in negative (“unhealthy”) words, actions and thoughts. Then why or how do we come to understand and experience situations differently. The first verse of the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only explains that. It asserts that the appearance of ‘host and guest’ (subject and object) is the starting point and origin of ignorance. The motivation and emergence of the mind arise from the dual discernment of the subject and object of recognition. Therefore, people experience situations differently and understand them differently. Not knowing the reality of dual discernment is the beginning of ignorance and folly. Verses two through four explain the functions of our “storage consciousness” or “eighth consciousness.” Our storage experience is a cumulative one. So it is called activity consciousness that brings cumulation. This explains how all of our experiences since birth accumulate and how they constantly influence our present.
Verses five through seven describe the emergence, development and function of self-consciousness. The accumulation of what we hear, see, feel, think and experience is self-consciousness. When we experience something, we project our ownership to the experience we experience.
Verses eight through 16 explain the manifestation and actions of our senses and emotions. In particular, they explain healthy emotions that lead to well-being, growth and enlightenment, and unhealthy emotions that lead to destruction and suffering.
Verses 17 through 19 tell us how we can change our personality and, in turn, change our lives, our personality and our destiny. In short, they explain the possibility of fundamentally changing the inherent personality, education, social and cultural factors formed during the growth process. I call this change and transformation of seeds “seed improvement.”
Verses 20 through 25 explain the ultimate essence of our being. Verses 20 through 22 describe the “phenomenal self” and the “empirical self.” It is the part that recognizes our self. Our true essence is non-self, but we always experience life through what we perceive to be our self. Therefore, here and now I fully accept the unrealized mind.
After we come to understand and sympathize with the mind of sentient beings in this way, verses 23 through 25 explain why the existence of a self we thought we were in the past was originally non-existent, i.e. “non-self.”
Verses 26 through 30 explain the process of understanding how to teach to others verses one through 25, and how to practice and apply them in a relationship. In early Buddhist psychology, the explanations of self-consciousness and the storage consciousness (藏識 the eighth consciousness, or ālaya-vijñāna as taught by the Yogâcāra school) are not as clear as in the psychology of consciousness-only. In particular, there was no concept of “storage consciousness.” Therefore, there were limitations in explaining the core teachings of Buddhism about reincarnation and selflessness. In other words, I do not have ‘I’, but how to remember yesterday and have a continuous concept of ‘me’.
Enlightened people and dementia patients have one thing in common: non-self. The early Buddhist explanations of the structure and function of the mind were limited in explaining the teachings of reincarnation and selflessness. I need a storage place. I have to remember somewhere that I can remember my previous experience so that I can not remember a week ago, a year ago, 10 years ago, and also my past life. So the Buddhist hypothesis is that they are stored. No, I do not have ‘I’ thoroughly, and I say that it was a reincarnation. Therefore there is a need for an explanation as to where they are stored. This requires the concept of storage, but also the concept of ego consciousness.
Therefore, the psychology of consciousness-only organizes the mind into six consciousnesses (consciousness, five senses and sixth consciousness) of early Buddhism by adding the seventh consciousness and the eighth consciousness which is also called storage consciousness. In other words, the troubled minds of sentient beings are composed of: a storage consciousness, a self-consciousness, a sixth consciousness and the five senses. However, depending on the level of enlightenment or degree of ignorance, the eight kinds of consciousness can be either conscious or unconscious. It is only possible to achieve complete enlightenment when all eight kinds of consciousness are in the realm of active consciousness. Depending on the level of enlightenment, the action of eight consciousness is only partially aware of a particular area at a particular moment. That’s why we do not truly know ourselves. That is why we do not know our true mind. Only enlightened beings can truly know themselves.
Ven. Seogwang She studied psychology in the graduated school of Ewha Women᾿s University and earned a master᾿s degree in psychology of religion from Boston University. She received her Ph.D. in transcendental ego psychology from Sofia University. Currently, she works as a professor at Dongbang Culture University. She also serves as the director of in the Institute of Korean Meditation and Psychotherapy.