Lecture Series about Buddhist Psychology 5 │ Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Triṃśikā) Healing Through Seeing __ Ven. Seogwang

Thirty Verses on
Consciousness-Only
(Triṃśikā)

Healing Through Seeing

Verse Three:

The storehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) arises from the awareness of the seeds of all karmic actions and the perceptions of the physical sensory organs, as well as apprehension of the external world. Its cognitive process is so extraordinarily subtle and infinitely pervasive that it is extremely difficult to detect where it is located or how it receives, deposits and transforms objects of cognition. The storehouse consciousness is in perpetual interplay between the mental factors of contact, attention, body-sensations (feeling), conceptualization and volition. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but indeterminate (or neutral).

This passage describes the eighth, or storehouse consciousness, that contains all seeds of action since beginningless time. It is not just our conscious experiences that are being stored; whether we are aware of it or not, all aspects of every single moment we encounter and live through are stored as seeds, which are then transformed by later conditions and circumstances and manifest differently.

The storehouse consciousness is a latent mental process, operating unobserved in the deep recesses of our mind. The cognitive awareness of the storehouse consciousness encompasses the whole universe of the Dharma-realm. This means there is not a single thing in this universe that is irrelevant in any given moment of our existence.

Let’s say you are a mother and you meet and spend a couple of hours chatting with a friend at a cafe. When you come back home, your child asks if you have been smoking. You have not, but your skin and clothes are imbued with the smell. Likewise, we are being ceaselessly inundated by mental and physical states of our surroundings, whether knowingly or unknowingly. From the moment of birth to the last breath on our deathbed, we are transforming and being transformed by countless forms of energies. They are sometimes physical, sometimes mental, sometimes neither, or indeterminate.

The storehouse consciousness is both indescribably vast and subtle at the same time. We cannot really pinpoint where, when or how this “storing” is taking place, or exactly what form these stored experiences assume. Where in our inner landscape is this happening? It is impossible to tell. The roar of the revolving Earth is too deafeningly loud for our ears to hear. We only perceive what is within the range of our perception. We cannot perceive that which is too coarse or too fine. The storehouse consciousness is infinitely wide and deep. It is infinitely wide because nothing in the whole natural universe can escape its storing function; it is infinitely deep because it stores all experiences lived by all beings throughout the countless cycles of samsara from beginningless time. A USB stick is tiny, yet it can store dozens of books easily. But if we break it open to read what is written in one of the books, nothing can be gleaned. Only when the computer equipped to operate the USB stick is present, can the information stored be accessed. Although every moment of our love, hatred or rage is stowed away, we cannot see them no matter what we do.

The storing of the storehouse consciousness is accomplished in five stages: 1)  contact- 2) attention- 3) body-sense (feeling)- 4) conceptualization (discrimination)- 5) volition (intention). Once stored, nothing is ever lost.

These five stages occur so fast that the process is often likened to a gushing waterfall. Because they flash by too quickly for us to observe, they are stored as seeds. If we could perceive the incredible speed by which the process rushes by and, in the mental state of absorption (jhana), remain aware every step of the way, no seeds will form, and therefore there will be no karmic trace left behind.

Awareness Heals

Buddha proclaimed in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, one of the early Buddhist sutras, that “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” He then went on to describe how the cessation of suffering is brought about by being aware of it, more specifically, be fully aware at the very moment the six sense faculties come in contact with their sense-objects. We can either reach for it if it is pleasant, push away if unpleasant or stay indifferent if neutral. This is the moment that is pregnant with the opportunity to become liberated from suffering.

The title of this section is “Awareness Heals.” Being aware of the nanosecond when contact between the object and our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind takes place is when healing occurs and insight is born. There is nothing we must strive for. Just by being aware of the moment of contact, or the subsequent feelings arising in us, or the following conceptualization and intent, is enough. It heals our past suffering, heals our present pain, and prevents future afflictions.

Buddha taught the concept of non-self as the antidote for the attachment to self, which is the root cause of all suffering. But this begs the question, “What is it that transmigrates if there is no self? What part of us is experiencing life and death? The answer is the sense of self that is rooted in the seventh or manas consciousness (mānas-vijñāna). If there is no sense of self, then there is no rebirth. The concept of ego in Western psychology is perhaps closest to the manas consciousness. If ego ceases to function in our everyday life, this implies a state of nirvana. Instead of grasping the five aggregates and mistaking them as “I,” one simply observes and lets go of this continuous stream of experiencing and knowing. In psychoanalysis, this creation of “I” is called “identification.”

Verse Four:

The storehouse consciousness is free from the stains of afflictions and ignorance that hinder enlightenment. It is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. The mental factors of contact, attention, body-sense (feeling), conceptualization and volition are indeterminate as well, neither wholesome nor unwholesome. The storehouse consciousness will never cease its cycle of coming into being and dissolving into nothingness, until one attains full arhat-hood.

The storehouse consciousness operates in the unconscious realm of mind, and only a fully realized arhat can comprehend it. In some psychoanalytic schools, the unconscious mind is where repressed base urges and instincts are stored and therefore considered pathological in nature. In the storehouse consciousness, untold numbers of experiences (karmic seeds) accumulate over innumerable lifetimes, and we are never conscious of them. Being “seeds,” they have not manifested yet; therefore they are neither wholesome, that which causes happiness, nor unwholesome, that which causes suffering. They are still in an indeterminate state. It is the conditions and circumstances under which these seeds manifest that will determine their degree of wholesomeness (or unwholesomeness). We have all experienced countless moments of love, but we never know if those moments will re-appear as love, jealousy or compassion until the phenomenon reveals itself. That is why Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the “law of causes and conditions.” While the seeds are the causes, the circumstances in which they manifest are the conditions.

That is why we should not judge based only on the merits of a specific action itself without considering the chain of causal conditions that led up to the present moment. Cursing the unfairness of fate or condemning the injustice of it, shouting “Why me? Why is it happening to me?” does not help alleviate suffering either because we fail to see the whole series of conditions that evolved to produce the result. Being aware of the existence of suffering and seeing it just “as it is” is the essence of the First Noble Truth.

The storehouse consciousness always underlies and interacts with the sense of self, which in turn permeates all our feelings and emotions. We see a holy man, and we experience profound admiration and respect. That is the moment we connect with our own holiness within. We like someone because through him or her we sense something of ourselves inside. Likewise, we dislike someone because meeting him or her stirs up something in us. We see qualities, attitudes, beliefs or ways of life we hate and deny reflected in the mirror that is the other person. It is worth remembering the teaching in The Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith that tells us there is nothing we encounter in life that is not in some way necessary for us.

Lack of Communication Causes Trouble

If the food we eat is not digested well and then eliminated from our body, it causes physical suffering. Likewise, all the things we see, hear and think, all the mental impressions they leave behind and accumulate unceasingly throughout the day, must be properly noticed, understood and processed. Otherwise, they are stored as crude, malformed concepts and emotions and begin to create dissonance − meaning, getting transformed − in the storehouse consciousness. In time, when the conditions are ripe, they re-emerge as raw emotion or expressed in a more cognitive way, in unrefined, hardened, inflexible concepts, beliefs or ideas.

Whether mental or physical, sickness arises when something is blocked or severed. If we believe in our own understanding and knowledge of phenomena as the absolute truth, it is called cognitive hindrance. We cannot communicate with someone who believes that he or she is absolutely right. This kind of person inevitably causes friction with others. Nagarjuna, in his writing titled Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā), used a system of logic designed to break down this cognitive hindrance, to break through concepts that oppose Dharma, dependent origination and emptiness. The Consciousness-Only School is very effective, not only in dealing with cognitive hindrance that stems from wrong thinking and wrong views about a phenomena, but also in healing the afflictive hindrance experienced as emotional pain or disturbance.

The right kind of logic can be used to destroy any cognitive falsehood and reveal the truth. However, attacking afflictive hindrances in this manner will only lead to even more hurt feelings and emotions. Afflictive hindrance originates from believing in the existence of self, and therefore, hurt feelings mean that one’s sense of self is threatened.

Psychotherapy deals with emotional issues in a different manner from cognitive ones. To heal emotional wounds, you should apply empathy, caring and acceptance  first, not the cold, clinical dissection of problems. If you feel as if you are facing an insurmountable wall, instead of experiencing a sense of natural flow and resonance, it is likely to be a cognitive hindrance, and too strong a belief or concept is making communication with others impossible. If you feel troubled or heartache, this means you are beset by afflictive hindrances. Of course, deep down, these two are not completely separate, but the distinction is still clear at certain levels.

No Flower Blooms without Wavering
By Do Jong-hwan

No flower blooms without wavering.
Any beautiful flower in this world
Blooms swaying in the wind,
Their stems are straight, even while wavering.
No love matures without wavering.

No flower blooms without getting wet.
Any brilliant flower in this world
Blooms getting wet again and again,
They bloom kind petals amid the wind and rain.
No life matures without getting wet.

I think this poem is a fitting tribute to those who study the storehouse consciousness. Throughout life, we are often gripped and shaken by all the relationships we have had so far, all those moments of hatred, regret, anger, despair and disappointment. But how would we otherwise become wise and free without those moments of wavering?

It is the influence of the storehouse consciousness that makes us angry when faced with unexpected or unwanted situations. The purer the storehouse consciousness becomes, the clearer our awareness reflects the other person. In other words, we get to see who the other person really is when we put ourselves in their shoes. If we can become aware of how the storehouse consciousness pervades and manifests through the experience of each and every moment, our feelings and actions can become radically different.

Ven. Seogwang She studied psychology at Ewha Women᾿s University’s Graduate School and earned her 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 the Institute of Korean Meditation and Psychotherapy.

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