Consciousness Only

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is the school called Consciousness Only (唯識)As the Four Noble Truths say, if there is no such thing as a self, then what this self sees must be imaginary or unreal. Nevertheless, the self looks like the most critical part in our life.

How should we handle what we see? What is it? One of the bold answers is Consciousness Only.

Consciousness keeps on bothering us. Because of this, we feel like we are ourselves. We possess ourselves. We are alive now and going to die someday, and yet did not exist before our birth. Consciousness is that which separates us from the world and universe as if we are standing outside of it; facing, destroying, and preserving it. We even seek God outside of us.

If we can’t believe that our self is illusory, then what we can do is to focus on its shadow, which is consciousness.

Seeing how it moves around deceptively, we could see a glimpse of the truth that there is indeed no such thing as a self. Instead, we (as non-self) are part of the vast entity of emptiness. Or, even saying “part” would be misleading.

Consciousness Only was from the Mahayana schools in India. When Maitreya (270–350 or 350–430) composed the treatise on the Yoga practice, it contained the doctrine of Consciousness Only. And around the fifth century, both Asanga and Vasubandhu developed it further. It became part of Buddhist studies, and monks and scholars brought to China and eventually Japan as Hossō-shū, the philosophy of the Consciousness Only school.

Kōfuku-ji, Nara, Japan

One of the key concepts is the Eight Consciousnesses.

There are eight stages of consciousness. The first five are associated with five senses. And there are three more such as mental consciousness, self-consciousness, and store-house consciousness.

  • Eye Consciousness (Cakṣurvijñāna 眼識)
  • Ear Consciousness (Śrotravijñāna 耳識)
  • Nose Consciousness (Ghrāṇavijñāna 鼻識)
  • Tongue Consciousness (Jihvāvijñāna 舌識)
  • Body Consciousness (Kāyavijñāna 身識)
  • Mental Consciousness (Manovijñāna 意識)
  • Self Consciousness (Kliṣṭamanovijñāna 末那識)
  • Store-house Consciousness (Ālāyavijñāna 阿賴耶識)

Our carnal nature belongs to the first five. Not only humans but all animals also possess them. Even plants go forward to light due to their “eye” consciousness. All beings are sentient with these first five stages of consciousness.

Some of the “evolved” animals and humans could possess the sixth, which is the mental functionality. In this stage, one could control signs and symbols that compose our mental state in one way or another.

In it, we humans are no longer part of the world unconsciously, but behold the world in our minds as if we see it from God’s point of view. In this realm, we are the seers, and the world is what we see. The duality of the seer/seen emerges.

Figuratively, at this mental state we are still in the Garden of Eden, and yet we try to understand our external environment, the world, and the universe, even God through the grid of signs and symbols. And their operating system is our mental consciousness or mind.

As the mind develops further, we humans start seeing ourselves in this mental domain as well. That is the birth of self-consciousness. We can be aware of ourselves, others, environments, even God. As we have eaten the fruit of knowledge, God kicked us out from the Garden of Eden.

Thus, life became difficult.

Suddenly, we have realized our mortality. We are born, live, and die. All of a sudden, the world acts like the external threats, believing the doomsday clocks and environmental catastrophes.

The world is no longer part of us, but what we are supposed to destroy or preserve, and vice versa. Ever since, from the beginning of the birth of self-consciousness, the so-called end of the world has kept on bothering us as one of our biggest existential crises.

There are fear, hatred, anger, and suffering around such duality of our lives. The stage of self-consciousness could be recognized as the domain of misery, the defiled or deluded awareness.

Buddha calls such life suffering (dukkha), which consists of the following eight attributes (四苦八苦):

  • Birth (生): We suffer from our birth and experiencing the world for the first time, relating to new demands or experiences.
  • Old age (老): We suffer in the process of aging and growing old, which is also psychological with the physical pain of aging.
  • Sickness (病): We suffer from physical or psychological illness.
  • Death (死): We suffer from the pain of separation and not being able to continue our endeavors, as well as the physical discomfort of dying.
  • Separating from what and whom we love (愛別離苦): We suffer from the pain of trying to hold onto what is desirable, lovely, splendid, and terrific.
  • Meeting what and whom we hate (怨憎会苦): We suffer from the pain of being unable to avoid confusing or painful situations.
  • Not getting what we do want (求不得苦): It underlies the previous two categories; the anxiety of not getting what we want.
  • All-pervasive suffering (五蘊盛苦): It is a subtle dissatisfaction that exists all the time; it arises as a reaction to the qualities of conditioned things such as impermanence of things

All these things happen in the stage of self-consciousness. We see ourselves separately. And such deceptive self keeps on bothering us. Who is such self and who is “us” who suffer? These are the shadow of self-consciousness.

If we don’t have five senses, then all stages of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body would disappear. Without the operating system of our mind, all the signs and symbols don’t make any sense. Everything is a shadow – Consciousness Only.

In the same way, self-consciousness is also a shadow of our illusory self. As the duality of the seer/seen dissolves, the stage of self-consciousness becomes shadowy.

And there is another background where this shadow reflects itself, which is the stage of store-house consciousness. It is a sort of ultimate background that embraces all the lower shadows. We could call it the cosmic consciousness or God’s consciousness.

If God is that which is never seen and objectified, then it is only God who sees Himself, which could be the stage of God’s self-consciousness. Or, the universe sees itself in the never-objectified background.

How do we see it? We can’t.

Ontologically and epistemologically, we can never stand at the domain where God sees Himself or the universe beholds itself.

Perhaps we could scarcely call it God’s will, which would be one of the nearest signifiers on what it meams. In it, we can finally forget and deny ourselves, seeing a glimpse of ālāyavijñāna (阿賴耶識).

When we go out of ourselves through obedience and strip ourselves of what is ours, then God must enter into us; for when someone wills nothing for themselves, then God must will on their behalf just as he does for himself.

Meister Eckhart

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Luke 9:23

Image by Michele Caballero Siamitras Kassube

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