Storage consciousness

by Soga, Ryojin


Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring 1996


Copyright by Parabola

Soga Ryojin (1875-1910) was President of Otani University in Kyoto. In this essay he assigns Pure Land Buddhism to its proper place in the Mahayana tradition of which Zen Buddhism is a part. Thanks to the work of Daisetz T. Suzuki, as Professor Soga agrees, Zen is now known all over the world--an event Arnold Toynbee compared in importance with the splitting of the atom. Professor Soga retells the crucial myth of Dharmakara Boddhisattva in its relation to that most profound concept of the Yogacara school of Buddhist thought: the alayavijnana or Storage Consciousness. It has been called "the all-conserving Mind," and has been described as a collective unconscious, fathoms below our grasp and control, a kind of memory bank that stores as "seeds" all the mental and physical acts in our present lives, individually and collectively, but also beyond these in the remote past. Perhaps--it sometimes occurs to me--it encompasses the "seeds" of our entire species from its beginningless beginning, perhaps even from the origin of all life on earth. Its power therefore to influence the present, not to mention the future, is unimaginable. To be aware of the normally ungraspable depth of alaya's memory bank constitutes "liberation." Its rising fully into consciousness is the actualization of the innate Buddha Mind, known as Enlightenment. A Zen Master questioned by one of his monks about the nature of the alayavijnana answered: "I know not. It makes one think!" It does indeed. --Frederick Franck It may be recalled that the two major schools of Mahayana Buddhism are the Madhyamika School of Nagarjuna (second century C.E.), which expounds sunyata ("emptiness"), and the Yogacara or Mind-Only school of Asanga and Vasubandho (fifth century C.E.). The Mind-Only school teaches that what we regard as existing outside of ourselves is nothing but the differentiated forms of our consciousness in its unbroken continuity of transformation. The sole reality therefore is consciousness. The Avatamsaku Sutra states that the triple world is illusory and only the product of One Mind. In order to expound this teaching, the Vijna-navadins postulate beyond the six forms of consciousness of Theravada Buddhism--eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind--a seventh and an eighth form in order to explain the whole structure of consciousness that functions uninterruptedly even during deep sleep. Manas is therefore postulated as a kind of supraconsciousness which sustains our particular identity or ego. Manas generates the instinctive impulse to appropriate external objects as "mine," it takes things from the standpoint of 'I' and "mine"; but according to this teaching even manas by itself cannot have illusions like "I" and "mine" without a further basis, and this basis is called alayavijnana, which never ceases to receive and store stimuli, all "things as they come." This "storehouse-consciousness" is the I in its most authentic sense. It is the most basic subjectivity capable of creating human life as such. It is the seed of the realization of salvation in this life. It is grasped, appropriated as it were, by manas. Still, it is the self-realization in the act of self-realizing itself. It is at once the principle of avidya, primal ignorance, and of enlightenment. The actual world of ignorance is brought about by alayavijnana, but once aware of, awakened to, the process by which alayavijnana comes to be defined, we are already on the way toward Enlightenment. Enlightenment involves the dynamic process in which ignorance, avidya, itself is infinitely subjected to penetrating insight. The history of Buddhism shows, however, that the teaching of the Vijnanavadins, which leads to the transcendental wisdom of enlightenment by the transformation of illusory consciousness, has been understood only by an elect few of superior intelligence. Even if the doctrine were understood, it would be extremely difficult for ordinary people to actually practice it as taught, since the teaching of alayavijnana involves a system of practices relying upon self-effort (jiriki). Therefore let us turn to the exposition of the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life on which the Pure Land doctrine is based and in which alayavijnana is described in terms of the relationship between Dharmakara Bodhisattva (the causal name of Amida) and sentient beings. In this sutra the philosophical concept of alayavijnana is presented in the personal form of Dharmakara Bodhisattva, with the purpose of making it clear that the Way by which Dharmakara attained Buddhahood is open to each and every sentient being whose spiritual life is rooted deep in alayavijnana, the Buddha-nature. Dharmakara Bodhisattva is presented by the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life in the following myth: Innumerable eons ago, the story begins, a Buddha called Dipankara appeared. After he had enlightened numberless people, he left the world. Dipankara was followed by fifty-three Buddhas--among them Ko-on (Far-Light,) Gakko (MoonLight), Sendanko (Shining Sandalwood), and so forth--who appeared and disappeared in successive eons. The narrative then turns to the time of the appearance of the fifty-fourth Buddha, Lokesvararaja, and tells of a certain king who upon hearing the preaching of Lokesvararaja was so profoundly touched that there sprang up in his mind an eagerness to seek supreme enlightenment. Forsaking his country as well as his royalty, he renounced the world, became a sramana ("way-seeker") and called himself Dharmakara ("storehouse of Dharma"). His wisdom was superior, his resolution steadfast, and he was in every respect without peer among mortal men. The Bhiksu Dharmakara faced the Buddha Lokesvararaja, saluted him in reverence with his palms respectfully held together, and praised the sublime virtues of the Buddha in verse, expressing his aspiration: "I wish to become a Buddha so as to deliver suffering beings. In order to fulfill my purpose, I wish to establish a land, pure and peaceful." Thereafter he meditated for five kalpas until he realized that there was no other way but the teaching of "namu Amida Butsu": "I take refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Light (Wisdom) and of Eternal Life (Compassion) for sentient beings one and all to be delivered." Thereupon he expressed in forty-eight articles his Vow to realize the teaching of "namu Amida Butsu" (which are also known as the Forty-eight Vows), and epitomized them in this verse: I have now made a vow transcending the world. First of all, I shall become a Buddha myself, then I shall deliver each and every sentient being. This vow of mine shall reverberate throughout all the worlds, being embodied in the invocation of "namu Ami-da Butsu," to be heard by all people in all conceivable worlds. It shall be heard and believed. As soon as Bhiksu Dharmakara had uttered this verse, the earth shook in six ways, divine flower petals fluttered down, heavenly music filled the air, and a voice was heard to say: "O Bhiksu Dharmakara, you are sure to attain the supreme enlightenment." Bhiksu Dharmakara thus made his vows after having gone through the severe practices required over innumerable kalpas so that he might fulfill his Original Vow, and finally fulfilled his prodigious vow to become Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Wisdom and Compassion. This, in brief, is the myth of Dharmakara. Its narration points to the profundity of the background from which the historical Sakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world. It is generally accepted that Buddhism as such started with Sakyamuni Buddha. Indeed, all the scriptures which convey the message of Buddhism have appeared after Sakyamuni Buddha. Yet all Mahayana scriptures reflect the Buddha-Dharma prior to the historical Buddha, as the principle which made the manifestation of Sakyamuni as a historical person possible. The background of Sakyamuni's appearance, testifying to his transhistorical aspect, is what we find in the mythical narrative of the fifty-four Buddhas preceding him, and which is worked out in the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life. The historical Sakyamuni's preaching in the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life enables us to conceive of the Buddha-Dharma as predating Sakyamuni. Contemplating the profound background of his own experience of enlightenment, Sakyamuni successively encountered innumerable centers of light in eternity. Penetrating deeper and deeper into his being, Sakyamuni finally encountered Dharmakara Bodhisattva, whom he recognized as none other than his own primordial being for which he had long been searching. Excerpted from The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School, edited by Frederick Franck (New York: Crossroad, 1991). Copyright (C) 1982 by Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture. Reprinted by permission of the editor. PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The seed character for "namu Amida Butsu"