Furthermore, Constant-Endeavor! The good men or women who keep, read, recite, expound or copy this sūtra after my extinction, will be able to obtain twelve hundred merits of the mind. When they hear even a gāthā or a phrase [of this sūtra] with their pure minds, they will be able to understand the innumerable meanings [of this sūtra]. When they understand the meanings [of this sūtra] and expound even a phrase or a gāthā [of this sūtra] for a month, four months, or a year, their teachings will be consistent with the meanings [of this sūtra], and not against the reality of all things. When they expound the scriptures of non-Buddhist schools, or give advice to the government, or teach the way to earn a livelihood, they will be able to be in accord with the right teachings of the Buddha. They will be able to know all the thoughts, deeds, and words, however meaningless, of the living beings of the one thousand million Sumeru-worlds each of which is composed of the six regions. Although they have not yet obtained the wisdom-without-āsravas, they will be able to have their minds purified as previously stated. Whatever they think, measure or say will be all true, and consistent not only with my teachings but also with the teachings that the past Buddhas have already expounded in their sūtras. (The Lotus Sūtra p.282)

This chapter explores reality in terms of the Vijñānavāda or Consciousness Only teachings. Whereas the Middle Way school of Mahāyāna Buddhism founded by Nāgārjuna emphasized emptiness, the Consciousness Only school taught that reality is inseparable from consciousness. Therefore, they taught, outside of consciousness there is no reality, so the essence of Buddhist practice is to transform reality by transforming consciousness.

The Consciousness Only school (sometimes called the Yogācāra or Yoga school because of its emphasis on meditation practice) evolved during the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It was formed in part as a reaction to the Middle Way school, that primarily concerned itself with negating false views. The founders of the Consciousness Only school were two brothers named Asanga and Vasubandhu, and Asanga’s teacher Maitreyanātha. Instead of focusing on correcting erroneous views, they focused on the practice of meditation and the role of different states of consciousness in building our experience of reality. Their work would become so all-pervasive and influential within the Mahāyāna tradition that, as with the Middle Way school, virtually all the later branches of Mahāyāna Buddhism would incorporate the teachings of the Consciousness Only school.

The First Seven Forms of Consciousness

Let’s begin exploring these teachings with the “eight consciousnesses.” All existence is made up of, or rises and falls within these eight different fields of consciousness, according to Asanga and Vasubandhu. The first of the eight are the five consciousnesses pertaining to the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The experience of objects in the outside world is based upon these five senses; knowledge and ability to act depends upon what the senses reveal.

The next form of consciousness is the mind. This consciousness coordinates the impressions of the first five in order to come up with distinct objects of experience. The smell of pine, the touch of bark, and the sight of a trunk and pine needles are put together and matched with the label “pine tree,” for instance. This level of mind is also the field wherein passing thoughts, ideas, daydreams, and other mental chatter are experienced. It is also where purely mental phenomena, such as hallucinations, dreams, and visualizations take place. In short, the “mental consciousness” is where objects are recognized, memories are replayed, and mental images and concepts are examined. The mental consciousness and the five sensory consciousnesses function together like a movie screen upon which all the passing phenomena of life, including ideas, feelings, memories, and internal images are projected.

The seventh consciousness is the “self-consciousness,” that provides our sense of subjectivity. The seventh consciousness bases a sense of selfhood on its awareness of physical location centered on the body and on the continuity of memory. Ultimately, it mistakes the eighth consciousness, the storehouse of bodily impressions and memories, for a spiritual self or higher self. The actual nature of the storehouse consciousness is discussed below. It is the seventh consciousness that generates the dualism of subject and object, self and other, through its attachment to the idea of a separate self. In order to justify this sense of selfhood, the sixth consciousness is enlisted in an effort to justify and secure this sense of self. Spurred by the self-consciousness of the seventh, the sixth consciousness becomes the field upon which various ideas, theories, and convictions emerge and are elaborated. These reinforce a world view wherein an eternal self can be identified with either the body and mind or with the concept of a soul or higher self. The idea of self gives rise to the three poisons, that reduce the world and even other beings to a collection of objects that can either be grasped, repelled, or ignored.

The Storehouse Consciousness

We cannot solve our problems and become awakened by simply negating the self or stopping the workings of the seventh consciousness. This would be impossible to begin with, since the self cannot negate itself. Such “self” willed activity only confirms the delusion that there is a self, and so the “self”  ends up like a dog chasing its own tail if it persists in such a futile endeavor. Secondly, the negation of the seventh consciousness would not be at all desirable. This consciousness is needed in order to coordinate interactions with the world and keep track of personal history and relationships. Just as we would not want to be without one of our senses, we would not really want to be without our ability to form a coherent identity and a mature ego. These constructs provide a sense of meaning and responsibility. Actually, the real source of the problem lies within a deeper region of consciousness.

This deeper region is called the “storehouse consciousness.” This eighth form of consciousness is roughly similar to the unconscious of modern psychology. The storehouse consciousness is where memories, impulses, habits, and ideas are located and where they continue to operate beneath the movements of the conscious mind. The conscious mind of the senses and the ego is like the tip of an iceberg. On the other hand, the storehouse consciousness is like the bulk of an iceberg, floating beneath the surface. It is also similar to the collective unconscious of Jungian psychology. The storehouse consciousness is where the archetypes reside, the deep-seated instinctual impulses and ideas that govern life and seem to transcend cultural differences. As with the personal and collective forms of the unconscious in modern psychology, the storehouse consciousness filters and alters the nature of experiences through the habitual responses, reactions, associations, biases, and cultural assumptions stored there. A popular example is the person in love, for whom the day seems brighter and everyone seems friendlier. Another good example is Mark Twain’s criticism of the cultural assumptions of his own time in the novel Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn was sure that he would be condemned to hell for helping his friend Jim escape slavery. The culture of that time assumed that people could be considered property. Under that assumption, helping a slave was equivalent to stealing, and therefore was considered immoral. One of the goals of Buddhist practice is to shed the light of awareness upon all of this unconscious conditioning and thereby free ourselves of its influence.

Another way of thinking of the storehouse consciousness is as the field of karma. It is the “place,” so to speak, where the law of cause and effect plays itself out before becoming manifest in conscious life. In this analogy, everything said and done and all thoughts and intentions are causes that are stored like seeds in the storehouse consciousness. When the conditions and outer circumstances are right, they come to fruition as the effects, experienced through the first six forms of consciousness. Our reaction to these experiences then set in motion new causes that likewise become karmic seeds. This whole process continues in this way from lifetime to lifetime, just as portrayed by the wheel of becoming.

Conscious experience, then, comes into fruition from this deep unconscious source. In this process, there are the seeds of karma and the fruition of conscious experience upon the field of the storehouse consciousness, but no discrete self which is reborn. If we think back to the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination as depicted on the wheel of becoming, we can observe that there is no individual who passes through the stages from ignorance to old age and death. Rather, there is a process out of which is derived the idea of a person who undergoes suffering. The question then arises: if there is no individual entity that passes from one lifetime to another, then what is the object of the stages of ignorance, karma formations, and consciousness? To what can they be attributed, if not to a body, mind, or soul? In addition, where does the stage of becoming take place before it gives rise to future cycles of birth and death? The answer is that all of these activities take place in the storehouse consciousness. Patterns of karmic seeds, not soul, give rise to new lives again and again. This process continues as long as there are seeds that have not come to fruition and as long as new seeds are planted, perpetuating the process of birth and death. This implies that each of us and every newborn baby is a brand new and unique human being. We are not simply the same individual going from one life to another. At the same time, we are carrying on the karmic inheritance of our predecessors. In like manner, after we die, all of our actions and intentions will be carried to fruition by future individuals who will inherit our karmic legacy.

If we think of our lives as dynamic and interdependent processes instead of fixed and independent entities, then we can think of our lives as spanning innumerable lifetimes, constantly transforming and passing through various states of being. In this sense, we should realize that there is a continuity to our lives that can pass through the six worlds on the wheel of becoming. These six worlds can also be understood as manifestations of the storehouse consciousness. One could say that the human and heavenly realms are like well tended rose gardens, except in this case the flowers are those of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Those who live in the lower realms are like weed patches with only a few sickly flowers. In this case, the weeds are those of greed, anger, and ignorance. From this point of view, we need to live as though we were trying to tend and cultivate a beautiful garden. Every moment provides us with a chance to plant good seeds in our life and a chance to weed out the bad. Each lifetime, becomes a new cycle of seasons whereby we can enjoy the fruits of our labors and prepare for the next cycle.

Having said that, we should not underestimate the difficulty of this task. Remember that the storehouse consciousness is the vast repository of all the seeds stored up in previous lifetimes and not just of a single individual. The storehouse consciousness transcends our present ego consciousness. In fact, the ego consciousness is only a manifestation of this vast field or sea of karma, just as a wave is the surface manifestation of the ocean. As such, the activities of the storehouse consciousness are beyond our conscious control. We should certainly do our best to plant good seeds and weed out the bad whenever we can, but our lives are still affected by vast regions of karma that have not touched our awareness. According to Buddhism, these vast stores of karma are the results of innumerable lifetimes. These deep undercurrents and crashing tidal waves of karma can become overwhelming. Again, the fruition of past karma that we experience and the karmic seeds, or habits and complexes, that we become aware of through self-reflection are only the tip of the iceberg.

In addition, our ability to act or think in certain ways may be limited by our present circumstances. Many people are born with certain disabilities, such as blindness or deafness. Others may be born into poverty or even slavery in different places and at different times. The culture or religion we are born into may also restrict our ability to see life clearly and without bias. So the freedom and ability of the ego consciousness is not just offset by the deep influence of the many karmic seeds in the storehouse consciousness. It is also limited by the fruits of karma, that are experienced through the physical senses and mind, the first six levels of consciousness. Even our ideas and emotions are the fruits of karma. The ego consciousness, therefore, is like a wave dancing on the surface of a vast sea. It drifts in accord with the undercurrents of past causes and the shifting winds of our everyday circumstances. These, too, are the effects of our stored up causes, just as the winds over the ocean are affected by its currents.

We should also bear in mind the influence of collective karma, as well as the vaster impersonal forces of cause and effect that compose the environment. While the eighth consciousness describes the personal stream of consciousness particular to each individual being, the boundaries of the eighth are not sealed off from the consciousness of others or from the environment. The boundary set by the self-consciousness and the patterns of karma held by the eighth consciousness are actually arbitrary constructions. Ultimately, there is a non-dual relationship between the personal processes, interpersonal processes, and seemingly impersonal (that is, the universal) processes of cause and effect. We should keep this larger context in mind, because our lives are not isolated. Our choices and options are influenced by our interrelations with the larger world, and have an impact beyond ourselves.

This does not mean that we are mere puppets dancing to the strings of karma. We certainly have free will and are responsible for creating our own destiny. After all, the circumstances we must work within now are the fruits of our own previous causes or karmic seeds. The way we meet the challenge of the present will determine the kind of seeds that come to fruition in the future. In Buddhism, the only destiny or fate that controls us is the karma we ourselves have set into motion. Instead of passively giving in to the momentum of our good and bad causes from the past, we should take responsibility for ourselves and meet every challenge as best we can. The more we do this, the better our circumstances become and the more freedom we attain for ourselves.

We should keep both our freedom and our limitations in mind with regard to Buddhist practice. On the one hand, we are free and capable of taking responsibility for ourselves and meeting the challenges that come to us as the results of our own karmic seeds. On the other hand, the enormity of this task, in the face of the karma of countless lifetimes and the shared karma we have with all beings, should cause us to think deeply about our chances of ever completely uprooting the tainted seeds of greed, anger, and ignorance. Realistically, with determination we can improve our lives and, within limits, steer them in a more beneficial direction. We should not, however, expect to rid ourselves of all of our negativity and self-centeredness without some kind of power beyond that of the ego-consciousness, since it is itself a product of the storehouse consciousness.

The Pure Consciousness

It would seem, then, that awareness of the storehouse consciousness can help us to understand how deep and vast the problem of karma is, but it cannot offer a definite solution to it. After all, how can we exhaust the vast stores of greed, anger, and ignorance that have been piled up from beginningless time in the vast regions of the storehouse consciousness? How can the conscious mind, that is merely a passing manifestation of this vast sea of karma, hope to plant enough seeds of liberation in order to offset the tainted seeds that keep us bound to the wheel of becoming? It is not hopeless however; there is a deeper level of consciousness which is known as the “pure consciousness.”

The existence of a pure consciousness was taught by an Indian monk named Paramārtha (499-569), who introduced the Consciousness Only teachings of Asanga and Vasubandhu to China. Paramārtha was inspired by teachings regarding the buddha-nature that appeared in several Mahāyāna sūtras and in the writings of Asanga’s teacher, Maitreyanātha. In his own writings and translations, Paramārtha identified the buddha-nature with the ninth consciousness.

The ninth or pure consciousness is not actually different than the storehouse consciousness. If the storehouse consciousness is the field of cause and effect, then the pure consciousness is that aspect of the field wherein there are no fixed or independent entities, but only the pure non-dualistic dynamism and wonder of the process itself. In fact, no matter what kind of seeds and fruits are currently appearing and disappearing within the workings of the storehouse consciousness, they are all operating in accord with the true reality that is the pure consciousness. Nothing can obstruct it, because all things are merely the passing manifestations of the process of cause and effect; and all things that arise and fall in accordance with cause and effect display their emptiness and ultimate purity.

As the fundamental purity of the storehouse consciousness, the ninth consciousness is not itself a seed or a fruit of the storehouse consciousness. Nevertheless, it is the fundamental basis for buddhahood because, as the true nature of the storehouse consciousness, it is the ever present possibility that the ego consciousness, which derives from it, will awaken to the truth. One could compare the pure consciousness to a clear, blue, sunny sky and the storehouse consciousness to a cloudy sky. No matter how dark and cloudy the sky gets, the clouds cannot effect the sun shining behind them, nor can the clouds permanently darken the sky or change its basic clarity and openness. Eventually, the clouds will have to disperse and again reveal the clear, blue, sunny sky. In this sense, the sky itself does not change, it is only the clouds that appear and disappear. In the same way, the pure consciousness itself is always open and free of defilement. Only the clouds of karmic activity, that obscure the light of its purity, come and go.

As the true nature of all of the various levels of consciousness, we feel the pure consciousness as a fundamental need to discover the truth about life. It is not only the possibility of buddhahood, but the call to buddhahood issuing from the depths of our being. As the constant potential for and call to buddhahood within ourselves, the pure consciousness is referred to as our intrinsic buddha-nature.

The ninth consciousness transcends the limited viewpoint and capabilities of the self-consciousness. It is the transpersonal nature of reality itself. For this reason, it cannot really be said to belong to us. At times, it can even seem like a transcendent Other rather than an inner capacity. It may manifest itself as such in our conscious aspirations, our dreams and even in the meaningful coincidences and transformative events that can change our lives in ways we would not otherwise think possible. This transpersonal consciousness is where the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha resides, because the pure consciousness making itself felt in various ways in our lives is the same pure consciousness that was fully realized by Śākyamuni Buddha.

The transcendence of the categories of self-power (awakening through our own efforts) and Other-power (awakening through the grace of a transcendent being) is discussed in the sacred writing called “The Great Meaning of the Buddha’s Lifetime of Sacred Teachings.”

At this time, the Lotus Sūtra establishes self-power but is not self-power. This is because the “self” includes the ten worlds of all sentient beings; and, from the beginning, we contain the buddha-realm of both ourselves and all sentient beings. Therefore, our becoming a buddha does not bring a new buddha [into the world]. [The Lotus Sūtra] also establishes Other-power but is not Other-power. The buddha who is “other” is contained within the selves of ordinary people. This other buddha makes himself the same as our own buddhahood. (Ichidai Shōgyō Tai-i, Shōwa Teihon p.73. Extant copy by Nichimoku. Listed in Rokunai. Also see p. 91. WNS: D3)

Nichiren recognized both aspects of this ninth consciousness. For this reason, he often spoke of the spirit of Śākyamuni Buddha entering his body and the bodies of his disciples, thereby empowering them to practice the Buddha Dharma correctly. Nichiren also spoke of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha as the Gohonzon or Focus of Devotion. However, Nichiren also stressed that the Gohonzon is not to be found outside ourselves — it is, in fact, the pure consciousness residing within the depths of our phenomenal existence.

A sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition states:

Never seek the Gohonzon outside yourself. When we sentient beings embrace the Lotus Sūtra, the Gohonzon resides within our own bodies that chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. We call this the capital city of true suchness, the ninth consciousness, which is the mind-king. (Nichinyo Gozen Go-henji, Shōwa Teihon p. 1376. Listed in the Rokuge. Also see p. 138, NG)

The Transformation of Consciousness

As stated at the beginning of this chapter, the purpose of the Consciousness Only teachings is to facilitate the transformation of consciousness. By becoming aware of the different levels of consciousness and the ways in which they filter and construct our experience of life, we can get a better handle on our lives. The trick is to get to a point where our unconscious assumptions and impulses no longer trap us in a self-centered state of mind. We should also strive to steer our minds in the direction of greater and greater insight and compassion. According to Nichiren, having faith in the practice of Odaimoku is the way to do this. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō unlocks the intrinsic purity of the ninth consciousness, the buddha-nature, that transcends the delusions of other forms of consciousness. To receive and keep the Lotus Sūtra with faith is the way to open up our minds to its reality and bring about a transformative illumination of our whole consciousness.

Another sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition gives the following advice:

Understand this thoroughly! According to the Buddha, you should master your mind rather than let your mind master you. I strongly recommend that you forsake your body and sacrifice your life for the sake of the Lotus Sūtra. (Gijō-bō Gosho, Shōwa Teihon p. 731. Listed in the Rokuge. )

This transformation of consciousness can be spoken of in terms of our perception of the contents of the storehouse consciousness and our way of relating to those contents. Again, the storehouse consciousness is the field wherein the seeds of karma are planted and eventually come to fruition in accordance with the law of cause and effect. It should be stressed that the storehouse consciousness is not anything in itself: it is not the consciousness of any fixed or independent “self”, nor is it in fact a literal container or field. The seeds and fruits of cause and effect mutually ground each other in their interactions. All of the various entities and objects appearing to us (including our-”selves”) are the manifestation of this process. According to the Consciousness Only school, there are three different ways of perceiving and relating to all of this. The usual, unenlightened way is to falsely imagine the reality of subjects and objects within the storehouse consciousness in terms of the physical and mental objects sensed by the six consciousnesses and the impression of a subject who experiences them generated by the seventh consciousness. A more accurate way is to perceive the storehouse consciousness as the interplay of cause and effect, as discussed above. The most profound way to apprehend the storehouse consciousness is in terms of its intrinsic purity and non-duality, wherein there are no subjects and objects and therefore no basis for attachment, fear or alienation. This is the point of view of the ninth consciousness. It is this point of view we are calling to mind when we chant the Odaimoku.

The Consciousness Only teachers spoke of this breakthrough, from the illusions of the seventh consciousness to the intrinsic purity represented by the pure consciousness, as a revolution within the storehouse consciousness. We could perhaps think of this as a profound change of heart. Before this occurs, the eight consciousnesses function in a way that supports and perpetuates our greed, anger, and ignorance. We could say this self-centered mode of existence is one in which the operation of cause and effect within the storehouse consciousness is focused on the seventh or ego consciousness. After this change of heart, the storehouse and the other seven derivative forms of consciousness realize their own provisional nature and begin to manifest the purity and wisdom of the pure consciousness, the buddha-nature. In this selfless and liberated mode of existence, the operations of the storehouse consciousness, as well as its derivatives, all focus on the ninth consciousness.

Once this change of heart occurs and our buddha-nature begins to flower through our faith in the Lotus Sūtra, the nine consciousnesses are transformed into the five kinds of wisdom. The pure consciousness is not itself changed, but it does go from being a hidden capacity for wisdom to becoming the active wisdom of the Dharma realm, the wisdom of pure awareness of absolute truth. The storehouse consciousness is purified and ceases to be the unconscious source of delusions; instead, it becomes the mirror-like wisdom, an awareness clearly reflecting reality as it is without the projections of hidden biases or distortions. The ego consciousness ceases to see the world in terms of self and other, and instead begins to function as the wisdom of equality, recognizing the non-dual nature of reality. The sixth consciousness ceases its mental chatter and abstract categorizing of sensory impressions into known objects; this consciousness becomes the distinguishing wisdom viewing all things with clarity and appreciation, as if seeing them for the first time. The five sensory consciousnesses together become the all performing wisdom whose sensory impressions cease to aggravate greed, anger, and ignorance; instead, they enable an appreciation of life’s beauty and act in ways that will benefit all beings.

The Lotus Sūtra devotes a whole chapter to the purification of the five senses and the mind. This chapter declares that anyone who takes faith in the Lotus Sūtra and upholds its teaching will be able to purify their six senses (the five sense organs and the mind). This is a practical restatement of the transformation of consciousness discussed above.

The pure consciousness teachings mean that all beings without exception have the potential to attain buddhahood, while the One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sūtra means that the purpose of all the Buddha’s teachings is to enable people to realize that potential. Furthermore, the Lotus Sūtra states that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is still working to enable us all to attain buddhahood. It is in the pure consciousness, the buddha-nature, where we receive the merits and virtues of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment. Chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma) with faith is the way that we receive and accept the all-pervading spiritual influence of the Eternal Buddha and thereby transform our lives from the inside out. This is how we can purify the six consciousnesses and transform our ignorance into the wisdom of buddhahood and our selfish activity into the practice of the six perfections of the bodhisattva.

This teaching is summarized in the following statement from the sacred writings of the Nichiren tradition:

There is an old saying: “You should keep your mind grounded in the ninth consciousness and train in the six consciousnesses.” (Ueno-dono Goke-ama Go-henji, Shōwa Teihon p.331-2. Listed in the Rokuge. Also see p. 56, NG)