Yogacara & the eight consciousnesses

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Mind-only school states that consciousness alone exists and that everything you see or feel is just an illusion of the mind. Therefore, everything’s true nature is emptiness, except the mind. However, if the appearance of our world is only projected through one’s mind, then why would the mind find the need to project false illusions in the first place? Why does it lead us to believe there is an “I”? Vasubandhu explains by saying consciousness is dependent on sensation.

To get a better understanding of this, we must look at the eight kinds of consciousness in Yogacara. The first five are the senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. And in order to have these senses we need our organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. The six consciousness is the mind. Here, the mind gets treated as just another sensory organ. As it takes in sensory information, it reflexively interprets emotions and thoughts, derived by the sense of ego. For example, when you perceive a piece of chocolate cake, either by sight, smell, or taste this is the part of the mind that says, “this is chocolate cake”.  Though, this is interesting because that means the sense conscious realms only exists when you are perceiving something through the senses. If you’re not eating the cake, you’re not tasting anything. If you don’t see it, the mind consciousness also doesn’t exist.

Since the six realms of consciousness above are all based on direct perceptions, they are all temporary. Yogacara believes that there is another layer to the mind that retains long-term impressions, causing a sense of continuity. Otherwise known as manas, this inherent part of the mind overlaps with the mind consciousness, creating the concept of the Self. As a result, we interpret reality in a self centered way, giving way to selfishness, greed and ignorance. These personality traits are the seeds that generate attachments, karma, and continue the cycle of samsara.

In order to truly create a sense of self, the manas depends on the experiences accumulated in the the deepest level of consciousness. The “store-consciousness” is the most fundamental part of the mind that stores the perceptions of every experience we’ve ever had. As, D’amto said, “It is actually the store consciousness that is bound to itself…that is at the root of both the subjective aspect of experience and the experience of objects” Each experience becomes the foundation that generates one’s sense of self and their view of the world.

But of course, in Buddhism, there is no permanent self.  In Yogacara, true knowledge begins when consciousness ends. With the eight consciousnesses, it definitely strengthens my understanding that we are just a sum of our experiences. But this brings me back to the view that all phenomena are interconnected and empty of an intrinsic self. I agree with Candrakirti, that if the mind relies on external phenomena to exist, then how can it be bound to itself? As MSA/Bh says, “the doctrines of representation-only and mind-only are not to be understood as ultimately valid, since in the end the goal is to realize that even mind does not exist” (D’amto 204). For me, it is easier to accept that Mind-Only is just a tool to detach from the self in order to understand the higher nature of emptiness.

D’Amato, M. “Three Natures, Three Stages: An Interpretation of the Yogācāra Trisvabhāva-Theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 33.2 (2005): 185-207. Web.


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6 Responses to Yogacara & the eight consciousnesses

  1. azhou says:

    Hi scm13, are you talking about the end paragraph? Sorry, I should have clarified that I only meant the eight consciousnesses definitely make it easier for me to support the general statement of “we are the sum of our experiences” but I didn’t mean that as an ultimate truth. The eight consciousnesses just help explain why the mind creates these illusions of a self in the first place. I hope that clears up some of your confusion!

  2. scm13 says:

    You said that the eight consciousnesses strengthen your understanding that “we are just the sum of our experiences”. I am very curious about this. How do you connect mind alone to us being the sum of our experience, to their ultimately not being a self? I like this thought patter and your ideas but am confused about the part of your post where you talk about how a person being defined by the sum of their experiences is a truth while at the same time stating that there is no self.

  3. Merp says:

    In response to Wesley Crusher’s question about the mind creating illusions and perceptions, I made an immediate connection to today’s class discussion regarding ignorance and its conflict with perception. It does seem that the mind is generating the perceptions because of the deeply-rooted and innate belief that humans believe in a “self” and entity, and hence interferes with one’s perception.

  4. Wesley Crusher says:

    I’m not sure if this is missing the point, but I’m also still a little confused about this aspect of Mind-only. I feel like this is related to the idea of conventional truth, which I understand in this context to mean the illusion of reality created by the mind. If mind creates everything and everything is an illusion, wouldn’t that also mean that the kind is creating the perceptions? The perceptions are themselves an illusion? This seems confusingly self-reflexive.

  5. Marie says:

    It’s interesting that the eight consciousnesses, though they connect us to understanding that everything is interdependent, also contribute to the misconception of selfhood and absolute existence. I am still largely confused about the nuances of the Mind-only turning and your essay helped me clarify some of my questions! Definitely would like to read more about it/talk more about it in class.

  6. Pikachu says:

    Yogacara’s teachings reinforce that one’s mind can react differently to a particular environment. Given that people interpret situations in various ways, human nature lacks essence or static substance. This post reminds me of the famous quote, “Truth is the eye of the beholder,” which stresses that the perceived reality is influenced by one’s response to external phenomena. It reinforces that the world is constantly changing.

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