7. Don't Know Mind and Storehouse Consciousness

"Don't Know Mind" is our open, curious, playful and exploring mind, coming forth from the suchness of experience and no longer attached to this or rejecting that and clinging to self-need. The sequence of previous "talks" in this series offer some cognitive exploration of the Dharma, pointing to "Don't Know Mind". We now more fully enter the realm of insight, which strikes us as matter of fact (in contrast to some self-conceived idea). However, it would be wrong to make any sharp distinction between thought, feeling and insight. Insightful wisdom slowly ripens the personality over a lifetime, in which the shift from belief to faith is particularly significant (see "Talk Two"). And many different experiences of an awakening awareness can contribute to that ripening process. For example, on reading Susan Murphy's Upside Down Zen, can we not but feel a sense of wonder, spaciousness and awe when we come across sentences like "Time is the narrow footpath in eternity which we walk in our magical, momentary bodies"?

"Upside Down Zen" is one of the many metaphors designed to point out that our habitual ways of experiencing life are the opposite of how it would be if we were freed of what Blake called our "mind forged manacles". Likewise Darlene Cohen calls her book Turning Suffering Inside Out. And Dogen draws our attention to the fact that it is not the shore moving in relation to the boat (as we commonly experience phenomena), but the contrary. And, again, Shunryu Suzuki refers to the acute angled view of the deluded self, surveying the world as if from its centre. In the Pali Canon this phenomenon of cognitive illusions is called vipalasas (inversions). Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:

These inversions infest the entire process of cognition, so that instead of seeing things as they really are, we see them in ways that are quite the opposite. In the impermanent we see permanence; in what is bound up with pain and suffering we see glimmers of pleasure... The vipallasas twist our cognition and thereby send us on an inherently insatiable quest for gratification.

The paradoxes which lie at the heart of spiritual experience confound the neat logic to which the insecure self holds fast. In the words of the Chan poem Trust in the Heart (Hsin-Hsin-Ming), "What is the same as what is not; what is not is the same as what is. Until you have grasped this you will have no peace of mind. One thing is all things; all things are one thing. If this is so for you there is no need to worry about enlightenment." Likewise, koans present paradoxical problems that cannot be solved rationally. For example, how, without getting wet, would you retrieve a stone which lies on the ocean floor? The method is to immerse yourself in the saying and see how it changes you.

In his book Bring me the Rhinoceros and other Zen Koans which will Change your Life, John Tarrant includes a koan about "The Red Thread": " Songyuan asked: "Why can't clear-eyed Bodhisattvas sever the red thread?" The red thread signifies desire and passion, and especially, it appears, erotic passion ("It's the red thread between your legs" said Songyuan). Typically the self makes one or other of two kinds of response. On the one hand it may seek gratification by a mindless immersion in desire. On the other hand (and a common spiritual response) it may seek to repress desire, virtuously and righteously controlling it by means of ethical commandments and precepts enforced literally and absolutely. Tarrant observes that "the red thread is always tangled and resists the simplification of life into formulae... Erotic connections turn life upside down, and when life is too right, turning things upside down can be a good thing. This koan resists the totalitarian impulse in spiritual paths... Everyone has some sainthood possible, and the unfolding of their goodness might sometimes be through transgressions, through what is wild and imperfect in them... The point of this koan might be found in truly living your life rather than living it perfectly or even respectably."

As Philip Epstein has pointed out in his book Open to Desire, there appears to be some confusion among Buddhists who commonly condemn desire as if it invariably referred to delusive attachment and acquisitiveness. But what of the desire springing from our authentic (Buddha) nature ? Is our desire to help another moved by a righteous and patronising self-importance or by spontaneous feelings of compassion? How much self-gratifying lust may there be in a relationship and how much selfless love ? Surely a problematic bit of both in all these and similar instances? The passions are indeed our Buddha nature. This does not make for a secure and orderly world of certainties and predictabilities. Nor a self-indulgent world of personal and institutional greed and aggressiveness.

When the self has quietened down a little, and the "ten thousand things" are strongly manifesting themselves then the Don't Know Buddha Mind can come forth - perhaps as a dream, or a piece of music, or maybe in the words of a poem which creatively frustrate our attempt to make sense of things. Like Nagata Koi's haiku:

How lonely it is
cultivating the stone leeks
in this world of dreams

Or it may be just the luminous intensity of the supermarket checkout queue being the supermarket checkout queue. Whatever it may be, the injunction translated by Alan Watts from the Chan poem "Trust in the Heart" is worth attention:

Follow your nature and accord with the Way
Saunter along and stop worrying.
When your thoughts are tied you spoil what is genuine.
Do not be antagonistic to the senses;
When you are not, it turns out to be the same as complete awakening.
The wise person does not strive;
The ignorant tie themselves up.
If you work on your mind with your mind
How can you avoid complete confusion?

What we experience as the solidity of phenomena (including the self) turns out to be no more than particular mental constructions ("form"), like the meaning of the little black shapes on this page. The artist, the physicist, or a blind person may each have a different "picture" of a piece of rock, ranging from its molecular structure to its tactile texture or its play of light. Always there is "form", but never any immutable and solid reality. "Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form", as the Heart Sutra reminds us, and Thomas Cleary has likened the paradoxical relationship between the two to that of matter and energy - you can't have one without the other. Investigation leads us finally to nothing other than "experience" - consciousness. But consciousness is always conscious of some specific experience. So can you find mind - consciousness - that is not connected thus ? Is this the "Mind" conceived by the Mahayana philosophers -- the "Big Mind"? As the Hsin-Hsin-Ming reminds us, "the more you talk about it, the more you think about it, the further from it you go." Surely "uncertainty" and the "unknown" (as we first experience them) are the only things we can, ultimately, rely upon, and in our wholehearted acceptance of them we are freed of fear.

Storehouse Consciousness (Alayavijnana)

Many years ago I accepted the view taught to me of the self "guarding the senses" and "taking refuge" in the precepts, lest existential insecurity and a sense of "lack" impels the self to burn with the Three Fires of hatred, grasping and ignorance. This is the view of the delusive self ignorant and cutting itself off from a universal consciousness. This is how it may feel when the sense of a separate self is quite strong, and the energies are not overwhelming.

But later, with a wider experience if life, I realised, however, that there are times when the self feels itself out of control and "invaded", "overwhelmed" and "carried away" by emotional energies - "forgetting itself" in aggressive rage, irresistible greed, or helpless lust. Or, on the contrary, it may be a powerful impulse to self-sacrifice for others or some other numinous insight arising from unity consciousness. For better or worse, small self has done something (like a meditative retreat, or falling in love), or had something done to it, which triggers an invasion of karmic proclivities beyond its customary consciousness. "I really don't know what made me do it" may be said out of a selfless courage as out of a self-consuming rage.

Thus the demon lover, the mass murderer and the saint all may open to a collective consciousness, whether tainted or uncorrupted, and the power and charisma of all of them is the wonder of the many folk, who keep things decently under control. As to the saint, a profound "opening" to the untainted collective unconsciousness may still leave intact karmically uncleansed aspects of that consciousness. This may amount to the "spiritual inflation" of ego, as Jung called it.

The above reflections point experientially to the existence of a truly universal consciousness which embraces delusion as well as enlightenment. To understand this consciousness, which is better described as "storehouse" or "base" consciousness (alayavijana) some introduction to the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism is necessary (most readily available through the Lankavatara Sutra -- a foundation text of Chan/Zen). The term "Yogacara" reminds us of its origins in meditative insight, rather than being the fanciful metaphysical edifice which some scholars like Edward Conze were inclined to regard it. For our purpose the alternative name of Vijnananavada - "Mind Only" is more helpful, however.

As a theory of knowledge the Yogacara occupies a middle way between the so-called Hinayana and the Madhyamika associated with Nagarjuna. Whereas the Hinayana postulates the existence of an objective reality, the Madhyamaka has been laid open to a charge of nihilism - "the dialectical dissolution of everything", as Conze nicely puts it. As noted earlier in this "talk", meditative enquiry leads us to an awareness of pure consciousness, of mind without a thinker. For the Yogacara everything perceptible is only mind (cittamatra); things are consciousness, are mind; that is the only safe assertion we can make of them. Perception is in fact no more than a process of imagination which creates in us the picture of the supposed objects. In the words of the Lankavatara Sutra: "All is but mind. Mind makes its appearance in two ways: as the object to be grasped, and as the grasper (the subject). There is no self, and nothing of the nature as a self."

At the heart of Buddhist psychology are the skandhas, a process whereby individual consciousness is created successively through sensation, feeling, perception (discrimination between good, bad and indifferent feelings) and volition, creating mental formations or concepts (samskaras), aggregating into consciousness.

The Yogacara set out to explain the origin of the samskaras, that is, the impulsive drives, cognitive patterns and karmic accumulations out of which a sense of self identity is constructed. The foundation is an oceanic Storehouse Consciousness. In this float the karmic impressions (vasana) or karmic seeds occasioned and left behind by past individuals. A function of the alayavijnana is that of thought consciousness (manovijnana) which has a built-in urge to present itself in the ideated sense world in the form of karmic seeds which individuate into an entity (manas). This is the seat and motive power of a separate ego, the controlling centre which endeavours to maintain a strong sense of self using the karmic impulses provided by manovijnana. An analogy is a coiled piece of rope (provided by manovijnana) and its recognition as a snake by manas. Each individuated self again ideates its own private world which affirms its identity, but which also generates new karmic seeds which sink into the alayavijnanna. A fanciful image suggests that the incoming impulses through the sense organs are like a perfume that scents the storehouse, creating seeds which grow into complex associative structures.

Meditation can lead to a turning around (paravritti) exposing the reality behind our hitherto dominant self-centredness, the "cleaning" of our karma, and our buried individual consciousness as a dimension of the universal unconsciousness. Such an enlightenment reveals the amalvijnana or untainted ("immaculate") character of alayavijnana in contrast to the delusive appearance of alayavijnana described above. "All things shall be well", proclaims the mystic.

However, beyond that, we may also experience the more universal dimension itself, in terms of past lives and the many planes of existence. Practitioners may, for example, notice the spontaneous emergence of forgotten scenes from childhood and jumbled scenes of unknown people and strange places. They may be disconcerted by powerful feelings of rage or grief beyond anything previously experienced. As storehouse consciousness opens we may experience the many planes of existence, from the heavenly to the hellish. In his book The Wise Heart Jack Kornfield recounts his own experiences:

I have spent joyful hours listening to what seemed like celestial music sung by luminous beings, and seen a hundred forms of sacred groves and temples. At other times, when the realm of animals arose, I actually felt myself as a salmon, a crow, or an ant... At other times I experienced the universal dimension of suffering, where the imagery is of loss and destruction. I sat for days on retreat as a hundred spontaneous images of death arose. I saw my body killed and stabbed and trampled in war, or lying helpless on a hundred sickbeds with diseases, or dying from an accident, a fall, a blow... Sometimes these images were personal and individual, as if they were my own memories. Sometimes they felt more archetypal, as if the nature of life and death was displaying itself to me. At this point in my training I had developed a strong base of mindfulness and equanimity to meet these images wisely. My teacher encouraged me to steady my attention and rely on the space of awareness - he called this a training for equanimity at death" (p156).

Through meditation, and also through dreams and dream-like states, we may bring the delusive aspect of storehouse consciousness into full consciousness - where it can be transformed into the pure consciousness of our authentic (Buddha) nature. We can start with awareness into any area of suffering in our life and, if sufficiently penetrating, can follow it down into the previously hidden storehouse consciousness. Where is it felt most strongly in the body ? What are the underlying feelings, images and beliefs that hold it in place? With profound intention we discover these instincts and drives to be the stuff of illusion, and we are released from them.

Even if we prove unable personally to open to profound meditative insights into storehouse consciousness, nonetheless, as Kornfield observes, "past lives teaching {in itself} serves two important psychological functions. When the suffering and pleasure in our life is attributed to our past lives - and intentional behaviours - anxiety about a capricious, chaotic fate is eased. This perspective can bring acceptance, detachment and grace in facing life's difficulties. Secondly, rebirth teachings can bring greater care with our actions out of concern for the results they may produce in future rebirths" (p158).

Indeed, it has been suggested that, at least in part, the Yogacara may have arisen to provide an adequate explanation of the seeming contradiction between anatta and the doctrine of rebirth. For it is not a self that is reborn, but a constellation of karmic impulsions, recallable under hypnosis or meditative trance, as in the above testimony (particularly recommended is Roger J Woolger's Other Lives, Other Selves (Crucible, 1990). Thus, the Dogen scholar, Hee-Jin Kim, maintains that "the store-consciousness is by far the most sophisticated concept innovated by the Buddhists in response to criticism of the idea of no-self; indeed, it almost envisions a self- surrogate, yet this differs, or allegedly differs, from any immutable, self-identical substratum of the self" (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p112).

Even though we may be unable personally to access it, knowing of storehouse consciousness, in both its individual and universal (collective) dimensions, presents us with an awesome reminder of how limited and self-absorbed is our customary experience - a reminder in confronting our death, as well as amplifying our faith.

It also enlarges our perception of the tragic drama of human history - the socio-historical charging of millions of individual wills, generation after generation. Storehouse consciousness is the source underlying and driving our conscious lives, as well as the hidden heart of our possibilities. It is this which supercharges history, driving peoples to commit atrocities against their neighbours which they would have found unimaginable in times of peace.

Finally, it is most important not to fall into a reification of store-consciousness. The Yogacara is careful not to affirm mind-only as itself some kind of ultimate reality. It is essential not to envision and cling to Alayavijnana as a receptacle of permanence and substance, instead of the transient experience which it is.