The Mind according to Yogacara Buddhism

Continuing my study of Yogacara Buddhist thought, I finished chapter 2 of Rev. Shun’ei’s book on Yogacara Buddhism (translated by A.C. Muller), also called Hossō Buddhism in Japanese. This chapter while brief proved to be very helpful in explaining some terms I’ve read over the years but never understood relating to the Yogacara school of philosophy within Buddhism, as well as certain “common terms” in Mahayana Buddhism.

Essentially the mind can be broken into the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. Both can be further subdivided like so:

  • The Conscious Mind:
    1. Eye Conscious
    2. Ear Conscious
    3. Nose Conscious
    4. Taste Conscious
    5. Touch Conscious
    6. Mind Conscious, or “thinking, emotion, will”
  • The Unconscious Mind:
    1. “Manas,” or the sense of self, continuity
    2. The ālaya-vijñāna, or the “Alaya” Store Consciousness

Sense Consciousness

The five “sense consciousness” are just the parts of the mind that perceive things through various senses. When you see something, you are “conscious” of it through sight. Hence the term. It sounds like a funny term, but actually you hear these terms throughout Mahayana Buddhism, even popular texts like the Heart Sutra, where it enumerates the realms of sense conscious.

As Rev. Shun’ei explains, if you see a red flower, you are “conscious” of perceiving its red color, shape and so on. You might also smell the fragrance and thus you are perceiving it through the smell/nose consciousness as well.

It should be noted that these sense conscious realms only exist when you are perceiving something through the senses. If you don’t see the red flower, the eye consciousness of it is gone. Same with taste. If you are not actually chewing on a piece of food, you don’t taste it anymore, right?

Mind consciousness

In Buddhist terms, the mind is always treated as a sixth-sense, not something different than the other five sense we normally think of it Western thought. In the case of Buddhism, especially Yogacara Buddhism, the mind-consciousness is just that aspect of the mind that is actively thinking and feeling emotion. It perceives its own emotions and thoughts, hence it is just another realm of consciousness. When you perceive the red flower above, either by sight, smell, whatever, this is the part of the mind that says, “this is a red flower,” or “that smells good.”

However, the mind consciousness, like the rest, really has no lasting substance to it, hence we get into the subconscious stuff now.

The Manas or sense of self, continuity

Since the six senses, or six realms of consciousness above are all temporary and based on direct perceptions, the Yogacarin belief is that there is another layer to the mind that retains long-term impressions and such. Afterall, as Rev. Shun’ei explains, we can train the mind with practice to do something (like me studying Japanese), or wake up the next day and still remember who we are.

Thus, they used a Sanskrit term called manas which retains the sense of self or continuity. This latent part of the mind overlaps with the mind consciousness above, to retain a sense of continuity, which it also uses to develop a sense of self. Of course, in Buddhism, it is taught that there is no permanent, lasting sense of self, but the manas creates a sense of self, but in order to do this, it depends on the experiences accumulated in the Alaya Store Consciousness below.

The Store Conscious or ālaya-vijñāna

The most fundamental part of the mind is that which stores the impressions of every experience we’ve ever had since birth. The Sanskrit term, ālaya-vijñāna, “Alaya Consciousness” or “Store Consciousness” is just that part of the mind that passively retains every experience we’ve had, every impression and so on. In the old Mahayana Buddhist texts, they also use terms like “seed consciousness” and others, but they all mean the same thing: every experience in your life leaves an impression on you, and this in turns becomes the foundation of your sense of self, which in turn supports your active thoughts and colors your view of the world.


So, beginning with the fundamental Alaya Consciousness, the mind in the Yogacarin view is structured like so:

Alaya Consciousness (accumulated experiences) => Manas (sense of continuity, sense of self) => Mind Consciousness (active thought) => Sense Consciousness (distorted by your thoughts and prejudices)

These aspects of the mind, as explained in the Yogacara model, are pretty fascinating to me, because I’ve come to understand them from various sources, but not in such a systematic and connected way. The diagram in the book, if you should ever see it, maps these out much better. But it confirms my understanding that much of what we are really is just an accumulation of experiences, which in turn confirms the view that all phenomena are interconnected and empty (lacking distinct, intrinsic self). Afterall, if what the Yogacarins teach is true, then you can’t have a sense of self without external experiences, and you can’t really claim any views you have are really your own, since you’ve absorbed them from other sources like your parents, culture, and so on.

Fascinating stuff! πŸ˜€

P.S. I was planning on doing this another night, but that Red Bull I drank around dinner-time, plus coffee, really gave me some motivation to finish this tonight. >:D Oh, and Happy 4th to everyone in the States!

P.P.S. If one believes that this kind of knowledge is splitting hairs and not relevant to Buddhist practice, I beg to differ. I think it provides a nice reference to things we may perceive by direct practice, but can’t quite put together in a proper framework. Dry scholasticism is not always making the most of Buddhism, but practice without solid knowledge of the fundamentals is equally short-sighted. Separately, I feel more and more that our understanding of Mahayana Buddhism in the West, especially its influence in East Asian Buddhism, is rather lacking. For most Westerners, including myself, most of our understand of “basic Buddhism” comes from Theravada/Abhidharma sources, which we then try to apply to Mahayana Buddhist teachings like Zen or Pure Land, which leads to terrible confusion. I know this from personal experience. The reason I believe is nothing sinister or out of bias, just that these sources have the benefit of better translations and further study. They’re more accessible to us.

Still, even something simple like Pure Land Buddhism doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you get more familiar with the underlying Mahayana thought. The famous monks and founders of the time were deeply immersed in Yogacara, Madhayamika and Avatamsaka thought, but most of this has been obscured and forgotten in the West, leading to incomplete information and confusing mis-interpretations.

As we get more information into English, and other languages in the world, I feel this will help demystify why popular sects like Zen and Pure Land are the way they are. Time will tell.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

10 thoughts on “The Mind according to Yogacara Buddhism”

  1. it has come to my attention that the senses interact according to the most up-front sense at that time. For example; if i see a rose, then i am also tasting it, hearing it, smelling it, and feeling it. The same goes for inanimate objects also.
    On another topic, one should inquire as to where karma begins, and if so, where does it end???????????????????


  2. Just a couple of small corrections:

    (1) You wrote “but the manas creates a sense of self as it retains experiences from the deepest layer of the mind, the Alaya Store Consciousness.”

    This is not exactly correct. Manas actually “is” the sense of self, but it is not the place where the experiences are stored. The experiences are stored in the alaya (thus, “storehouse”).

    (2) The author’s first name is Shun’ei, and his surname is TAGAWA. Thus, it would be appropriate to refer to him as Rev. Tagawa, rather than Rev. Shun’ei. This would be important for the Wikipedia page as well.


  3. In answer to Stephen’s question:

    “I wonder if Yogacarin Buddhism has a concept of Archetypes in a Jung sense of the word”

    The answer would be no. The notion of archetype would involve the existence of eternal, pre-existent, unchanging entities. Since Buddhism denies such entities, saying instead that everything is dependently originated, archetypes as they were understood by Jung would not be possible.


  4. Hello Prof. Muller!

    Thanks for stopping at this blog. I’ve made corrections here and on Wikipedia for Rev. Tagawa’s name (stupid that I missed that), and also clarified the role of manas based on your input. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. πŸ™‚

    P.S. Enjoying the book much. The three blog posts I’ve written on it in the last week I think show. πŸ˜‰


  5. Please call me Charles.

    I am glad you are enjoying the book!

    I translated it precisely with the hope that people who have studied or practiced other aspects of Buddhism might get interested in finding out about the school that provided the philosophical backbone for all the other schools.

    In East Asia, none of the other schools, including Huayan, Zen, Tiantai, or Pure Land had their own explanations about consciousness, karma, or rebirth, so they basically had to borrow everything from Yogacara. Most people who study or practice these other forms of Buddhism have no idea about that. I myself have been a Zen practitioner for decades, but Yogacara provides us with some solid theoretical background. If you understand Yogacara, then when someone asks “How does karma work in Buddhism?” You can give an accurate explanation. For me there is no conflict between practicing Zen and studying Yogacara–they are perfectly complementary.

    Almost everyone is making the mistake with Tagawa’s name–I am at fault for not making it clear. I’ve been living in Japan too long, so it didn’t even occur to me that people might read it in Western order.


  6. Exactly! I think we have a lot of benefit from past Buddhists in bringing Buddhism and Buddhist practice to a wider Western audience, but the philosophical backbone behind those teachings has been somewhat absent in European-based langauges. Nothing bad, just the difficulty in translating those teachings into other languages, and the relatively few who have the training to do it.

    So, like you, I find when I read this stuff, it helps to round out the Pure Land teachings I am most familiar with (Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, etc), hence in my subsequent post I found that it kind made me appreciate teachings I knew in the past. Compared to before, I feel like I am more confident in my understanding of them thanks to a better understanding of the underlying Mahayana thought.

    So, while Pure Land is the practice I follow, the understanding comes in due part from other sources. But the founders of Pure Land in Japan drew heavily from such sources as well, so this is only natural.

    As for Rev. Tagawa’s name, I think I made the mistake because it was a western book, so I assumed first-name, last-name, but I should’ve known about “Shun’ei” being an ordination name. I usually pick up on that better. :p

    Ah well. Anyways, keep up the great work!


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