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The Buddhist teaching of the nine consciousnesses offers the basis for a comprehensive understanding of who we are, our true identity. It also helps explain how Buddhism sees the eternal continuity of our lives over cycles of birth and death. This perspective on the human being is the fruit of thousands of years of intense introspective investigation into the nature of consciousness. Historically, it is grounded in efforts to experience and explain the essence of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree some 2,500 years ago.
The nine consciousnesses can be thought of as different layers of consciousness which are constantly operating together to create our lives. The Sanskrit word vijnāna, which is translated as consciousness, includes a wide range of activities, including sensation, cognition and conscious thought. The first five of these consciousnesses are the familiar senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The sixth consciousness is the function that integrates and processes the various sensory data to form an overall picture or thought, identifying what it is that our five senses are communicating to us. It is primarily with these six functions of life that we perform our daily activities.
Below this level of consciousness is the seventh consciousness. Unlike those layers of consciousness that are directed toward the outer world, the seventh consciousness is directed toward our inner life and is largely independent of sensory input. The seventh consciousness is the basis for our sense of individual identity; attachment to a self distinct to and separate from others has its basis in this consciousness, as does our sense of right and wrong.
Below the seventh consciousness, Buddhism elucidates a deeper layer, the eighth or ālaya consciousness, also known as the never-perishing or storehouse consciousness. It is here that the energy of our karma resides. Whereas the first seven consciousnesses disappear on death, the eighth consciousness persists through the cycles of active life and the latency of death. It can be thought of as the life-flow that supports the activities of the other consciousnesses. The experiences described by those who have undergone clinical death and been revived could be said to be occurrences at the borderline of the seventh and eighth consciousnesses.
An understanding of these levels of consciousness and the interaction between them can offer valuable insights into the nature of life and the self, as well as pointing to the resolution of the fundamental problems that humanity confronts.
According to Buddhist teachings, there are specific deep-seated delusions in the seventh consciousness regarding the nature of self. These delusions arise from the relationship between the seventh and eighth levels of consciousness and manifest as fundamental egotism.
Buddhist teachings describe the seventh layer as emerging from the eighth consciousness: it is always focused on the eighth consciousness of the individual, which it perceives as something fixed, unique and isolated from other things. In reality, the eighth consciousness is in a state of continual flux. At this level our lives constantly interact, exerting a profound influence on each other. The perception of a fixed and isolated self that the seventh consciousness generates is thus false.
The seventh consciousness is also the seat of the fear of death. Being unable to perceive the true nature of the eighth consciousness as an enduring flow of life energy, it imagines that upon death, the eighth consciousness will become permanently extinct. Fear of death thus has roots in the deep layers of the subconscious.
The delusion that the eighth consciousness is one’s true self is also termed fundamental ignorance, a turning away from the interconnectedness of all being. It is this sense of one’s self as separate and isolated from others that gives rise to discrimination, to destructive arrogance and unbridled acquisitiveness. Humanity’s ravaging of the natural environment is another obvious result.
Buddhism posits that our thoughts, words and deeds invariably create an imprint in the deep layers of the eighth consciousness. This is what Buddhists refer to as karma. The eighth consciousness is therefore sometimes referred to as the karmic storehouse—the place where these karmic seeds are stored. These seeds or latent energy can be either positive or negative; the eighth consciousness remains neutral and equally receptive to either type of karmic imprinting. The energy becomes manifest when conditions are ripe. Positive latent causes can become manifest as both positive effects in one’s life and as positive psychological functions such as trust, nonviolence, self-control, compassion and wisdom. Negative latent causes can manifest as various forms of delusion and destructive behavior and give rise to suffering for ourselves and others.
While the image of a storehouse is helpful, a truer image may be that of a raging torrent of karmic energy. This energy is constantly moving through and shaping our lives and experience. Our resultant thoughts and actions are then fed back into this karmic flow. The quality of the karmic flow is what makes each of us distinct beings—our unique selves. The flow of energy is constantly changing, but, like a river, it maintains an identity and consistency even through successive cycles of life and death. It is this aspect of fluidity, this lack of fixity, that opens the possibility of transforming the content of the eighth consciousness. This is why karma, properly understood, is different from an unchanging or unavoidable destiny.
The question, therefore, is how we increase the balance of positive karma. This is the basis for various forms of Buddhist practice that seek to imprint positive causes in our lives. When caught up in a cycle of negative cause and effect, however, it is difficult to avoid making further negative causes, and it is here that we turn to the most fundamental layer of consciousness, the ninth or amala consciousness.
The most fundamental layer of consciousness is the ninth or amala consciousness. Unstained by the workings of karma, this consciousness represents our true, eternal self.
This can be thought of as the life of the cosmos itself; it is also referred to as the fundamentally pure consciousness. Unstained by the workings of karma, this consciousness represents our true, eternal self. The revolutionary aspect of Nichiren Buddhism is that it seeks to directly bring forth the energy of this consciousness—the enlightened nature of the Buddha—thus purifying the other, more superficial layers of consciousness. The great power of the ninth consciousness welling forth changes even entrenched patterns of negative karma in the eighth consciousness.
Because the eighth consciousness transcends the boundaries of the individual, merging with the latent energy of one’s family, one’s ethnic group, and also with that of animals and plants, a positive change in this karmic energy becomes a “cogwheel” for change in the lives of others. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda writes, “When we activate this fundamentally pure consciousness, the energy of all life’s good and evil karma is directed toward value creation; and the mind or consciousness...of humankind is infused with the life current of compassion and wisdom.” Nichiren identified the practice of chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the basic means for activating the ninth consciousness in our lives.
As the layers of consciousness are transformed, they each give rise to unique forms of wisdom. The wisdom inherent in the eighth consciousness allows us to perceive ourselves, our experience and other phenomena with perfect clarity and to profoundly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. As the deep-rooted delusions of the seventh consciousness are transformed, an individual is enabled to overcome the fear of death, as well as the aggression and violence that spring from this fear. A wisdom arises which enables us to perceive the fundamental equality of all living beings and to deal with them on an unchanging basis of respect. It is this type of transformation and wisdom that is sorely required in our world today.
[Courtesy April 2004 SGI Quarterly]