“Consciousness Only” and Zen Buddhism
As outlined by the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, suffering results from a false view (avidya; ignorance) of “self.” This suffering is overcome when the false view is eliminated by realizing the truth of “no-self.” Thus, realization of no-self (anatman; muga) was the “goal” of Buddhism in the Buddha’s life (about 500 BCE) and First Councils (Theravada), as well as the Mahayana (and Vajrayana) traditions that culminated around 1100 to 1300 CE, more or less.
In fact, the distinction between schools can generally be described as the “way” (teachings and methods) each advocated for the realization of “no-self.” The interpretive literature of early Buddhism (Abhidharma) asserted a view of the “self” as a continuous series of constantly changing aggregates consisting of impersonal, groundless, causeless elements (dharmas). In order to reconcile this doctrine with the Buddhist doctrines of rebirth, moral obligation, karma, etc., the advocates of this view were forced to posit some unifying “force,” “agent,” or “essence,” that facilitated the coordination of the causes and effects that were presupposed by Buddhist teachings – and this force, agent, or essence must somehow avoid being portrayed as a reified entity (i.e. independent self).
Early attempts to find such a “force” resulted in the notions of the “life-stream” (ayus; myokon, etc.) notions of the Vijnanavada school, and other early traditions. A wide variety of theories were advanced concerning the nature and dynamics of this “life-stream.” One general notion was that this “life-stream” was the ground from which the “six consciousnesses” (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, thinking) arose, bestowing and maintaining the “fire” or “heat” (nan) and the “consciousness” (shiki) of the individual. The quality and quantity of this “life-stream” was regarded as dependent on the particular karmic conditions of each individual. We find many remnants of this and similar notions used in the records of Zen, for instance the “fire” and “consciousness” (translated as “wind” by Nearman) in the koan about the two halves of an earthworm:
In the assembly of the virtuous monk Chosa Keishin, his lay disciple Chiku, who was a high government official, raised a question, saying, “When a live earthworm is cut in two, both parts continue to move. I wonder, in which part does the Buddha Nature reside?”
The Master responded, “Do not engage in deluded, dualistic thinking.”
The official asked, “But how do you account for the twitching?”
The Master replied, “It is simply that the elements of wind and fire have not yet dissipated.”(As translated by Hubert Nearman in Shobogenzo, Bussho)
The continuous and ongoing attempts by Buddhist masters to meet the challenges posed by the teachings on “no-self” eventually came to be centered in two great Buddhist doctrines: the “storehouse-consciousness” (tathatagata-garbha) and “consciousness-only” (vijnana-matra). Briefly, the “storehouse-consciousness” is presented in terms concerning the “primordial” or “original” nature of mind, while “consciousness-only” is portrayed as the “foundation” or “ground” underlying (and finally transcending) the six consciousnesses.
Which each of these doctrines presented views complete in themselves (and were advocated by independent schools), the best of both teachings eventually came to be merged in a number of greatly influential sutras and shastras – most significantly, the Lankavatara Sutra and the Awakening of Faith shastra. These two texts, in turn, became greatly influential to the development of all the major Mahayana traditions. While the legend of Bodhidharma’s giving Eka a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra has served to indicate its influence on Zen, the Awakening Faith shastra is alluded to and quoted even more extensively in the records of Zen (including Dogen who cites it as authoritative in Shobogenzo). The remarkable visionary insight of this slim volume was regarded authoritative enough to be included as a basic text of that erudite Buddhist school known as Huayen (Kegon) Buddhism.
Nevertheless, even in their culminating expression (i.e. the Lankavatara and Awakening of Faith) the doctrines of “storehouse-consciousness” and “consciousness only” failed to avoid certain vulnerabilities (mostly of the “essentialist” and “speculative” type) as far as the great Zen masters were concerned. As evident in the classic records of Zen, these doctrines (at least as articulated) fell short of expressing the whole truth of the matter, though they did provide an excellent springboard from which to articulate some of the most powerful expressions of Zen in the whole corpus of writing, including the Five Ranks of Tozan.
All in all, the great Buddhist doctrines of “storehouse-consciousness” and “consciousness only” are certainly worthy of our close and attentive study, but that study should not be regarded as complete with their “final” articulation in works like the Lankavatara and Awakening of Faith. Having arrived at a solid grasp of these Buddhist doctrines in their “formal” culminating expression, let us turn to the records of Zen where they continued to be refined at the forge of the ancestors – here is where the purity of their gold truly shines. Stripped of their nonessential speculative elements, these teachings have become direct pointers in the hands of the masters – these direct pointers rank with the best of the myriad “ways” employed by the masters to help students overcome the false view of “self” with the Zen skill of directly pointing to the identity of the human body-mind and Buddha. From the first Zen ancestor in China, Bodhidharma, to the contemporary Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, the “way” of liberation advocated is direct and personal:
Seeing your nature is zen, if you don’t see your nature it’s not zen.~Bodhidharma, The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Red Pine
Seeing into one’s own nature is the goal of Zen.~Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys