The Origins of the Alaya-Vijñana

First published 2003 by Routledge Curzon, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge Curzon, 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

Routledge Curzon is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group

 © 2003 William S. Waldron



The alaya-vijñana in the context of Indian Buddhist thought

William S. Waldron

William S. Waldron received his PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin after studying extensively in India, Nepal, and Japan. Professor Waldron teaches courses on the South Asian religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, Tibetan religion and history, comparative psychologies and philosophies of mind, and theory and method in the study of religion. His publications focus on the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism and its dialogue with modern thought. Professor Waldron has been at Middlebury College since 1996. His monograph, The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought, was published by Routledge Curzon in 2003. (Source Accessed April 15, 2020)


The Origins of the Alaya-Vijñana

Before we enter into the Yogacara materials themselves, presenting the alaya-vijñana in the complexity of its textual history, the profusion of its associated concepts, and the rationales underlying its explanation, we should reiterate the aims of this essay. Our primary aim is to understand the alaya-vijñana within the context of Indian Buddhist vijñana theory, first by outlining its background and context in the early Buddhist and Abhidharma traditions, respectively, and then by examining the set of Yogacara texts that most thoroughly and systematically espouse this intricate theory of unconscious mind.1 Neither the concept of the alaya-vijñana itself, nor its elaborate defense – a complex blend of exegetical, logical, and phenomenological arguments – can, we believe, be adequately understood without reference to this larger historical context.

It is only in the light of the Abhidharma Problematic as a whole, arising out of the discrepancies between the newer dharmic analytic and the traditional doctrines preserved in the early Pali texts, that we can understand why the questions of the latent affective dispositions, the nature of karmic potentiality, and the gradual progress along the path to liberation became problematic at this point in Indian Buddhist thought – and, even more importantly, why they came to be addressed in terms of the two “aspects” of vijñana first found in those early texts.

Most of the responses to these questions either implicitly or explicitly pointed toward some kind of multi-dimensionality of mind, a “common interest in the deeper strata of conscious life … ,” Guenther observes, which “reflects the collective spirit or Zeitgeist of this epoch in Indian Buddhist thought” (1989: 19). In this respect, the concept of alaya-vijñana can be seen as merely the most comprehensive and systematic of the many innovative ideas proffered within the intellectual milieu of fourth–sixth centuries CE Buddhist India.

The origin or even first occurrence of the term alaya-vijñana is unclear. The Saddhinirmocana Sjtra is traditionally regarded as the first Yogacara sutra (sjtra), announcing the advent of the special doctrines associated with that school and receiving, at least from their fellow Mahayanists, the veneration due to the sacred words of the Buddha. Most of the early Yogacara literature dates from the second or third to the fifth centuries CE,3 but establishing firmer dates for Indian Buddhist texts is notoriously difficult. We shall not, however, attempt our own chronology of the Yogacara school or of the minute developments within each stage of the alaya-vijñana, but will roughly follow Lambert Schmithausen’s careful reconstruction, which, if debatable on this or that particular point, is persuasive enough in its basic outline to serve our more general purpose of introducing the doctrinal developments and demonstrating the psychological and philosophical significance of the concept of the alaya-vijñana in the context of Indian Buddhist metapsychology.

The beginnings of the alaya-vijñana and of the Yogacara school as a whole are closely connected with the voluminous Yogacarabhjmi, attributed to (though likely only compiled by) Asanga. He was the half-brother of Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharma-koka and, following his own “conversion” to Mahayana Buddhism, many major Yogacara texts as well. In all probability parts of the Yogacarabhjmi pre-date the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra, while other parts were composed or compiled afterwards. We shall be drawing most heavily upon selected sections of the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra and the Yogacarabhjmi in the first chapter of Part II, before proceeding in the succeeding chapters to developments of the alaya-vijñana in the Mahayana-sadgraha, also written by Asanga.

It is in the Basic Section of the Yogacarabhjmi (the Saptadakabhjmika) that the term alaya-vijñana seems to have been first used. In what Schmithausen takes to be its initial occurrence,7 the alaya-vijñana is portrayed as a kind of basal consciousness which persists uninterruptedly within the material sense-faculties during the absorption of cessation (nirodha-samapatti). Within this form of consciousness dwell, in the form of seeds, the causal conditions for manifest forms of cognitive awareness to reappear upon emerging from that absorption. In its most important terminological innovation, these modes of manifest cognitive awareness are now collectively called forms of “arising,” or “manifesting [forms of ] cog- nitive awareness” (pravgtti-vijñana), insofar as they intermittently arise or become manifest in conjunction with their appropriate objects, and in contrast to the abiding, uninterrupted stream of sentience newly called “alaya” vijñana. The distinction we discerned as merely implicit within the early Pali concept of vijñana – between an object-specific cognitive awareness on the one hand and an abiding sentience on the other – is now terminologically explicit. It represents the Yogacarins’ basic departure from earlier Buddhist models of mind.

The newly coined terms “alaya-vijñana” and “pravgtti-vijñana” are telling in themselves. The term alaya conveys two distinct semantic ranges serendipitously united in Pali and Sanskrit. Alaya means “that which is clung to, adhered to, dwelled in,” and thus derivatively “dwelling, receptacle, house.” Yet it also retained an older sense from the early texts – whose nuances will resurface in due time – of “clinging, attachment, or grasping.”8 This new kind of vijñana, which dwells in or sticks to the material sense-faculties, contrasts with the traditional six types of “manifest cognitive awareness” (pravgtti-vijñana) insofar as they “arise, come forth, manifest, issue, originate, occur, commence” (pra-vgt, SED 693) in conjunction with objects impinging upon their respective sense-fields.

In this initial passage, alaya-vijñana is closely connected with bodily existence, as we would expect for any kind of process which persists during a meditative state in which all mental processes are said to come to a halt. Even in its most complex formulations, alaya-vijñana never entirely loses this somatic dimension. This reflects one of the roles attributed to vijñana in both the Pali and Abhidharma texts we have already examined: for as long one as is alive, consciousness (vijñana) takes up or “appropriates” (upadana) the body, the material sense-faculties, thereby preventing death; in this sense, it constitutes, along with heat (uhma) and the life-force (ayus), one of the indispensable concomitants of any sentient being.

At this stage, the conception of alaya-vijñana seems to be little more than a combination of the Sautrantika view that the body is the carrier of the seeds during the absorption of cessation10 with Vasumitra’s position that a subtle form of mind (sjkhma-citta) subsists at that time without apparent functioning. In effect, as Schmithausen (1987: 30) puts it, it transforms the notion of “the Seeds of mind lying hidden in corporeal matter to a new form of mind proper.” As a simple “hypostatization” of the seeds, this depiction of alaya-vijñana is not yet a distinct vijñana, nor is it systematically related to the traditional six modes of cognitive awareness; its status outside of the absorption of cessation, moreover, remains undefined.

Thus, questions remain. On emerging from the attainment of cessation, how do these six forms of “arising cognitive awareness” arise again from the seeds that are within this “alaya” vijñana? And where or how does this alaya-vijñana function outside of that attainment of cessation? Is it a discontinuous kind of cognitive awareness that, like the bhavamga-citta, only occurs when the manifest modes of cognitive awareness do not, or does it continuously occur throughout all states of mind? If the latter, then how are the seeds that are associated with this new kind of vijñana related to the traditional six kinds of cognitive awareness? And in what way might this alaya-vijñana function as a vijñana itself, as a distinct species of cognitive awareness? In other words, if alaya-vijñana were to be more than a hypostatization of the seeds, if it were to become a new genre of consciousness in its own right, it would have to be related to traditional conceptions of mind in much more specific detail. These kinds of questions were not asked in the earliest sections of the Yogacarabhjmi, but responses to them were effectively outlined in the momentous developments found in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra.


The new model of mind in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra(sutra)

The Saddhinirmocana Sjtra addresses these questions in a few succinct passages which fundamentally restructured the Buddhist model of mind around the notion of alaya-vijñana. It accomplished this by combining the diachronic characteristics already associated with the “samsaric” aspects of vijñana in the early Pali texts (and in Abhidharma as well), designating them “alaya” vijñana, and then initiating their gradual integration into the synchronic discourse expressed in purely dharmic terms. While the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra presents only the outlines of this model, later developments will gradually draw out its deeper implications, slowly but systematically reintegrating the diachronic and synchronic treatments of mind found within the first millennium of Indian Buddhist metapsychology.

Adding significantly to its physiological dimension as a basal consciousness sticking closely to the body, the alaya-vijñana also takes on a distinctly psycho- logical character in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra: based upon the accumulated seeds and predispositions (vasana) with which it is associated, the alaya-vijñana concurrently underlies and supports the six types of manifest cognitive awareness, so that all forms of awareness now occur simultaneously rather than sequentially. The implications of this reformulation of traditional Buddhist models can hardly be overstated, and will take several centuries to be fully drawn out. The presentation of the alaya-vijñana in the Sjtra thus deserves our close attention.

In the fifth – and for our purposes most important – chapter, the Saddhinirmocana
Sjtra introduces the alaya-vijñana as the “mind with all the seeds” (sarvabnjakam cittam), describing its organic processes of growth and development in terms resonant with the descriptions of vijñana in the early Pali texts and the mental stream (santana) in the Abhidharma-koka. As with these earlier conceptions of mind, the alaya-vijñana “descends” into the mother’s womb, “appropriates” the gestating fetal materials, and increases and develops in a newly re-embodied existence:

In samsara with its six destinies (gati), such and such beings are born as such and such a type of being. They come into existence (abhinirvgtti) and arise (utpadyante) in the womb of beings. …
There, at first, the mind which has all the seeds (sarvabnjakad cittam) matures, congeals, grows, develops, and increases based upon the two-fold appropriation (upadana); that is,

1. the appropriation of the material sense-faculties along with their supports (sadhihiana-rjpnndriya-upadana);

2. and the appropriation which consists of the predispositions toward profuse imaginings in terms of conventional usage of images, names, and concepts (nimitta-nama-vikalpa-vyavahara-prapañca-vasana- upadana).

Of these, both of the appropriations exist within the realms with form, but the appropriation is not two-fold within the Formless Realm.
(Saddhinirmocana Sjtra V. 2)14

These terse passages call for careful explication. The text first indicates the indispensable relationship between the animate body and the alaya-vijñana; that is, continued samsaric existence (except in the Formless Realm) depends upon some form of cognitive awareness taking up or appropriating the sense-faculties “in the womb of beings.” This effectively extends the physiological functions of the alaya-vijñana, which initially pertained only during the absorption of cessation, to (it appears) one’s entire lifetime, identifying it with the traditional notion that vijñana descends into the womb and “grows, develops, and increases.”

This passage also connects the alaya-vijñana with the karmic, affective, and cognitive endowments from previous lives, represented here in the form of the seeds and the appropriation (upadana) of the predispositions (vasana).15 Upadana, we recall, evinces a bivalent “process–product” character: it has both an active, affective sense of “grasping, holding on, attachment,” as well as a resultant sense of “fuel, supply, substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive or going.” Together they convey the sense of “finding one’s support by or in nourished by, taking up” (PED 149). This “home” (alaya) consciousness thus finds its support in the material sense faculties to which it clings, and is nourished by the predispositions toward profuse imaginings (prapañca) of names, images, and so on, both of which it in turn “takes up” and appropriates. As a dependently arisen form of cognitive awareness, in other words, the alaya-vijñana “grows, develops, and increases” based upon the two appropriations – the material sense-faculties with their physiological supports, and the mass of cognitive and affective conditionings persisting from the past – which serve as the substratum or fuel upon and by which the whole process is kept going. Conversely, these two appropriations persist only insofar as the alaya-vijñana continuously “appropriates” them, reflect- ing the basic interdependence of body and mind, object and consciousness, found throughout Indian Buddhist thought.

This relationship is brought out more clearly in the next section of the Saddhinirmocana Satra (V. 3), which presents three synonyms (paryaya) of this new conception of mind, along with “etymological” explanations of their characteristics:

This vijñana is also called the “appropriating consciousness” (adana- vijñana) because the body is grasped (gghnta) and appropriated (upatta, or atta) by it. It is also called the “alaya” consciousness because it dwells in and attaches16 to this body in a common destiny (ekayogakhema-arthena).

It is also called mind (citta) because it is heaped up (acita) and accumulated (upacita) by [the six cognitive objects:] visual forms, sounds, smells, flavors, tangibles, and dharmas.
(Saddhinirmocana Sjtra V. 3)17

Although the first two verses here primarily focus upon the alaya-vijñana’s presence as a kind of basal consciousness appropriating and dwelling within the body (the etymological emphasis of adana and alaya, respectively), their affective nuances of grasping and attachment remain ever close at hand. It is the third synonym, however, that most directly suggests the productive relationship between the accumulating form of mind that “grows, develops and increases,” now designated the “alaya” vijñana, and the transient object-oriented, cognitive processes, now considered “manifesting” vijñanas. Although still embryonic in the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra, we can discern the basic outline clearly enough.

The first passage we cited (V. 2) states that the “mind with all the seeds” (sarvabnjakad cittam) grows, develops, and increases based upon the appropriation of the material sense faculties as well as “the predispositions toward profuse imaginings in terms of conventional usage of images, names, and concepts.” The last passage we cited (V. 3), suggests how the “mind with all the seeds” actually increases: the objects of manifest cognitive awareness “heap up” and accumulate in the alaya-vijñana. Together these constitute an initial picture of the dynamic interaction between the alaya-vijñana and the manifest forms of cognitive awareness: (1) the alaya-vijñana arises based upon physiological and psychological structures (sadskara) built up over many lifetimes, the sense-faculties and predispositions toward images, names, concepts, and so on,18 (2) which themselves largely determine the specific forms that manifest cognitive awareness may take by providing the requisite conditions by which (3) cognitive objects “heap up” and accumulate in the alaya-vijñana.

But how do they “heap up”? What is the link between the conditioning forces of the past and the generating activities of the present that makes the “mind which has all the seeds … grow, develop, and increase”? The short answer – the simultaneous presence of the afflictions in a latent or quiescent form – developed only gradually through the later texts. But it was built upon the ideas of the simultaneity of multiple mental processes, as well as their innocuous but indispensable presence, that were first developed in terms of the relations between the different forms, the “two aspects,” of cognitive awareness itself.

In a passage that departs even further from the somatic nature of the alaya-
vijñana in the initial Yogacarabhjmi passage, the Saddhinirmocana Sjtra states that the alaya-vijñana arises in conjunction not only with its bases, which we have just seen, but also with its own kind of object. That is, the alaya-vijñana is now characterized as a cognitive form of awareness in its own right. But what kinds of object are there that are constantly present, so as to continuously give rise to this persisting, accumulating “alaya” vijñana, which, we remember, must be continuously present to insure bodily life and without which one would die? The Sjtra (VIII 37.1) states that the appropriating consciousness (adana-vijñana) arises as an imperceptible or unrecognizable perception of the stable external world (asadvidita-sthira-bhajana-vijñapti).19 Whether we are aware of it or not, the external world is always impinging upon our sense faculties or mind, constantly giving rise to a subliminal form of cognitive awareness, an “imperceptible” awareness of the world within and without.

From this follows the Sjtra’s next major development. If this imperceptible awareness of the external world is always present, then it must also occur simultaneously with any other object-specific forms of manifest cognitive awareness (pravgtti-vijñana) which happen to be occurring. This is only possible, as the debates in the Kathavatthu had recognized some seven centuries before, if it neither eclipses their specific cognitive functions nor overrides their particular karmic nature – and this is possible only because it is imperceptible or subliminal. Therefore, in perhaps its most significant departure from traditional Buddhist models of mind, the six modes of manifest cognitive awareness are no longer thought to occur solely in conjunction with their respective sense bases and epistemic objects, but are in addition supported by and depend upon the subliminal form of awareness called “alaya” vijñana (see Table 3.1). Hence, these modes of cognitive awareness no longer occur only sequentially, they also occur simultaneously.20 Saddhinirmocana Sjtra (V. 4–5) states:

The six groups of cognitive awareness (had.-vijñana-kaya) … occur supported by and depending upon (sadnikritya pratihihaya) the appropriat- ing consciousness (adana-vijñana). Of these, visual cognitive awareness occurs supported by (nikritya) visual forms and the eye furnished with consciousness (savijñanaka cakhus). A discriminating mental cognitive awareness (vikalpaka manovijñana) with the same sense object occurs at the same time (samakala) along with the visual cognitive awareness. …

If the conditions for a single visual cognitive awareness occurring simultaneously are present, then supported by and depending upon the appropriating consciousness only a single visual cognitive awareness occurs simultaneously. If the conditions for up to all five groups of [sensory] cognitive awareness occurring simultaneously are present, then all five groups of cognitive awareness occur simultaneously.

One can compare this to a large stream of water: if the conditions for the arising (utpatti-pratyaya) of a single wave are present (pratyupasthito) then only a single wave arises (pravartate). If the conditions for the arising of two or many waves are present, then many waves arise, but the stream of water is neither interrupted nor exhausted in its current.
(Saddhinirmocana Sjtra V. 4–5).