On the last day of the Retreat for Scientists in the Field of Consciousness, Thây gave this dharma talk explicating the Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses . This material will be included in a new book by Thich Nhat Hanh slated for publication in March 2007 by Parallax Press, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body .
Today we will go over the Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses . Before that I would like to remind everyone of a few key words.
Modes of Cognition, Objects of Cognition, Moral Natures
The three modes of cognition are direct, inference, and fallacy, which is a wrong form of direct perception or inference.
The three objects of cognition are suchness, the thing in itself, which is accessed by direct cognition; representations, in which you create the object of your perception, for a mental interpretation of reality; and mere images; such as those we see in dreams. Mere images make up the majority of the objects of our mind consciousness.
The three moral natures of cognition are wholesome, which means having the capacity to induce wisdom, compassion, and liberation; unwholesome, leading us in the direction of delusion and unhappiness; and indeterminate, neither wholesome nor unwholesome, but malleable.
The first five consciousnesses — ear, eye, nose, tongue, and body consciousness — have access to suchness. This sensory consciousness can touch the one-instant reality, which has no duration in time, no extension in space. Those are the materials with which mental consciousness translates and creates the world. But this suchness is on the side of the phenomenal, not the noumenal. The eighth consciousness — store consciousness — has access to the realm of phenomenal suchness as well as noumenal suchness.
The five use the direct mode of cognition, which is why they can have access to reality in itself, suchness. The eighth also uses a direct mode of cognition — no induction, no deduction, no inference. That is why in the store there is innate, non-discriminative basic wisdom.
Now we speak of the seventh, which is manas, the self center. Manas represents grasping, loving, appropriating. We call it “the lover” in Vietnamese, the consciousness of love, but this is not true love because there is delusion in it. In the seventh consciousness there are four basic afflictions: self-delusion, self-love, self-view, and self-conceit. The basic illusion inherent in all four afflictions is the illusion about self: this body is mine, is me; this feeling is me; these emotions are me; this consciousness is me and I am independent from everything else. We call manas the lover, and the victim is of course the eighth consciousness.
Manas has a tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, ignoring the goodness of suffering and moderation, ignoring interbeing and impermanence. That is why the mode of cognition of the seventh is fallacy. The object of its cognition is not suchness, it is an image created by self that carries a little core of reality — a representation.
When I was a novice, my teacher taught me that manas is born from a seed in store consciousness, manifests as a consciousness, and bends down to embrace one part of the store. This area of interference becomes the object of the seventh consciousness. Manas is the lover and it is grasping its loved one, just one part of it. It's looking at reality with glasses colored by attachment and love. That zone of interference is the very object of manas — a self. The practice is to free the eighth from manas so it becomes the Wisdom of Great Mirror.
Imagining the Eighth Consciousness
Store has a triple meaning. Suppose you have a museum of art. You have a building, which stores all the precious things that are inside. The museum is not only the building, it is also what is in the building. So store has at least two meanings: the house that keeps what is inside, and also the contents. But there is also someone who lives in the building. His title is the museum keeper, and he thinks the museum belongs to him. The museum is an object of love, and the lover is the museum keeper.
Our Chinese friends use the image of a young lady who is pregnant. She is the storer and the baby is the object of storing. So you have the two meanings: storing and being stored. But there is someone who appropriates, and that is the husband of the lady, the father of the baby, and he considers this store as his. That is why store is not free. You can't move freely because you are owned by someone.
The moral nature of the eighth is indeterminate. It is neither good nor evil, neither wholesome nor unwholesome. In Chinese the word means plasticity; it can be changed. It is neutral, indeterminate, but it is not hidden, veiled. It is not hidden by delusion.
The seventh also has the nature of plasticity. It is also indeterminate because it can be changed. But its nature is veiled.
The five, when they operate alone, without the collaboration of the sixth, also have an indeterminate nature. The true nature of reality is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. It is us who make it wholesome or unwholesome, as with a knife. If you use the knife to cut vegetables and cook for a community, it is wholesome. If you use it to kill, it is unwholesome. In its nature it is indeterminate.
We have not spoken about the sixth, but it has the capacity to reach out to all three modes of cognition. The sixth has access to the realm of suchness, the realm of representation, and the realm of mere image. The seventh does not have access to the realm of mere image. The sixth also can be wholesome, unwholesome, or indeterminate. So the sphere of activity of the sixth is the broadest.
Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses
When I was a novice monk I had to memorize the Chinese text. We can go through this very easily.
Verse on the First Five Consciousnesses
“The object of the first five consciousnesses is the sphere of nature [suchness], their mode of cognition is direct, and their nature can either be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. In the Second Land, only eye consciousness, ear consciousness, and body consciousness operate.” This is the land of pure form, where there are other kinds of nutriments and we don't need edible food. That is why you don't use your nose and your tongue. It is much easier, you don't have to kill each other to get food! We don't need to talk much about the Second Land.
“The five sense consciousnesses operate with the five Universals, the five Particulars, the eleven Wholesome mental formations, the two Middle Secondary Unwholesome mental formations (lack of inner shame, lack of shame before others), the eight Greater Secondary mental formations, and with craving, hatred, and confusion.” That is because they collaborate with the sixth. We have a list of mental formations to refer to, so we know what mental formations can operate together.
“All five consciousnesses operate on the ground of Pure Matter Organs...” This is the nervous system and the sensory systems. There are gross organs like ears or eyes but the five consciousnesses are based on a more subtle sense organ — the central nervous system, the sensory systems.
The “nine, eight or seven conditions” are absolutely necessary for the five consciousnesses to manifest. For all five the first condition is the seed in consciousness, because all of them spring from a seed in store consciousness. Store consciousness is another base. The five consciousnesses are based on the seventh consciousness, because the seventh consciousness is the foundation of good and evil. If they are good or evil in their way of perceiving it is because of the seventh, manas. The next condition is mind consciousness; it is like the water and the five sensory consciousnesses are like the waves, where water is the base for the waves. The other conditions are attention, space, and light. While eyes need light to operate, the nose and ear do not need light. There are nine conditions; some of the sense organs need all nine, some only seven or eight.
“They observe the world of dust [the phenomenal world]; two of them from a distance, three from direct contact.” Two of them are ear consciousness and eye consciousness. “Naïve people find it difficult to distinguish between organ and consciousness.” It is not the eyes that see things; the eyes are only one condition.
“It is thanks to Later Acquired Wisdom that the five consciousnesses could contemplate emptiness in its manifested forms.” Even after you become a Buddha, only the basic innate wisdom has access to the noumenal world, while the five touch only the phenomenal world. “Therefore even after enlightenment, the five consciousnesses by themselves are still not capable of reaching out to true emptiness.” True emptiness here is the noumenal, the ontological ground of reality. Only the eighth has access to it, because the eighth has the Wisdom of the Great Mirror — innate wisdom. What we get by our studies, discursive thinking, and meditation, is the Later Acquired Wisdom, which does not have access to the ontological ground. You cannot see God with your eyes.
“When the eighth consciousness is transformed into the Great Mirror Wisdom, the five sense consciousnesses can attain the state of 'no-leaking'.” No leaking means you don't fall down anymore. “Thereupon, the three types of manifestation bodies are available to help us end the cycle of suffering in the world.” The first body is a beautiful body that can be recognized by bodhisattvas; when you teach to a bodhisattva, the bodhisattva sees this beautiful body of yours. The second body is like the body of Shakyamuni, a regular human being, which all of us can see. The third kind is any body that can bring about a teaching. It can be a politician, a businessman, a man, a woman, a child, but if it can help people to transform, it is a third body of the Buddha.
Verse on the Sixth Consciousness
“The sixth consciousness can be easily observed when it operates in the three natures, the three modes of cognition, and the three kinds of objects of cognition, and when it still goes around in the three realms.” These are the realms of desire, fine or subtle form, and no form. According to Buddhist wisdom, life is possible in the realm of no form and no matter. Many people who are about to die and come back to life report that they see light; that may be the realm of pure light. This is an invitation for our scientists: besides matter there is life. Life is expressed not only in terms of matter, it can be expressed in other forms — energy, light, and so on.
“This consciousness operates with all the fifty-one mental formations. Whether wholesome or unwholesome, its nature depends on times and occasions.” If you live in a good environment there are many chances for mind consciousness to be wholesome. When the good seeds are watered every day you are able to proceed in a more positive direction.
“Related to the sixth consciousness, the three natures, the three realms, and the three feelings are in permanent transformation and change. The six Primary Unwholesome mental formations, the twenty Secondary Unwholesome mental formations, and the eleven Wholesome mental formations (such as faith, etc.) all are related.” Mind consciousness operates with all mental formations.
“Even when the practitioner enters the Land of Joy with her bodhisattva’s beginner’s mind, the innate attachment to a self still lies dormant in the depths of her consciousness.” In the Land of Joy there is quite a lot of happiness and peace, but manas has not been transformed profoundly. That is why the sixth consciousness is still bound. In the depth of consciousness that innate attachment to a self still exists. “It is only when she reaches the Seventh Land, called the Land of Far Reaching, that this consciousness is free from 'leaks'.” It does not go down anymore, it can stay there or go up; that is the state of no-leaking. There may be ups but there is no down anymore.
“At this time, the sixth consciousness becomes the Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation, illuminating the whole cosmos.” When the seventh is transformed the sixth is also totally transformed.
Verse on the Seventh Consciousness
“Obscured, with an object that carries some substance linking the Lover and the Base, the seventh consciousness always follows and clings to the Base as a self. Its mode of cognition is erroneous. It operates with the five Universals, the eight Greater Secondary mental formations, with mati (one of the five Particulars) and with self-love (craving), self-delusion (ignorance), self-view ([wrong] view), and self-conceit (arrogance).”
With the practice, the seventh consciousness, manas, can be transformed into the wisdom of non-discrimination and equanimity. But now it is veiled, obscured.
“Continuously following and grasping the object of self, this consciousness induces the state of dreaming and confusion in living beings day and night. The four afflictions and the eight Greater Secondary mental formations always manifest and operate with the seventh consciousness. This consciousness is also called the ground of defilement and purity for the other six evolving consciousnesses.” The seventh serves as the foundation of wholesomenesses and unwholesomeness for the other six consciousnesses.
We see here the expression “evolving consciousness”; all the seven consciousnesses are described as evolving. The eighth consciousness is described as the ocean. When there is a wind blowing, the seventh consciousness manifests as waves. In the sutra it is said that store consciousness is like the ocean because when the wind of the objects blows, the seven consciousnesses are born dancing. That is the image used by the Buddha: the dancing of the seven consciousnesses.
“When the practitioner reaches the Land of Extreme Joy, the nature of equanimity begins to reveal itself.” Equanimity means no discrimination. You don't distinguish any more between self and non-self. I am in you and you are in me. “When he arrives at the Eighth Land, the Land of Effortlessness, the illusion of self is gone. At this time, the Tathagatha manifests His body for the sake of others, and all the bodhisattvas of the ten lands benefit from his presence.” With the attainment of no-self, your power to help people becomes immense.
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