The two primary influences from India in the development of Zen in China were the Emptiness perspective of Nagarjuna and the early Mahayana (the Madhyamika school) and Yogacara. The third primary influence on Zen, the Buddha Nature perspectives, are, arguably, indigenous to China.
Nagarjuna comes first. In his work we see the destruction of attempts to make Buddhism into a coherent philosophical system. After his – ostensibly – destructive work near the start of the development of Mahayana, that route of systematising was cut off. But there’s a limited shelf life in simply reiterating the truth of Emptiness, over and over. And this might be a reason why the Chinese Madhyamika school didn’t last, and why the Zen school most directly associated with Nagarjuna, the Oxhead school, didn’t last either, although they were pivotal in later developments through their authorship of The Platform Sutra.
Historically, the school which rose directly after Nagarjuna, and possibly in response, was Yogacara, often called mind-only, or consciousness-only.
The term’s unfortunate because when we hear ‘mind-only’, we think of Idealism in Western philosophy – which makes claims about the unreality of the world, which has a doubly unfortunate tie-in with the mistaken view of emptiness as being vacuity, nothingness.
Yogacara has nothing to do with that. Its interest is in focusing our attention on what we actually experience and what we can experience. It’s not making truth claims about the world, the sort which would be involved in any systematic philosophising of Buddhism, which Nagarjuna made impossible.
Yogacara says that there’s eight consciousnesses. The first six are familiar: the five senses plus mind (which is traditionally thought of as a sense in Buddhism).
Where it’s innovative is that it posits two further consciousnesses which, at least in part, attempt to address the issue of the self, which has been a primary issue in Buddhism from the outset.
The seventh consciousness in the Yogacara system is ego consciousness. It’s that aspect of experience which appropriates what we’re experiencing as mine – as my experience.
The eighth consciousness is the pivot. It’s called Alaya consciousness, which is often rendered as ‘storehouse consciousness’. That word storehouse is a bit unfortunate, I think, because it has the connotation for us of a kind of granary reserve from which next year’s harvest can be produced. But that’s not the purpose of the term. Rather, it’s to suggest that present experience derives from past experience – our karma, if you want to put it that way.
Alaya does not specifically mean storehouse in Sanskrit. It means dwelling. So: where we figuratively live or what is habitual and usual for us is the intention – one intention – of the phrase, which encapsulates something, which I think that we can agree on.
We’re like a little Alsatian puppy that gets bitten, very young, by a black Labrador. And then – for the rest of our lives – we look around for black Labradors to attack, before they attack us.
We can see that when we’re sitting. Alongside all the randomness, the mental noise, what comes up has a certain emotional structure to it which is unpleasantly familiar to us. You might have a habitual feeling of fear, or anxiety. I may have habitual feelings of anger, or of indignation, or of bitterness. But I think you get the idea.
It’s not that the Alaya consciousness – the dwelling– is full of seeds for the future. It’s rather, it’s full of ghosts from the past who keep half incarnating in our present experience.
The pivot for the Yogacara system is when we see this. When we can see the deep structure, as it were, of our experience (quintessentially during zazen). When we can see that, that’s the potential switch to what it would call mirror consciousness, which is the other aspect of Alaya.
Instead of being in this karmic tempest, it’s as if we’re seeing it within a mirror. Or, more accurately, we’re like a mirror which is just simply, dispassionately experiencing whatever is in front of it.
And the Yogacara would say that that switch then works its way back down through the previous seven consciousnesses, and transforms experience from something dualistic and predetermined by the past into something non-dual and spontaneously one with the aliveness of everything in the present moment. Dogen’s small boat, unperturbed by the waves. So, that’s the switch.
Rather than abstractions, we should think of these consciousnesses in terms of our actual experience in zazen. Being aware of this tendency to appropriate experience to me, aware of the familiar structures that our thoughts and emotions habitually congeal into. And sometimes, because of that awareness, we can experience this mirror consciousness, this pivot.
It’s not something which we work and work and work and work towards and eventually realise and retain, a fantasy of becoming enlightened. It’s something which we experience in the present moment and lose in the present moment. But it’s the experiencing of it which is important. This enlightening moment.
It’s as if in our normal experience, strangers keep coming into our dwelling. And when the stranger opens their mouth to say what they need to say, we don’t hear their voice – we hear our voice. Or, to put it another way, when the stranger is about to start speaking, we suddenly take a gag and place it across the mouth of that person, stopping them from speaking. And we write something on that gag like ‘fear’ or ‘pain’, whatever is most familiar. The switch is: not doing that. Not gagging the stranger. Not failing to hear the stranger’s voice. But living at this moment with the voices of all these strangers, all around us. Who then, aren’t.
And never were