Come along if you care
Come along if you dare
Take a ride to the land
inside of your mind
Beyond the seas of thought
Beyond the realm of what
Across the streams of hopes and dreams
where things are really not
– The Amboy Dukes
Karma, a Sanskrit word meaning “action,” is the collection of potential effects which are said to reside in the inner realms of consciousness and manifest in various ways at various points in the future.
Buddhism teaches that every action has a reaction, and every action imprints a latent influence on one’s life. These actions need not always be physical in nature. Karma is created though thought, words, and deeds. Greed, anger and delusion compound the negative aspects of karma, and all karma is carried over into this life and future lives though consciousness.
Consciousness (vijnana) refers to discerning, comprehending or judgment and is one of the five components or aggregates (skandhas). Early Buddhism defined six consciousness, functions which perceive objects as well as the subject who perceives them. They correspond to the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body and mind, and with sounds, tastes, scents, forms and textures. In short, the senses and everything the senses perceive. The 6th Consciousness (the mind or intellect) integrates the perceptions of the senses into coherent images.
The Abhidharma Pitaka (one of the three “baskets” of the Pali canon) saw the 6th Consciousness or mind-consciousness as the ultimate basis of life. Without going into great detail, it is suffice to say that the Mahayanists felt this did not fully explain how karma transmigrates the cycle of birth and death. Since the working of the six consciousnesses are interrupted from time to time, it is difficult to find a continuing subject that performs cognition. The six Consciousnesses are but the surface of the mind.
The difficulty in regards to karma was resolved somewhat by the Consciousness-only school of Mahayana (aka Yocacara) with the concept of a continuum of sub-consciousness below the surface or conscious level of the mind. This school, systematized largely by Asanga and Vasubandhu, defined two more realms of mind beneath the 6th Consciousness.
7th Consciousness or mano-consciousness:
The word mano comes from manas and originally meant mind, intellect or thought. The 6th Consciousness is limited to thoughts and judgments concerning ordinary, external life matters. The mano-consciousness, however, represents a deeper cognition.
The mano-consciousness is independent from the senses in terms of its functions, yet it bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind. Here is where the delusions concerning the false idea of a “self” originate.
Yet this still did not provide a full accounting for how karma transmigrates or how it continues to operate from past to present to future. Thus, an eighth consciousness was proposed
Eighth Consciousness or alaya-consciousness:
Alaya means “abode’ or “receptacle.” Actually, the sixth, seventh, and eighth consciousness already existed in Buddhist theory, however, they had never been represented in this manner or in this context before, so it is not a case of the Mahayana philosophers creating them out of thin air.
All of one’s past thoughts, words and deeds are said to be stored in the 8th Consciousness as potential influences. Memories and experiences exist in a form of psychic energy. If that sounds too New Age, then think of them as seeds planted in the soil of the mind that will sprout and exert influence at some future time. Or look at them as imprints or traces of past thoughts, words and deeds etched onto the hard drive of consciousness. Our karmic history is stored in this extremely deep layer of the mind, the 8th Consciousness.
We have certain feelings at one moment but they disappear the next – where, for instance, does happiness go? It returns to the depths of our being. Let’s say we get angry, then after a few minutes the anger seems to leave. Where did it go? A single moment of anger is stored in the alaya or 8th Conciousness, also known as the Storehouse Consciousness.
The concept of an 8th level of consciousness provided an explanation as to how karma is deposited and carried over into future lifetimes. Both positive and negative karma is stored in this consciousness, which led some Buddhists to see it as a battleground of the good and evil forces within life. For that reason, it seems that without another more profound dimension, these forces would be locked in infinite combat.
Ninth Consciousness or amala-consciousness:
The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) and Hua-yen (Flower Garland) schools proposed the existence of a 9th layer of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This level of mind lies beyond the level of the Storehouse Consciousness and is said to be free from any karmic influences. In this sense, it is pure consciousness, far beyond any sense of self, of “I”.
In the Shurangama Sutra it reads, “World Honored One, the ground of fruition is Bodhi; nirvana; true suchness; the Buddha-nature; the amala consciousness; the empty treasury of the Thus Come One; the great, perfect mirror-wisdom. But although it is called by these seven names, it is pure and perfect, its substance is durable, like royal vajra, everlasting and indestructible.
[It should be noted that ancient Buddhists did not mean for words like “everlasting” or “indestructible” to be taken literally. For a good explanation of the Buddhist use of what corresponds to the English word “eternal,” see Buddha Nature by Sallie B. King.]
Chih-i, founder of the T’ien-t’ai school, said in the Treatise on the Suvranaprabhasa Sutra (“Enlightened King Sutra”), “The ninth is the Buddha-consciousness.” He taught that if one can tap into this pure consciousness, it is possible to enable the other eight consciousness to function in an enlightened way.
But one cannot reach this level of mind encumbered with a “self”, an ego or soul or “the natural sense of ‘I am’” as this is to be burdened by delusion. The key is to see the self as something that is empty, non-existent in the ultimate analysis, a mere fiction. The self that is a stream of consciousness and transcends the limits of the aggregates of existence is a continuum in which the seeds or imprints of past thoughts, words and deeds (karma) are carried over into future lives, or future life-moments, and based on the accumulation of good or bad karma, we experience the corresponding results. And we do not travel separately within this continuum.
Perhaps you recall this bit of dialogue between Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in John Ford’s film of the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath:
Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.
Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.
I think it’s something like that.
Although I have only mentioned the aggregates or 5 Skandhas in passing, they are nonetheless an important subject. In the Treatise on the Storehouse of the Dharma, Vasubhandu, in the section entitled “Smashing the Self,” talks about eradicating all grasping at self through understanding the emptiness of the 5 Skandhas, the “psycho-physical components” of life.
In The Buddhist Tradition in Chinese Thought, Yao-Yu Wu explains further,
The five skandhas are all psychological processes, non-substantial and impermanent. If we analyze what is called a “person” according to the two aspects of body and mind, this person is constituted of nothing but the mutual continuation and harmonious union of the five skandhas. The ordinary person foolishly grasps at the five skandhas as his self. This is a mistaken notion. The Buddhist Dharma urges men to correct their mistaken notion and do away with ‘grasping at self.”
Because of grasping at self there arise the Three Poisons (greed, anger, and delusion), and the three poisons having arisen, it not only harms oneself, but others as well. For this reason, the Venerable Shakyamuni explained that the five skandhas are all empty, and gave proofs of the principle of anatman or non-self.
We can surrender to the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion, or we can embrace the virtues of compassion, peace, and wisdom. Because karma does mean “action” and indicates volition, we have a free will to determine our fate. We are the captains of the ship on which we cross over the sea of suffering. We are in control. This is why Buddhism is not fatalistic, nihilistic or deterministic. We have the power to do great good for ourselves and others, or we can commit great evil. Which path we take is, in the long run, determined by our state of mind. Buddhism gives us the tool with which to purify our mind, to tap into the pure Buddha consciousness, and change the negative thought patterns and karma into more positive ones. That tool is practice.