On Consciousness

Shan Yan
Shan Yan
Since 2022 till now, I have been following the kind mentor of BPI to start the journey on Buddhism....Read More

  Essay Writing of Buddhas’ Practice Incorporated
  —– (Issue 13) —–

  On Consciousness
  Instructor: Shi Ziju
  Author: Shi Fafu
  June 3, 2023, AD

I. Introduction

  In Buddhist concepts, the points that all living beings crave are deeply rooted consciousness. Because of craving, they always want more and better. However, the nature of consciousness is illusion, and if you pursue it, it will bring suffering. Buddhism not only teaches people that they cannot rely on consciousness, but more importantly, through a thorough understanding of what consciousness is and realizes that its essence is illusion, it lays a good foundation for the ultimate transformation of consciousness into wisdom and liberation.

  This article is mainly based on scriptures and facts to demonstrate, aiming to explore the core concept of consciousness: all beings are greedy for consciousness, and the essence of consciousness is illusion. As long as you desire something, there will be suffering. Specifically, the author will conduct research from the following aspects:

  First, starting with the definition of consciousness, discuss the definition of consciousness in Buddhist teachings.

  Secondly, starting from the core concept of consciousness, it is discussed from two aspects: one is that the essence of consciousness is illusion. The second is to follow the suffering caused by consciousness, and discuss the suffering caused by consciousness in terms of ignorance and wrong cognition, desire and greed.

  The final part of the conclusion summarizes the main viewpoints of this article and summarizes the value and shortcomings of this article.

II. The definition of consciousness

  Consciousness is an important concept in Buddhism, which is usually translated as consciousness, cognition, and awareness. In the classics, there are different definitions of consciousness from different angles. As stated in Volume 3 of the Shurangama Sutra:

  The nature of consciousness has no source, but is a false manifestation based on the six organs and their corresponding objects. Now, take a look at the entire sagely assembly gathered here. The observations made by your eyes are similar to reflections in a mirror, both being devoid of distinction-making. However, your consciousness will systematically identify what is seen: that is Manjushri, that is Purna, there is Maudgalyayana, there is Subhuti, and that one is Shariputra…You still do not realize that in the Treasury of the Tathagata, the nature of consciousness is bright knowing; enlightened brightness is the true consciousness. Wonderful enlightenment is tranquil and pervades the Dharma Realm. It encompasses the emptiness of the ten directions and issues forth from it. How could it have a location? Whatever manifests does so in compliance with karma. Ignorant of that fact, people of the world are so deluded as to assign its origin to causes and conditions or to spontaneity. These mistakes, which arise from the discriminations and reasoning processes of the conscious mind, are nothing but the play of empty and meaningless words.

  In this passage, the Buddha taught the nature and characteristics of consciousness, that is, consciousness is the ability to recognize, perceive, and distinguish things, It is produced by the illusion of the six sense organs and the six dust objects, and there is no root. Because there is recognition first, then consciousness will be produced, so it is natural to know who the people present at the Dharma conference are, who are Manjushri, Purna, and Moggallana. It can be seen that after having consciousness, you don’t need others to tell you, and you don’t need to deliberately think about it, you can use your actions to reveal what you see, hear, and perceive, and you can even do it right now. For example: facing a table of dishes, once served, you will know which dish you like to eat and which dish you don’t like, and you can pick the dishes you like automatically by hand. This is all because I have seen, heard, felt, and repeatedly known: “This dish is delicious, and that dish is not delicious”, and this kind of consciousness is displayed at the moment of the situation.

  At the same time, the Buddha also pointed out in this scripture that because the conscious mind distinguishes between calculations, the things it knows are false and have no real meaning at all. This is another core concept of consciousness in Buddhism, that is, the essence of consciousness is illusion.

  It is also recorded in Volume 10 of the Shurangama Sutra: if your pure, bright, clear, and unmoving state is permanent…How can you reckon the permeation which goes on in thought after thought in this pure, clear, and unmoving consciousness?… That’s why your seeing, hearing, awareness, and knowing are presently strung together by subtle habits, such that within the profound clarity, existence and non-existence are both illusory. This is the fifth kind of upside-down, minutely subtle thinking.”

  Here, ” upside-down, minutely subtle thinking.” refers to consciousness skandha and consciousness karma. Here the Buddha further explained the formation process of consciousness, that is, the formation of consciousness due to repeated recognition and practice. As stated in Volume 2 of the Mahayana Revealing Consciousness Sutra: “Feeling, thinking, action, and distressing are the functions of consciousness. There are also good and bad karma, which are cultivated as seeds and function to reveal consciousness.” Good and bad karma are all due to It comes from learning and plays a role in consciousness. For example: a newborn child does not know who the parents are but influenced by the environment and the people around him, he is reminded every day: “This is the father, this is the mother.” After a long time, the child will naturally know who the father is, who is the mother. If some children are born with grandpa and grandma, even when they grow up to a certain age, they do not know their parents, and some children even consider grandpa and grandma as their parents, because they have not learned who their parents are. There is no such concept for father and mother in their Consciousness.

  It is also said in Volume 4 of the Shurangama Sutra: your seeing and hearing were not of different natures, but a multitude of defiling objects has divided them into crude differences. These natures have mutual awareness, but their functions are in opposition. Sameness and difference arise and they lose their identity. This entanglement becomes a falseness,
  which is the fifth layer, called the turbidity of a life span. Here life turbidity refers to consciousness skandh. Because what people are infected with are wrong cognitions and views, it is also called consciousness. And because of different taints, there are different consciousnesses, so different people will have different consciousnesses. For example: People from different regions have different tastes. People in some places like to eat spicy food, people in some places like to eat sweet food, and people in some places even like to eat worms and big maggots. People from different regions have different dressing concepts. The original Indians in the United States did not wear clothes, but Arab women had to cover their whole bodies when they went out. This is all due to the difference in the influence from childhood, and the “consciousness” is different.

  Furthermore, the delicacy that people usually think of is also a result of learning, which is also a wrong perception. For example: In the book “A Brief History of the Human Body”, the author mentioned: “The food that people eat is just the vibration of molecules at different frequencies”, so there is no distinction between “delicious” and “not delicious”. “Delicious” and “not delicious” are just people’s subjective perceptions, and they are just erroneous perceptions and opinions that have been infected by each, and do not exist in the food itself.

  To sum up, it can be defined that consciousness is formed by repeated understanding and practice and will eventually be developed naturally. Different influences and cognitions will form different “consciousnesses”, and these “consciousnesses” will affect people’s cognition and judgment of things. At the same time, Buddhism also emphasizes the illusion of “consciousness”.

III. The core concept of consciousness

  (Ⅰ) The essence of consciousness is illusion

  In Buddhism, the essence of consciousness is illusion. This is because the existence of “consciousness” depends on the karma of the six organs and six objects, rather than a real entity. As stated in Volume 3 of the Shurangama Sutra: the nature of consciousness has no source, but is a false manifestation based on the six organs and their corresponding objects. Although consciousness is not real, it can make people feel as if they exist in the six sense organs. For example: People can distinguish different colors by looking at them; they can know different sounds by listening with their ears, but they can’t find out the entity of consciousness.

  In the Mahayana Sutra of Manifestation of Consciousness, Volume 1, it is written, “Thus from consciousness comes receptivity, and from receptivity comes enlightenment, and from enlightenment comes dharma, and thus one can know good and bad. Because people have different types of consciousness, they have different feelings of good and bad in their minds and bodies. In Volume 1 of this sutra, it is also said, “The realm of consciousness is likewise colorless, formless, and devoid of light, and, for reasons, it displays a wide variety of different functions. This shows that consciousness is a wonderful use of the nature of the Self, and whether it is a good or bad feeling, it is manifested according to cause and condition.

  It is also stated in Volume 2 of the Shurangama Sutra:
  Therefore, you should know that in fact the colors originate from the lamp, and the disease of the seeing brings about the reflection. Both the circular reflection and the faulty seeing are the result of the cataract. But that which sees the diseased film is not sick. Thus, you should not say that the cause is the lamp or the seeing or neither the lamp nor the seeing. Consider the example of which is neither substantial nor a reflection. This is because the double image of the moon is merely a result of applying pressure on the eyeball. Hence, a wise person would not try to argue? that the second moon either has or doesn’t have a form, or that it is apart from the seeing or not apart from the seeing. The same is true in this case: the illusion is created by the diseased eyes. You cannot say it originates from the lamp or from the seeing: even less can it be said not to originate from the lamp or the seeing.

  In this passage, the Buddha teaches that it is only those with diseased eyes who can see the five-colored round shadows. Those who do not have diseased eyes cannot see them. Similarly, the illusory nature of consciousness is also manifested in people’s likes and dislikes of things. For example, people’s greed for food, clothing, shelter, money, property, and things is also due to their own “greed” disease, repeatedly recognizing that “good food, good clothing, good shelter, and good money ……”, and then fostering their “consciousness”, so that they have likes and dislikes for them, and so there are different phenomena, such as some people like to eat, some prefer to wear, and some covet to love people. This is why some people prefer food, some prefer clothing, some prefer people, and some prefer people. It is also stated in Volume 6 of the Shurangama Sutra: Sight and hearing are like an illusory covering. The triple realm, a vision of flowers in space. When hearing reverts, the covering of the sense-organs is gone. The defiling dust gives way to pure and perfect insight. With ultimate purity, the light is penetrating. A stillness shines and includes within it all of emptiness. Once the six root karmic habits are purified, there will be no more likes and dislikes.
  To summarize: Consciousness is a subtle use of the nature of the Self. Its nature is illusion, and it manifests itself in different ways according to the circumstances. People’s perceptions and feelings about things are all based on the illusory nature of consciousness.

  (Ⅱ) Suffering caused by following consciousness

  Suffering caused by following Consciousness means that when people follow Consciousness and cling to their cognition, they will bring about pain and suffering. Specifically, there are two aspects:

  ⅰ. Ignorance and misconceptions

  As mentioned earlier, people’s consciousness is all contaminated consciousness, which is the play of ignorance, which will inevitably lead to ignorance and misunderstanding of the true nature, which will lead to misunderstanding and attachment to the world. Example: When people become attached to their own ideas and opinions, they contradict the opinions and opinions of others. This attachment leads to conflict and conflict with others, which brings pain and suffering. For example: In a family, the mother said that the arrangement of things looked elegant; the grandmother said that it was unlucky and might bring disaster. The reason why the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law quarrel over the arrangement of a small item is because they are each attached to their own consciousness.

  Similarly, when people are obsessed with material things, wealth, and fame, they will fight, thus ignoring inner peace and satisfaction, resulting in uneasiness and pain in the mind, and will also create immeasurable bad karma and suffer immeasurable bitter consequences in the future. This is true between countries, between families, and between people.

  ⅱ. Desire and Greed

  Desire and greed are two important concepts in Buddhism, and they are at the root of all the problems people encounter in life. As stated in Volume 4 of the Sutra on Mahayana Contemplation of Generating from Heartland Originally, “All suffering is caused by greed; if we break off the pursuit, we will fulfill all suffering.” All suffering is caused by greed. When people follow the “knowledge” and cling to cognition, they will have desire and greed, which will lead to all kinds of suffering. For example: When people are obsessed with pursuing good feelings, they will desire more good feelings. People mistakenly believe that only through continuous pursuit can inner satisfaction and happiness be obtained. However, all things in the world are born of causes and conditions, and as they come into existence, they will die. No matter how you pursue them, you will never be able to truly obtain them. With the increase of this attachment and desire, the suffering will be more. For example: if you eat your favorite thing for three days without stopping, you will no longer feel good, it must be a painful feeling. And once one is not satisfied, there will be the suffering of not being able to get what one wants, the suffering of parting from love, and the suffering of blazing five skandhas. Even if you are satisfied in an instant, as long as your heart is still pursuing this desire and your stomach is full, your heart will still suffer from the pain of not getting what you want. By analogy, people’s persistent pursuit of various “knowledges” and cognitions will produce all kinds of desires and greedy psychology, which will inevitably bring countless pains.

  To sum up, following consciousness brings pain and suffering.

Ⅳ. Conclusion

  Through an in-depth study of “consciousness” in this paper, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  Firstly, “consciousness” is an important concept in Buddhism, which is the nature and function of human consciousness. Secondly, the nature of “consciousness” is illusory, and once pursued, it leads to suffering. This is because people’s pursuit of and attachment to consciousness leads to misperception of and attachment to the world, which in turn leads to pain and suffering.

  The research in this paper has implications for both readers and academics. For readers, this paper provides a deeper understanding of the Buddhist perspective on “consciousness” and helps readers to better understand Buddhist teachings and thoughts. For academics, this article provides new ideas and perspectives for Buddhist studies and academics.

  However, there is still room for improvement. For example, the concept of transmutation of consciousness into wisdom is only skimmed over without detailed discussion. Therefore, future research can provide more insights and references by exploring in greater depth the nature of the illusion of consciousness and the method of transmutation of consciousness in Buddhism.


  Ⅰ. Ancient texts (in chronological order of dynasties)

  [Tang] Translated by Emperor Prami: Surangama Sutra, Taisho Collection, vol. 19.
  (Tang) Translated by Dibhārakāra: The Mahayana Sutra of Hinayana, Taisho Collection, vol. 12.
  [Tang] Translated Prajna: The Sutra on Mahayana Contemplation of Generating from Heartland Originally, Taisho Collection, vol. 03.

  Ⅱ. Others

  (English) Bill Bryson, translated by Lu Jia: “A Brief History of the Human Body”, Shanghai: Wenhui Publishing House, July 2020.
  URL: https://www.sanmin.com.tw/product/index/007716745,retrieved date: May 27, 2023.

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