On Consciousness

Shi Yinyi
Shi Yinyi
Since 1998, I have been following the kind mentor of BPI to start the journey on Buddhism. ...Read More

  Essay Writing of Buddhas’ Practice Incorporated
  
  On Consciousness

  Supervisor: Director Wang Huaigu, Master Wuguang
  Submitted by: Bhikkhuni Shi Yin Yi
  June 23, 2023

  Abstract
  This study explores consciousness from a Buddhist perspective. It begins by focusing on the definition of consciousness: consciousness is a seed, formed through habituation and conditioned by that habituation. It is also effortlessness. In the course of this exploration, I utilized Buddhist scriptures and several real-life examples to discuss why it is necessary to define consciousness in this manner, with a particular emphasis the principle of formation of consciousness through perfume. Furthermore, the study analyzes the four characteristics of consciousness: defilement, falsehood and delusion, impermanence, and the difficulty of eradicating negative qualities. Through these four characteristics, a deeper understanding of the fundamental concept of consciousness is developed and strengthened.Without recognizing consciousness, all actions are carried out in a state of ignorance, which is contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. However, by having a precise understanding of consciousness and acting in a state of clarity, one aligns with the natural way. It is similar to holding a compass in the vast ocean, preventing confusion, bewilderment, and straying from the right path. Therefore, the study of consciousness and attaining a profound understanding of it is an essential undertaking.

  Contents

  Chapter 1 Introduction 1

  Chapter 2 Fundamental Concepts of Consciousness 2

  Section 1 Definition of Consciousness 2
  .Consciousness as a Seed 2
  .Habituation Leading to Consciousness 3
  .Manifestation of Consciousness after Habituation 6

  Section 2 Nature of Consciousness 8
  .Contaminating Nature 8
  .Illusory and Unreal Nature 9
  .Impermanent Nature 9
  .Stubborn and Hard-to-Eliminate Nature 10

  Chapter 3 Conclusion 11

   
  As a preliminary topic of research, this chapter begins by clarifying the motivation and objectives of the study. It then explores the research status through a literature review and presents an overview of the entire document’s structure. Initially, when hearing phrases like “The three realms are only a manifestation of our mind, all phenomena are nothing but consciousness, everything in the universe is transformed by consciousness,” I was lost in confusion. Eventually, I studied some sutras and heard some teachings, which gave me a somewhat abstract understanding of the concept of consciousness. However, I still have limited knowledge of its true significance.
  As stated in the Flower Ornament Sutra , “Without someone expounding the Dharma, even if you possess wisdom, you will be unable to understand.” If there is no one to explain the teachings, even with intelligence and wisdom, it is difficult to comprehend the Buddha’s intent. In order to dispel the confusion in my mind, I have relied on recent teachings from master, drawing from the wisdom of the Buddha and various patriarchs, and combining it with my own observations and personal experiences. Through this preliminary exploration, I hope to shed some light on the profound meaning of “consciousness.” Firstly, I will elucidate the concept of consciousness by referencing the explanations found in classical texts and relating them to social and personal examples. Then, in order to further understand consciousness, I will explore its nature based on the content of scriptures and treatises.
  The entire document is divided into three main chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction, Chapter 2 explores the basic concept of consciousness, which is further divided into two sections: Section 1 defines consciousness, and Section 2 discusses the nature of consciousness. Chapter 3 is the conclusion, providing a comprehensive summary of the key discussions presented in this thesis.

  Section 1: Definition of Consciousness

  1. The Meaning of Consciousness

  What is consciousness? How is it defined in Buddhism? In the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, Volume 1, it states:
  ”Bhadrapāla, what is the meaning of consciousness? Consciousness is named ‘seed’ because it is capable of producing buds that eventually mature into diverse karmic bodies.The body contains not only buds that eventually mature into diverse karmic bodies, but the functions, manifestations, and perceptions of consciousness, including sensation, perception, thinking, and mindfulness. Thus, the body knows suffering, happiness, goodness, and evil, the realms of wholesome and unwholesome, hence it is called consciousness.
  In the Buddhâvataṃsaka-mahāvaipulya-sūtra, in Volume 37, it mentions that the karma created by body, speech, and mind is the field, and consciousness is the seed.What does it mean for consciousness to be the seed? It refers to the recognition of oneself as very clever, this consciousness acts as the seed sown in the field of actions. For instance, when a person recognizes money and, for the sake of money, employs any means to create actions, the karma created by the person become the field, and the seed of consciousness is sown in that field of actions.
  In the “Explanations of the Heart Sutra,” it’s stated that the Buddha described this ‘five aggregates body’ as rooted in consciousness, and consciousness is the seed of birth and death. What is consciousness? From the above discussion, it’s not hard to see that consciousness is the seed. For instance, the body’s ability to perceive pain, pleasure, distinguish good from bad, and the realms of good and evil—all encapsulated within—is termed as consciousness.

  2. Permeation to Form Consciousness

  From what we’ve understood, consciousness is the seed. To thoroughly clarify the meaning of consciousness, let’s delve further into analysis. How is consciousness formed as a seed? Consciousness is formed through permeation, through repeated recognition. In other words, what is permeated beforehand becomes the identity. First, let’s understand what permeation entails. Permeation refers to the process of conditioning. Similar to placing perfume or fragrance in a wardrobe, the clothes absorb the lingering scent. Similarly, individuals, influenced by their parents, society, and educational institutions regarding lifestyle, start recognizing and associating themselves with certain ways of eating, dressing, leisure, and enjoyment.
  When it comes to the taste of various foods, initially, it’s not one’s own perception of their taste. It’s not that one inherently assigns sourness, sweetness, bitterness, or spiciness to these foods. These perceptions accumulate from what parents say, what teachers impart, what people in society express, gradually passing on to oneself. With continued exposure, these perceptions become ingrained. Just like a one or two-year-old child who doesn’t inherently know that grapes are sour or that apples are sweet. However, after hearing it from others, the child understands that grapes are sour and apples are sweet. From that point on, they firmly believe that grapes are sour and apples are sweet.
  People’s perception of the taste of food is permeated. Their understanding of what they can or cannot eat is also permeated. Just like how Westerners don’t eat stinky tofu, why not? Because when they smell stinky tofu, it’s almost more offensive than their own excrement—how could they possibly eat it? However, Chinese people believe stinky tofu is edible and have been consuming it for over a thousand years. Why? It’s a matter of permeation. Through permeation, stinky tofu has become something that is edible. Westerners, on the other hand, haven’t been permeated to accept it; they’ve been permeated to believe that stinky tofu is inedible.
  Take, for instance, the curious tribe in the Brazilian indigenous region—the Dawalavara Village, where the indigenous people, men, women, the elderly, and children alike, are all completely naked. They don’t feel embarrassed upon seeing others; they continue to play and engage in their activities as they please. They believe that not wearing clothes is right, it’s normal. Conversely, when they see someone wearing clothes, they find it odd, especially during hot summers when they observe people dressed; they consider it an act of madness. However, nearly everyone, conditioned by parents since childhood, is taught to wear clothes immediately upon waking up in the morning. Not wearing clothes is unacceptable; it’s shameful except for infants. As they grow slightly older, going out without clothes is strictly prohibited. In reality, all these perceptions are permeated by parents and the outside world. Through prolonged permeation, it naturally becomes a form of consciousness.
  For example, since childhood, the author only ate plain rice as the main staple for all three meals. Noodles or porridge were completely avoided. However, later while studying away from home, breakfast options were limited to porridge and noodles. Reluctantly, out of necessity, I began eating them. One bite, not bad; two bites, quite good; three bites… and so on. Gradually, as I ate, paying attention to the taste, feeling, and becoming accustomed to it, I started craving these foods. With time, I ended up desiring them.
  Similarly, consider couples worldwide—were they born knowing they had to get married? No. Did they grow up thinking marriage was great? No. Did they inherently long for marriage in their childhood? Not at all. They didn’t have such concepts in their early years. However, as they grew older and observed people around them getting married, celebrating the union, they began to believe that marriage was good. Add to that the societal narrative, with people saying it’s better for men to establish a home before a career and advocating for a fulfilling life achieved through a prosperous family and career. Through continuous exposure to these beliefs and societal norms, with time, they accepted the idea that getting married is a must. This process follows the same principle as the example of clothing perception mentioned earlier
  It’s evident that consciousness is permeated, formed through repeated recognition. In short: permeation shapes consciousness.
  The Third Compilation: Learning Across the Three Vehicles records,Ignorance of the mind and actions driven by ignorance are transient and impermanent, arising and ceasing in a split second, continuously tainted or fabricated. Subsequently, past lives bring forth these habitual tendencies. Presently, what one sees, hears, or feels is pleasurable, thereby cultivating these habits. This gives rise to discernment, permeating the seeds of consciousness.
  What is the Buddha conveying in this passage? The innate perception, observation, and awareness inherent in everyone’s nature originally served as a virtuous function of one’s inherent nature. It was originally incapable of accommodating habitual delusions.
  However, it is capable of experiencing everything through these deluded habits. It’s akin to encountering peculiar and rare items many years ago. A single glimpse creates a powerful memory due to its extraordinary nature.
  After many years, due to infrequent use, the memory of the item fades, becoming forgettable. Eventually, when suddenly encountering this strange item again, the memory of seeing it many years ago resurfaces vividly, as if it was never lost.
  Why does this happen? It’s due to the clarity of true consciousness, it’s refined, profound, and unshaken. Within this clarity of true consciousness, within the essence of reality, what consideration is there?
  When people encounter peculiar items, they don’t just glance and walk away. Driven by curiosity, they can’t resist taking multiple looks—first one, then two, then three, and so on—each glance leading to a thought, each thought beginning the process of influence.
  Eventually, within your field of consciousness, this thing settles down. Hence, the Buddha eventually tells Venerable Ānanda about various habitual tendencies, connecting them through perception, hearing, and awareness.
  Simply put, it’s about cultivating these habits and actions. What is this cultivation of habits (habitual tendencies, conditioning)? It’s immersed in the fabric of delusion, the subtle mental fabrications of the fifth inverted perception (conditioned thoughts and delusions).
  Additionally, in the “Verses on the Structure of the Eight Consciousnesses Annotations” it is stated: “Habitual tendencies are the seeds held within. This refers to that in consciousness, from a time without a beginning until now, every single moment, even the slightest, is being permeated between each moment. Through these seeds of habitual tendencies, actions and conduct arise, resulting in the receipt of karmic consequences, leading to the six realms.” From this passage in the scripture, it becomes evident that consciousness is permeated at every single moment.
  In the Great Vehicle Manifestation of Consciousness, Volume Two, it is stated: “The sensations, intentions, and mental distress experienced by individuals are all functions of consciousness, which perceives these through karmic impressions. Furthermore, the cultivation of wholesome and unwholesome actions establishes tendencies, which in turn manifest as inclinations. These functions illustrate the force of consciousness.”
  Moreover, in the ‘Twelfth Chapter: Doctrine of Essence’ it is stated: ‘Seeds are indeed consciousness; seeds are the functional aspect of consciousness, formed from the habitual tendencies of the preceding seven consciousnesses.
  From the aforementioned excerpt, it is understood that consciousness is formed through habitual tendencies. Consequently, it can be defined as ‘habituation leading to consciousness.’
  Three, after consciousness is tainted, it manifests as spontaneous action without deliberate effort.
  What happens after consciousness is tainted? It attains a state of unwavering firmness, acting naturally and effortlessly, without conscious thought. For instance, ‘Drunken Shrimp’ is a specialty dish in the Qiubei region of Yunnan, renowned as a local delicacy. Generations of people in this area have been accustomed to preparing this delicious dish. In the Puzhehei area of Yunnan, fish and shrimp are abundant. During the summer, locals serve live shrimp soaked in strong liquor and aged vinegar. When eating, they dip the shrimp simmered in alcohol and vinegar in soy sauce and vinegar. In their perception, Drunken Shrimp isn’t just a culinary delight; it’s also rich in protein, beneficial for recuperation after illness or for strengthening weak bodies.
  Hence, whenever guests arrive in Puzhehei, hospitable locals spontaneously offer a bowl of Drunken Shrimp. They can instinctively pick up live shrimp and eat without hesitation, demonstrating a natural and instinctive response.
  In certain South American countries, there’s a practice of placing live frogs, still filled with their excrement and urine, into a blender, blending them, and then consuming the mixture. These individuals hold strong misconceptions, believing that consuming this concoction enhances their vigor for sexual activities, considering it a potent tonic. Does everyone have the ability to consume this? No, the author wouldn’t. Just the thought of it is nauseating. Why can they consume it so naturally while the author cannot? It’s because the author has never been tainted by those misconceptions, never believed it to be a tonic. This contamination of misconceptions hasn’t formed into consciousness, hence not reaching the state of spontaneous action without deliberate effort.
  Here’s another common example: Anyone who knows how to write their own name, when asked to sign something, does so effortlessly, without needing a few seconds to contemplate. Some can even sign accurately with their eyes closed. Similarly, someone with nearsightedness won’t place their glasses on their mouth; they instinctively put them on their eyes. When they want to eat something, they won’t try to insert it into their ear but naturally guide it into their mouth. Undoubtedly, these actions occur effortlessly due to habitual tendencies forming into consciousness, manifesting as spontaneous and effortless actions.”
  The manifestation of spontaneous action without deliberate effort due to the conditioning of consciousness is depicted in the Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra, where there’s a story about a maid halting a river’s flow.
  In the Shurangama Sutra Commentary, Volume 5, it states: ‘Bilinjiapocuo—this term ‘maid’ is due to residual habitual tendencies. The term ‘summoning the spirit of the Ganges’ did not come from intentional thought. Due to the residual arrogance from past five hundred lifetimes as a Brahmin, these habitual tendencies lead him to refer to others as ‘maid’ even when they have already become spirits of the Ganges.’
  Moreover, in the Sutra on the Great Benefit of the Buddha’s Teaching, Volume 6, it mentions: ‘Furthermore, even after the Buddha’s habitual tendencies have ceased, the two vehicles’ habitual tendencies are not yet exhausted. Like the bhikkhu who habitually acts like an ox due to having been an ox in many past lives; or the bhikkhu who, despite having eliminated all defilements, still constantly looks at himself in the mirror due to having been a libertine in many past lives; or the bhikkhu who habitually leaps and bounds due to having been a monkey in many past lives.’
  Why does the bhikkhu behave like an ox even when liberated from afflictions? Why do the bhikkhus still peer into mirrors despite being free from defilements? Why does a bhikkhu exhibit jumping actions? From these passages, it’s evident that these tendencies were conditioned through countless lifetimes, forming into consciousness, and persisting through subsequent existences, naturally manifesting as spontaneous actions without deliberate effort.
  Summing up, what is consciousness exactly? Consciousness is a seed formed through conditioning. It can be defined as ‘habituation leading to consciousness’ or ‘spontaneous action without deliberate effort.’

  Section Two: The Nature of Consciousness

  From the analysis in the previous section, the definition of consciousness and the underlying principles for such a definition have become clear. Next, let’s delve into the nature of consciousness, exploring the explanations and analyses provided in various sutras and treatises. References to the nature of consciousness are found in texts such as the Sutra on the Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life, the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Treatise on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, the Great Buddha Crown Tathagata’s Unsurpassed Secret Meaning Bodhisattvas’ Myriad Practices King Sutra, the Miscellaneous Discourses, the Differentiated Discourses, and the Buddha Pronounces the Seal of Truth Sutra. These texts collectively provide insights into the nature of consciousness, allowing for a deeper understanding.
  Upon analysis, the nature of consciousness can be summarized into four aspects: 1. The nature of contamination, 2. The nature of falsity and unreality, 3. The nature of impermanence, and 4. The nature of being difficult to eradicate and obstinate.”

  1. The Nature of Contamination

  Given that consciousness arises from conditioning, it is imperative to acknowledge its contaminating nature, as the world is rife with powerful misconceptions.
  As recorded in Volume 3 of the Sutra on the Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life:’The accumulated habitual tendencies of sentient beings since time immemorial have pervaded this field of consciousness, resulting in the formation of the five turbidities. It is likened to a filthy vessel filled with maggots. Even if cleansed with the intent to transform it into a delicacy, it remains foul and putrid.’
  Additionally, in Volume 8 of the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana:’It indicates that prior to attaining Buddhahood, consciousness is tainted, necessitating the transition from contaminated consciousness to the arising of pure seeds of consciousness.”
  ”Although consciousness possesses contaminating qualities, its inherent nature pervades all things and remains untainted by any place or object. Just as stated in Volume 1 of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra:
  ’The inherent nature of consciousness pervades all places, remaining untainted by any place or object. Whether it’s the six sense faculties, the six sense objects, or the five aggregates of afflictions, consciousness pervades and yet remains untouched by their contamination. This illustrates the function and utility of consciousness.’
  The inherent nature of consciousness extends everywhere; it remains unaffected by any particular place or object.”

  2. The Falsity and Unreal Nature of Consciousness

  Consciousness is like illusory flowers in the sky, ephemeral and unreal, rather than inherently real.
  As stated in Volume 5 of the Shurangama Sutra:
  ”The Buddha told Ananda, ‘For sentient beings in the heavenly realms, regarding this consciousness as real, it is nevertheless illusory, just like flowers in the sky.'”
  In Volume 2 of the Shurangama Sutra:
  ”Consider someone carrying a bottle filled with ’emptiness’ to a distant land to reward other countries. Similarly, consciousness is thus falsely unreal. From its essence, it lacks inherent existence; it is inherently empty. Attempting to reward others with emptiness is an impossible task. Through this analogy, the Buddha elucidates to the assembly that the consciousness aggregate is illusory, akin to illusions in dreams and not inherently existent.”
  These excerpts illustrate the illusory and unreal nature of the consciousness aggregate, likening it to a phantom or something lacking inherent existence, as explained through similes and analogies by the Buddha

  3. The Impermanent Nature of Consciousness

  Beings rely on consciousness, constantly engaging with it, believing it to be eternal and unchanging, unaware of its impermanence.
  As stated in Volume 1 of the Miscellaneous Discourses:
  ’One should contemplate correctly upon the five aggregates and, through proper observation, come to understand the impermanence of consciousness.’
  In the Buddha Pronounces the Seal of Truth Sutra:
  ’All consciousness arises from the union of causes and conditions, and both causes and consciousness are impermanent and ungraspable.'”
  These teachings emphasize the impermanent and transient nature of consciousness, urging accurate contemplation and observation to realize its impermanence.

  4. The Difficulty in Eradicating the Stubborn Nature of Consciousness

  In scriptures, examples are used to illustrate the stubborn and hard-to-eliminate nature of consciousness.
  As mentioned in the Treatise of the Great Commentary on the Abhidharma, Volume 18:
  ’Modern girl Mara saw Venerable Ananda, and why did desire arise, persistently pursuing without relenting? It’s because they had been in a marital relationship for five hundred lifetimes in the past. Their deeply ingrained habitual tendencies of consciousness are excessively stubborn, challenging to eradicate and remedy. Hence, upon their encounter, such binding characteristics naturally manifest.’
  Additionally, the earlier example of the bhikkhu acting like an ox perfectly illustrates the stubborn nature of consciousness, which is challenging to eliminate and remedy.
  From the descriptions in these scriptures, it’s evident that consciousness possesses contaminating, illusory and unreal, impermanent, and stubborn and hard-to-eliminate qualities

Chapter 3: Conclusion

  Since delving into the study of consciousness, understanding its meaning has been paramount. Due to my limited exposure to scriptures and lack of profound exploration, I encountered several obstacles along the way. Fortunately, the foundational guidance from a great mentor served as a cornerstone for my article, supplemented by the explanations found in scriptures. This support enabled me to approach the discourse on consciousness without feeling utterly lost. In my view, comprehending consciousness isn’t solely achieved through reading textual content but rather demands reliance on real-life examples to facilitate a deeper understanding.
  Similar to how this paper, in Chapter 2, presented everyday observations and combined them with classical content to delineate the definition of consciousness: it is a seed formed through habitual tendencies, known as ‘habituation leading to consciousness,’ also termed as ‘spontaneous action without deliberate effort.’ Furthermore, the analysis of scriptures dissected four inherent qualities of consciousness: contaminating nature, illusory and unreal nature, impermanent nature, and the stubborn and hard-to-eliminate nature. Consequently, this exploration led to a deeper appreciation of the concept of consciousness.
  Through this investigation, I aspire that my understanding of consciousness will further elevate in future studies. I aim to contemplate in accordance with the teachings, practice diligently, first understanding the meaning of consciousness and then transforming consciousness into wisdom, thereby attaining great freedom!”

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