Library: Member Essays
Yogacara Theory - Part Two: Evolving Intelligence
1. Visions of Modern Science
The way that science looks at the Universe has been steadily evolving and changing over the centuries, according to man's capacity to study nature. However, at least since the time of Tycho Brahe, Galileo and Kepler, it has become evident that we reside in an infinitely complex, highly mathematical celestial cosmos, where vast clusters of hundreds of thousands of stellar suns revolve in a shoreless ocean of space and time.1 The stars, much like the atoms of which they are constituted, dance to a rhythm imposed by the precise laws of physics. Planets, revolving round those stars, given the necessary conditions, allow for the birth of life, and that life too, follows essential physical laws governing movement, growth and even thought. This is the Universe in which we find ourselves—a highly organized system, filled with mystery and so enormous as to always ultimately be beyond the reach of our finite conceptual comprehension.
The whole complex Universe, so speculates Science, came into existence some fourteen billion years ago, in one huge momentous explosion of energy popularly termed the Big Bang.2 After applying a host of astronomical and scientific instruments to the study of the Cosmos, a measurement of the background noise of the Big Bang has been heard. The Big Bang birthed the Universe and time began.
Ever since Edwin Hubble discovered that the Universe is unimaginably greater than the single galaxy in which our minute solar system swims, it has become apparent that all stars, once long ago, burst forth from a single beginning. In fact, this was the beginning of space itself, and space has been expanding ever since. We now know that our sun is but one star amidst over a hundred billion in our galaxy alone. And yet our galaxy is one in as many as a 100 billion galaxies that are known to exist. Many of the observed galaxies of the cosmos are considerably greater than our own. And all are rushing away from one another, outward through time into the void of expanding space.
Vast as the present Universe is, apparently at the first moment of creation, everything exploded from a single miniscule infinitely dense point. So says modern science. But although this is now what science has discovered, it is startling to find a close correspondence between this modern vision and the intuitive writings of sages who lived in the past. If we turn to Yogacara doctrine and the "creation-myths' expressed in the Utpattikrama process of secret Tantra, we see that the singularity from whence all matter, space and time is said to have arisen, is referred to as the bindu, and it is said that this unique bindu (or first "Point of Creation') coalesced out of "zero" (sunya) ground. Zero-ground, or Emptiness (sunyata), is not space (akasa), nor does it endure in time (kala). It is nothing ("no thing') whatsoever, yet everything arises from it.3
Bindu means "dot". The red dot that the beautiful women of India traditionally place on their forehead, is referred to as a bindu. Ek-bindu means the single dot, the one point from which all arises: the perfect singularity. And Tantra frequently describes the entire universe as no more than an ek-bindu. Both space and time are born with the world, at the moment of the Big Bang; at the moment of the first Point of Creation. There is no space or time "beyond" the Universe as such. When we talk about the expanding Universe, we mean that the universe expands space in itself, and this interior expansion (to use a figure of speech) unfolds time. In Tantra, therefore, space and time is a continuum (santana), and this continuum is no more nor less than a perfect singularity (ek-bindu).4
Taking the Yogacara and Tantric doctrine a step further, we can say as
follows: the entire Universe came into being out of a deep mystery that
can only be called emptiness (sunyata), about which all speculation
must remain absent. A singularity (bindu), the beginning of time
itself, exploded into existence. That explosion, the so called Big Bang,
which continues to this day, is our Universe. At the very instant the
singularity unfolded into and became this Universe, the fundamental ground
(alaya) divided into subject (consciousness) and object
(phenomena). In cosmic terms, by the word consciousness we must
here understand the total unified field of perception (alaya-vijnana)
and by "phenomena' likewise the whole total unified field of phenomena
(dharma-dhatu), within space-time.
As the Cosmos or Universe which we know of is fairly obviously ordered in all of its parts, and the more immediate world that we live in is also quite ordered, it is reasonable to assume that the ordering of the energy of Creation, and the formation of stars and planets and living beings, is according to an intended plan. What we mean, is that the natural laws governing the physics and mathematics of the Universe had to have been in existence prior to creation itself. If the whole coming into existence of the Universe were all just a blind accident, then nothing would make any sense at all. It would almost be a sort of crazy bad joke. But the observable world does make sense. It is simply impossible to believe that the order, the harmony and system, that is observed in the existing Cosmos, could occur randomly and without meaning. However, if it is not an accident, then what we see is designed purpose, and this therefore implies a purposeful intelligence.
Designed purpose implies a system based on intelligent principle and
natural law, i.e., what in the East is called Dharma. When we observe
the world, we see the presence of intelligent principle and/or natural
Initially little order was apparent at all. For the first 100 million years after time began, the universe consisted of only a handful of elements, mostly hydrogen and helium, along with faint traces of lithium and beryllium, in a sort of super-dense utterly dark soup. Then massive clouds of hydrogen started to form, collapse and ignite in what rapidly became the blast furnaces of the first stars. When these massive clouds compacted, the simple atoms that made up the hydrogen where crushed together, burned and transmuted, into a growing concatenation of ever more complex particles. At that moment the universe began to light up.
The first stars were unlike any in the universe today. They were hundreds of times greater than our sun and millions of times brighter. They were the alchemical furnaces in which all matter as we know it was formed. These giant masses of compacted hydrogen burned for some three million years before their final conversion into dead cinders. From their death, sprang forth life. Indeed, the very elements of our bodies were churned out in those huge dying fireballs, burned out star dust, that now exists in our blood, bones and fat, in the living cells of our flesh. The same goes for the soil, rock and air of our Earth, all made from the embers of giant stars that flared and faded millions of years in the cosmic past.
Our galaxy contains about 100 billion stars. Most of all the stars forming the galaxy are concentrated in a thin disk about 100,000 light-years across and about 3,000 light years thick. These stars swim around the galactic centre in roughly circular orbits. Our sun is just one of these billions of points of light. A further 10 billion stars form the galactic corona, a spherical magnetic envelope containing hot gas that encompassing the entire galactic field.
Both western and eastern philosophy has long speculated on the existence of life on other planets or in the cosmos itself. Buddhism has always taken for granted that we are not alone in the universe, and that sentient beings are virtually infinite in number throughout space. A Cosmos that starts out from a single, highly chaotic Big Bang, then gradually forms into giant masses of collapsing fire-balls, progressing steadily through complex chemistry to give birth to organic life, cerebral intelligence and culture—with sentient beings who can look back and speculate on the structure of it all—must have meaning. The fact that this progression and steady self-organization evolves out of chaos naturally, without external intervention from any known higher power, only adds to the wonder!
It is through the work of men like Stephen Hawking and similar scientists,
as they deal with particle physics and with cosmology in the quantum theoretical
sense, that we now may come to see just how ordered the present universal
matter-energy field is.5
What is even more to the point, is that the very presence of this apparent intelligence that is seemingly participant in the creation or self-organization of order out of chaos in the world, implies a type of coherent volition or intentional movement over time. Could this be so? And if so, then what we seem to be discovering in our observation of the Cosmos, is the presence of an inchoate emerging intelligence (buddhi), manifesting as volition (yatna) in the implicate process. For there would be no Universe, as we observe it, without this organizing principle, this movement through time towards growing Order, being present within it.7
There is a phrase enunciated by Amritananda when expounding Tantric doctrine, as follows: "The Lord (i.e., Adi-Buddha, primal Intelligence) produces Yatna ("intended design') from Prajna (wisdom), and the cause of pravritti and nirvitti (the arising and destruction of the Universe) is Yatna."
A Universe operating under the super-imposition of Dharma, but involved in evolving order out of chaos with meaningful purpose, must be a relatively intelligent universe. But the key concept here is in the term evolution. Everything that we can observe about the universe, and thus every hint we can glean concerning the nature of the intelligence that would appear to be present in the known universe, implies that this intelligence or consciousness is evolving. Something within the make up of the entire world is accumulating or growing in its total information content all the time, and this accumulation of content is adding itself to the whole consistently. In other words, inherent intelligence is an emerging state born of constant proliferation. We may recognize this in the fact that the entire Universe is itself one total expanding system.
Consequently we can speculate as follows. The process of Creation is a continuous one, in which Intelligence recreates itself out of itself, continuously, emerging within the universe in the steady accumulation and proliferation of growing information, stored in the total ground (alaya) of existence-as-such, and gathered from the total interplay (lila) of all infinitely continuous series of interdependent realities (pratitya-samutpada) that are occurring, each relative in their reality to one another, throughout the whole of one space-time continuum. The ultimate result of this self-organizing ordering process is the infinite evolution of Consciousness (vijnana) in the Universe.
2. The Yogacara Model of Mind
Having speculated with science on the meaning of the Universe, let us turn to look at some theories expounded by certain Yogacara masters in the past.
The Yogacara model of mind is unique to itself and different from the teachings of any other school of Buddhism.8 It is, however, solidly founded on certain references made by the historical Buddha that may be found in scripture. This is true even for early scriptural statements in the Theravada and Sarvastivada canons. For example, in the Saddhatu-sutra, mention is made of an eternal consciousness at the back of all experience, and in the Digha-nikaya there are scattered identifications of the absolute with an "invisible infinite consciousness shining everywhere" (Pali: vinnanam anidassanam anatam sabbato prabham). Side by side with the often asserted denial of ego (i.e., the doctrine of anatmya) there are to be found statements, as shown by Conze (Recent Progress in Buddhist Studies, The Middle Way 34, 1959-1960), affirming a fundamental consciousness (mula-vijnana) as the permanent centre of personality. In some scriptural references, translucent mind (prabhasvara citta) is shown to constitute an ultimate reality in what otherwise is considered a conditional and transitory world.
There are a number of scholars, notably St-Schayer, Constantin Regamey and Marylla Falk, who have made an effort to subject scriptural study to comparative criticism, in an effort to penetrate to the early pre-canonical layer of Buddhism. They tackled the problem by assuming that, where the common canon contains tenets that conflict with the distinct scriptures of the Sarvastivada and Sthaviravada schools—tenets which, nevertheless, appear to have been carried through into the Vaipulya-sutras of the Mahayana school—the said tenets belonged to an earlier, original layer of doctrinal exegesis. The result of their investigation was to disclose a consistent belief, in the pre-canonical period, of an underlying condition of subtle mind (citta) transcendent from, or prior to, the acknowledged five components (skandhas) of ordinary life. This parallels fairly well certain statements to be found in the Dharmapada, to the effect that mind is the master of everything, and that everything ultimately derives from mind.
There is also the classic statement of the Buddha that may be found in the Anguttara Nikaya, which says:
Poetic contrast is created by these two verses, the first describing the state of Samsara, or worldly created existence, and the second describing Nirvana, which is transcendental and uncreate. Thus, in this statement from the Anguttara Nikaya, "mind" is deliberately pointed out as the primal root (mula) or single common ground (prakriti) of the fundamental opposites, Samsara and Nirvana.
Now, when we come to examine the classic Yogacara treatise known as the Bodhicittabhavana, written by the seventh century master Manjusrimitra, we are told that mind and mental-activity arises in the Universe in three ways.9 The three evolutes of mind (citta), as described by Manjusrimitra, are:
It is only the last, or third state of mind, which is ordinarily known to us. This third evolute of mind-in-general, is the individual body-based consciousness of everyday experience. Even though there is a great deal of mental activity and memory that goes on beyond the veil of our conscious experience, who we are as an organic sentient entity, is localized to the body.
But Manjusrimitra's discussion about mind does not start with an analysis of our localized finite consciousness. Instead, he begins, as it were, at the very beginning, in that he first lists what is called "all-ground consciousness". All-ground (Skt. alaya, in Tibetan Kun-gzhi, the whole or entire basis) literally means the basis of everything, the ground of the whole of existence.10 All-ground Consciousness therefore means a consciousness that is co-extensive with the ground of all. Furthermore, the Sanskrit word alaya carries the meaning of storehouse, or receptacle. The alaya-vijnana is thus considered both the common ground and the repository of everything.11
All-ground Consciousness is the complete store-house not only of the imprints (vasanas, trace impressions) of every experience ever occurring, but also retains the accumulated content of all sentient being's lives. This unimaginably vast Universal Consciousness exists as an endless continuum from the very beginning of beginningless time, until the final end thereof. Buddhism is imbued with the idea that the world operates according to the law of cause and effect—the principle of Karma. Every action therefore leaves its own vestigial imprint (vasana).
Even the tiniest shift in energy from the time of the inception of existence may be included in what is here meant by karma or activity, and the Big Bang – the arising of the natural forces or impulses (samskara) of Creation itself—that started it all, is likewise part and parcel of causal proliferation. And every karma, even the most imperceptible activity, leaves its imprint. Therefore Manjusrimitra argues:
What Manjusrimitra is saying here, is that when critical density is reached, a symmetry-collapse manifests, shattering the wholeness of original Intelligence (vidya) and giving rise to the duality that we see in Creation. For Manjusrimitra intelligence is primary and the world as such secondary. The world is the stage on which the play of consciousness occurs; a consciousness born out of the collapse of pre-Creation's latent state. This duality manifests therefore as all things throughout the world—both as observing consciousness and so called external objects.
The split between the conscious intelligence emerging in the universal order and all that consciousness may be aware of, gives rise to a fundamental obscuration that lies at the basis of samsaric existence. This obscuration emerges as obscured mentation (klista-manas). Manjusrimitra says:
The further obscuring effect of the power of the creative impulses (samskara) inherent in the nature of existence only further leads to subtle diminutions of states of awareness, giving rise to the six sensory consciousnesses localized to sentient life.
What Manjusrimitra seems to be saying here, is that from the first an intelligence is emerging from the fabric of Creation, but this intelligence, which is one with the inherent ground of existence itself, resulted from a breakdown of pre-cosmic wholeness. An inherent flaw in this emerging Universal Mind, is itself the cause for an obscured mentation to arise, which is the basic root of division between subject and object, spirit and matter, consciousness and phenomena. Intelligence is inherent to Creation, but somewhere along the way it became caught up in the duality that creation itself necessitates.
Furthermore, when and where ever living organisms begin to form, or for example, in the moment when conception occurs between ovum and spermatozoon, a further diminution occurs, in the form of a quantum collapse throughout the generalized field of obscured mentation (klista-manas). This transformation is an immediate alteration from the state of undifferentiated monad (vyakta) to that of individual particle (vyakti); in other words, from that of nonlocal unified field, to that of a localized consciousness (pravritti-vijnana). Thus multitudes of conscious beings take birth as distinct waves, or individual consciousnesses, within the otherwise endless single field that forms the great swelling ocean of universal mind.
Manjusrimitra adds, "It is from that [i.e., from those three stages in the evolution of mind], which has the characteristic of successive contamination, that conceptual-constructs between 'self' (atma) and 'other' (dharma) continuously reiterate."
This outlines the threefold nature of intelligence in the Universe, as seen through the teachings of Yogacara. Elaborating on the trend of the argument put forth by the Yogacara masters, it would seem that the lives of sentient beings are part of a complex energized feed-back loop between the All-ground Consciousness of the whole universe, on the one hand, and the entire bio-mass of infinitely diverse numbers of beings on the other, in which Klista-manas operates as the mediating principle. Should we take this concept a step further, perhaps it might be worth suggesting that the nature of individual sentient life is to act as experiential sensory-units for the implicate totality? In which case, we are all part of a vast unified field of energy that is mutually becoming ever more conscious, as it progressively adds to the accumulated body of its over-all information.
As Manjusrimitra says:
3. Some Conclusions Drawn from Yogacara Theory
The above is indeed very profound. There are however, some further minor conclusions that can be drawn from the Yogacara theory of mind.
Just as the bulk of information in your computer is not on the screen,
so too the bulk of information stored and manipulated in the Universe
is not on the screen of your consciousness. This implies a barrier between
the so called bulk of information not readily available to local consciousness,
and local consciousness itself. We may take it that this barrier is formed
by the obscuring Manas.
Our finite individual consciousness (pravritti-vijnana) encompasses only what is made available to it through the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch), and through what we call the mental-consciousness (mano-vijnana). Mental-consciousness perceives only those thoughts, feelings and impulses that it is capable of registering. This mental-consciousness is, more over, only aware of those memories that it accesses from time to time. Consequently individual consciousness is a limited gateway of perception.
Individual consciousness is said to consist of six types of consciousnesses. These six are:
The mental-consciousness is that aspect of mind that is capable of both inductive and deductive reasoning.
The unconsciousness or obscured-mind (klista-manas), on the
other hand, is not readily known to the mental-consciousness. We find
buried within the unconsciousness the long memory-stream of all our experiences,
in minute detail. Normally we cannot access these experiences or memories,
except by unusual processes, such as hypnosis, psychotherapy or meditation.
But no experience has ever been lost. The entire stream of who we are
is all there in the unconscious mind; every experience we have ever lived
through. In this sense the Manas appears similar to what the philosopher
Leibnitz described as the monad; that indivisible and impenetrable quantum
of psychic energy that exists as the active essence or continuum of individual
life within the cosmic whole. It is the Manas that contains the memories
going right back to our birth, and even prior to that, the experience
of being in the womb and being born. The Manas is the collective stream
of who a person is, from life to life.
The Manas does not speak to us in word-language. By this, we mean that it does not know French or English, German or Spanish, nor any other word-language on Earth. It can, however, speak through the language of symbols and icons. Insofar as words may be used, such words and their related concepts will be used purely as symbolic values. Thus the individual consciousness cannot communicate with the Manas, except mystically, even though it is all a part of the one being.
If we do wish to communicate with the unconscious mind, our Manas, we have to learn the language of symbolism, and know how to manipulate symbols so as to talk to the depth. (This is where some occult tools adopted by Jungian psychology, such as Tarot cards, can actually take on practical value, not for the low practice of reading people's supposed fortunes, but rather as aspects of a symbolic language to communicate with the obscured mind buried within.) Tantra uses symbolic language and ritual conduct as one way of penetrating the unconscious barrier and accessing higher Consciousness.
The vast unconsciousness (klista-manas) is far more complex, far greater in principle, than the little day to day consciousness to which the individual is normally bound.
4. Simultaneously Arising
There is yet another truth that Yogacara presents for our attention. This is the fact of what is called simultaneous arising.
Attempt to imagine, for a moment, being conscious, when there is absolutely
nothing to be conscious of. Imagine seeing, when there is nothing to see;
or hearing, when there is absolutely no sound. Try to imagine experiencing
a certain feeling, or a thought, in a world where feeling and thought
does not exist.
Conversely, without consciousness there can not be any intelligible phenomena. This is hard for individuals to recognize. The individual sees the world as external, outside of consciousness. The world that the individual is conscious of, is made of consciousness. What is called matter is nothing more than a certain form of energy, and all energy has consciousness inherent in itself. Thus what the individual calls the world is entirely consciousness. This is what we call the simultaneous arising of subject and object. Or the simultaneous arising of consciousness and appearances.
What this means is that consciousness is the very space in which the world moves, the time in which it lasts. Consciousness is the love that gives the world life.
If there is no one to observe a tree falling in the woods, did the tree
actually fall? (This is a question recently asked, with some degree of
tongue in cheek, by modern quantum physicists.) The answer is, of course
it did. But it did so, not because an individual localized consciousness
(pravritti-vijnana) did or did not observe it fall, but because
it's falling was part of the total experience of what the Universe is
as a whole. In other words, it falls, precisely because it's falling was
part and parcel of the consistent and evolving unified field (alaya)
In other words, if simultaneous arising is a fact, then a single unified
field of consciousness must exist; where it not so, then the whole basis
of simultaneous arising would break down, and the world would not be as
According to the reasoning stated above, all-ground consciousness as subject, and all the phenomena of the Universe as object, must be born simultaneously in the first moment of creation. Therefore we can understand that both consciousness and appearance are mutually evolving forms of a single experience contained in the whole. Both are mutually evolving, that is, from a highly chaotic inchoate energy state, toward an ever more organized ordered state of coherence, exactly as suggested in the first portion of this essay. But here you can see how this must be, since in terms of simultaneous arising, the total information packet of universal consciousness can never be greater than the total evolved state of the expanding Universe.
So, while consciousness on the cosmic plane is evolving and growing from
a less sentient toward an ever more sentient, self-organized state, on
the individual plane the subject-object dichotomy of this consciousness
acts as the support for our individual experience of the Universe being
something out there, and ourselves being something here, as distinct and
separate entities. When this dichotomy, rooted in the Manas itself, reverts
back to a singularity through transformation of individual consciousness,
then at that very moment self-reflexive awareness (samvedana,
i.e., Enlightenment) emerges in individual consciousness. Although the
totality of the Universe in the sense of Universal Consciousness vs. All
Phenomena will continue for many more billions of years in celestial time,
the individual sentient being will have awoken to the underlying reality
in which both are simultaneous. Essentially this is achieved in the same
way as the quantum particle reverting to field symmetry, except here we
are not talking of physics, but rather of metaphysics.
Philosophic idealism (cittamatra) is not what Vasubandhu and
Manjusrimitra, the original masters of Yogacara, were teaching.
The totality is born, the totality will pass away. The totality will
be born again, and it will pass away again. In other words, the entire
Universe (which with us, includes Consciousness) is an endless series
of oscillations: of Universes being born and dying, endlessly. This immeasurable
cycle is what is called Samsara. The Universe awakes, endures
for a while, then returns to a latent (pralaya) state, only to
be repeated on the ceaseless ground (alaya) of absolute Being.
1 For an enjoyable discussion of these personalities, see John Robert Christianson, On Tycho's Island, Tycho Brahe, Science & Culture in Sixteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2000
2 Joseph Silk, The Big Bang, W.H.Feeman & Co., New York 2001
3 See N.C.Panda, The Vibrating Universe, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1995, 2000
4 N.C. Panda, Maya in Physics, Motilal Banarsidass, Dehli 1991
5 Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality, Anchor Books, New York 1985, 1987. Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, Simon & Schuster, NY 1966
6 Lee Smolin, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Basic Books, NY 2001
7 See, Davies & Brown, The Ghost in the Atom, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
8 for a general introduction, see Ashok Kumar Chatterjee, The Yogacara Idealism, Motilal Banarsidass, Dehli 1962
9 Manjusrimitra is here repeating what already had been formulated by the early Yogacara masters, Asanga and Vasubandhu. See Asanga, Abhidharma-samuccaya, The Compendium of the Higher Philosophy, originally translated into French by Walpola Rahula and English version by Sara Boin-Webb, Asian Humanities Press, Fremont, California 2001
10 For more detailed discussion of the Tibetan perspective, see: Tsong-kha-pa, Ocean of Eloquence, translated by Gareth Sparham, State University of NY Press, 1993. Maitreya, Asanga, Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes, Ch. 5, translated by Michele Martin, Marpa Institute, Kathmandu 1991. Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogacara, State University of NY Press, 1991
11 Cf. Susumu Yamaguchi, Mahayana Way to Buddhahood, Buddhist Books International, Tokyo 1982
12 Cf., Demonstration of Consciousness Only by Hsuan Tsang, in F. H. Cook, Three Texts on Consciousness Only, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Berkeley, California 1999
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