The Highest States in Buddhism vs. Hinduism, the Alaya Consciousness vs. Brahman

[This is from my Stages course for select students]

The eighth consciousness, also known as the alaya consciousness or storehouse consciousness, is a particularly complicated, difficult subject to discuss. Shakyamuni Buddha taught for several decades and had many highly advanced practitioners as his disciples, yet despite disciples of high prajna wisdom and high samadhi attainments, Shakyamuni rarely spoke of the alaya consciousness in order to prevent any entries into error. That’s how important this topic is, and how difficult it is to discuss. As Shakyamuni said,

The storehouse consciousness [alaya] is very profound and subtle;
All its seeds are like a torrential flow.
I do not explain it to the ignorant,
For fear they will cling to it and consider it a self.

Shakyamuni threfore gave very few teachings on the alaya consciousness in order not to provide people with another false source of fixation of something as the ultimate. He didn’t want to talk extensively about something that sentient beings, lacking wisdom, might take as a higher Self or final   Reality. In particular, he worried that beings might take the alaya as a big Self, or true atman. In fact, the Hindu sages who were able to reach to the alaya body of consciousness before him all made this very mistake, taking the alaya as the Great Self (Brahman) when it is only the essence of consciousness. They would reach this stage of cultivation and claim, “I am He, I am He” or “I am Brahman, I am Shiva.”  Similarly, “All this is Brahman,” “I know the Supreme Brahman; there is nothing higher than that (Prasna Upanishad VI.7),” “All this Universe is Brahman. The Self is Brahman. (Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 2).”  

Contrast this with Buddha’s discourse in the Diamond Sutra where he says that there is no such real thing as a world system or agglomeration of world systems, for if such a thing existed in reality it would be the oneness of all phenomena. Neither any components nor the whole should be regarded as real. No stage of attainment should be regarded as real either. If one even considers themselves an ego, identity, being or real self, they are not correct either. No stage of attainment is really existing or ever really attained.

Many in history have reached the stage where they were able to claim “I and the Father are one,” but this was also only reaching the alaya -- if that far -- without fully transforming it or overturning its basis. And many of those sages were killed by people who did not understand what they were saying. To overturn the alaya and produce a revolution in its basis, turning all its seeds into wisdoms – that’s the stage of true enlightenment taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. Many masters since then have been able to reach to the alaya by cultivating the seventh consciousness to the stage where they silenced the sixth and first five consciousnesses by turning away from the senses and phenomena. Many yoga concentration techniques will help you do this. But many of these also made the mistake of holding on to the alaya as the object of the seventh consciousness and clinging to it as a Self. In Zen a master would have to break up someone’s stage of realization in order to get them to perceive this (awaken) and go beyond. Afterwards, as long as they had attained the right view and understanding, a master would not worry about what particular cultivation practices a student would thereafter choose to follow.

This is so important to understand these various fine distinctions that we should review this in more detail. If you do not understand this, you cannot understand the real meaning of enlightenment and how it puts an end to transmigration (as well as sorrow, misery, etc.) or why it involves cultivating prajna transcendental wisdom. Those things are just words until you understand the whole picture and grand scheme of things.

In the Brahmanism and other religious streams that were created by the Vedas and which predated Shakyamuni, Vedic philosophy originally held that a great being named Brahman was the creator of all beings, including man. Brahman was revered as the lord of all creation, but was not apart from ourselves. In Vedic literature, it was asserted that there was no difference, no duality between the true self of human beings, called the “atman,” and the true self of Brahman. Brahman is “One Without a Second” and fully present in each and every individual being.

This is similar to a common religious theme that God and man share the same essence, or the idea that “Heaven and man are one” found in Confucianism. But Brahman, in this case, is considered beyond form, and the universe and all the beings within it are considered forms or phenomena that are transformations of Brahman the great one Self.  The Triple Realm is thus considered one great unified whole that is Brahman’s very being. In Vedic philosophy, the highest ideal is to return to the state where Brahman and the individual soul, or atman, become one. Hence, the cultivation methods espoused in Hinduism involve the purifying effects of meditation and other elevating and refining cultivation techniques that return the small self of the individual person to the great self of Brahman. As “atman” is a word that originally meant “breath” or “vital principle,” it is not surprising that the majority of these methods involved breathing practices to cultivate one’s chi, or prana. The anapana methods of Buddhism, for instance (see the Anapanasati Sutra) take hold of some of these breathing methods and combine them with the practice of prajna wisdom to help speed the process of attainment.

The name “Brahman” means absolutely pure and perfectly real. But what is Brahman? Brahman gives birth to all things by transformations that are akin to magical illusions that seem real, but which lack any true substance. Brahman is therefore the totality of the universe, just like the alaya. It is a unity of mind and the material world, the fundamental nature. All apparent phenomena are empty illusions that are the “play” or “sport” of Brahman, who gives rise to all things without any particular aim or purpose. Similarly, all things are born from consciousness, and within this realm of interdependent origination  no ultimate purpose can be found. So all things are maya and have no ultimate purpose, but everything is linked together through cause and effect to comprise one great whole. As sentient beings and part of this great body of transformations, we traverse from life to life in an unending, ceaseless round of incarnations. None of it is real, however, but just a gigantic set of illusory transformations that we take to be real, which causes pain and suffering and sorrow.

As sentient beings, we have two choices: (1) to become free of maya by achieving liberation where we return to the fundamental state of Brahman, or (2) to continue the endless suffering rounds of birth and death through ceaseless transmigration. To awaken to Brahman and return to his nature requires that we throw off the barrier of ignorance and cultivate illumination. The means to do so, according to Brahmanism, the Vedas and Hinduism, was to withdraw from the senses and to cultivate yoga, mantra and meditative concentration. Most all cultivation methods in the world can be traced back to the Indian discoveries in these areas.

Pure consciousness, in its purest base form as the alaya consciousness, can indeed be reached this way, which is exactly what many of the Vedic sages accomplished. Of course, many did not even reach that high stage of attainment, but somee stage much lower. In pure consciousness meditation, you can detach from the senses and the sixth consciousness, which is akin to the yoga injunctions to withdraw  from the outward senses and turn inwards. By grasping phenomena with the sixth consciousness you discriminate an objective world, but when that discrimination ceases, you can reach cessation as a state.

If you do that, what is then the object of the seventh consciousness? The alaya consciousness. If one is ignorant about the proper path, the seventh consciousness will take the alaya and hold to it as a self. If one is not ignorant, they will refrain from clinging to the alaya or taking it as something real, and by continuing to shine the empty awareness of prajna without clinging, let mind be born without abiding in any of its states. The highest reality is approachable only by prajna transcendental wisdom, and this is always and ever the correct path of cultivation. As the sage Nisargadatta said of his own attainment,

I am conscious and unconscious, both conscious and unconscious, neither conscious nor unconscious – to all this I am witness – but really there is no witness, because there is no thing to be a witness to. I am perfectly empty of all mental formations, void of mind – yet fully aware. This I try to express by saying that I am beyond the mind.[1]

If one is not careful and posits Brahman as the ultimate Source, then when consciousness is the only object then the seventh consciousness will take the “purity” of the alaya as an object; it will take hold of the alaya as Brahman the Great Self. If one correctly cultivates prajna, they can overturn the alaya and reach true and perfect enlightenment that is beyond consciousness and the Three Realms.

With thoughts ever arising, with all its seeds always in the process of transformation, the alaya is the source of all creation and transmigration. But one can mistake the alaya as the pure truth or ultimate essence where there is neither subject nor object, positive nor negative, good or bad - just as Vedic works cite – because that is the nature of the alaya seen in its aspect of purity. Like Brahman, the alaya is the master of transmigration and transformation because of the constant stirring of its seeds (elements) until and unless it has been overturned by voidness meditation so that one detaches from it as an object and thus transcends it.

One should not even consider the alaya as being Real, but let it be without attachment or fixation. It can be transcended only by emptiness meditation, which means the “cultivation of prajna wisdom.” When you can let go of the alaya as an object, so that it returns to its original inherent identity as the ground state of Suchness, you can “experience a revolution in its basis” and the seeds of the alaya (the components of consciousness) can all become clear wisdoms. Then one can become the ultimate master of consciousness as well as birth and death, because consciousness is the source of transmigration.  This is how one ultimately becomes free of the stream of incarnations and one learns how to master their mind. The mind can no longer cheat you because you always see through it. When the alaya becomes transformed, it is called “immaculate consciousness” that is pure without clinging.

This is where the true enlightenment first introduced by Buddhism surpassed the Hindu and Vedic sages who reached the realm of Brahman, or the alaya, and took it as a fixed Supreme Self. It is easy to mistake it as the highest Self just as Shakyamuni said, so he rarely spoke of it. It’s hard enough just getting people to attain a state of dhayan-samadhi, let alone reach this far. Few people attain to this in their cultivation, and of those who can, Shakyamuni didn’t want people to grasp onto the alaya as anything real. If you do, you cannot go beyond it. In his many years of teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha often refused to go into deep explanations of the real nature of nirvana, called the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, until he had been teaching for quite a while and his disciples had “grown up” with spiritual attainments and prajna wisdom. The nirvana of Buddhism is to overturn the alaya whereas in the previous sects and schools, it was to reach to the alaya, or simply to reach some stage of dhyana and the lower heavens with their appropriate gods and goddesses. This is what you find in most worldly religions.

Initially in his teaching career, Shakyamuni considered most of his disciples as children of limited capacities who could only "digest" the simple and basic spiritual fare of "suffering, impermanence and non-Self."  So he set up the path as something that put an end to suffering, and stressed the analysis of the mind and mental formations to discover that there is no such thing as an ego. Once his students had progressed upon the spiritual path with the cultivation attainments of samadhi, gong-fu and prajna wisdom, only then were they  ready to be introduced to the culminational teachings of the Tathagatagarbha or Buddhanature, as revealed in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which deal with bliss, permanence and true Self. But this is a different, higher set than the sat-chit-ananda (existence, consciousness, bliss) of Hinduism because it goes BEYOND the alaya whereas the Vedic sat-chit-ananda stops at the alaya and mistakes it as the ultimate, calling it Brahman. As Buddha said, the true sat-chit-ananda is the achievement of the nirvana without remainder beyond the realm or function of the alaya. One achieves this by cultivating prajna wisdom to let go of the alaya, and the even bigger secret is that prajna wisdom is also considered a guest rather than the ultimate host, which is how one continues to cultivate to a higher and higher attainment without any effort at all.

Many practitioners tend to mistakenly identify the stilling of the sixth consciousness when all thoughts cease - a time when the alaya is alone in the meditation - as pure consciousness and the Higher Self or ultimate attainment. Properly speaking, we can call this “cultivating the seventh consciousness” rather than the eighth because you don’t go beyond the eighth but take it as your object of meditation. This is the source of all the deep philosophical mistakes in Hinduism, and the reason is from meditation (cultivation) that did not go high enough or far enough. The great Confucian Wang Yang Ming also made this mistake, as have many others since Shakyamuni’s time. It is truly difficult to reach the alaya, and even more difficult to find a great and skillful teacher who can help you crush your experiential realm and toss all away so that you abide nowhere at all.

If the alaya is the object of concentration without movement of the sixth or seventh consciousness (the mind), we can describe it as formless, pure, unchanging, formless, timeless, undifferentiated, all-pervading, self-illuminating, absolute, without attributes, beginning or end. It’s easy for you to find such quotes in various religious texts, and to add to this list. This is where most people, as high stage Arhats, stop in their cultivation, and indeed in the Upanishads and other cultivation texts we find reference to these descriptions.

Shakyamuni could find no teacher in his day who had reached the stage of totally and completely overturning the alaya, nor could he find this dharma taught anywhere. However, upon reaching perfect and complete enlightenment he could see the other Buddhas who had achieved this feat and who had surmounted the Three Realms. He could also see and perfectly understand all the beings who had attained a stage of incomplete enlightenment, a fractional nirvana or Bodhisattva bhumi, because they had not yet freed themselves totally from the alaya (base of consciousness) and purified it. Surpassing it, he can easily see through them and understand all their levels and stages of meditation, their karma, transformations, mental faults and so forth. Now you can understand why the various Buddhist scriptures say things like this, for now it becomes a science you can understand rather than just flowery religious overblown wording. A “Buddha” doesn’t mean Buddhism. It means a completely enlightened being, from any place within the Triple Realm, who has overturned the alaya and escaped the Three Realms, and who can thus survey the Three Realms clearly from without and know all such things within it like:

1. What is right or wrong in each and every condition.
2. What the karma is of every sentient being - whether of the past, present or future.
3. All the various stages and types of dhyana and samadhi.
4. The powers and faculties of all sentient beings.
5. The desires or moral direction of every sentient being.
6. The actual condition of every sentient being.
7. The direction and consequence of all dharmas, events, functions, happenings or circumstances.
8. All causes of mortality and of good and evil in their reality.
9. The end of all beings and Nirvana.
10. The destruction of all illusions of every kind.

When one holds the alaya (pure consciousness) as the object of meditation and their stage of cultivation is not stable, it is easy for the alaya to be moved by the sixth consciousness, after which creation (and thus transmigration) seems to appear. Transcending the alaya is true non-production, no-birth, no-origination. At the stage of cultivating the alaya when the sixth consciousness is still, it may appear to be a realm of non-production, no-birth, no-origination, unborn non-moving non-duality where we say it is changeless, formless and so forth, but this is because the mind is momentarily still but the alaya has not been transcended and overturned. Only the true overturning of complete and perfect enlightenment produces a revolution in the seeds of consciousness. Otherwise one is just holding the alaya as an object of consciousness and enjoying its purity.

When the sixth consciousness once again stirs, worldly things will once again appear which is the changeable maya of Brahman. Creation is then a vibration in pure consciousness. Everything we see thus depends on movements of the mind and when the movements cease, the mind is thoughtless and returns to its source. As Ramana Maharshi said, “There is no creation in the state of realization. When one sees the Self, the world is not seen. So see the Self and realize that there has been no creation.”[2] He also said, “The creation is said to have an origin. How? Like a tree and the seed from which it has grown. How was the seed produced? From a similar tree. Where is the end to the series of questions? Therefore, one must know one’s Self before the world is known.”[3] Thus we have the cultivation school of Yogacara called Consciousness-Only, or Mind-Only, which leads one back to the alaya and urges prajna wisdom cultivation for complete and perfect enlightenment.

A true cultivator can also become so steeped in meditation on pure consciousness that no worldly things are seen, and this nothingness can be mistaken for a destruction of the alaya. There are all sorts of ways one can go astray in their cultivation at this high stage of cultivating consciousness, with many of these great errors being explained in the Surangama Sutra. You’ll find such a high level discussion of these mistakes in no other literature other than in this sutra, such as the following excerpt regarding the mistakes one can make in cultivating through the skandha of consciousness:

“Ananda, as the disciples practice samadhi and the skandha of volition comes to an end, within the nature of all things in the world the subtle disturbance in this clear state that is the common life force shared by all living things suddenly breaks open. At this point, the fine fabric of samsara, together with the deep thread of the karma of transmigration and feeling and response are radically suspended. Now they have reached the threshold of the great enlightenment to nirvana, like the cock’s crow that causes us to gaze to the east where brilliant rays already appear. The six senses are empty and still and no longer galloping abroad. Within and without are perfect clarity, and one enters a state where nothing stains our consciousness. Profoundly penetrating the origin of life of the twelve classes of living things in the ten directions, they can contemplate the source of attachment without feeling any attraction themselves. Now they have already achieved an identity with all things in the universe; daylight dawns and all secrets are revealed. This is called ‘the realm of the skandha of consciousness.’ In the midst of the world’s attractions they are now able to maintain their identity with the world, for they have overcome the six senses, so that the senses are able to unite or function separately, and hearing and seeing are interchangeable in their purity. The world of the ten directions, together with his own body and mind are like glass, which is perfectly transparent within and without. This is called ‘the end of the skandha of consciousness.’ In this way, the practitioner can transcend the defilements of life and contemplate the source of its impurity, which arises from insubstantial imaginings and foolish thoughts.

1. “Ananda, you must know that as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they will revert to the source of the skandha of consciousness. Although they have wiped out the illusion of birth and death, they have not yet reached the perfection of nirvana. Nevertheless, they are able to unify the six senses or use them independently. The are also able to unify their consciousness with the consciousness of all living things and achieve a state of omniscience. However, if in reverting to this state of perfection they take it as the cause of true permanence and regard this as the superior interpretation, they will fall into the error of holding onto the notion of causality and become an adherent of the Kapila doctrine, that holds primordial obscurity as the origin of reality, and thus, miss the true bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the first false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which holds that the consciousness attained produces the effects experienced. In this way one strays far from perfect enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of heresy.

                2. “Ananda, progressing further, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, before realizing the wonder of nirvana, in reverting to this state of pure consciousness, they may survey the universe and regard it as their own body, insisting that the twelve classes of living things throughout boundless space all flow from it. In this way they will fall into the error of holding that they create what they do not in reality create, and thus, become adherents of the deva Mahasvara, who appears in a limitless body. Thus, they miss the true bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the second false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which holds that the mind is the ultimate creator and that this is the highest attainment. In this way, one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of arrogance for asserting the omnipresence of the self.

                3. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, if before realizing the wonder of nirvana, they cling to the skandha of consciousness, they may take it that the body and mind both flow from this state and that boundless space in the ten directions also arises from this. Then they will insist that the realm from which all of this is expressed is the true, permanent, indestructible body. As a result of concluding that consciousness is permanent, they will be confused regarding both noncreation and also creation and destruction. For complacence in this deluded interpretation, they will fall into regarding what is not permanent as permanent and become adherents of Ishvaradeva, the divine creator of all things. Thus, they miss the true bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the third false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which holds the causality of mind, and therefore produces an erroneous conclusion. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of false perfection.

                4. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, before realizing the wonder of nirvana, they may believe that their understanding is perfect universal knowledge, and based on this knowledge, insist that even the plant kingdom is sentient, no different from mankind. Likewise, plants being the same as men, when men die they return as plants. For this indiscriminate application of the concept of universal knowledge, they fall into attributing knowledge where there is no knowledge and become adherents of the doctrine of Vasistha and Sani, who held that everything is sentient. Thus, they miss the true bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This then is called the fourth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which incorrectly concludes that the omniscient mind is the ultimate attainment. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of false knowledge.

                5. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, if before realizing the wonder of nirvana, they succeed in harmonizing the functioning of the six senses, they may find the source of creation in these harmonious transformations. In the midst of this they may be tempted to worship the brilliance of fire, the purity of water, the freedom of wind, or the creativity of the earth. They may take these elements as the fundamental causes of creation and insist that they are the permanent reality. For attributing creativity to that which has no power to create, they become followers of the doctrine of Kasyapa and the Brahmins, who devote themselves to the worship of fire and water and seek to escape the cycle of birth and death. Thus, they miss the true bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the fifth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which engages in worship of the elements, losing one’s mind in the pursuit of external objects, and thereby chasing false causes and effects. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of distorting the laws of transformation.

                6. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, before realizing the wonder of nirvana, and in this state of perfect clarity, they may conclude that this state of consciousness is itself void and that all transformations end in annihilation. Taking refuge in eternal annihilation, and believing this to be the superior interpretation, these practitioners fall into relying on what is unreliable and become adherents of the dhyana of thoughtlessness. Thus, they miss the bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the sixth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which posits perfect annihilation and mindlessness and leads to voidness and fruitlessness. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of annihilation.

                7. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, before realizing the wonder of nirvana, and in this state of perfect constancy, they may desire to attain immortality of the body and share in the perfection and everlasting deathlessness. For insisting on the superiority of this interpretation, they will fall into coveting the unattainable and become adherents of the immortality seekers. Thus, they miss the bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the seventh false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which consists of clinging to the source of life, leading to foolish causes and bitter fruits. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of foolishly clinging to longevity.

                8. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, if before realizing the wonder of nirvana, they may contemplate the fundamental unity of the source of life and come to fear the total annihilation of this material plane, and therefore use their mental powers to retire to a lotus palace, display the seven treasures, and surround themselves with beautiful women, then for insisting on indulging in this fantasy, these practitioners will fall into regarding as real what is not real and become adherents of the heavenly demons. Thus, they miss the bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the eighth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which generates the effects of heterodox thinking and reaps the bitter worldly fruit. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of Deva Mara.

                9. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, if before realizing the wonder of nirvana, practitioners in the midst of this clear understanding of the source of life begin to make distinctions of fine and coarse, true and false, and seek results from the law of cause and effect, they will turn their backs on the path of purity. By attempting to put an end to suffering, and taking pride in this achievement, they will make no further progress. Insisting on the superiority of this interpretation, they will fall into arrested sravaka stage practice and become adherents of the ignorant monks and uneducable devas of the four dhyana heavens. Thus, they miss the bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

                This is called the ninth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which takes perfection of consciousness as realization of the fruits of nirvana. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of fettered voidness.

                10. “Continuing, as the disciples come to thoroughly comprehend the voidness of the skandha of volition, they are able to wipe out the concept of birth and death. However, before realizing the wonders of nirvana and in the midst of this perfect and pure consciousness, they may seek to probe more deeply into its marvels, take this as nirvana, and no longer strive for further progress. Believing this to be the superior interpretation, they will be arrested at the pratyeka-buddha stage and become adherents of selfish enlightenment. Thus, they miss the bodhi of the Buddha-nature and lose correct knowledge and correct views.

This is called the tenth false condition of the skandha of consciousness, which consists of believing that pure consciousness bears clear fruit. In this way one strays far from enlightenment, turns one’s back on nirvana, and sows the seeds of perfecting one’s own consciousness without seeking to help other living things.

                “Ananda, these are the ten states of dhyana in the midst of which you may lose your head and become complacent before reaching the ultimate goal. This is the result of the interaction of the skandha of consciousness with the practice of meditation. Living things are stubborn and deluded and unable to assess their own level of accomplishment. Encountering these experiences, they delight in old habits and delusions, and resting on their laurels, take these as their final refuge. They claim to be satisfied with this so-called supreme bodhi, and violating the Buddha’s prohibition against lying, become contaminated with the evil karma of heretics and maras and finally fall into eternal hell. As to those sravakas and pratyeka-buddhas, whose minds become arrested at their respective levels of attainment, they are not able to make further progress. You disciples must uphold my teachings and proclaim them after my nirvana during the dharma-ending age in order to awaken all living things to this doctrine and not allow the maras of false perception to bring calamities upon yourselves. Strive always to protect yourselves and conquer heterodoxy. Teach them to enter body and mind into the wisdom of the Buddha and throughout the course of their practice never to stray onto deviant paths.

                “Tathagatas as innumerable as particles of dust over kalpas as numberless as the sands of the Ganges have passed through this dharma-door to enlighten their minds and attain the highest Tao. When the skandha of consciousness is overcome, then all of your senses are coordinated, and you can enter the first stage of the indestructible wisdom of the bodhisattva, whose perfect and clear mind will be transformed into pure glass containing a precious moon within. In this way you will transcend the ten stages of bodhisattva faith, the ten stages of unfertilized wisdom, the ten necessary actions, the ten commitments, the four good roots of development, and all the ten stages of the bodhisattvas progress to Buddhahood, omniscience, and perfect clarity to enter the Tathagata’s magnificent sea of perfect and complete bodhi, and revert to the state to which nothing can be added. These are the subtle mara-states detected by past Buddhas, as they abided in vipasyana and practiced passionless samatha. If you are familiar with these mara-states, you will be able to keep your minds free of defilement. In this way you will not fall into unorthodox views, the maras of the five skandhas will be swept away, Deva Mara will be smashed, the powerful ghosts and spirits will lose their nerve and take flight, the spirits of the rivers and hills will no longer appear to you, and you will achieve complete bodhi without the slightest deficiency. Even beginning from the most unenlightened state, one can progress to nirvana and no longer suffer delusion and depression.”[4]

Many of the formless samadhi absorptions can now be better understood from this discussion, and while they are talked of as stages of liberation or enlightenment in some schools, you can also understand that this is only partial enlightenment because one only attains to the alaya but has not produced a revolution in its basis. The alaya itself must return to its own source.

If you do that, we no longer speak of transmigration or even consciousness but of transcendental wisdom, and thus the first five, the sixth, seventh and eighth consciousnesses are all transformed into their specific wisdoms of direct seeing-knowing-realizing without clinging. Consciousness still functions, but one is clear through and through because they have penetrated through the alaya, past the realm of consciousness entirely, and one does not cling with stickiness to any of its operations. One still lets thoughts be born, but without resting the mind anywhere. One functions in the world, the ordinary mind still functions, but one is clear and void through and through. One has become the master. You function in the world while transcending it. This is true Buddhahood.

Thus we have the Great Mirror Wisdom, Action Performing Wisdom, Wisdom of Equality and so forth that are the transformations of consciousness when prajna wisdom causes a revolution in its basis. The Mind clearly knows all the thoughts and functions within consciousness, but is not deceived by them. Operating outside the alaya and not subject to transmigration but seeing through it, this is why Zen masters can freely exercise their “great functioning” and the “sharp point of potential,” for they are not bound by consciousness and can take advantage of any circumstances to help people awaken.

One functions in the world while transcending it. In fact, one transcends the entire Triple Realm for it is all entirely bound with consciousness because it is created of consciousness. No gong-fu is supreme other than the accomplishment of enlightenment past the Triple Realm. It is as the Taoist-Zen immortal Chang Tzu-yang said, “Even if you have a halo crowning your head, it is still a mirage; even if clouds arise under your feet, you are not immortal.”[5] What achievement is worthy when bound within the Three Realms?

Of course the modern Advaita Vedanta teachers have also now been able to achieve this enlightenment of Shakyamuni by transcending Brahman, and have tried to lift Hinduism up with the appropriate teachings and understanding of non-duality, non-clinging and thus the over-turning of the alaya. But if one simply relies on the old Veda, Upanishads and other scriptures, it is easy to remain caught in the net. Of course, you're so talented if you even get that far to realize the skandha of consciousness, the alaya, Brahman.

The key point is that to attain perfect and pure enlightenment you must forget any notions of the Self and cultivate prajna to go beyond the alaya and drop attachments to consciousness, for the Higher Self, or the alaya, or universe as a whole (the entire Triple Realm) are the obstacle of the voidness of Reality. The basis of the yoga cultivation and meditation methods in Vedic culture are not wrong. It’s just that practitioners do not go far enough for there is farther to go. Shakyamuni simply took what was the best of what was in use and added an understanding and practice of prajna wisdom so that one could proceed faster and attain farther than what was previously available. This is what enlightened Buddhas teach – how to become ultimately free and liberated, which why the beings of all directions and states in the Triple Realm come to them for teachings. In this way by attaining to the basis of (transcending) consciousness, one surmounts all of creation (the Triple Realm) and attains the Tathagatagarbha or Matrix of Reality.

If one does not transcend the alaya then one does not understand the fundamental, one does not know the Source. As high as your attainment is, this lack of comprehension is still called “Ignorance,” and thus the sages before Shakyamuni were technically still in the realm of ignorance. Colloquially we can say that “they had the Tao,” but the measure of their Tao was not complete. Knowing that, we can also say “they did not have the Tao.” To overturn the alaya is to destroy the root of ignorance. To attain the alaya or rest in the alaya or take it as the ultimate object of one’s efforts is to remain in ignorance, bound in ignorance. The difference is not insignificant, but the entire purpose of this book.

When you don’t know something we call it “ignorance,” so not knowing the source, we are all bound to Ignorance. One might comprehend a portion of the alaya, but without perfect and clear penetration one only can achieve “nirvana with a remainder.” The dhyana, on the other hand, are a type of common phenomenon that can be cultivated by anyone, and which can serve as a stepping stone or practice station to help you lay a foundation for the ultimate attainment. They are not the monopoly of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism or any other school and are feely cultivated throughout the universe including the various human religions. They are the birth mother of sages and sages, initiates, adepts, gurus and great ones. But the real “great ones” are those with perfect and complete enlightenment wherein the entire alaya has been transformed.

When we previously spoke of the five types of eyes or powers one could attain through their cultivation efforts, we stated that a perfectly awakened, completely awakened Buddha attains a “Buddha eye” not attained by lower level sages because he has “gone beyond, gone beyond” the limits of (the alaya) consciousness whereas the other sages are still operating within the realm of consciousness. Above, beyond, transcending the Triple Realm – however you wish to word it – the “Buddha eye” is an omniscient eye without limitations that can see, comprehend, penetrate everything within the universe of the Triple Realm. Buddha often taught that Arhats could see an incredible number of aeons into the past or future but their vision was still limited because they were still bound by the incompleteness of their cultivation. So now you can understand this. This is all science.

Bodhisattvas can attain the “wisdom eye” that realizes or “sees” emptiness because of cultivating partially through the alaya. Many of the Hindu sages before Shakyamuni (and many sages afterwards) only attained the ability to be able to see the Form Realms within the Triple Realm, so they did not even cultivate to the alaya. They created religions or teachings based on their limited attainments that only reached so far up to certain Heavens. This explains the various differing ranks of sages, and also why we have different ranks of ultimate Gods such as Jehovah, Odin, God the Father, Indra, Sakka, Brahman, Mahesvara and so forth, which brings up an interesting story to help make clear the sort of ranks and knowledge capabilities of the gods in the various heavens.

There’s a story in the Buddhist scriptures of a talented monk who wanted to find out the answer to the question, “Where do the four elements cease without remainder?” Through meditation he reached the Heaven of the Four Great Kings, who did not know the answer. Next he went to the thirty three gods in a higher Desire Realm heaven, but none of these rulers knew either. He then asked King Sakka (Indra), the king of these gods, but Sakka did not know the answer. Up and up he went asking all sorts of gods at each and every higher level. Finally he came to Great Brahma, the Creator, Uncreated, Knower of All.

When the monk finally achieved an audience with Great Brahma, Brahma appeared in all his majesty and glory announcing, "I am Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be." The monk then humbly and respectfully asked his question, but all Great Brahma did was repeat, "I am Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be."

The monk eventually got frustrated and said, “I know you are "Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be," but I asked you a question about where the four elements cease without remainder. The Great Brahma replied, “Listen little monk, don’t embarrass me. All these other gods are listening and think I know everything. If you want to know the answer to a question like that, don’t ask me. I don’t know the answer. For a question like that, you have to go ask the Buddha.”

The monk then returned to the world and told Shakyamuni Buddha the story. Shakyamuni and the monk both laughed and then the Buddha told him, “When sailors are searching for land they let go of pigeons from their ship. If the pigeons don’t return it means they’ve found land nearby. If they do return, it’s because there is no land in sight. You’re just like a pigeon who has returned back to me because none of the gods could not give you the answer.” Then he told the monk that nirvana is where the four elements cease without remainder. But now you know that this nirvana is a purification, revolution, seeing through or overturning of the alaya consciousness, and not a resting or cultivation of the alaya which would be a fractional enlightenment, or nirvana with remainder. The higher gods did not know this because they had not achieved it. And so it is with Jehovah (an angry god or asura belonging to the Desire Realm), Christianity’s Father “God” (a Form Realm deity), Indra, Odin, Allah, Ahura Mazda, and so forth.

This is not a propaganda piece to trumpet any supposed “superiority of Buddhism.” Remember we are speaking of enlightenment dharma, not a religion called “Buddhism,” for enlightenment dharma appears in countless realms. Since Shakyamuni’s time, only a handful of individuals have completed the course of full and complete enlightenment in this world, but the last time any completely enlightened ones appeared in this world to fully reveal and teach the full dharma was Shakyamuni, so this is what we go by. In a different world it’s a different name but it’s all about enlightenment. A similarly interesting story from the Good and Evil Sutra that further sheds light on our topic is as follows:

The following story relates what happened on one occasion when the supernatural powers of Gautama Buddha and those of the six non-Buddhist gurus were compared.

The six gurus and their disciples had gathered to receive alms. The Buddha with his disciples purposely arrived late and the only seats left were those that were in the low section. Because of the Buddha's noble virtue and Supernatural power, all six gurus and disciples unwillfully moved to the lower part, and although they tried to return to the high section, the seats remained those of the low section. The patron began to give water for washing from the higher section to the lower but Buddha humbly said, "Please give it to your guru first." Those six gurus became dumb. They could only raise their arms to point to Gautama who sat in the seat of the higher section, far in the distance from them. The Buddha's prayer was as music. When the food was finally served, Buddha repeated that the patron's guru should be served first, but the food flew to the top of the gurus heads where they could not reach it. Upon Buddha's receiving the food, each of the others also received their food.

After the meal, the patron asked Buddha to preach but he declined suggesting that the six gurus be asked first. They became dumb and could not preach. Then Buddha preached and the patron, his officials and family were all converted. With a grieved countenance and an envious mind each guru went back to his own church and learned some methods of magic. A demon transformed himself into a human body and taught them how to obtain more powers than they had before. Then these gurus asked the king whether they might have another opportunity to compare their powers with those of the Buddha. After receiving the Buddha's permission, the king made all preparations, but Buddha wanted all the people of five Indian lands to witness his victory, so when all the peoples of one province had gathered, he moved on to Vaisali, then to Kausambi or Vatsa-pattna in central India, and finally to a place called Sravasti which was controlled by the well-known king Prasenajit. Gautama manifested many kinds of supernatural powers in the Dharma assembly where India's peoples gathered. The six gurus, however, were unable to do anything. It is a rule that outsiders can do no magic in the presence of a Buddha.

For many, many days the Buddha preached to his audience. While Indra stood on the left side and Brahma himself stood on the right. Both were the protectors of Buddha. Indra offered Buddha a lion seat. At the moment he sat there was a sacred sound which emitted from the five vajras and struck down all six gurus. They threw themselves into the water. Although in different tongues the peoples of India gave praise to Buddha Gautama as the victor and final Lord. This story can be found in the "Good and Evil Sutra".  …

Now you will say that the above story was with regard to Buddha and the six gurus but I have said nothing about Buddha and Brahma, the highest of all higher selves. I will quote from the Madhyamagama Sutra.

Once Buddha knew by his parocitta-jnana (ability to know the thoughts of all other minds) that the perverse view (Mithya) had arisen in Brahma's mind that all is permanent. Buddha flew to Brahma's heaven and after explaining that everything is impermanent, converted Brahma. Brahma then requested competition of their powers which Buddha agreed to. First Brahma magically hid his body but wherever he went Buddha could see him and said, "You are here, you are there." Brahma could not elude such magic. Then Buddha said, "I will try to hide myself, please try to point out where I am." Buddha then hid his body in voidness meditation. On purpose he let Brahma hear his voice, but Brahma could not point him out. Thereby Brahma's faith was increased.[6]


This is similar to Sun Wu Kung, the Monkey King’s experience, in the Journey to the West where Wu Kong (representing the mind) used his superpowers to travel  for days in the universe to try to escape Buddha. When he felt he had gone far enough, he stopped to take a piss against a wall and marked it with a piece of chalk. When it came for the Buddha to find him, it was revealed that the wall was one of the Buddha’s fingers, and that the Monkey had been flying in his universal hand the entire while. Outside of the Three Realms, a Buddha surpasses it and transcends it while everything we do is within it.

These are all quite entertaining stories and their major point is to teach us that true enlightenment is to pierce through the final barrier of the alaya, or skandha of consciousness in total. Once you do that, which is by cultivating the prajna transcendental wisdom of non-clinging, you can finally achieve the True Tao that is neither empty nor not empty, neither real nor not-real, neither existent nor non-existent.  

The teachings of the alaya consciousness are therefore such a great boon, such a great gift for humanity because they lead us to liberation that ultimately frees us from birth and death, sorrow and suffering, and also forever free humanity from the superstitions of ultimate gods and religion as well as small thinking. But if that’s the case, how are we to describe the ultimate basis of the alaya?

So the highest (or ultimate, or primal) function of the life of the cosmos is that in which mind and matter are the same substance. If you look at it from the point of view of religious concepts, or from the angle of the sacred, it could be called Buddha, or God, or Lord, or Spirit, or some other transpersonal spiritual sacred epithet. If you look at it from the angle of reason, it could also be called essence, or mind, or principle, or natural law, or the realm of reality, and so on. If you look at it from the angle of conceptions customary among humankind, you could also call it something like a spiritual body, in the sense of an inexhaustible spiritual body at the root source of life. In sum, speaking in terms of substance, it has emptiness as its substance; speaking in terms of characteristics, the forms of all that exists in the cosmos are its characteristics; speaking in terms of function, all actions of all things and all beings in the cosmos are its function.

Metaphorically speaking, it is like an ocean; the waves arising in the ocean water are like the worlds of the cosmos produced by causes and conditions; while the bubbles of foam on the waves are like the individual bodies of living beings, each with its own particular form produced by causes and conditions. Although the phenomena of the waves and the bubbles have their individual dissimilarities, they are never apart from the single inherent nature of water. But a metaphor is just a similitude, not the essence of the thing itself.

Living beings, because they cannot experientially arrive at the ultimate end of the fundamental substance of their own nature, thus abandon the root and pursue the branches, each clinging to their own views, their own knowledge, considering it to be the ultimate. Thus it is that sentient beings rest on their subjectivity to formulate different knowledge and opinions of the world.

But in reality, subjectivity and objectivity both belong to the discriminating function of thinking consciousness; and the knowledge and perception of thinking consciousness itself functions in dependence on the causes and conditions of the body and the material world, so they themselves are unreal and cannot sufficiently determine the existence or nonexistence of truth. If only people could practice meditation with the thinking consciousness in their own minds quieted, gradually they could realize that the functions of body and mind are changing and inconstant, like the world of phenomena, deceptive and unreal. Seeking progress step by step from this point, analyzing layer by layer, finding out all about human nature and the nature of all things, arriving at the unique body of suchness in which body, mind, and the cosmos are calm and unperturbed, not dwelling in existence, not falling into voidness, one can then realize the primal and ultimate truth of the cosmos and human life.

Shakyamuni called that “true suchness,” or the “nirvanic essence,” or the “essence of the matrix of the realization of suchness,” or “come from suchness.” In a broad sense, these are different names for the basic substance of cosmic life. Therefore he recognized that it is not ultimately true to call it either void or existent. There is only one way, which is to arrive at physical and mental stillness and silence, and then seek realization within this stillness and silence. However, that basic substance of cosmic life is inconceivable. “Inconceivable” is a technical term used in the context of methods for cultivating realization; it means that the object cannot be arrived at by ordinary conscious thought or deliberation. So this term “inconceivable” is not to be misunderstood as meaning “unthinkable.”[7]

[1] I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, trans. by Maurice Frydman, (The Acorn Press, Durham: North Carolina, 1973), pp. 328.

[2] Talks With Ramana Maharshi, Ramana Maharshi, (Inner Directions Publishing, Carlsbad: California, 2006), pp. 355-356.

[3] Talks With Ramana Maharshi, Ramana Maharshi, (Inner Directions Publishing, Carlsbad: California, 2006), p. 422.

[4] How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization, Nan Huai-Chin and William Bodri, (Top Shape Publishing, Reno: Nevada, 2002), pp. 709-713.

[5] The Story of Chinese Zen, Nan Huai-Chin, trans. by Thomas Cleary (Charles E. Tuttle, Boston, 1995), pp. 154.

[6] Discriminations Between Buddhist and Hindu Tantras, C. M. Chen, (Mani Printing Works, Kalimpong, 1969), pp. 138-140.

[7] The Story of Chinese Zen, Nan Huai-Chin, trans. by Thomas Cleary (Charles E. Tuttle, Boston, 1995), pp. 35-37.


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