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The Eight Consciousnesses of Yogacara

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Yogacara (“Way of Yoga”) philosophy is one of the two most influential schools in Mahayana Buddhism. Its fundamental tenet is that the only thing that inherently exists is consciousness. Everything else that seems to exist is only an appearance projected in the mind. Everything is of the nature of emptiness, as Madhyamaka teaches – except the mind itself.

The Eight Consciousnesses

Yogacara holds that there are eight kinds of consciousness (vijnana). The term “consciousness” is something akin to “awareness" in this context. These are modes of being aware or, more properly, eight kinds of experience the mid generates. The first five correspond to the familiar senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell.

The sixth consciousness is conceptualization, which in Indian thought has often been considered as a sense. After all, the scent of a flower corresponds to a smell in the nose and a picture corresponds to seeing. So also an idea has its corresponding concept, to be perceived as an image or thought in the mind.

The seventh consciousness is that of “impurity” (klesha). From this consciousness come the Buddhist faults of greed, passion, and ignorance. These personality traits are the cause of actions that generate new attachments, new karma, and continued rebirth.

Finally the eighth consciousness is the “storehouse” (alaya) consciousness. This is the level which generates all experience. The alaya holds the seeds of new experience, sown from past karma. When the time is right, these seeds ripen to create the experiences one has, and to which one reacts.

How Yogacara Interprets Meditation

The usefulness of this scheme comes form its applicability to meditation. In meditation, one draws inward from the senses. In effect, one closes off the first six consciousnesses. One might also do exercises to neutralize the effect of the poisons of the seventh consciousness.

Finally, Yogacara teaches that in meditation one will come to see how the alaya creates all experiences. One will see how experiences come from past karma. And one will come to see that the alaya is “empty.” That is, experience is in some sense not real. It comes from the mind, and it is the mind that experiences its own experiences. This insight, according to Yogacara, leads to nirvana.

Coupled with the three natures, Yogacara teaches that the ultimate experience of nirvana is a non-dual experience. It is the realization that the alaya generates all experiences, all joys and sorrows, that leads one to the “Perfected” state of seeing everything as part of oneself. In the thought of Yogacara, this is true awakening.

Later Developments in Yogacara Thought

A problem for Yogacara is the question of how many individual minds there are. Are there many people in the world, each with their own mind, or is there only one existent mind? Does everyone share in this one mind?

Vasubandhu, one of the founders of Yogacara argued that everyone has the storehouse consciousness (alaya vijnana). This implies that there is a multiplicity of minds out there – that is, this structure of the mind is unique to everyone. But later philosophers interpreted Mind-Only differently.

The sixth century Chinese monk Paramartha believed that there was a “pureconsciousness (amala vijnana) which underlay the alaya. This pure consciousness is the same for everyone. Experiencing the amala is the same as the experience of nirvana. This was a result that fed into the development of the idea of the Tathagata-garbha, the innate “Buddha-nature” that one seeks to experience in Zen meditation.


Tribe, Anthony J. Buddhist Thought: a Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. (Routledge: 2000).

Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. (University of Michigan Press: 1962).