Ālaya, a Seedbed?

In Schmithausen’s minds-eye the precise definition of the term ālayavijñāna indicates “a sticking consciousness,” “a hidden consciousness,” or simply, “the consciousness that is clung to.” The refined notion of a seedbed arrived later, in the minds-eye of the Asanga and Vasubandhus’ of our world. For now, let us bracket them for a little while and witness Schmithausen’s notion.

2.8 It is so called ‘ālayavijñāna’, because it sticks to and dissolves into or hides in the body, in the sense of sharing its destiny, (i.e., becoming closely united with it).

2.11 Yet, though, as an exegete, one might be able to justify such a use (as seed-bed) of the term ‘ālayavijñāna’ a posteriori, it is hardly conceivable how anybody could have coined precisely this term for no more than designating the function of containing or comprising Seeds.

Thus, if the new vijñāna was to be named after its function of comprising Seeds, one might have called it ‘bījavijñāna’ or the like… whereas the choice of the term ‘ālayavijñāna’ ould remain unintelligible if viewed from this angle only. Therefore, the aspect of being stuck to by Seeds, too, can at best be regarded as a secondary nuance, incidentally alluded to by a term which was primarily coined to signalize the new vijñāna’s ticking , and lying hidden, in the material sense faculties.

His best argument here concerns why, if it were exclusively seed-based, was it not termed bījavijñāna? He reinforces his assertion involving our study of the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra:

This is further confirmed by the fact that the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra explains the term only in the latter sense and does not even mention the possibility of interpreting the ‘ālaya ‘ as being stuck to by Seeds.

Schmithausen’s argument is warranted, in particular given the early references to ālayavijñāna, but it certainly does not outweigh the later connotations that explicitly reference seedbed.

Alaya, store-consciousness is the seedbed of all that exists. Every seed lies in the store-consciousness and when it sprouts out into object world a reflection returns as a new seed. This new seed lies latent in it and gets manifest when the seed becomes matured under favourable conditions. (N.A. Sastri, STORE-CONSCIOUSNESS (Alaya-Vijnana) A Grand Concept of the Yogacara Buddhists.)

Impressions and dispositions become planted in the deepest regions of that person’s mind where they are retained. These impressions impregnate the store consciousness, and as planted actions, they are called “seeds” as they have the power to give form to the subsequent self.

These seeds, which are secretly impregnated and retained in the ālayavijñāna, will again generate visible phenomena when the right set of circumstances arises. Since this is exactly the kind of function associated with the physical seeds of plants, they are so named metaphorically. We should not, however, go so far as to construe them as material, substantial seeds…. seeds represent the momentum of impressions, and also be understood from the perspective of the almost synonymous technical term, karmic impressions (skt. Vāsanā). (Living Yogacara, pg. 32)

And what of the English connotations? It appears they are legion:

The Sanskrit word ālayavijñāna has many English translations including: Warehouse consciousness, Storehouse Consciousness, Store Consciousness, Storage Consciousness, Repository Consciousness, Receptacle Consciousness, Container Consciousness, Storing-Center of Ideation, Mind-Store and Ideation-Store. It  is clear that  all  of  the  above  translations  are  metaphoric  in  nature.  Conceptually, different metaphors embody different distinctive semantic fields and connotations.  Therefore each of the  above  metaphors  for the  ālayavijñāna have  conceptual features that  are specific to its vehicle field and have unique corresponding effects on the topic domain of the ālayavijñāna, therefore different metaphors suggest different implications for the whole working system of the ālayavijñāna. (Gina Tse Chun YANG Fo Guang University, Buddhist Cognitive Metaphors for the Subliminal Mind in the Yogācāra Tradition: Agrarian Metaphoric Models for the Ālayavijñāna and its Hermeneutical Functions in the Mahāyānasaṃgraha.)

I find the latter resource most helpful in delineating the prospectus for a vast metamorphic ideation of the Alaya enterprise. Indeed, its very basis could be considered even from an agricultural angle.

The ālayavijñāna has the characteristic of containing seeds, furnishes with seeds. Looking at the concepts of seeds and fruits, both are part of vegetation. Fruits are the end results from the seeds…

“The self-nature of the receptacle consciousness is that of being a retribution consciousness furnished with all the seeds (sarvabījaka vipākavijñāna). All the existences (kāya = ātmabhāva) of the three-fold world (trai- dhātuka) and all the destinies (gati) are the result of this consciousness.”  Here the ālayavijñāna is the retribution consciousness (vipākavijñāna), which is the result of the ripening of fruit.  Connecting  together  all the  pieces  to  form the  components  of the whole  narrative, the ālayavijñāna  uses the  metaphor of the ground possessing seeds which grows into fruits and then bears more seeds.  The process of continuity (emphasis mine) of cause and effect for the support of dharmas forms the whole narrative.

Hence, the narrative of the passage can be interpreted as: the ālayavijñāna is the consciousness that  transmigrates  from  life  time  to  life  time.  Just like a seed grows into a sprout, stem … etc., the seed being the cause, so is the ālayavijñāna the cause for the rest of the links of Dependent Origination, being the cause for the six sense organs and so on. The  final  phase  of  plant  life  is  the  bearing  of  fruits  which  is  another  fundamental metaphoric concept for result in this text. In this case, the fruits developed from seeds, sprout, stem and so on, are likened to the last link of old age and death. Fruits contain more seeds which can be planted and begin the stage growth process again, just like the ālayavijñāna can transmigrate to the next life and start the whole process of birth, old age and death again…

Perhaps instead of calling it the Storehouse Consciousness, it could be called “Granary Consciousness” as it falls better into the agricultural model. (ibid)

The vaunted Vasubandhu himself appears to uphold this earthy-metaphor:

In Vasubandhu’s commentary, the ālayavijñāna is described as follows:

Śāstra: Moreover, in the scripture of the Mahāsāṃghikas, this consciousness (ālayavijñāna) is presented under the alternate name of “mūlavijñāna” (root basis, foundational consciousness), like the tree relies on its roots.

Commentary:  The  consciousness  (ālayavijñāna)  is  the  cause  of  all  (other) consciousness,  (it)  is  the  “root”  basis  of  various  consciousness. Taking the analogy of tree roots, the sprouts, stems, branches, leaves and so forth, rely on the roots. Without the roots, there is no sprouts and others. In the same way, this consciousness (ālayavijñāna) is the “root” basis of other consciousnesses. (She dacheng lun shi 攝大乘論釋. CBETA, T31, no. 1595, p. 160, b20-23.“論曰:復次,摩訶僧祇部阿含中,由根本識別名,此識顯現,譬如樹依根。釋曰:此識為 一切識因故, 是諸識根本。譬如樹根,芽、節、枝、葉等所依止說名樹根。若離此根,芽 等不成,此識為餘識根本亦爾

The name “mūlavijñāna” is the term used by the Mahāsāṃghikas which preceded the Yogācāra usage of ālayavijñāna. The word “mūla” means “root”. In this passage, the ālayavijñāna  is  compared  to  the  roots  that  are  the  basis  and  support  of  all  other consciousness. The system of components of vegetation is observed again. Just like the roots of a tree that give rise to and support the sprouts, stems, branches, leaves and so forth,  the  ālayavijñāna  gives  rise  to  and  supports  the  other  seven  consciousness. Without it, the other seven consciousness could not exist.  Conceptually, the root is hidden underground, unseen on the surface. In the same way, the ālayavijñāna  is the subliminal  part  of  the  mind  that  is  unobservable  as  a  consciousness,  yet  it  is fundamental to the existence of other consciousness.

Vasubandhu is also truer to the spirit of the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra:

(From his Trimsatika, or the Thirty Verses)

The store consciousness holds the seeds of all past experience.
Within it are the forms of grasping
And the dwelling places of the unknown.
It always arises with touch, awareness, recognition, concept, and desire.

The store consciousness is clear and undefinable.
*Like a great river, it is always changing.
Neither pleasant nor unpleasant, when one becomes fully realized, it ceases to

* The appropriating consciousness is profound and subtle indeed; all its seeds are like a rushing torrent (like a river when it’s raging) [Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra.]

As we have just witnessed, the bīja-theory holds up well but at the same time never overshadows the metaphoric profundity of the great alaya-receptacle. For a Lankavatarian, its nature is considered primarily as defiled-garbha, in league with the great sage and translator, Paramartha. That being said, it needs to be stressed that a more balanced portrayal was presented in an earlier blog:

The great Translator in China, Paramartha, asserted that it was defiled-garbha. As time progressed the Chinese developed their own unique Yogācāra schools that particularly focused on this concern. Fa-shang (495-580) represented one of these schools and expounded that tathagatāgarbha and alaya-vijñāna were exclusively separate from one another: alaya-vijñāna was totally impure and existed solely to house all karmic and phenomenal-based associations; whereas the tathagatāgarbha was solely “pure” and the ultimate source for all there is. This stood in stark contrast to other Yogācāra schools that asserted that alaya-vijñāna in-itself was pure and the sustainer of all phenomena—it was completely synonymous with the tathagatāgarbha (However, even though they are identical in substance, as real and unreal principles [of the true mind] they differ (emphasis mine)…the storehouse consciousness suddenly transforms into the organ body, the external world, and the karmic seeds (Broughton, ZOC). In a masterstroke of providing the middle-ground for all these opposing schools, the Awakening of Faith integrated both concepts: alaya-vijñāna was bifurcated as epistemologically a combination of both pure and impure aspects of consciousness, while ontologically it was not distinct from tathagatāgarbha. When in awakened-mode the alaya was pure; when in delusion, it was impure.

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