The Doctrine of “Mind-only” (Cittamatra)

From D. T. Suzuki, Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, pp. 241-263. Suzuki cites passages from his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra with their appropriate page numbers; therefore I have identified the page numbers from Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra by adding his initials, DTS.


One of the Principal Theories in the Sutra

Something about the doctrine of “Mind-only” has already been stated, but more will have to be written about it if the Lankavatara is to be treated as an independent Mahayana sutra, not necessarily in connection with the teaching of Zen Buddhism. There is no doubt that the purpose of compiling the sutra was, on the part of the author or editor, to emphasise the all-importance of the self-realisation of the truth (pratyatmadharma) in its practical bearing on the life of the Bodhisattva. But when self-realisation is to be given its content so that the experience becomes communicable, that is, when it is made the subject of a philosophical discourse, something more has to be said. The mere statement of the fact that the truth realised in the inmost consciousness constitutes the reason of the Buddhist life, is altogether too inadequate to convince other people: the Lankavatara has to be more than an utterance of the inner experience. To be consistent with the general philosophical tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, it has to advocate the doctrine of “Mind-only.” We may, therefore, say that the teaching of Zen Buddhism, philosophically stated, is a pure idealism. This chapter will now be devoted to an elucidation of the Lankavatara doctrine of “Mind-only” (cittamatra).

What is then meant by the “Mind-only”? Let me quote some gathas (verses) relative to the subject:

“When things existent are regarded as being free from [the bondage of] mutual dependence, there is decidedly nothing but Mind, I say, nothing but Mind (25).

“[Mind] is the measure [of all things], it is the abode of their self-nature, and has nothing to do with causation and the world; it is perfect in its nature, absolutely pure. This is the measure indeed, I say (26). (DTS 242)

“The worldly way of thinking views [the Mind] as the individual self (atman), but there is no such substantial reality. [Likewise] with the substance (skandhata) of the Skandhas: the worldly way of thinking views it as real; in reality it has no existence (27).

“There are four sorts of sameness for those who discipline themselves in religious life: appearance, causation, coming into existence, and the fourth is egolessness (28).

“[Mind] is beyond all philosophical views, is apart from discrimination, it is not attainable, nor is it ever born. I say, there is nothing but Mind (29).

“It is not an existence, nor is it a non-existence; it is indeed beyond both existence and non-existence; it is Suchness, it is even released from mind. I say, there is nothing but Mind (30).

“Suchness, emptiness, the limit, Nirvana, Dharmadhatu, variety of will-bodies—they are nothing but Mind, I say (31).

“Out of Mind spring innumerable things, conditioned by discrimination and habit-energy; these things people accept as an external world. I say, there is nothing but Mind (32).

“What appears to be external does not exist in reality, it is indeed Mind that is seen as multiplicity; the body, property and abode—all these, I say, are nothing but Mind (33).”

In the “Sagathakam” we have the following stanzas:

“When the “Mind-only” is understood, external objects are set aside, discrimination ceases, and we have the Middle Way (358).

“There is the ‘Mind-only’; there are no objects to be (DTS 243) seen. When there are no objects to see, Mind is not born, and this is called by myself and others the Middle Way (359).

“Without being born they are seen as born; they are not dead but are seen as dead; they are simultaneously visible in myriads of countries even as the moon is reflected in many waters (366).

“One is seen as many; they make it rain, they ignite fires as is willed by their minds. Thus they declare that there is the ‘Mind-only’ (367).

“To say [that] the ‘Mind-only’ is by mind, is also born of mind. Particular forms and figures in all possible varieties, when thoroughly understood, are no more than Mind itself (368).

“Of Buddhas, Sravaka-forms, Pratyekabuddha-forms, and other various forms, it is declared by them that they are nothing but Mind (369).

“Their forms, although really of no-form, are seen as having forms by all beings from the world of no-form [formless realm] down to the hells; they are nothing but the workings of Mind itself (370).”

From these quotations some of which are more shrouded in obscurity than others, the reader may gain a general idea as to what the doctrine of “Mind-only” means. The sutra sometimes makes summary statements like these:

  1. The world is nothing but Mind.
  2. Nothing is to be seen outside of the Mind.
  3. The triple world is Mind itself.
  4. Mind produces the triple world.
  5. The triple existence is nothing but Mind.
  6. All is Mind.
  7. When Mind evolves, all forms are manifested.

(DTS 244) Speaking in the modern way, the theory of “Mind-only” is a form of pure idealism. All that we habitually consider having an objective value, such as our own body (deha), property (bhoga), and the land (pratishthana) where we have our abodes, are no more than our own mind projected and recognised as externally extending and real. Even Nirvana, the truth of suchness, emptiness, reality—all these are but our mental creations, having no objective validity as far as they are forms of discrimination. We ordinary mortals see the Buddha in his multifarious manifestations, which, however, are the reflections of our ideas formulated in the mind by virtue of inherited memory (vasana) mysteriously working from time immemorial.

Passages Quoted Relative to the Doctrine

The doctrine of “Mind-only” runs through the Lankavatara as if it were warp and weft of the sutra. To understand it is to realise the ultimate truth, and not to understand it is to transmigrate through many a birth-and-death. The sutra lays much emphasis on the importance of the doctrine, so much, indeed, that it makes everything hinge on this one point, the salvation of the world, not to say anything of the individual.

1. The “Mind-only” leads to the realisation of the ultimate truth (paramartha). “Language, O Mahamati, is not the ultimate truth; what is attainable by language is not the ultimate truth. Why? Because the ultimate truth is what is enjoyed by the wise; by means of speech one can enter into the truth, but words themselves are not the truth. It is the Self-realisation inwardly experienced by the wise through their supreme wisdom, and does not belong to the domain of words, discrimination, or intelligence; and, therefore, (245) discrimination does not reveal the ultimate truth itself. Moreover, O Mahamati, language is subject to birth and destruction, is unsteady, mutually conditioning, and produced according to the law of causation. What is mutually conditioning and produced according to the law of causation is not the ultimate truth, nor does it come out of such conditions, for it is above aspects of relativity. Words are incapable of producing it. Further, as the ultimate truth is in conformity with the view that the visible world is no more than our own mind, and as there are no such external objects appearing in their multifarious aspects of individuation, the ultimate truth is not subject to discrimination.”

“O Mahamati, when a man sees into the abode of reality where all things are, he enters upon the truth that what appears to him is no other than Mind itself.”

2. The “Mind-only” is grasped by pure thought. “Prajna [transcendental wisdom] does not belong to the two Vehicles; it has, indeed, nothing to do with particular objects [i.e. knowing something]. The Sravakas are attached to the notion of being; prajna, pure in essence, belongs to the Tathagata who has entered upon the “Mind-only.”

3. Bodhisattvas do not enter into Nirvana because of their understanding of the truth of the “Mind-only.” “All the various doings in the triple world (traidhatuka) such as the grading of stages in the discipline of the Bodhisattva and his steady promotion are nothing but the manifestations of Mind. This is not understood by the ignorant; therefore all these things are taught by the Buddhas. And again, the Sravakas and the Pratyekabuddhas, when they reach the eighth stage, become so intoxicated with the bliss of mental tranquillity (nirodha-samapatti) that they fail to realise that the visible is nothing but the Mind. They are still in the realm of individuation, their insight into reality is not yet pure (vivikta). The Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are alive to their original vows flowing out of their all-embracing (DTS 246) loving hearts; they do not enter into Nirvana. They know that the visible world is nothing but the manifestation of Mind itself. They are free from such ideas as mind (citta), will (manas), consciousness (manovijnana), external world, self-substance, and distinguishing marks.”

4. The “Mind-only” and the dualistic conception of being and non-being, which is the outcome of wrong discrimination (vikalpa), stand opposed to each other, and are irreconcilable until the latter is absorbed into the former. Its teaching, intellectually speaking, is to show the fallacy of a world-conception based on discrimination, or rather upon wrong discrimination, in order to get us back into the right way of comprehending reality as it is. “As the ignorant and unenlightened do not comprehend the teaching of the ‘Mind-only,’ they are attached to a variety of external objects. They go from one form of discrimination to another, such as the duality of being and non-being, oneness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness, permanence and impermanence, self-substance, habit-energy, causation, etc. After discriminating these notions, they go on clinging to them as objectively real and unchangeable, like those . . . who, driven by thirst in the summer-time, chase after imaginary springs.”

“To think that primary elements really exist is due to wrong discrimination and nothing else. When the truth of the ‘Mind-only’ is understood, there are no external objects to be seen; they are all due to the discrimination of what one sees in one’s own mind.”

5. Not to understand the “Mind-only” leads one to eternal transmigrations. “As the philosophers fail to go beyond dualism, they hurt not only themselves but the ignorant. Going around continually from one path of existence to another, not understanding that what is seen is no more than (DTS 247) their own mind, and adhering to the notion that things external are endowed with self-substance, they are unable to free themselves from wrong discrimination.”

6. As to the relation between the “Mind-only” theory and the conception of the Alayavijnana, mention will be made later; here let it only be remarked that the rising of the Alaya is due to our taking the manifestations of the mind for a world of objective realities. “The Alayavijnana is its own subject (=cause) and object (=support), and it clings to a world of its own mental presentations, a system of mentality that evolves mutually conditioning. It is like the waves of the ocean, stirred by the wind; that is, a world made visible by Mind itself where the mental waves come and go.” This ocean-and-waves simile is a favourite one with Mahayana Buddhists.

7. Thus we see that there is nothing in the world that is not of the mind, hence the “Mind-only” doctrine. And this applies with especial emphasis to all logical controversies, which, according to the Lankavatara, are mere subjective fabrications. ”The body, property, and abode—these are no more than the shadows of Mind (citta). The ignorant do not understand it: they make assertions or refutations, and this elaboration is due to Mind-only, apart from which nothing is obtainable.” The author of the Lankavatara does not stop here; he goes further on and declares that even the spiritual stages of Bodhisattvahood are merely the reflections of Mind. “The Buddha-lands and the Buddha-stages are of Mind only, in which there are no shadows; that is what is taught by the Buddhas past, present, and future.”

8. Lastly, when all forms of individuation are negated, there takes place a [turning-about] (paravritti) in our minds, and (DTS 248) we see that the truth that there is nothing but Mind from the very beginning and thereby we are emancipated from the fetters of wrong discrimination.

The Citta and its Evolution

Now the question naturally suggesting itself is: what is really meant by cittamatram, or “Mind-only”? It is often phrased svacittadrisyamatram, meaning “own-mind-seen-only.” What is the Citta that is here rendered as “Mind”?

Let us see first what the Lankavatara means by Citta. Citta as noticed elsewhere is used in two ways, general and specific Where it is used in a general way, it is the name given to the sum of all mental activities, including both the mind proper and its various functions. But where the mind is divided into Citta, Manas, Manovijnana, and the five sense-vijnanas, (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body), the Citta gains a specific signification. It is the principle of unification by which all the activities are understood as issuing from one centre. The Manas is a discriminating agency by which the homogeneous, undifferentiated Citta is divided into two parts: the one as the seer and the other as the seen; the one as the grasping ego and the other as an object grasped. The Manas is not only an intellective but also a conative principle. The Vijnana, that is, the Manovijnana is separated from the Manas, only retaining the latter’s intellective function, and may be translated as the intellect, in which case the Manas may be regarded as corresponding to the will and the affection. The five Vijnanas are thus the five senses which discriminate a world of individual forms, each within its own sense-field.

When the Citta is thus considered in its specific sense, it may seem to be an abstract principle devoid of content. But, according to the Lankavatara, this is not the case: for the Citta is rich in content, and just because of this inner richness, it is able to evolve out of itself a world of infinite multitudinousness. It is, indeed, an inexhaustible reservoir (249) of seeds that have been accumulated therein since the beginningless past. So the definition of Citta is as follows: Cittena ciyate karma. That karma is accumulated by Citta means that the latter takes in all that goes on in the mind and also all that is done by the body. Technically stated, every deed (karma), mental and physical, leaves its seeds behind which are deposited in the Citta, and the Citta has been hoarding them since time immemorial. It is the rich repository of all the thoughts, feelings, desires, instincts, etc., no matter how they have come to act, that is, whether merely stirred up in the inmost recesses of one’s consciousness, or carried out by the body into deed, or checked in the incipient stages of their activity. Psychologically, the Citta may thus be regarded as corresponding to the Subconscious.

This repository-Citta, so long as it remains contented in and with itself, is absolutely quiet and no waves are seen stirring on its cittam avyakritam nityam (citta eternally quiescent). It is in its nature non-discriminative; it does not pretend to divide and analyse itself. It may dance like the dancer, but if there is nobody to keep company with her and no audience to applaud her, what is the use of her dancing? A solitary dance is the same as no dance whatever, the dancing is the same as no dancing; but it gains significance as soon as there appears someone beside the dancer.

This somebody is at hand who keeps company with the Citta; not only that, it calls up an audience and creates the stage on a grand scale. The panoramic world of particular objects now comes up into view, the manager’s name is Manas.

“Citta dances like the dancer,
Manas resembles the jester,
The Manovijnana, in company with the five senses,
Imagines the the stage.”

(DTS 250) The Manas is not, however, an independent agent acting on the Citta from the outside, it is indeed the creation of the Citta itself. “Depending upon the Alaya [=Citta], the Manas arises; allied with the Citta and Manas, the Vijnana arises.” Again, “[with the Citta] as its cause and supporting it, the Manas walks along depending on the Citta. The Citta is caused to move by the Vijnana, and there is an interdependence among them.” From this it is evident that the Manas depends on the Citta for its existence, and at the same time Citta takes Manas for the object of its activity. Without Manas there will be no mentation, and without mentation Citta’s own existence will not be known. The one, thus, gives support to the other, and at the same time is supported by the other.

The business of Manas is thus twofold: (1) to reflect on the Citta, and (2) to make Citta visualise itself as object. This is called “arranging” or “putting in order” or “reflecting” (manyati), which is the function of the Manas. It is again described as “walking in two ways,” which means the dualistic character of the Manas, as against the absolute unity of the Citta. One Citta has now been differentiated into Citta and Manas, and this latter particularised Citta is no more neutral, non-discriminative, and non-functioning; for all the karma-seeds hitherto lying dormant in the absolute Citta have now begun to sprout out in full vigour. These germinating seeds are now distinguished or discriminated by the Vijnana known as Manovijnana, by the aid of the five senses, wherewith creating a world of individuals. (DTS 251) The latter is called “the seen,” or “what is presented” (drisya), which is now imagined (kalpeti) as real and substantial, and from this arise all kinds of spiritual tribulations.

The distinction between Manas and Manovijnana is that Manas is conative (will) and Manovijnana is intellective (vijanati, or manyate). While intellection is not lacking in Manas, what predominates is the will, especially since the intellective function has more or less effectively been surrendered to the Vijnana, i.e., Manovijnana. In fact, however, all these function together and simultaneously, as we have seen in the simile of the theatre. Further quotations from the “Sagathakam” will be helpful:

“Depending, upon the Alaya there evolves the Manas; and depending upon Citta and Manas there evolves the Vijnana (869).

“There are the maturing and development of Manas and Vijnanas, that is, Manas is born of the Alaya and the Vijnanas of the Manas (870).

“From the Alaya are stirred up all the mental activities like waves; with habit-energy as cause they are born in accordance with [the law of ] origination (871).

“Grasping mind as their objects and bound by a chain of successive moments, the Manovijnana, eye-vijnana, etc. are evolved to create forms, characteristics (nimitta), and shapes (872).

“Bound by bad habit-energy of the beginningless past, something resembling an external world is produced, and the mind is seen in the aspect of multiplicity. This is what blocks the understanding of the philosophers (873).

“With that [vasana] as cause and depending on it, other things [i.e. vijnanas] are evolved, and thus there take place various views of existence and a revolving cycle of birth and death (873).”

To be exact, the Citta is more than the mind as the (DTS 252) psychologist understands it: it has more of a metaphysical connotation; it is not merely an empirical mind. The Citta when it is understood in its absolute aspect is transcendental; it denotes something at the back of the mind that the psychologist, who, depending on his scientific methods, may fail to reach. It implies more than the sum-total of the Citta, Manas, Manovijnana, and the Vijnanas. When the Lankavatara speaks of the “Mind-only,” therefore, its foundation lies much deeper than the ordinary form of idealism. Otherwise intuition into the truth of Cittamatra cannot result in the spiritual emancipation which is the object of Mahayana discipline.

. . .

[T]he Citta is considered to be pure and immaculate in its essential nature in the Lankavatara, i.e., it is good and free from evil flowings (kusala-anasrava).

“The Citta is not separated from habit-energy (vasana), nor is the Citta together with habit-energy though it is enwrapped with the latter; there are no marks in it of differentiation. Habit-energy being with the Manovijnana is soiled, and the Citta, which is like a robe that is perfectly white does not shine out on account of habit-energy. As it is declared by me that the sky is neither a reality nor a non-reality, so is the Alaya in the body not limited by [the dualism] of being and non-being. When a [turning-about] (paravritti) takes place, the Citta is disengaged from turbidity; as it understands all existence, I state that the Citta is the Buddha.”

Being pure or good does not always mean morally pure and good, it means rather logically pure, that is, absolutely free from the dualistic way of reasoning. Therefore, the sutra never tires of repeating that in order to realise the fact of the “Mind-only” the realm of dualities which is the product of false discrimination (vikalpa) must be transcended. False discrimination is the principle of turbidity, which hides the truth from being clearly perceived. Buddhahood consists in removing this turbidity of discrimination, for the removing is emancipation and the restoring of the Citta to its original purity. This is known in the Lankavatara as inner realisation (pratyatmadhigama). (DTS 254)

The Citta and the Alayavijnana and the Atman

Along with the conception of Citta there was that of the Vijnana system, and also the deepening of the ego-idea. Early Buddhists denied the reality of an ego-substance, which was in accordance with their psychology, but the idea of ego was not necessarily the same as the assertion of self-will or egotism; even when self-will was destroyed, the idea remained. What was destroyed was the lower self and not the higher self, the smaller self and not the larger self; for the annihilation of the lower and smaller self was only possible through the assertion of the higher and larger one. Buddhists never thought of putting an end to whatever might go under the name of self. The idea of ego-substance (atman) was inimical to the development of the higher centre of the individual, nor was it in harmony with the experience of their religious life. How is the question of the higher life to be solved, then? Where is it to be placed in the system of the Vijnanas? With this question an absolute Citta came to be separated from the empirical ego, and this absolute Citta to be identified with the Alaya, which was now made the foundation of the whole Vijnana group. So we have “cittam-alayavijnanam,” and this then furnishes the reason of the inner realisation as taking place in the Tathagata-garbha. The philosophers take the Tathagatagarbha, or the Alayavijnana, for the ego, that is, the lower, narrower, empirical ego, which is, however, far from the teaching of the Buddha. The real immaculate ego, suddhisatyatman, going beyond the grasp of relative knowledge, cannot so easily be understood and so readily be asserted as is done by the ignorant. We thus read (pp. 757-771):

(DTS 256) “Born or unborn, the Mind always remains pure: those who reason about the existence of an ego-substance—why do they not prove it by illustrations? (744).

“Those who vainly reason without understanding the truth are lost in the jungle of the Vijnanas, running about here and there and trying to justify their view of ego-substance (745).

“The self realised in your inmost consciousness appears in its purity, this is the Tathagata-garbha which is not the realm of those given up to mere reasoning (746).

“When the Skandhas are analysed, there is that which apprehends and that which is apprehended; by understanding this aspect of relativity, true knowledge is born (747).

“The philosophers think that the Alaya or where the Garbha is oriented, is the seat of thought and one with the self: but such are not the teachings declared [by the Buddhas] (748).

“When these are well discriminated, there is emancipation and seeing into the truth; by moral cultivation and intellectual training the evil passions are abandoned and made pure (749).

“The Citta, pure in its original nature and free from the category of finite and infinite is the undefiled Tathagatagarbha, which is wrongly apprehended by sentient beings (750).

“As the beautiful colour of gold and the brilliancy of a [precious] stone are revealed by purification, so is the Alaya, which is hidden in the Skandhas, revealed to sentient beings (751).

“The Buddha is neither an individual soul nor the Skandhas, he is the wisdom of non-outflowings (jnana-anasravam), and knowing that he is eternal quietude I take refuge in him (752).

“The Citta, pure in its original nature, is united with the minor impurities, Manas, and others, and with the ego—this is what is taught by the best of preachers (753).

(256) “The Citta is in its original nature pure, but the Manas and others are not, and by them various karmas are accumulated, and as the result there are two sorts of impurities [or defilements] (754).

‘”On account of external defilements from the beginningless past the pure self is contaminated; it is like a soiled garment which can be cleansed (755).

“When the garment is unsoiled, or when gold is freed of its defects, they are restored and will not be destroyed; so it is with the self when remedied of its defects (756).

“As an unintelligent man seeks for the abode of sweet sound in the body of the lute, conch-shell, or kettle-drum, so does he look for a soul within the Skandhas (757).

“Like the gems in the treasure-house or like water under the ground, which are invisible though known to be there, so is the soul in the Skandhas (758).

“While the whole system of the Citta-activity with its proper functions is in union with the Skandhas, the unintelligent fail to comprehend it, so it is also with the soul in the Skandhas (759).

“Like the contents of the womb whose existence is known but invisible, so is with the soul in the Skandhas which is likewise not perceivable to the dull-minded (760).

“As the essence of medicinal herbs, as fire hidden in fuel, so the soul in the Skandhas is not perceived by the dull-minded (761).

“As the unwise fail to see that in all things existent there is the nature of eternity and emptiness, so they do not see the soul in the Skandhas (762).

“If no real self exists, there will be no stages [of Bodhisattvahood], no self-mastery, no psychic power, no anointment of the highest order, no excellent Samadhi (763).

“If the nihilist come and ask, ‘If there be the self, show it to me,’ the sage’s answer will be ‘Show me your own discrimination’ (764).

“Those who deny the self are the opponents of the (DTS 257) Buddhist teaching, their views are one-sided advocating either ‘It is,’ or ‘It is not’; they are to be rejected by a general session of the Bhikshus (765).

“The doctrine of the self is illuminating, it releases one from the faults of the philosophers, it burns up the forest of selflessness like the fire arising at the end of the world (766).

“In sugar, sugar-cane, candy, honey, curd, or tila-oil, there is its own taste; but one who has not tasted it does not comprehend it (767).

“In five different ways the ignorant may search for the self by lifting up the Skandhas, but they fail to see it, while the wise one sees it and is thereby released (768).

“Even by means of knowledge, illustrations, and other things, one is unable to gain an insight just into the Citta; how can one then gain an insight into the signification accumulated in it? (769).

“Not understanding that individuation is due to one mind (citta), the reasoning ones cling to the view that there is no cause, there is no evolving (770).

“The Yogin sees into the mind (citta) and the mind is not seen in the mind, the seeing is born of what is seen, and of what cause is the seen born? (771).”

These passages are to be carefully weighed, for if otherwise they dangerously verge on the doctrine of an individual ego-substance which is persistently denied by Buddhists,

Mahayana as well as Hinayana. The main idea is that there is a principle of consciousness from which the whole Vijnana system evolves and is set in operation, but which is not to be regarded as something individual residing in the five Skandhas. Ordinarily, this principle—unknown, invisible, and beyond the grasp of the sense-vijnanas—is taken for an ego, and unenlightened people try to locate it in the body just as they try to take hold of the pleasant notes that issue from the lute, or of the effective, curative agency that is hidden in a medicinal herb. Apart from the lute, the sound is non-existent; so with the curative quality, it does not exist (258) outside of the herb itself. The presence of the principle is to be realised inwardly by intuition and not by a process of analysis. This intuition, in other words, the “wisdom of non-outflowings”

(jnanam-anasravam), constitutes the original nature of the mind which is described in the above quotations as “originally pure” (prakriti-prabhasvaram). If this is considered something concrete and individual, something separable from and capable of being picked out among objects of particularisation, saying, “Here it is!” this will be resorting to dualistic discrimination which is condemned so much in the Lankavatara. At all events it is evident that there was historically a close connection between the ego idea and the evolution of Alayavijnana.

The following noted stanza quoted whenever there is an allusion to the philosophy of the Yogacara is taken from the Chinese Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra:

“The Alayavijnana is deep and subtle,
Where all the seeds are evolved like a stream;
I do not elucidate this for the ignorant,
For they are apt to imagine it an ego-substance.”

When Citta among early Buddhist scholars came to denote “accumulation,” Vijnana, “discrimination,” or “representation,” and Manas, “deliberation” or “reflection,” it was natural for the later psychologists to designate Citta as Alaya or Alayavijnana as belonging to the general body of various Vijnanas. Alaya means “storage” or “treasure house,” where all the results, called “seeds” (bija), of one’s mental and physical activities are hoarded, i.e., accumulated, and it does not stand outside the Vijnana system: it is one of them though in the most fundamental sense of the expression. And for this reason the Alaya is liable to be regarded as the ego-substance—the very idea against which Buddhism has been fighting ever since its inception. The Lankavatara is thus quite anxious to dispel this confusion.

(DTS 259) In what follows the Buddha answers the question of Mahamati as regards the identity of Atman and Tathagata-garbha which, as was mentioned before, is the same as Alayavijnana. There is no doubt that this idea of Alayavijnana or Adanavijnana or Tathagata-garbha or Citta caused confusion in the minds of some Mahayana Buddhists who have been brought up in the teaching of Anatman (non-ego). Hence the following question proposed by the Bodhisattva Mahamati:

“The Tathagata-garbha is mentioned in the text of a sutra and described as thoroughly pure and undefiled in its essential nature, as endowed with the thirty-two marks, entering into the physical body of a sentient being, and enveloped within such matter as the Skandhas, Dhatus, and Ayatanas, and soiled with the dirt of greed, anger, folly, and discrimination, [but really] described by the Buddha as eternal, permanent, auspicious, and unchanged. If so, is not this Tathagata-garbha something of the same order as the Atman in the teaching of the philosophers? They teach the Atman as eternal, creator, devoid of attributes, mighty, and imperishable.”

To this question raised by Mahamati and also held by most Bodhisattvas and scholars, the Buddha gives the following answer:

“O Mahamati, the doctrine of Atman by the philosophers is not the same as my teaching of the Tathagata-garbha. For what the Tathagatas teach is emptiness (sunyata), limit of reality (bhutakoti), Nirvana, no-birth, no-appearance, no-desire (apranihita), and such other conceptions with which the Tathagata-garbha is characterised, and by which the ignorant are saved from a feeling of fear about the Buddhist teaching of non-ego, and they are thus finally led by the Tathagatas to the realm of no-discrimination and no-imagery, that is, (260) to the entrance of the Tathagata-garbha. O Mahamati, Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas of the present and the future are warned not to entertain any idea of ego-substance here . . . .”

This explains how the Buddha came to talk about the Tathagata-garbha and how it differs from the ordinary notion of the ego. With the philosophers the ego does not rise above the level of empiricism. The existence of the transcendental ego as maintained by Buddhists, which apparently contradicts their traditional view of non-ego, is hard to understand for the ignorant as well as for those of the two Vehicles; for the latter especially are used to interpret existence in terms of transitoriness or momentariness.

This leads to the question how the Alaya or Tathagata-garbha is to be conceived in relation to the doctrine of universal transitoriness. Is not the Tathagata-garbha, however skilfully it may be expounded, after all a sort of ego-substance? It now becomes necessary for the Lankavatara to discuss the problem of momentariness in relation to the hypothesis of Tathagata-garbha. This has partially been touched elsewhere, and let it suffice here to quote the following stanzas (which are by the way wrongly placed after the paragraph on the six Paramitas instead of before it in all the texts of the Lankavatara):

“Existence (samskrita) is discriminated by the ignorant as empty, transient, and momentary, and the nature of momentariness as they discriminate is illustrated by a stream, lamp-light, and seed (9).

“[But really] nothing is seen working at any moment, all is solitary, there is no destruction, nothing is ever born—this is the Buddha’s view of momentariness (10).

“Birth and death follow each other without interruption—this teaching of the Buddha is not for the ignorant; (DTS 261) [that birth and death] are uninterruptedly successive in all things is due to discrimination moving on in all the paths of existence (11).

“With ignorance as cause there is the evolving of all mental activities; [but] where do they get their anchoring while there is no birth of form (rupa)? (12).

“An uninterrupted continuity breaks and there evolves another mind; while form has not yet been set up, depending on what will it [mind] be evolved? (13).

“As long as the mind is evolved depending on it, the cause is not the true one; not being sufficient in itself [as a cause] how can one know of anything that suffers destruction momentarily? (14).

“The attainment of the Yogins, gold, the Buddha’s relics and the mansions in Abhasvara Heaven—these are indestructible by any worldly cause (15).

“Permanent are the truths attained and the knowledge realised by the Buddhas; [permanent is] the Bhikshu-nature [monk] and his attainment; how is momentariness seen here? (16).

“Forms (rupa) are like the Gandharva’s castle, maya, and other [suchlike non-entities], and no momentariness is here: the elements are not realities, and how can we speak of their power to create? (17)”

I have said that the Alaya and the. Tathagata-garbha are one and the same thing, and that the one is more of psychological significance than the other, but the Lankavatara sometimes seems to distinguish one from the other, that is, to consider the Alayavijnana as presenting the impurity-phase of the Tathagata-garbha. Read the following, which also sheds a side-light on the question of the ego:

“Mahamati asks: Tell me, O Blessed One, concerning (262) the evolution and disappearance of the Skandhas, Dhatus, and Ayatanas. If there is no Atman, what is it that is evolved and disappears? The ignorant who, stationing themselves on things that are evolved and disappear, do not think of extinguishing pain, may not seek after Nirvana. [They must therefore be enlightened on the subject.] Whereupon the Buddha answers:

“The Tathagata-garbha contains in itself causes both good and not-good, and from which are generated all the paths of existence.

“When there takes place a revulsion [in the Alayavijnana] by gradually ascending the steps of Bodhisattvahood, a man will no more be led astray by the methods and views of other philosophers. Then stationing himself on the stage of Bodhisattvahood known as the Immovable, he gains the passage leading to the bliss that accrues from the ten kinds of Samadhi. Supported by the Buddhas in Samadhi and reviewing [repeatedly bringing up in the mind] the wonderful truths taught by the Buddhas as well as his own vows, he does not abide in the limit of reality (bhutakoti) absorbed in the bliss of Samadhi; he has realised the supreme state in his own consciousness; and by the methods of discipline that do not belong to Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas and philosophers, he gains the path belonging to the holy family of Bodhisattvas at the tenth stage, and also the will-body of knowledge which is above all strivings after a Samadhi. For this reason let the Tathagata-garbha known under the name of Alayavijnana be purified by those Bodhisattvas who are seeking after something distinctive.

“O Mahamati, if there is no Tathagata-garbha known under the name of Alayavijnana, no evolution, no disappearance will ever take place. But there is, both among the ignorant and the wise, evolution and disappearance. While abiding in the bliss that accrues from the enjoyment of the actual life and supreme state realised in their consciousness, the Yogins do not abandon their discipline and (263) hard labouring. O Mahamati, this realm of Tathagatagarbha-Alayavijnana is pure in its original nature indeed, but appears devoid of purity because of the false views and reasonings entertained by all Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and philosophers, which defile the light by their external defilements. This is not the case with the Tathagatas. As to them, they see it as if it were an amalaka fruit in their own palm.

“O Mahamati, I inspired Queen Srimala and also other Bodhisattvas who are endowed with a fine, subtle, pure intelligence to expound in a text of discourse the meaning of the Tathagata-garbha known under the name of Alayavijnana, so that the Sravakas, who are attached to the [Alaya’s] evolution with the seven Vijnanas, might see into the egolessness of things (dharmanairatmya). The realm of Tathagatahood which was elucidated by Queen Srimala under the inspiration of the Buddha is not the domain of reasoning which belongs to Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and philosophers. The realm of Tathagatahood indeed belongs to another realm where [the teaching that] the Tathagata-garbha is the Alayavijnana is understood, and this is meant for the Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas who, like yourself, being endowed with a fine, subtle, penetrating intellect and understanding, know how to conform themselves to the meaning, and not for those other philosophers, Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas who are attached to words and texts of instruction. Therefore, O Mahamati, may you and other Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas have a thorough understanding as to the realm of all Tathagatahood and [the teaching that] the Tathagata-garbha is the Alayavijnana so that they may discipline themselves in this and not remain contented with mere listening [to the teaching].”

amalaka fruit

Suzuki, D. T. (1998). Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (originally published in 1929).

4 thoughts on “The Doctrine of “Mind-only” (Cittamatra)

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