In the Mahayana Sutra of Consciousness Revealed, a young man by the name of Worthy Protector asks the question to the Buddha about what consciousness is like and what happens at the moment of death.
In this Sutra, the Buddha is NOT teaching about the consciousness (vinnana) that is usually talked about in the Pali Suttas (the 6th thinking consciousness) – it is a totally different consciousness that the Buddha will be teaching about here – the 8th consciousness, the Alaya Vijnana. This is why it’s so important to understand the context when you are reading the Sutras and Suttas.
A common question that I see is “What is it that gets reborn?” This Sutra answers that question – it is the 8th Consciousness, the Alaya Vijnana that is reborn – carrying with it the Dharma realms of sensory reception (receiving information from our senses) PLUS sensory perception (perceiving sensory information), whose activities are temporarily suspended at the moment of death, though memory is still present (hence why people get the life review flashing before them at the moment of death).
There are 5 sense consciousnesses + the thinking consciousness/intellect (the 6th consciousness) + the 7th Transmitting Consciousness + the 8th consciousness. This Sutra teaches about the 8th Consciousness.
Worthy Protector’s Questions to the Buddha about Consciousness
Worthy Protector said to the Buddha,
“World-Honored One, although sentient beings know that there is consciousness, it is like a jewel kept in a box, unrevealed and unknowable. World-Honored One, I do not know the form of this consciousness, nor the reason that it is called consciousness.
When a person dies, his hands and feet may convulse, and the look of his eyes changes uncontrollably. As one’s faculties perish, the four domains—earth, water, fire, and wind—disperse.
- Where does one’s consciousness go after it has left the current body?
- What is its essence?
- What is its form?
- How does it assume the next body after leaving this body? After this body is abandoned, how does consciousness carry one’s faculties in order to accept the next requital, which can be a body of any kind?
- World-Honored One, how does a sentient being grow new faculties after the expiration of this body?
- Why does one accumulate meritorious karma in this life, only to receive its requital in the next life: The current body does meritorious karma, and the next body will eat [the karmic fruit]?
- How does one’s consciousness nourish one’s body and keep it alive?
- How do consciousness and faculties develop according to one’s body?”
The Buddha said, “Very good! Very good! Worthy Protector, these are good questions. Hearken! Hearken! Ponder this well. I will explain to you.”
Worthy Protector said to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, affirmatively I accept Your teachings.”
The Process of the Transference of the 8th Consciousness at Death is like wind carrying the fragrance of flowers – the flowers stay put, but the fragrance flows far
The Buddha told Worthy Protector,
“The process and transference of [ālaya] consciousness are like the wind, which is formless, shapeless, and unidentifiable.
However, the wind can activate myriad things and display myriad conditions:
- Whether making loud sounds as it shakes the forest or breaks off branches, or
- Causing pleasure or pain as it touches with cold or hot the bodies of sentient beings.
- The wind does not have hands, feet, face, or shape. Nor does it have various colors, such as black, white, red, or yellow. Worthy Protector,
- The same is true for the domain of consciousness.
- It is formless, shapeless, not revealed by light.
However, through causes and conditions, it can manifest various kinds of functions. Know that the dharma realms of sensory reception and perception are also formless and shapeless. Through causes and conditions, various functions manifest.
“Worthy Protector, after the death of a sentient being, the dharma realms of sensory reception and perception and the domain of [ālaya] consciousness abandon the body. The way [ālaya] consciousness carries the dharma realms of sensory reception and perception to accept another body is like a gust of wind sweeping across wonderful flowers. The flowers stay put, but their fragrance will flow far. The wind in essence does not grasp the fragrance of the flowers. Fragrance and the wind in essence are both formless and shapeless. However, without the power of the wind, fragrance will not travel far. Worthy Protector, after a person’s death, his [ālaya] consciousness carries the dharma realms of sensory reception and perception to the next rebirth, which is conditioned upon his parents entrusted by his [ālaya] consciousness. In this way the dharma realms of sensory reception and perception accompany [ālaya] consciousness. Because of the quality of the flowers, one’s nose can detect their scent. Because of one’s olfactory power, one smells fragrance, a sense object. The wind touches the flowers because of its power. Because of the power of the wind, fragrance can flow far. Likewise, from consciousness, sensory reception arises; from sensory reception, perception arises; and by perception, mental objects are differentiated. Then one knows good and evil.
The World we Experience is a Projection of the Sensory information we receive from all of Our Senses, integrated in our Brain
“Worthy Protector, by analogy, a painter applies pigments to the wall, and he can paint pictures as neatly and properly as he wishes. The consciousness and intellect of the painter are both formless and shapeless, but they can create various kinds of extraordinary images and shapes. Thus one’s consciousness and intellect project the six percepts.
- The eye sees sights, and the eye consciousness is formless and shapeless;
- The ear hears sounds, which are formless and shapeless;
- The nose detects odors, which are formless and shapeless;
- The tongue tastes flavors, which are formless and shapeless; and
- The body knows tactile sensations, which are formless and shapeless.
As one’s faculties and perceptions are formless and shapeless, so too one’s consciousness is formless and shapeless.
Sensory Perceptions are Suspended at Death Because the Body is no longer working – but Memory still remains
“Worthy Protector, when [ālaya] consciousness abandons one’s current body to accept another life, it is still bound by karma hindrances at the moment of one’s death. When one’s current requital ends with death, [one’s consciousness] is as if in the Samādhi of Total Halt. When an Arhat enters the Samādhi of Total Halt, his sensory reception and perception are suspended. Thus, when [ālaya] consciousness of the dying one abandons the body and its [four] domains, it does so with the power of memory. Upon dying, one’s consciousness replays clearly from memory all the karmas one has done in one’s entire life. Both body and mind are under stress.
The Meaning of Alaya Consciousness
“Worthy Protector, what is the meaning of consciousness? [Ālaya] consciousness means seed, which can sprout a karmic body of any kind. Perception, thinking, and memory are also sprouted from [ālaya] consciousness.
Why is it Called Consciousness?
It is called consciousness because it knows:
good, and evil, as well as
good and evil objects.
You ask me how one’s [ālaya] consciousness leaves this body to accept the next requital. Worthy Protector, each body sprouted from one’s [ālaya] consciousness is:
Like the reflection of a face in a mirror,
Like the markings in the mud, imprinted by a stamp.
How do we Know that Consciousness is within Our Bodies when consciousness has no form?
“As an analogy, the light of sunrise removes darkness, which returns after sunset. Darkness has no mass, no shape, neither permanent nor impermanent, but it is always there. The same is true for consciousness. Having no mass and no shape, it is revealed through sensory reception and perception.
“Consciousness in one’s body is like the essence of darkness, which cannot be seen or touched. It is like the fetus inside the mother, who does not know whether it is male or female. Nor does she know whether it looks black, white, or yellow, whether it has complete faculties, whether it has normal hands, feet, ears, and eyes. However, stimulated by hot food and drink [eaten by the mother], the fetus will move, because it feels pain. The presence of consciousness is evident as sentient beings come or go, bend or extend, stare or blink, speak or laugh, carry heavy loads, or do things. However, they do not know the whereabouts of consciousness in their bodies, nor its form. Worthy Protector, the consciousness in essence permeates the sensory fields, but it is not tainted by them. Consciousness permeates the six faculties, the six sense objects, and the the five aggregates, but it is not tainted by them. Through them, the functions of consciousness are evident.
The Body is Like a Puppet. Consciousness is like the Puppeteer.
Worthy Protector, it is like a mechanism which enables a wooden machine to perform various kinds of tasks, whether talking, leaping, jumping, or dancing. What is your opinion? By whose power is this wooden machine enabled to work?”
Worthy Protector replied to the Buddha, “My wisdom and knowledge are too shallow to determine this.”
The Buddha told Worthy Protector, “We should know that it is by one’s power to do karmas. The power for doing karmas is formless but directed by one’s intellect. Thus, a body-machine can do things with the power of consciousness. Whether ṛṣis, gandharvas, dragons, humans, asuras, or sentient beings on other life-journeys, all depend on it to do karmas. [Ālaya] consciousness can form the body as a work machine.
The Power and the Purity of Consciousness
“Consciousness, without any form or mass, can uphold the dharma realm. With complete mental power, it knows even things in one’s past lives. By analogy, the pervasive sunlight shines equally on sentient beings with evil karma, corpses, impure things, and stinking things, but it is not tainted by evils. Neither is [ālaya] consciousness. Even when it is in the body of a dog or a pig, which eats impure things, or in the body of anyone taking an evil life-journey, it is never tainted.
The Process of how Karma is Carried Over to the Next Body is like the Wind Carrying Fragrance and Stench – the Stronger Karma gets Manifested First
“Worthy Protector, [ālaya] consciousness abandons this body and moves away to accept the next requital according to good or evil karma. By analogy, when the wind exits a remote mountain or a steep gorge and sweeps across a forest of fragrant campaka trees, it carries fragrance. When the wind sweeps across a place of feces, corpses, rot, or filth, it carries stench. When it passes through both places, it carries both fragrance and stench. The stronger scent will be manifested first. The wind has no mass, and the scent has no shape. Yet the wind can carry both fragrance and stench far. Likewise, [ālaya] consciousness abandons this body, carrying good and evil karmas, to accept the next requital. It is just like the wind carrying fragrance and stench to another place.
It is also like a dreamer who sees myriads of images and does various kinds of karmas in a dream, unaware that he is lying asleep. When a virtuous person dies, the transference of his [ālaya] consciousness is peaceful and unconscious, in the same way as his going somewhere in a dream without any fear. The exit of [ālaya] consciousness is not through one’s throat, mouth, or other orifices. Its exit and route are unknown.”