Consciousness Only

Consciousness OnlyIn Buddhism, consciousness-only (Sanskrit:vijñapti-mātratā, vijñapti-mātra,citta-mātra; Chinese:唯識; Pinyin: wei shi;Japanese: yuishiki) is a theoryaccording to which all existence is nothing butconsciousness, and therefore there is nothing that liesoutside of the mind. This means that conscious-experience isnothing but false discriminations or imaginations; aprovisional antidote; thus, the notion of consciousness-only isan indictment of the problems engendered by the activities ofconsciousness. This was a major component of the thought ofthe school of Yogācāra, which had a major impacton subsequent schools after its introduction in East Asia.


According to the Vijñānavādins, embedded at the heartof Buddhism lies a seeming paradox. In contrast to theBrahmanic teachings of the Upanishads, the Buddhastated quite clearly that the self (atman) is anillusion and that man thus has no soul (anatman). However, there is transmigration(samsara) from one body to another. This poses adifficult question: “If there is no soul, what is it thatreincarnates?”

The theory of consciousness-only starts by explaining theregularity and coherence of sense impressions as due to anunderlying store of perceptions(ālaya-vijñāna) evolving from theaccumulation of traces of earlier sense perceptions. These areactive, and produce “seeds” (bija) similar tothemselves, according to a regular pattern, as seeds produceplants. Each being possesses a store of perceptions and beingswhich are generically alike will produce similar perceptionsfrom their stores at the same time. The external world iscreated when the store consciousness (ālaya)is “perfumed” (薰) by seeds, i.e. the effects of good andevil deeds.

To summarize, the seeds interact in three ways:

  1. Seeds produce the external world.
  2. Seeds are perfumed by the external world.
  3. Seeds produce seeds.

And this gives the solution to the original paradox. Theconception of “self”, the false atman, is produced from seeds.Actions in this world, good, bad and neutral deeds, perfume (ormutate) these seeds. The seeds then produce new seeds, withsome seeds tainted by your actions, and others unaffected.Even after death, the impressions of deeds — theirkarma — linger on in the seeds of alayaconsciousness. Since the seeds have a natural affinity to jointogether (pratisamdhi), reincarnation occurs when seedsfuse and new states of seventh consciousness (delusions of”self”) form. A Buddha is someone who has managed toobliterate all impressions of himself, all his perfumings ofthe seeds, and escape the wheel of samsara. Such alayaconsciousness fully cleansed of karmic sediment is known asamalavijñâna, or “pure consciousness”.

The doctrine of consciousness-only thus reduces allexistence to one hundred dharmas (法 factors) in fivedivisions 五位, namely, mind, mental function,material, not associated with mind and unconditioned, dharmas.The consciousness-only school thus sets out to enumerate anddescribe all these dharmas in detail.

An alternative explanation to the truism that “man has no soul” lies in a simple but powerful extension and paradigm shift: “man has no soul, rather, the soul has man.” In other words, we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not human beings having a spiritual experience. Assertions that “man” has a “soul” are necessarily false because man’s physical existence, which “man” most predominantly identifies with, is merely an observable artifact of the true spiritual reality.

Another important contribution of the consciousness-onlythinkers was that of the three natures of imaginary,provisional and real. See three natures for details.


The major framework of Yogācāra theory was developedby the two brothers Vasubandhu 世親 andAsaṅga 無著 in such treatises as theAbdhidharma-kośa-bhāsya倶舍論, theTriṃśikā Vijñaptimātratāsiddhiḥ(Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only)唯識三十頌,Mahāyāna-saṃgraha攝大乘論,and theYogācārabhūmi-śāstra瑜伽師地論.Dharmapala‘s Vijñaptimâtratâsiddhi-shâstra is animportant commentary that resolved several doctrinal disputesthat had risen out of the original texts.

Consciousness-only doctrine was also defined in sutras such asthe Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra andŚrīmālā-sūtra勝鬘經. TheMahāyāna-saṃgraha, for example, says,”All conscious objects are only constructs of consciousnessbecause there are no external objects. They are like a dream.”(如此衆識唯識以無塵等故譬如夢等)〔攝大乘論T 1593.31.118b12〕.

See also

  • Artificial consciousness
  • Buddhism
  • consensus reality
  • Dharma character school
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
  • George Berkeley
  • German idealism
  • Hindu idealism
  • idealism
  • Platonism
  • Subjectivity
  • Woncheuk

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