How does Buddhism teach us that we should view a human being? What lies at the heart of each of us?
There is a marked difference between the approach taken between some faiths which have as their starting point ideas such as 'original sin' compared with the approach in Nichiren Buddhism that each person is worthy of profound respect. The principle we will explore in this article known as the 'nine consciousnesses' helps us to deepen our understanding of the Buddhist point of view. In one of his writings, Nichiren Daishonin describes our bodies as 'the palace of the ninth consciousness'1 and this positive view of the value and worth of a human being confirms the dignity that is inherent in all life. This principle also explains how our Buddhist practice can draw out our inherent potential and positively affect the way we engage with life.
This principle of the nine consciousnesses starts by looking at the way our bodies respond to the world around us, and then considers mental and spiritual processes which explain our behaviour. Fundamentally, however, it tells us that our lives are essentially good, wholesome and pure.
The first five consciousnesses are our senses. Each of these senses is part of our physical bodies and is a gateway for data that will be useful for us to know about the outside world. We have five sense organs which take in information from the environment around us and which inform us of what is happening at the present moment. What we see, hear, smell, taste and touch are signals which help us to understand what is happening around us, and whether we are safe or in danger, or near or far from things that will sustain our lives. These are not things unique to human beings; we share these senses with many other forms of life. These senses are functions which have developed in animals as we have evolved and which now enable us to see our place in the world. At a very basic level each one is an important factor for survival.
Take a moment to look up; what can you see around you right now? How many different colours? Which are bright and which are dull? What can you hear? How is the temperature where you are reading this? Too hot or too cold, or just right? What, if anything, can you smell or taste? Each of those senses is working all the time bringing in information which may be useful for our lives. Of course the senses and their sense organs can be vulnerable and it is not unusual for one reason or another for someone not to have the full set.
The sixth consciousness is the part of our minds which draws all the information from the individual senses and enables us to create a composite picture of where we are. It enables us to make judgements about the various things that we perceive, so that we are attracted to some things and
reject others. Can we, though, trust our perception of the world
around us? To what extent is our view of the world coloured by previous experience or our imagination?
Next, there is the seventh consciousness which is concerned with our own personal identity. It deals less with the external, material world and is more concerned with the inner, spiritual realm. It is where the ego resides and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. It is where ideas such as the suggestion that we are separate and isolated and not connected to other people originate (and anyway Buddhism tells us that this sort of way of thinking is deluded). It is the seventh consciousness which is afraid of death and dying, as it thinks that the end of this particular physical existence is the end of who we are.
Then there is the eighth consciousness which is sometimes called the alaya consciousness, or karmic storehouse. The subject of karma is a complicated topic, but at the heart of it is the idea that in every moment we are making causes in thought, word and deed. The word 'karma' literally means 'action' in Sanskrit. Many of those causes will result in effects quite soon after the cause has been made, but sometimes the effect is not immediate. The energy of a cause whose effect is not yet apparent is stored in this eighth consciousness. Perhaps we can think of this as the cause leaving an imprint somewhere in our lives. When the appropriate circumstances arise, the effect will become manifest. It is important to remember that karma consists of positive as well as negative causes, but it is absolutely not the same as 'destiny' or 'fate'. The fact that this layer of consciousness is often described as a 'storehouse' can give the mistaken impression that one's karma is pretty static. That is not the case at all. It is better to think of the eighth consciousness as something that is constantly flowing, an enduring river of life energy. While effects may be emerging in our lives, we are continually making new causes which affect the flow of karmic energy. How one's life is depends on the nature of our karma at any particular time. The wonderful thing about the concept of karma (as opposed to the fixed idea of destiny or fate) is that if we are experiencing unhappy karma, by making positive causes we can change the flow of our lives for the better.
Deeper than the eighth consciousness is the ninth consciousness which is known as amala or pure. This is the core of our lives and there is nothing deeper or below it. It is fundamentally pure and is not affected by the torrent of karma swirling above it. It is the Buddha nature at one with the life of the universe and it is what is stimulated when we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. As we chant we draw on the power of this consciousness and are able to purify the other layers of consciousness. With our Buddha eyes, we see the tendencies which have accumulated in the eighth consciousness and if they are negative we are able to change them. The energy of our life, whether the karma is good or bad, becomes able to create value. In turn all our senses are affected as we perceive the world less from the perspective of our previous tendencies and more with the Buddha's eyes, ears and other senses.
As I mentioned above, Nichiren Daishonin referred to the body as 'the palace of the ninth consciousness'. He also mentions that: 'Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is what is meant by entering the palace of oneself.'2 As we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo we stimulate and activate our Buddha nature, the ninth consciousness.
This principle helps me to understand what is happening while I am chanting. One question I had early in my Buddhist practice was: 'What do I do with my mind when I am chanting? It seems to be full of thoughts, some of which are useful and interesting, but many of which are not!' Nichiren Daishonin explains: 'The Buddha wrote that one should become the master of one's mind rather than let one's mind master oneself.'3 This means that we can either be at the mercy of the constant chatter of our thoughts or we can train the mind to listen to the Buddha inside us. If I am chanting and letting my thoughts race around at the same time, the flow of energy from the ninth consciousness is being interfered with by the noise from the seventh consciousness. I think of the layers of consciousness like a fountain.
The ninth, Buddha, consciousness is like the reservoir of pure water deep underground, and starting to chant is like turning the tap to bring that water up through the other layers to purify the way we view the world. The senses are like the spouts on the surface through which the water of the Buddha life-force will, if the pipes are clear, spray. Strategising, or thinking unnecessarily, blocks the flow. Just listening to the sound of my voice chanting, however, with an idea of how I would like things to be different allows the energy from the ninth consciousness to flush through the entire system, purifying as it flows.
Nichiren Daishonin, in 'Letter to Gijo-bo', where he also mentions mastering our minds, refers to a line from The Lotus Sutra which we recite twice a day.4 He says: The verse section of the chapter states, "...single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs them their lives". As a result of this passage, I have revealed the Buddhahood in my own life.'5 This is where Nichiren Daishonin urges us to be 'single-minded' rather than 'multi-minded'. He goes on to say: '"Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha" may be read as follows: single-mindedly observing the Buddha, concentrating one's mind on seeing the Buddha, and when looking at one's own mind, perceiving that it is the Buddha.'6
As the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the cause for us to activate our Buddha nature, if we can concentrate on that phrase, and hear the sound of it in our minds, then we are listening, not only to our own voices, but to the sound of our own Buddha nature. Although this passage may seem challenging, it is great guidance from Nichiren Daishonin on how to approach chanting and accelerate the emergence of our greater self.
The challenge is always the distractions from our thinking mind. All our education has pointed to developing this part of our brain, and when we chant we are asking it to suspend its activity - naturally it finds that difficult! I sometimes think of my seventh consciousness mind like a puppy, skipping around to attract my attention. While I am chanting, however, I would rather listen to my Buddha mind. Having said all this, it is important to say that there is not just one rigid way to chant, but this might provide some useful food for thought.
In conclusion then, how should we view ourselves? The Buddha views us as a bundle of energy with the greatest potential at our core. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with confidence in this enables us to realise that as Nichiren Daishonin says, our lives are a palace of the greatest happiness.
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon' (WND-1, p. 832).
- Nichiren Daishonin, The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings (Soka
Gakkai, 2004) p. 209.
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'Letter to Gijo-bo' (WND-1, p. 390).
- From the sixteenth chapter of The Lotus Sutra we recite: 'Isshin yokken butsu,
fuji shaku shinmyo', which translates into English as 'Single-mindedly desiring
to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs them their lives.This has also
been rendered as 'Single-mindedly yearning to see the Buddha, they do not
begrudge their lives.'
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'Letter to Gijo-bo' (WND-1, p. 389).
- Ibid, pp. 389-390