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Death and the Eight Consciousnesses and Anshin

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September 12, 2005 ryuei

In response to a question on the Nichiren Shu Yahoo group I found myself thinking about the Buddhist view of life after death some more and I decided to clean some of that up and post it here as a follow up to my last article:

My understanding of the traditional East Asian Buddhist view is that when we die our superficial levels of consciousness fade away –

which is to say the six consciousnesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and the mind that senses cognitive and emptional phenomena and co-ordinates the input of the other five senses.

The seventh or “ego-consciousness” also fades away.

The seventh is the consciousness that corresponds to our sense of self-awareness when experiencing data of the first six consciousnesses and also when acting on that data through mental, verbal, and physical acts.

The seventh consciousness is the fruition of the seed of delusion that tries to grasp at phenomena (internal or external) in order to create a stable sense of self.

Deeper than the seventh consciousness is the eighth or storehouse consciousness wherein everything that we have experienced and everything that we have done in this and in other lifetimes is stored.

Here is where our habitual responses and ways of perceiving life are stored like seeds and from here they come to fruition in terms of the experiences of the first seven consciousnesses.

In a sense they generate the first seven from moment to moment and from lifetime to lifetime. So when the first seven fade away at death,

they are really being submerged once again into the metaphysical field of the eighth consciousness

from whence they will emerge again when conditions in the physical or external world are ripe from their reappearance.

This is the consciousness that provides continuity from one lifetime to another according to the Consciousness Only school of Buddhism and came to be accepted throughout East Asian and even Tibetan Buddhism.


Notice that none of these consciousnesses are an entity, they are rather fields of interactions that generate the feeling of conscious subjectivity.

And each has a type of subjectivity particular to itself but which are all bound together in each moment of life.

It takes a lot of deep mindfulness to discern these different levels and how they work.

So as I write this a part of my consciousness (the ear consciousness) is registering my wife

and daughter speaking Japanese to each other and also the gurgling of water in the bathtub going down the drain and the tapping of this keyboard.

Another part (the sixth) is telling me what these sounds mean and that the sound of talking is coming from those people

the eye-consciousness is registering in my peripheral vision and that that tapping is coming from the computer my

body consciousness is feeling as I type and so on..

Another part (the seventh) is saying: “Look what I’m doing. Aren’t I clever? That’s MY wife and MY daughter.

This is happening to ME, ME ME. Look what I’m doing!

Look what I’m doing!

This is happening to ME!” Sometimes that voice is just a whisper, other times (like when I try to meditate or chant) it gets very loud indeed

because it knows it’s being put in danger of going to sleep or even of getting cut down to size (and then it congratulates itself

on being so clever as to do that and to catch itself resisting doing that to itself in an endless circle like a puppy chasing its own tale).

The eighth consciousness meanwhile keeps storing all of this up and generating more and more interpretations and impulses from the deep subconscious to keep the whole thing going.

The eighth consciousness itself is not an isolated field as it opens up into the collective consciousness of all beings and is therefore also the field of collective karma and not just individual karma.

Now I think that when we are dreaming the first five consciousnesses are asleep, and the eighth starts providing all kinds of internally generated imagery and adventures for the sixth and seventh to enjoy.

In dreamless sleep, even the sixth and seventh are at rest. But in death,

I think there is a very subtle sixth and seventh consciousness that are totally at the mercy of whatever imagery and impulses are stored up in the eighth.

In a sense the sixth and seventh are no longer anchored by any bodily input at all in the state between death and rebirth.

That is the reason for the 49 days of phantasmagoria spoken

of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (though the idea of 49 days comes from Sarvastivadin Abhidharma theories.


Determined by karma (the balance of good, bad, and neutral causes stored up in the storehouse consciousness) the first seven consciousnesses

are spun out once again at the moment of conception in one of the six worlds – the hells,

hungry ghost realms, animal realm, fighting demon realm, human realm, or heavens.

So much for the standard Abhidharma and Consciousness Only school ideas as I understand them.

In short, subjectivity whether in life or in death is not the property of a fixed, independent self, but is generated by a stream of activity on the various fields of the eight consciousnesses.

So the stream continues from life to life but is everchanging and dynamic and is not a “self” insofar as it is not such a fixed independent isolatable entity.

The stream of the eighth is what provides the continuity from one lifetime to another but each lifetime may have a very different flowering of the other seven consciousnsesses

(which is to say body and mind can be very different though there will be certain consistencies due to the underlying karmic flow of the storehouse consciousness).

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Now, according to Pure Land piety (which is believed in by the vast majority of East Asian BuddhistsJapan, Korea, China, and Vietnam) if anyone relies upon the 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha and calls his name then they can be reborn in his Pure Land after death and attain buddhahood there instead of having to be reborn in the six worlds.

So relying upon this faith, all the deceased who had faith in Amitabha Buddha can be called “buddhas” (hotoke in Japanese).

This, of course, shorcircuits the whole system I just explained. Pure Land believers no longer think they are at the mercy of their karma (that is to say the outcome of their own actions) rather they are reborn according to the grace or “Original Vow” of Amitabha Buddha.

Not to be outdone, Nichiren proposed that the real buddha is the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha (of whom Amitabha is a mere reflection)

and that the real pure land is the Pure Land of Tranquil Light (of which the Pure Land of Perfect Bliss is a mere reflection)

and that what we should do to be reborn in the Pure Land and attain buddhahood is to uphold and praise the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching.

So once again, all who die are considered “buddhas.”

This worked fine for the Confucianists because one should revere one’s ancestors and if they are all buddhas then one should doubly revere them.

And if one is in doubt about their piety at the moment of death,

then one should pray on their behalf so they can proceed to the Pure Land.

In Shinto, one can even become a kami (spirit) who will watch over one’s descendants or

a certain location or a specific field of endeavor.

And since ancestors and kami and bodhisattvas or

buddhas are all viewed as fulfilling the same role they are more or less equated as benevolent spiritual forces one can pray to.

But of course things can go terribly wrong and the Japanese aren’t always sure their spiritual loopholes are as effective as advertised.

So despite piety and prayers the deceased might not know they are dead and stick around or become a hungry ghost to accomplish some unfinished business or perhaps pursue some vindictive purpose.

They might even possess one of their descendants and then a priest will have to be called in (and here Japanese Buddhism seems to revert to shamanism).

Personally I think this is the East Asian way of expressing guilt, fear, neurosis, and nervous breakdowns.

I think it has much more to do with their animistic interpretations of mental illness than it has to do with anything in the spiritual world

or in Buddhist or Confucian teachings – in fact possessions and exorcisms are not something one finds in Buddhist sutras or Confucian classics at all.

So here is what I say – leaving all the animism and Pure Land piety (whether Amitabha or Lotus Sutra directed) aside – I think that people will be reborn in accord with what is in their hearts and what they need to work out for themselves.

If a person can honestly and sincerely put faith in the center then they will be ok and will be reborn in the presence of God, the Eternal Buddha, one’s loved ones, etc…

If not, they will go where they need to in order to work out their karma.

I think our prayers before and even after the death of another can help put their minds/hearts at ease as well as putting ourselves at ease and planting the seed of faith deep within our own minds/hearts.

My sensei, the Ven. Ryusho Matsuda, once asked me if these Buddhist scholars like Vasubandhu who wrote about what happens after death and before rebirth really know what would happen or if they were just speculating based on things said in the sutras.

I had to admit to him that it was all speculation.

My sensei then said, “The most important thing is to face death with Anshin.”

Anshin means “peaceful heart/mind” and is accomlished through faith, which is to say through our trust and confidence in the Dharma.

We plant the Dharma in our lives and do our best to live in accord with it, and trust that spiritual resources greater than our own conscious intentions and efforts will add themselves to ours.

We face our life and the inevitability of death squarely and see each moment of life as a bonus.

In such a spirit of trust, deep appreciation and gratitude we can put ourselves at ease and cultivate Anshin, and then when it is most needed it will be there.

I think this teaching of my sensei is far greater than any of the others that I have recounted and certainly better than mere speculation which, whether true or not, is nowhere near as helpful as Anshin.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,