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The Chittamatra (Mind-Only) Philosophical School

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We have looked at the nature of individual self and contemplated the selfless nature of persons, the clinging to oneself as “I” or “me.” This is very basic and common to all Buddhist schools, such meditations of selflessness, egolessness, and emptiness.

Clinging to oneself as “I” or “me” becomes the root of samsara — the cause of samsaric existence from which we experience karmic cause and effect — and the infinite elements of suffering in samsara. In order to free oneself from samsara, realizing such selflessness becomes the most important of all.

Clinging to oneself as “I” or “me” is the root of the tree. If you try to cut only branches and leaves, they will grow back again. If you try to overcome suffering here and there, you are cutting branches. You’re not really working with the root of the problem. So meditations that calm our thoughts only are like cutting the branches. There is a temporary sense of peace and calm, but when that meets with condition, boom, there you go... thoughts all over, emotions arising. The minute you think you’re calm, trying to maintain that in the moment, your emotions go wild.

Why? Because the root of all of this is still there, the ego clinging. If you uproot the tree, then the leaves and branches won’t grow anymore. You get complete freedom. In a similar way, if you uproot the basic ego clinging, then you uproot the cause of suffering and there is a total sense of freedom from samsara.

This realization of egolessness is the cause for nirvana, the transcendence of samsaric misery.

Reflecting on the ego from the beginning is a very necessary part of our path. And now the second phase is the selflessness of phenomena.


{These stages are presented in this teaching as they are approached in meditation practice, as opposed to the way they would be approached if studying from a strictly philosophical view. If looking from philosophy, we start with selflessness of other first.)

Once we have gained some sense of certainty of selflessness of person, we work on selflessness of phenomena.

In Mahayana, we add selflesnness of phenomena to the not-self view already found in basic Buddhism. There are two stages of Mahayana view:

  Chittamatra (Mind Only)

This teaching is on the Mahayana school of Mind-Only; Madhyamaka will come next.

The Buddha said, “Oh, children of the victorious ones, these three realms are mind only.” This statement became the basis for this analysis of selflessness.

Three realms of samsara referred to in the quote:
1. Desire – Includes many types of sentient beings, such as human beings, animal beings, hell realms, hungry ghost. Most of the six realms of the Buddhist teachings are included here.
Then two celestial realms, the realms of the gods [not like gods as known in western religion):
2. Form
3. Formless

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All appearances of samsara are simply appearances to one’s mind, simply “mere appearances” of mind only.

When we look at mere appearances, there are two types:
1. Appearances for oneself
2. Appearances for others

Appearances for oneself are what appears to oneself. How phenomena appear to others is “appearances for others.”

When you look at this reality, the way that things appear to oneself is very individual. The way things appear to me do not appear to you. It is not something I experience. That exact precise experience of samsara is very individual. Therefore, if you look at that aspect of appearances, it is really just mind only. The way things appear only exist in your mind only. The way things appear to others only exist in others’ mind only.

The very notion that this table exists outside comes from our own mind, and we have many reasons and logic why. All of these things, if you really look, it is happening in your mind. The scientific clues are appearing in our mind. Who is really saying this is ultimately our mind. Mind is proving the existence of outside phenomena. It is all one’s own experience, and everyone is experiencing differently. All these things are appearing in our mind only.

The mind that experiences such things is known as the deluded mind or mistaken consciouseness. To our deluded mind, things arise as subject and object, as action taking place. Things that are appearing to such deluded mind are known as mistaken appearances.


The subject and object in this case are the mistaken consciousness (subject) and mistaken appearances (object).

The deluded mind is confused about appearances and their true nature. We are not seeing how things ARE, that is why it is deluded; we are only seeing how things appear. In such a deluded mind, they appear as two: subject and object, and this is called duality. We see some things as object outside and see some things as subject within us, and this becomes dualistic activity.

So from the Mind-Only school point of view, everything is taking place in one’s mind.

Example of Dream: When we’re having a dream, we experience mistaken appearances very clearly. They seem to be outside, real – for instance, solid, high Himalayan mountains... how can they fit on your little bed? Not only that, how can they fit in our little brain?!

Not only that, we go through tremendous struggle in that dream... seeing subject/object interaction... climbing, altitude sickness, struggling, pain, just as we go through in our ordinary lives. The difference is when we wake up from a dream, we say, “Ohhhh... that was just a dream.” And when we go on and on through our life, then we wake up from that, that is what we call enlightenment.

So everything that appears to our mind are like dream objects. Everything we experience in dualistic action are like the actions we experience in a dream. In dream appearances, there is nothing outside the mind. Chittamatra says, the world that we experience is not different, it is like a dream.

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I use this technique: When we look back on yesterday’s experience and last night’s dream, and compare these two, there is not much difference. But we cling onto one as more real than the other. But from today’s point of view, there is not much difference. In the same way, we should look at today’s experience from tomorrow’s point of view. It is very dream-like.

From the Mind-Only point of view, they say everything is like a dream. Everything appears, manifests, and is experienced in our mind only. Not just one individual’s mind but in each person’s mind only.

Eight Consciousnesses

The abhidharma (metaphysical teachings) of basic Buddhism teaches six consciousnesses. The theory of eight consciousnesses arises in Chittamatra by adding the 7th and 8th consciousnessses.

The seventh consciousness (klesha or “afflicted emotionconsciousness) stirs up the habitual seeds of the eighth consciousness (alaya or “storehouse consciousness” and brings them to manifest with conditions coming together.

The alaya is the basis for planting habitual seeds and the basis for the arising of all mistaken appearances.

It is called the “base of all” for two reasons.
1. It is the base of planting habitual tendencies
2. It is the base for the arising of all appearances.

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To illustrate this, the example of an ocean is used. The klesha consciousness is like the wind; the alays is like the ocean. When the afflicted mind moves, it stirs up the alaya and brings appearances of perceived subjects and objects (waves).

Due to the appearances of subject and object, more habitual tendencies are created, and because of this, more karma is deposited in the alaya. So habitual tendencies get planted in a limitless manner.

For this reason, the all-base consciousness is given two names:
1. The appropriating consciousness – continually taking on the seeds of habitual tendencies
2. The conditioning consciousness – causing confused appearances to arise

Whatever karma we accumulatevirtuous or nonvirtuous, subtle or large – all are stored as seeds of habitual tendencies in the alaya. Not even the smallest of actions gets left behind. No matter what kind of action we engage in, it will never be wasted. This is good news… or bad, depending on the action. So it is very important to be vigilant about the karma we’re accumulating.

It is very subtle. Even if we have a thought arise, this thought will plant a seed of habitual tendencies.

So the first aspect of alaya is like storage or a hard disk or blank tape in which you can record everything.

The second type is conditioning consciousness, which is the property of the alaya which causes confused appearances to arise. In order for the confused appearances to manifest, the movement of the afflicted mind is required. Like when we’ve recorded something, we have to press buttons to bring it back.


The real condition that makes it manifest is the alaya itself. So the alaya has two different abilities: the seed-like ability and the ripening ability. Once a seed has been planted, it is not wasted. It will stay there no matter how long it takes to ripen – 100 years, 1,000 years, a million years. The seed still remains there without any damage and it will ripen when the conditions come together.

In the Buddhist tradition, this is called the infallible law of karmacause and result.

So what can overcome this process of planting and ripening of habitual tendencies? Only one thing, the realization of selflessness.

When we realize the selfless, egoless nature of our mind, then all these seeds of habitual tendencies get exhausted. The example is a dark cave underground which has been in complete darkness millions of years, but if someone goes there with a torch, in that one instant of lighting the torch can dispel the darkness of millions of years. It does not take millions of years to dispel the darkness. One instance can light up the whole room.

In the same way, when one realizes shunyata, the light of emptiness can dispel ignorance. The reason for this is that the appearances of karma and habitual tendencies arise due to fixating on a self, which is ignorance. If we remove the ignorance of clinging to a self, there is no way karma and habitual tendencies can accumulate.

If there is no notion of a self, then there can be no notion of others.
If there is no duality of self and others, there is no way to create karma.
If there is no karma, there is no way confused appearances can arise.

If one conquers one’s fixation on a self, one will have conquered everything.


Therefore, this view of the realization of selflessness is a very important one. If one realizes selflessness, this will sever the continuum of rebirth in samsara. There is no continuation of samsaric birth and confusion arising continuously. This is also known as cessation.

At the same time, the bodhisattvas take birth in samsara with great delight to benefit sentient beings. They do not enjoy personal, individual liberation freedom alone. They feel the connection with others’ suffering and want to free others’ suffering in samsara, so they take birth in samsara intentionally. They do not give up the seed of taking birth in samsara.

In other words, bodhisattvas love samsara! That’s why they say, no matter how bad samsara looks, bodhisattvas would enter it with great joy, like a swan entering a lake.

So therefore, from this perspective of the chittamatra view, you can see how everything arises from one’s own mind.

When Buddha said:
“Oh, children of the Victorious Ones, all three realms are mind only
he is saying that all three realms are the creation of one’s own mind. The appearances of samsara and the way we experience them are the creation of our own habitual mind and its many tendencies.

These all arise, are created by, one’s own habitual tendencies.


When we look at that statement of the Buddha, he is saying there is no other agent than one’s own mind. The one that created samsara is our own minds; no outer agent or creator which made these samsaric appearances for us. So we are the agent.

From this perspective, samsara appears from the karmic seeds. Accumulation of karma is classified into two: individual and common.

From the individual karmic seeds we experience the individual samsara (cycle of suffering).

From the common samsaric seeds, we experience common appearances. We all see some basic world outside together: mountain, sky trees. Otherwise we would not be able to communicate. This is coming from common karmic seeds.

This is broad scale, such as the common karma of being human or animal. For example, with humans, all of us will see this glass of water and we will see it as water, and this is the result of our common karma. Nevertheless, even though we have these common appearances, each of us will have a different way of perceiving them, which is our individual karma.

To illustrate individual karma, we can see how one person is perceived in different ways. One man may be seen by different people as their father, son, teacher, student, and so on. He is the same person but seen in different ways by different people. This is resulting from individual karma.

For example, if one were to look at a tree, for some this would produce an experience of joy. For others, of sadness or suffering. The response arises due to our individual karma. But the common experience is the tree itself. Within that appearance there is no happiness or suffering.

The same for people. The common experience is the people we see, and within that, there is no distinction we might make: mother, father, brother, sister.

Therefore, due to accumulating these two kinds of karma we experience two kinds of karmic result:

The result of common experiences
The result of individual experiences

So all beings arise due to karma and all appearances arise due to karma, and this arises due to mind. So karma is something that is accumulated in one’s mind.

It has accumulated due to a mind of fixating on a self and clinging to duality.

Therefore, from the chittamatra point of view, everything basically arises from mind.