Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Unconscious in Buddha Dharma

            As we in the West are discovering the teachings of Buddha Dharma about mind and consciousness, we are confronted with the necessity of rediscovering our own repressed traditions of the study of the psyche, consciousness, and the unconscious.
Western explorers of the psyche discovered the unconscious in the 19th century.  The Buddhist explorers of mind, through their deep meditation, discovered the unconscious over two thousand years ago.  Since then, the Buddhist admonition to “turn the light around and shine it on yourselves,” as stated by Linji in the 9th century (or “take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward on your self,” as Dogen restated it in the 12th century, or “to personally turn around to face inward” as Hakuin restated it in the 18th century) is the direction to study the unconscious by introspection.  In Buddhism, the unconscious is called the storehouse- or treasury-consciousness (Skt. alayavijnana) and the fruit of this introspective study was the Mahayana Sutras.    
In the 20th century Carl G. Jung explored the unconscious more than any other psychologist. He identified two layers or poles of the unconscious, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious (the later he also called the impersonal, transpersonal, or universal features of the unconscious). [CW 7, §§ 102, 103, 445, & 452. See note.]  The first layer consists of those elements, features, or aspects of the unconscious that are acquired during one’s own lifetime and experience.  Jung emphasized that the deeper layer of the collective psyche is inherited, and he called this the region of the archetypal contents where these “primordial images are the most ancient and the most universal ‘thought-forms’ of humanity.” [CW 7, §§ 104.]  In Buddhist terminology (using agricultural metaphors of the time, as we would use computer metaphors for the mind today), the personal features are those seeds (Skt. bija) of the storehouse consciousness that are “planted” (continuing the cultivation metaphor) during one’s lifetime, and the impersonal features in the storehouse are the seeds placed there “from past lives” as immeasurable in number as the grains of sands of the Ganges river.   
Jung found that the personal unconscious contains all the material that was once conscious, e.g., memories, repressed material, subliminal sense perceptions, etc., while the collective unconscious contains “all the material which has not yet reached the threshold of consciousness.”  [CW 7, §§204 & 441.]  These structural elements of the deepest unconscious are the archetypes. They are psychic structures that are just as inherited, as impersonal, and as collective as the physical structures of our bodies, e.g., our bilateral symmetry,  our circulatory, skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems, etc..  As our individual bodies are unique expressions of these universal forms, so to are our individual consciousnesses unique expressions of the universal forms of mind.
In the Five Skandhas, one of the Buddhist’s schematic representations of mind, the structures of the unconscious are called the first four skandhas with consciousness designated the Fifth Skandha.  Early Buddhism through such schematics of mind as the Five Skandhas and the Eighteen Dhatus tacitly recognized that there is an unconscious dimension to mind, but it was the later Ekayana/Mahayana development of the schematic representation of the Eight Consciousnesses that made the unconscious explicit in Buddhism with the eighth storehouse consciousness as the storehouse of all the seeds that are present in mind either as submerged or as not yet conscious. Jung’s reference to inherited primordial “universal thought-forms” corresponds directly with samskara, the Fourth Skandha, which is often translated as “mental formations.”
A primary problem we have to face directly in Western culture, as we meet, accommodate, appropriate, and acculturate the Buddha Dharma, is this question of the unconscious, because in Western culture, as it is dominated by the scientism dogma stating that only the physical exists, the mind does not exist, and “the psychic” has had its relation to mind stripped away and is considered as nothing more than superstitious supernaturalism or hallucinatory imagination.  
The fact is that the study of the psyche is the study of mind “from the inside” while the study of neurophysiology is the study of mind “from the outside” as a brain.   The West is deeply confused about this distinction.  The two approaches to mind are not the same, and while there is value in correlating the discoveries made from each perspective in this field of study, the study from the outside can never and will never replace the need or importance of the study from the inside.  This study “from the inside” is exactly what Buddhism calls “turning the light around and shining it inward on ourselves” and points directly to the appeal that Buddhism has in the West for those who long to escape the domination of the field of the study of mind by the physicalist dogmas of physicists and other practitioners of the physical sciences.  

[Note: Jung quotes from The Collected Works of Carl G. Jung, Vol. 7. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. ]

[Edited 3/11/17]