Photo copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson
Can we change our habitual actions?
According to the Yogacara teachers, our life itself is really a neutral and peaceful thing, and yet it develops like the currents in a stream. Here is a quote from the Thirty Verses, a work by the famous Yogacara teacher Vasubandhu, in which he is describing the store-consciousness, also known as the alaya consciousness:
Among these, “maturation” is that called “the store-consciousness” which has all the seeds.
Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, yet it is always endowed with contacts, mental attentions, feelings, cognitions, and volitions.
Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate.
The same for its contacts, etc. It develops like the currents in a stream.
In his Chinese translation of this verse, Xuanzang (Jp. Genjō c. 602 – 664) uses an expression meaning “violent stream.” This means the water flows quickly, even violently – without stopping, always going, like a huge waterfall. In this analogy of a waterfall, “violent stream” or “currents in a stream” means that there is no substance. There is no such thing called “waterfall” because it always changing, it’s always different water. Each time it’s new – so we cannot say this is the Niagara Falls, but it’s there, but it’s always changing, always moving. And the water carries things from different places or different times to this place, to the present. So alaya consciousness is flowing like a waterfall and it transports all things which are stored in this consciousness and these seeds perish each moment and arise each moment. In a sense, this consciousness dies each moment and is born each moment, yet it’s continuous. Each moment it’s new and yet each moment has some continuation. This analogy of a violent stream is a really clear image of what our life is like. When I was born, I was little small living being, and my mind didn’t work so well, or so much, and yet after that my body is always changing, always new, and my mind is always changing. Everything is always new. Our life is like a waterfall or a river.
In Japanese, we have proverb:
mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made
Roughly, it means that the mind or spirit of three year-old child or baby persists until they are one hundred years old. Actually, I believe that three years old is around the time children start to think using words. The seeds in this alaya consciousness are not just what is newly created after our birth, but when we are born, we already have some seeds from the past. We inherit from our parents, or as a member of human society we inherit something already. So when we are born we are not completely new, we already have some seeds. And yet we are completely neutral. I think this is really important point. Whatever kind of seeds we have we are always neutral, and that means we can change. Our life is a result of past karma or past causes. We have a connection with the past and still this is a cause towards the future, so in the future who we are depends upon what we do right now. That is the way we can transform ourselves into something new, something better.
We can transform our actions and our way of thinking. That is what Thirty Verses describes in the last part of the work. Roughly speaking there are five steps, and through this practice, our “goal” in Yogacara or Mahayana Buddhism is to become Buddha. From the moment we first arouse bodhi mind, there are five major steps toward becoming Buddha. Yogacarans described what we should do in each of those steps. It’s really detailed – there are actually fifty-two stages within those five steps, and it literally takes more than forever. They believed that when we practice till a certain stage in this lifetime, we can continue to practice from that stage onward during the next lifetime. Indian people of the time believed in reincarnation. We don’t need to believe that – at least, I don’t believe it. Of course, we cannot negate that because we don’t know, so there is no basis either to believe it or to negate it. But either way, the important point is what we do right now. Even if we don’t reincarnate, as an individual person my actions still influence the future even after I die. Since Shakyamuni Buddha practiced and taught in his way, his influence is still there after twenty-five hundred years. Since I studied with my teacher, I practice in this way. In that sense my practice or what I am doing is a kind of reincarnation of my teacher. That is the way one person’s actions or karma influences the future. There is cause and effect, or influence, or seeds. Even if we don’t believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of life after life as an individual, the principal of causation remains true.
The most important thing is what we do right now at this present moment which creates the future. In order to put this into practice, we should really learn our past, not only the past of this individual person from birth, but what human beings have been doing since the beginning of history, or even from the big bang. Everything influences this person and this moment, and each one of us has influence towards the future. We should understand that even though this is a small person, and our action is really small, our action is really universal. Our being, what I am doing, influences and is influenced or created by the whole universe, by the entirety of time. From the beginning of the universe this influence continues to the endless end of the universe.
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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi
The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.
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For further study:
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