Notes from the Oral Tradition
Notes from the Oral Tradition on Ālaya, Ālaya Consciousness, etc.
by Yukhok Chatralwa Chöying Rangdrol
What we call the ālaya or ‘ground of all’ is of two kinds:
- First, there is the primordial absolute ālaya, which is what we call the sugatagarbha, the buddha-nature. This is the cause of vast, ocean-like qualities and the basis for the arising of the kāyas and wisdoms.
- Second, there is the impure saṃsāric ālaya, which is the basis for the arising of ordinary, tainted phenomena, such as the eight types of ordinary consciousness or ‘main mind’, the 51 mental states, and the 80 subtle indicative conceptions. This ālaya is like a container in which habitual traces from previous thoughts are stored, and also supports the arising of future thoughts.
The ālaya consciousness is the basis for the appearance of the five sensory consciousnesses, mental consciousness and tainted emotional mind. This all-ground consciousness is directed towards the vast outer world and its inhabitants, which do not fall into any ontological extreme, such as existing, not existing and so on. It does not discern the individual features of objects, such as their whiteness, blueness and so on.
As the ālaya is, in essence, free from the turbulence of gross conceptual thought, it is comparable to the ocean free of waves. If we abide by this one-pointedly and familiarise ourselves with such a state, we will be reborn in the Formless Realm. If we become more familiar with its clarity aspect—the fact that, in its essence, consciousness is not hidden from itself—we might be reborn not in the five realms of the āryas among the seventeen heavens of the Form Realm, but in the twelve higher levels reserved for ordinary beings. The weaker our familiarity however, the lower will be the location of our rebirth within the Form Realm.
Since the ālaya is free from conceptual thought, like a sky devoid of clouds, this consciousness in which habitual traces from earlier states of mind are stored, and which functions as a support for future states, is by its very nature peaceful, profound and extremely subtle. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to recognize, as is stated in the oral traditions of Lama Adzom, Nyala and Chakong.
The great Omniscient One said, “Just as when we call out to someone whose mind then abides momentarily in a neutral state free from any thoughts—that is what the ālaya is like. Soon afterwards, the objects of perception appear, without obstruction, clearly and vividly, and without there being any clinging in our perception. That aspect of clarity devoid of thoughts is the ālaya consciousness.”
Lama Nyala said, “Imagine someone running across a vast plain while carrying a heavy pack. When the person stops to rest in the middle of the plain, the sheer force of their exhaustion will cause any thoughts to stop—and that state of freedom from thought is the ālaya.”
It is from the ālaya consciousness that the five sensory consciousnesses arise. Through them, conceptual mind consciousness develops, leading to the arising of the emotional mind.
For as long as the conceptual mind consciousness and emotional mind remain, the equilibrium that is present in the five sensory consciousnesses will not manifest. It is said that conceptual mind consciousness and emotional mind are more apparent; the five sensory consciousnesses are subtler; and the ālaya consciousness is extremely subtle.
The ālaya consciousness is characterised by developing and subsiding; the five sensory consciousnesses have the feature of arising and ceasing; while the mind consciousness and emotional mind are characterised by the duality of the grasping and the grasped.
In more detail, the types of consciousness with features similar to visual consciousness, which is said to illuminate seen forms unobstructedly, are the five sense doors.
You might wonder when it is that these forms of consciousness cease. For ordinary beings, they cease during sleep, when the faculties fail (i.e., unconsciousness), and at death. With the exception of these three occasions however, they are unceasing. When they do cease, it is the emotional mind which ceases first, then conceptual mind consciousness, then the five sensory consciousnesses, and finally the ālaya consciousness. If the ālaya consciousness did not cease, sleep, failure of the faculties and the moment of death could not occur.
When these forms of consciousness cease—according to whichever tradition we are following, be it Secret Mantra, Mahāmudrā or Dzogchen—this is said to mark the actual dawning of the ground luminosity. At that time, if we recognise our own nature, that is known as recognising clear light. But if we fail to recognise it, that is what we call ignorance, bewilderment, delusion, or the indeterminate (lungmaten).
When practitioners rest in meditation, if clear light dawns, they recognise it as dream-like. If you can do this, it is said, then you can be liberated by by recognising luminosity at the moment of death.
Moreover, it is also taught that the eight types of ordinary consciousness cease on three occasions: 1) during the śrāvakas’ absorption of cessation; 2) during the meditation of ārya bodhisattvas; and 3) when dualistic perceptions fade for practitioners of the mantrayāna.
Otherwise, if the five sensory consciousnesses, conceptual mental consciousness and emotional mind were to cease, it is said, we would not be able to carry out any virtuous or non-virtuous actions. The root tantra known as Unimpeded Sound says:
For the unerring meditation,
The five senses must be clear.
As this indicates, when the five senses are in equilibrium, they have a quality of stillness or abiding. If we don’t bring out the clarity from this stillness we could end up being reborn among the animals. Having brought out the clarity however, if we don’t then accentuate the aspect of relaxation we might still be bound by fixation towards our own perceptions. The method for finding relaxation is to alternate between relaxation and alertness. If we can alternate like this again and again, the teachings say, then within about seven or eight days we will learn how to bring about relaxation.
When we bring out the quality of relaxation, we also find that there is an aspect of arising. We must bring about liberation within the arising, without prolonging rising thoughts. Unless we can bring about this freedom, we could stray into the Desire Realm. So, lacking these points, there are three possible pitfalls.
With mental consciousness, we could become attached to experiences of bliss, clarity and absence of thought, which would cause us to stray into the Three Realms. Then, among the five sensory perceptions, if we wander astray based on the visual consciousness, we will be reborn in the Form Realm. Thus, there are seven pitfalls, but it is said that we will avoid them all if we can rest perfectly with the five senses in equilibrium.
In addition, the objects of the conceptual mental consciousness involve both outward and inward clinging.
Outward clinging means following the past, anticipating the future, and labelling outer and inner phenomena in the present moment. It consists of holding onto concretising notions about sights, sounds and so on.
Inward clinging occurs during meditative equipoise, when the mind clings to blissful experience as bliss, clarity as clarity and absence of thought as emptiness.
The tainted emotional mind is responsible for the attachment and feelings of joy when the session is over, if it went well; or for aversion and feelings of unhappiness if it did not and we experienced dullness, agitation and the like.
Whenever we experience bliss, clarity or absence of thought, the subjective mind identifies and clings to the objective experience. It is said that through the force of becoming accustomed to this again and again, object and subject can merge together indivisibly so that we remain without thought.
Now then, you must:
- Begin by taking refuge and arousing bodhicitta.
- Then, in the middle phase of the practice, allow the five sense doors to remain open and expansive.
- If you experience stillness, accentuate vivid clarity. If there is clarity, bring more relaxation.
- If thoughts arise, allow them to be liberated.
Seal your practice with these principles. At the end, before the ‘seal’ of the practice is broken, dedicate the merit. By practising in this way, it is taught, you will avoid obstacles and pitfalls.
Alternatively, even if you cannot recognise the equilibrium of sensory experience, begin with refuge and bodhicitta. And then, having purified thoughts:
- bring vivid clarity whenever there is stillness,
- relaxation whenever there is clarity, and
- liberation whenever thoughts arise.
Finally, dedicate the merit at the end. That is fine too and will suffice as meditation, it is said.
May all be auspicious!
Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2016. With thanks to Alak Zenkar Rinpoche and Patrick Gaffney.