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The Lankavatara Sutra
Dr. Peter Della Santina

The Lankavatara Sutra is representative of a large body of literature and is particularly important for an understanding of the Mahayana tradition. Like the Lotus Sutra and the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Lankavatara is a voluminous work. It is complex in terms of both ideas and literary composition. Scholars have tended to date the written work to as late as the fourth century of the common era. Although this may be acceptable as far as the literary production of the text is concerned, a survey of the sutra reveals a number of germinal ideas that were systematized and elaborated on by Mahayana masters like Asanga and Vasubandhu. If we remember that both these masters lived in the fourth century C.E., we will have to place the formulation of the doctrines contained in the Lankavatara well before that time.

This is in line with what I have said before about the origin and authenticity of Mahayana literature in general. After all, we have seen that many of the germinal ideas of the Mahayana tradition are found even in the Theravada canon (see Chapter 14). The Lankavatara is representative of the canonical literature that is the foundation of the Mahayana school variously known as the Yogachara (school affirming the unity of meditation and action), the Vijnanavada (school affirming consciousness), and the Chittamatra (school affirming Mind Only). Just as the Perfection of Wisdom literature in general forms the canonical foundation of the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka, school, so the Lankavatara Sutra and a number of other discourses form the canonical foundation of the Yogachara or Vijnanavada school, though obviously elements of one school can be found in the doctrine of the other, and vice versa.

The doctrine for which the Lankavatara is famous is the doctrine of the primacy of consciousness. This is sometimes called the doctrine of Mind Only, or of the sole reality of consciousness. The sutra states in unequivocal terms that the three worlds, or spheres--the sphere of sense desire, the sphere of form, and the formless sphere--are just mind itself. In other words, all the manifold objects of the world, the names and forms of experience, are merely manifestations of the mind. The Lankavatara says that our inability to free ourselves from the discrimination between the conceptions of subject and object is the cause of our rebirth in the cycle of birth and death. As long as we are unable to free ourselves from discrimination, we continue to be reborn in samsara. It is therefore the ability to free ourselves from the dualistic conceptions of subject and object that is the key to enlightenment.

But what is this 'Mind Only' of which the Lankavatara Sutra speaks? Is it the empirical mind, the mind that participates in the activities of the six consciousnesses? It is clearly not this mind. The mind of which the sutra speaks both transcends and annihilates the conceptions of the dualities of existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, permanence and impermanence. It transcends the concepts of self, substance, and karma. It even transcends the concept of causation. According to the sutra, all these concepts are the products of false imagination, or discriminating thought (vikalpa). The mind of which the sutra speaks does not participate in these dualistic conceptions. From this it is clear that the mind of which the Lankavatara speaks is precisely that emptiness (shunyata) of which the Perfection of Wisdom literature speaks.

If the mind of which the Lankavatara speaks transcends the conceptions of the dualities of existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, and so forth, then how is it that this nondual reality of mind manifests itself in the manifold objects of the world? The Lankavatara--and, indeed, the Mind Only school--expounds a system of eight types of consciousness. These eight include the six with which we are familiar from the Buddhist tradition at large (i.e., the five consciousnesses that arise in conjunction with the five physical sense faculties, and the sixth consciousness, which arises in conjunction with the faculty of the mind). The two additional types are the storehouse consciousness (alayavijnana) and the afflicted mind (klishtamanas). These eight consciousnesses form the basis of Yogachara or Vijnanavada philosophy.

The sutra uses an analogy to describe the process of schism that takes us from the ultimate, nondual condition of mind to the fragmented condition, characterized by the six empirical consciousnesses, that we experience in daily life. The analogy is that of the ocean, wind, and waves. In its depths the ocean is tranquil, just as, in its depths, the storehouse consciousness is. Moved by the wind, the surface of the ocean is stirred into waves, which roll on and on. Similarly, the tranquil depths of the storehouse consciousness are disturbed by the wind of discrimination, causing waves, which are analogous to the functioning of the six empirical consciousnesses.

The villain of the piece is the afflicted mind--the wind of discrimination--because it is by means of the afflicted mind that discrimination takes place. The afflicted mind is the go-between that mediates between the storehouse consciousness on the one hand and the six empirical consciousnesses on the other hand. We may call this afflicted mind the ego principle, the principle of individuation, or discrimination.

The storehouse consciousness plays a particularly important role because it not only exists as the tranquil depths of the ocean do but also functions as a repository. This is why it is called a storehouse--because it collects the seeds of sense impressions and actions. Therefore we can best understand the scheme of the eight consciousnesses presented in the Lankavatara Sutra if we picture them in a circle, just as we picture the constituents of interdependent origination. In this sense we have an evolution from the storehouse consciousness in its own nondual nature, through the functioning of discrimination by means of the agency of the afflicted mind, and on into the six empirical consciousnesses, which in turn supply the storehouse consciousness with the impressions of actions, or karma. Thus we have a cyclical process wherein the storehouse consciousness evolves through discrimination into six empirical consciousnesses, which in turn sow the seeds of future actions in the fertile soil of the storehouse consciousness. The storehouse consciousness is particularly important for the Lankavatara Sutra and, indeed, for this whole phase of Mahayana Buddhism. It is significant that, in the Tibetan translation, we find the storehouse consciousness called the 'all-base consciousness'--the consciousness that is the substratum of all. This implies that it has within it the potential for both samsara and nirvana, both the phenomenal world and enlightenment. And just as it is through discrimination that the storehouse consciousness evolves into the six empirical consciousnesses, so, through the elimination of discrimination, the storehouse consciousness becomes the seed of nirvana. It is important to look closely at the relationship between the storehouse consciousness and the notion of the Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha, literally, 'the womb of tathagatahood'). You will be aware of the natural connection between the two from what I have just said about the nirvanic potential of the storehouse consciousness. The Lankavatara describes the mind, or consciousness, as pure in its original, intrinsic nature.

What is meant by the term 'pure'? A careful examination of the Lankavatara Sutra and other canonical and commentarial literature reveals that this means that the mind is empty. Therefore, 'the original purity of the mind' means that the mind is intrinsically and originally pure of the dualities of existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, and so forth. Its purity is equivalent to its emptiness. This purity, or emptiness, is the very essence of Buddha nature, of the nirvanic potential of the storehouse consciousness. It is in this context that the Buddha nature is likened to gold, to a precious stone, or to a soiled garment. The intrinsic purity or emptiness of the mind finds the expression of its potential in the realization of Buddhahood when the impurities of discrimination are removed. Just as the brightness of gold, a precious stone, or a soiled garment is revealed through refinement and through cleansing of impurities, so one reveals the original, intrinsic, empty and pure nature of the mind through cleansing oneself of the habit of discriminating between subject and object by application of the discipline of a Bodhisattva.

The Buddha nature is the empty and pure nature of the mind. Because of the essential emptiness and purity of the mind, all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. Like a lump of bronze, which can be shaped into a chamber pot, a vessel for offering water at a shrine, or a statue of the Buddha, the empty nature of mind can, depending on causes and conditions, appear in the form of a common living being, a Bodhisattva, or a

Buddha. The Buddha nature is not a self or a soul. It is not a static entity. It may be likened to a stream because it is ever-changing, infinitely manifold and dynamic. It is for this reason that, in another famous sutra, the Sandhinirmochana, the Buddha says that the storehouse consciousness is profound and subtle, moving like a stream with all its seeds of sense impressions. The Buddha says that he has not taught the idea of this storehouse consciousness to fools, for fear that they might mistake it for a self. It is interesting to note that the storehouse consciousness is fundamentally similar to the Theravada concept, found in the Abhidharma, of the factor of subconscious continuity (bhavanga) that carries the seeds of former actions. This concept is expanded and elaborated on in the Lankavatara Sutra and in the philosophy of the Yogachara school.

The Lankavatara Sutra suggests another important Mahayana doctrine in germinal form: the doctrine of the three bodies, or dimensions, of Buddhahood--the transcendental dimension, (dharmakaya) the celestial dimension, (sambhogakaya) and the terrestrial or transformational dimension, (nirmanakaya). These three reflect, in general terms, three levels of enlightened reality: (1) the transcendental dimension is synonymous with the ultimate level of enlightenment, which is beyond names and forms; (2) the celestial dimension is an expression of the symbolic and archetypal dimension of Buddhahood, to which only the spiritually developed have access; and (3) the terrestrial dimension is the dimension of Buddhahood to which all of us in our unenlightened condition have access, and which participates in the world of mundane phenomena. It is this terrestrial dimension that appears in countless forms in order to nurture and emancipate sentient beings.

Here you may recall that the essence of the Mahayana tradition is great compassion. The skillful means that spring directly from great compassion manifest themselves not only in the devising of various disciplines, or vehicles, but also in diverse and countless forms of the terrestrial dimension of Buddhahood. According to the Lankavatara and other Mahayana texts, the terrestrial dimension of Buddhahood can assume any form and any number of forms. It can assume not only a recognizable, special form like Shakyamuni Buddha, with whom we are all familiar but also the form of a drunkard, gambler or the like, in order to benefit and liberate sentient beings. If a particular drunkard or gambler is not affected by the delivery of an exalted Dharma discourse, nor by the examples of moral purity advocated in the conduct of a Bodhisattva, a Buddha or Bodhisattva will assume the form of one of that's persons company and, through the exercise of skillful means labor to bring about the emancipation of that person. In addition to assuming the form of animate beings, Bodhisattvas can also assume the form of inanimate things, such as food, clothing, medicine, a bridge, a road, and so forth. This is put very beautifully by Shantideva in his book on the Practice of the Bodhisattva, Bodhicharyavatara where he prays that he may become food for the hungry, medicine for the ill, and shelter for the homeless. Thus, through skillful means born of great compassion, the Buddha and Bodhisattvas appear in countless unknown and unrecognizable forms, working for the emancipation of all sentient beings, each according to his or her individual needs and abilities.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 149-155].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 1-5-2000

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