The Transformation Of Consciousness Into Wisdom
In The Chinese Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism According To The Cheng Wei-Shi Lun

This article is about how to The Transformation Of Consciousness Into Wisdom in the Chinese Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism.


In the Chinese Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism, Buddhahood, characterized by the perfectly enlightened mind of True Suchness (bhutatathata) is understood as the final realization of a systematic and gradual path. Buddhahood is not a goal which is attained through the acquisition of a special conceptual understanding. Rather it is the end product of a fundamental internal transformation of all mental activity. In the language of Consciousness-Only, that process is referred to as the transformation of “consciousness” that has attachment to distinctions as its basic nature, into “wisdom” that is by its very nature totally free from attachment. “Wisdom“, therefore, indicates a radically, qualitatively and totally different type of mental functioning. The purpose of this paper is twofold: 1) to delineate briefly the stages of transformation, and 2) after transformation is complete and Buddhahood has been realized, to indicate how the immanent aspect of Buddhahood utilizes wisdom to function in the world. Below we shall try to give a sketch of the prescriptions given by the School to rid oneself of the basic obstacles on the pathway to Buddhahood and to indicate briefly the manner in which one functions in the world after those obstacles have been removed.



The Consciousness-Only School describes the mind as a system of seven active consciousnesses (vijnana) which all develop out of the eighth, or storehouse, consciousness. The latter is passive and contains the potentials, or “seeds” (bija) for the development and activity of the first seven consciousnesses. The seventh consciousness contains the sense of self or of ego individuality with which it defiles the first six consciousnesses. The sixth consciousness is a perceptual and cognitive processing center, while the first five consciousnesses are the perceptual awarenesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body.

Although with the emanation of these consciousnesses out of the eighth formal division is made among them, the distinction is totally based upon mental distinction. The eight are still basically “one.” To use a simple analogy, let us think of a room with seven light-bulbs. You flick the light switch and seven distinct lights shine. Turn the switch off and the lights disappear. Yet there is just one electric current, and its source is comparable to the storehouse consciousness, or, as it is understood in the transformation of consciousness, to the enlightened mind.

The system of eight consciousnesses, and the mental dharmas (caittas) which arise out of them and are dependent upon them, was developed as an important part of a pragmatic psychology of mind. The system can be used to describe in a manner which is accurate and practical both mental functioning and the specific techniques employed on the Path to the enlightenment of Buddhahood. It provides a way to account for mental processes without recourse to the notions of a real, permanent self (atman) or of real, permanent external (and internal) objects (dharma). All actual and potential realms of experience are shown to be contained within the transformations of consciousness and appear as manifestations of the distinction-making mind.

Nevertheless, because of our attachment to and belief in the reality of self and the reality of the “objects” (dharmas) which we perceive and understand to be the external world, the true nature of ourselves and the world is obscured so that we are unaware of it.

Buddha Buddhism Statue Religion Asia Spiritual

The Buddha


The basic obstacles which arise from the distinction-making character of consciousness are the division of the world into 1) subject, or one who grasps onto distinctions (the grasper), and 2) object, those distinctions which are grasped (the grasped). This distinction occurs on various levels and is reflected in each of the eight consciousnesses. The grasper corresponds to attachment to self and the grasped to attachment to dharmas. The former is often referred to as the obstacle of the afflictions and the latter as the obstacle of the knowable. These obstacles or attachments are of two types: 1) innate, and 2) distinguished or learned. The innate attachments are quite subtle and have existed from beginningless time as part of the human (or more generally, the sentient) condition. The distinguished attachments, on the other hand, are coarser and arise from the distinction-making of our cognitive and perceptual processes. These attachments, the innate and distinguished attachments to self and the innate and distinguished attachments to dharmas, are the only obstacles to the realization of Buddhahood.



The innate attachment to self is twofold. By taking the eighth consciousness, more specifically its “perceived portion,” as its object, the seventh consciousness generates a continuous image of the eighth or storehouse consciousness as a real permanent self. Secondly, by taking the manifestation of the five aggregates (form, feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness) as object, the sixth consciousness generates various non-continuous concepts of self. The distinguished attachment to self belongs solely to the realm of the sixth consciousness and is much coarser in nature than the innate attachment of the seventh consciousness. The sixth consciousness either takes various aspects of the aggregates as object and conceives them to be the real self or independently generates self-concepts and takes them to be the real self. Such wrong conceptualization is often the result of misinformed religious or philosophical teaching.



The innate attachment to dharmas is also twofold. As the seventh consciousness takes the eighth consciousness as its object, it can also use it, more specifically its “perceived portion,” to generate a continuous mental image of the eighth consciousness as dharmas. Likewise, the sixth consciousness can take aspects of the aggregates and the perceptual faculties and their objects to be real dharmas; however, in contrast to the seventh consciousness, the functioning of the sixth consciousness in this manner is discontinuous.

The distinguished attachment to dharmas is exclusively an aspect of functioning of the sixth consciousness and is relatively coarse in its nature. The sixth consciousness can either take concepts of the Hinayana Buddhist dharmas to be real or take the various objective categories or elements of non-Buddhist schools to be real. In other words, it mistakes its own concepts of an external reality for a real external reality.



Now that we have briefly outlined the nature of the obstacles to the realization of Buddhahood, we are in a position to discuss the Consciousness-Only School’s prescriptions for their elimination. This is the gradual five-stage process known as the Path of the Bodhisattva. It begins with the birth of the intention to become fully enlightened (bodhicittotpada), which marks the entrance into the first stage, that of gathering provisions or Resources. It is followed by the stages of Application, Vision, Meditational Development, and culminates in the final stage which is Perfection, the perfect enlightenment of Buddhahood, the full realization of True Suchness.



In the stage of developing his Resources, the Bodhisattva develops his deep faith in and understanding of the teachings of Consciousness-Only. During this period the Bodhisattva is merely able to subdue the rise in consciousness of the coarse, learned aspects of the grasper and the grasped, that is, of attachment to self and dharmas. In other words, he learns to see through and replace with dharmic analysis the learned conceptual analysis of perceiving and thinking about the world in terms of a real self and real objects. He does this by learning to prevent such concepts from arising and then snowballing in- to verbal and physical activities (the creation of karma) . Thus he is able to utilize effectively the Consciousness-Only School’s doctrinal framework in his everyday thinking and functioning in the world.



In the following stage, that of Application, concentration and insight are developed through preliminary meditational practices called the Four Aids to Penetration: Heat, Summit, Patience, and Highest Worldly Dharma. The Heat, Summit, and first two portions of the Patience Aid are practiced in meditations in which one enters into the first three dhyanas. The remainder of Patience and Highest Worldly Dharma Aids can only be practiced by entering into the fourth dhyana. During this gradual process not only is manifestation of the coarse, learned aspect of grasper and grasped subdued so that it no longer arises in consciousness, but the seeds of its manifestation, which are stored in the eighth consciousness, are completely destroyed. Since the seeds have been destroyed, they cannot sprout in dharmas; therefore, this coarse aspect of the attachment to self and dharmas can never again appear. It is the completion of this process that allows entrance into the third stage.



Entrance onto the Path of Vision provides the first realexperience of True Suchness. It marks leaving the worldly flow and entering the flow of the Holy Ones. It corresponds to entrance onto the first of the “grounds” (bhumi) of the Path of the Bodhisattva, the Ground of Extreme Joy. It is at this point that the gradual transformation of consciousness into wisdom begins. This pure wisdom is the activity or functioning of True Suchness. The process of transformation is a gradual one and takes place as the Bodhisattva passes through the Ten Grounds of the Bodhisattva.



On the Path of Meditational Development (from dwelling on the first ground of the Bodhisattva through the final, tenth, ground) the wisdom, which first appeared on the Path of Vision, gradually eliminates the manifestations and the seeds of the manifestations of the innate attachments of grasper and grasped. In passing through the first seven grounds, the Bodhisattva eliminates all the seeds of the subtle, innate attachment to self of both sixth and seventh consciousnesses (obstacle of the afflictions; the grasper). The single exception is the very subtle seeds of what is known as the spontaneous aspect of the obstacle afflictions. The Bodhisattva must preserve those seeds all the way up to the moment of realizing Buddhahood because they are the primary cause of the Bodhisattva’s continued rebirth and, therefore, necessary for continued progress on the Path of the Bodhisattva.

The subtle, innate attachment to dharmas, (the obstacle of the knowable); the grasped) is also eliminated in gradual stages as the Bodhisattva proceeds through the ten grounds. On the final, tenth ground, the last, extremely subtle attachments to all known dharmas and their seeds,together with the above-mentioned seeds of the spontaneous aspect of the affliction obstacle necessary for rebirth, are completely eliminated. Then there can no longer ever be any kind of attachment, coarse or subtle. to self or dharmas, grasper or grasped. The obstacle of the afflictions and the obstacle of the knowable are completely eliminated.



Having outlined briefly the Path to Buddhahood and the stages in which the various obstacles to that enlightenment are eliminated, we are now in a position to discuss in greater detail the types of wisdom in terms of how they are used on the Path.

As we have already seen, the distinguished or learned aspects of attachment to self and dharmas, grasper and grasped, are destroyed at the moment of entrance onto the Path of Vision. Their elimination clears the way for the appearance of a pure wisdom that has two components. It is characterized as pure because of its complete lack of outflows (asraya), that is, the outward flowing of the mind and its attachment to various aspects of the conditioned world. Previous to this, the wisdom used as a guiding force in the meditational process was an impure, preliminary”applied” wisdom (prayogajnana) characterized by outflow. The first of the two components of the non-outflowing wisdom is called fundamental wisdom (mulajnana). It is characterized as non-distinction-making (nirvikalpa). In the process of its initial appearance, it naturally destroys the seeds of the distinguished attachment to self and dharmas. The destruction of the seeds and the appearance of the fundamental wisdom is a simultaneous and instantaneous process.

The second component of the non-outflowing wisdom is based on the first and for that reason is called subsequently attained wisdom (prsthalabdajnana). It is an expedient wisdom which operates in the world of distinctions. It analyzes the characteristics of dharmas, yet does not become attached to those characteristics as is the case with the preliminary “applied” wisdom, which has outflows. The subsequently attained wisdom reflects on the seeming characteristics of True Suchness and in this way is used to eliminate the seeds of learned attachment to self and dharmas. However, the mode of its functioning is gradual. It is employed in various meditational techniques to destroy the many separate aspects of the learned seeds.



Generally, wisdom functions in two ways. It acts to subdue the phenomenal activity of the mind (dharmas). and then, on a more fundamental level, it eliminates the seeds (bija). which are the source of that activity. Wisdom and distinction-making consciousness are like ice and water. As the water freezes, the ice appears; as the ice melts, the water appears. On the level of the phenomenal activity of the mind, the greater the attachment to distinctions, the weaker the functioning of wisdom; the stronger the functioning of wisdom, the less attachment to distinctions. For attachment to distinctions to be permanently eliminated, wisdom must operate with sufficient basis and power to supercede not only the manifestation of the distinctions but also their seeds, which are their basic cause. Another image often used to describe the process is that of light superceding darkness. If the light can not only fill the darkness but also fully and permanently penetrate the barriers to the light, then the darkness is permanently eliminated.

At the beginning of the Path, the power of wisdom is weak and the power of distinction-making consciousness is strong. In the first two stages of the path, those of Resources and Application, there is no manifestation of pure wisdom, wisdom characterized by complete lack of outflows. In order to clear the mind so that the seeds of pure wisdom can grow and finally become actualized, the Bodhisattva temporarily employs preliminary “applied” wisdom, which is characterized by outflows. That is, it tends to seek out the characteristics of mental objects, and by nature depends upon them for support. By treating True Suchness as a perceived characteristic of the mind, this provisional wisdom utilizes its own characterization of True Suchness as a support for meditation on the emptiness of the grasper and the grasped. In this way, the coarse aspects of the distinguished obstacles are eliminated and the other aspects of the distinguished and innate obstacles are subdued, that is, they are partially or fully prevented from rising into active awareness.

As an aid to this type of meditation, the Bodhisattva gradually decreases the extent of phenomenal activity produced by the seeds of the two obstacles by the use of resolution (adhimaksa), a special mental state, and of remorse (hri) and shame (apatrapa), both wholesome mental states. Resolution, remorse, and shame are all technical “dharmas,” which are included in the One Hundred Dharmas of the Consciousness-Only School. Resolution is explained as that mental state which examines dharmas and comes to a decision about their natures. Employing resolution helps the Bodhisattva to see the conditioned, empty nature of all dharmas so that he will not become attached to them. Remorse and shame are the inner and outer recognition of one’s own improper behavior and of a desire to change it.

With the successful completion of the first two stages, the balance shifts. The turning point is the entrance onto the Path of Vision. At that point wisdom no longer functions totally in dependence upon distinction- making consciousness. For the first time its non-outflow potential actually becomes operative as the basis for further progress on the Path. As we have already noted, the entrance onto the Path of Vision marks the initial experience of the nature of True Suchness. It is then fully realized as the Ten Grounds are passed through. With each step in the progressive elimination of the obstacles to Buddhahood, there is a corresponding step in the development of wisdom.

On the Path of Vision, fundamental wisdom instantaneously destroys the seeds of the distinguished attachment to grasper and grasped, while subsequently attained wisdom is used to eliminate gradually the various distinguished characteristics which are an obstruction to True Suchness. During this stage the preliminary “applied” wisdom does not operate.

On the first seven grounds of the Path of Meditational Development all three types of wisdom operate. The preliminary, “applied” wisdom, though characterized by outflows, functions because outflowing attachments are still present and practice is still intentional. That is, it involves an act of will, signifying a tension be- tween two competing aspects of mind. The subsequently attained wisdom is utilized in meditations with characteristics, whereas fundamental wisdom is employed in the meditations without characteristics .

Starting with the Eighth Ground and continuing to the realization of Buddhahood, outflows and the innate attachment to self are totally ended (except for that extremely subtle, spontaneous attachment necessary for rebirth). Because there is no longer any self, cultivation proceeds completely spontaneously. Since there is no longer any personal effort, the preliminary “applied” wisdom no longer functions (though its seeds are not totally eliminated until Buddhahood) . All meditation is without characteristics and utilizes fundamental wisdom, while all actionsproceed spontaneously from the functioning of subsequently attained wisdom.



Fundamental wisdom and subsequently attained wisdom are classifications of wisdom, that is, the activity or functioning of True Suchness in terms of whether or not they act to distinguish the characteristics of dharmas. The Four Types of wisdom is another classification of the activity of True Suchness, in this instance, in terms of the functions which they inherit from the eight consciousnesses of which they are transformations.

‘The first five perceptual consciousnesses are transformed into the Wisdom of Successful Performance; the sixth consciousness, the perceptual and cognitive processing center, is transformed into the Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation; the seventh consciousness, which ordinarily de- files the first six consciousnesses with self and self-related afflictions, is transformed into the Wisdom of Equality; and the eighth, the storehouse consciousness, is transformed into the Great Mirror Wisdom.

Both the Wisdom of Equality and the Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation first begin to function on the Path of Vision. As attachment to the distinctions of the sixth and seventh consciousnesses diminishes, the power of these two types of wisdom increases. The functioning of the Wisdom of Equality is occasionally interrupted up through the Seventh Ground of the Bodhisattva when there are outflows (innate attachments) in the sixth consciousness that evoke the outflowing functioning of the seventh consciousness as support. This occurs because the seventh consciousness’s attachment to grasper and grasped has not yet been fully eliminated.

The Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation has two aspects, corresponding to understanding of the emptiness of self and of the emptiness of dharmas. They both function as long as there is no outflowing functioning of the sixth consciousness, which would naturally interfere. This type of wisdom is not active during the course of meditation without characteristics. (Meditation without characteristics becomes predominant on the Sixth Ground and is the exclusive type of meditation from the Seventh Ground on.)

On the first seven grounds, the progress which takes place has to do with the transformation of the sixth and seventh consciousnesses into their respective wisdoms. During this period, meditations with characteristics, which employ the sixth consciousness, are gradually phased out and replaced by meditations without characteristics. At the entrance onto the Eighth Ground, all outflowing activity of the seventh and sixth consciousnesses is permanently ended and the functioning of the Wisdoms of Equality and of Wonderful Contemplation proceeds spontaneously and without effort.

Both the Great Mirror Wisdom and the Wisdom of Successful Performance begin to function only at the moment of the realization of Buddhahood. The eighth consciousness must continue to exist upto that point as a receptacle of the wholesome outflowing seeds which allow the Bodhisattva to be reborn and to continue progress on the Path from the Eighth Ground to entry into Buddhahood. By the moment of entry, the eighth consciousness has become so pure that it can no longer serve as support for the seeds of outflowing dharmas, no matter how fine. Although from the Eighth Ground, the eighth consciousness continues to act as the supporting basis for the extremely subtle spontaneous affliction that the Bodhisattva purposely preserves as the vehicle of his continued rebirth in the world, in every other sense the eighth consciousness is undefiled and no longer the cause of rebirth. From the latter point of view, the Eighth Ground marks the beginning of the laying of the groundwork for the Great Mirror Wisdom.

The activity of the Wisdom of Successful Performance must await the appearance of the Buddha’s pure non-outflowing perceptual faculties, because the faculties of a Bodhisattva, even after the Eighth Ground, are based on a body which is the result of the subtle seeds of affliction and, therefore, could not provide the proper support. This kind of wisdom is active only when attention is directed to the perceptual faculties. The groundwork for it is laid when the awareness of the faculty of pure form, an aspect of the perceiver portion of the eighth consciousness, no longer associates itself with the characteristics of perceived objects, that is, the dharmas arising from the perceived portion of the eighth consciousness. (This also marks the initial emergence of subsequently attained wisdom.)



Having discussed when on the Path the Four Types of Wisdom arise, we can now describe their functioning after the full realization of True Suchness at Buddhahood. All seeds and all dharmas, the entire universe both potential and actual, are reflected with-out distortion in the Great Mirror Wisdom. Its awareness of True Suchness is the functioning of the fundamental component of this type of wisdom, while its awareness of the activity of seeds and dharmas (as an aspect of True Suchness) is the functioning of its subsequently attained component. The Great Mirror Wisdom is equated with that aspect of the functioning of the reward-body (svasambhogakaya) and pure land of the Buddha which has no purpose beyond what it is in itself.

The Wisdom of Equality understands the nature of the equality of self and other and of all beings. It appears as images of the Buddhas which are limitless. It is equated with that aspect of the reward-body (parasambhogakaya) of the Buddha that functions for the sake of others. More specifically, it is the mode of wisdom which the Buddha uses to teach the great Bodhisattvas. It is also called the great transformation body (nisyandakaya). As is the case with the Great Mirror Wisdom, both components of wisdom function here to include both True Suchness and “worldly” aspects in their understanding.

The Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation understands withoutdistortion the individual and universal characteristics of all dharmas in both their True Suchness and worldly aspects. According to Master Kuiji, it “examines the merits and abilities of all beings and rains the great rain of Dharma to destroy the great net of doubts and to benefit all sentient beings . ” (59:32b)

The Wisdom of Successful Performance operates as the countless transformation bodies of the Buddhas and as the lands both with and without outflows in which they teach living beings. It is exclusively concerned with those dharmas that are the dharmas of perception, that is, the transformation bodies of the Buddha and the phenomena which the faculties of those bodies perceive. Therefore, only the subsequently attained component of wisdom functions in relation to it.

In other words, the Buddha employs the Wisdom of Successful Performance to appear in his ordinary earthly body (and other transformation bodies) and to function perceptually within that body. He sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches without any obstruction or distortion of feeling not only in the ordinary range of perception but in an unlimited manner, universally in time and space.

With the Wisdom of Wonderful Contemplation he knows clearly, without distortion or obstruction, all dharmas which are the objects of his perception and all other dharmas which are exclusively the objects of cognitive processes. In this way he knows the mental and physical condition of all beings and speaks and acts accordingly in all the various ways necessary to teach them most effectively.



The Consciousness-Only School teaches that our true nature and the true nature of the world is Consciousness-Only, which is ultimately under- stood to be True Suchness. True Suchness is covered over by the distinction-making consciousnesses’ attachments to grasper and grasped, self and dharmas. These attachments are systematically overcome on the Bodhisattva Path by the use of wisdom. One component of wisdom, fundamental wisdom, knows True Suchness as the real, underlying nature of distinction- making consciousness. As such, it eliminates confusion about principle (deviant views, their accompanying afflictions, and the seeds of both), radically undermining it. The other component, subsequently attained wisdom, works on the level of the distinctions themselves to eliminate attachment to them. Based on fundamental wisdom, it acts to eliminate confusion about phenomena, particularly the dharmas of greed and other primary afflictions. Upon the total realization of True Suchness at Buddhahood, the subsequently attained component, previously used as a tool for progress on the Bodhisattva Path, is the modality through which the Buddha operates in the world of distinctions made by sentient beings and through which he teaches them the Buddhadharma, a Path for the transformation of distinction-making consciousness into True Suchness and its Four Types of Wisdom.

By Ronald Epstein

This article is borrowed from Vajra Bodhi Sea, Jan., Feb., Mar., 1985.

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