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In Buddhism, consciousness-only (Sanskrit: vijapti-mātratā, vijapti-mātra, citta-mātra; Chinese: 唯識; Pinyin: wei shi; Japanese: yuishiki) is a theory according to which all existence is nothing but consciousness, and therefore there is nothing that lies outside of the mind. This means that conscious-experience is nothing but false discriminations or imaginations; a provisional antidote; thus, the notion of consciousness-only is an indictment of the problems engendered by the activities of consciousness. This was a major component of the thought of the school of Yogācāra, which had a major impact on subsequent schools after its introdution in East Asia.


According to the Vijānavādins, embedded at the heart of Buddhism lies a seeming paradox. In contrast to the Brahmanic teachings of the Upanishads, the Buddha stated quite clearly that the self (atman) is an illusion and that man thus has no soul (anatman). However, there is transmigration (samsara) from one body to another. This poses a difficult question: "If there is no soul, what is it that reincarnates?"

The theory of consciousness-only starts by explaining the regularity and coherence of sense impressions as due to an underlying store of perceptions (ālaya-vijāna) evolving from the accumulation of traces of earlier sense perceptions. These are active, and produce "seeds" (bija) similar to themselves, according to a regular pattern, as seeds produce plants. Each being possesses a store of perceptions and beings which are generically alike will produce similar perceptions from their stores at the same time. The external world is created when the store consciousness (ālaya) is "perfumed" (薰) by seeds, i.e. the effects of good and evil deeds.

To summarize, the seeds interact in three ways:

  1. Seeds produce the external world.
  2. Seeds are perfumed by the external world.
  3. Seeds produce seeds.

And this gives the solution to the original paradox. The conception of "self", the false atman, is produced from seeds. Actions in this world, good, bad and neutral deeds, perfume (or mutate) these seeds. The seeds then produce new seeds, with some seeds tainted by your actions, and others unaffected. Even after death, the impressions of deeds — their karma — linger on in the seeds of alaya consciousness. Since the seeds have a natural affinity to join together (pratisamdhi), reincarnation occurs when seeds fuse and new states of seventh consciousness (delusions of "self") form. A Buddha is someone who has managed to obliterate all impressions of himself, all his perfumings of the seeds, and escape the wheel of samsara. Such alaya consciousness fully cleansed of karmic sediment is known as amalavijna, or "pure consciousness".

The doctrine of consciousness-only thus reduces all existence to one hundred dharmas (法 factors) in five divisions 五位, namely, mind, mental function, material, not associated with mind and unconditioned, dharmas. The consciousness-only school thus sets out to enumerate and describe all these dharmas in detail.

Another important contribution of the consciousness-only thinkers was that of the three natures of imaginary, provisional and real. See three natures for details.


The major framework of Yogācāra theory was developed by the two brothers Vasubandhu 世親 and Asaṅga 無著 in such treatises as the Abdhidharma-kośa-bhāsya 倶舍論, the Triṃśikā Vijaptimātratāsiddhiḥ (Thirty Verses on consciousness-only) 唯識三十頌, Mahāyāna-saṃgraha攝大乘論, and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra瑜伽師地論. Dharmapala's Vijaptimtratsiddhi-shstra is an important commentary that resolved several doctrinal disputes that had risen out of the original texts.

Consciousness-only doctrine was also defined in sutras such as the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra and Śrīmālā-sūtra 勝鬘經. The Mahāyāna-saṃgraha, for example, says, "All conscious objects are only constructs of consciousness because there are no external objects. They are like a dream." (如此衆識唯識 以無塵等故 譬如夢等) 〔攝大乘論T 1593.31.118b12 〕.

See also



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