Chapter 9: Models of personality in Buddhist psychology – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Models of personality in Buddhist psychology

Priya Ananda & Ajith Prasad


A comprehensive framework for psychology should address a wide spectrum of applications. At one end, it should identify the limiting factors of the ordinary psyche and the scope of the perfected state that humans can realize. In this regard, it should also comprehend the profound mystical experiences of the practitioners of various spiritual traditions. At the other end, it should cover the pathological experiences of those struggling to cope with the travails of the mundane world. In the middle, it should also be applicable in the analysis of psychological tendencies and developmental opportunities of conventionally ‘normal’ individuals. Buddhist psychology, with its balanced approach combining structured rational analysis and first person accounts of direct yogic experience, is of great relevance in contributing toward the formation of a comprehensive framework for psychology.

Buddhist psychology is both a psychology of transformation and a theory of cognition. As a psychology of transformation, it aims to develop the innate psychic potential of every being to its perfection. The ordinary state of being is ‘flawed’ or pathological in the sense that one works with limited perceptions of the world and undergoes cycles of suffering and psychological tension in ceaseless attempts to cope with and respond to the world. These attempts fail to produce ever-lasting happiness because the perceptions about oneself and the world, which one formulates as the basis for action, are discordant with one’s true nature. Buddhist psychology aims to transcend this entrapment. It begins the endeavour by analyzing the root cause behind this pathology. In the absence of such an understanding, one might go after an enlightenment ideal with the same pathological tendencies that tie one to the miseries of ordinary being; and thus remain contented with an intermediate state of blissful experience, where the tendencies leading to future suffering may still be dormant.

The goal of the Buddhist psychology of transformation can be viewed as triple-fold, corresponding to the three scopes of motivation on the Buddhist path.1 The lower goal is about coping with the ordinary state of being while minimizing suffering. The middle goal is the ever-lasting liberation (vimukti) from suffering by eliminating afflictive tendencies. The higher goal is to achieve complete and perfect awakening (saṃbodhi).2 The process of awakening involves the attainment of total perfection in all dimensions of being, with their transformation into pristine wisdom (jñāna). The ultimate spiritual attainment on the Buddhist path, as described in the Great Perfection (mahā-sandhi-yoga, Tibetan: rdzogs chen) teachings, is to realize the primordial purity and spontaneous perfection of all appearances. This realization is inseparably coalesced (yuganaddha) with a display of unceasing compassion. This is a state completely transcending ordinary psyche, without grounding in or clinging to its distorted projections and being able to appreciate the truth ‘as it is’.

Buddhist psychology is also a theory of cognition. This is an inevitable part of Buddhist exploration since the higher goal of Buddhist training is the attainment of saṃbodhi that eliminates all cognitive ‘errors’.3 The view of cognition that evolves through Buddhist psychology is that of the co-emergence of the person and the world. The distinction between inner and outer vanishes on deep analysis of the process of experiencing. Thus the scope of ‘personality’ in Buddhist studies includes the entire sphere of experience covering not only the person, but also the world as perceived by the person. The study of the dynamics of this co-emergence equips Buddhist psychology with ways of altering the person and the world thus brought forth. This knowledge is applied in eliminating the cognitive ‘errors’ of the ordinary state of being, and thus in relating to appearances in a whole new way as the person progresses on the path to omniscience.

An important theme running throughout Buddhist psychology is the five dimensions of underlying capabilities in which various aspects of personality and the awakened state are understood. At the mundane level, the manifestation of these capabilities in its distorted forms appears as the five aggregates (skandha) of personality. The aggravation of these distortions leads to five afflictions (kḷeśa), and to various psychological realms of experience. Through perfect awakening, clarified aspects of these capabilities manifest as the five aspects of the fully awakened omniscient wisdom (buddha-jñāna). These five clarified aspects are:

  1. Seeing reality ‘as it is’,
  2. Unperturbed clarity in knowing all phenomena,
  3. Perfect distinction of all details of phenomena,
  4. Sensing the happiness and suffering of all beings with the experience of one-taste, transcending ordinary pleasure and pain, and
  5. The creativity of spontaneously-accomplishing actions.4

Buddhist psychology has formulated various ways of analyzing personality. These could be termed as ‘the models of personality’. These psychological models are valuable in studying a variety of experiences like the conventional experience of ordinary beings, of those in the stages of the path to awakening, and the qualities of the fully awakened state. These models are also useful in analyzing experiences related to sleep, dream, death, after-death state, etc. In this chapter, various models of personality in Buddhist psychology are explored. The application of these models in understanding various psychological states and afflictions are also briefly touched upon.

The three turnings of the Buddhist view

These psychological models are presented with their own specific scopes of application in various phases of Buddhist teaching. The opinion among various Buddhist schools differs regarding how to view these phases together. A brief introduction to the three phases of Buddhist philosophy and the position taken in this chapter regarding an integral view is necessary before delving into the details of the models.

The evolution of Buddhist philosophy took place in three distinct periods renowned in Mahāyāna literature as ‘the three turnings of the wheel of dharma’.5 The first turning comprises the Buddha’s teachings (as present in the Pali canon) that he gave to a wide audience. The second and third turning teachings were delivered to disciples who had already made progress on the path to awakening. The second turning, which became widely known around the second century, is centred on the Prajñā-pāramita-sūtras of the Buddha. Madhyamaka philosophy was developed by Nāgārjuna based on these sūtras, and was further established through the treatises of scholars like Āryadeva, Śāntideva, Candrakīrti and Śāntarakṣita (2nd–8th century CE). The third turning is based on a vast array of sūtras such as the Tathāgatagarbha-sūtra,Sandhinirmocana-sūtra , Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra and the Avatāmsaka-sūtra . Maitreya, Asanga, Vasubandhu and others (4th century CE onwards), developed the third turning views further, through their treatises (śāstra) and commentaries. The second and third turning views were extended further in the teachings of Buddhist tantrās (Vajrayāna).

In the first turning, focus is on the most immediate problem of the individual—the suffering nature of ordinary existence and the possibility of going beyond. The suffering in this context is not just the apparent forms of suffering like those due to physical pain, emotional turmoil and boredom. Suffering in its broader context is the underlying psychological tension that pervades even happy states of mind. It is the struggle to cling to mistaken identities which keep drifting away like a mirage. Like the ecstatic experience of a narcotic addict while dipping into deeper agony, one expends enormous energy to create an island of happiness along with an ocean of underlying suffering. One sinks into deeper anguish as the island of ecstasy drifts away. The first turning teaches the recognition of the true nature of a person, as the way to freedom (vimukti) out of this mistaken struggle. In this context, the conventional personality is analyzed in great detail. The psychological models presented in this turning, analyze the constituents and operational dynamics of a person, in terms of underlying building blocks. This phase of Buddhist psychology is already finding applications in the modern context. The dialogues between Buddhist scholars, modern psychologists and cognitive scientists, as documented by Goleman (1997, 2004), shed light on this topic. Parallels between the decentralized view of mind developed in cognitive science, and the decentralized experience of personality emerging through mindfulness meditation in Buddhist traditions, were investigated by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1993).

The second turning focuses on the ultimate nature of all phenomena including the building blocks of personality. The aim here is to remove the veil of knowables (jñeyāraṇa) toward perfect awakening (saṃbodhi), in addition to the removal of the veil of afflictions (kḷeśāvaraṇa) which aid in the movement towards liberation, from suffering (vimukti). The psyche exists not in isolation but is interwoven with the rest of the phenomenal world. An understanding of the true nature of all phenomena is necessary to realize omniscience. The separation between psychology and ontology disappears as one transcends objectivism and subjectivism, in this view of dependent co-arising of psyche and the world. The Madhyamaka view establishes the profound groundlessness (śūnyatā) where no phenomenon can be self-arising or self-sustaining in isolation with the rest of the world. While drawing parallels between the Madhyamaka view and their work on enactive cognitive science, Varela et al. (1993, p. 253) state:

There is a profound discovery of groundlessness in our culture — in science, in the humanities, in society, and in the uncertainties of people’s daily lives. … Taking groundlessness as negative, as a loss, leads to a sense of alienation, despair, loss of heart, and nihilism. The cure that is generally espoused in our culture is to find a new grounding (or a return to older grounds).… In Buddhism, we have a case study showing that when groundlessness is embraced and followed through to its ultimate conclusions, the outcome is an unconditional sense of intrinsic goodness that manifests itself in the world as spontaneous compassion.

The third turning of the Buddhist view shows how the realization of the most profound truth of groundlessness becomes the experience of ultimate purity of appearances, with its spontaneously accomplishing nature manifesting as the all-encompassing display of compassion. If the second turning does not generate such an experience, one has not reached the correct understanding of groundlessness (śūnyatā). One mistakenly falls to either the shades of nihilism—with resulting fear, dullness or indifference; or to the shades of absolutism—with resulting ego-centric aggression, despair, or anesthetic complacence. The third turning guides the practitioner towards perfecting the profound realization of groundlessness, through stages of progressively pure experiences. A phenomenological description of stages in the path (bodhisattva-bhūmi) to saṃbodhi is given as far as words can capture it. It describes the potential for full awakening (Tathāgatagarbha) as innate to every being. An elaborate and sophisticated model of psychology is developed in this turning. This may be termed as the psychology of spiritual awakening. The third turning has not yet been significantly put to use in modern psychology. However, there is tremendous value in studying the third turning model of personality, while developing a modern psychology of spiritual transformation. In this chapter, the model of eight-fold collection deals with the third turning psychology.

Reification of the building blocks of the first turning led to the realist schools of Buddhist philosophy like Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika .Reification of certain elements of the psychological model of the third turning led to idealist interpretations to schools like Vijñānavāda and Yogācāra. If one is careful not to make such reifications, the three turnings together provide a consistent and comprehensive view. Many scholars of the Prajñā-pāramita tradition6 of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism embrace such a view and accept all the three turnings. According to this view the three turnings are three phases of understanding. The first turning provides the phenomenology and psychology of mundane existence. The second turning presents the profound view of groundlessness that provides the ontological perspective. The third turning is the culmination where phenomenology and psychology of both mundane and enlightened experiences are seen in inseparable union with the ontological insight of the second turning. The approach taken in this chapter is such an integral perspective, with the philosophical basis of Madhyamaka. Influences of the second and third turning can be found in this chapter, even while discussing the first turning. This is intentional, and aims at bringing clarity to the whole theme from an integral perspective. With this approach, the models of personality from the first and third turnings become useful psychological tools, with varying subtlety and applications.

Model 1: The aggregate model of personality

The first turning presents two models for studying personality. The first is a schema of analyzing personality into its building blocks. According to this model, all experiences that arise as the continuum7 of a person8 are analyzed and categorized into five aggregates (skandha). The original aim of this model is to arrive at the realization of the ultimate nature of a person through direct observation of experiences in mindfulness meditation (smṛti upastāna, known popularly through the Pali term sati-patthana). This is the means to go beyond suffering produced by ego-clinging. The simplicity of this model along with the ease of direct observation makes it a good starting point to formulate the structure of personality. It also leads to the identification of five dimensions of capabilities that fuel the five categories of experiences. The aggregates are:

  1. Form (rūpa): This is an experience that arises as a concretized and objectified view of phenomena. Form is not just the physical body of a person. According to Vasbandhu’s Abhidharma-kośa,9 all forms, including the perceived external environment, belong to this aggregate. The objects of all five sense consciousnesses are considered to be forms—for example, shape and colour for the visual consciousness, and sound for the auditory consciousness. It also includes sense faculties. Asanga’s Abhidharma-samuccaya10 also categorizes the mental objects of perception like concepts and mental images into form.
  2. Feeling (vedanā): This is an experience of a sensation that lies on the scale of painful (duḥkha), neutral and pleasurable (sukha). It is the subjective appreciation that senses suffering and happiness. It includes both sensual and mental feelings. The feeling aggregate only covers the basic feeling that comes as part and parcel of an experience. The process of building up additional emotional states and observable reactions is not in itself a part of feeling. However, such build-ups also result in feeling. For example, becoming anxious is not a feeling, but anxiousness is experienced with its associated feeling of pain.
  3. Perception (saṃjña): This is an experience of recognizing something within the field of cognition. This recognition is due to predispositions and familiarity, and is not a process of inference. However, the process of inference can lead to a generalized image corresponding to the direct experience under investigation. The experience of recognizing the generalized image would belong to the aggregate of perception. Perception could be about labelling a form to be a specific object, viewing a situation to be either desirable or threatening, perceiving a quality in an object, etc.
  4. Formation (saṃskāra): This is an experience additionally fabricated in the continuum of a person in response to other experiences. Thus, the aggregate of formation is the reactive and responsive aspect of personality. The process of intellectualization (buddhi) through which one analyzes and infers is part of this aggregate. Emotional build-ups and behavioural aspects are also formations of various mental episodes (caitta, also known as caitasika) arising in dependence upon each other. In addition, through conditioning, the context of experiencing and directing attention into or away from specific aspects in the sphere of experience, formations alter future experiences.
  5. Consciousness (vijñāna): It is the experience of being conscious of an object of experience. Vijñāna literally means ‘qualified knowing’ in which there are three spheres—the knower, the object of knowledge, and the process of knowing. In the first turning model, vijñāna is of six kinds—the mental consciousness and the five sense consciousnesses. Buddhist psychology treats these six as different types of vijñāna, since they know their objects through their uncommon aspects—for example, knowing the aspect of shape and colour for eye consciousness, and sound for ear consciousness. The experience of mental consciousness is about being conscious of concepts, mental images, recognitions, feelings, emotions, etc.

Vijñāna is to be contrasted with pristine wisdom (jñāna) knowing reality ‘as it is’. Unlike jñāna, vijñāna is qualified and it remains specific through its entangled nature, where the prior experiences in the continuum colours the way knowledge arises. The field of knowing and the specific ways of ‘seeing’ are continually perturbed and modified in the process of knowing. So are the modifications of other aggregates too. The aggregates of feelings, perceptions and formations arise as the subjective aspects, and the aggregate of forms arises as the objective aspect, in the context of experience provided by vijñāna.

The aggregates are momentary experiences arising in an interdependent way and a person is none other than a continuum of such experiences. Each of the aggregates is closely related to and contains other aggregates. For example, the aggregate of perception could arise as the recognition of either an aggregate of form, feeling, formation or vijñāna. There could be a perception of feeling or vice-versa, a feeling of perception. Similarly, experience of form need not always correspond to the appearances of material forms. It can also arise as the objectification of feeling, perception, formation or vijñāna. This corresponds to the objectification of mind (citta) as the agent behind experiences. Thus, citta can be viewed as the objective view of the subjective aspect of experience.

Model 2: The network model of mental continuum

The model presented above analyzes person-hood as a continuum of experiences belonging to five dimensions. The second model from the first turning scriptures is that of main-mind (citta) and mental episodes (caitta, also known as caitasika). The cognitive and behavioural dynamics of a person are looked upon in this model as the interplay of mental episodes in an ever-changing continuum of the complex of citta and caitta. Personality traits evolve through this complex. This complex of citta-caitta corresponds closely to the meaning of the English word ‘mind’.

The notion of vijñāna in the aggregate model and citta in this model, are synonymous to the extent that vijñāna—with its triple-fold division of the agent of knowing, the object of knowledge, and the knowing itself—and citta including its content, are mutually inclusive. The entity being studied by various terms like vijñāna, citta and manas11 is the same. However, the perspectives from which they are looked upon are different. While vijñāna emphasizes experiences, citta emphasizes the apprehension of experiences as if through an agent.

In the citta-caitta model, the main-mind (citta) is the bare apprehension.12 The stream of citta changes continuously as various objects, along with the apprehension of them, arise and vanish. The mental episodes are further apprehensions and reactions through the aggregates of feeling, perception and formation. In this model, the aggregate of form is considered as the content of citta and hence does not become an explicit element in the model.13

The actual types of mental episodes are numerous, while various scriptures enumerate around fifty. These are grouped into six categories. The first category is that of ever-present mental episodes accompanying each and every experience. These include contact (sparśa) between mind and its object, feeling (vedanā), perception (saṃjña), volition (cetana) and mental engagement (manaskāra).14 Manaskāra is the mental episode that keeps the person attentive to any given object of appearance, and helps in engaging deeper into the object. The second category is the mental episodes that are essential in ascertaining the characteristics of the object being engaged with. These include interest (chanda), determination (adhimokṣa), mindfulness (smṛti), one-pointedness (samādhi)15 and insight (prajñā). The third category is of wholesome mental episodes. These are desirable and indicative of a healthy personality. The fourth and fifth categories include the primary and secondary unwholesome mental episodes which are undesirable for a healthy personality. Unwholesome mental episodes have the potential to produce suffering. The sixth category consists of changeable mental episodes for which the wholesomeness depends upon the context.

As a person engages with an object, various mental episodes ripen, based on specific karmic tendencies. The manifestations of various mental episodes condition the mental continuum, making it either fertile or sterile for other mental episodes. For example, the unwholesome mental episode of bewilderment (moha) would weaken one-pointedness, and thus make the mental episode of insight shallower. As another example, there is less likelihood of the mental episode of anger arising in a mental continuum in which the mental episodes of patience are strengthened.

This model is considered important for mind training through meditation. Varying modes of using it are available, depending on the nature of the vehicle (Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna) that a person trains on. For example, the approach in Hinayāna, in general, is to apply mindfulness meditation to find and remove the causes that lead to unhealthy mental episodes. The approach in Mahāyāna is to cultivate an opposing mental episode as an antidote, such that the ground is sterile for unwholesome mental episodes. Such an approach works through understanding how the presence and strength of various mental episodes affect the enriching or diminishing of others.

Selflessness and emptiness

Due to their ever-changing nature, neither can phenomenal experiences on their own be a source of happiness or suffering, nor can they form a basis for permanent identity for the person. Clinging to experiences in this ever-changing continuum is the cause of suffering. As Asanga points out in Abhidharma-samuccaya (Trans. 2001), clinging could arise as a mistaken identification of self with experiences belonging to any of the five aggregates. It is a notion of ‘I’ around which other experiences are related as either favourable or threatening. Clinging to such notions provides mistaken frames of reference for actions, and binds the person to the cycle of suffering through discordant actions, causing undesired results.

Clinging to an experience of form arises with the mistaken notion of self as the body. Clinging to an experience of feeling (as in the bliss of samādhi) arises from the mistaken notion of self as the enjoyer experiencing its innate bliss. The perception of the label ‘I’ (as in ‘I am’) can be the basis for mistaken notion of a self as the perceiver at its own bare recognition (as in asmitā samādhi). The aggregate of formation is the basis for the mistaken notion of self as the agent behind action. A non-dual appearance of vijñāna, where no object of knowing is distinctly present, can be confused as the self experiencing its innate nature. Since all these experiences are constructed on the basis of various causes and conditions, attempts to cling to these experiences as self-nature lead to psychological tension and suffering. For example, the very attempt to cling to the bliss of meditation leads to anger and mental turbulence, when a disturbing stimulus shakes the person out of samādhi. Happiness is ever-lasting only when the basis is transformed (āśraya-parāvṛtti), leading to the co-emergence (sahaja) of peace with every sprout of experience.

In the first turning philosophy, various notions of self (ātma) are refuted through the view of not-self (anātma) to thoroughly eliminate all modes of clinging. The arising and subsiding of aggregates (including the subtler experiences in meditation) are observed to study their causes and conditions16. Direct recognition of the momentary nature of all aggregates leads to the realization of the lack of a permanent abiding ground for the person in aggregates. It also leads to the realization of how futile constructions around an impossible notion of self leads to suffering. This realization of not-self (anātma) leads to abandonment of all clinging and discordant actions arising out of mistaken identity, and thus to liberation from suffering. Experiences are no more in the nature of suffering, as the conditions for suffering cease through the cessation of mistaken impulses. The peace one reaches is no more the constructed bliss of a specific state of being, but an unconditional one that is co-emergent with every sprout of experience. Once the mental continuum undergoes such a transformation, the experience of the phenomenal world can no more be the cause of suffering.

Refutation of the above notions of self is not a total denial of conventional experiences of a person. The emphasis is on removing the root-ignorance that confusedly identifies and clings to some of these experiences in the continuum (including the so-called transcendental experiences), as the essential nature of a person.

The removal of mistaken notions about the self of a person is sufficient for freedom from suffering, but not for omniscience. The insight into the true nature of reality is essential for this. The Madhyamaka view based on the second turning explores the true nature of all phenomena and asserts the lack of inherent existence (niḥsvabhāva). Madhyamaka recognizes that no phenomenon (including the notion of person and the constituent aggregates) can exist from its own side. Nāgārjuna invokes arguments of pure reason to establish the lack of inherent existence, the emptiness of all phenomena. Even the notions of causation, time, space, etc., cannot be established from their own side (Mūla-madhyamaka-kārika, Trans. 1995). A general idea about the doctrine of emptiness may be generated through an example. The existence of a table can be spotted neither in any of its parts like the platform or legs, nor as a separate and independent entity. A collection of all its parts does not become the table either, unless it is organized in a specific way that does a specific function to a perceiver. Hence, the collection of parts in itself does not contain any essential identity for the table. Many causes and conditions like the parts of the table, the designer, the carpenter and the user together give rise to the phenomenal experience of a table. Thus, the experience of table is a phenomenal appearance whose essence cannot be traced down to its components. The same argument could be extended deeper into its constituents like the platform and the legs to see that no object exists on its own. Even the perceiver that imputes a name to the object does not exist on its own, because the citta arises in dependence upon objects of experience.

The nature of appearances can be understood in terms of three concepts. These are emptiness (śūnyatā), conditional arising (pratītya-samutpāda) and dependent imputation (upādāya-prajñāpti). The first is the lack of inherent existence of phenomenal experiences from their own side. The second is about how the experiences of phenomena still arise through various causes and conditions based on other phenomena that are equally empty. Phenomenal experiences arise and vanish interdependently without any inherent self-support anywhere. Empty appearances of phenomena support each other. The third is about the phenomenal appearance of citta as an imputation of conceptual notions to the ever-changing flux of conditional arising, based on suitability. This leads to a contextual view of truth. An example may clarify this. When one recognizes the constant flow of water, one imputes the concept of river. Though the water in the river flows by continuously and there is no river other than the flowing water, through conceptual imputation one cognizes a river that does not flow away with every drop of water.

When all such imputations are pacified, it leads to the direct realization of the truth ‘as it is’ (tathātā) that is non-elaborated (niṣprapañca). It is the inseparable coalescence of phenomenal experiences with their ultimate essencelessness. This is also termed the void sphere of reality (dharmadhātu). The scholar-yogi of Tibet, Longchen Rabjampa explains:

The appearance of all things of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is based on the causal process of interdependent origination. These appearances are undeniable. They are the unceasing natural play of voidness (śūnyatā) [emptiness], like the play of light, the play of eddies and waves on the water and the rustling of the leaves. All things of relative reality are this way. Thus because appearances are irrefutable, there is the relative [conventional] level of truth. On the ultimate level there are no validly cognized objects other than the one taste of the absence of all mental fabrications (prapañca). Ultimate reality transcends the division of subject and object. It is the underlying stratum, the unborn, pure mode of existence of the appearances of the relative level. Thus the two levels of truth are inseparable. (Trans. 1979, p. 15)

Longchen Rabjampa describes this coalesced nature of the void sphere of reality further in these poetic verses:

Ultimate reality is the mandala [the sphere of experience] of the perfectly pure expanse of voidness. It is like a ‘magic’ mirror. What unimpededly appear on it are all phenomena (dharma) of relative reality, your mind included. These things appear naturally on this ‘magic’ mirror, through and to your mind. There is no third reality of a truly existing mind or objects juxtaposed to the ultimate reality of the mirror and the relative reality of the images in it. (Trans. 1979, p. 18)

Dynamics of experience

The sphere of experience of a person is a conditioned view arising through imputations into this void sphere of reality. This appears as the mind (citta) and its objects. This limited sphere of experience is conditioned by the specific context in which a person’s mental continuum evolved. Experiences and reactions continuously modify this context. New appearances of objects and citta arise in this ever-changing context. Detailed understanding about this dynamics can be derived from the third turning and vajrayāna teachings.

This ever-changing context of experience is related to imprints (vāsana). Imprint is like a thin fragrance left behind after the scent has evaporated, or like a stain still left behind on a cloth after many washes. The stains left by various experiences blend together in forming the context for newer experiences. Vāsana acts like a filter that constraints the breadth and depth to which a citta penetrates reality. It leads to the formation of a conceptually projected view of reality that prevents further penetration into the true nature. This results in certain grounding of the awareness (vidyā), making the experience specific to a frame of reference. This specific frame of reference results in distorted contextual knowing (vijñāna) as opposed to the pristine wisdom (jñāna) that an ungrounded awareness with its omniscient expanse and unhindered penetration can achieve. A few examples would help in making this clear. A room might be pleasant for a person, too hot for another, and too cold for yet another—all at the same time. Past experiences and expectations lead to this difference. Depending on vāsana, one penetrates reality differently and sees either a river that is unchanging or the flowing water. There can be similarities in vāsana for an entire species of beings. Thus, humans experience a lawn to be beautiful to watch, and soft to touch. A dog might not appreciate the beauty, though it still finds it soft to roll on. A cow might find the same lawn tasty! The structure of the human eye that constrains the visual consciousness to objects of certain dimensionality (not seeing microscopic structures for example), may be said to be a bodily vāsana that humans carry by being embodied into a certain cognitive structure. Removing all vāsana is essential as part of breaking the veil of knowables (jñeyāvaraṇa) towards omniscience. This is called the veil of knowables since the conceptually projected images of knowables obstruct the knowledge of the truth as it is.

Another stream of modification in the mental continuum of a person is the urge for action that arises as the ripening of karmic tendencies (karma-bīja). The distinction between vāsana and karma-bīja is thin, since the very appearance of an experience involves an imputation which is an implicit action. In addition, actions lead to modification of the context of experience. Similarly, the very urge to act arises in the context of experiencing. However, it may be termed that vāsana predominantly deals with how experiences arise and karma-bīja about how a person reacts to experiences.

Karmic tendencies are habitual associations made in the mental continuum between situations, actions and results from the past. For example, having responded many times in the past in a certain style creates a seemingly automatic urge to respond in a similar style when such situations arise again. Similarly, having experienced immediate happiness due to a particular action many times in the past, creates an urge to act in such a way again. For example, venting out anger might give immediate relief to a person, though it leads to unhappy after-effects like a disturbed state of mind and angry retaliations from others. This might lead to the development of a habitual association between venting out of anger and the experience of immediate relief, further leading to similar urges in future. Once a person habituates with letting out anger whenever the urge arises, the mental continuum turns into a fertile ground for the mental episodes of anger to arise often with little provocation. Karmic tendencies from a multitude of experiences reinforce each other. This may be viewed as a non-linear dynamics that sustains and reinforces a tendency till it drives the person into experiencing a karmic result.17 The aggregate of formation arises from the ripening of karmic tendencies based on situational conditions.

Every moment of awareness arises with an innate creative potential. However, the karmic tendencies severely condition and narrow down the way this creativity manifests. Karmic tendencies mixed with root-ignorance about selflessness lead to afflictive obscurations (kleśāvaraṇa) that bond a person to the experiences of suffering.

Model 3: The eight-fold collection

In the third turning philosophy, personality is analyzed in terms of the context and the structure of experiences, by focusing on the experience of knowing (vijñāna). The formation of personality is explained as the dynamic interplay of:

  1. The ever-changing continuum of the context of experience,
  2. The basic structuring of experiences in that context,
  3. The formation of the sense of self, and
  4. The arising and vanishing of specific experiences.

In this model, personality is viewed as an eight-fold collection consisting of seven consciousnesses (vijñāna) and the defiled mentality (kḷṣṭa-manas). The seven are the all-ground consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) along with its projections, through the mental and sense consciousnesses. According to the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Asanga, Trans. 2006), the mental and sense consciousnesses are also known as functional consciousnesses (pravṛtti-vijñāna). The dynamics of the eight-fold collection is described in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra:

Like waves that rise on the ocean stirred by the wind, dancing and without interruption, the ālaya-ocean in a similar manner is constantly stirred by the winds of objectivity, and is seen dancing about with the vijñānas which are the waves of multiplicity. (Trans. 1999, p. 42)

The eight-fold collection is as explained below:

(1) All-ground consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna): This is the limited sphere of experience of a person that arises as a distorted view of the void sphere of reality (dharmadhātu) through dependent imputation. Ālaya-vijñāna forms the foundation for embodied cognition and defines the basic structure of all experiences. The vāsana and karmic tendencies (karma-bīja) lead to a biased perspective and structuring, and thus provide a context for all experiences in this eight-fold collection. Thus, ālaya-vijñāna is also regarded as the store house of vāsanas and karmic tendencies (vāsanāparibhāvita and sarvabījaka). However, it is neither the permanent identity of a person nor a form of collective unconscious. Continuous build-up and discharge of karmic tendencies cause the ever-changing nature of ālaya-vijñāna. Though ālaya-vijñāna always provides the context to all experiences, a person in ordinary states of awareness does not become conscious of the subtle and direct experience of ālaya-vijñāna because the gross nature of functional consciousnesses dominates in such states.

(2) Defiled mentality (kḷṣṭa-manas): The mentality (manas) is the subjective aspect experienced as the enjoyer (or as perceiver, knower, actor) of objects. The mentality is defiled because it is constantly conceited with the idea of ‘I am’. From the sphere of experience presented by ālaya-vijñāna, the defiled mentality arises as an experience of ‘I’. Ācārya Mañjuśrīmitra, a renowned master in the lineage of Mahāsandhi-yoga teachings, explains:

Depending on the power (prabhāva) of various vāsanas from the manifold formative forces of karma, the potential for experience appears forth as objects and subjective being (ātma-bhāva)... By taking the continuum of accumulating vāsana as the basis, mentality (manas) arises as an experience of ātma that does not exist. (Trans. 2001, p. 117)

As Asanga explains in Abhidharma-samuccaya (Trans. 2001), the notion of ‘I’ is conceited with the four defilements of—the perception of self (ātma-dṛṣṭi), self-love (ātma-sneha), the feeling of ‘I am’ (asmimāna) and the ignorance about the true nature of self (avidyā). The defiled mentality conceives a limited identity within the sphere of experience as ‘mine’ and provides a basis for emotional afflictions to arise trying to protect and enrich that identity. The thoughts of defiled mentality are subtle and do not become gross objects of knowing in ordinary experiences. However, it forms the subjective reference around which the six functional consciousnesses project and construct ordinary gross experiences. These projections in turn affirm the defiled sense of ‘I’.

(3-8) Functional consciousness (pravṛtti-vijñāna): Mental consciousness (mano-vijñāna) and the five sense consciousnesses constitute the six functional consciousnesses. These consciousnesses arise as projections from the sphere of experience of ālaya-vijñāna. Ācārya Mañjuśrīmitra explains:

By the power of formations (saṃskāra), the subtle (ālaya-vijñāna) is obscured and does not appear vividly, which gives rise to specific cognitive projections (vijñāpti). (Trans. 2001, p. 117)

These projections are ways of differentiating and knowing specific aspects from the sphere of experience that remains largely obscured. The examples for these specific aspects are forms and colours for eye consciousness, or images and concepts for mental consciousness. The ripening of karmic tendencies (karma-bīja) leads a person to project and follow specific aspects. Karma causes one to develop interest (due to afflictive emotions like attachment, aversion and closed minded ignorance) towards a specific aspect of this projection, which in turn leads one to modify the projection. Karmic tendencies lead to these afflictive emotions with the intent to protect or enrich the identity established by the defiled mind. One fabricates the ordinary realm of experience (saṃsāra) by following after and concretizing various projections. The sphere of experience of ālaya-vijñāna with its accumulation of vāsana and karmic tendencies provides the basis for such functional projections to arise continuously. The functional consciousnesses are so called because they are entangled with and work towards bringing forth an objectified world. They are localized in the sense that one makes objectified projections of specific aspects, while no more remaining conscious of the rest of the sphere of experience. Thus one remains unaware of the experience of ālaya-vijñāna when functional consciousnesses dominate.

The ālaya-vijñāna and defiled mentality are regarded as stable because their ever-changing continuum is present at all times. The functional consciousnesses are unstable because they arise and subside contextually. For example, the six consciousnesses are dormant during dreamless deep-sleep. The coordination between the six functional consciousnesses is established through the vāsana and karmic tendencies that continually modify the basis of projections—that is, the ālaya-vijñāna.

It may be noted that the six functional consciousnesses are always dualistic in nature. These cognitive projections arise with the three spheres of knower, known and knowing. In contrast, ālaya-vijñāna is non-dualistic from the point of view of the object-subject division. Depending on the context of experience, ālaya-vijñāna appears with the multiplicity of phenomenal distinctions. It can also fade out into an appearance of a unified stratum in certain states of experience.

In the Precious Treasury of the Meaning of Words (Trans. 1989) Longchen Rabjampa clarifies the distinction between various terms like ālaya-vijñāna, ālaya and dharmadhātu appearing in scriptures of sūtra and tantra. He reveals the structure of personality more deeply. Dharmadhātu is the term for reality ‘as it is’ (tathātā) or the ‘void sphere of reality’. All-ground (ālaya) is the unawakened (unenlightened) nature of a person and forms the foundational stratum for the continuity of vāsana and karmic tendencies. Ālaya arises when a person has root-ignorance (avidyā) of not comprehending the true nature of all phenomena. It modifies itself through the accumulation of vāsana and karmic tendencies. Longchen Rabjampa further divides ālaya into four aspects to illuminate its structure. These include (i) the all-ground of primordial nature (of root-ignorance) (Tibetan: ye don gyi kun gzhi) (ii) the all-ground of application (Tibetan: sbyor ba don gyi kun gzhi), (iii) the all-ground of various vāsana (Tibetan: bag chags sna tshogs pa’i kun gzhi) and (iv) the all-ground of bodily vāsana (Tibetan: bag chags lus-kyi kun gzhi). Of these, the first is about the co-emergence of root-ignorance with any sprout of awareness. The second and third are related to how the karmic tendencies and vāsana further shape up the structure of personality. A person associates with the sense organs and bodily structure to form a stable reference to experience, from birth to death. The stable structure of vāsana that forms one’s specific cognitive structure from birth to death is the fourth category. Ālaya-vijñāna is the aspect of being conscious of the sphere of experience constrained by ālaya. According to Longchen Rabjampa, if ālaya is like a mirror, ālaya-vijñāna is like the luminous clarity of the mirror, and the functional consciousnesses are like the arising of reflections in the mirror (Trans. 2002).

Afflictions and psychological states

The constraints of the ordinary psyche and the resulting psychological traits are studied in terms of the five root afflictions (kḷeśa) and their derivatives. The combinations of these afflictions result in various limiting psychological states. In Buddhism, the primary perspective to afflictions is not social ethics, but their potential to produce a state of suffering in a person. The root afflictions have a correspondence with the five aggregates. These afflictions are aggravated forms of distortions in relating to the world through the underlying capabilities of the aggregates.

The affliction related to the aggregate of form is bewilderment (moha), which makes one unable to engage with an object with single pointed concentration. One gets disinterested through distractions, becomes satisfied with a certain depth of knowing, gets confused through the multiplicity of appearances or remains afraid of deeper levels of truth. Thus one keeps wavering away from one object to another, without penetrating the appearances. Bewilderment can also be in relation to the mental objects of concepts, when one is unable to penetrate into the deeper layers of understanding.

The affliction of pride (māna) is related to the aggregate of feeling. Pride is an ego-centred approach where one looks for an enriching pleasurable sensation within the ego-boundary. One remains contented with ego-centric pleasures and fails to develop an appreciation of the interdependence of the entire sphere of experience. Attempts to enrich the pleasurable feeling within the ego-boundary as an isolate—without an overall enrichment of the entire sphere of experience—are not sustainable due to its interdependent nature. Intoxication (mada) is a related affliction, where one is overwhelmed with pleasure and remains too complacent to produce conditions for the sustenance of that pleasure.

The aggregate of perception has its associated affliction as attachment (rāga). In Buddhist terminology, attachment is differentiated from love and likeness. Attachment is the clinging to an object of experience with an exaggerated perception of its qualities. While focusing on a quality of the object, if one fails to discern the numerous supporting conditions that bring about its attractiveness, one mistakenly clings to the object as if it possesses the quality from its own side. One also fails to see the many alternate conditions that would have made the same object repulsive. This leads to clinging to the object for what it is not. One cultivates undue expectations and thus undergoes suffering due to attachment.

The root affliction of jealousy (īrṣya) is associated with the aggregate of formation. It arises as the result of aggressive pushes of karmically driven actions. With the mistaken notions of ego-boundary the person begins to compare the immediate results of actions with those of others, leading to jealousy. Thus the person loses focus on the basic intent behind the action, that is, the intent to move away from suffering towards happiness. It also leads to competitiveness (mātsarya) as the focus shifts to comparison of narrowly created concepts of results instead of genuine happiness. Thus one constructs greater suffering through narrow-sighted actions.

The affliction of hatred (dveṣa) is associated with the aggregate of vijñāna. Hatred is the aggravation of mental turbulences that distorts and clouds the faculty of knowing. This is the result of the perturbed nature of contextual knowing (vijñāna), undergoing turbulent changes in its context. When the ego-identity is threatened in the face of an experience, the attempt to protect that identity arises strongly. It leads to unwholesome action and suffering. An unperturbed knowing may be compared with the surface of a still pond that reflects objects like a mirror. If a stone falls into the still pond, ripples appear at the surface and the sediments float up, turning the water muddy. The perturbed pond reflects the objects with distortion and lack of clarity along with added colours. Similar distortions happen to the process of knowing, when inflicted with hatred.

Buddhist psychology categorizes all ordinary modes of existence with their gross afflictions, into a psychological realm called the desire realm (kāma-dhātu—sphere of experience of desires). It is possible to cultivate states free of such gross afflictions through one-pointed meditation that calms the mind. However, such states of meditative absorption (samādhi) do not irreversibly transform the mental continuum. It still remains a fertile ground for afflictions which arise once the person comes out of the meditative absorption. The psychological realms corresponding to these states of samādhi are the form-realm (rūpa-dhātu—sphere of experience of forms free from gross projections) and the formless-realm (arūpa-dhātu—sphere of experience devoid of forms).

The desire realm is further classified into six sub-realms of psychological traits, based on relative dominance of one or the other affliction. One way of understanding the sub-realms is to consider them as six personality types among humans. In this categorization, the ordinary human psyche with a more or less balanced mixture of the five afflictions is one of the types. When any one of the afflictions dominates strongly over the others, the person belongs to the other five types. Over time, one could change the habitual tendencies and drift from one type to another. However, these variations are limited because of the stability provided by the all-ground of bodily vāsana.

A grosser shift in the psychological attitude comes up during rebirth. The continuum of a person during rebirth can undergo drastic changes in the way one relates to the world. This is because the stability provided by the all-ground of bodily vāsana is affected during death. The re-structuring of the all-ground of bodily vāsana happens in accordance with the psychological type acquired through the specific mixture of the five afflictions. This can lead the mental continuum to a sphere of experience completely different from human experience. The Buddhist scriptures mention five other sub-realms of being, namely, sura-loka, asura-loka, animal-realm (paśu-loka), preta-loka and naraka-loka in addition to human-realm (nara-loka). These correspond to the aggravated levels of pride, jealousy, bewilderment, attachment and hatred respectively. These depict the many different ways in which a person (a sentient being18) can bring-forth and relate to the world. These realms are experiences of the same sphere of reality with differing vāsanas and karmic tendencies of the beings.

The ālaya provides an ever-changing, but stable context for a person to relate to the world consistently in one of these realms. The defiled mentality and functional consciousnesses work in tandem with ālaya-vijñāna to provide this stability, by concretizing the sphere of experience. This stability is disturbed during death. The structure of ālaya and the eight collections dissolves during the process of dying, resulting in the dissolution of the structure of experience. The experiential states in the intermediate state between death and rebirth are narrated by Guru Padmasambhava (Trans. 1975). This corresponds to the process of the restructuring of the ālaya and the eight collections; and thus the emergence of a new structure of experience for the continuum of the person. The defiled mentality, with its clinging to the idea of self, plays a vital role in the process of rebirth. The defiled mentality undergoes a struggle to re-establish one’s identity. This struggle leads to an identification of the self with certain experiences that arise in the person’s continuum. This leads to the process of concretization and re-stabilization of the ālaya centred around such experiences. This centring is usually by habitual identification, rather than through any conscious choice. This process has a striking similarity in its dynamics with the concept of attractors in the theory of non-linear dynamics.

Psychology of transformation

The models of personality introduced above, can be applied in studying the psychology of transformation. Distinctions between the subtler experiential states of samādhi, liberation (vimukti), stages on the path to full awakening (saṃbodhi), etc., can be understood with the help of these models. Buddhism does not consider samādhi states as liberation from suffering, because these do not result in the irreversible transformation of the basis of suffering. Such a transformation is possible only through cultivating insight (prajñā) about the actual mode of existence of a person.

A person accesses the states of meditative absorption (samādhi) through subduing the five afflictions and cultivating the mental episodes of one-pointed concentration (ekāgratā). Eight major levels of samādhi states are identified, of which the first four are categorized as form-realm and the remaining as formless-realm. The Surangama-samādhi-sūtra is one of the sources with detailed descriptions of these realms and their sub-realms (Surangama-samādhi-sūtra, 2003). In summary, the form-realm presents the experience of vivid appearances of ephemeral forms with reducing levels of grasping, and an absence of explicit suffering.19 Ālaya-vijñāna becomes the dominant level of consciousness as the person progresses through various form-realms. The functional consciousnesses and the ālaya are secondary.

In the formless-realm states, ālaya-vijñāna and the functional consciousnesses tend to become increasingly dormant and ālaya dominates. In these states, distinctions and comprehension weaken. The experiences are like a vast undifferentiated space (ākāśa-ananta-āyatana), like a vast consciousness devoid of even the objective perception of space (vijñāna-ananta-āyatana), a perception of the lack of any perceivable phenomena (akincana-āyatana) and a complete subsiding of consciousness as ‘neither perception, nor non-perception’ (naiva-saṃjñā na-asaṃjña-āyatanam). In the last of the above, ālaya-vijñāna and the functional consciousnesses are completely dormant, while the person continues with all the vāsana and karmic tendencies dormant and intact in the ālaya. In Buddhism, the formless states are not regarded as desired results of spiritual practice. They lack both the omniscient quality of the enlightened state and the limited distinctions of ordinary beings. As the functional consciousnesses that help in getting down to specific aspects are dormant, cultivating insight is difficult in formless realm.

One who is liberated from suffering is called an Arhat. One progresses to the state of Arhat through the union of insight meditation (vipaśyana) and calm-abiding (samatā), by cultivating wisdom regarding the true nature of a person—anātma. An Arhat’s ālaya-vijñāna undergoes a level of irreversible transformation that no more supports the sprouting of defiled mentality (kḷṣṭa-manas). The accomplishment is irreversible, since a mental continuum ripened with wisdom does not provide a suitable condition for the arousal of ignorance (avidyā). In the light of wisdom of anātma, an Arhat is no more pushed around by the winds of karma. This is to be contrasted with the reminiscent effect of samādhi that continues after meditation, but fades away over time. Though an Arhat has achieved freedom from the veil of afflictions (kleśāvaraṇa), the veil of knowables (jñeyāvaraṇa) is still present. Thus an Arhat’s sphere of experience is still limited.

A person (Bodhisattva) on the path to complete awakening (saṃbodhi) needs to remove the veil of knowables in addition to veil of afflictions. Removal of all the stains of vāsana is essential for this. This can be achieved only through working with the projections of functional consciousness to actively modify vāsana. Thus the path of progress of a Bodhisattva is different from that of an Arhat. It requires compassionate engagement (upāya) with the world along with insight (prajñā) into the true nature of all phenomena. These two necessarily need to go hand-in-hand, since the realization of subtler levels of interdependence and enriched levels of compassion through post-meditational periods, and the realization of deeper levels of emptiness through meditation, support each other. Through gradual coalescing of meditative and post-meditative experiences, one completely wipes out stains of vāsana. This results in the irreversible abandonment of ālaya that structures experiences through past habits, and in a direct experience of truth ‘as it is’. Then there is wisdom co-emergent with every sprout of experience. The eight-fold collection of the ordinary personality transforms into the pristine wisdom that is ever-fresh. Detailed descriptions of the stages on the path to liberation and complete awakening, and their relations with the models of personality, as described above, can be found in scriptures such as the Abhisamayālaṃkāra and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra.

Going beyond ‘confusion’

The absence of recognition of the truth ‘as it is’, leads to the ‘confusion’ (bhrānti—the cognitive error) of seeing truth from a perspective—distorting and concretizing certain aspects, failing to see the rest, imputing layers of concepts, etc. The colouring of the sphere of experience is the first level of embodiment or grounding of awareness—in the form of ālaya. This is also the beginning of ‘confusion’. The grounded perspective of a person does not remain the same over time. It undergoes change within a limited scope within a life-span, and restructures significantly between death and rebirth. The suffering and limited pleasures one undergoes are the result of this confusion. Confusion is the only basis for suffering. However, the ultimate nature of confusion is none other than that of awareness. It is merely a distortion of awareness resulting from the lack of recognition of the truth ‘as it is’.

When one progresses in the path by working to eliminate the veils (kleśāvaraṇa and jñeyāvaraṇa), one recognizes the true nature of reality. Ālaya loses its support through this recognition (because avidyā is its necessary support). Aspects of pristine wisdom (jñāna) shine forth after this recognition. In the absence of conditioning through past experiences in the form of vāsana and karmic tendencies, this pristine wisdom is an ever-fresh awareness comprehending truth ‘as it is’. There is nothing essentially pure and impure, except for confused perspectives making such distinctions through exaggerations. The five aggregates, the five root afflictions and the eight-fold collection are distorted perspectives to pristine wisdom. The five inseparable aspects of pristine wisdom are:

  1. Pristine wisdom of discrimination (pratyavekṣaṇa jñāna),
  2. Pristine wisdom that is mirror-like (ādarśa jñāna),
  3. Pristine wisdom of equality (samatā jñāna),
  4. Pristine wisdom of all-accomplishment (kṛtyānuṣṭḥāna jñāna), and
  5. Pristine wisdom of the void sphere of reality (dharmadhātu jñāna).

The ‘pristine wisdom of discrimination’ differentiates and understands all details of phenomena. It engages with the entire sphere of experience to distinguish details. It is the capability behind the aggregate of perception. In the absence of the confusion of grounded perspectives, the power of attachment is transformed into its purified form as correct discernment, through unbiased engagement without exclusions and exaggerations. Thus the aggregate of imputed perceptions dissolves in this pristine wisdom.

The ‘pristine wisdom that is mirror-like’ reflects the void sphere of reality (dharmadhātu) in its fullness, without getting perturbed into disturbing emotional states (through karmic tendencies) and habitual colouring (through vāsana). This is the aspect of unwavering clarity. This is the capability behind the aggregate of vijñāna. The grounded context that formulates vijñāna (qualified knowing) dissolves by the recognition free from confusion. The power that drives the affliction of hatred is transformed into its purified form as the power for unperturbed clear experience.

The ‘pristine wisdom of equality’ is the wisdom sensing the happiness and suffering of all beings with one-taste, transcending beyond the ego-centric feelings of suffering and limited pleasures. Due to the absence of confused identities with suffering and pleasure, this leads to an even-minded quality of compassionate all-rounded enrichment. The aggregate of feeling dissolves into the realization of this pristine wisdom. The power that drives the affliction of pride (māna), and the ego-clinging nature of enriching one’s happiness, is transformed into an all-enriching attitude.

The ‘pristine wisdom of all-accomplishment’ is the creative wisdom of a fully awakened being. It represents the power for spontaneous accomplishments (anabhoga) instead of being bound to karma-driven actions. With the dawn of recognition, the aggregate of formation dissolves into this naturally accomplishing wisdom. The power that drives the afflictions of jealousy and competitiveness is released from its confused journey of aggression into that of effortless accomplishment.

The ‘pristine wisdom of the void sphere of reality’ is the experience of truth ‘as it is’. The confused perspectives lead from this wisdom to concretized aspects as the aggregate of form. It is the same power of this wisdom that drives the affliction of bewilderment, when one diverts from the deeper investigation of the nature of truth, into confused identification with appearances. The comprehension of certain unchanging patterns within the ever-changing flux of appearances results in seemingly permanent forms. If one perfectly transcends bewilderment with insight (prajñā) and one-pointed concentration, one cuts through all appearances into the true nature of reality.

Similarly, the eight-fold collection of ālaya-vijñāna, and so forth, are confused presentations of pristine wisdom. The sense consciousnesses with its power to relate to the world through karma-driven projections are nothing but the power of the pristine wisdom of all-accomplishment, applied within the limited perspective of grounded cognition. The mental consciousness, with its power to conceptually analyse its object, is the distortion of the pristine wisdom of discrimination operating within the constraints of grounded perspectives. The defiled mentality with its subjective formulations is the confused display of the power behind the pristine wisdom of equality, trying to set a limited scope for moving from suffering to happiness. The ālaya-vijñāna is the confused display of luminous clarity of the mirror-like pristine wisdom, being coloured and perturbed by experiences of the past. The ālaya itself is the confused colouring of the pristine wisdom of the void sphere of reality, displaying forth as the limited sphere of experience.

On recognizing the true nature, confusion ceases. Various dimensions of awareness-potentials and capabilities are amalgamated into the ever fresh display of pristine wisdom of complete awakening. Nothing is abandoned—neither the experience of distinctions, nor the experience of wholeness; neither the experience of sensation, nor the creative potential of action. All these are coalesced into inseparable aspects of omniscient wisdom in the void sphere of reality. Going beyond ‘confusion’ (bhrānti), through developing the irreversible foundation of insight (prajñā), one transcends beyond the ordinary to this perfect and completely awakened state.


The three models presented above cover different ways of analyzing personality—in terms of the categories of experiences, the dynamics of mental continuum, and the context and structure of experiences. The five dimensions of capabilities show how all these models are connected together, and how the same faculties can manifest either as the distorted demonstrations of afflictions or as the purified presence of pristine wisdom. It reveals the ineffable potential pent up in every being, which can be unleashed to its spontaneous perfection by developing recognition. This recognition has to be cultivated through the focused application of method (upāya) and wisdom (prajñā) in its initial stages, and through spontaneous perfection of the inseparability of method and wisdom in its advanced stages. Buddhist psychology primarily addresses how to progress systematically from the ordinary state of being into the state of perfect recognition.

Elements from Buddhist psychology can also be studied and utilized for application in other facets of psychology. The network model of mental continuum and the view of Madhyamaka have already found their places in the research topics of psychology and cognitive science. The rest of the models remain largely untapped. The model of eight-fold collection presents a good psychological description of the process of sleeping, dreaming and dying. This can potentially be studied in correlation with scientific observations. This model also provides a suitable framework to study the psychology of transformation, and to map and correlate the experiences of practitioners from various spiritual traditions. The five dimensions of capability can provide a useful template for studying psychological afflictions in the scientific context. This would help in root-cause analysis of various psychological disorders, and in integrating that knowledge for the holistic transformation of a person.


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