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  • The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought
  • Mark Siderits
The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. By William S. Waldron. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. Pp. xvi + 269. $90.00.

The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought by William S. Waldron is an examination of the origins of the Yogācāra concept of ālaya-vijñāna, or "storehouse-consciousness." Where orthodox Buddhist psychology speaks of six types of consciousness (one for each external sense modality, plus one for "inner sense" or manas), the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism posits an additional kind of consciousness to serve as the substratum of the seeds thought to be engendered by karma. This is sometimes seen as tantamount to admitting a self, a criticism the author seeks to rebut. His chief concern, however, is to show how this posit grew out of a set of problems inherited from pre-Yogācāra Abhidharma. He discusses the conception of consciousness that is to be found in early Buddhist sources, describes how orthodox Abhidharma sought to deal with a variety of mental continuities, and then traces the development of the notion of ālaya-vijñāna through the early Yogācāra texts Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, Yogācārabhūmi and Mahāyānasaṃgraha.

The story that the author tells is basically this. Early Buddhism explains suffering as derived from false belief in an enduring subject, the "I," where there is really just a multiplicity of ephemeral psychophysical factors in causal succession. Actions based [End Page 358] on this false belief lead to a further strengthening of those factors that perpetuate the belief, resulting in the round of rebirth. Abhidharma set about trying to catalog these factors and their multifarious causal connections. But it encountered a seemingly insuperable difficulty in trying to account for a variety of psychological continuities in terms of a model that lacks mental continuants. The Yogācāra posit of ālaya-vijñāna solves this difficulty by supplying a mental continuum that is not (ordinarily) accessible to introspection.

Yogācāra is best known, of course, for its denial of external objects (cittamātra), but that claim is largely ignored here. Instead the author focuses on continuities with earlier Abhidharma thought concerning the nature of the mental continuum. Waldron is no doubt correct to see the Yogācāra enterprise as itself a (Mahāyāna) form of Abhidharma. But while the concept of ālaya-vijñāna might perhaps be seen as growing out of Abhidharma controversies concerning how best to explain continuities in mental dispositions and karma, it at least facilitates an account of sensory experience that renders the external object superfluous and thus paves the way for subjective idealism. For ālaya-vijñāna becomes the receptacle for the seeds deposited by prior action the ripening of which results in sensory cognitions. Since the author claims (p. xiii) to be writing for a nonspecialist audience, it might have been useful to make this point at the outset rather than near the end of the study (p. 161 ). There is also some tension between Waldron's reading of the concept's origins and that of Schmithausen, and more might have been said on that score.

Waldron seems to take a sympathetic stance toward the defense of ālaya-vijñāna that he discerns in the texts. This is only to be expected given that the best hermeneutical strategy should involve substantial doses of interpretive charity. Still, greater critical distance might have led to a more useful discussion of the topic. For instance, a more probing investigation of the claim that only ālaya-vijñāna can explain karmic and mental-dispositional continuities might have yielded a deeper understanding of the overall view. The problem faced by Abhidharma theories is clear. One phenomenon that any theory of persons must accommodate is the intermittent recurrence of similar behaviors all of which seem traceable to an event at some remove in the past: having learned in my early childhood that fire is hot, from time to time I intentionally avoid...