- Contexts and Dialogue: Yogācāra Buddhism and Modern Psychology on the Subliminal Mind, and: Sciousness
It has become popular to view Buddhist concepts as nothing more than self-help techniques. The tradition, stripped of religious content, is now used to foster human growth. Given such interests, psychological comparisons have become prevalent and Buddha has been understood as the first to explore the ego. This is a review of two books—Jiang’s Contexts and Dialogue and Bricklin’s Sciousness—approaching such developments from different directions. In Contexts and Dialogue, Tao Jiang worries that jumping into comparison too hastily risks losing original meanings when words are made relative to whatever structure in which they are placed. The original contexts of Yogācāra Buddhism and modern psychology both need to be understood in order to reveal existing presuppositions about how the two can be brought together. Jonathan Bricklin’s Sciousness has more hope for comparative work because he believes he has found an untapped resource for comparison in the theory of sciousness developed by William James (1842–1910). Pragmatic philosophy has yet to be compared with Buddhist traditions in depth, even though both favor practical solutions to problems over merely theoretical pondering.
Jiang is a specialist in comparative philosophy. His method is to deconstruct current comparisons between different systems by recovering the original meanings of their different terminologies in their original context and in relation to the particular problems each system was addressing. Comparison can then be reconstructed out of these original contexts so that genuine similarities and differences can emerge. Regarding Yogācāra thought, the systematic theory of mind /consciousness, ālayavijñāna (“storehouse consciousness”) is at its center. This “storehouse of consciousness” is a subliminal reservoir for memories and habits that has made a correlation with the psychological unconscious tempting (pp. 9–10). However, rather than ask whether ālayavijñāna can serve the needs of modern psychology, Jiang first explores what problem it was originally meant to address. He achieves this goal by examining the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist work Cheng Weishi Lun (Discourse on the Perfection of Consciousness-only) of the Buddhist monk pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, ca. 600–664). Only when this journey is complete does Jiang compare [End Page 201] ālayavijñāna to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud (1856 –1939) and Carl Jung (1875–1961). The result Jiang argues for is that notions of transcendence and immanence are emphasized differently in the three theories of consciousness offered by Xuanzang, Freud, and Jung.
Yogācārins were dealing with deep meditative states in which consciousness is supposed to cease and with the problem of how meditators could arise from such meditative states without violating the doctrine of anātman (“no-self ”). What supports the meditator in these states if no enduring substantive self exists? How can there be identity and change without substantial reification? On the other hand, how can impermanent existence account for the seeming continuity of the world we experience?
The answer given by Xuanzang is that an empirical self can be embraced while a metaphysical one is rejected. However, without such a metaphysical self, the question of “whose” arises (p. 27). Whose consciousness of continuous experience is being dealt with if not that of a metaphysical self? The radical solution offered is that ālayavijñāna contains subliminal seeds that produce continuity between successive dharma moments. This solution must be possible without violating the simultaneity of cause and effect. Thus, Xuanzang spoke of dharmas as actual and bījas, seeds of the potential for production, as only potential (p. 60). Perishing dharmas are maintained by the seeds to be manifested in the future and substantive entities are not introduced because seeds are only potential (p. 42). The result is that after deep meditative states when mental activities halt, the mind can emerge from the seeds of mental activity without needing antecedent actual mental activity.