What is the Unconscious in Buddhism?

In examining the Buddhist view of the unconscious we might first look at our most prevalent contemporary notions of this term. Sigmund Freud is the originator of our modern and widely held definition of the unconscious. Freud viewed the unconscious as being made up of everything we repress – traumas, anger, sexual frustration, the fear of death, etc. Carl Jung, Freud’s protégé and disciple, eventually broke with his mentor on a number of issues, including his conception of the unconscious. For Jung the unconscious had two levels, one similar to Freud’s and another a radical departure. This latter understanding Jung called the collective unconscious.

DSC_7567For Jung, the collective unconscious is common to all humanity, a shared storehouse holding latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past. Jung held that we were born into these predispositions, “The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image.” These “virtual images” constellated into distinct subsystems of the personality, which he famously called archetypes. It is through encountering archetypes that human beings begin to understand the various complexes they are subject to, as well as discover the individuation we are capable of (in individuation the personal and collective unconscious are brought into consciousness, a transformation process necessary for the integration of the psyche and experience of wholeness).

Freud’s and Jung’s notions of the unconscious have shaken the historical foundations of identity and a brought a humbling of the supremacy of ego. Our experience is not only something we cannot control, but something we can barely discern.

What parallels to these usages of the unconscious do we find in Buddhism? What is the unconscious in Buddhism?

A notion similar to our Western understanding of the unconscious arose in India approximately 1,700 years ago and was called the alaya-vijnana. Alaya means “substratum” or “storehouse” and vijnana means “consciousness” (as in the fifth skanda – see What is Karma – Part 2). The storehouse consciousness was part of the philosophy of the Yogacharya or “mind-only” school of Mahayana Buddhism. In this school, mind-only does not mean everything, such as rocks and trees, is mind, but that all human experience is constructed by the mind.

The alaya-vijnana is a concept or discovery that arose to account for the workings of karma (see What is Karma – Part I and Part II), and to counter a major criticism of Buddhist doctrine posited by various Hindu schools and critics. They argued: Without a “self” how was it possible for a human being to experience rebirth? In addition, they asked: If human life is only a stream of mental events without any substantive connection between them, what accounts for memory? The answer was the existence of a storehouse-consciousness, a repository of karmic volition and a vehicle to make memory possible. As Traleg Rinpoche put it, “Latently present, at an unconscious level of consciousness, so to speak, is a repository of all our karmic traces and dispositions.”
Karma: What is is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters (Shambhala Publications, 2015, page 61)


The Yogacharins differentiated the alaya-vijnana from a soul precisely because a soul by definition does not change, whereas the storehouse-consciousness not only changes but can be transformed. The alaya-vijnana accounts for the “continuity of consciousness” during life and after death, and is also the reason that we can affect and alter our karmic dispositions. In this regard it is extremely good news. Karma is not something that rigidly predetermines our future but rather something fluid, in flux, changeable. We can alter our karma and our future by the “seeds” we plant through our intentions and actions. A principle tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, for instance, is that through the gentleness and appreciation that arises through mindfulness we can “plant good seeds” in our storehouse-consciousness.

That the alaya-vijnana is a storehouse for all of our actions differentiates it from the conventional Western notion of the unconscious, considered something primarily composed of repressed experience. At the same time, Freud’s unconscious and Jung’s collective unconscious are sources of transformation — through dreams and other analytic work — and thus bear a similarity to the storehouse-consciousness.

Like the Western unconscious, the alaya-vijnana is a subjective phenomenon that produces a unique experience for everyone, one in which we seldom experience the true nature of reality. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The source of our perception, our way of seeing, lies in our store consciousness. If ten people look at a cloud, there will be ten different perceptions of it. Whether it is perceived as a dog, a hammer, or a coat depends on our mind — our sadness, our memories, our anger. Our perceptions carry with them all the errors of subjectivity.
– The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998, p. 50)

The alaya-vijnana not only carries all our memories and karmic traces, it is also, according to the Yogacharins, the “seat” of Buddha Nature, of who we fundamentally are. Buddha nature is not something we have but what we are. Because we are fundamentally Buddhas is why we can achieve Buddhahood. Although we typically interpret the alaya-vijnana as a “self,” it is a self that is not real. Whereas Buddha nature is awareness, something unchanging, unborn and fundamentally real. The journey of meditation is to see through the false self (the five skandas as an ego process) and to glimpse our Buddha nature. As these glimpses grow, so does our ability to shape the storehouse-consciousness. This is the nature of the path, the fourth Noble Truth of the Buddha.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

What is Karma? (Part 2)

The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed. The word has its roots in the ancient Vedic teachings of India and concepts derived from karma have found their way into Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism and Buddhism. In studying the Buddhist meaning of karma it is appropriate to cite its Hindu origins, since the Buddha drew from and reformed Hinduism, not just in the notion of no abiding or eternal self – anatman – but in the doctrine of karma (and many other concepts and principles).

In writing about karma, I will cite from – and highly recommend – Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche’s excellent book, Karma: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters, which, among other things, documents the Buddha’s view of karma. For instance, the Buddha accepted one of the prevailing beliefs of his time that the human being was a form composed of air, fire, water, earth and space (these were of course metaphors for our body/mind qualities). However, in his “five skanda” teachings, the Buddha added to this concept of body/mind, stating the human experience consisted not just of form, but of feelings, perceptions, concepts and consciousness.

DSC_1055Skanda (Sanskrit) means “multitude, quantity, aggregate” – and is sometimes translated simply as “heap.” The five skandas are a definition of human nature, that we are creatures that perceive, have thoughts and feelings, form concepts, etc. But, crucially, in no way are the skandas seen as solid entities or as enduring. These aggregates only create a semblance of an entity. Not only do they not endure beyond death, they didn’t even endure moment to moment. They are like the elements that make up a cloud: water vapor, dust and pollen, the atmosphere and sunlight. A cloud is apparent yet ephemeral — and a human being is also. Traleg Rinpoche writes:

“This was a completely new idea, as until then people had thought of the individual as a unitary entity, based on the dualistic philosophy of a substance standing apart from the mind/body a belief in some kind of principle, like jiva (the immortal essence of a living being) or soul.”

Based on his own experience, the Buddha refuted the notion of a jiva that existed side-by-side with the body. He stated that this soul not only could not be found, but holding on to the concept confused us and hindered self-realization. Buddha proposed, as Traleg Rinpoche writes, that “the best way to see our nature was to see it made up of many elements” and also proposed that we simply “pay attention to ourselves” in order to discover our true nature. In Buddhism, the preeminent method for paying attention is, of course, meditation.

In the observations we make in meditation, we discover a most prominent and greatly magnified feature of our existence: that it is largely habitual, that our daily life consists of habits of perceiving, habits of behaving, habits of thinking. The skandas accurately model our habitual experience since each skanda is itself a habit (for instance, the skanda of feeling responds to the “external” world in the most limited and habitual of ways: grasping it, avoiding it or ignoring it).

DSC_1957Our habits, whether “good” or “bad” form the basis of our karmic experience, they influence our present state of being and form the overriding potentialities of our future existence, including rebirth. Quite simply, our future — including future lives — is the result of our habitual volitional action. To believe in — and discover first-hand — this proposition of karma can be quite disturbing. “What about all those insects I killed as a child? we might wonder. Not to mention remembering the people we’ve harmed (even however subtly), the addictions we have, the sloth we are prone to. Most of us are not overly confident of a favorable rebirth.

But there is extremely good news in the Buddha’s notion of karma. Although our present experience is largely determined by our past habits, the future is far from predetermined. Our future also depends on the very real free will that we can wield in the present moment. Although we might operate habitually, it is precisely because our experience (1) lacks an essence, (2) is impermanent and (3) is interdependent (the definitions of anatman) that we can readily influence our character and fate. It’s a question of closely examining our habits, it’s a question of glimpsing the alternative, it’s a question of undoing the conventions of our own psyche. As Paul Klee said, “Genius is the error in the system.”

It is noteworthy that people who have survived life-threatening accidents and near-death experiences often seem to awaken — at least for a while — into a far less habitual experience of life. The old conventions of taking life for granted are shattered; impermanence is seen in all its vividness and one feels the joyous interdependence of life. Even the lack of an abiding self might be glimpsed. Meditation is a tool that brings similar gifts into consciousness. Daily practice of meditation creates gaps in our habits and is a first step in breaking karmic habituality. We can also take advantage of all the small and usually harmless accidents that befall us in daily life. Forgetting our passport when we’ve already left for the airport, suddenly fighting with our wife or husband or spilling coffee on our shirt each produce small moments of loss and panic that can be capitalized on if we use mindfulness to avoid our habitual responses. Each of these types of events can be an awake-death experience. Each of these experiences can be used to shape our future. Each can become a moment of genius.


Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

A Few Great Moments with Pema Chödrön

Reflecting on Pema Chödrön’s 80th birthday, I thought I would share a few inspiring, heart-opening teachings. I was fortunate to do a Dathun (month-long sit) in mostly silence with Pema in the Winter of 1991, with a two dozen students. I never felt the month was long since we were joined by a few monastics who were preparing for a three-year retreat.

Pema taught from Atisha’s lojong (“mind training”) slogans based on the bookicon The Great Path of Awakening by the 19th century Tibetan Teacher Jamgön Kongtrül the Great.

“When I first read the lojong (“mind training”) I was struck by their unusual message that we can use our difficulties and problems to awaken our hearts. Rather than seeing the unwanted aspects of life as obstacles, Jamgön Kongtrül presented them as the raw material necessary for awakening genuine uncontrived compassion.”  – Pema Chödrön

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Below, sharing a few videos from Pema that I hope you will enjoy and benefit from.

Understanding Hard Times

The path of awakening has to include all of our experiences—both pleasurable and painful. In the face of adversity, can we keep from losing heart and instead use it to strengthen our compassion? And when life is going well, is it okay for us just to enjoy it? In this clip, Pema Chödrön expands on ancient wisdom for using the vicissitudes of life to help ourselves and develop compassion for others.

Aspiring to Open-Heartedness

The path of the bodhisattva presents us with many challenging ideals—for example, we’re encouraged to feel compassion for anyone who’s harmed us. In this clip, Pema Chödrön shares how we can be kind to ourselves as we practice opening our hearts at the very moment we feel least inclined to do so.

On Never Losing Heart

The path of awakening has to include all of our experiences—both pleasurable and painful. In the face of adversity, can we keep from losing heart and instead use it to strengthen our compassion? And when life is going well, is it okay for us just to enjoy it? In this clip, Pema Chödrön expands on ancient wisdom for using the vicissitudes of life to help ourselves and develop compassion for others.

On Being Present with Yourself

And three more of my very favorites:


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What is the Middle Way?

What is the middle way?

Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings. – Jalal ad-Din  Rumi

In the quote above, Rumi illustrates DSC_1910a nature-based view of existence free from extremes, a kind of Taoist liberation discovered to be balanced and within us. A kind of middle way. Taoism itself is sometimes called the “middle way” and so is Buddhism. Both traditions, unlike the Judeo-Christian worlds of the Middle East, are non-theistic. They neither attempt to find a path toward God nor claim to follow commandments She might have set forth, but instead find their liberation in the inherently personal way-seeking practices of meditation or qigong, and in philosophies eminently sensible to individual study and application.

As for Buddhism, the fundamental elements of the middle way are present in the methods by which the Buddha gradually discovered it. Living the palace life of hedonistic pleasure sheltered from pain, young Siddhartha, in order to seek greater meaning, fled from his privileges and took up various practices of the ascetics of his time; fasting and other deprivations. Eventually he found that the practices of self-denial only led to greater duality – a war against the senses – and confinement. Starved and weakened from fasting, in the moment a young girl gave the Buddha milk to drink he revived into his first middle way revelation: that both hedonism and self-mortification were seductive but do not lead to liberation.

From this initial discovery, the middle way teachings evolved through the Buddha’s own sermons as well as countless discourses that followed his over the centuries. The most central (no pun intended) of all middle way teachings concerns the opposing views of eternalism, which deems everything to have a true meaning and nihilism, that nothing means anything. Both views possess compelling arguments and everyone, at times, falls subject to them. Transcending them is daunting since they form the unconscious conceptual structures of our world view. For instance, the conquistadors of Christian Spain had little qualms enslaving or murdering the inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia. Belief systems enabled them to be both theistic, holding convictions that non-Christians did not possess souls, as well as nihilistic, believing that it was of no consequence to slaughter the peoples of the New World.

Emerging from such diverse influences as the industrial revolution,Ocean stone Nietzsche’s death of God, The Holocaust, the aesthetics of post-modernism, the H bomb and environmental catastrophes, our own epoch is characterized by a pervasive and pessimistic nihilism. Heidegger’s famous quote, “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods,” proclaims how, as we’ve taken up the beliefs of scientific materialism, we’ve lost our experience in the unseen or invisible world. We have lost conviction in the magical dimensions of the world: shamanism, the angelic realms, the gods as the Greeks knew them, etc.

I once asked the late Buddhist master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche about the pervasiveness of nihilism, even among Buddhists:

Question: The two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that there is a lot of experience of nihilism in the West. This manifests as a diminished sense of this of co-participatory relationship with the world at large, and of the unseen world. What are your thoughts on this?

Traleg Rinpoche: I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism – which even people like Nagarjuna and Shantideva were very strong on – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings – if we don’t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.

Eternalism is also pervasive in modern life. This takes the form and the perennial belief that we will not die, the subtle sense that we have an unlimited future. This internalized belief causes us to put any kind of discipline into the future, that we will finally begin meditation in earnest when we retire, or when we’ve built a beautiful shrine room in our back yard. In terms of artistic discipline, Charles Bukowski nailed this in a poem written to a woman who will begin creating as soon as she moves into her new-found studio with lots of “space and light”:

baby, air and light and time and spaceFlag
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Another highly useful aspect of the middle way are teachings that apply to meditation practice itself. Chogyam Trungpa described it as “not too tight, not too loose.” What this means is easy to understand though not always easy to recognize in one’s own practice, since, like eternalism and nihilism, each of us tends to fall into one of the extremes, making it difficult to see our own practice with fidelity. “Not too tight” means not too much effort, an excess of which brings tension rather than ease, self-consciousness rather than freedom from small self. “Not too loose” means enough exertion to stay awake, to not be constantly drifting into discursive thought, to not become simply dull.

In closing, we might turn to the words of the Buddha himself: “The middle path, O Bhikkus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by the Tathagata – a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to nirvana.”


Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

What is Karma? (Part 1)

It is impossible to build one’s own happiness on the unhappiness of others. This perspective is at the heart of Buddhist teachings.
Daisaku Ikeda

Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind there is perception. Perception alone will solve all our problems.
Bruce Lee

Karma, from Sanskrit, is now a household name, so to speak, as commonplace in usage as Super Bowl or Barack Obama – though it first entered English, surprisingly, less than 200 year ago (1827). The word has been absorbed into our psyches and has proliferated so universally that nearly everyone has something to say about it. We seemingly instinctively know what it means… and so did Confucius, who wrote, “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.” Kurt Cobain tried to nail it, too: “If you’re really a mean person you’re going to come back as a fly and eat poop.”

Merriam-Webster says karma is “the force generated by a person’s Sandalsactions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.” This definition comes close to what many people think karma is. Buddhism, though not necessarily requiring its adherents to believe in transmigration, does posit a sophisticated and lucid understanding of the transmigration or rebirth process, though, the process is not considered something that happens only at death. Rebirth occurs moment to moment. Our “next existence” – whether upon actual death or in the moment a love affair ends – is the result of the momentum of our ways-of-being that preceded it.

What are the “ethical consequences” that determine our rebirth? They fall into two broad categories, those of conduct and those of “pure perception.” The first is what everyone more or less agrees upon, that good deeds lead to less pain for self and other, while negative deeds lead to the opposite. But there are endless subtleties and even mysteries to the issues of conduct. For instance, should we strive to achieve good deeds or concentrate on refraining from negative ones, or both? The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, in his excellent book Karma, states that our first focus should be to refrain from the negative, but that we should be realistic in our efforts:

“The idea, simply enough, is that it is more helpful to focus on what we can achieve rather than struggle unprofitably with a problem that overwhelms us and will in itself become more burdensome if handled incorrectly.”

In other words, if we are not realistic in our aspirations to refrain from negative acts we will only end of blaming ourselves for our failure to become better (see also Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism). What have we achieved then? Curiously, as Traleg Rinpoche goes on to say, “Letting go of the things we cannot immediately attain itself creates very positive karma.” What is the nature of this “very positive karma”? It is maitri or loving kindness to oneself… which of course affects others.

There is another notion of working with karma, which is how to not create karma at all. From the Buddhist perspective, even good karma creates the momentum of rebirth (and in fact can lead to very difficult states of being, such as the “god realm,” where one becomes unconsciously enmeshed in ultimately transient spiritual pleasures; when the spell breaks the “fall” from the god realm is severely painful). This understanding of karma is rooted in the experience of meditation itself.

DSC_1836In meditation we begin to see that thoughts fall into three categories: thoughts of the past, the present and the future. In daily life, these thoughts proliferate as the discursive web we find ourselves believing. In deeply unconscious and habitual ways, we project the past onto the present…and thus determine our future. As Chogyam Trungpa said, “The memory of the past renews the past in the present situation.” This constant renewal clouds our ability to recognize the nature of the present moment. To experience this bewildering ignorance is to be karmically entrapped.

From this perspective, this momentum, itself a flimsy creation or habit, can be penetrated through the training of meditative experience. This is the experience of nowness. Chogyam Trungpa described it this way:

“Nowness is what certain tantric teachings talk about as “the fourth moment” – a state which transcends past, present and future. So there’s no reference point at all: we are just simply being right there. We could just be open and straightforward. At this point the meditator sows no seeds of karma for a moment.”

One of the terms in Tibetan for meditation is gom, which means “familiarization.” The fourth moment is what the meditator has the potential of familiarizing herself with, gradually, day by day, each time she or he meditates (or has moments of “meditation in action” in daily life). Through the disciplines of refining our conduct and seeing nakedly into the fourth moment, we may potentially not only “solve all our problems” but also help alleviate the problems of others.

Read More: What is Karma (Part 2) “The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed…”

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.