Buddhism and the Unconscious
by John Stanley & David Loy
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.
Those who see into the Unconscious have their senses cleansed of defilements, are moving towards Buddha–wisdom, are known to be with Reality, in the Middle Path, in the ultimate truth itself. Those who see into the Unconscious are furnished at once with merits as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. They are able to create all kinds of things and embrace all things within themselves.
Shen-hui (as translated by D.T. Suzuki)
At the end of his life, C.G. Jung dictated to his secretary an extraordinary autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, whose first sentence we cite above. Earlier he had observed how human nature resembled the twin sons of Zeus and Leda: “We are that pair of Dioscuri, one of whom is mortal and the other immortal, and who, though always together, can never be made completely one… We should prefer to be always ‘I’ and nothing else.” Recent neurological studies into those ‘twin sons’ have been exploring Jung’s insight, leading to discoveries that have many important implications, including how we might understand traditional Buddhist teachings today.
Neuropsychology of the unconscious
Brain research over the last generation has confirmed the difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Our left cerebral hemisphere is the place where language is generated and received. It serves a linguistic consciousness with which we describe and think about the world. On the other side, our silent right brain hemisphere serves an unconscious awareness that cannot be coded in language. Non-verbal contemplative practices -- such as being quietly present in the natural world, ‘open presence’ meditation, tai chi chuan or yoga -- elicit sustained awareness rooted in the unconscious. We are fully aware of what is happening, within and around us. Yet such experiences cannot be put into (or directed by) words because they are served by modules for sensory awareness in the right hemisphere. Focussing attention in the present suspends the usual executive functions of the conscious mind, so that the resources of the unconscious may unfold.
Those resources—from intuitive reasoning to music, dance, imagery and healing—are rich indeed. Curiously, unconscious capacities of the right hemisphere are equally essential for praying and a sense of humor. Especially important for our survival and well-being (including our sense of beauty) is the capacity of the right hemisphere to ‘read’ and delight in the textures and patterns of the natural world. This predilection, which the late Theodore Roszak called the ecological unconscious, reflects our ancestry as hunter-gatherers, which remains an important part of our evolutionary heritage.
What is the Buddhist model of the unconscious?
Vasubandhu (4th century CE) was one of the six great commentators on the Buddha’s teachings, and co-founder of the Yogacara school. This major influence on the later Buddhist traditions of Zen, Dzogchen and Mahamudra describes eight types of consciousness. The first five are those of the eye, ear, body, nose and tongue, the sensory inputs to our neuro-linguistic ‘map of the world’. The sixth, called citta in Sanskrit, is the conceptualizing mind.
The seventh type of consciousness (manas in Sanskrit) is described by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh thus:
“It is the number one discriminator, whose speciality is to say ‘This is me. This is mine. This is not mine’. It creates belief in a self and distinguishes self from other.”
Manas usually keeps a tight grip upon the eighth type, alaya (the All-base or Storehouse consciousness). A key feature of the alaya is that it stores seeds of delusion and habitual reactive tendencies, which can manifest dynamically in manas consciousness. In contemporary terms, we could describe manas as the ‘self-module’, and alaya as the unconscious mind.
Buddhism describes a pathway of self-transformation, which includes an awakening to our true nature. Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as follows:
“Manas loses its grip on the store consciousness, and the store consciousness becomes the Wisdom of the Great Mirror that reflects everything in the universe.”
As Tang dynasty Zen master Shen-hui put it:
Those who see into the Unconscious have their senses cleansed of defilements, are moving towards Buddha–wisdom, are known to be with Reality and are in the Middle Path, in the ultimate truth itself.
The ‘enormous spiritual task’
Jung believed that we are a very young species, with an inflated sense of our own importance—and now experiencing the limits of our present evolutionary path, unable to evolve further through (linguistic) consciousness alone. He concluded: “The discovery of the unconscious means an enormous spiritual task, which must be accomplished if we wish to preserve our civilization.” (Letters I, 537)
Preserving civilization—indeed, our own species—has become the most pressing issue of the twenty-first century. Our technological powers and enormous population have made us the dominant animal, putting the thermostat of the Earth in our hands. Yet we seem unable to take responsibility for the situation we have created, and gamble distractedly with the future of life on Earth. Are we really a unique biological exception to the laws of nature? In his new book The Social Conquest of Earth, the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson describes ours as a “Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions”, in global denial as we lay waste to the biosphere. If we continue our present course, he anticipates that half of the Earth’s plant and animal species will become extinct by the end of this century or soon thereafter.
Does Wilson’s observation point to a spiritual identity crisis? What kind of breakthrough might guide the collective healing of our relationship with the Earth? Einstein remarked that a problem cannot be solved at the level at which it was created. He described the rational mind as a faithful servant and the intuitive mind as a sacred gift. The servant as ruler has brought our species to this juncture—and reconfiguring its relationship to the intuitive unconscious mind seems to have become a condition of our survival.
Of course, we need the faithful servant going forward, for numerous crucial tasks. Two of the highest importance are distinguishing scientific facts about ecology and climate from the propaganda of deceit and denial; and implementing breakthrough technologies for clean, renewable and efficient energy. But linguistic, mathematical and technological consciousness, no matter how dynamic their productions, need to be rooted in the guidance of unconscious awareness. In Buddhist terms, the alaya needs to be liberated from manas. The bigger picture requires the whole mind.
Through individual and collective belief in a narrow self-concept generated by the linguistic left brain, we have developed an unsustainable planetary culture preoccupied with dominating and exploiting the rest of the biosphere. That map of ‘progress’ no longer corresponds to the territory we are in. Indeed, we have driven ourselves into a wasteland, where the signs proclaim an evolutionary dead-end.
We cannot think our way out of this with linguistic consciousness alone. We must turn to the creative and ecological unconscious of the right hemisphere, to generate the paradigm shift we need to survive and thrive as a species.
First published for June 2012 on the Huffington Post