Eight levels of Consciousness

One mindfulness practice is to be aware of what is coming through your sense gates. It is the awareness of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. We become more present to what is happening — the objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and thoughts. For each organ and object, there is a mind consciousness, which recognizes the object and allows us to think and react to it appropriately.

Interesting to note, the Buddhists add “mind” as a 6th sense gate with the corresponding object of thought and associated mind consciousness. Buddhists treat the mind as a muscle that excretes thoughts. I grew up with the idea that our mind and thoughts are in an elevated position — the mind as the leader. I remember a movie in fourth grade about the body. The mind sat at an executive desk in the front of the brain and controlled everything. Though that might be true in some senses, I have learned from my Buddhist life to allow the mind a lesser position. When the mind is not backed by a solid self, it is diminished. We can allow many types of “minds” to help decide what to do.

Concentration is learning how to settle the discriminative mind where you want it to be and allow it to connect to a larger consciousness. One can begin to “master” the mind through concentration. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts, one can direct the mind to settle on the dharma teachings or on silence. This ability to place the mind has alleviated a lot of unnecessary suffering in my life.

Here is a chart from the Yogachara teachings of the Eight levels of consciousness.

We have the 5 sense gates with their objects and consciousness and then, the added one, the 6th gate of mind/thought/mind consciousness. The Manas consciousness, the seventh one, is the consciousness that twists everything to form around a solid sense of self, which, in Buddhist understanding doesn’t exist. Our greed, anger and ignorance arise from Manas as it distorts our thoughts and perceptions around a fantasy of a “self”. The last consciousness is the Alaya Vijnana, the storehouse consciousness, which is the very deep storehouse of all our seeds. They can be positive or negative, individual or collective. Our practice is to water the most beneficial seeds and to pull out the weeds. We must allow our Manas consciousness to untwist.

I have used these ideas for many years in my Buddhist life. Now, what I’m excited about is what I discovered at the last sesshin. Through my study, I added the last two vertical columns, which I would like to present.

Eight consciousnesses
mind consciousness
Eye consciousness
All-performing wisdom
Ear consciousness
Same as above
Nose consciousness
Same as above
Tongue consciousness
Same as above
Body consciousness
Same as above
Mind consciousness
Observing wisdom
The insertion of the “I” and distorted perceptions
Equality wisdom
Alaya Vijnana
Storehouse consciousness
Bright mirror wisdom


On one level of practice, we practice getting out of our heads and into our senses. This is very important in order to be present to what is actually happening now. But there is also a stage of practice where we don’t notice our sense gates. In the Fukanzazengi, a fascicle in the Shobogenzo of Dogen’s, he writes “ blocked in resolute stability”. The word “ blocked” came forward in a new translation of the Fukanzazengi, and at first I didn’t like it. I didn’t want anything to be blocked as opposed to open. But lately when my mind is very still, I observe that I am blocked to my senses. Though they are present, I am not noticing them. My sense consciousness’ are quiet. No words, no perceptions and no consciousness.

The “mu” column comes from our study of the Prajna Paramita Sutras, the teaching of emptiness and corresponds to this “ blocked in resolute stability” . Mu means “no”, “negative”, or “without”. We read everyday in a Soto Zen Temple the Prajna Paramita Sutra – no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. Then we add the sense objects and we chant – no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no sensation, no thought. Finally the sutra also reads, though in most translations it is abbreviated and only reads, “…no mind consciousness.” But that “dot, dot, dot” is an abbreviation of no eye consciousness, no ear consciousness, no nose consciousness, no tongue consciousness, no body consciousness and no mind consciousness. From this, I added the column of “no’s”.

Continuing my study, I found in the Lankavatara Sutra which adds a development after you come out of “mu”, “no”, or emptiness. We return to a more enlightened activity in form. In post meditation experience, each of the consciousness can pivot into a type of wisdom. The five regular senses turn into all-performing wisdom. The ordinary thought consciousness (the forebrain) turns into Observing Wisdom. Manas turns into Equality Wisdom. The storehouse consciousness turns into Bright Mirror Wisdom.  In that sutra, it states that the Tathagata lives in the transformed storehouse consciousness.

I found that adding the last two columns really refines and helps my understanding and I wanted to share that with all of you.