In the Monday and Tuesday night study groups, we are looking at teachings based in the Yogacara Buddhist school of thought. I am often completely lost trying to understand what we are reading. That being said, I will attempt to give an extremely simplified explanation according to my limited understanding.

According to Yogacara, all our thoughts, emotions, sense impressions, ideas, beliefs, experiences, concepts, projections etc. are all stored as bija, proverbial seeds, in the alaya vijnana or storehouse consciousness. This base layer of all consciousness is both individual and collective. When we perceive, our typical experience is for our discursive mind to reach into this storehouse and bring forth some of these seeds and impute or assign characteristics onto what is actually a truly indescribable, constantly changing reality.

These teachings go on to explain how the perceiver and what is perceived, or subject and object, always arise simultaneously. This separation of subject and object that we perceive is inherently dissatisfying and a cause of suffering because it is not real. This delusional habit of ours is something we do nearly constantly. We do have the ability to experience reality directly without imputing characteristics onto it and without separating out a subject and an object, but we rarely experience the world this way.

As we take information in through our senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body mind) and process it, seeds are planted in the store consciousness.

Seeds also sprout in those moments because of subtle and not-so-subtle associations we have in the deep layers of our consciousness with what we are experiencing. When we hear a word, an experience of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral arises along with many subtle and not-so-subtle feelings, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, ideas, names, and words according to what seeds it waters in our store consciousness, and according to what we bring forth.

It feels amusing to me, sometimes to the point of absurdity, that we sit reading and studying with our deluded minds fully engaging in the process we are studying and naming as deluded, in order to understand our deluded minds. And, at the same time, I also find it helpful. It feels a bit kaleidoscopic. In contemplating all this, I became really interested in trying to sit still and see what imputations, associations and characteristics arise for me when I bring to mind various words we use for this concept of alaya vijnana, or store consciousness. What I noticed is that what arises in me about this concept, really depends on which words for it I use. This got me really thinking about words, their power, and their limits.

To give a summary of my thought experiment, when I sat still with the Sanskrit term alaya vijnana I noticed that it has a musical quality to me. alaya sounds feminine to me. I realized it also for me has a very faint feeling of the kind and generous people who helped me study Sanskrit long ago and who tried patiently to teach me how to pronounce various sounds correctly. There is a subtle feeling of insecurity when I get to the ‘jn’ in the word. The term alaya vijnana also waters vague sensations of my deluded ideas about India — hot sun, bright colored saris, the sounds of a sitar, and tabla. I have never been to India so these are sensations of something I don’t know firsthand, conjured by secondary experiences such as movies, photographs, people I know, and music I have listened to. There is also a sensation of shiny beads lined up — this is my mind’s way of articulating the way Sanskrit is a language in which smaller pieces of meaning are put together to create the meaning of a larger word. Believe it or not, I noticed even more details arising within me in association with this single term. It is a lot of baggage! I only became aware of all of it by sitting quietly with the word and paying attention to what was arising in me. Prior to this experiment, I didn’t realize how much baggage I bring to the term alaya vijnana. All that I just described arose quickly and at a subtle level. And, all of this imagery and sensation arose in me with very few words associated with it. It is only in preparing to explain the experience to you that I concretized it in words. And, it feels that having done this, has reified the likelihood of all this arising more strongly when I hear the term alaya vijnana again.

When I think of the term storehouse consciousness, even though it refers to the exact same concept, I find that completely different associations arise within me. It feels less colorful. It has a vague sensation of American farmland where there are large metal warehouses and silos full of grains/seeds. It has a heaviness of being full, every possible seed stored. There is something settled feeling about the word “house.”

When I hear “Mind Consciousness” it is like a cloud with an amorphous shape, I noticed a sensation of confusion and mystery because both mind and consciousness are words that I don’t feel I can really define. Repository consciousness feels old-fashioned somehow. Repository reminds me of church words. I think there is a room in some churches called a repository.

The term Big Mind somehow feels more spacious, and more familiar to me. I don’t know if technically it is really referring to the same thing as storehouse consciousness. Big Mind has a toddler-esque quality and at the very same time feels very serious, the vagueness of how big hints at the unknowableness of the reality to which it points.

Mind ground is probably my favorite term for this concept because it feels vast and all-encompassing. The ground is what we stand on, it is the basis for everything here on the earth where we live; it is where we start from, where we take a stand, where we see our perspective from, how we move in any direction. At the same time, the mind is not an actual physical thing so for me, Mind Ground expresses how we are basing our whole experience of reality on something that is not at all solid.

After engaging in this experiment I found myself surprised by the level of detailed projections I had that I didn’t really realize until I looked closely. We see that words aren’t static, and I can’t assume that a person I am speaking to has the same associations I have for any given word. At the most extreme example, if we don’t speak the same language, the sounds coming out of my mouth are just sounds. “Babawawa is anything said or not?” says the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha tells Mahamati, “Words are not ultimate truth, nor is what they express ultimate truth. And how so? Ultimate truth is what buddhas delight in. And what words lead to is ultimate truth. But words are not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of Buddha knowledge. It is not a realm known by means of the projection of words. Therefore, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth.” He goes on to say, “Words arise and cease and shift, with their occurrence depending on changing causes and conditions. Mahamati, what depends on changing causes and conditions for its occurrence does not express ultimate truth. Because of the nonexistence of their own characteristics or of those of something else, words do not express ultimate truth. Moreover, because any characteristic of an external existence does not exist except as a perception of one’s own mind, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth. Hence, Mahamati, you should avoid the projection of words.”

So Buddha is telling Mahamati to avoid the projection of words. Do the Buddha’s statements about words feel true to you? If so, how do you know? How does the true nature of words, or anything for that matter, become clear to you?Do you articulate to yourself what you think the nature of words is? If so, how? Do you use words to talk to yourself about it?

We know that the teachings we look to in Zen warn us about words. In our own chant book in the Song of Jewel Mirror Samadhi we find, “Just to depict it in literary form is to relegate it to defilement.” And, in the Hsin Hsin Ming,: “Let go of speech and thought, and there’s nowhere you can’t pass freely. Returning to the root, we get the essence; following after appearances, we lose the spirit.” In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen says: “You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.”

So he’s talking about zazen. Our main practice is sitting zazen, and letting go of discursive thinking over and over and over. We are encouraged to participate in zazen as a body practice in which the mind is just another part of the body. When encountering teachings like this, and considering our main practice of zazen, one might conclude that words are a problem. One could even develop a subtle attitude of rejection, or worse an attitude like smugness towards words, an “I know better than to give primacy to language and discursive thinking” kind of attitude. As if we could possibly live without words. Does it strike you as it does me as kind of humorously paradoxical that in the above sutra and teachings from our chant book, words are being used to express the ultimate truth about words which is that they do not express ultimate truth? We use words to clarify for ourselves the limited nature of words.

When sitting in the zendo, or studying Buddhist teachings, it is easy to focus on these admonitions about words. Then, to leave the study hall or the zendo, and completely forget about them as soon as we are engaged in a conversation. Especially a heated or emotional one. I find it helpful to remember other teachings about words that are also right there in our chant book. For example, from Merging of Difference and Unity, “Hearing the words you should understand the source.” Or from the Hsin Hsin Ming, “Although it is not fabricated, it is not without speech.” Or from the Hsin Hsin Ming “In the dharma realm of true suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self. To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises,“not two.” In this “not two,” nothing is separate, nothing is excluded. Enlightenment means entering this truth.” The Hsin Hsin Ming is giving us useful words to remember, “Not two.”

Ultimately as the Song of the Grass Roof Hut tells us; “Thousands of words, myriad interpretations, are only to free you from obstructions.” When you think about it, how do you know of the Buddha’s teachings? Did you first learn about it through words? And do words guide you in your practice of non-dual-awareness? When I first read Dogen’s words I was so moved I cried. His words changed the trajectory of my entire life. The power of words can not be denied. And reading words that describe experiences of non-dual awareness can guide us and help us understand our own experiences. We just need to be very careful and pay very close attention to recognize that experiencing, and telling ourselves stories about experiencing, are not the same thing.

Words are tools. When I see them this way, it helps me to loosen my grasp on believing that a listener necessarily experiences the same meaning as the speaker when words are being spoken. And I have found that I do better with truly listening to another person, regardless of the words being used and what is arising in me in response, if I remember that words are tools; that the speaker is using certain words because those are the tools they know; and they are speaking them because they want to share their perspective of reality. Ultimately we are all in the same reality together, no matter how different from one another we perceive it. If I care about all being, it makes sense to want to understand the perspectives of others to the best of my ability.

Sometimes I have found certain words or ways of speaking don’t feel like they allow me to be authentic with how I experience the world, or how I feel about the world no matter how carefully I use them. This was my ultimate conclusion after acquiring a degree in economics. I thought that learning how to use the language of economics would allow me to communicate my beliefs about the inherent value of the natural world to those who think in economic terms. Sometimes we just don’t have the skill or ability to find our way with certain words and it seems the way a situation is being spoken about, the words being used, and what seeds those words water in others, is a huge part of how problems arise.

Consider the following list of words that could be used to describe the same “thing,” place, land, property, real estate, natural resources, stand, home, biome, habitat, woodland, forest, timberland, ecosystem, refuge, sanctuary, Maple Nation, natural environment. These terms all have slightly to vastly different meanings. Each term probably conjures different images and feelings for you. If you had to choose one term to tell someone else what I was just referencing with all those words, what word would you choose? Whether we speak about a forest in the North Eastern U.S. as real estate, a natural resource, home, property, sanctuary, or Maple Nation, whichever term we use implies very different perceptions about it, what it is, and what its existence means to us. It also affects what thoughts arise about how to move forward being in relationship with it: with them. Knowing we can not live without words whether we speak them or not, we could really focus on how we use them and choose them carefully.

I find it a fascinating conundrum how to navigate a path within all of this — accepting words as tools and recognizing their relativity, while also acknowledging their power, listening to others’ words with loose openness, while choosing my own words carefully. Three of our ten precepts are about words. We also learn from the Four Gatekeepers of Speech: Is it true? Is it kind (not hurtful)? Is it necessary? Is it the right time and place? These guidelines can leave me feeling that there ultimately are no true words, and yet as Katagiri Roshi’s book is titled, “You Have to Say Something.”

Some words are deeply powerful. They can cause deep physiological stirrings within us that we don’t have much control over. There are some words that when I hear them, I feel as if I am being exposed, as if painful experiences from my past that I don’t want you to know are being revealed. My body responds in defensiveness just at hearing them and I feel like it is visible unless I put forth effort to hide it. You may not know when you are speaking words that affect others in this way. So, if we care about others, it is important to pay attention to how people are responding to our words. Our words may not be doing what we are intending for them to do. Words are also powerful in expressing joy and beauty. We use words to chant for the well-being of others, to make vows, and to set our intention. We can use words to alleviate suffering. In Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance, Dogen says, “Kind speech has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.”

Considering the word “nation,” let’s do another word experiment: What arises for you with this list of words? American, Real American, Patriot, Native American, Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Freedom, Honor, Riot, Protest, Attack, Peaceful Protest, Rights, Liberty, Responsibility. Did you feel some sensation of affinity with some of those words and some level of repulsion, or irritation with others? When I got to liberal and conservative did you assume I was describing people as opposed to one’s attitude towards salt usage with french fries? What would our responses to those words be if we lived in Iran, Palestine, France, or Germany? Did the words Democrat and Republican bring up some sensation of opposition, or did your mind perceive them as two different categories of the same thing? What fascinates me about this is that the reality of that moment was just one human reading a list of words to a group of fellow humans. Everything that arose in response to hearing those words arose from our minds.

I find it useful to remember that listening carefully and making every effort to understand what another person is communicating does not imply or indicate that I agree with those words or the views they represent. Where I “stand” on the mind ground, that non-substantial place created by all the seeds within my experience of the storehouse consciousness is usually not really threatened by the words of others. And, if I can understand the perspectives of others, my own perspective can widen. I can allow for more subtle and nuanced understandings within myself of how what is comes to be. And sometimes truly listening and truly being heard alleviates suffering. If we are interested in the path of a bodhisattva, relieving suffering is of utmost importance.

We can also consider what words are in our thoughts as we move through the day. The words in our heads as we drive, or walk to the mailbox, or through a parking lot. We can decide. I can carry words of anger or worry, or I can choose words of gratitude towards the world as I move through it, thanking everything for supporting my life. When I was much younger I walked around with angry words in my head most of the time. I felt offended by the human race. Somehow it finally struck me that my anger was not making things any better. Slowly I made different choices about the words I fed to my store consciousness and which seeds I water. When I am driving and happy, I often practice metta towards the people and animals I see, “May you be well, may you be safe, may you have everything you need.” Very recently it occurred to me that instead of waiting to be happy, I could decide to do it every single time I am in the car regardless of my mood. In doing this I have noticed now that the well-being wishes towards others begin automatically once the car starts moving. As various people point out, Lovingkindness or Metta practice is not necessarily for those we are projecting metta towards. After all, they don’t know what we’re doing. It is a way to transform our own minds. Insight Meditation teacher Ruth King says, “You could consider metta practice a heart technology — a software upgrade you put into the hardwiring of your conditioning. The learning curve improves with consistent practice, with the cumulative impact resulting in an inner radiance that naturally opens you to noticing the good in others and yourself.”

The true reality of existence is beyond what words describe, and any words automatically exclude some aspect of reality. At the very same time, words are part of this indescribable reality. I think I am not fully integrating the teachings of Buddha or Zen if I let go of discursive thought in zazen, then completely forget about the relativity of words and how I project meaning when I engage in a conversation. So I am making new efforts toward words. I invite you to join me:

  1. To sit in non-discursive awareness — yes, we think we do this together every day — yet I have to keep truly recommitting to this. Most of this talk arose in what was supposed to be zazen!
  2. To not solidify the meanings of words in my mind, to instead hold them loosely with curiosity, recognizing their shifting, impermanent nature and the way that their meaning depends on the experiences of the thinker. See words as tools.
  3. Not to be afraid to be poetic or unconventional with language. Words used over and over build up residues of meaning. New word combinations may spark new understandings.
  4. To make every effort to choose the words I speak out loud and the ones I think to myself with care, and with compassion for the world because what we say matters, and the words we use to say it matters.

Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2023 Zenki Kathleen Batson