Yuishiki (唯識, Chinese wei2shi2, Sanskrit vijñapti-mâtratâ) is the basic doctrine of the Japanese Hosso (法相, Ch. fa3xiang1) school of Buddhism. The usual English gloss is "consciousness only", although terms like "ideation only" or "thought only" are also used occasionally.


The theory that all existence is nothing but consciousness, and therefore there is nothing that lies outside of the mind.

-- Dictionary of East Asian Buddhist Terms

Sounds terribly dry, but I would advise the gentle reader to hang in there. I won't try to claim that the theory is simple, but (in my humble opinion) it does a remarkably good job of explaining the workings of the universe, and it has had a significant influence on later Mahayana Buddhism, including the Kegon and Zen schools.


Embedded at the heart of Buddhism lies a seeming paradox. In constrast to the Brahmanic teachings of the Upanishads, the Buddha stated quite clearly that the Self (Sanskrit atman) is an illusion and that man thus has no soul (anatman). However, there is transmigration (samsara) from one body to another one. This poses an obvious question:

If there is no soul, what is it that reincarnates?

Yuishiki sets out to solve this paradox.


According to Yuishiki doctrine, there are eight levels of consciousness. The first five levels are the senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. Note that these are levels of consciousness, so it is not a question of "I" sensing something (there is no Self!), but that through the senses there is awareness of other things. The sixth sense is a mental consciousness, which connects these awarenesses together.

These are more or less accepted by all Buddhist schools, but Yuishiki adds two more layers. The seventh is the manas consciousness (末那識), which in its default state of Ignorance causes the delusion of Self. In modern Western philosophy, this is referred to as self-consciousness or knowledge by identity.

But the eight layer is where the action is. Known as alaya consciousness (阿頼耶識), from Sanskrit âlayavijñâna, the name simply means "ultimate consciousness". This consciousness consists of seeds (種子, Skt. bija, Jp. shuji, Ch. zhong3zi2), which are stored inside it like seeds in a storehouse. (Hence the alternate name storehouse consciousness 蔵識, Jp. zoushiki, Ch. zang4shi4.) But do not fall into the trap of thinking of the seeds or the consciousness as physical objects: they are empty and Void, outside our notions of space, and they are in constant flux. If you are familiar with memetics, you may find it useful to think of the seeds as memes. These seeds interact with each other in three ways:

  1. Seeds produce the present world.
  2. Seeds are perfumed (熏蒸, Jp. konjou) by the present world.
  3. Seeds produce seeds.
And this gives us the solution to the original paradox. Your conception of Self, the false atman, is produced from seeds. Your actions in this world, your good, bad and neutral deeds, perfume (or mutate) these seeds. The seeds then produce new seeds, with some seeds tainted by your actions, and others unaffected.

This ties in with the Buddhist view of reincarnation beautifully. Even after our death, the impressions of our deeds -- our karma -- linger on in the seeds of alaya consciousness. Since the seeds have a natural affinity to join together (Skt. pratisamdhi), reincarnation occurs when seeds fuse new states of seventh consciousness (delusions of Self) form. A Buddha is someone who has managed to obliterate all impressions of himself, all his perfumings of the seeds, and escape the wheel of samsara. Such alaya consciousness fully cleansed of karmic sediment is known as amalavijñâna, or "pure consciousness".

But Wait, There's More

That was a quick'n'dirty solution to the paradox, here's a bit more about the core of the theory. As hinted above, the alaya consciousness does not merely create the illusion of the spiritual self, it also creates the illusion of the material world.

Yuishiki stresses, once again, there there is only consciousness and that all "things" (which are mere ideation in themselves) are constantly changing. Both the Self and the world are like a river. They have a certain appearance, but it is not possible to separate the river from the drops of water that form it. We call the river a single entity, but the water it is formed from is constantly changing. Even the very appearance of the river is in flux. Similarly, the Self and the world are formed from the seeds of alaya consciousness.

This process of formation is one of the more difficult bits of the theory, and grasping it is not aided by the fact that it has been described in excruciating detail: the very name of the Hosso sect means "Dharma Characteristics" (法相), dharma here meaning the layers of illusion separating man from pure consciousness, and their self-proclaimed aim is to study and enumerate all the elements of the dharmas. The canonical division consists of no less than 100 categories! But a rough outline, as I understand it:

What we think of as "time" is in fact a succession of infinitesimally thin slices. These slices are pierced by the seeds of alaya, moving from slice to slice. The impact of a seed causes and effect in the slice, and since the slices are infinitesimally thin -- like the differentials of calculus -- the end result is constant causation and effect. Seeds impact, or "perfume", these slices in three different ways. First is the seed of name. When we say "apple", something that looks like a red sphere, feels hard and tastes tangy is conjured, and when our consciousness actually senses an apple, the idea of "apple" is strengthened. The image or the naming may not be accurate, but it is all we can go on. Second is the seed of attachment to Self. Once the seventh (manas) consciousnesses is formed from seeds, it perfumes the alaya consciousness with egotism and the other six consciousnesses with what are known as "perfumings of Self"; through this seed, the Self appears real. Third is the seed of the triloka (三世), the Sanskrit term for the illusions (literally "worlds") of sensual desire, form, and formlessness. This seed is the cause of suffering and delusion, and it is thus also the seed of karma -- fate and fortune depends on the merit and demerit found in the seed.

Slices are continually created, perfumed and annihilated in such a way that only one exists at any given time. This one existing slice is reality.

Proof of the Existence of the Alaya Consciousness

And now, we have almost worked our way back to how this entire edifice was created. The axiom the theory of Yuishiki is built on is the simple observation that human consciousness is real; this, incidentally, demolishes the earlier theory of Madhyamaka as advocated by the Sanron school, which claims that nothing is real.

The world is destroyed and rebuilt from seeds at every moment. We cannot ascertain that there has been a past, we cannot be sure that there will be a future. All we know is that "reality" exists only at the present instant, and we can confirm this by seeing it, but reaching out and touching it.

But does this "reality" continue to exist when we are asleep? Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if there is nobody there to hear it?

Our seventh consciousness, the manas, has a choice here: it can accept the continued existence of the world, or it can deny it. But even if the manas denies the existence of an external world, there must still be a consciousness that produces the manas, that allows the manas to make such a decision. This consciousness is the alaya, whose existence is constant, even if all other consciousnesses deny reality.

But what if the alaya consciousness is extinguished?

If the alaya ceases to exist, the world ceases to exist. If there is no world of illusion, there is no wheel of samsara to escape from, and man has no chance of enlightenment. In Buddhist terms, this is a reductio ad absurdum -- thus reality exists and the alaya consciousness must exist.



The codification of the Yuishiki doctrine is usually attributed to Vasubandhu (世親) and to a limited extent his brother Asanga in the fourth century AD, although several key concepts with regard to disproving the Madhyamaka view "nothing is real" were already described by Nagarjuna some 200 years earlier, and tradition ascribes inspiration to bodhisattva Maitreya.

Vasubandhu's major works on Yuishiki are the Abhidharma Storehouse Treatise (Abdhidharma-kosha-bhâsya 阿毘達魔倶舎論) and the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Tri.mshikâ Vijñaptimâtratâsiddhi.h 唯識三十頌). Vasubandhu died before commenting the latter of these two, leading to much doctrinal disputation until Dharmapala's Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (Vijñaptimâtratâsiddhi-shâstra 成唯識論) more or less solved the issue.


C. Muller et al, Dictionary of East Asian Buddhist Terms
E. Dale Saunders, Buddhism in Japan
Yukio Mishima, The Temple of Dawn (chapters 18-19)