Question: What is consciousness?
Wade: “Consciousness” can mean several different things, such as awareness, alertness, or the state of being awake. In Nichiren Buddhism, there’s a concept called the Nine Consciousnesses, informally referred to as the Big Nine, because it’s hard to say the word “consciousnesses.”
The first five consciousnesses — first five of the Big Nine — match our five senses, meaning that we develop awareness through taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight. The so-called sixth consciousness integrates and makes sense of awareness gained from our five senses. The seventh consciousness is, like, abstract reasoning, where we can imagine, hope, fear, and opine based on ideas and concepts. This is also where our ego and sense of self reside. Our ideas about ourselves, others, and our world are all churning in the seventh consciousness.
These first seven consciousnesses are unique to each of us, meaning you have your sensory experiences and ideas, and I have mine. These first seven consciousnesses are also perishable. Meaning, when we die, they’re gone. When we die, our senses no longer function, and there’s nothing to be integrated by the sixth consciousness. Without the first six consciousnesses, there’s nothing for the seventh consciousness to work with. So, these first seven levels of consciousness are dependent on our human bodies, our human senses or sentience. When our bodies die, these levels of conscious die, too.
The eighth consciousness is our so-called “karma storehouse.” It’s like an immense database or cloud storage of all thoughts, words, actions, interactions, causes and effects. I don’t think it’s individual, necessarily, in the sense that you have one karma database, and I have a separate one. This consciousness/database doesn’t just hold data/karma generated by and relevant to only one, individual lifetime. Rather, the “karma cloud database” is more like Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, spanning whole societies, and the whole globe, across time. But it’s bigger than “collective unconscious” because it includes even insentient things, such as geologic phenomena — like, rocks, oceans, and air.
So, the eighth consciousness is like a permanent, ongoing record of literally everything that has ever happened or existed on this planet. Maybe it includes other planets, too, but I’m trying to keep it manageable. This eighth consciousness is totally connected to the realities of our existence but it transcends our individual lifetimes; it does not die when we die.
The ninth consciousness, too, transcends death, and transcends the “karma cloud” of the eighth consciousness. It’s like a fundamental, all-encompassing life energy. The ninth consciousness is notoriously hard to explain. In fact, you could say that the entirety of Buddhism tries to explain it, with mixed success. When Nichiren Buddhists talk about attaining Buddhahood, or ultimate awakening, they’re talking about awakening within the ninth consciousness.
Sint-Joris-Winge: Great summary of the Big Nine concept. Nichiren Buddhism (and most other flavors of Buddhism you’re likely to meet at your local coffeehouse) suggest that the opening of a lotus flower is a metaphor for the flowering of the ninth consciousness. The lotus grows in muddy or mucky, swamp-like conditions. The lotus is rooted in our bodies and this Earth of ours; it’s rooted in the first eight consciousnesses. The petals open. The flower blooms and bears the seeds of future flowers. So, we’re talking about a circle of life.
I see the ninth consciousness as the basic animating principle of all things. It’s life itself, which, paradoxically, includes death. I mean, it includes a kind of provisional death, or death as a necessary step in regeneration — seed, grow, bloom, die, seed, grow again. The ninth consciousness is the life force present in all these different phases or phenomena.
Montepulciano: Consciousness is not something you “achieve” once and for all. It’s not as if a person fully attains ultimate Buddha consciousness and just stays in that groovy place. It is, as you say, an ongoing seed-growth-bloom-die-seed-again-and-again-and-again situation.
We can be confident about this because of the implicit infinite continuation of the Lotus Sutra. Someone talked about this earlier. The text of the sutra comes to an end, but the revelation of the ultimate teaching goes on and on and on. The “ultimate teaching,” or supreme awakening to Buddha consciousness, isn’t a one-shot thing like flying direct to Miami Beach. Once you’re in Miami Beach, you’ve arrived. However, the same can’t be said for consciousness. Once you “arrive” at consciousness, there’s still more consciousness to become conscious of.
The ninth consciousness is not a fixed or static thing. Buddha consciousness is the phenomenon of consciousness becoming aware of itself. It’s ever-expanding. And it pervades the other eight consciousnesses. The purpose of practicing Buddhism is to become more and more aware of the existence and all-pervasiveness of the ninth consciousness.
Jutta: Sort of like the expanding universe — so, too, consciousness is expanding. I often think, if there’s some Buddha place or Buddha mind out there that’s perfect and complete in itself, why does it need me? Why do I have to go through karmic shitstorms? What’s the point of my existence, or yours, if some Buddha guy figured it all out a long time ago, and we just need to get with the program?
Hillcrest: The best thing about the Big Nine is that it differentiates ego from karma in a useful way. I practiced Buddhism for a long time without understanding the difference. I thought I was my karma, and my karma was me. I was trying to change my karma through sheer force of ego, trying to will myself to enlightenment. It didn’t make me particularly happy.
Karma is much bigger than your personality or who you think you are. You can’t change your karma, or eighth consciousness, by changing your seventh consciousness. The flow of change has to come from the ninth consciousness. In Nichiren Buddhism, this means embracing Daimoku and tapping into the great life-force of the ninth consciousness. Then it’s like a waterfall cascading down through the eighth to the seventh to the sixth, changing the way we perceive our lives on an immediate sensory level.
Brooke: You know my story of meeting an Enlightened Being, but I’ll tell it again. I was in a meditation class having nothing to do with Buddhism. It was a class for, like, a mystical lineage of Jewish/Biblical meditation that I knew nothing about. In this class, I saw the meditation teacher open her eyes. Meaning, her eyes were just ordinary, human, blue eyes. Then, as other students and I watched, her eyeballs turned clear black, like outer space, as if her eyes opened and, through them, we could see infinity.
This sounds nuts, I know, and several of us wondered if what we had witnessed was a trick of hypnosis. It felt real to me, and it filled me with earnest optimism.
Was it real, though? Does it matter? A human mind is an incredibly powerful creator of delusion. When I say mind, I suppose I mean the seventh consciousness. But in our karmic collective of the eighth consciousness, we share a lot of delusions. We are a chronically, karmic-ally deluded people, which is why Buddhism exists — to help awaken human beings from our pervasive karmic delusions. Without delusion, there can be no enlightenment.
Nichiren goes so far as to say that delusion is inseparable from enlightenment. So, when I chant, I’m not so much trying to “tap into the ninth consciousness.” I’m trying to become more conscious of my own delusions. If I become acutely aware of the ways in which I am deluded, is that the same as becoming enlightened?
Carmelight: It’s like asking, What is the universe? What’s our place in it? No one really knows, but most of us have an answer we think is profound. Some say the universe is an expression of divine love. Or it’s an evolutionary learning system governed by algorithms. Or maybe our existence is as random as pond scum, and we have only our immediate circumstances from which to derive our sense of purpose. Maybe all of these are true.
Whatever we say, our answer is based on who and what we believe ourselves to be. Our beliefs are informed by our material reality, our experiences, and observations. Our answer depends on how we interpret what we know, and on what we believe to be true. Most of us believe something to be true that other people think is ridiculous. We can’t prove or disprove it, but we believe it. We take a leap of faith.
Religions are like organized leaps of faith. People get together and leap over the unknowable or unanswerable to land in the comfort of religious certainty. Many of us want this comforting certainty because while life can be wonderful, it’s also fraught with suffering. If we can find relief from our suffering, we want it. If there is no relief to be had, we want our suffering to mean something, or to have a larger purpose.
Religious certainties can help us cope with the world. So, too, these beliefs can be horribly wrong. History is full of horrible, grievous wrongs done in the name rightness. Knowing this, as Nichiren Buddhists, the best path is for us to accept that we are deluded and wrong, and to pray for merciful refuge in the lotus.