Philosophical and Scientific Review of Mahayana Buddhist Theory of Consciousness and Nirvana


  • Albert Yoo Eötvös Loránd University


According to the Buddhist tradition, six different consciousnesses (vijñāna) are distinguished, the first five of which are sense-bases (āyatana) corresponding to visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactual perception. The last is called manovijñāna, and its object is not external perception like the former five, but ideas, concepts, or mental objects. Yogācāra school of Mahayana Buddhism following Vasubandhu adds two more consciousnesses into the schema: manasvijñāna and ālayavijñāna. The eighth consciousness, ālayavijñāna, is sometimes translated to "storehouse consciousness” and is "the base" or "the seed” of other seven consciousnesses. Between this base-consciousness and the first six consciousnesses is manasvijñāna which mediates them. It is also to be noted that manasvijñāna is traditionally believed to be the source of the attachment (upādāna) to one’s ego (ātman) and hence hindering them from achieving nirvana.

In this paper, we will review these principles of consciousness developed by Indian and East Asian philosophers based on modern psychological and neuroscientific findings. For example, ālayavijñāna will be compared to the role of memory and unconscious bias in cognition.

Then we further analyse the concepts in the frame of analytic philosophy of mind, focusing on the recent discourse on the nature of consciousness. One point to be made is that this Buddhist theory of consciousness, for it includes certain higher-order perception as a constituent of consciousness, can be classified as what is commonly referred to as higher-order theories of consciousness. Based on this interpretation, we will review how the phenomenon of nirvana can be understood in terms of philosophy of consciousness.

We hope this approach to facilitate understanding the argumentative structure of Buddhist philosophy of mind and epistemology more clearly, ultimately leading us to the reconstruction of the theory using modern terminologies.


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[2] N. Srinivasan, “Consciousness without content: A look at evidence and prospects,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, 2020. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01992

[3] B. C. Hall, “The Meaning of Vijñapti in Vasubandhu’s Concept of Mind,” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 9, pp. 7–23, 1986.