Mahayana philosophy on cosmology, metaphysics and related subjects is awe-inspiring, with information preceding modern science by centuries! It describes, for example, living universes with scales ranging from a speck of dust to infinite stars.

3.42 Five Types of Consciousness

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    Non-Enlightenment creates perception, appearance and awareness of phenomenal world. Continuity of thoughts, hence consciousness. This consciousness has five names. What five? One, karma consciousness, due to motion of the force of ignorance of non-Enlightenment. Two, transformation consciousness, due to the ability of the heart motion to see characteristics.

    Three, perception consciousness, that is ability to perceive every thing in phenomenal world, like clear mirror reflecting all forms and appearances, mutually operational, according to the five defilements, neither earlier nor later, all the time according to their arising and appearing. Four, knowledge consciousness, for differentiating various phenomena. Five, memory consciousness, for remembering continual characteristics, holding countless good and evil effects of karma of the past without loss, activating and maturing for future joy and sorrow accordingly without error, able to recall past and present events, and fantasize on future happenings.


Non-enlightenment creates perception, appearance and consciousness of the phenomenal world. As thoughts continue to arise, it generates consciousness. There are five names to describe this consciousness. What are the five names?

One, there is the karma consciousness, which is due to the force of ignorance as a result of non-Enlightenment.

Two, there is the transformation consciousness, which is due to the ability of the activated mind to experience the characteristics of the realm of phenomena.

Three, there is the perception consciousness, which is the ability to perceive every thing in the phenomenal world. This perception consciousness is like a clear mirror, reflecting all forms and appearances. The perception consciousness, which is internal, operates mutually with the five external sense organs, which are organs of defilement, because they supply illusory information to the mind. The perception consciousness, however, perceives the illusory information spontaneously and all the time according to the gross inputs of these sense organs as soon as the phenomena arise and appear.

Four, there is the knowledge awareness, which is used for differentiating various phenomena.

Five, there is the memory awareness, for remembering characteristics of phenomena that are continually arising, for holding countless good and evil effects of karma of the past without forgetting any, and for activating and maturing these karmic effects that will bring future joy and sorrow accordingly without error. With the memory consciousness, one is able to recall past and present events, and fantasize on future happenings.


Psychologists and psychiatrists certainly can benefit much from studying Buddhist philosophy, even if they leave out all religious or spiritual material. They can find not only starling information but also amazingly different ways of looking at man's psyche.

It is well known that Buddhist monks and other religious people are generally free from psychiatric illness, which is approaching epidemic proportions in Western societies. Of course one needs not be a monk to enjoy psychiatric health. Also no one seriously suggests that Western psychiatrists should discard their treatment techniques for Buddhist methods. But Buddhist philosophy, or psychology, can provide Western psychologists with many unexpected ways to understand the mind, and provide Western psychiatrists with alternative methods besides drugs, psychosurgery and psychotherapy to overcome mental sickness.

Even the short passage above can supply some interesting examples, if modern psychologists and psychiatrists care to study it a little deeper. For example, the above information reminds us that there are other ways to approach the mind besides the id, ego and superego, or the conscious, subconscious and unconscious levels. Or, choosing an outlandish example, it may force us to ask ourselves how valid we are to label a person schizophrenic when all our sensual inputs are actually illusory.

3.43 Three Realms of Existence

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    Hence the three realms of existence are void and unreal, created by the heart. Apart from the heart, there is no world of six defilements.


Hence, the three realms of existence are void and unreal, because they are created by the mind. Apart from the mind, the phenomenal world we experience through the defilement of our six senses does not exist.


Many Western scholars have the mis-conception that Buddhism pays little attention to cosmology and metaphysics. It is often cited in Western literature on Buddhism that when the Buddha was asked about the after-life, or about the origin and structure of the cosmos, the Buddha maintained a noble silence.

This mis-conception is mainly the result of reading Buddhist literature from Theravada sources, with emphasis on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which constitute an excellent vehicle for moral cultivation and the attainment of nirvana. According to Mahayana thinking, the Theravada teaching is only a preparation for higher wisdom and the attainment of Buddhahood. Hence, when those not ready for esoteric knowledge asked the Buddha, he found it best to remain silent. But the Buddha did elaborate extensively on cosmological and metaphysical matters, and such teachings are recorded in works like the Lotus Sutra and the Garland Sutra.

Mahayana philosophy on cosmology, metaphysics and related subjects is awe-inspiring, with information preceding modern science by centuries! It describes, for example, living universes with scales ranging from a speck of dust to infinite stars. The galaxy where our earth is located among millions of other worlds, billions of miles apart, is called Sahadhatu ("Suopo Shijie" in Chinese). This Sahadhatu is one of the twenty galaxies in the milky way called Maniketu ("Huazang Shijie"), and there are countless other milky ways.

Those scientists who believe that life exists only on our earth must be astonished to discover that according to Buddhist philosophy, life exists everywhere. But even if these scientists succeed in landing on some worlds teeming with life, because their eyes, despite being the most perceptive of the sense organs, can see only a miserably minute portion of electro¬magnetic waves extending between 0.4 and 0.8 micron when the known spectrum ranges from 0.000000047 micron to over 30 km, it is unlikely the scientists can see any inhabitants!

Many eminent scientists, however, believe that life is present in other worlds besides our own. Andrew Scott says that "the vast number of alternative environments out there in which life could have originated makes the possibilities of the primeval earth shrink into puny insignificance." Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, believes that the origin of life on our earth may have been infected on purpose by some alien civilizations. Sir Fred Hoyle, well known for his knowledge on synthesized elements within stars, suggests that interstellar space is teeming with life, in particles of "dust" clouds, or "molecular" clouds of interstellar space, or trapped within meteorites and comets, whose influence on our earth ranges from pan¬demic diseases to dramatic evolution!

The Buddhist knowledge about life in the universe is staggering. In each of the millions of worlds of the countless galaxies there are three realms of existence, namely the realm of desires (Kamaloka in Sanskrit, or Yu jie in Chinese), the realm of form (Rupaloka or Se jie), and the realm of non-form (Arupaloka or Wu se jie). In the realm of desires, which is the lowest of the three realms, there are eleven planes of existence. We, humans, are somewhere in the middle of this realm, located at the human plane (Manussaloka, or Ren tao), with the planes of animals, asuras or titans, spirits and ghosts below, and various planes of dewas or heavenly beings above. Even in this realm of existence on our own earth, the inhabitants at nine out of the eleven planes are invisible to scientists.

In the middle realm, the realm of form, there are sixteen planes of existence, which are the abodes of various hierarchy of gods. The gods still have bodily forms, though they are of very fine substance, far too fine for human eyes to see. Because of their good karma, these gods enjoy blissful existence in various heavens. But their existence, though extremely long by human standard, is not eternal, and when their good karmic effect is spent they have to undergo reincarnation. If they have cultivated spiritually during their godly existence, they may progress to the next and highest realm, the realm of non-form.

There are four planes in the realm of non-form, namely the planes of infinite space, of infinite consciousness, of total nothingness, and of neither mindfulness nor non-mindfulness. These are the planes of Bodhisattvas and Arahats, where as the names of the realm suggest, they have no form but only consciousness. Hence, influential Western neuro-physiologists, psychologists and philosophers like Gilbert Ryle, D. Drake and Bertrand Russel who are worried where a person's consciousness is housed, if he still has one, when his brain has died, may take comfort that not only consciousness needs not necessarily be housed in a brain, it may not take any form. Nevertheless, should a Bodhisattva desires so, he may manifest himself in any form in any plane, like Bodhisattva Di Zang Wang manifesting himself as a master in hells to help lost souls.

It is also amazing how the Buddhists could have such impressive astronomical knowledge centuries ago. They figuratively described the arrangement of these countless worlds as petals of lotus flowers, which closely corresponds to the shapes of galaxies as modern science knows them. Interestingly enough, Buddhist literature refers to these galaxies as specks of dust in indefinite space.

At the extreme end of the other scale, Buddhist masters had astonishing knowledge of sub-atomic worlds. The smallest possible bit of a substance is known as anu (ji wei in Chinese). If a unit of anu is broken up, it ceases to be that substance; it becomes even smaller units with a different nature. These smaller units are called paramanu (se ju zhi wei). When these paramanu are further broken up, they become rupa kalapa (wei chen). Before modern science rediscovered these units as elements, atoms and sub-atomic particles, many people thought the Buddhist masters were talking non-sense. Even the size of the atom estimated by Buddhist masters to be 10 to the minus tenth power cm, is close to its modern estimation by scientists.

The ancient masters of course did not have the bubble chamber to study sub-atomic particles, but when they used their "wisdom-eye", which is a manifestation of the miraculous effect (please see Passage 3.29) as a result of their spiritual development, to look at the rupa kalapa, they found that the rupa kalapa are constantly changing into kriya (qi in Chinese), which in modern scientific terms means sub-atomic particles changing into energy! The really astounding is yet to come. While modern scientists can only conclude that different charges of energy are whirling round the nucleus in an atom, ancient masters saw in their wisdom-eye that each sub-atomic particle is a comprehensive cosmos teeming with life!

However, perhaps the most astounding point is that according to Buddhist thought, all the countless worlds with their countless inhabitants in the countless galaxies, or in the sub-atomic particles are the result of the mind. Heavens or hells or any plane of existence exist as a function of the mind. If an Enlightened person deny their existence mentally, all these galaxies and sub-atomic cosmos which are "real" to unenlightened people in their illusion, disappear to become an undifferentiated spread of universal consciousness! This is a crucial Buddhist doctrine, seriously expounded throughout the ages to guide aspirants in their search for cosmic realization. The following frequently quoted, but seldom understood, lines from the famous Heart Sutra express this doctrine succinctly:

    Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form; likewise, sensations, thoughts, impulses and consciousness are empty.
Similarly, Hsuan Hua, a master of the Chan School of Buddhism who is currently residing in America, teaches that "the ten dharma-realms are not beyond a single thought." Some masters simplify the more than thirty spheres of existence of the desire, form and non-form realms into ten dharmarealms. These ten realms are divided into six lower realms which are subjected to the law of karma (No. 1-6 below), and four higher realms which are not subjected to karma (No. 7-10):
  1. Realm of buddhas, or those who have achieved perfect Enlightenment.
  2. Realm of bodhisattvas, or those who work for universal Enlightenment.
  3. Realm of pratyekabuddhas, or those who cultivate for personal Enlightenment.
  4. Realm of sravadas or those who attain Enlightenment through hearing and following the Buddha's teaching.
  5. Realm of dewas or gods.
  6. Realm of humans.
  7. Realm of animals.
  8. Realm of asuras or titans.
  9. Realm of pretas or hungry ghosts.
  10. Realm of inhabitants in hells.
Some readers may wonder why is there a realm of buddhas. Isn't it mentioned earlier that when one becomes a buddha, he transcends the phenomenal world, which means that the perfectly Enlightened being has broken down all veils of illusion to merge with the Eternal Buddha, or Supreme Reality? If this is so, then there will be no realms at all. This, in fact, is the essence of the statement that all the ten dharmarealms result from the mind. Isn't this realm of buddhas a contradiction of this concept?

No, it is not a contradiction, while the views expressed in the above paragraph are also in perfect agreement with Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. "The realm of buddhas" can be interpreted in two ways. One, it refers to the realm where all buddhas are the Eternal Buddha; it is the Supreme Reality in the absolute aspect. So, when a being experiences the highest spiritual realization, when he attains Buddhahood, he enters -- or, more appropriately, becomes -- the realm of buddhas.

Two, the Eternal Buddha may manifest in his "transformational body" or "reward body" as buddhas. These buddhas are visible to spiritually advanced beings like bodhisattvas, but are not normally visible to ordinary people, unless the buddhas wish to appear to them. This realm where the buddhas appear, is the realm of buddhas.

These two interpretations are actually of the same reality; the apparent difference is because of different perspectives, the first interpretation is viewed from the transcendental aspect, and the second from the phenomenal.

According to the philosophy of the Tiantai School, one of the most important schools of Chinese Buddhism and which is sometimes known in English as the Lotus School because its development was mainly based on the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma-pundarika, or Miao Fa Lian Hua Jing), the ten dharmarealms are mutually immanent and mutually inclusive. In each of the ten realms are also found the other nine realms. For example, all the realms ranging from that of hell inhabitants to that of buddhas are also found in the human realm. Those humans who are always fighting are considered to be living in the realm of asuras, whereas those who are helpful and compassionate in the realm of bodhisattvas. Thus this inter-penetration results in a hundred realms.

In each of the hundred realms, there are ten major kinds of semblance, of which one is most prominent. These ten kinds of semblance are characteristics, nature, structure, power, activity, cause, effect, fruit, reward, and cycle. For example, asuras in the human realm may be different in their characteristics, nature, etc. Similarly, bodhisattvas in other realms may be differentiated by these ten kinds of semblance. Hence the hundred realms can be manifested into a thousand realms.

Tiantai philosophy expounds that reality can be expressed in three ways: as void, as real, or as the mean. This doctrine encompasses the different views of various schools regarding dharma, or the sub-atomic particles and forces that give rise to all phenomena, as unreal, real but momentary, and existing only in the mind but not in physical substance. This doctrine of three-fold truth, therefore, manifests the one thousand realms into three thousands.

In the Chinese language, "three thousand" does not merely indicate a discrete number: generally, it means countless. Therefore, the term three thousand dharmarealms refers to countless millions of worlds in the infinite universe.

In refuting the existence of the soul, the famous eighteenth century French satirist Voltaire said, "God could have given men and animals a plain, immaterial soul, which he preserves independently of their bodies. For him, that is just as possible as creating a million worlds more than he did or giving me two noses and four hands, wings and claws, but if we are to believe that he has, in fact, done all these possible things, it seems to me that we would have to see them."

It is a pity that Voltaire did not have assess to Buddhist literature on the soul and cosmology, or else he would have realized that although God or the Supreme Reality did not give him two noses and four hands, because God did not want to make him a freak, He did give men and animals a soul, and create a million more worlds. If Voltaire had a chance to read Asvaghosha's great work and practise the spiritual cultivation suggested, the satirist might have a chance to see some of these worlds and souls.

Yet, all these countless worlds or dharmarealms are an illusion! They exist only in the phenomenal realms; they are not found in transcendental reality of perfect Enlightenment.

The Tiantai School has a poetic expression for this concept, but the poetry unfortunately is lost when translated literally: One Thought Three Thousands, or "yi nian san qian" in Chinese. It means that all the countless worlds in the infinite universe are generated from a single thought!

This does not mean the worlds or realms are imaginary. These realms are real as long as sentient beings operate in the phenomenal dimensions. For example, if you are in a land of constant famine, no amount of imagination can remove the suffering of hungry ghosts in human forms. (Surprisingly, hungry ghosts are described in Buddhist literature as having small heads and big round stomachs, which fits the appearance of famine-striken victims.) Yet, from the Buddhist perspective, this is an illusion, a cosmic trick! When you are in a state of Enlightenment, there will be no famine and no hungry ghosts. Why this is so, will be explained in the next chapter.



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