Buddhism Ālayavijñāna
William S. Waldron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0003


Ālaya-vijñāna (storehouse consciousness) refers to a level of subliminal mental processes that occur uninterruptedly throughout one’s life and, in the Buddhist view, one’s multiple lifetimes. It represents, in effect, one’s personal continuity along with the continuity of one’s accumulated karmic potential (hence, “storehouse”). Ālaya-vijñāna—along with Consciousness-Only (vijñapti-mātra) and the Three Natures (trisvabhāva)—is one of the distinguishing doctrines of the Yogācāra (“Practitioners of Yoga”) school of Indian Buddhism. The Yogācāra school flourished in India from the 3rd to 5th centuries of the Common Era and influenced all later types of Buddhism, particularly in Tibet and East Asia; the development of the concept of ālaya-vijñāna parallels this history. Initially, ālaya-vijñāna addressed a series of problems created by the Abhidharmic emphasis on the momentary nature of all mental processes, mostly concerning personal continuity: the continuity of karmic potential and the afflictions (kleśa) in a latent state, the gradual path to liberation, and the problem of rebirth. Once articulated, this underlying level of subliminal consciousness also allowed for a more robust explanation of the constructed nature of perception (“consciousness-,” “representation-,” or “appearance-only,” vijñapti-mātra) as well as the commonality of our experienced world (bhājana-loka). And since it represents the “store” of one’s past karma, ālaya-vijñāna is what must be eliminated, transformed, or purified on the path to liberation, when it becomes a “stainless consciousness” (amala-vijñāna). In some texts, it is even equated with tathāgatha-garbha (roughly, “buddha-nature”), a relationship later Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists developed along with other aspects of the Yogācāra traditions they received from India. More recently, ālaya-vijñāna has been compared with theories of unconscious mental processes in depth psychology and cognitive science.

General Overviews

The concept of ālaya-vijñāna arose out of a welter of controversies in Indian Buddhist Abhidharma traditions (2nd–5th century CE) and is accordingly complex and multifaceted. Both Nhat Hanh 2006 and Tagawa 2009, however, use everyday experience to skillfully illustrate the multiple functions ālaya-vijñāna plays within Yogācāra’s complex model of mind. Yamabe 2004 succinctly summarizes the basic issues in more strictly Buddhist terms, which are delineated in dense detail in Waldron 1994 and elaborated more discursively in Waldron 2003. La Vallée Poussin 1934 provides an early yet still useful synopsis of the concept for scholars familiar with Indian Buddhist terms and texts. Schmithausen’s 1987 traces the development of ālaya-vijñāna in all its permutations and associated concepts with painstaking detail and philological rigor; it is also noteworthy for its bibliography. Buescher 2008 both builds on and critiques Schmithausen’s work, with an equal eye toward detail.

  • Buescher, Harmut The Inception of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda. Beiträge zur Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte Asiens Series 62. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.

    A largely philological and historical study that reconstructs the chronology of early Yogācāra (also known as Vijñānavāda), placing ālaya-vijñāna at the core of Yogācāra’s new ontological model. Assumes substantial knowledge.

  • Nhat Hanh, Thich. Understanding Our Mind. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2006.

    A simple and evocative introduction to the major concepts of Yogācāra from the point of view of a leading Buddhist teacher and monk. Very accessible, though often repetitious.

  • Schmithausen, Lambert Ālayavijñāna: On the Origin and the Early Development of a Central Concept of Yogācāra Philosophy. 2 vols. Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1987.

    A painstaking philological study seeking to identify the first instance of, and rationale for, the term ālaya-vijñāna in Indian Yogācāra texts. Assumes substantial knowledge. Includes a comprehensive bibliography, including the best of the voluminous Japanese scholarship on ālaya-vijñāna to date of publication.

  • Tagawa, Shun’ei Living Yogācāra: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism. Translated by A. Charles Muller. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

    A nontechnical introduction, written in an accessible and engaging fashion, to the basic ideas of Yogācāra, heavily influenced by East Asian perspectives. Pages 29–60, especially, describe the psychological roles of ālaya-vijñāna in relation to other cognitive processes. A good start for nonspecialists.

  • La Vallée Poussin, Louis de “Note sur l’ālayavijñāna.” In Mélanges chinoise et bouddhiques. Vol. 3, pp. 145–168. Brussels, Belgium: Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1934.

    An early academic analysis of the basic doctrines and texts describing ālaya-vijñāna.

  • Waldron, William S. “How Innovative Is the Ālayavijñāna? The Ālayavijñāna in the Context of Canonical and Abhidharma Vijñāna Theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 22.3 (1994): pp. 199–258.

    This dense two-part article details the development of ālaya-vijñāna in Indian Buddhism, supported by copious citations and footnotes. Assumes a working knowledge of Indian Buddhist texts and terms. The second half appears in Journal of Indian Philosophy 23 (1995): 9–51. Available online.

  • Waldron, William S. The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    An analysis of the development of ālaya-vijñāna in light of early Buddhist and Abhidharmic analyses of mind. It includes translations of crucial Yogācāra texts, including extensive passages from the Yogācārabhūmi and Mahāyāna-samgraha.

  • Yamabe, Nobuyoshi “Theories of Consciousness.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 174–178. New York: Macmillan, 2004.

    An incisive summary of the background, rationale, and extrapolations of the concept of ālaya-vijñāna. An excellent introduction to the Buddhist framework within which ālaya-vijñāna developed.

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