Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “vijnanabija (seed-consciousness)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 2 - Vijñānabīja (seed-consciousness)

Note: This appendix is extracted from the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra Chapter XXXI (The Four Foundations of Mindfulness): “The seed-consciousness (vijñānabīja) conditioned by previous actions (pūrvakarman) settles in the blood (śoṇita) and whitish sperm (śukra)”.

The vijñāna-bīja “seed-consciousness”, the consciousness which is seed, is obviously the third member of the causal chain, the member conditioned by actions and itself conditioning name and form (nāmarūpa). This is what descends into the mother’s womb and is the first seed of the new being. This vijñāna was the subject of a conversation between the Buddha and Ānanda (Dīgha, II, p. 63: Kośavyākhyā, p. 669; Madh. vṛtti, p. 552).

Transl. – If the vijñāna, O Ānanda, did not descend into the mother’s womb, would the nāmarūpa (i.e., the entire living individual) coagulate as an embryo? – No, Lord.

If the vijñāna went away after having descended into the mother’s womb, would the nāmarūpa come into existence? – No, Lord.

If the vijñāna were to be cut off in the child, boy or girl, would the nāmarūpa grow and develop? – No, Lord.

The technical term vijñānabīja used here by the Traité does not appear, it seems, in the canonical scriptures, but occurs in some Mahāyānasūtras, especially in the Śalistamba, ed. Sastri, p. 13–14 (cited with a few variants in Madh. vṛtti, p. 566, and Pañjikā, p, 480:

Transl. –

“Although this twelve-membered co-dependent production set in action for all of eternity continues to function uninterruptedly like the current of a river, however, four members of this twelve-membered co-dependent production function as cause to ensure its substance. What are these four? They are ignorance, craving, action and consciousness. Here consciousness is cause as seed: action is cause as field; ignorance and craving are causes as defilements. Action and the defilements give rise to the seed-consciousness; action plays the part of field for the seed-consciousness; craving waters the seed-consciousness, ignorance plants the seed-consciousness. If these four conditions do not exist, there is no arising for the seed-consciousness.”

But it seems that the Śalistamba may have been directly inspired by the Bhava-sutta of Anguttara, I, p. 23–224, where the Buddha explains to Ānanda:

“If the action destined to be retributed in kāma-, rūpa- or ārūpyadhātu did not exist, existence (bhava) in one of these three realms would not manifest.”

The Sūtra continues by saying:

Iti kho Ānanda kammaṃ khettam, viññānaṃ bījaṃ, taṇhā sineho avijjānīvaraṇānaṃ sattānaṃ taṇhāsaṃyojanānaṃ hīnāya… majjhimāya… paṇitāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ.

“Indeed, O Ānanda, action is the field, consciousness is the seed, and craving is the moisture (of the soil). In beings chained by ignorance, fettered by craving, consciousness manifests in the lower, middle or higher realm.”

The Bhava-sutta exits in a Chinese version in the Ts’i tch’ou san kouan king (T 150a, no. 42, p. 881c), an anthology of 47 sūtras translated by Ngan Che-kao, the first year of the yuan-kia period (151a. D.). Tan-ngan claims that these sūtras are extracts from the Saṃyuktāgama (cf. Li-tsi, T 2034, k. 4, p. 50b1), but actually, only two sūtras – the Sattaṭṭhāna (no, 1) and the Puggala (no, 30) – come from the Saṃyukta, and all the others are borrowed from the Ekottara. The anthology is entitled Ts’i tch’ou ‘The Seven Subjects’, after the title of the first sūtra Sattaṭṭhāna (cf. K’ai-yuan, T 2154, k. 1, p. 479c16).

It is quite characteristic that the Bhava-sutta, dealing with the vijñāna-bīja, should have been one of the first to be translated into Chinese. The seed-consciousness was called upon to play a large role in the Abhidharma (see Kośa, III, p. 25, 26, 124, 26); it is the basis of the Vijñānavādin psychology which made the ālayavijñāna, the consciousness-receptacle ‘provided with all the seeds’ (sarvabījaka) the support of the knowable (jñeyāśraya); cf. Mahāyānasaṃgraha, p. 12 seq.