Open Practice: On “Substrate Consciousness” and “Complete Experience”

ultimate Inception

It’s been a while since I posted on my blog about my “Open Practice“. The truth is, I have suspended my sitting practice since I became a new dad this year. My priority had shifted to adjusting to my new role as a parent. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s challenging, yet deeply rewarding.

Although I have temporarily stopped my sitting practice, I’ve continued my dharma studies by listening to dharma-related podcasts, watching Youtube videos, and reading books, while taking care of our baby. Being a parent should not be an excuse to procrastinate from practicing. Awakening has never been more important now that I’m a father.

As a continuation of my open practice I’ll be updating my blog to keep a journal of my progress. In addition to that I’ll be publishing my email correspondence with my teacher, Shinzen Young. Shinzen generously agreed to publish our email exchanges regarding my questions about my practice. (Thanks, Shinzen!)

Last year, while reading B. Alan Wallace, I came across the term “substrate consciousness.” I was curious on how this “substrate consciousness” mapped to Shinzen’s Five Ways system. So I sent Shinzen an email and he responded quickly. His response clarified the two terminologies (“substrate consciousness” and “complete experience“) for me, at least on a conceptual level.

from: ~C4Chaos
to: Shinzen Young
date: Fri, Jun 26, 2009 at 4:51 PM

subject: Question on stream entry and "substrate consciousness"

Dear Shinzen,

I hope you're doing well. I have another a quick question when you get a chance ;)

I've been catching up on my B. Alan Wallace readings to supplement my daily practice with solid science and Buddhist scholarship. While reading Wallace I came across a term that he often uses: "substrate consciousness".

(see Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness)

Below is a relevant quote:

"As noted previously, all usual kinds of experience, both sensory and introspective, are structured by memories, language, beliefs, and expectations, which cause us to assimilate even novel experiences, whether we want to or not. One of the names for the meditative practice I am describing here is “settling the mind in its natural state,” which implies a radical deconstruction of the ways we habitually classify, evaluate, and interpret experience. The Buddhist hypothesis in this regard is that it is possible to so profoundly settle the mind that virtually all thoughts and other mental constructs eventually become dormant. The result is not a trance-like, vegetative, or comatose state. On the contrary, it is a luminous, discerningly intelligent awareness in which the physical senses are withdrawn and the normal activities of the mind have subsided.

"The culmination of this meditative process is the experience of the substrate consciousness ( ālaya-vijñāna ), which is characterized by three essential traits: bliss, luminosity, and non conceptuality. The quality of bliss does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus, for the physical senses are dormant, as if one were deep asleep. Nor does it arise in dependence upon a pleasant thought or mental image, for such mental features have become subdued. Rather, it appears to be an innate quality of the mind when settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity.

"A person who has achieved this state of attentional balance can remain effortlessly in it for at least four hours, with physical senses fully withdrawn and mental awareness highly stable and alert. The quality of luminosity is not any kind of interior light similar to what we see with the eyes. Rather, it is an intense vigilance that has the capacity to illuminate, or make consciously manifest, anything that may arise within the space of the mind."

I'm just got curious. Are you familiar with Wallace's "substrate consciousness"? Where does it fit in your system? Based on the above description, is the experience of substrate consciousness akin to stream entry. Is it prior, or post-stream entry? How would you describe "substrate consciousness" in your lingo?

I'm also interested to know if you've worked with B Alan Wallace in the integration of neuroscience and Buddhism.

That's all. Thanks again for your time. I consider you and B. Alan Wallace as two of my kick ass dharma teachers :)

Take care and godspeed,


from: Shinzen Young
to: ~C4Chaos
date: Fri, Jun 26, 2009 at 8:35 PM
subject: Re: Question on stream entry and "substrate consciousness"

Dear Rommel,

Yes, I am familiar with the notion of substrate consciousness as Alan describes it. It is just another take on what I call complete experience. All of the Five Ways are designed to point a person in that direction. Complete experience comes about when consciousness is so engaged in the activity of experiencing that there is no time to fixate that activity into a thing. So there is no time to fixate any thought into a thing, so even if you are thinking, it's not a concept, but you are very very conscious. Super-conscious in fact, hence "luminosity," and although experience has become an empty wave which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, whatever is left of the human within one responds to that with great joy, hence bliss.

Within the Five Ways system, the expansion-contraction version of focus on flow, and the do nothing version of focus on rest, are particularly designed to point people to the aspect of enlightenment that Alan is describing.

One of the reasons that teachers don't like to talk about enlightenment, is that it has so many aspects; there are so many ways of looking at it. So when someone like yourself, who is fairly early on in their practice, reads what different teachers have to say, it is very confusing and conducive to comparison-mind. You hear so many descriptions and you want to make sure that you are on the path to the deepest or best state. It makes it look like there is a lot more to it than there really is. So I wouldn't waste too much time comparing maps and descriptions. Instead, spend a lot of time with your own practice.

By and large, people who have had enlightenment and teach enlightenment are more or less equally incompetent. That includes me, Alan, and all the guys you are so interested in. Hopefully you will live long enough to see the next REAL innovation in this field.

All the best,

Comments (10)

  1. David wrote::

    This seems like a great post! I printed it out + the articles you linked to read on the train. Glad to read experiences from another meditating & blogging dad, a fellow Shinhead on top of that! (do you attend the phone retreats?) FYI: Now our second daughter has joined us, I’m doing longer daily sits, but less reading and youtubing. Maybe one day I’ll translate some of my dad/meditator experiences that I blog about in Dutch. Take care!

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 12:35 am #
  2. martin wrote::

    Thanks so much for publishing your correspondence with Shinzen, very useful!

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 6:37 am #
  3. David wrote::

    Aha, so “the ground of becoming” (bhavanga) is the same as what Shinzen calls “the source”, right? This article cleared a couple of things up for me. Thanks!

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 10:45 am #
  4. Joshua Guffey wrote::

    Um, wow! I just discovered your blog and that your here talking about metaphysical/consciousness topics. Whoa, neat!

    Something like five years ago I got Shizen Young’s audiobook the Science of Enlightenment and the book changed my perspective forever.

    You’ve peaked my interest. You’re on my radar and I’ll be watching for you in my tweet stream.

    Hope your holiday was relaxing.

    Joshua (aka @TechGuyLikesZen

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 6:20 am #
  5. kukuripa wrote::

    substrate consciousness (aliya) is not as deep as stream entry,which is direct perception of emptiness

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm #
  6. njosnavelin wrote::

    Interesting. I’m a huge fan of both Shinzen & Alan, so lots of fun reading this! I’ve often wondered how Substrate Consciousness fits into SY’s system, as its not based on any of the 6 aspects of sensation SY maps out.

    Wallace also stresses at several points during his lectures that Substrate Consciousness IS NOT Enlightenment, that it is the base of an individual thread of consciousness rather than universal consciousness, which is ‘inifinitely beyond’ our substrate.

    He also repeats that it is a result of shamatha, quiescent-stabilising-concentration practise, and not of the more insight-style practise shinzen compares it to. Wallace seems pretty strict and rigorous about these distinctions.

    It’d be interesting to hear what Wallace had to say on the matter.

    At the end of the day though, senor Young is right on the ball with his point that practise is far more important than the merry-go-round of map compare & contrasting. Still fun though ;).

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm #
  7. Greenmoon wrote::

    Saw the blog on ‘SubstrConsc’ and want to express the template you are talking of, this postulate is no path like the ‘soto-panna’ stream of realisation/transformation. It is as literal for a change, the space of mind and its contents, that is, yogically, in non-conceptual state of awareness. The ‘realisation’ does not have to be attributed to SubstrConsc, it is alsp that of posited deepest awareness: primordial awareness. To make this response more interesting, the following:

    Rupert Sheldrake being an expert in field-theories, and measuring fields, is the plenum of intersection into the lexicon in speaking of unique signatures pertaining to SubstConsc and its components such as perceived bio-energies (‘prana’) and ‘life force’ Qi. Many kinds of inferential parallel-tests of analysis are implicit, to proving unique signatures belonging to ‘individuated’ SubstConsc, that perhaps could have been found in people such as the Anne Frank reincarnate. If these signatures were registered as they are now for some contemplatives of renowned realisation, then for a reincarnate, the same signature has a high-probobility to be found in that measurement. At present, there is such a dataabase for meditative states, associated with yogically-developed psychophysical and mental development of: (i) Prana bio-energy (ii) Jiva life-force (iii), and the definitions of substrate-consciousness; those that belonging to Wallace’s special interpretations of ontological-relativity. Many test subjects have gone through his International Shamatha Project ISP, and the subject are well-prepared for open minded engagement in the research dialogs. There are now official US banks of such signatures (as SBInstitute ISP, fMRI data), and it is good that readings for various of transformed states into dimensions of consciousness, have long-been documented. Now that Wallace has a Directorship in Russia, it is possible that our exemplary neighbours there, as previous cooperation between the Russ. Acad of Sci’s, they will help to realise Wallace’s ideas for a fully-fledged laboratory of his own. That is, for a science of consciousness that Wallace has been a primary leader in founding.

    How the correlations are related as pronounced reflections of the dynamic-meditation in Qi Gong, Gong-fu, are also of great help.

    Sunday, July 30, 2017 at 5:45 pm #
  8. Greenmoon wrote::

    Because Rupert Sheldrake is an expert in field-theories, and measuring various kinds of fields, then he would be familiar with a plenum of intersection between unique signatures pertaining to SubstConsc, mapped by its various componet attributes/components: such as perceived bio-energies (‘prana’) and ‘life force’ Qi. Many kinds of inferential parallel experimental-tests of analysis are implicit, in registering instances of unique signatures belonging to ‘individuated’ SubstConsc, that perhaps could have been found in people such as an ‘Anne Frank-reincarnate’ (a candidate mentioned elsewhere in ‘Psi’ mentions). If these signatures were registered as they are now for some contemplatives of renowned realisation, then for a reincarnate, the same signature has some probobility of being founded for that measurement (especially after 500 years of prior manual expeimentation, and all those untold highly unique histories). At present, there is such a database for meditative states, associated with yogically-developed psychophysical and mental development of (i) Prana bio-energy, (ii) Jiva life-force (iii), and transformatinal definitions qualifying the substrate-consciousness; Wallace’s special interpretations of ontological-relativity. In the International Shamatha Project, many suitable scanning-signatures of those kinds have been registered into a huge database. Those most distinguished professional contemplatives have been well-prepared for open minded engagement in the research dialogs. Readings for various of transformed-states apertaining to various dimensions of consciousness, are also the parallel work. Now that Wallace has a Directorship in Russia, it is possible that our exemplary neighbours there (in continuation of previous cooperation with distinguished Russian scientists) would support all these parameters as a working laboratory model for his directorship. That is, for a science of consciousness, of which Wallace has privided all the founding considerations and general principles. How those generic correlations are related as pronounced reflections in existent levels of dynamic-meditation in Qi Gong, Gong-fu, are obviously of deeply kindred help to actualities of the wisdom-tradition.

    Sunday, July 30, 2017 at 6:39 pm #
  9. Greenmon wrote::

    P.S. You have loads more wrong on some posts. I would be happy to help. The material on SciCVN [org] would help. Could not find an Email for your site, could you post it to my Emai?

    Sunday, July 30, 2017 at 6:47 pm #
  10. The Hidden Yogi wrote::

    The substrate consciousness (Alaya) is not a result of practice. Ever sentient being enjoys having a substrate consciousness, from bugs to buddhas. That is our root of “sentience” and also our Buddha-nature.
    However, in sentient beings it is deluded, dualistic (“Vi-jnana”/dualistic awareness) whereas in Buddhas it is purified (Alaya Jnana)…..
    This alaya. or substrate consciousness, is the ground of both Samsara and Nirvana, depending on our obscurations or lack thereof yet in itself is primordially perfect with the nature of bliss, clarity, and non-conceptuality (similar to the Hindu sat-chit-ananda)….
    Stream entry is the result of practice. It is completing the first path of insight. It is a realization.
    When we have such permanent realizations by completing a path of insight then we purify a load of karma. This karma is stored in the substrate consciousness. These realizations actually purify the substrate consciousness of karma by and by. That we can have such realizations or not is only possible in part because we are conscious, other than these points there is no relation between the substrate consciousness and stream entry.

    Saturday, September 1, 2018 at 12:12 pm #