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,

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