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Concept: The Nine Levels of Consciousness

Study Made Easy


Everyone can become absolutely happy. This is a core message of Nichiren Buddhism.

What blocks us from achieving such happiness, however, is our conscious or unconscious attachments to our “lesser self”—based on self-centered delusions of who we are—and environmental factors that cloud our perception and lead us away from our “greater self,” or what we call Buddhahood.

SGI President Ikeda explains: “The whole of Buddhist philosophy centers on the idea of breaking out of the prison of the lesser self to reveal the infinitely expanded true self. The nine consciousnesses concept was developed to achieve this goal” (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p. 157).

The Buddhist concept of the “nine consciousnesses” provides a theoretical framework for describing how we bring forth this “infinitely expanded true self.”

“Consciousness,” in the Buddhist context, is a translation of the Sanskrit word vijnana, which points to our ability of discernment, comprehension or perception. It refers not only to the awareness we have in a waking state, but also to a capacity or energy that functions in our lives whether or not we are aware of it (see Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, pp. 151–52).

Of the nine levels of consciousness, the first five comprise the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The sixth integrates the sensory input from the five senses into coherent images and makes judgments about the external world. Together, these six constitute the conscious mind. The remaining three levels of deeper consciousness strongly impact these first six levels and how we perceive information and interpret it.

The seventh consciousness is the intuitive realm where self-identity and the ability to distinguish oneself from others reside. It closely resembles the Western idea of the ego. Though a necessary aspect of our identity, becoming controlled by this consciousness could give rise to arrogance or insecurity.

The eighth level of consciousness is the alaya-consciousness—alaya in Sanskrit means “repository” or “residence.” All the latent causes and effects from one’s thoughts, words and deeds throughout time accumulate in what is considered a “karmic storehouse.”

The idea of a “storehouse” may conjure an image of a structure where things can be placed, but it refers to the current of karmic energy itself. The eighth consciousness transcends the boundaries of the individual and interacts with the karmic energy of others, merging with the latent karmic energy of one’s family, ethnic group and humankind, and even with that of animals and plants (see The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4, pp. 262–63). This explains how one person’s inner transformation, or human revolution, can change the destiny of a family, society and humanity.

The first seven levels of consciousness will decline over time and cease upon death, but the eighth persists eternally, carrying with it the nature of one’s being throughout the cycle of birth and death. The traditional Buddhist view holds that in order to transform one’s karmic destiny and attain enlightenment, it would take countless lifetimes of countering every past bad cause with a good cause while no new bad causes are made—a nearly impossible feat.

Nichiren Daishonin taught that we can fundamentally transform our karma in this lifetime by tapping into the ninth level of consciousness.

In contrast, Nichiren Daishonin taught that we can fundamentally transform our karma in this lifetime by tapping into the ninth level of consciousness. This is the amala-consciousness, amala meaning “pure” or “stainless.” Synonymous with our Buddha nature, it is the deepest inner realm that is, as President Ikeda describes, “pure life force, the power to live . . . It is the greater self that works for the happiness of all” (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p. 162). Just as the sun outshines the stars and moon when it rises, when we bring forth the state of Buddhahood from within, rather than suffer from each past offense we committed, we find the courage, wisdom and compassion to create value from every situation we face.

President Ikeda further explains: “Nichiren gave concrete expression to the amala-consciousness—the fundamental reality of life—in Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He thereby opened a path through which all people can reveal Buddhahood, drawing forth their latent greater self . . . and concluded that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the way to open the Buddhahood inherent in our lives, allowing it to gush forth and purify our lives from the inside out” (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p. 164).

Nichiren also encourages us to “base your mind on the ninth consciousness, and carry out your practice in the six consciousnesses” (“Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 458). By engaging the six levels of consciousness through our daily practice of gongyo and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, taking part in SGI activities, sharing Buddhism and contributing to the happiness of those around us, we can reveal the qualities of a Buddha (the ninth consciousness).

By tapping into our ninth consciousness every day in this way, we can transform our lives on the most fundamental level, develop unwavering confidence in the face of any obstacle and create supreme value. This is how each of us can realize a life state of absolute happiness.

Read more about the nine levels of consciousness in Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, pp. 151–66.

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