Alaya Vijnana as Universal Oversoul

My last article here got a response (through email) from David Reigle himself. He wonders – what is wrong with his article?

Nothing much: it is a great article, however it perpetuates a theosophical interpretation of Alaya Vijnana that is – as far as I can tell – very simply wrong.

Let’s start with the basics. I looked up Alaya Vijnana in several Buddhist reference works and I think the definition in The Buddhist Encyclopedia says it well – and also makes it clear why Alaya Vijnana could be interpreted as an Oversoul, even though that is probably not what is meant:

The Alaya Vijnana (storehouse consciousness) is the most fundamental of the eight consciousnesses recognized in the Vijnanavada school of thought. It is said to contain all the “seeds” for the “consciousness-moments” or “consciousness-events” that people generally call reality. (p. 13, John S. Strong)

The Vijnanavada school of thought is also known as Chittamatra: Mind Only. It is a philosophical school that stresses consciousness beyond what other schools of Buddhist philosophy do: it says that all of our (experienced) reality is a projection of our mind!

That’s a tough pill to swallow. However, to understand the issue here, you have to at least be able to imagine that position, because the rest follows from it.

This is a very individualist world-view. It doesn’t enter on the question whether (and to what extent) my experienced reality overlaps with yours. It certainly does NOT try to find a universal something that is at the root of our common experience.

Since a Universal Something is precisely what theosophist DO try to find, finding it in the Alaya Vijnana is an original, but also anachronistic, solution. It totally ignores the main point the Vijnanavada school tries to make: all you experience is your own individual karma!

I went into the karma aspect of this topic in my book “Essays on Karma“, which I won’t repeat here.

I will point out some issues with trying to see Alaya Vijnana as a universal principle – in the theosophical sense of a principle that unites us all. We all have a body, but that doesn’t mean we all have ONE body. Similarly, though every being is (in this rather unique school of Buddhist philosophy) said to have an Alaya Vijnana, that doesn’t mean we all have access to one and the SAME Alaya Vijnana – as some kind of universal oversoul kind of thing.

This makes sense, because karma is individual. Anybody reading this has the karma to be a human being in this life, however – that is still your individual karma. The only thing universal here is that we all have karma – and are creating more every day.

In Chittamatra terms: I have an Alaya Vijnana and you have yours, and mine contains my karmic seeds and yours contains yours. Where we have shared perceptions, we also have shared karmic seeds. We all have the karmic seeds of experiencing this earth, for instance.

In more technical language – Gareth Sparham in his introduction to ‘Ocean of Eloquence’ by Lama Tsong Khapa, a text devoted to this topic, says (p. 8):

“The Alaya-Vijnana, out of its nature as the sum total of all seeds of experience became, in a causal sense at least, samsara itself. And by extension liberation (nirvana) came to be described in terms of the removal of the alaya-vijnana, or, more exactly, by fundamental transformation (asraya-parivrttti/paravrtti) of it. At the end of the long course of yogic endeavor, so painstakingly plotted out in all its detail in the Yogacara texts, the alaya-vijnana would change from being an opaque store of residual impressions into an enlightened Buddha mind in which all things were manifestly reflected (adarsana – jnana).”

Note that the logic is clear: an individual Alaya-Vijnana may be transformed into an individual Buddha-mind. Doing so won’t turn anybody else into a Buddha, just the storehouse consciousness of that individual practitioner.

General points

The theosophical project seeks to find a universal religion/philosophy at the basis of all religion. As such it has tended  to lump everything together as though you can mix and match religions for your own purposes.

In this case – the sources for Alaya Vijnana as an Oversoul are slim. I can’t find it in Tibetan Buddhism at all, while elsewhere it is only present in the modernist Zen Buddhism of D.T. Suzuki. Certainly Lama Tsong Khapa – who Blavatsky revered – doesn’t go there. What’s more – Blavatsky doesn’t use the term at all (except here).

Theosophists and people inspired by theosophists DO use ‘Alaya Vijnana’ as oversoul, but generally do no more than invoke the word in a long list of supposedly equal terms from various traditions. See for instance Franklin Merrell-Wolff (on my own site). Note that while he does cite a Buddhist work there, it is not a reference work. Nor does he actually use that work to prove the unity of Atma and Alaya Vijnana that he claims. As far as I can tell, interpreting Alaya Vijnana as Oversoul WAS done in Western Buddhology at the beginning of the 20th century, but is definitely outdated now.

Note that I compared the Alaya Vijnana to the Auric Egg in an article in 2004. The associations are very different from an Oversoul.


In general: no attempt has been made at scholarly transcription of Buddhist technical terms. In the quotes – see the original for the correct spelling.


I have studied Buddhist philosophy for over a decade now. I passed the ‘Basic Program’ test about the ‘Four Schools of Buddhist Philosophy’ (called ‘Tenets‘) with honors last year.

Also checked

Reference to Alaya Vijnana found in older Western Buddhist literature: The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and a Buddhist Pilgrimage, By James Bissett Pratt, p. 246 from 1928.


David Reigle himself corrected the article online and in a new version of his book (from which the article was taken) and online as follows:

The issue is a bit complex, because other than a small remnant Hosso school in Japan, there is no existing Cittamātra or “mind-only” school of Buddhism. Its teachings are studied in Tibet only as a tenet system to be superseded by the Madhyamaka school’s tenets, and in China its teachings were absorbed into the Hua-yen (Huayan) and Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) schools. In these schools, “mind-only” has an entirely different meaning, referring to the “one mind” (eka-citta, Chinese: yixing or i-hsin), in contrast to “consciousness-only” (vijñapti-mātra), the teaching of the Cittamātra or Vijñāna-vāda school. In the “consciousness-only” teaching, the ālaya-vijñāna is individual, the highest part of the fifth of five aggregates that constitute a person, the aggregate of consciousness (vijñāna-skandha). In the Hua-yen and Ch’an schools, following The Awakening of Faith and the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, the ālaya-vijñāna is equated with the “one mind” and the tathāgata-garbha or buddha-nature found in all. Tsongkhapa, too, accepted the equation of the ālaya-vijñāna and the tathāgata-garbha as taught in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra and Ghanavyūha-sūtra, but held that these two terms require interpretation (Tsong Khapa’s Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence, translated by Robert Thurman, p. 350). Otherwise, he says, they would be like the Hindu ātman idea. Thus, he interpreted the tathāgata-garbha as the emptiness of the mind, and he interpreted this ālaya-vijñāna as emptiness, while he rejected the existence of the individual ālaya-vijñāna altogether, even its conventional existence. It is the individual ālaya-vijñāna that he rejected in his eight so-called difficult points, and my giving this as the way by which he rejected the third fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine was wrong. His rejection of this proposition is by way of his interpreting the tathāgata-garbha (and the ālaya-vijñāna as equated with it), like the clear light mind (prabhāsvara-citta), as individual potentials rather than as anything like a universal oversoul.

For those who may be interested, the new material that replaced the faulty material on pp. 157-158 of this book (or pp. 11-12 of the article) is:

The third fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine fares no better with Tsongkhapa. It is the fundamental identity of all souls with the universal oversoul, itself an aspect of the unknown root. In East Asian Buddhism, the tathāgata-garbha (the buddha-nature) is equated with the “one mind” (eka-citta) or universal mind. It is also equated with the ālaya-vijñāna,“storehouse consciousness,” or “foundational consciousness.” This is likened to the ocean and its waves. A wave rises and falls, like the individual consciousness that comprises an individual person, yet does not differ from the ocean, like the storehouse consciousness is the same as the one mind. But as just seen, Tsongkhapa rejects any understanding of the tathāgata-garbha as a universal mind in the sense of something that all minds or consciousnesses or souls could be one with. For him, any such statement found in the Buddhist sūtras requires interpretation. Thus, the tathāgata-garbha is understood by Tsongkhapa as the emptiness of the mind. The ālaya-vijñāna as equated with the tathāgata-garbha is understood as emptiness. The ālaya-vijñāna as an individual consciousness, the highest part of the aggregate of consciousness (vijñāna -skandha) of a person, was specifically denied to exist by Tsongkhapa, even conventionally.23 Like the tathāgata-garbha, the mind of clear light (prabhāsvara-citta) was understood as an individual potential. Any idea of a universal oversoul was pointedly rejected by Tsongkhapa. There is no universal oversoul that all souls could be one with, nor is there an unknown root that it could be an aspect of.