Perfuming the Mind: Yogacara Buddhism

The Yogacara school of thought within Buddhism exerts a strong influence on most major schools within East Asian Buddhism, but for a long time, the terminology has really confused me. One of these points that has recently been clarified to me is the notion of “perfuming the seeds” or “perfuming the mind”.

In the book I’ve been reading recently on Yogacara/Hosso Buddhism, the fifth chapter talks a length about the notion of ālaya vijñāna or “store consciousness”. In Yogacara-speak, this is the most fundamental part of the mind, which absorbs all the raw impressions of life, and in turn these provide the impetus for future thoughts and actions. These “experiences” and their potency are referred to as seeds because they have the potential to lead to future thoughts and actions (seeds germinate, grow, ripen, etc, etc).

So on the one hand, the mind is accumulating all these seeds of experiences, which as Rev. Tagawa explains, automatically lead to certain dispositions. The sum total of the impressions we have in our minds exudes itself in our personality and disposition. If you grew up in a rough neighborhood, you tend to exude the experiences you accumulated there, while someone who grew up in a posh neighborhood may exude that background instead.

In an amusing sidenote, I read this part and thought to myself “Hm, I should start living a more wholesome lifestyle, so I can exude better qualities…”

Guess what? Rev. Tagawa says in the next sentence:

To the extent that we deepen this kind of contemplation of the ramifications of the store consciousness, we cannot but end up coming to the conclusion that form this moment forward, we must try to orient our lives in some positive direction. Yogācāra Buddhism is asking us to seek out a way of life grounded in such a recognition and awareness.

Ha! Scary that he read my mind like that. ;)

Just kidding. Anyways, this leads to a discussion of the notion of “perfuming the seeds in your mind” in Yogacara Buddhism. The concept is simple enough: your actions now lead to further impressions that are stored in the mind’s store consciousness.

For example, take a brand-new pair of jeans. If you hang around a lot in smoky bars, your jeans will smell like tobacco and alcohol (and possibly puke), or if you work in a teriyaki restaurant, like I did in high school, your jeans will smell like a deep-fat fryer. By contrast, if you work in a coffee-shop, your jeans would smell like coffee and so on.

So, in the same way, your actions “perfume” your mind because the resultant experiences create new seeds for the store consciousness.

Now, if you think about this carefully, it’s a big cycle. The seeds and experiences in your mind lead to thoughts and actions, which in turn generate more seeds of experiences, which lead to more actions and so on. It’s like a big feedback loop. In the book it’s described simply as “seeds generating seeds”. The same seeds don’t sit in your mind forever, since all things according to Buddhism arise and cease, but instead they are constantly in a cycle that generates thoughts and actions, which in turn generate more seeds. Even if you don’t take actions, the thoughts you have still create impressions and perfume the mind further, so as the famous Hosso scholar, Jōkei, wrote:

Although we are careful when we know we are being watched by others, we should not forget that we are also watched by spiritual beings. (trans. A.C. Muller)

The point here isn’t whether spiritual beings really are reading our minds or not.1 Instead, it’s that even our thoughts produce visible, long-term results, so we should be careful as much to guard our thoughts as we do our actions. Both perfume the mind with new seeds.

Anyways, there’s not a whole lot you can do about the seed-side of the cycle. That’s just how the mind works. Instead, you can focus on the action-side. If you make a conscious effort to follow a more wholesome lifestyle, you will perfume the mind and its seeds with more wholesome experiernces. This is why the Buddhist moral precepts become so important. It’s not just a way to earn merit and so on, but it actually has a healing effect on the mind. Bhikkhu Thannisaro of the Theravada sect describes the same thing in a famous article about the scarring of the mind that comes from unwholesome action. Since you are “perfuming” yourself with whatever actions you choose to take, your personality naturally exudes this perfuming as well.

So, going back to the jeans example, and again speaking from experience, if you spent a lot of time at a Buddhist temple, your jeans would smell of incense a lot.2 In the same way, if you choose to follow a wholesome life, follow the precepts and so on, not only will you perfume your mind with wholesome experiences, but this pleasant “odour” will be enjoyed by those around you too.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 No jokes about tin-foil hats, please. :)

2 My wife and I always liked going to the temple in Seattle on Sunday, for that nice post-temple incense smell. ;)

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2 Comments on “Perfuming the Mind: Yogacara Buddhism”

  1. johnl says:

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    In addition to being careful about daily life, I think part of that perfume comes from practices like gongyo, otsutome, reading sutras, etc. I like to do this before meditation, to let that perfume sink in. It is natural to seek an intellectual understanding of the sutras, but there is something to be said for just repeating them, and letting them resonate for a while, hooking up with a deeper level of the mind.

    I am a bit of an incense freak as well. It is such a great metaphor–the perfume wafting through the room. The sense of smell is really direct–no symbolic language, no decoding that is so often a part of our visual and auditory life.

    Hope I’m not getting carried away here…


  2. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, not at all. Great input, and I like your suggestion about gongyo *before* you meditate. I always tended to do the opposite, but I’ll try it your way.

    As for incense, if I had the time and lived in Japan, I’d probably look into “kado” (way of incense) just for fun. :)

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