Yuan Ren Lun and Kundalini Yoga

Fabio’s recent publication on Jung and the Kundalini Yoga tradition prompted me to post this essay I wrote. The essay is probably flawed, but I think it succeeds in drawing some [very] rough parallels between Kundalini Yoga (here referred to as “Tantra” or “Tantric Hinduism”) and Ch’an Buddhism. It might be a fruitful addition to the topic of Fabio’s paper in the sense that this paper describes the development of consciousness in Zongmi’s Ch’an Buddhism  and compares this to Kundalini Yoga (which Fabio discusses in more somewhat detail). The passage discussed is the following (one can read it but don’t worry; I’ve tried my best to explain what Zongmi meant):

Nevertheless, the vital force with which we are endowed, when it is traced all the way back to its origin, is the primal pneuma of the undifferentiated oneness; and the mind that arises, when it is thoroughly investigated all the way back to its source, is the numinous mind of the absolute. In ultimate terms, there is nothing outside of mind. The primal pneuma also comes from the evolution of mind, belongs to the category of the objects that were manifested by the previously evolved consciousness, and is included within the objective aspect of the alaya[vijnana]. From the phenomenal appearance of the activation of the very first thought, [the alayavijnana] divides into the dichotomy of mind and objects. The mind, having developed from the subtle to the coarse continues to evolve from false speculation to the generation of karma (as previously set forth). Objects likewise develop from the fine to the crude, continuing to evolve from the transformation [of the alayavijnana] into heaven and earth. […] When karma has ripened, then one receives one’s endowment of the two vital forces from one’s father and mother, and, when it has interfused with activated consciousness, the human body is completely formed. According to this, the objects that are transformed from consciousness immediately form two divisions: one division is that which interfuses with consciousness to form human beings, while the other division does not interfuse with consciousness and is that which forms heaven and earth, mountains and rivers, and states and towns. The fact that only humans among the three powers [of heaven, earth, and humanity] are spiritual is due to their being fused with spirit. (Gregory, 1995, 205-206)

In this essay I will discuss a passage from Zongmi’s Yuan Ren Lun (or Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity). I will first explain the importance of Zongmi in Chinese Buddhism and then explain the way the Yuan Ren Lun is structured in order to better understand what is achieved in the passage. I will then explain the meaning and intricacies of the passage and give my opinion of its validity and will explain why I think Zongmi’s cosmogony shouldn’t be looked at for a way of explaining the origin of everything or of human beings, but of human consciousness and the ego. I will show this with an idea that Georg Feuerstein calls “as above, so below”, and together with this idea I will compare it to another tradition (Tantra) which cosmogony maps onto Zongmi’s and will argue that this lends validity to Zongmi’s framework.

The passage is abstracted from the last chapter of the Yuan Ren Lun, or the Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity. In this work, Zongmi makes a detailed argument not only for the origin of humanity but more broadly for the origin of everything. The title still is focussed on humanity, for according to Zongmi we can only understand the truths that he has discovered through the lens of the human.

The significance of Zongmi shows in his being seen as a patriarch for both Chan Buddhism and Hua-yen Buddhism, having not only made a synthesis of these two forms of Chinese Buddhism, but also incorporating other mayor Chinese philosophical school, Confucianism and Daoism.

This passage shows the synthesis of Confucianism and Daoism with Buddhism very clearly. His reference to qi (氣) is a direct incorporation of Daoist thought into his own system – I shall explain this in more depth later on.

From the very start of his essay, Zongmi makes it abundantly clear that he sees both Confucianism and Daoism as valuable lessons that need to be learned and internalized, albeit the case that they are a form of ‘lower’ teachings, as they do not reveal the origin of humanity. Zongmi names and explains a number of teachings in his Yuan Ren Lun, five to be exact, and one of his teachings is that of ‘Humans and Gods’, the teachings that synthesises the teachings Confucian and Daoist sages with those of the Buddhists.

Zongmi’s hermeneutical approach to ordering and classifying the Buddhist canon wasn’t so much a new system. The method of ‘doctrinal classification’, as Gregory translates it in his commentary on the Yuan Ren Lun, was a way for the Chinese scholastics to make sense of the different works encompassed in the Buddhist corpus being in a seemingly perpetual state of contradiction (Gregory 1995, 4). To resolve these contradictions within the texts inherited from India, the Chinese ordered the scriptures in a certain way so that one text would supersede another – everything the Buddha said had to be taken within the context that he said it in, such as his target audience. This way, some ‘truths’ the Buddha spoke were not necessarily false, they were just meant for an audience that was not yet ready for a larger, more profound truth. We could visualize this doctrine as a ladder: the first stages of the ladder need to be gripped to climb up to the top of the ladder, and to climb up one needs to let go of the previous stages of said ladder. In the same way the preliminary teachings of the Buddha should be understood and then discarded for another, more profound teaching.

This system opens the door for Zongmi to incorporate the Confucian and Daoist teachings into his Buddhist framework. As I already mentioned, he does this in his teaching of ‘Humans and Gods’. This allows him to still keep the core teachings of the Chinese traditions intact and to validate them: they are true, although less profound than the teaching that supersedes them. Zongmi sees in Confucianism and Daoism a well-developed system of morality and the role of the teaching of ‘Humans and Gods’ is to stop people from generating bad karma, so they will not be reincarnated as an animal or in hell, in order for them to pursue enlightenment in their next life also. (Gregory 1995, 110-127)

This teaching is superseded by the teaching of the Lesser Vehicle, the Hinayana.

Zongmi tells us that this teaching informs us of the errors of the teaching which it supersedes. The teaching of the Lesser Vehicle is mostly comprised of early Buddhist teachings, as it is mostly concerned with the teaching of anatman (no-self) and refutes the teaching of Humans and Gods because in order for one’s actions to be fruitful for oneself, there needs to be a self – which is non-existent according to the Lesser Vehicle. It shows the non-existence of the self by showing that the so-called ‘self’ eventually is merely constituted of dharmas, which has a rich variety of meanings in Buddhist literature. In this context, a dharma is atomic principle of experiences, in that it is the smallest and indivisible unit of a single experience. (Gregory 1995, 128-147)

After the Lesser Vehicle comes the teaching of Phenomenal Appearances of the Dharmas. It shows that not only the self, but also the dharmas are empty because they both are products from the alayavijnana, the ‘store-house consciousness’. Karmic seeds are stored in the alayavijnana and from this it forms the fundamental basis for all other consciousnesses. (Gregory 1995, 148-160)

This teaching is then superseded by the penultimate teaching that Refutes Phenomenal Appearances, which is primarily a negative teaching in the sense that it simply refutes the previous teaching in order to make room for the teaching that in turn supersedes it, the final teaching. The teaching that Refutes Phenomenal Appearances refutes, as its apt title suggests, phenomenal appearances. It does so by showing that the teaching of Phenomenal Appearances of the Dharmas forgets to incorporate the fact that the subject and the object, the consciousness and the outer world are interdependent, and because they are interdependent they have no existence all on their own and this (in a nutshell) means that they are both empty. (Gregory 1995, 161-176)

This teaching then is superseded by the final teaching, the Revelation of the Nature. It reveals that the alavavijnana stems from an even deeper, more fundamental source: the tathagatagarbhaTathagata is another name for a Buddha, someone who has reached enlightenment – tathagatabarbha is the ‘Buddha-nature’. Literally it is the Tathagata that is ‘enwombed’ (Gregory 1995, 223). In essence it means that everyone has this ‘Buddha-nature’, an enwombed buddha inside oneself – everyone intrinsically has the potential for enlightenment. This teaching finally shows the origin of humanity (and in a sense, everything else) being pure, undifferentiated consciousness out of which all things arise – or as Zongmi calls it in the passage this essay is concerned with, the ‘numinous mind of the absolute’. This is why everyone intrinsically is capable of reaching enlightenment: it is simply a return to the source of all things. Zongmi calls this final teaching the root (ben 本) and the other teachings are the branches (mo 末). In order for us to properly understand the branch-teachings, we have to deeply understand the root. (Gregory 1995, 177-206)

Zongmi’s Yuan Ren Lun is structured around this root-branch dichotomy. He starts by explaining and refuting the branches in order for us to properly understand the root. Then, when we have discovered the root, he reconciles the root and the branch-teachings. He explains how it is possible that we go from this undifferentiated consciousness to the world in which we are attached to selves and phenomenal appearances. This culminates in the passage this essay is concerned with, the ultimate reconciliation of the root and the branches, the evolution of the world explained not only in Buddhist terms, but also in Daoist terms.

The Daoist influence is seen in the use of qi (氣) by Zongmi. Qi is translated by Gregory as ‘vital force’ when it relates to the individual life force within the individual, and when in relation to the ‘cosmogonic’ force (元氣yuan qi) as primal pneuma. Doing this he stays true to the etymology of the character which is the character for air. The character having a root in ‘air’ signifies breath, which is akin to the translation to ‘vital force’ – one could almost very roughly translate it to the fundamental form of ‘life energy’, it’s identification with the breath similar to spirit, anima, pneuma and even the Sanskrit prana, whose etymological roots all lead back to the breath. This life force originates from the ‘primal pneuma’, the same way the mind comes from the primal consciousness, from which everything stems.

Everything I have explained so far leads us to the first few sentences of the passage:

“Nevertheless, the vital force (氣qi) with which we are endowed, when it is traced all the way back to its origin, is the primal pnuema (元氣yuan qi) of the undifferentiated oneness, and the mind that arises, when it is thoroughly investigated all the way back to its source, is the numinous mind of the  absolute (即真一之靈心ji zhen yi zhi ling xin).  In ultimate terms, there is nothing outside of mind…”

We clearly see Zongmi’s use of the concept of qi in these first few lines of the concluding verses of the Yuan Ren Lun. He affirms that there is nothing outside of the mind, the ‘numinous mind of the absolute’, the primal consciousness, but he still validates the Daoist doctrine of qi and that the world is one qi. He goes on to explain how it is possible for there to be only one undifferentiated consciousness to the world of multiplicity we experience:

Objects likewise develop from the fine to the crude, continuing to evolve from the transformation (of the ālayavijṅāna) into heaven and earth (天地tian di).

Here we see the interdependence of the mind and the external world. He goes on to explain how the body is formed:

When karma has ripened, then one receives one’s endowment of the two vital forces (二氣er qi) from one’s father and mother, and when it has interfused with activated consciousness (業識ye shi), the human body (人身ren shen) is completely formed.

In this passage we also see the Daoist influence on Zongmi’s cosmogony: the two vital forces that one gets from one’s mother and father are yin and yang respectively, the two energies being the two fundamental vital forces (氣 qi). Zongmi then explains the difference between human beings and other inanimate objects, coming from the same source but getting fused with different things:

 According to this, the objects that are transformed from consciousness immediately form two divisions: one division is that which interfuses with consciousness to form human beings, while the other division does not interfuse with consciousness and is that which forms heaven and earth, mountains and rivers and states and towns.  The fact that only humans among the three powers (of heaven, earth and humans) are spiritual (靈ling) is due to their being fused with spirit (心神xin shen).

Personally, I think Zongmi’s view on the human mind is a very plausible one. This is for two reasons. The first reason is that in a lot of soteriological traditions there is a form of human/universe symmetry, an ‘as above, so below’ principle, as Georg Feuerstein writes in his book Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. I will be talking specifically about Tantric Hinduism/Buddhism for a good parallel in this essay, but even Genesis we see this symmetry: God created Man in his image. The principle is that the human body and mind mirror the structure of the universe, so that when we have knowledge about the mind, we have knowledge about the universe – and the other way around. With our modern-day science, we know a lot (though not as much as we would like to believe) about the universe. Many of the soteriological traditions I’m concerned with here are in contradiction to science when it comes to the outer world and seeing as science has oftentimes proven to be a reliable method of exploring the world, the authority these traditions hold on finding out the structure of the universe has drastically declined. However, science hasn’t come to know very much about the structure of human consciousness, or even what it is – for this we can still legitimately look to these traditions, as they have done thousands of years of phenomenological research through meditation and other practices. The ‘as above, so below’ principle thus means that we can know more about the (phenomenology) of the human mind by studying cosmogonies of the traditions we’re concerned with.

So even if we wouldn’t agree with Zongmi’s cosmogony, we could still apply it to the origin or the structure of the human mind. But why should we favour Zongmi’s account of human consciousness over other accounts? The answer is we don’t necessarily need to: there are some striking similarities between Zongmi’s cosmogony and cosmogony of Tantric Hinduism, which I believe lends credibility to both, even when seen through a scientific lens: they have done somewhat independent research (although I can’t with certainty say that both traditions necessarily haven’t influenced one another) and they have come to similar conclusions – which is perfectly in line with the scientific criterion for the need for the repeatability required of an experiment and the same results needing to come out under the same conditions. This is the second reason that I believe Zongmi is on the right path when concerned with the phenomenology of human consciousness, because his findings parallel those of other traditions.

In what way does Zongmi’s cosmogony parallel the Tantric cosmogony? The first stage in both cosmogonies are the ‘One Mind’ – the undifferentiated oneness – and Parama-Shiva, the Ultimate Reality. In this stage everything is one consciousness, one reality. There is not yet a subject, there are no objects. Both these cosmogonies have an intrinsic polarity in them however – the two fundamental forms of qiare yinand yang(feminine and masculine) and the two fundamental powers in the Parama-Shiva are Shakti and Shiva(feminine and masculine).

We go one stage down and in Zongmi’s path we go from intrinsic enlightenment to unenlightenment and the arising of thoughts, roughly corresponding to shakti starting to polarize consciousness and starts to lay the groundwork for the subject to arize, which happens in the next step of both cosmogonies: Arising of the Perceiving Subject in the Yuan Ren Lun, and two steps in the Tantric Tradition according to Feuerstein: Sadakhya (which starts the arising of the “I am this”, yet with not yet a clear concept of the “this” and a clearer emphasis on the “I”) and Ishvara (which makes clear that “this I am”, which makes the subject an object in itself) (Feuerstein 1998, 62).

The next stage is the clear and final distinction between a subject and an object. Sad-Vidya in the Tantric tradition means that there are (still within the One!) subjects and objects, Zongmi calls this stage “Manifestation of Perceived Objects”.

From here there is a subject who starts believing that there are objects, who attaches meaning to the self, actions and consequences in both frameworks: the world has been created and humans have gained their “ego function” (Feuerstein 1998, 63)

I have now very broadly compared the cosmogonic stages of two traditions which are map onto each quite neatly when done is this way (though it is rough). Seeing as both traditions have done their separate phenomenological research, it lends credibility to both that their results are largely the same. Also, while both claim to be cosmogonic in nature and try to explain the origin of the ‘external world’, with modern science in our minds we can still lend them credibility to speak about the origin of the human mind instead if we keep to the ‘as above so below’ principle: they believed that there was a human/cosmos symmetry, which means that when they talked about the origin of the cosmos, they simultaneously talked about the human mind. Zongmi has thus given a broad phenomenological framework for the ego functions, the yin and yang (or shakti and shiva) and how they come about – and how they are not necessary for human consciousness to exist, but how they are added onto it later by certain processes.


Feuerstein, Georg. 1998. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Gregory, Peter N. 1995. Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi’s Yüan jen lun with a Modern Commentary. Hawaii: Hawaii University Press.


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