Discovering the Unconscious
I suspect that a good deal of the contemporary misunderstanding of Buddhadharma can be laid at the door of the mistranslation or misunderstanding of the words vijnana and ayatana. Ayatana is generally taken as referring the the senses and vijnana to consciousness. However, the basic meaning of ayatana is that which is out of control. Again the word for consciousness is jnana, so vijnana actually seems to refer to the unconscious.
It may well be that Buddha discovered the unconscious twenty four centuries before Freud and called it vi-jnana.
Watching the Cat Flap
These two words occur in many many places in the Buddhist texts. It seems not unreasonable to construe ayatana as referring to the senses in many contexts. However, if one is clear about the basic meaning of the word, then having the senses so designated gives a much fuller sense to the teaching. If the point is that the senses are outside of personal control then one gets a different picture of the kind of mind model that the Buddha is working with. He is really talking about the senses as being like pet cats. Cats are only semi-domesticated. They go out hunting and you never know what they are going to bring home. When Buddha talks about guarding the sense doors, he has this kind of idea. The sense door is like the cat flap. Perhaps sweet pussy is just about to bring in a rat and dump it in the hall.
Stocking the Unconscious
Then vijnana is the last of the skandhas. The skandhas can be readily construed as giving a model of how we internalise experience, and where does that experience end up? In the unconscious. In fact, the whole skandha teaching can be seen as a model of how the unconscious gets packed with stuff that can be a spiritual liability. Result, avidya. Thia is why Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, makes much of the idea of mental diet. What we pay attention to lays down structures in the unconscious. Some of these structures are shared with other people and that provides the basis of a culture - all the things we take for granted. These are the bones of our mental life. If we do not have the right bones, then it is very difficult to operate the flesh correctly. Consciousness is the surface level, the flesh, if you like. Dharma training may employ the flesh, but the aim is to sort out the bones.
Roaming in the Depths
Ayatana is also an element in many compounds, including some not directly relating to the senses. These two terms come together, for instance, in the seventh dhyana. This is the penultimate dhyana called, in Pali, viññanãñcãyatana which is vijnana-añca-ayatana . Ñanamoli & Bodhi translate this as “infinite consciousness”. However, the words taken individually and then put together would appear to mean something like the intense arousal of the uncontroled unconscious. This could certainly be a rapture (dhyana) in a way that is hardly conveyed by the cool sounding term "infinite consciousness". The conventional translation implies mental mastery, whereas the words actually suggest exploring the unconscious and allowing the mind to roam in its own deep dark depths. I think that C.G.Jung would have found more sense in the old words than in the new ones.
All of this gives a rather different feel to what the Buddha was up to. It makes his enterprise much closer to psychoanalysis. In modern psychotherapy we have many schools and they represent different levels. There is behaviourism. Below that we have cognitive theory. Below that we have the attitudinal therapies that are called humanistic. Deeper still we have the analytical. Buddhism has all of these in a single system. Buddha perceives many layers. He says that an observer would see the superficial, the good behaviour, the personal restraint. A more perceptive person would see the mind training, the management of consciousness, but the most observant person would see below the surface altogether (prajna) into the vijnana where ayatana makes añca. Añca refers to excitation - the kind that makes one's hair stand up. So the Buddha wanted us to explore the dapths as well as regulate the surface. Unless we explore what the unconscious is it is unlikely that any resolution that we make at a conscious level is going to endure very long.
I, therefore, have a suspicion that Buddha was a lot more like Freud than we think and that he was telling us about the uncontrolled passions that move below the surface. He encouraged us to explore them, but not mistake them for any kind of personal true nature. All the phenomena of the uncontrolled unconscious are actually dependently conditioned. This is what Buddha understood. Again, everything that arises from a cause or condition is subject to change and does not last forever.
There has been a tendency to equate meditation with enlightenment. Meditation is exploration and the most useful explorations are those that reveal human nature to us, both our own and those of others. This will not reveal our pristine goodness. It will show us the waywardness - what Freud called the "polymorphous perversity" - of the human condition. This is enormously useful knowledge and experience. It saves us from arrogance and it is the foundation of compassion.