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Bīja (T. sa bon ས་བོན་; C. zhongzi), literally "seed", is used in two contexts: 1) "karmic seeds" that ripen upon meeting with appropriate causes and condition; 2) "seed syllables" used as a focus for visualization in tantric practices.[1]

Karmic seeds

Understanding in Early Buddhism

The early schools of Buddhism, such as the Sautrāntikas, used the term bīja to describe the workings of karma.[2][3]

Contemporary scholar Dan Lusthaus states:

Previous Buddhists - most notably the Sautrāntikas, but also the Abhidharma schools - had developed a sophisticated metaphoric vocabulary to describe and analyze the causes and conditions of karma in terms of seeds (bījā). Just as a plant develops from its roots unseen underground, so do previous karmic experiences fester unseen in the mind; just as a plant sprouts from the ground when nourished by proper conditions, so do karmic habits, under the right causes and conditions, reassert themselves as new experiences; just as plants reach fruition by producing new seeds that re-enter the ground to take root and begin regrowing a similar plant of the same kind, so do karmic actions produce wholesome or unwholesome fruit that become latent seeds for a later, similar type of action or cognition. Just as plants reproduce only their own kind, so do wholesome or unwholesome karmic acts produce effects after their own kind. This cycle served as a metaphor for the process of cognitive conditioning as well as the recurrent cycle of birth and death (saṃsāra).[2]

Rupert Gethin describes the theory as follows:

When I perform an action motivated by greed, it plants a 'seed' in the series of dharmas [phenomena] that is my mind. Such a seed is not a thing in itself--a dharma--but merely the modification or 'perfuming' of the subsequent flow of dharmas consequent upon the action. In the course of time this modification matures and issues in a particular result, in the same way as a seed does not produce its fruit immediately, but only after the 'modifications' of the shoot, stem, leaf, and flower.[3]

Within Yogacara

In the Yogacara model of the eight consciousnesses, the bīja (karmic seeds) are stored in the ālayavijñāna ("Warehouse Consciousness"). Dan Lusthaus states:

The Warehouse Consciousness was defined in several ways. It is the receptacle of all seeds, storing experiences as they "enter" until they are sent back out as new experiences, like a warehouse handles goods. It was also called vipāka consciousness: vipāka means the "maturing" of karmic seeds. Seeds gradually matured in the repository consciousness until karmically ripe, at which point they reassert themselves as karmic consequences. Ālaya-vijñāna was also called the "basic consciousness" (mūla-vijñāna) since it retains and deploys the karmic seeds that both influence and are influenced by the other seven consciousnesses.[2]

Seed syllables

In tantra, the term bīja is sometimes used to refer to a Sanskrit "seed syllable", which can be associated with a particular deity. These syllables are used as a focus of visualization during certain practices.

See also: vyañjana ("seed syllable").


  1. Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. Bīja
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Dan Lusthaus, What is and isn't Yogācāra, Resources for East Asian Language and Thought, acmuller.net
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism, page 222.

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