Buddhism is founded on the acknowledgment that there is no enduring self. We might then wonder, how can there be memories if there is no permanent self. This is addressed in classical Buddhist psychology by the assertion of what are called vasanas (mind seeds or habit-energy). These are subtle impressions which are deposited on the transient states of mind by actions and which lie dormant, like seeds. They may disappear or they may come to fruition by stimulating mental activity which leads to more action. Both the very subtle arising in the mind and the more concrete arising of actions have karmic consequences. Therefore, memories themselves have a karmic force, albeit rather light and subtle. These are retained and stored up in “storehouse consciousness” (Alayavijana) as a sort of latent energy ready to be set in motion. Vasana has the power of perfuming energies (don’t you just love that term “perfuming”?). This perfuming or leaving impressions is sometimes known as sowing seeds. Since the beginningless past, sentient beings have created this energy through inappropriate dualistic discrimination.
Memories are conceived differently than in our Western psychology. Western theory especially in this computer age, tends to describe human memory as if it were similar to a CD or hard drive. We imagine thoughts, events, information as somehow being stored, in a more or less accurate manner. What we bring forth in memory is seen as having some representative value. Like pulling up a file on the screen, as it were. It is conceived as being fairly stable over time, so that we can talk about “recovering” memories, which are taken to be actual records of experience, which may be decades old. Interestingly, modern psychology is demonstrating that memory is less accurate than we had imagined. We are learning that human memory changes with time and need. People will “remember” events which never happened to them if there is a strong need to associate identity with some facts as if they were experienced.
Unlike Buddhist theory, we see memory as mostly neutral, more like a record of experience, free of momentum, and giving us data upon which we may or may not act. In Buddhist mind theory, memory seeds have potential for motivation and drive. They are like stored charges which can propel us to act in some way.
Yours in the Dharma,
om namo amida butsu