The Mind-Field

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh republished an earlier book under the title of Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. He interprets and comments on verses Vasubandhu composed on the nature of consciousness. Together with his brother, Asanga, Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century) was one of the principle founders of the Yogacara school, and is considered one the great Buddhist philosophers, revered in a number of Buddhist traditions.

Yogacara (“Yoga-practice”), along with the Madhyamaka, was one of the two major schools in early Mahayana Buddhism. This tradition, which emphasized philosophy and psychology, was also known as Consciousness Only (Vijnanavada) or Mind Only. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as Manifestation Only.

IMG_3820d4He states that “According to the teachings of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects, or we can say, ‘eight consciousnesses.’ The first five are based in the physical senses . . . the sixth arises when our mind contacts an object of perception . . . [the seventh] gives rise to and is the support of the mind consciousness . . . The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijnana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. “

The first fifteen verses in the book are about the store consciousness. which functions “to store or preserve all the ‘seeds’ (bija) of our experiences . . . Everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived . . . The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the ‘subject’ of consciousness.” The store consciousness also preserves the seeds themselves.

The first verse Thich Nhat Hanh presents is as follows:

Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
The “mind-field” can also be called
“all the seeds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life . . . There are wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind-field.”

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) sect viewed the mind in more metaphysical terms than the Mind Only school.  They saw it as a substance that permeates all individual minds, as well as the entire universe. They went beyond the Mind Only teachings to propose a 9th aspect, or layer, of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This layer of mind lies beyond the level of the store consciousness and is said to be free from any influences from past experiences, and, as it is a pure consciousness, it is also far beyond any sense of self, any notion of ‘I’.

Chih-i, the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, equated the amala consciousness with “true nature,” or what call Buddha-nature. Tibetan Buddhism describes this same quality of mind as luminous or clear light.

The Mind Only school maintained that only mind was real, everything else was illusion. T’ien-t’ai accepted this but they were not so interested in the workings of the mind, or trying to explain what consciousness is, as they were in how to contemplate the mind. Since all reality is a product of mind, or at least identical to it, then mind, which is easily accessible, should be the primary object of contemplation.

Chih-i taught contemplating the mind as a two-pronged process where the practitioner calms and empties the mind while also realizing the quiescence and emptiness of all phenomena (chih; stopping), and through observing the mind ((kuan; insight or seeing) realizes its luminous expanse.

So, when Vasubandhu says “The mind is a field,” we can see that as pointing to the expansiveness of mind, the sweep or range of consciousness.

It is important to note that we have been looking at the mind from the standpoint of ultimate truth, but we live in the realm of relative truth, where the things we have said are mere illusions have a worldly function.  The purpose of the all this, then, is to guide us to an understanding of mind. Again, it is not so much to understand what it is, but rather to learn how we can become the master of our mind, instead of a slave to our normal state of consciousness which is always preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and sensory perceptions, constantly in pursuit of subjective experiences and external objects.

These concepts can serve as a foundation for the critical work of disengaging our thoughts from their object oriented focus and placing them squarely in the present, without thinking about the past or anticipating the future. In this way, we can realize emptiness and get a glimpse into the luminous nature of consciousness.

Share

All That Noise

I saw a commercial on TV the other day that said,

Financial noise is everywhere. Tune it out with intentional investing from Invesco. And separate knowledge from noise.”

noise1 I thought this is close to what we’re trying to do with meditation and dharma. Noise is everywhere. It’s spiritually deafening at times. The kind of noise I mean is desire, illusion, attachment, stress, worry, anticipation, disappointment, fun, sorrow – noise is all the stuff we deal with in daily life. But we can tune out all that noise, turn off the static.

The commercial mentions knowledge, but we’re not too interested in that. I saw something recently, and dash if I can find it now when I need it, but I think it was the Buddha who said that when some practitioners encounter obstacles, they revert to intellectual comprehension. He meant that empirical and theoretical knowledge is not the best path for wayfarers. We want to travel on the way of Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita), which “goes beyond” knowledge. In the Diamond Sutra, Transcendent Wisdom is likened to a diamond blade that cuts through all the noise to reveal the true aspect of all phenomena.

And that’s why, in the sutra the Buddha says,

Subhuti, this teaching should be known as the Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom – this is how you should receive and hold it. And why? Because the diamond of transcendent wisdom has the capacity to cut through illusions and go beyond to the further shore. Yet, this teaching the Buddha has called the diamond of transcendent wisdom is not really the diamond of transcendent wisdom. ‘Diamond of transcendent wisdom’ is just the name given to it.”

We can receive and hold the teaching, but it will not help us to go beyond if we cling to it. Use it, but don’t grasp it. In the Zen tradition, which was significantly influenced by Taoism, this was known as “not-knowing.” In The Diamond Sutra Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng explains

Not-knowing is the intuitive wisdom where one understands information to be just that – mere information – and tries to penetrate to the heart of the mystery that language and information are trying to convey . . . The not-knowing approach is not a philosophical or intellectual entertainment; it is a doorway to liberation.” (p.64)

I didn’t have a clue to what intentional investing was so I Googled it. The company describes it this way: “At Invesco, all of our people and all of our resources are dedicated to helping investors achieve their financial objectives. It’s a philosophy we call Intentional Investing.”

At Buddha-dharma all our bodhisattvas and all of our teachings are dedicated to helping people achieve liberation through Transcendent Wisdom. It’s a philosophy we call bodhicitta or intentional cultivation.

Share

Problems and Benefits

That ‘Old Philosopher’ and poet of Ancient China, Lao Tzu said, “The acceptable and the unacceptable are both acceptable.”

This means to take life as it is. Sounds simple. Well, it is easy to accept the acceptable, but to accept what is unacceptable seems counter-intuitive to normal way of thinking. What is unacceptable is undesirable, unsatisfactory, intolerable, unreasonable – why would we want to embrace that?

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, it is important to be in touch with our negativity. We cannot overcome anger, sadness or other bad feelings unless we deal with them. Buddhism teaches that suffering comes from our thoughts and feelings, so it seems rather obvious that denial is not a strategy we want to employ. We can expand this to cover just about everything else in life.

Early Buddhists developed a meditation practice designed to help us accept the unacceptable. It is called Kammatthana, a Pali word that means “basis of meditation” or “place of work”. These are meditation subjects suited to individual temperaments and inclinations.

Buddhaghosa, in his epic meditation text Visuddhi-magga (“Path of Purification”) listed 40 kammatthanas, and they range from subjects such as the non-existence of a permanent self and the idea of friendliness to some really unacceptable ones like the impurity and wretchedness of life and a the idea of a corpse in a state of decomposition.

Buddhaghosa wrote, “When the mind is familiar with the perception of foulness, then even divine objects do not tempt a person to greed.”

I have never meditated on the idea of a rotting corpse, and I don’t I ever shall. But I do get the intention behind it.

The first step in accepting the unacceptable is recognizing that to divide things into acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, and so on, is dualistic thinking. That is not as simple as it sounds, either.  It is difficult to undo thought patterns that are nearly habitual. A way to break down this wall of duality that might be more helpful than corpse contemplation might be to just do away with the idea of unacceptable, tear down the concept of foulness.

To give you an example, one of the most unacceptable things in life is illness. Definitely one of the worst problems we can have. In his book, Ultimate Healing, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises us that “To transform our problems into happiness, we have to learn to see them as pleasant.”

He goes on to say that to see problems as problems, illness as illness, unacceptable as unacceptable has many disadvantages and that we can turn it around if we meditate on the benefits of problems, which is probably a more difficult notion to hold in the mind than the idea of a corpse.

I don’t think I need to discuss the various ways in which embracing the unacceptable is beneficial. If you open your mind, they will come to you. When it comes to thoughts and emotions, we must be willing to experience even our negative thoughts and emotions fully. We can’t allow ourselves to reject them as invalid. Everything is valid. Whatever arises in our life is acceptable. Take life as it is.

Share