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.


Buddhism as Yoga

In the comments section of a recent post, I was asked if I thought yoga in its highest form is helpful in reaching a goal in Buddhism, and I replied by saying “Buddhism itself is really just a form of yoga.” That should not be a surprising statement if we remember there is more to yoga than the workout style focused on assuming challenging physical poses so popular today in the West.

Yoga has its origins in Vedic, perhaps even in pre-Vedic, philosophical thought. Yoga certainly embraces physical practice, but health and relaxation are auxiliary benefits. Let us consider this explanation of yoga, from Joseph Campbell in Myths To Live By:

The ultimate aim of yoga, then, can be only to enter that zone [“uninflected consciousness in its pristine, uncommitted state”] awake: which is to say, to “join” or to “yoke” (Sanskrit verbal root yuj, whence the noun yoga) one’s waking consciousness to its source in consciousness per se, not focused on any object or enclosed in any subject, whether of the waking world or of sleep, but sheer, unspecified and unbounded.”

These words could also sum up the ultimate aim of Buddhism.  The “zone” one enters is variously described as the state of emptiness fully realized, tathagatagarbha (“womb of the buddha”) or Buddha-nature, Original Mind, One Mind, No Mind, Original Nature, and so on. Some Buddhist schools have advanced the concept of an extremely deep layer of pure consciousness called the amala consciousness.

I’ve discussed the concepts of emptiness and original mind/nature at length, but only once, I think, have I delved into the subject of the 9 consciousnesses, and in this brief treatment today, I have used some passages from that previous post.

Consciousness (vijnana) refers to discerning, comprehending or judgment, and is one of the five components or aggregates (skandhas) that make up a human being. Early Buddhism defined six consciousness, functions which perceive objects as well as the subject who perceives them. The first five correspond to the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body and mind, and with sounds, tastes, scents, forms and textures. In short, the senses and everything the senses perceive. The 6th Consciousness (the mind or intellect) integrates the perceptions of the senses into coherent images.

The Indian Yogacara (“yoga practice”) school described two additional consciousnesses, the 7th or mano consciousness, which is independent from the senses in terms of its functions, yet bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind and is where delusions concerning the false idea of a “self” originate; and the 8th or alaya (“abode’ or “receptacle”) consciousness, also known as the “storehouse consciousness,” where karma is deposited and carried over into future lifetimes.

While the idea of a 9th layer of mind, the amala consciousness, probably originated with Paramartha (499-569 CE), whose teachings formed the basis for Yogacara, the Chinese T’ien-t’ai and She-lun schools also adopted this concept. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This level of mind lies beyond the level of the storehouse consciousness and is free from any karmic influence. In the Fa hua hsuan i (“Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra”), T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i equates the amala consciousness with the aspect of “true nature.”* Paramartha also maintained that this level of consciousness “is identical with true nature (tattva or tathata).** So here would be the tathagatagarbha, the “womb of the buddha,” or the location of Buddha-nature within the mind.

Thus far, the notion of “pure consciousness” is still regulated to the realm of meditative or mystical experience, but it is worth mentioning that the alaya consciousness has some parallels with the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. In particular, the “storehouse consciousness” has been compared to Jung’s “collective unconscious.”

From all this, we can conclude that as the ultimate goals are the same, yoga is not a part of Buddhism, rather Buddhism is yoga, and perhaps that the simple act of meditation, which requires a specific sitting posture, may be the purest form of yoga physical therapy.

Yoga itself is based on the interaction of physical, spiritual, and psychic phenomena, in so far as the effects of breath-control (pranayama) and bodily postures (asana) are combined with mental concentration, creative imagination, spiritual awareness, and emotional equanimity.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Cloud

Now as soon as we say Buddhism is one thing, we also need to point out that Buddhism is many things. It is yoga, and it is a discipline, a practice, a philosophy, a form of spiritual psychology, a religion, a way of life, a view of reality that is without delusion, seeing reality as it truly is, and a way to regard the past without regret, abide in the present with calmness of mind, and face the future with hope – Buddhism embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Swanson, Paul. “T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Concept of Threefold Buddha Nature – A Synergy of Reality, Wisdom, and Practice.” Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota. Ed. Paul J. Griffiths and John P. Keenan. Buddhist Books International. 171-180

** Bibhuti Baruah, Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism, Sarup & Sons, 2000, 186


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 3

It’s said that Chih-i (538–597 CE), the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai school, was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. This was probably the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Samatha-Vipassana (Stopping and Seeing) for Beginners,” also known as “Dharma Essentials for Cultivating Stopping and Contemplation,” supposedly written for Chih-i’s brother (or brother-in-law) who was a General in the Chinese army.

Chih-kuan for Beginners is a short text that explains the fundamentals of samatha-vipassana as a dual practice, beginning, of course, with mindfulness or counting the breath, and this manual has been the model for meditation instruction for almost 1500 years.

Chih-kuan (S. samatha-vipassana) is the practice of “tranquility and insight,” “stopping and seeing,” or “calming and cessation.” Prior to Chih-i, the common Chinese term for meditation was ch’an (S. dhyana), which Kenneth Chan (“Buddhism in China”) explains is “aimed at tranquilizing the mind and getting the practitioner to devote himself to a quiet introspection of his own inner consciousness.” Chih-i moved away from using the term ch’an, which he felt was too immersed in the “calming” aspect, favoring instead chih-kuan.

Charles Luk in his translation of this manual, found in “Secrets of Chinese Meditation”, describes chih-kuan this way: “Chih is silencing the active mind and getting rid of discrimination, and kuan is observing, examining, introspecting. When the physical organism is at rest, it is called chih, and when the mind is seeing clearly it is kuan. The chief object is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight into the truth and to be rid of illusion.”

Chih-I viewed chih-kuan as a holistic practice. His manual goes through a series of ten steps, in which he explains the importance of such things as regulating food, sleep, body and mind, how to count the breath, and when it is best to employ chih or revert to kuan.

The impact the T’ien-t’ai sect had on succeeding schools, both philosophically and in terms of practice was enormous. Taitetsu Unno, in Philosophical Schools: San-lun, T’ien-t’ai, and Hua-yen (“Buddhist Spirituality”, 1994) writes: “Historically, T’ien-t’ai came to have a major influence on Hua-yen [Flower Garland] practice, it became the basis for the evolution of Ch’an [Zen], and in Japan it was to spawn the practice-oriented Kamakura schools.”

Bodhidharma, considered the founder of Ch’an, would have been a contemporary of Chih-i’s. Frankly, I think the jury is still out on Bodhidharma’s historicity. The lineages and dharma transmissions that purport to trace an unbroken line back to him are unreliable due to huge gaps in the timeline and the inclusion of names of individuals whose historicity also cannot be verified. There were no “Ch’an” schools during Chih-i’s time. Some scholars point to the teachings of Hui-neng (638–713), the so-called Sixth (and Last) Patriarch, as marking the point when Ch’an began to emerge as an independent school.

Ch’an, as the name implies (Chinese for dhyana or meditation) was essentially a meditation school. The notion that Ch’an dismissed the written word, and therefore the sutras, is a misnomer for the sutras have always been important for that tradition, and many important texts have come out of Ch’an/Zen.

Early Ch’an focused on chih (samatha or calming). As Ch’an developed, the Lin-chi branch began to emphasize kung-an (Jp. koan) practice where students were presented with riddles, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” for which there is no logical answer. These were used as subjects of contemplation. In the Southern branch of Hui-neng, the emphasis was on “complete, instantaneous enlightenment.” And the debate over sudden enlightenment vs. gradual enlightenment continues today.

When T’ien-t’ai was exported to Japan and became Tendai, it incorporated esoteric practices called mikkyo (“secret teachings’) and became somewhat of a Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”) school. Devotion to Amita Buddha was also a major element of Tendai practice. Like its Chinese predecessor, Tendai’s influence was great, and it could be reasonably said that Enryaku-ji, the Tendai head temple, was the birthplace of Japanese Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen.

Ch’an in Japanese is called Zen. The first Zen school in Japan was established by Eisai (1141-1215), a Tendai priest who traveled to China several times, was certified as a Zen teacher there, and brought Ch’an teachings back with him. He was in the Lin-chi (Jp. Rinzai) tradition.

Today the two predominate schools of Japanese Zen in the west are Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai practice consists of seated meditation, koan training, and samu (work practice) or the art of doing activities mindfully. Soto is the school introduced to Japan by Dogen (a former Tendai priest) in the 13th century, and emphasizes shikantaza (see below).

Some common Zen terms:

Kensho: “seeing one’s true nature,” the chief concept in Rinzai.

Satori: along with kensho, this word is often translated as “enlightenment,” although it actually refers to the experience of kensho.

Zazen: seated meditation. Zazen can be a general term that can refer to any form of Zen meditation. Overall, Zen meditation is not particularly unique, at least in the beginning stages. Focusing on the breath at a hara point, a center of ki (Ch. qi) energy (a Taoist influence), counting the breath (susokukan), and from there into more intense concentration. Dharma Rain, a Soto Zen group, says “Dhyana [meditation] is the form and method of zazen; the practice of letting go and returning to the present . . .  Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it. The result of meditation is ever deeper experience of samadhi. Samadhi is deeply entering into the openness that letting go cultivates, always broadening the scope of releasing self-attachment.”

Shikan: Simply the Japanese translation of chih-kuan (samatha-vipassana).

Shikantaza: This is a term first used by Dogen (Soto Zen) which literally means “nothing but sitting in samatha-vipassana,” or “just sitting.” Dogen was one the Kamakura teachers who advocated a single practice. This is the main practice in Soto Zen, and there are many different takes on it, some feel shikantaza is nothing in particular, whiles others hold it is very specific. I think Dogen used it in the sense of “single-minded practice,” which Kazuaki Tanahashi, in “moon in a dewdrop”, says is “a single-minded sitting meditation wherein one does not try to solves questions or attain realization.” In shikantaza, there is no object of meditation. In my experience, some Zen teachers will start students off with mindfulness, counting the breath, and ease them into this objectless meditation. Other teachers don’t give any instruction at all, they just expect you to jump in, and you either get it or you don’t.

Tibetan Buddhism has a myriad number of meditative practices, too many to go into here. In general they revolve around mindfulness, samantha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“special insight”), and there is strong tantric or Vajrayana element. I’ve found the Tibetan approach to samatha-vipassana to be very close in spirit to Chih-i’s chih-kuan, in that both are practiced together. The Dalai Lama explains in “The Buddhism of Tibet”: “The nature of calm abiding is the one-pointed abiding of any object without distraction of a mind conjoined with a bliss of physical and mental pliancy . . . the main purpose and advantage of calm abiding are that through it one can achieve special insight (vipassana), which realizes emptiness, and can thereby be liberated [from suffering].”

Now this concludes my overview of Buddhist Meditation. I had hoped to talk a bit about the Korean practice of “tracing back the radiance of the mind” taught by Chinul, but since few people in the West will run into this, it’s probably just as well to save it for a later post. Many things have been left out, such as the Taoist influence, Shingon mediation practice, and a few other subjects. But, I must leave here for now.

My aim was to present an outline to help those trying to sort out the various forms of Buddhist meditation, in order that they might be able to put them in perspective – hopefully no one is left more confused. I feel that despite the claims made by individual schools and groups, on the whole, Buddhist meditation across the board has more similarities than distinctions. Most of them begin with mindfulness of breath, and the reason I’ve mentioned it frequently is so that anyone thinking about starting a meditation practice will know that regardless of where they go, or what style they try, it starts from basically the same point. That being the case, it doesn’t matter so much what style you try out. If at some future time you decide it is not for you and you want to try something else, you have not wasted any time, because you have learned the foundation of them all.

I don’t believe that meditation alone leads to enlightenment. Meditation is just a tool. What brings us close to the gates of awakening is a combination of meditation and study, and right action. Someone once said that the importance of the Buddha’s advent lay in his behavior as a human being. The most importance practice is the one of daily living, how we behave after we close the book or get off the cushion, everything else is preparation for that.


Even Plants and Trees Have Buddha-nature

My apartment is located in the rear of the building. There used to be four beautiful trees right outside my windows. They provided cooling shade and great ambiance. In springtime, birds would come to sit on the branches and chirp their love songs to one another, making lovely music. In the summertime, I loved to look out at the trees in the afternoon,  beguiled with the way the sunlight fell upon the leaves so perfectly . . .

Two of these trees were destroyed by over-trimming and eventually cut down. Incompetent tree-trimming is a real problem here in Los Angeles. None of the people who do this sort of work seem to have any idea of how to prune a tree properly. They engage in topping and tipping, two practices that are extremely harmful to trees.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of large upright branches, sometimes in order to reduce the height of a tree. Tipping is basically just hacking off lateral branches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and any responsible arborist will tell you that proper tree trimming does not include topping and tipping.

After the two trees were removed, obviously only two remained. One was a wonderful red berry tree that subsequently had the heart cut out of it by these so called “tree trimmers”:

Today they cut away at it some more, and now, it’s just ugly.

Then there was this small tree, which at one time was not so small.  The tree trimmers nearly destroyed it, and for  years now, it has struggled to survive and regrow:

When I received a notice regarding the impending tree timing, I contacted the property manager and practically begged her to leave this tree alone.  I sent her the above photo to show that the tree was coming back to life, finally thriving.  They cut it down anyway.  It’s gone, and I have a difficult time not calling it murder. A pretty strong word, but trees are living things. What else would you call the senseless act of killing a living thing? There was absolutely no need to destroy that tree.

If simply the fact that they are alive is not reason enough to cherish trees, and plants, and hold them sacred, then consider this: In Mahayana Buddhism, “even non-sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature” (Ch. wu ch’ing yu hsing). Yes, even plants and trees have a Buddha-nature.

William R. La Fleur has noted that,

Chi-t’sang [549–623 CE], a native of Turkestan and a master of Madhyamika dialectic in China, was the first to use the key phrase “Attainment of Buddhahood by Plants and Trees.” He made the first, although highly qualified, step in the direction of seeing Buddhahood in the nonsentient. In his Ta-ch’eng-hsuan-lun he stated that in theory plants and trees, since they are essentially like sentient beings, can achieve Buddhahood, but he allowed this as a possibility only within the realm of theory.”*

Around the same time, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i (538–597 CE) put forth a theory on the Buddhahood of plants (Jp. somoku-jobutsu) based on his concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen). In his Chin-kang Pi (“Diamond Blade”), the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, Chan-jan, wrote,

“A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Elsewhere in the same work, he stated,

[Because of i-nien san-ch’ien] we may know that the single mind of a single particle of dust comprises the mind-nature of all sentient beings and Buddhas…. The man who is of all-round perfection, knows from beginning to end that Truth is not dual and that no objects exist apart from mind. Who, then, is “animate,” and who “inanimate”? . . . In the case of grass, trees, and the soil (from which they grow), what difference is there between their four kinds of atoms? . . . How can it still be said unto today that inanimate things are devoid (of the Buddha-nature)?”*

This notion of the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees was extremely popular in Japan. In Tendai (the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai), scholars advanced the theory further. Chujin (1065-1138), in a work called Kanko Ruiju (“Classified Collection of the Light of the Han”) put forth seven “arguments” in this regard [see below], stating that “trees and plants do not posses Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas”, and so, according to the principle of “original enlightenment” trees and plants posses Buddha Nature. What he is saying is that it is through the faculty of enlightened wisdom that we can recognize the precious entity of life in all existing things and recognize that they all posses Buddha-nature.

Other Japanese Buddhists such as Kukai and Dogen, and the great poet Saigyo, also championed the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees. Dogen was critical of those who couldn’t get it. He once wrote,

Students . . . consider the mind to be thoughts and perceptions and do not believe it when they are told the mind is plants and trees.”

A person who thinks in non-dualistic terms finds no separation between the mind and the world of nature.

There is no excuse for the senseless destruction of trees. Ignorance is not a defense. People in the tree trimming business should be knowledgeable about their business. They should know what is good for trees and what isn’t. I’ve tried to protect our building’s trees . . . to no avail.

And this is why I am feel sad today. With the destruction of the small tree, I feel as though I have lost a dear friend. I lamented its near-destruction.  I rooted for it to come back.

On this last day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of Saigyo’s poems. Read it in reverse, not as a human speaking to a tree, but instead, as if the little tree that struggled so hard to survive but was cut down anyway, was speaking to us . . .

Pine, of you I ask
Some services … of mourning
For aeons … of concealment;
There’s here no human being
Who might think of me when I die.

Chujin’s Seven Arguments for the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees*

1. Shobutsu no kangen. Trees and plants do not possess Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas.

2. Gubosho no ri. Trees and plants are in possession of Buddha-nature (bussho or Buddhata). “Buddha” means “enlightenment.” The inner (or mysterious) principle of the Buddha-nature is a purity of original enlightenment (hongaku) and has nothing of impurity in it. This is something which plants and trees are in possession of.

3. Esho funi. There is an inner harmony of the achievement of the right reward (shobo) – in this case the Buddha’s enlightenment  –  and all the attendant (eho) circumstances – for example the earth, etc., upon which he depends. The enlightenment of him is accompanied by that of all these others. Therefore, plants and trees are already in possession of Buddha-nature.

4. Totai jissho. Of their own nature the myriad things are Buddha, and “Buddha” means enlightenment. In their inner nature the things of the 3,000 worlds are unchangeable, undefiled, unmoved, and pure; this is what is meant by their being called “Buddha.” As for trees and .plants, there is no need for them to have or show the thirty-two marks (of Buddhahood); in their present form-that is, by having roots, stems, branches, and leaves, each in its own way has Buddhahood.

5. Hongu-sammi. Like all sentient beings, trees and plants have three bodies: the Dharma-body, the Sambhoga-body, and the Nirmana-body. Therefore, trees and plants can attain Buddhahood as sentient beings can.

6. Hossho fushigi. The self-nature of trees and plants is not capable of being described and, therefore, the Buddha-nature possessed by trees and plants is also ineffable.

7. Guchuudo (Tendai mediation principle) and ichinen-sanzen. The principle that the 3,000 realms (i.e., all phenomena) are contained in one thought means that the mind (shin) is all things and all things are the mind. Trees-and-plants as well as sentient beings both possess all things. This is why sentient beings can conceive of trees and plants. If this were not so, there could be no cognition. The real and original nature of all things (hossho or dharmata) has two aspects. Its quiescent aspect is the one mind and its illuminating aspect is the 3,000 realms of being. The internal unity of these two aspects makes both for knowledge and for the fact that essentially plants and trees have the Buddha-nature.

*La Fleur, William R., Saigyo and the Buddhist Value of Nature. Part I. In: History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov., 1973), pp. 93-128. The University of Chicago Press