1 MIND IN BUDDHISM
An Inner Science
IN TIBETAN BUDDHISM, the study of the mind is classified as an inner science. Psychology (the study of what the mind is) and epistemology (the study of how the mind functions) are understood to be crucial aspects of the spiritual path. Medicine and logic are outer sciences, and although considered very important, are accorded less prominence when compared to the inner sciences.
This is because everything the Buddha taught, and hence everything within the Buddhist canon, is meant to help us relieve suffering and achieve happiness, and that only happens through the mind. Medicine can cure the body, but that in itself cannot make us happy. According to Buddhism, even physical health is linked to mental states. Thus the real threats to our well-being are attachment, anger, and ignorance—the three fundamental deluded minds that lead to all other afflictions, both mental and physical. Only with thorough understanding of the mind and its functions can we hope to transcend the disturbing thoughts and emotions that plague us.
While the ultimate goal of studying the mind is complete freedom from suffering, we can also study the mind for more immediate therapeutic reasons. Investigating the mind by analyzing our thoughts, emotions, and so on is the first step to alleviating all manner of mental 2illnesses. In his first teaching, the Buddha compares the stages of freeing the mind to recovery from an illness: if we don’t first recognize that we are ill, we won’t seek help. And if we don’t know the origin of our illness, we cannot choose the most effective therapy. The Buddha uses the framework of the four noble truths to formulate this insight: the first truth, the truth of suffering, is the illness. The second truth, the truth of the origin of suffering, refers to the cause of the illness. The third truth, the truth of cessation, is the understanding that a complete cure is possible. And the fourth truth, the truth of the path that leads to cessation, is the cure. The four noble truths encompass the entire spiritual path with all its many aspects, but we can apply them equally well to the nature of the mind. To transform the mind, we must see that it can be transformed, an understanding that can arise only out of true knowledge of its nature.
In Western psychotherapy, a patient is similarly led toward insight into his or her mental state in order to affect a cure. In this, the goals of Buddhism and Western psychotherapy overlap. But while there are many similarities, not all goals are shared. Assuming a commonality where fundamental differences exist can cause confusion.
According to books I have read and my discussions with psychoanalysts, the aim of psychoanalysis is to bring the various elements of the psyche—emotions, memories, and so forth—into harmony so that the person develops a greater cohesion of his sense of self. This is the final goal. In contrast, the aspiration in Buddhism is to rise above the very concept of self or “I.” Rather than harmonizing the disharmonious elements of the psyche so it becomes whole, and hence reifying the concept of the self, the goal according to the Buddhist teachings is to transcend the very concept of the self. This is clearly a big difference.
In its rejection of the notion of self, Buddhism is radical. Buddhism understands that no matter what we possess or how emotionally 3balanced we might be, a sense of insecurity constantly inhabits our innermost being; that until this is addressed, it is very difficult for us to feel complete; and that the cause of all this is the false sense of self. We suffer because we misunderstand our mode of existence, and on the basis of that understanding we mistakenly infer the existence of an active, real “me.” This is not to say that we are just illusions or dreams, but that the central figure in the drama of our lives—the “I” we hold so dear—is a fantasy. This concept is very subtle, but if we are ever to transcend the limited and limiting worldview we hold, we must understand what actually constitutes the collection of body and mind that we call “I.” This is why Buddhist psychology places a strong emphasis on analysis.
Western psychoanalysis looks for specific causes to specific mental problems, but uses, from a Buddhist point of view, an unrealistically short timescale. Certainly the Western science of mind has evolved since Freud, but the assumption remains that a great deal of what is wrong with us can be traced back to our childhoods. That is not the Buddhist way. Buddhism does not consider the root cause of our problems to be an external agent of this life, but rather an internal agent developed over many lifetimes—the habitual tendencies of our own minds. Parenting and environment, of course, play a significant role in making us the people we are today, but Buddhism looks further.
It seems to me that Western psychoanalysis is a bit like Western medicine in taking a symptom-oriented approach, addressing specific complaints. Buddhism understands the various negative states of mind to be symptoms of a deeper malaise and tries to get to the root cause of the illness. The Buddhist approach is therefore more holistic. This approach is reflected in Tibetan medicine, which not only seeks to treat causes rather than symptoms, but also sees those root causes as closely linked to actions stemming from the mistaken view of the self (as self-existent), a view that Western psychoanalysis seeks to reinforce. The 4latter discipline sees illness as a disharmony between the elements of the self; the former sees the entire notion of self as the illness.
While the significant parallels and fundamental differences between the Western and Buddhist approaches must be appreciated, it is important that neither totally dismiss the science of the other. I believe neuroscientists, for example, can gain a lot of knowledge from the ancient texts; they will find that the inner scientists of two thousand years ago, working only with their own subjective experiences of the mind, devised theories equal in sophistication and complexity to their own. Conversely, Buddhist practitioners can learn much from the modern science of the mind. The highly sophisticated experiments that determine the functions of the various parts of the brain are fascinating, extremely useful, and quite compatible with Buddhist ideas.
The Mind in Buddhist Texts
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, frequently taught about mind, and all of the later Buddhist presentations of mind are based on the Buddha’s own words, the sutras. The sutras common to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths Sutra, refer to the mind frequently, discussing its functions and teaching us how to purify our present deluded minds and transform them into wisdom, understanding, compassion, and so forth.1 Several sutras from the Mahayana tradition, such as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Prajnaparamita Sutra), deal extensively with the mind and explain how our realizations can deepen so that we can understand not just conventional reality but also the ultimate reality of emptiness.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana—the intricate esoteric teachings known commonly as tantra—was also directly taught by the Buddha. The tantras contain many teachings on the nature of 5the mind, including explanations of how the subtle levels of the mind can manifest in various ways, and how they can be used to understand the ultimate nature of reality.
The collected words of the Buddha are divided into the three “baskets,” or pitakas: the Vinaya Pitaka, Sutra Pitaka, and Abhidharma Pitaka. Each basket, though related to the others, has a unique focus, and these emphases correspond to the three higher trainings of conduct, concentration, and wisdom. The Vinaya focuses on ethical conduct, especially the monastic and lay vows and the administration of monasteries. The Sutra Pitaka is the collection of the Buddha’s discourses, teachings that focus primarily on developing concentration. The Abhidharma Pitaka, written down around three hundred years after the Buddha’s death, is concerned largely with the development of wisdom or knowledge. The understanding of the mind falls into this last category, for how can we be ignorant of the mechanics of our mind and expect to understand the nature of reality?
The Abhidharma Pitaka includes some texts that were originally written in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, and some that were originally written in Sanskrit, the language of the Mahayana canon. Although the seven major original Pali Abhidharma texts have survived (thanks to the great efforts of the people of the Buddhist countries of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand), the original Sanskrit texts did not survive. As the root texts have been lost, Tibetan monastics traditionally study the Abhidharma through two very important commentaries: the Treasury of Valid Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha) by Vasubandhu, a great Indian master from around the fifth century C.E., and the Compendium of Valid Knowledge (Abhidharmasamucchaya) by his brother Asanga.
The Abhidharma texts of Vasubandhu and Asanga focus on the mental events that occur within specific mindsets, the external verbal and physical manifestations that result from those mental events, and 6the habitual thought patterns that lead either to wisdom and peace or to delusion and suffering. The analytical process of classifying mental states into wisdom minds and deluded minds sharpens our appreciation of what needs to be developed and what abandoned.
The Abhidharmakosha focuses almost entirely on the mind and its functions. It describes the various types of minds and explains how many can occur simultaneously. It is also an important work on analysis, reinforcing the concept that developing an analytical mind is essential to understanding the mind and to progressing on the road to wisdom. The Abhidharmakosha demonstrates that Buddhism is much more than just mindfulness and meditative concentration. We need to gain a true understanding of profound subjects, such as the four seals of Buddhism,2 and to integrate them into our lives at the very deepest level, and for that we need the analytical mind. This is the method that the Abhidharma describes.
The other group of texts concerned primarily with the mind is called Pramana. These are mainly epistemological texts that examine the way the mind works. The two Indian masters in this field are Dignaga (fifth century) and his indirect disciple Dharmakirti (seventh century). Although epistemological presentations of the mind were studied before these scholars’ time, it was Dignaga and Dharmakirti who established the tradition systematically. Thus they are considered the founders of Buddhist epistemology.
The texts they composed, such as Dignaga’s Compendium on Valid Perception (Pramanasamucchaya) and Dharmakirti’s commentary on it, Commentary on Valid Perception (Pramanavarttika), as well as the commentaries on these texts by later Tibetan masters, clarify the difference between perceptual and conceptual consciousnesses and define valid and mistaken minds. They also elucidate the epistemological aspect of the mind—how knowledge develops through the process of analysis and investigation.7
Beyond the Abhidharma and Pramana sources, the mind is also studied within Mahayana treatises such as the Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicharyavatara), composed by the great Indian master Shantideva, which meticulously explains how to cultivate great compassion, recognize and counteract anger, and develop qualities such as concentration, joyous effort, and wisdom.
Furthermore, the Vajrayana texts contain detailed descriptions of the various mental events that function on both the conscious and the unconscious levels—while awake, asleep, or dreaming, and during the process of death—and of how the mind moves from one life to the next. Through systematic examination of all these teachings, we can develop a complete picture of the mind.
While these texts are powerful tools in coming to understand the mind and its functions from as many angles as possible, the final realization of the nature of the mind can only arise through our own experience. The Buddha himself advised us not simply to accept his words literally but to examine them “as a goldsmith would test the quality of the gold.” Although Buddhist practitioners see the importance of the teachings of the Buddha and other great masters on such subjects, they will not accept them without undertaking their own investigation.
Reasoning and critical analysis are the means to achieve a profound understanding of the nature of the mind. Therefore, there is no contradiction in the various and sometimes differing explanations of the mind given by different masters over many centuries. Each master has taken the ideas of a previous one as a starting point and developed a deeper understanding based upon it.8
Monastic Study of the Mind
Before starting on great texts such as the Abhidharmakosha or the Pramanavarttika, Tibetan students usually study a preliminary text, called an entering or introductory text, which condenses and categorizes the root text as an aid to memorization. In the case of the treatises on epistemology and psychology, the introductory text is known as lorig, “awareness (lo) and knowledge (rig).”
Psychology, generally speaking, is concerned with how the external environment is interpreted by the mind. As such, it is an analysis of the inner world of our experience. Without understanding our experience of the world in which we act and communicate, there is no way we can understand, for example, the first noble truth—the truth of suffering—the starting point of the spiritual journey.
Epistemology, in turn, is the study of knowledge: how we know what we know and how we can test its validity and refine our knowledge. As such, it goes beyond the mere analysis of everyday experience to a genuine understanding of wisdom.
According to Buddhism, epistemology and psychology go hand in hand. When the study of psychology is undertaken without the basis of epistemology and the methods of practice it suggests, there is a risk that it will remain a mere intellectual exercise and not bring real benefit.
The mind in Buddhism is often divided into two categories. The first is basic consciousness, or awareness, which just means our baseline capacity for subjective experience. This basic awareness is sometimes referred to as “mind.” The mind, however, undergoes constantly shifting mindstates, and these mental events are further divided into main “minds” and their associated “mental factors,” which we will examine in detail in chapter 2. The study of psychology in Buddhism often means the study of these minds and mental factors. Using English terms can sometimes be confusing, since the word mind is used 9in relation to all the various facets of conscious experience, but context usually makes clear which meaning is intended.
In the monastery, I studied mind and mental factors on three different occasions. In my third year I studied lorig as part of my first debate class. Because I was very young and unable to really understand the different minds, let alone experience them, I merely tried to memorize all the various definitions.
On the second occasion, I studied the mind and mental factors in Abhidharma studies, using Asanga’s Abhidharmasamucchaya and Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakosha, which go into much more detail than the introductory lorig texts. Because these two and their related commentaries offer extensive discussion of each mind and mental factor, they are traditionally taken on much later, some monasteries even leaving them to the very last years of study.
Running parallel to my study of the Abhidharma texts, I studied the mind and its functions from the epistemological point of view based on Dignaga’s Pramanasamucchaya, Dharmakirti’s Pramanava-rttika, and their many commentaries. These texts play a central role in the tradition of debate at the monasteries. All of the students spent two months every year on these texts from the time we started the serious study program until the completion of our geshe degrees—one month in our own monastery of Sera and the next month joining the monks of Ganden and Drepung monasteries to study and debate.
At times this education took the form of simple list learning—Tibetans love lists—and at others it was the keenest of analytical debating. But whatever the level or type of study, it was the study of the mind, and its goal was to eliminate our delusions and realize our potential to become buddhas.10
Why Study the Mind?
According to Buddhism, we are nothing more than body and mind, and mind is the sole motivator of all our actions and the creator of all our happiness and suffering. It is therefore impossible to overemphasize the importance of mind in Buddhism. The body might be well fed, and the eyes might look upon beautiful sights, but it is the mind alone that translates this into happiness. Conversely, the body might have pain, and other people might pour abuse into our ears, but it is the mind alone that translates this into suffering.
Certainly, if we are angry we need to refrain from physically attacking or verbally abusing the person we are angry with, but such actions of body and speech are results of anger, not its causes, and so ultimately it is the angry mind we need to address.
Since you are reading this book, you must have some interest in the mind and its potential, so I’m sure you already have some idea of how important the mind is. We all know how important a good home, good food, good friends, a satisfying job, and other external factors are to our health, comfort, and general happiness. Most thoughtful people also recognize that external phenomena alone do not rule our lives. We need, however, to thoroughly investigate just how much influence the mind has. This book can give you a start. But if you are going to really transform your life from confusion and suffering to clarity and happiness, the knowledge gained through investigation must be deep, at a heart level. Knowledge must be transformed into practical experience.
Buddhism sees the mind as crucial whereas the body is relatively less important. Of course it is necessary to look after the body, and struggling to physically survive leaves no time to develop the mind; but within Buddhist literature there is the sense that if we look after the mind well, the body will be taken care of along the way. Nurturing our 11own minds will also affect those around us; we will benefit family, friends, colleagues, and society in general. So benefiting all sentient beings, the goal of Mahayana Buddhism, begins with taking care of our own mind, which in turn begins with understanding it.
This is precisely what His Holiness the Dalai Lama says in a very interesting dialogue with Western scientists in 1991:
…There are two reasons why it is important to understand the nature of mind. One is because there is an intimate connection between mind and karma. The other is that our state of mind plays a crucial role in our experience of happiness and suffering.3
We all want to be happy and free from suffering. That was the Buddha’s starting point and most important message in the four noble truths, through which he shows clearly that the final and complete end of suffering is possible. Although each Buddhist philosophical school has developed slightly different assertions about the mind, they all present the mind as the central player in our experience of happiness and suffering. This is true here and now, in the future, and in fact through all future lives until we free ourselves from suffering completely. So it is crucial for a Buddhist practitioner to understand the mind and then put that understanding into practice at the deepest possible level.
Furthermore, our understanding of the mind must extend to the crucial relationship between the mind and the external, material world. Failure to understand this relationship is at the very center of the worldwide environmental disaster that we are so close to experiencing. The internal workings of our mind—cognitive processes, emotions, and so on—relate intimately to how we react to our external environment. If I see happiness as a big car I might deny global 12warming; If I see my happiness now as more important than my children’s happiness in thirty years’ time, I might pollute the planet as if there were no tomorrow.
Our inner and outer worlds couldn’t be more intimately connected, and to create true happiness for ourselves and others we need to shift from this current obsession with the material world into a more realistic relationship with our own minds. Learning about the mind goes far beyond studying lists and levels. It is crucial to see for ourselves how the mind reacts when it encounters the shapes and colors that make up the external world, and how it affects the external world. That is where happiness lies, for ourselves and others. That in fact is what the term spiritual actually means. Lama Yeshe says:
I hope that you understand what the word “spiritual” really means. It means to search for, to investigate, the true nature of the mind. There’s nothing spiritual outside. My rosary isn’t spiritual; my robes aren’t spiritual. Spiritual means the mind, and spiritual people are those who seek its nature.4
The Nature of Mind
What is the cause of mind? No matter the level of subtlety of view, all Buddhist schools agree that only a previous moment of mind can cause the present moment of mind. This is fundamental. All phenomena, mental and material, come into existence due to causes and conditions, and the main substantial cause of mind is a previous moment of mind. If you have read the first book in this series, The Four Noble Truths, you will already be familiar with this concept.
Buddhism does not posit an ultimate creator as other religions do, but it must nevertheless give some explanation for the creation of 13phenomena. That explanation is the principle of causality. Both mental and physical phenomena come into existence because they have a preceding continuum that acts as the cause. This moment of mind is caused by the preceding moment of mind. It is utterly nonphysical in nature. In fact, it is mere experience.
There are, of course, other factors involved. Buddhism talks about both substantial and secondary causes, and naturally we must remember that our state of mind is not divorced from what happens in our external world. A happy state of mind might be brought about by a nice word from a friend, or a good meal, but its substantial cause must be a preceding moment of mind. A good meal cannot turn into a mind.
This mere experience has two aspects: it is clear and knowing. Mind itself is actually defined in the teaching texts as that which is clear and knowing. We will look at this further below.
Furthermore, mind is not static, but a continuity of momentarily moving events that contain this element of experience. As noted above, we can talk about minds, which are the many mental events happening every second—emotions, thoughts, and so on—and mind, the fundamental base upon which those events occur. Within that continuity of mind are levels of subtlety, from the conscious gross mental events that we are aware of to the subtler unconscious events that underlie them and are the puppet masters that determine our surface lives. Even deeper is the core mind that underlies the whole of our existence. This is the fundamental level of mind that goes from life to life.
MIND Is NOT BODY
Whether the mind is separate from or a part of the body is a debate that has continued for centuries. Common sense tells us we have a body, which is physical, and a mind, which is not. One does the 14actions and one does the thinking. Investigation into this dichotomy reveals that it is not so simple.
Western scientists exploring the mind have been severely hampered by the restraints of traditional scientific method, where the rules of evidence have been developed in relation to physical observations alone. Without a rigorous and consensual method for verifying the claims of consciousness research, theories about the nature of the mind over the last century have been widely divergent. These theories fall largely into two groups: those of the behaviorists and materialists, who assert there is no such thing as mind, and those who claim the mind and body are fundamentally different.
Behaviorists assert that what we see as mental processes are in fact energy transferences within the brain that are so complex they translate as rational thought, and that there is in fact no mind. Buddhism refutes this. There are many levels of understanding the mind according to Buddhist thought, but every one accepts that body is matter and mind is non-matter. This is a core tenet. There is nothing at all within matter—whether our brain, body parts, or external things—that can transmute into mind. The different levels of explanations of mind—from the practical descriptions in the sutra teachings to the most esoteric descriptions of highest yoga tantra—are all based on the assertion that mind is a different phenomenon from the material world.
According to Buddhism, the material world is composed of the four principal elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, and the four attributes that arise from these. These labels are not literal—our bodies do not consist of mud and fire!—but rather refer to the characteristics of solidity, liquidity, heat, and movement, respectively. The four attributes are the objects of four of our five sense objects: form, smell, taste, and tactile objects.
It is impossible, say the Buddhists, that these elements are the cause of mind. The main cause must be nonmaterial. This is what we need 15to investigate and be absolutely clear about. Mind is mere experience—it is not matter; therefore its cause must be the same. This understanding pervades all of Buddhist literature. Mind can affect matter and vice versa, but the two are mutually exclusive. For if something is devoid of color, shape, or material dimension, it cannot at the same time be material.
That does not mean, however, that mind and body aren’t closely interconnected. The deeper we explore the nature of mind in Buddhist psychology, the more we see the interconnection of mind and body and that certain levels of mind depend heavily on both the function and existence of the physical nervous system. This interconnection is reflected at the deepest possible level, to the point where the division between mind and body can be blurred, especially in areas such as psychosomatic illness. Nonetheless it remains a fundamental belief of Buddhism that we are a combination of material form and nonmaterial mind, and that one cannot possibly replace or be transformed into the other.
Taking the example of the link between anger (mind) and ugliness (matter), it is fairly easy to see that the mental condition of anger can never transform into the physical condition of an ugly face. Anger can cause us to screw our face up and become ugly, but the mind itself can never become the face. However, the connection between mind and matter is even stronger than this. According to Buddhism, the anger we are experiencing now is the cause for us to have an ugly appearance in the future. To me that makes perfect sense. You can see it in people who have great anger; their whole physiognomy seems to have grown out of that anger. Even if it is not ugliness, according to Buddhism, the result of anger is a life in an awful environment, such as a war zone.
Many gross consciousnesses, such as our five sense consciousnesses, cannot function without our nervous system or brain. That is very 16clear. In order for the eye consciousness to function as something that is clear and knowing, it depends on three conditions. One of those is the eye sense organ, a subtle material form existing within the actual eye organ.5 In the desire realm in which we live, our entire existence depends on and focuses on matter.6
The reason Buddhism so firmly asserts that mind is not body is because the fundamental tenets of Buddhism revolve around the law of karma, or cause and effect. At death the body disappears. If mind and body were the same, what we think of as mind would also disappear. Without a continuum of mind, result could never follow cause; the chain would be broken. This is totally incompatible with the concept of karma. Buddhism asserts countless rebirths, and between death and the next rebirth there is an existence called the intermediate state, or bardo. The first moment of mind of this life is the result of the last moment of mind of the intermediate-state being. That mindstream can be traced back to the first moment as an intermediate-state being and, before that, to the last moment of mind of the previous life.
The mind that continues at death is not the most superficial level of mind, with its manifest concepts and emotions, but rather the very subtle mind—the core of our being that carries all the propensities that will ripen in future lives to determine the conditions of our existence and our future happiness and suffering.
MIND Is CLEAR AND KNOWING
So what is mind? Buddhist philosophical texts define the mind as clear and knowing. The clarity aspect of the mind, according to Geshe Rabten, refers to the “non-material, space-like nature of consciousness…completely devoid of colour, shape, or material dimension.”7 Space is also clear—without obstructions and not physical—but it does not have the ability to cognize. Only mind is both clear and has 17the ability to reflect or know an object. Mind here is the mere event of knowing, sometimes called rigpa in Tibetan.8
Mind can also be defined as a subjective event that arises in dependence on the object that appears to it. To be a subject, as this definition states, an object must be present. There can be no consciousness without an object of consciousness. This brings us to another fundamental aspect of mind. Mind is the actual process of knowing the object that appears to it. Mind is therefore not a static thing but a dynamic agent, a process of its clear and knowing nature...
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- Buddhist Psychology
- Foreword by Lama Zopa Rinpoche
- Editor’s Preface
- 1. Mind in Buddhism
- 2. Main Minds and Mental Factors
- 3. Mental Afflictions
- 4. Dealing with Negative Emotions
- 5. Wholesome Mental Factors
- The Three Fundamental Positive Mental Factors
- The Traditional Eleven Positive Mental Factors
- The Pyramid of the Three Trainings
- Positive Mental Factors in the Second Zone
- The Noble Eightfold Path in the Three Zones
- Compassion and Self-Confidence
- Positive Mental Factors in the Third Zone
- Work Toward Long-term Goals
- 6. Epistemology: Conception and Perception
- Epistemology in Buddhism
- Conceptual Thoughts Engage Through Elimination
- Conceptual Thoughts Are Always Mistaken
- Conceptual Thoughts Provide Cognitive Content
- Implicative and Nonimplicative Negation
- How the Mind Generalizes
- Comparing Perceptual and Conceptual Minds
- Valid Cognition
- The Etymology of Pramana
- Inferential Valid Cognitions
- 7. Moving Toward Knowledge
- Appendix: The Fifty-one Mental Factors
- About the Authors
- The Foundation of Buddhist Thought
- Also Available from The Foundation of Buddhist Thought Series