What is mind?

Another word for mind is consciousness. The mind is the embarkation point, the focal point and also the culmination point of Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha help us to understand, shape and free the mind from delusions and suffering by transforming the ordinary mind into an enlightened mind. This has led scientists and other western scholars to describe Buddhism as ‘a science of the mind’.

So from a Buddhist perspective it is very important to understand the mind. There are two main reasons for this.

First, there is a close connection between the mind and karma (the law of cause and effect – a fundamental tenet of Buddhism) and second, our state of mind plays an important role in our experience of happiness and suffering (suffering is what Buddhism seeks to eliminate).

So what is mind?

In order to explain what mind is, it’s easiest to start with what mind is not.

Many people believe that the mind is the brain. Some think it is the heart. Some even think that it comes from a God. But in Buddhism we believe that the mind is a non-physical kind of energy and its function is to know and experience. Physical aspects like the condition of our physical body (if we are sick and suffering) can influence the mind and so can the actions and words of others, but the mind itself is not a physical entity. Similarly our state of mind plays a major role in how we perceive reality as well as our physical and mental well-being – but it is non-physical. It has no colour, shape, size, location, weight or any other physical characteristic. There is a constant interplay between the mind and the physical and external world, and this can cause on-going suffering since we are trapped in cyclical samsaric existence.

The mind can be said to be the sum total of all our conscious and unconscious experiences. The quest for Buddhists is to transform one’s mind to a state where it escapes the cycle of birth, death and suffering – a state that is clear, all knowing and perceives ultimate reality as opposed to relative reality (the illusionary reality as seen through the filter of our clouded/obscured mind)

The mind has two main qualities: clarity and knowingness (awareness). Without these qualities it cannot be labeled the mind. The mind is aware of one’s experiences and in order to exist it must be able to sense and perceive objects. It also reflects everything it experiences; good things and bad things just like a mirror.

Before I explain more it is important to mention that there are different levels of the mind that can be simply described as gross and subtle levels.

The gross mind encompasses the five senses and emotions such as anger, jealousy, love etc. But the subtle mind is very difficult to detect and is known as ‘the clear light mind’. This clear light mind has no beginning and end and it is this mind that Buddhists believe journeys from life to life in a process known as reincarnation.

Have you ever thought that the mind of a baby rat knows how to catch mice and a kitten’s mind knows how to suckle milk without being taught by their parents? This is all because of habits and actions of previous lives. Also some children from a very young age are naturally compassionate while others are very impatient and cruel even though their parents have never taught them how to hurt other living beings.  Buddhists believe that these behaviour or personality types are due to previous lives. It is the imprints on the subtle mind from previous lives that carry over to the present life and manifest in different character traits due to the law of karma. Karma is a very complicated topic (the basis of another blog post I think) but for now it’s important just to understand that the mind is intricately connected to karma.

So the true nature of our mind is clarity and awareness – free of emotion – just like the crystal clear stillness of the ocean. Our unenlightened mind is a beginning-less continuum, an ever-flowing mountain steam, changing from moment to moment depending on if we are happy or sad, feeling physical pain or pleasurable sensations.

Emotions (both positive and negative), sensations and negative thoughts can make the mind unclear, just like waves disturb a crystal clear ocean. The aim of Buddhist practice is to attain (and maintain) the crystal clear nature of our mind. This can be achieved through following the Buddha’s teachings and mediation techniques that are essentially based on compassion and wisdom.

It was during Buddha’s third teaching (there are three main teachings) that he declared that all beings possess “Buddha nature” (Tathagatagarbha in Sanskrit) and have the potential to reach enlightenment. It is the clear light mind that contains the aspects of Buddha nature – a mind that has realized wisdom and emptiness.

Remember I said that one of the main characteristics of the mind is its ability to know? Well, the path to enlightenment requires the continued development of understanding, or knowingness. And to continue to develop it until we have a clear light mind that understands and knows everything (Buddhahood or enlightenment).

The problem (especially in our modern world) is that we have become attached to our sense of separateness – the “I” or the ego. Our mind thinks that this is who we are but it is not. We are lost in a sea of confusion – grasping to form rather than spending time developing our awareness. For example the ego can make us angry and upset, as it is always grasping for external things to create happiness and to end suffering. When ego-addictions such as food, shopping and serial relationships do not end our suffering, we crave more of these external stimuli. This vicious cycle traps a person in a ‘samsaric existence’ – of wanting, gaining temporary happiness and relief from suffering that leads only to more wanting.

Our mind in this state is out of control– unconsciously influenced by external forces due to the belief in a separate self. This complete delusion is not an accurate reflection of the true nature of our mind, and thus reality. This confusion is like clouds passing through a blue sky. If you can clear away the clouds you are left with the clear blue sky, which is the true nature of our mind that will then accurately reflect the ultimate nature of reality. Buddhists are aiming to clear their mind of these clouds in order to reveal the blue sky  – the true nature of our mind.

Put simply: the clear light mind is the fundamental state of our mind– a blissfulness and happiness that can’t be lost. In this state of mind, ultimate truth is indivisible from relative truth. There is no separation – all is one.

In the words of Shakyamuni Buddha:

“ The nature of the mind is unity of awareness and emptiness…. the nature of mind is clear light”

By Lopen Namgay Tenzin.

(Sub-editing by Sasha Wakefield)