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)

2 thoughts on “What is mind?

  1. “So the true nature of our mind is clarity and awareness – free of emotion”.

    I am not connivence the nature of the clear mind is free of emotion.

    We understand that it is important to cultivate a clear, focus and realize what is going on in our mind. A “messy” mind have no space to accommodate anything and therefore sooner or later, the mind will stop thinking, feeling and turn into “coma” – a common disease diagnosed in our society – just look around or …into the mirror!

    If we replace Mind with a scientific term – Energy.
    The law of conservation of energy states the sum of all the energies in the system (in this case, our mind) is always the same. The law explained if we want to cultivate positive emotion (energy) in our mind, we have to let go some of the negative emotion (energy) – to maintenance the system (mind) balance.

    Loving, kindness and compassion are positive emotion – the aim to cultivate a clear mind is like a house keeping exercise – that is to remove negative emotion and develop positive emotion.

    • Thanks for your thought provoking comment Dom. This is a very complicated topic but we will try and provide you with a sufficient answer.

      In Buddhism, all emotions that we experience, whether joy, happiness, jealousy, anger etc. are considered the source of suffering. This may sound strange but the reasoning can be found in the law of impermanence and our dualistic view of the world.

      Our mind sees life in a dualistic way which means that it views everything as a separation between subject and object – meaning from our own side/perspective which gives rise to our experience on the other side (which will be different from person to person even though the object is the same). In Buddhism, this dualistic way of thinking is mistaken and brings about on-going suffering.

      An example would be that 2 people can view the same object in 2 different ways – one might look at it as beautiful and experience emotions of joy while the other may perceive the same object as ugly and experience emotions of repulsion. Therefore emotions in this way do not have an inherently real existence – they are dependent on our own individual projections of the object.

      It follows that if it is dependent on our projections of the object then due to the law of impermanence, the object will eventually change – thus our emotions of compassion and joy experienced from a certain object will eventually cease and cause us suffering as the object changes. (e.g. the joy we experience when we see a beautiful painting is easily transformed into anger as we witness it being destroyed by a vandal). The emotion is dualistic not absolute.

      In Buddhism, since all emotions (whether positive or negative) are considered sources of suffering – transforming emotions from negative to positive will only temporarily alleviate our suffering.

      This is why Buddhists conclude that all emotions are painful and the cause of suffering. Their impermanent and dualistic nature causes uncertainty, expectations and fear – ultimately, they don’t have an inherently existent nature. Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful since they are changing over time rather than based in a deep awareness within the present.

      You mention compassion. People (like us) have dualistic compassion since we have not realized the true nature of reality (or Buddhahood). Buddha’s compassion on the other hand does not involve subject and object. From a Buddha’s point of view, compassion could never involve subject and object – this is known as Great Compassion…….

      So coming back to the fact that the emotions we experience cause disturbances in our mind (whether positive or negative) – it is because we view life in a dualistic way – and this will always cause suffering to arise whether immediately or in the future. A mind that is free of emotion or a dualistic way of viewing the world is the clear light mind. If we have a clear light mind then we possess a deep inner compassion for all sentient beings that is not dependent on the object – it is naturally arising, luminous and unchanging. It is calm like a still lake.

      We hope this helps.

      (Note: Buddhist philosophy is very complicated, taking years of study to grasp and even then questions arise. There are many good introductory books on Buddhism that will provide a solid foundational understanding of Buddhist concepts and reasoning)

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