7 min read

Exploring mind and its nature.

The mind is central to the path of liberation and the journey of self-discovery. The mind is simultaneously readily apparent to us and yet a mystery. It is the basis for all of our experience, and yet not understood. Understanding the mind is the key to understanding who we are, the nature of the world around us and our place in it.

In the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, we are instructed to turn our mind towards the Dharma. The meaning of Dharma can be interpreted in different ways. Dharma can mean the Buddha's teachings, but Dharma can also refer to that which is authentic or true. Dharma can also mean phenomena, or the reality of our life and experience. In this way, turning our mind towards the Dharma means looking into the reality of our own life and experience in order to find what is true or authentic. We should explore our own mind, using the wisdom and insight of the Buddha and the many great teachers that have come before us, to discern what is meaningful and true in our own life.

This practice of looking at the mind is the basis for the practice of vipashyana or insight. The hallmark of the Buddha's teachings was insight into the nature of mind and the nature of reality. Exploring mind and its nature sets us out on a journey through the landscape of our own mind in search of that which is authentic and true.


Before we can understand the nature of mind, we need to understand the mind itself. What is mind or consciousness?

The Buddha's perspective on mind is particularly helpful in opening up an doorway to the nature of mind. The Buddha taught consciousness as one of the skandhas or aggregates. The aggregate of consciousness is composed of either six or eight consciousnesses, depending on whether you are following the Hinayana or Mahayana perspective. Each of these eight (or six) consciousnesses are included within our experience of mind, and yet none of them by themselves are 'mind'. The Buddha would say that there is no mind, mind itself is an aggregate of experience and we should understand it as such.

The eight types of consciousness taught in the Mahayana sutras are the alaya or foundational consciousness, the afflicted or defiled consciousness, the mental consciousness, and the five sense consciousnesses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch). Together, these eight form the basis of our experience of who we are and the world around us.

The alaya consciousness is the foundational consciousness that forms the stream of our mental continuum. Mipham Rinpoche describes it in the Adornment of the Middle Way:

The state of consciousness that is mere clarity and knowing, which does not veer off into active sense cognition, and which is the support of habitual tendencies, is called the alaya-vijnana, the consciousness that is the universal ground. The Cittamatrins consider that this is essentially neutral, neither positive or negative. It is an awareness of the mere presence of objects and it arises in a continuity of instants. It is attended by the 'five universal mental factors', such as contact. It does not have a specific object of focus but observes the world and beings in a general, overall manner.

The alaya or foundational consciousness is this bare state of mere clarity and knowing. It is not focused or caught up in the particulars of our experience, but it is also the ground upon which our experience is created. As Mipham describes, this alaya consciousness possesses five universal mental factors which are present in any mental consciousness. These five factors are contact or sense impression, feeling, perception, intention and attention. The alaya consciousness as bare perception is aware of some thing in a general way. That thing makes a sense impression on the alaya and gives rise to a feeling or pleasure, pain or indifference. The qualities of that perception are perceived and intention directs our attention. Intention here isn't the gross intention of thoughts and or ideas, but consciousness moving towards that object and knowing it in some capacity (as attention). This bare state of mere clarity and knowing is normally outside of the experience of ordinary mind and only accessible to seasoned meditation practitioners, and yet, if we examine closely we can see this process playing out even on the level of our day to day consciousness.

The afflicted or defiled consciousness is the consciousness that interprets everything around 'me' and 'mine'. It is the narrative consciousness that is telling the story of who we are based on attachment and aversion to this confused sense of identity. Mipham describes the defiled consciousness:
The alaya, as the basis for the different habitual tendencies, is defined as mere clarity and knowing, whereas the defiled emotional mind is a clinging to the continuum of consciousness as being the self.

The experience of the alaya consciousness is interpreted through the defiled consciousness through the lens of identity. There are three main ways that we interpret or grasp to this sense of self: 1) self as independently existing, 2) self as the experiencer, 3) self as the agent of free will. We will explore those three types of self-grasping later, but any experience that we are having is interpreted through these confused notions of the self. The alaya consciousness is having some type of experience, and the defiled consciousness is 'selfing' the experience and narrating it in terms of its perceived identity. I see a lot of parallels between the defiled consciousness and what is called the default mode network by modern neuroscience.

The mental consciousness is what we normally think of as mind. It is the mind and its attendant mental states and mental objects. It is the thinking mind, the mind forming ideas and engaging in dialogue. It is the clear appearance of any of the sense consciousnesses in our subjective awareness. The five sense consciousnesses and the mental consciousness together create the entangled conception of what we normally consider 'mind'. My mind is aware of what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, touching, etc. What we are not usually aware of is how the mental and sense consciousnesses are influenced and shaped by the defiled consciousness, and the bare clarity and knowing of experience is largely foreign to us.

An important understanding is to be made regarding the sense consciousnesses and the perceived, supposedly external sense objects. The sense consciousnesses are interconnected with the sense organs and the sense object, such that they are not distinct separate entities. They arise conditionally based on mutual dependence. The key point here is that when we experience form, that form does not exist outside of consciousness as some kind of truly existing thing. It is experienced within consciousness, through this process of contact, feeling, perception, and mental formations eventually giving rise to our experience of form, but that form is not how it actually exists. This is confusing, I know, here is what Mipham has to say about our experience of the external world:
The Cittamatra approach emphasizes the fact that no matter how real and solid external objects seem, all experience of them- including our knowledge about them and their apparently objective constitution- occurs wholly within the sphere of consciousness. This carries the important implication that even if one accepts the objective existence of phenomena separate from mind, their extramental mode of existence, if such there is, is by definition unknowable. To reach beyond the mind and to experience phenomena exclusively from their side, in a complete self-contained objectivity, is as impossible as it is for us to climb out of our own skin. Indeed, the very supposition that there is a 'mind' and that there is a 'world', and that there is a separation between the two, are themselves mental events.

This is definitely controversial to the western scientific mind. We have entire fields of physics that define very clearly the laws of nature. But remember, we are not talking about if the external world exists, but rather how it exists. We take our sense perceptions to be real, to be valid and unerring and true. Is that the case? How could we possibly know? Is our perception of a tree more real than a bug's perception of a tree? But surely there is a tree there, right? What if we changed all of our sense organs, so that we perceived the entire range of energetic potential, what would we perceive then? Would that be the real world? The simple conclusion is that we can only know anything through mind, and thus we can be confident that our experience of the world is conditioned and partial. Knowing that we can open our perspective to appreciate a broader and more complex reality.

The key point of our discussion on mind is that mind itself is an aggregate of experience. It is not a thing, or a substance. Some examples of how these eight consciousnesses come together to create our experience of 'mind' can be helpful. Let's take for example someone who was born with all five sense consciousnesses operating, but at some point lost their vision. Their experience of themselves and their world would be dramatically altered upon losing their vision, and yet, they would maintain a consist narrative of who they were, their 'self' would remain intact. What happens if this person were to lose their hearing as well?  How would their experience change? How would their understanding of the world change? Would they maintain a coherent sense of self as their own mind? Undoubtedly they would.

What about when we are dreaming? Dreams are interesting because none of our five sense consciousnesses are operating and yet we can still experience the five senses in a dream. What we are seeing in our dream is not actually what are eye faculties are seeing, and yet we have clear appearances in our dreams. The experience of dreams is really the aggregate of experience of the alaya-consciousness, the defiled consciousness and the mental consciousness. The imprints or seeds of memories and conditioning factors (karma) planted in the alaya consciousness ripen in the dream state and are projected into the mental consciousness (the sixth consciousness). The defiled consciousness is still narrating the dream in terms of self, even though the self of the dream can be different that your waking state self. The experience of the sense consciousnesses in dreams arises due to our conditioned way of experiencing the world. The dreamscape is not real by any means, but a habitual perception based on past conditioning (rarely do people dream of past centuries- imagine having a dream like you were in the dawn of the agricultural era and experiencing the world through that lens, you couldn't even conceive of it).

So we have some idea of what our experience of the mind might be like without the five sense consciousnesses dominating our experience, but what about the experience of mind free from the defiled consciousness? Can we experience the mind free from the narrative of self and other, me and mine? There are many ways that this type of experience can be cultivated (certain psychedelics, ecstatic experiences, life changing events, breathing techniques, dream and sleep yogas, etc), but one of the most practical methods is through contemplation and meditation. Through contemplation and meditation we can break down the habitual mode of apprehending the self and mind.
Once we understand what the mind is, we can turn our attention to really examining the mind itself and gaining a better perspective on the nature of the mind. This becomes the focus of the practice of vipashyana, or insight.