Saturday, July 30, 2011


Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...Image via Wikipedia
“He’s lost his mind.” “She changed her mind.” “I can’t make up my mind.” We use the term “mind” in such an off-handed way that it is rare to look at it closely, but it is impossible to be a serious student of Zen without carefully considering how it is understood. So today I want to devote some attention to a thorough look at “mind” from a Zen perspective.

The first view is to notice that there is no such thing as “mind”, and by that I mean that “mind” is not a thing—a discrete, tangible self-contained entity. Our ordinary view is quite contrary to this understanding. When we see an object (such as a rock) we say to our self: “There is a concrete object, which I have learned to call ‘rock’, appearing before me. I see it therefore it is real, discrete, self-contained and tangible”. What we fail to be aware of is that this conclusion is the result of a collaboration which occurs between the object and a process in our brain. In Buddhism this collaboration has a designation called the Five Skāndhas—“Skāndhas” is a Sanskrit word which means Aggregate or Heap and the five are (1) form, (2) sensation, (3) perceptions, (4) mental formations and (5) consciousness. None of these, singularly is adequate to produce the conclusion of “rock”. And this is true for all objects, whether internal or external. It is this collaboration amongst these Skāndhas that fabricates the illusion of solidity and this illusion is the basis of “mind”. Consequently Buddhism says that forms (objects) are “empty” meaning that a form has no substantial existence and if there are no forms to see then a mind is not produced since “mind” is the result of this collaboration.

Because of the incredible advances made in neurological detection it is now possible to validate what Buddhism has been saying for centuries. When we examine the brain with the neurological tools of today we can see that this Skāndhas view of fabrication is correct and given this reality it now makes sense that there is no substantial, independent objective anything, including the mental formation of a self (otherwise known as a “self-image”). Since everything is impermanent and in flux when any one of these Skāndhas changes (which is all of the time) our “mind” reflects these changes. Thus the expressions above (“He’s lost his mind.” “She changed her mind.” “I can’t make up my mind.” ) take on an entirely different perspective. In fact the notion of a “mind” sitting between our ears is simply a convenient way of referring to our thoughts which are in constant motion.

So the next step along this exploration is how this understanding effects the practice of Zen meditation. When we sit, we see mental formations and sense feelings wafting across our consciousness. When these formations cease our “mind” goes away as well and this cessation reveals MIND (which has no dimension of distinguishing characteristic)—the ground from which everything arises. The capacity of seeing must entail separation and life. An object, such as a mental image, may have separation but not life. Only a subject has life but it too must have separation for seeing to occur (or hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking).

If it was possible for one person to completely merge with another person there would be no sense of self and other—Only unity. At the level of manifestation there is what appears as duality—me vs. other, this vs. that, a thought vs. a thinker, etc. This level of reality (the level of manifestation) is the ordinary level where we notice ourselves versus our world. But this level is only possible if there is a separate level of unity, the ground from which manifestations arise. Because we only notice forms/objects our subjective nature (Buddha-Nature) is never seen, yet this source ground is who we truly are. It is through the process of Zen meditation that we couple this understanding together with our practice, to experience both the illusions (e.g. images) as well as the ground from which they arise. It is this noticing, separated from what is noticed that allows the emergence of our true nature.

Nagarjuna—founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, referred to these two levels as “two truths” (Partial/conventional truths and sublime truths) and said that we learn about the sublime truths (which set us free) by way of the conventional/partial truths. In other words we are forced to use the mental formations (which admittedly are empty) produced by the Skāndhas to fathom sublime reality. And until that happens we are trapped in the illusion that what we experience is the totality of our existence.
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