How our subjective experience comes to be
This week we're looking at case 30 in the famous koan collection The Gateless Barrier. (Case 30 is, rather unimaginatively, titled 'The very mind itself is Buddha'. I guess they weren't careful about spoilers in those days...)
So what's this all about? Well, there are really two important words here, 'mind' and 'Buddha', so let's take them in turn, and see what happens. Along the way we'll also take a brief look at some cutting-edge ideas in the scientific community about what our conscious experience actually is and how it comes about.
What is 'mind'?
First, we have to be clear about what we mean by the word 'mind' in this context, because it can mean several different things. In fact, if you've been following this blog for at least a few weeks, you might remember an article just before Christmas on this very topic - appropriately titled 'What is the mind?' (The relevant sections for today's purposes are 'Mind as a synonym for awareness' and 'Whoah, excellent!')
Rather than repeat that material again so soon, today I'll come at it from a slightly different angle. The short version is that 'mind' in this case is synonymous with 'awareness', and is also synonymous with 'our subjective conscious experience'. The second of these synonyms might not be quite so easy to accept at face value, so let's dig into that a little bit.
There's a school of Buddhism which is very influential in the Zen tradition called Yogacara, and is sometimes known as the 'mind-only' school of Buddhism. Amongst other things, the Yogacara way of understanding things attempts to dissect our experience into eight layers, or 'consciousnesses', which together represent the totality of our experience. The eight are:
The first six are the six sense consciousnesses found in early Buddhism, and represent the simple elements of our conscious experience - what we see and hear, think and feel. But the Yogacarans were interested in another couple of aspects of experience: the sense of self, and the source of habitual reactions and patterns. These were assigned to the seventh and eighth consciousnesses respectively.
The seventh consciousness is important because, when we look closely at our experience, we find that we tend to relate everything that's going on back to ourselves in some way. There's a sound - is it attractive (in which case I want it), is it repulsive (in which case I don't want it), or is it neutral (in which case I don't care and can ignore it)? This self-referential layer of experience significantly colours our experience of the world and leads us into trying to arrange the external world to our personal satisfaction and resenting it when that doesn't work out. Much of Buddhist practice is aimed at investigating this sense of self and trying to loosen its grip on our experience - not so that we forget who we are, but so that we find a smoother, gentler way to be in the world. (We'll come back to this point later when we move on to talking about 'Buddha'.)
The eighth consciousness is also important, because it recognises that we are not simply a blank slate meeting every moment completely afresh. (And, actually, that's a good thing - having a memory is useful!) The idea is that we have a 'storehouse' which contains the 'seeds' that we plant in each moment - over time, those seeds ripen, and we experience the result. So if we routinely react to difficult situations with anger, we plant a lot of angry seeds, and anger will become more and more a go-to state of being when faced with something difficult. If we instead start to plant seeds of kindness and compassion, e.g. by practising the Brahmaviharas, then as those seeds ripen our disposition will shift in a more open-hearted direction.
The storehouse makes us who we are as distinct individuals. Each of us has a unique history, a unique body, unique interests and capabilities, and so forth. That stuff is important - it's not OK for you to withdraw money from my bank account. But if we grasp that stuff too tightly, and it becomes all about me and mine - which is the role of the seventh consciousness - then we become cut off from our wider environment, a tiny, fragile being alienated from a big bad world, and we set ourselves up for suffering. That's why it's called 'deluded awareness' - because it leads to a view of the world which is both not entirely accurate and quite unhelpful on a practical level. The main thrust of Zen practice is to undo that alienation and reunite ourselves with the universe. Speaking of which, perhaps it's time to switch gears and talk about 'Buddha'!
What is 'Buddha'?
Well, according to master Mazu in the koan, the very mind itself is Buddha! But maybe just repeating the koan isn't the most useful commentary, so let's dig a bit.
When someone asks 'What is Buddha?' in a koan, they're not typically asking for a story about Siddhartha Gautama, aka Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure who lived about 2,500 years ago in what we now call India. Rather, 'What is Buddha?' is a shorthand way of asking for a teaching on awakening. Equivalent questions include 'Who am I?', 'What is my true nature?', and 'What is this?' The fundamental point of Zen practice is to investigate this very moment, right here, right now, and to 'awaken' to its true nature.
What does that mean? Well, the best way to find out is to take one of those questions ('Who am I?' is a good starting point) and work with it as a koan. (You'll find a guided 'Who am I?' practice on my Audio page.) Until you've experienced it for yourself, any attempt to describe it is just words.
Nevertheless, we might say that the process of awakening is a matter of changing our relationship to what's going on. In the language of the Yogacara, we might talk about loosening the grip of the seventh consciousness - the 'deluded awareness' - and rediscovering our connection to the universe as a whole. We work with 'Who am I?' because it invites us to question the apparent separation between 'me' and 'not me', 'mine' and 'not mine'. As we see deeper and deeper into the question, we begin to let go of the fixed ways in which we typically understand ourselves and our surroundings, and ultimately we come to a different relationship with our experience, one which is much freer.
Now, this can be where Zen might start to sound like a con, like something that would actually increase delusion rather than lessening it. Surely it's perfectly obvious that we're each separate individuals, totally disconnected from the wider universe; is Zen basically a process of brainwashing ourselves to believe something that isn't true, against the evidence of our senses?
But that's where it gets interesting. What does the evidence of our senses really tell us? When we start to investigate this, we rapidly find that what we perceive through the senses is intimately intertwined with thoughts and memories. If all we had to go on was our eye consciousness, we would only experience coloured shapes - but we don't. We experience computer monitor, tea cup, fingers, keyboard and so forth. Those labels aren't coming from our eyes! The sensory information we receive is interpreted and woven together by our brains to produce an overall 3D 'picture' of what's going on - and that's our subjective experience. Although it may seem like our eyes are windows looking out onto an objectively real world, what we actually experience is the product of our minds - hence, 'mind-only'.
Actually, it's even worse than that! At the cutting edge of current scientific thinking is the idea that our brains are actually 'prediction engines'. Rather than meticulously build up a complete picture of what's going on by weaving together every piece of sensory information every moment, our brains actually start with a kind of 'guess' as to what's going on - a 'model' about what we expect to be experiencing, based on past experience. Then the information coming in through the senses is checked against that model - and if the model is wrong enough to be concerning, it's updated based on the sense data. But if things are ticking along pretty much as expected, then the sense data is simply checked and dropped.
This is a little bit mind-blowing, at least to me! It does explain a lot of oddities about our experience, though. For example, you may be aware that our eyes are actually constantly making tiny movements, called saccades - but our visual field usually appears to be stable, rather than jiggling around all over the place. Previously I'd assumed that the brain had some kind of 'image stabilisation' feature, like the camera in my phone, but actually it makes a whole lot more sense if the role of the eyes is to dart around all over the place checking to see if the mental model of my surroundings is accurate.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, no matter how obvious it seems that we're simply experiencing things exactly as they are, what's really going on is the product of a complex process, and one of the inputs to that process is what we expect to experience. We've grown up surrounded by people who believe themselves to be separate, and we've picked up and internalised that world view - so that's what we see, because it's what we expect to see. But if you spend long enough hanging out with Zen people (at least those with some degree of realisation), it soon becomes apparent that that way of seeing things isn't the only game in town.
Back to the koan
So, what is Buddha? The very mind itself is Buddha. Our subjective consciousness experience is a projection of our minds - and that projection can be self-centred, alienated, painful and riddled with grasping, in which case we call it samsara; or it can be liberated, free from grasping, flowing freely in each moment, bright, clear and seamlessly unified. It isn't that the external world changes when we wake up - we aren't transported to a heavenly realm, perhaps somewhere in the Himalayas. It's our own minds that change - transforming from the habitual mind of suffering to the wide-awake mind of a Buddha.
May you awaken swiftly.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!