What Is Mind?
Han Ja-gyeong | Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Ewha Woman’s University
The Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism teaches that the same water may be viewed in four different ways. Human beings see it as a drinkable substance but not an environment to live in; fish see it as an environment in which they can live and breathe; devas see it as a sparkling bejeweled realm, while hungry ghosts regard it as pus and blood. Therefore, the same object may arouse different perceptions and views depending on who sees it. Each sentient being senses and perceives an object according to their consciousness or level of awareness. Each world or realm inhabited by a sentient being exists only to those who recognize it. In other words, a world exists only in the mind of a being who perceives it with their cognitive faculties. Thus, Consciousness-Only teaches “there is only consciousness and nothing else.”
This perspective implies that the world is only a projection of the mind or a creation of the mind. Simply put “all things are created by mind alone.” In this respect, the world can be compared to a hologram or a movie unfolding on a screen. A hologram looks real but it is not, and neither is a movie.
In the Korean movie A Taxi Driver, we see a taxi cab driving down a country road and speeding through downtown Gwangju. We see people crying and screaming while running around the streets, and scenes of Gwangju in spring of 1980. However, the world we see in the movie does not exist in the theater. There is no taxi, no people, and no Gwangju. What movie goers actually see is the light from a film projector shining through hundreds of thousands of prints on a film to project images on a screen. The screen is two-dimensional, and the images projected on it are also two-dimensional. If so, where is the world I see while watching the movie; where is the three-dimensional world where the taxi and people interact? It exists not in the theater but only in the mind of the person watching the movie. The world I see in the theater is created by my mind as directed by the images on the screen, and it exists only in my mind. The world I experience in daily life is also created by my mind just like the world I see in a theater. I see the world with my eyes every day. When images of the world are projected on the two-dimensional plane of my retina, I see them; but they are no longer two-dimensional because I reformulate them as three-dimensional. Thus, the three-dimensional world I see is a world created by my mind based on the two-dimensional images reflected on my retina. It is just the same as when I watch a movie; I create a three-dimensional image from images projected on a two-dimensional screen. Just like the two-dimensional world I see in a theater, with taxis, streets and people, the three-dimensional world I see in “reality,” with mountains, oceans, the sun and moon, is also created by my mind, and therefore, it does not exist outside my mind either. In this way, the world we see and experience is the one created by the mind which perceives it, just like the world in a movie.
In a theater, it is easy to accept that the images only exist in my mind. The film projector behind me is projecting the images in front of me. Furthermore, because the film has images of the “real world” outside the theater, and because those images coincide with my own perceptions, the images I see in the theater are ultimately just an imitation and shadow of the objective reality outside my mind. If so, even when the world I experience is created by my mind, do the film and light, which enable it, exist separately outside my mind? Does something not belonging to the world I experience or the foundation of the universe exist outside my mind? Is it that the world created by my mind is just my own subjective mental world, and the objective physical world exists separately outside of my mind like the film and the light illuminating the film?
Consciousness-Only says that the film and light do not exist outside of my mind; rather, the film is the information (seeds) within my mind, and the light is what is intrinsic to my mind. The mind as construed by Consciousness-Only is far deeper and more profound than the mind I normally regard as mine. That is because Consciousness-Only brings into my mind the universe itself and the foundation of the universe, which correspond to the film and light behind me in a theater, both of which I consider to exist only outside of my consciousness. When we think of “mind,” we think of the “thinking consciousness,” and we regard it as the mind. One understands only what their thinking consciousness says directly and internally.
The awakened state of mind where we can see, hear, think, taste, smell and feel is the thinking consciousness. The thinking consciousness is thought to disappear when we are in a deep dreamless sleep or when we faint. We think this ordinary consciousness comprises our whole mind, but Consciousness-Only states that our mind has much deeper levels. According to Consciousness-Only, we have: the five sense consciousnesses; the sixth thinking consciousness, which perceives the contents of these sense consciousnesses and makes sense of them or interprets them through integration (When we say “consciousness” we usually refer to this thinking consciousness); the 7th manas consciousness, which operates on an even deeper level; and the 8th alaya consciousness is the deepest. The mind, which corresponds to the film and light, or the mind which corresponds to “all things are created by mind alone” is not ordinary consciousness but the alaya consciousness. The deep structure of consciousness, as perceived by Consciousness-Only, is as follows.
Prior five consciousnesses: sensory perceptions
The 6th consciousness: object consciousness, thinking consciousness
The 7th manas consciousness: ego consciousness (defiled consciousness)
The 8th alaya consciousness – information (seeds) processing: seed storehouse consciousness – compared to the film – base consciousness: intrinsic enlightenment/true emptiness with tranquil calmness and subtle awareness – representing the light in the projector
In daily life, the consciousness that regards the world as objective reality outside the mind is the thinking consciousness. From our thinking consciousness, the world is perceived as an external phenomenon. The thinking consciousness perceives self and the world surrounding it from a duality perspective, as subject (self) and object (the world). The thinking consciousness is basically an object consciousness which perceives objects through the six senses. The ego consciousness which arouses this object consciousness, that is, the ego consciousness which creates one’s sense of self, is the 7th manas consciousness. Manas consciousness corresponds to instincts, desires and will which are often thought to be located in a subconscious level beneath the thinking consciousness. Manas consciousness regards self in the empirical world (like the self in a movie) as the true self. The thinking consciousness and manas consciousness
The awakened state of mind where we can see, hear, think,
taste, smell and feel is the thinking consciousness.
We think this ordinary consciousness comprises our whole mind,
but Consciousness-Only states that our mind has much deeper levels.
regard the empirical world and the self within it as having true existence, and thus, cling to this self and worldly things. However, this self and this world only exist nominally because they are created by the mind. The consciousness which creates this
self and this world, the self that perceives through the senses and the world/objects that correspond to these senses is the alaya consciousness.
If so, how does the alaya consciousness create self and world? When the thinking and manas consciousnesses act (creating karma, which is a defiled action based on clinging), the act maintains its strength or energy until it bears fruit (a result or retribution).
Consciousness-Only calls the power of karma (which is the resultant energy of action) “seeds.”
According to Consciousness-Only, when we act, the seeds of the action are planted in
the alaya consciousness. These seeds are repeatedly produced and extinguished from
moment to moment, and when the causes and conditions are ripe, these seeds manifest
as observable phenomena. The self which perceives through the senses and the world
it perceives (as external objects) are observable manifestation of these seeds (or data) which
are stored in the alaya consciousness. The seeds of karmic power can be considered
as “information” generated by action. The information formulated from our actions continually accumulates in the alaya consciousness, and under the right condition, this information manifests in observable form: self and the world.
Therefore, Consciousness-Only says the foundation that enables the empirical world my mind creates does not exist outside my mind but in seeds within my mind. Unlike the movie in a theater, Consciousness-Only does not “project” any film outside the mind because the content of the film (which makes up the empirical world), and the information in the film are products of the actions taken by our thinking consciousness and manas consciousness which are active in the empirical world. In other words, the seeds (information) that create the empirical world do not come from outside the empirical world; they are planted and accumulated by actions taken by the thinking consciousness and manas consciousness of the empirical world. The alaya consciousness is what stores and maintains the seeds planted by the thinking consciousness and manas consciousness and then manifest them in the world. The term “alaya” refers to “ālaya” in Sanskrit which means “to store.”
If we compare the seeds (information) stored in the alaya consciousness to the film in the film projector, the alaya consciousness itself, which stores and manifests these seeds, can be compared to the light that projects the images on the screen. Consciousness-Only does not put the light, which formulates and illuminates the world, outside the mind, because the luminosity of the world, as seen by the mind, comes from the luminosity of the mind that sees the world; this is the light of the alaya consciousness. The source of the light of the world is the light of the mind. No matter how luminous and bright the world is, whether illuminated by light or the sun, the world I see cannot be bright if my mind is dark. Just as what makes a movie bright is not the light (or the sun in the movie), but the light from the projector, the light that illuminates the empirical world is not of the empirical world; it is the light of the alaya consciousness itself that creates the empirical world. In this way Consciousness-Only does not consider the film, light, world itself or the foundation of the universe (the Creator) to be outside of the alaya consciousness that creates and illuminates the world. The alaya consciousness itself is the mind that encompasses a myriad of phenomena, the mind of infinity and the absolute, the oneness of mind, and all things as they are.
As can be seen, the human mind is complex and consists of multiple levels. Depending on which level of the mind one refers to, one’s understanding of the mind will be different from others. From the perspective of the thinking consciousness, the world is seen as existing outside the mind and separate from it. This same world is considered to be created by the mind and to not exist outside the mind if seen from the perspective of the alaya consciousness. While the thinking consciousness is the mind on the surface layer, the alaya consciousness is a deeper layer of the mind. Thus, the world exists outside the mind of the thinking consciousness but within the mind of the alaya consciousness. From the perspective of the thinking consciousness, which discriminates between self and others, you and I are different entities as are others; from the perspective of the alaya consciousness, which sees with the oneness of mind, you and I are beings who empathize and resonate with each other with no perception of duality (you and I). In this way our minds are infused into each other in ways neither different from each other nor the same as each other.
The mind of the thinking consciousness is an individuated mind and unique to each person, but the mind of the alaya consciousness is a single mind in which you and I are integrated. One’s sense of self that says “I am who I am” is the manas consciousness and corresponds to the mature ego consciousness of a rational human being. However, from the perspective of Consciousness-Only, the manas consciousness consists of attachments and defilements packed with self-concept and self-pride. The mind that should be solidly established and maintained when seen from the perspective of ordinary people is the mind which should be overcome and transcended when seen from the perspective of our true nature. Therefore, the single word “mind” can be understood vastly differently depending on what it refers to and how it is perceived because the mind has so many layers or levels.
Han Ja-gyeong studied the Western philosophy of Immanuel Kant at the University of Freiburg (Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg) and Buddhist philosophy (Consciousness-Only) at Dongguk University. Currently she is a professor in the Dept. of Philosophy, Ewha Womans University. Her Korean publications include Exploration into Self, and The Concept of Non-Self in Buddhism.