A Teaching on Refuge
by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

The purpose of taking refuge is to experience enlightenment, because we would all like to be rid of our confusion, neuroses, and errors. There is not a single being who actually wants to be in confusion.

Since experiencing enlightenment is our goal, the first source of refuge is the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha means that our purpose is to achieve the experience of perfect enlightenment, just as he did. We should understand that the Buddha did not achieve enlightenment overnight — he had to follow the path. He was originally an ordinary being, yet by following the path with diligence and enthusiasm and a sense of tremendous joy, he attained what is called SANGYE in Tibetan: Buddhahood.

In order to achieve enlightenment, we have to follow the path. The path toward enlightenment is called Dharma, so the second source of refuge is the Dharma. Dharma redirects us from what is negative to that which is positive, from the mistaken to the correct. Dharma is also healing — it heals the wounds of the mind. It heals our physical senses. Since Dharma is the path, we need to take refuge in Dharma to accomplish Buddhahood.

As much as we would all like to correct ourselves and to be free from all confusion and suffering and to experience enlightenment, without the Sangha, which means community, such a method as the path of Dharma might not be available in our time. It is because of the devotion of the Sangha that the path taught by Buddha has been passed down from teacher to student, and is still available in our time. Although we want to achieve the perfection of enlightenment, we will have no idea how to begin if we do not first depend on the Sangha.

Sangha members consist of those who are trained in the Dharma and have practised and perfected some realisation of the Dharma. Having that realisation, they are in a position to guide the new student on the path with their knowledge of Dharma. Since the realised Sangha assists in our path toward the perfection of our goal, this is our third source of refuge. As beginners, we need to depend on the Sangha.

Understanding the three objects of refuge — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — we also need to know that there are three ways of taking refuge, which are based on our intentions. The first way is taking refuge with a mundane or worldly aspiration. It is very common all over the world for people to take refuge with the intention of experiencing happiness, success, fame in this lifetime, or a better birth in the next lifetime. Because of lack of information or knowledge of the Dharma, these people do not know how to direct themselves toward enlightenment itself. Not knowing this, they set the goal of temporary happiness in this life and a better life in their next birth. The objects of refuge are the same: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and it is possible that these sorts of temporary goals for this and the next life could be fulfilled. However, these people will not be separated from the cause of suffering, since they have not aspired to go beyond samsara. They have aimed for success, good things in this life, and a better birth, but they are still within samsara, which is a condition to experience great suffering.

An example of the importance of our goal is this: An arrow or a bullet has the power to go a long distance, but if we aim the bow or gun at the ground right in front of us, it will only go a short distance. It is not the fault of the bullet or arrow, but of our aim. When there is the preoccupation with personal well-being in this life and a better birth in the next life, these benefits may be obtained, but enlightenment will not. It is essential that we take refuge with such knowledge of the importance of intention, because obtaining refuge, as well as following the path to the accomplishment of enlightenment, is based on our state of mind.

In the second way of taking refuge, we have a sense of the nature of samsara. We understand that samsara is a choiceless state and that everything in the relative world, including our physical bodies, our friends, and our possessions is subject to impermanence. Although we would like to see everything as permanent, including the youthfulness of our physical bodies, impermanence creeps up on us gradually. As much as we try to avoid it, we cannot totally separate ourselves from this. Similarly, as much as we would like to be friends with those who are close to us, sometimes friendships end. Everything on the earth is impermanent. Seeing this impermanence, we see that what impermanence leaves us with is more suffering. We feel suffering when we see the deterioration of our bodies, things around us, and things everywhere in the universe.

Knowing the nature of samsara and with a sense of the possibility of the state of nirvana, the second form of taking refuge is to do so with the intention of liberating ourselves from impermanence and suffering. The objects of refuge are again the same: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Compared to the first way of taking refuge, this goal is much superior because at least there is the knowledge of working toward enlightenment. Still, it is not the best goal, because it is quite selfish. The practitioner has seen suffering and experienced impermanence, and therefore wants liberation for his or her self alone. This is known as the lesser vehicle tradition of taking refuge. It is called the lesser vehicle because the intention to reach liberation is only for the individual taking refuge. Taking refuge in this way has to do with the influence of the attitudes of those we associate with on the path. Friends — those with whom we associate — are very important, since they have a great deal of influence on our motivation.

The third attitude in receiving refuge is considered the proper way of receiving refuge in accordance with the particular tradition we are following, the mahayana (“maha” means greater). With this attitude, we need to learn to overcome the selfish motive of achieving enlightenment for ourselves alone and become quite courageous.

If we associate with the mahayana Sangha and are surrounded by the mahayana outlook, we may develop this courage. Those with the mahayana outlook are more courageous because they do not strive toward enlightenment for themselves alone, but toward the enlightenment of all living beings. Therefore, we also learn to accept others and all living beings on the path toward liberation.

The qualities that make us a proper recipient and practitioner of the mahayana teachings are, first, self-confidence or courage and second, wisdom. The courage or self-confidence is based on understanding that every living being is experiencing suffering. Whatever suffering we have gone through in the past, tolerable or intolerable, and whatever suffering we are going through now, all living beings suffer in the same way. They may not be experiencing exactly the same kind of pain, but they are always experiencing suffering and unfavourable conditions. All beings, indulging ourselves, try to avoid such pain and its causes but, since we are lacking in wisdom and are subject to confusion, we still always end up experiencing suffering. This is proof that whatever approach we and other beings have used in the past is not the ultimate or proper method.

Knowing that, we should include all living beings in our aspiration toward liberation, not just ourselves. Contemplate that all these living beings, through their confusion, believe they are in the proper path to happiness but, as a result of the confusion, they are not. By really understanding that everyone has suffering and confusion and is trying to overcome those problems, but that all the methods they have used have not brought them liberation, we develop the experience of limitless compassion. From this compassion comes the possibility of having the courage to guide all beings — not one or two, but all — to enlightenment. We should work to develop this compassion and courage.

Having developed that strong compassion, the next aspect is the cultivation of wisdom. Wisdom involves the awareness that giving living beings temporary happiness is not really the solution to their problem. Although it is very important to provide whatever happiness we can for beings, including ourselves, working toward just a temporary benefit is not really a solution. Therefore we must develop aspiration for the enlightenment of all living beings, which is the union of compassion and wisdom. This union of compassion and wisdom makes us mahayana practitioners.

The union of compassion and wisdom enables us to experience the burning away of our own confusion and obscuration much faster. In the absence of such confusion, realisation or development takes birth. This relates to the second syllable of SANGYE (the Tibetan word for Buddhahood), GYE, which refers to development of wisdom. The reason the union of compassion and wisdom leads more rapidly to enlightenment is similar to the way a bird flies. It can fly with two wings, but not with one. Similarly, the union of compassion and wisdom enables us to “fly” toward enlightenment. Since we have motivated ourselves to reach enlightenment to benefit and liberate beings, we continue to bring about this benefit in accordance with our goal, and our capacity to benefit beings unfolds immeasurably.

The possibility of working in the proper way toward enlightenment — motivating ourselves in accordance with the mahayana view — is taught to us by our mahayana spiritual friend. As I said, the influence, or association, is important, and spiritual friends are quite helpful. There are also those who, without having to be taught, are naturally filled with compassion — not for themselves, but compassion toward all living beings. That is an evidence that this particular individual has practised in the previous life. His or her obscurations or delusion of mind are less thick. It does not mean there are no obscurations, but there are fewer. As a result of this, these people experience natural compassion toward all beings without being taught. Therefore, we must genuinely rejoice if we have natural compassion toward all living beings.

All the countless enlightened beings of the past achieved enlightenment through this union of compassion and wisdom. All the countless enlightened beings of the present achieved that level through the union of compassion and wisdom. All future enlightenment must be achieved through the union of compassion and wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are also referred to as skillful means and primordial wisdom in the Dharma teachings. The skillfulness involved is the union of compassion and wisdom as we have discussed. That union is very important in our lives for the possibility of future enlightenment.

Instructions concerning taking refuge are given before the ceremony itself, since having the proper mental attitude during the ceremony is essential for obtaining the refuge transmission. At the time of the ceremony, there is really not much to do. You simply sit, repeat the Tibetan words, and you receive the refuge. If you do not know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what state of mind you should have, then you are simply sitting and repeating an unknown language. Since it is important not only to repeat the words but to know what you are repeating and what state of mind you should have, I have given this instruction.

If someone participates in the refuge ceremony without any knowledge of refuge, and without even knowing the words they are repeating, it would be like a bucket with holes in it. No matter what you put in, it runs out through the holes. If a person has some knowledge of refuge but is not aspiring toward enlightenment, and if they take refuge with a goal of happiness and prosperity of this and the next life, then they will have refuge, but they will be unable to reach enlightenment because they have not aspired to enlightenment. To enable you to be a perfect recipient of the refuge vow, I have given a complete explanation of the objects of refuge, and what state of mind you need to have. Particularly, it is important to take the attitude of including all living beings with a sense of compassion, and wanting to guide them to liberation. This makes you a very proper vessel, one without any holes at all. When you are a proper vessel, even if what you are putting in is a small amount, adding it to the container drop by drop every day, it is possible eventually to fill it up. You are not lacking a goal. Therefore, I have given these instructions. In order to become a proper vessel to move toward enlightenment, refuge is essential.

It is the nature of every living being, whether big or small, important or unimportant, to strive for happiness. We strive, not only a temporary happiness, but a permanent well-being of body and mind. That is not just the goal of human beings; it is very much the goal of every sentient being. We must understand the fact that we all aim toward this one particular purpose.

As I have explained, although the aim of beings is to have happiness, because of their confusion, they do not know how to obtain that happiness and how to avoid the cause of suffering. With that blindness or confusion, although every one of us (including humans, animals, birds, and so forth) has the aim of happiness, we end up with suffering.

In the hope of that happiness, we are so preoccupied for our personal well-being that we fail to see the needs of other sentient beings. As a result of this preoccupation, no matter how hard we work to provide happiness for ourselves, we always run into suffering. We are so confused that we really do not know the proper ways of obtaining happiness, and it seems that whatever we do to obtain happiness actually leads us further into the depths of suffering, pain, or frustration. The question is, what led us into such a confused state of mind?

There are two explanations for why we experience this confusion that leads us into suffering. The first is that the habitual patterns of confusion we have built up in the previous life continue in this life, because habitual patterns are very strong. These patterns we have built are very difficult to overcome unless we go through a particular training. Not having overcome them, we experience the continuation of the confusion of habitual patterns, which leads us further into the depths of confusion.

The second reason we experience so much confusion and fail to see the truth is that our associates, the influences around us, are also confused beings. When we are dealing with all the confused beings, along with having our own confused patterns from the past life, these factors in combination strongly influence us to engage in confusion rather than to come out of confusion.

A further example of how we have been confused in these ways may be given by speaking about past habitual patterns. With the confusion in the past life, we have engaged in all sorts of harmful activities which lead to the accumulation of negative karma. As a result of that negative karmic accumulation, we experience inferior birth. There are many inferior births, but the one with which we are most familiar (although there are some that are even more inferior) is the animal realm. An animal’s knowledge and human knowledge are very different. An animal’s capacity to learn is very limited. I am not saying that an animal cannot learn, but their capacity to learn is very limited in comparison to that of human beings. That is one example of the outcome of engaging in negative activities with the confused state of mind.

A second example concerns our friends and associates. We all know that the United States is a very civilised country and well developed in technology. People here are well educated in technical matters. But no one is born fully informed about technology, so why are Americans so well informed about this? It is because your environment is filled with technology. Since your environment is filled with technology, technology becomes quite familiar to you, and you learn about it without much effort. Similarly, all the world knows that America is well civilised, but it is very rare to hear of enlightened beings coming from this country. Why have we not heard of American enlightened beings? It is not that you do not have the potential for enlightenment, but rather that you have not had the friends or environment of enlightened beings where you might learn and become familiar with the path. Because of the lack of such enlightened society, so to speak, until now America is not well known for enlightenment.

Despite the fact that America is not well known for enlightened beings, you might ask why so many people here are currently interested in the path to enlightenment. It is very obvious that all of you, and all people who are interested in such a path, were connected to that path in a previous life. As a result of that connection in a previous life, there is still a warmth, an interest, drawing you toward a particular subject in this lifetime. Therefore, although the subject of Buddhism has not been widespread in the United States, you are intrigued with it and are interested in taking the refuge vow. I feel it is very certain that you are completing a journey that you have connected with in a past life. It is very fortunate to be able to connect with whatever you began in a previous life, in order to continue it in this life and hopefully to fulfil it. Because it is a very fortunate event, I thank you all very sincerely for your interest.

The actual process of refuge is based on your state of mind or mental attitude. When you are receiving the refuge vow, the feeling of joy and acceptance must be there in your mind as a participant. If you lack that feeling of joy and acceptance of the refuge, then the vow cannot be fully obtained, because there is blockage or rejection. You also need to realise the reason you must have the feeling of joy is that such an opportunity to have a refuge vow — the unbroken transmission of this vow — is very rare, and that this very rare, precious thing that enables you to continue your past connection in this present life is being made available to you. When you find something that is very rare and precious, naturally you are happy and joyous. You are not only happy and joyous, but with the transmission that you are getting, you try to be more accepting and appreciative. That feeling or attitude is essential while taking the refuge vow.

The proper attitude in taking refuge can be explained in three parts. I am giving such classifications based on knowing that many of you are not completely new in the Dharma, and you are not yet enlightened beings either. Because you are in between, so to speak, you are well prepared to understand these three points.

The first point is acceptance — you must have trust. This trust also has three classifications. The first is clear, open trust. Clear, open trust is based on the knowledge that the possibility of receiving the vow in an unbroken transmission is very rare. Because it is an unbroken transmission, it is very precious as well. Therefore, you have gratitude toward the master who is providing this refuge and feel very fortunate. That feeling of being fortunate is the open trust, or clear trust.

The second aspect is the trust of desire, or longing trust. Longing trust is based on knowing that not only do you want to obtain the refuge, but your goal is to practice. You want to accomplish and perfect the path. That whole aim in obtaining the refuge is longing, or desire to perfect yourself. You have a desire to eliminate all your confusion, mistakes, and obscurations and develop the qualities of wisdom and enlightenment; this is longing trust.

Finally, there is believing trust. Believing trust is defined in this way: you want to perfect enlightenment, eliminating the obscuration or confusion of the mind, but to do so, you have to have knowledge to trust the tradition. To trust that tradition, you learn and understand that all the enlightened beings in the past in India and in Tibet have practised this particular tradition. Practising this tradition, they reached what is known as the mahasiddha level, the accomplishment of enlightenment. The point here is that all the uncountable enlightened beings that we talk about (of India or Tibet) have practised this particular path and reached its goal. Therefore, you have a trust in the path, a trust in the practice itself. It has not only been given to you — it has been widely practised. Therefore, the last type or trust is believing in the path, the practice itself. Developing these three kinds of trust is essential.

The second main point is understanding that enlightenment belongs to no particular culture, kind of individual, or gender. Therefore, it is quite a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for Asian people. It is also a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for men. As long as an individual has the capacity to understand, that individual, whether from the West or East, male or female, has the capacity for enlightenment. Every individual, regardless of which culture they belong to, has different levels or strengths of neurosis depending upon their individual personality, so some of us have very strong neuroses and while others are weaker in a particular neurotic pattern. Similarly, based on individual effort, some people can achieve enlightenment faster with proper effort, and some of us may not progress so quickly, because we are not putting our effort properly into the path. The goal of those on the path is to attain enlightenment. To actually accomplish this, the first thing we need to do is to lay the proper foundation, and taking refuge is indeed the step that lays the foundation.

To further cultivate the path of enlightenment, we need to meet all the proper conditions, such as having the proper spiritual master who guides us in the proper way of practising.

Seeking refuge is not new. Beings have often sought refuge in the past as well as at present, but they sought refuge in various unenlightened objects, such as mountains, trees, rocks, rivers, or oceans. Many people have looked to these objects for a refuge, thinking that these things could provide it. As part of nature, they could provide natural energy, but because they are simply part of nature, they could not provide enlightenment. It takes an enlightened being to provide enlightenment, and since the proper guidance with a spiritual master who is fully trained in the path of enlightenment is necessary, meeting such a person is essential to further cultivate the aspiration of walking the path and reaching its goal.

Then you might ask, from who should we seek refuge? The answer is: seek refuge in Buddha, the enlightened being. You may or may not have heard the definition of Buddhahood. In English, the notion of enlightenment sometimes means simply understanding something you have not understood before. We might say, “I was enlightened by this or that explanation or information.” This does not convey the meaning of the Tibetan term SANGYE, which means both Buddhahood and Buddha. The two syllables of SANGYE each have a meaning. SANG means elimination or absence. What is being eliminated, or what is absent here, is every neurosis, mental affliction, confusion — all the negative patterns. The second syllable, GYE, means “blossomed” or “fully developed.” In the absence of all confusion and mental obscuration, what develops is the mind’s potentials and qualities, such as wisdom and knowledge.

Is the development of these qualities temporary?. No, it is permanent. Once you have eliminated all obscuration and fully experienced or realised your own mind’s qualities, you are a fully enlightened being. That is what is meant by SANGYE. It does not just mean the historical Buddha of our time (Shakyamuni). SANGYE means the elimination of faults, confusion, and the full development of wisdom qualities — which is to say, Buddhahood.

The refuge vow lays the foundation for all of our spiritual growth as we progress toward enlightenment. That foundation is made possible through the proper mental state or attitude coinciding with the transmission. Also, a gesture of devotion toward that possibility is an important factor in taking refuge. Traditionally, people make offerings such as butter lamps, incense, or a flower as a gesture of devotion and joy in receiving the vow. It is good to make such offerings, because it brings about the accumulation of merit, and is an expression of devotion, which is necessary in receiving refuge. However, if you do not want to do this, there is no obligation at all.

Despite the obligations and demands on our time that we all have, you have taken the time and developed the intention to learn about and understand the process of taking refuge. Developing the intention to take refuge is a very virtuous action, so I would like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your interest.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche 38.

If in the middle there were any ultimate nature of inherent existence of the mind, then since it had that, how could even manifest adherences to “permanence” and “impermanence” with regard to it be extremes (anta)? It is not reasonable to say that proper mental application in accordance with the suchness of things is a situation of falling [to an extreme (anta)].

— Kamalashila

Kamalasila (蓮花戒論師) 2..jpg




















Continue practise into everyday life with a single meditation, always keeping in mind the intention to help others in all activities, eating, dressing, sleeping, walking, or sitting.

— Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye

Into the Depths of Emptiness
by Venerable Sheng Yen

We can speak of two kinds of emptiness: the emptiness of the dharma of teachings and the emptiness of the dharma of mind. The emptiness of the dharma of teachings can be understood through analysis and logic. The emptiness of the dharma of mind, however, can only be realised through actual experience. There is a real experience of this emptiness of the dharma of mind, but not all so-called experiences of emptiness are genuine.

Many students of Indian or Buddhist philosophy think they fully understand emptiness. Actually, what they understand is merely a part of the emptiness of the dharma of teachings. One can arrive at a shallow understanding of emptiness of the dharma of teachings by analysing the components of the body and mind, which in Buddhism are called the five skandhas. In Sanskrit, skandha means “aggregate,” or “heap.” The five skandhas include the material and the mental aggregates; they constitute our life, our being, and what we think of as our “self.” They are phenomenal components organised in time and space through causes and conditions.

In arriving at emptiness through analysis, we look at each skandha and see that none contains an inherent self. We see that what we call our self is actually a composite of these five factors, none of which is a self-entity. Also, we find no self outside of the skandhas.

The skandhas fall into three groups. First is the material skandha of form. Then there are three mental skandhas: sensation, perception, and volition. The fifth skandha is a spiritual component, consciousness. When we are born, we have a complete existence consisting of physical, mental, and spiritual components, but after we die only consciousness remains.

To repeat, as we analyse the five skandhas, we conclude that what we call the self is in fact composed of these skandhas, none of which has self-nature. Since all material and mental components are inherently changing, each skandha is itself empty of inherent nature. We conclude that the self, being made up of the five aggregates, is also impermanent and empty.

Can we say that the self that is composed of the five skandhas actually exists? Yes, in a sense we can, but this is not what Buddhism calls real existence. This self that we get at birth comprises physical, mental, and spiritual components, but when we die, only the component of consciousness remains. Consciousness, in and of itself, does not create karma. It does not think; rather, it’s just a mental entity. In order to practice, one needs a body. Consciousness alone cannot do spiritual practice, and it cannot attain liberation. Since the self is composed of these five aggregates and is also impermanent, we say that our self is “false,” or we can say that it is “provisional.” This is also called no-self.

Thus, through analysis, we can view emptiness from two perspectives. First, we see that the self is composed of the five aggregates, and therefore has no inherent self-nature. The second aspect is seeing the emptiness of inherent nature — that everything is without a nature of its own. The emptiness of inherent nature means that not only is the self empty of inherent nature, but each of the five skandhas is also individually empty. To clarify, if something had inherent nature, then it would never change, as it would be an ultimate reality. Therefore, anything that changes is empty of inherent nature.

One time, a Westerner, seeing that I was a monk, came up to me and asked, “Master, what is reality?” My response was, “I don’t know.” He looked extremely disappointed and forlorn, and said, “Why don’t you know this?” To which I replied, “Because there is no thing called reality. So how could I know it?”

The emptiness that is arrived at through logic is a kind of dialectic, but different from Western ideas of dialectic. It is the dialectic of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Buddhism. When we apply this special dialectic, we find that there is no left, no right, no middle, no front, no back, no past, no future, no present, and neither good nor evil. However, this dialectic does not give rise to a passive or negative view of the world; it affirms the existence of causes and conditions, but denies the existence of inherent nature. Things are said to lack inherent nature, because logical analysis shows that this is the case. Therefore, the conclusion is that things are inherently empty.

The viewpoint of the Madhyamaka after such logical analysis is called a position of affirming emptiness. It is not a neutral viewpoint, not a kind of middle between two extremes. Because one cannot affirm any place, one cannot affirm the middle either.

Let’s try to make it less abstract. There is a “left” that arises from causes and conditions; there is a “right” that is also made up of causes and conditions, and there is a “middle” that is due to causes and conditions. Everything is just causes and conditions, whether it’s to the left, to the right, or to the centre. Why do we not take a stand anywhere? Why don’t we affirm any position? We don’t affirm any position because each place is without inherent nature. The goal of such logic is not to explain things, but to remind us not to cling to things because everything is changing. Everything exists because of causes and conditions, and everything lacks inherent nature.


Now I will talk about the emptiness of the dharma of mind. I will begin with a story from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. When Huineng was still at Huangmei, the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, he worked in the kitchen milling rice. One day, the abbot Hongren, in an effort to find his dharma heir, asked the monks to write a verse expressing their own understanding of dharma. None of the monks were willing to do this except the head monk, Shenxiu, who, when the other monks were asleep, wrote a verse on the wall in the Chan hall. It went like this:

The body is a bodhi tree,
The mind is a bright mirror.
Always diligently polish the mirror,
And do not let dust collect.

“The body is a bodhi tree” means that we use the body as the foundation through which we cultivate enlightenment. The second line, “The mind is a bright mirror,” means that the mind is like a mirror that reflects what is in front of it without adding any self-centred view. If you can imagine it, the mind is like a circular mirror that can reflect everything around it, in 360 degrees. The meaning of the third line, “Always diligently polish the mirror,” is that we should be diligent in using dharma methods to dissipate or eliminate vexations and wandering thoughts. The fourth line, “And do not let dust collect,” means that one should work hard to train the mind so that it does not permit vexations to stain our clear, mirrorlike mind.

So, please, everyone take a guess. Does this poem express a realisation of formlessness? Does it demonstrate a true understanding of the dharma of mind? Yes or no? [The participants reply, “No.”]

But does this poem express something good? Yes, of course it does. Practitioners need to behave like this. In any case, according to the Platform Sutra, by then Huineng had already realised the dharma of mind after hearing someone quote from the Diamond Sutra. Because he was illiterate, Huineng asked one of the monks to read him Shenxiu’s verse on the wall. That night, after hearing Shenxiu’s verse, Huineng had someone help him to write the following lines on the wall, next to Shenxiu’s verse. Huineng’s poem went like this:

Bodhi is originally without a tree,
The mirror is also without a stand.
Originally there is not a single thing.
Where is there a place for dust to collect?

“Originally there is not a single thing” means that there are no real substantial forms called bodhi, buddhanature, or emptiness. Huineng is saying that bodhi is not a substantial thing.

People often think that enlightenment is an experience whereby we can feel a certain thing, or discover exactly what this “thing,” enlightenment, is. This is an incorrect view, because enlightenment, or “seeing the nature,” is an experience of emptiness. It is the experience of phenomena as being empty and insubstantial.

Most Eastern and Western philosophies and religions believe in a highest, or ultimate, reality to which they give names such as “oneness” or “God.” Actually, we enter this oneness when we experience unified mind in meditation. In the West, it may be called oneness, but according to the Chan dharma, we need to put down this unified mind, to let go of it. We do not want to think of this unified mind as the highest, or ultimate, truth.

But how do we get to what is the highest truth? We have to drop everything, and then we will come to the point of formlessness, or non attachment to all forms. Forms are products of causes and conditions. As such they are changing and non substantial. They still exist; it is just that the enlightened mind does not abide in them.

This idea of formlessness is different from theories that postulate an original substance or an original cause. Buddhadharma, in contrast, advocates the idea that everything arises because of causes and conditions, and is therefore empty, or formless. Now, let’s compare the emptiness of the dharma of the teachings with the emptiness that is actualised in the dharma of mind. The emptiness of the dharma of teachings is arrived at through logical deduction or through analysis. In both cases we are using the mind to reach understanding.

However, to actually realise emptiness, we use Chan methods such as silent illumination and huatou. Regardless of which method we use, when our mind reaches a unified state, we should not cling to that state. But we cannot just do this at will; we must continue to apply our method, again and again, until even unified mind disappears of its own accord. What remains is no-mind, or the actual realisation of emptiness.

When conditions in our practice mature, and we encounter some kind of acute stimulus — certain sounds, words, or sights — all doubts and questions may suddenly disappear. Or perhaps suddenly we are able to put down our already stabilised mind, and all thoughts instantly disintegrate and shatter. It is as if we have just broken through a silk cocoon in which we have been confined. Not only has the cocoon disappeared, but the silkworm has disappeared. We are free of all burdens. Everything still exists, but there is no self; that is to say, there is no clinging and vexation associated with our self. This emptiness is reached through spiritual practice, and is different from the emptiness reached through analysis or logic.

When seeing the nature, one realises that all phenomena are insubstantial and that the self has always been nonexistent. At this time, one is able to put down all attachments. However, sooner or later, depending on the person and the depth of the experience, one’s self-centredness and attachments return. Therefore, it is extremely important to continue using methods of practice. For example, when we are practising huatou at the deeper level called “watching the huatou,” we feel at one with the huatou; we have become the huatou. At this level, we may experience things like unified mind, dilution of the sense of self, and even emptiness. If we continue to practice at this level, our realisation will deepen.

Regardless of whether or not one can repeat the experience, seeing the nature is extremely valuable. Although one still has self-centredness, many vexations will have been eliminated. Having experienced putting down one’s mind, one also develops a high degree of self-confidence and will never again lose one’s spiritual practice. This experience is like suddenly seeing light for the first time. Although the light will fade or disappear, the individual will still know what that light is, because he or she has actually seen it. Something like this happens when one experiences seeing the nature, or emptiness. A shallow experience of enlightenment can be called seeing the nature, while a deeper experience of enlightenment can be called liberation.

There is also the case where someone has some kind of an experience and then mistakenly believes they are enlightened. For instance, while using the method they eventually reach a point where they have no wandering thoughts. It may even seem for a time that there is no sense of self, and they experience a feeling of being in infinite space. In this infinite space, there is no sun, no moon, and no earth — just space. They may think that this is an experience of emptiness, but actually this is just samadhi — a relatively shallow samadhi, one in a series of stages of samadhi.

There are also people who, while practising meditation or engaging in daily life, have very strong concentration, and suddenly time and space, as well as the method, drop away. These people are using their brain in a very tense way, and suddenly they enter a vast, empty space that could be filled with light, or even without light. They may think that they have experienced emptiness. But actually, this is just a case where the practitioner’s mind may have become unstable due to too much tenseness in the practice. It is not an experience of emptiness or enlightenment. So, it is essential that we relax our minds and bodies as we use our method.

We have talked about the experience of emptiness via the dharma of mind, in which one uses a practice method to realise emptiness, or formlessness. By using the practice method, one learns to let go of the self and to realise this emptiness. Are there people who are able to actualise emptiness without using a method? Yes, but they are extremely rare.


Are you engaged in spiritual practice for yourself or for the sake of others? The idea of practising for other people might sound very strange. Yet, because we are practising how to contemplate emptiness, which implies no-self, it would also be strange to be practising for ourselves. So, are we just wasting time here?

Actually practice is not for the sake of anything. You practice just to practice. These past two days, I have talked a lot about emptiness, about enlightenment, seeing the nature, and such things. I have said that after enlightenment, one realises no-mind, no-self, and no-form. With all these negations, what can we say is the good of enlightenment?

To answer this, we should remember the line from the Diamond Sutra , “Abiding nowhere, give rise to mind.” Abiding nowhere means seeing one’s self-nature. It means not clinging to form, allowing the wisdom of no-self to arise. As this wisdom appears, compassion will also appear along with it. This union of wisdom and compassion is called bodhi mind, or bodhicitta — the wisdom of no-self together with nondiscriminating compassion. So bodhi mind is not just limited to wisdom, as some people may think.

We can say that wisdom, or prajna, is not three things: it is not experience, it is not knowledge, and it is not thinking. Rather, wisdom is the attitude of no-self. We can also speak of three things that compassion is not: it is not ordinary sympathy, it is not fixed on any object, and it does not seek goals. Compassion is not the same as love. Through compassion, one helps all sentient beings without discriminating between one and the other, and one impartially gives benefit to all sentient beings. Again, compassion has no fixed recipient, and because it is formless, it has no goal in mind — one is not compassionate in order to get something. Compassion is helping sentient beings in just the right way for each individual.

I want to give you a kind of formula that describes wisdom and compassion. I will give you the basic structure of this formula, but you must fill in the blanks yourself. It goes like this: Wisdom is not (blank), not (blank), and not (blank). Compassion is not (blank), not (blank), and not (blank). Can you fill in the blanks? This is very important, for if you’ve seen the nature, the three nots of wisdom and the three nots of compassion should arise in your experience of enlightenment. If your experience after seeing the nature is not in accordance with these definitions, your experience has some problems.

Please recite: “Wisdom is not knowledge, wisdom is not experience, and wisdom is not thinking.” [Participants recite.]

Wisdom is the attitude of no-self.
And now for compassion. Please recite: “Compassion is not sympathy, compassion has no fixed recipients, and compassion is without a goal.” [Participants recite.]

Compassion is impartially benefiting all sentient beings in just the right way.

Many people superstitiously or erroneously believe that after enlightenment, they would have nothing left to do, that practice would be all over with. They think that enlightenment is fantastically wonderful, and they also hope that other people can confirm for them that they have seen the nature. But if at the time of supposed enlightenment, no wisdom or compassion arises, if these qualities of bodhi mind do not arise, then this is not actual enlightenment. It is a false experience. So, if you have such an experience, you can look into it to see if such qualities have arisen. However, I emphasise that you should still consult a qualified teacher who can recognise an enlightenment experience.

I have said that seeing the nature is not the same as enlightenment. After seeing the nature, for several days one will be full of wisdom and compassion, vexations will not arise, and one’s self-centredness will not be so strong. But after some time, vexations will return. However, one’s confidence will be quite strong, and one will develop a strong sense of humility. This humility exists because one realises that one still has a long way to go to achieve liberation, and an even longer journey to buddhahood. So, one will be very humble, and will not be arrogant about this achievement.

From what I have seen, the great practitioners in different spiritual systems are all very humble. They all think that they have insufficient practice and insufficient attainment. Although the Chan masters sometimes used methods such as striking, shouting, and scolding, it was not done out of arrogance. These are methods that, when used in the right way, can give a disciple just the right kind of help.

The great Tibetan lamas I have met, practitioners of high spiritual attainment, are still quite humble. But there are some practitioners who have had a little experience in samadhi, who have not really seen the nature, yet behave arrogantly. This arrogance is a manifestation of their vexations.

Recently I met a great lama, who was the incarnation of Tsongkapa, the great Tibetan teacher. I said to him, “You must be the reincarnation of Tsongkapa, the teacher of the First Dalai Lama. According to belief, this also means you are the avatar of Maitreya Buddha.”

He said, “Well, you know, that is what people believe. I am just a practitioner. It is just that Tibetans believe that I am the emanation body of Maitreya and the teacher of the First Dalai Lama.”

Then I asked him, “Does this mean you are not actually the reincarnation of Tsongkapa?”

He replied, “That’s the belief. I can’t deny this belief, either.” I said, “Are you Maitreya?” And he said, “Well, I practice the methods of Maitreya.”

So, he wouldn’t affirm that he actually was Maitreya. He just considered himself a practitioner and one who learned from Maitreya.

It was the same way with the current Dalai Lama. When I asked him, “Everyone believes that you are an emanation body (nirmanakaya) of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Are you Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva?” He said, “I am a little bhikshu who every day makes many prostrations to the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.”

So, as we look at people with great spiritual achievements, such as the enlightened Chan patriarchs and Chan masters, we can see that most of them were very much like ordinary monks — in fact, more humble than the average monk. They did not go around thinking, “I’m enlightened, so I’m different from everyone else.” They saw themselves as the same as other people. The difference is that they viewed the world in a different way. They did not impose labels on the world, such as good and evil, or have thoughts such as, “I like this” or, “I don’t like that.”

If they saw a sick person, they would try to help the person get treatment; if they saw the hungry, they would try to give food; if there was war, they knew that war was a very cruel thing, and they hoped to avoid war. If a fire broke out, they would try to find a way to extinguish the fire. However, in the midst of all these activities, their minds would not fluctuate.

So, they did not have extremes of love and hatred, and they did not have all kinds of fears, anxieties, jealousies, and doubts. They just did whatever was necessary. This is indicative of their wisdom and compassion, of their bodhi mind, their bodhicitta.

Huineng’s verse continues:

Yet this gateway into seeing the nature
Cannot be fully comprehended by the ignorant.

I have talked a lot about emptiness and wisdom and realisation, but at the same time, we can also say there is no real gateway to such wisdom, to such knowledge of the dharma, because for the enlightened, the dharma of mind is already present before them. When one realises wisdom, one sees that there was no gate to go through, since one has always been inside the gate. This is why Chan is sometimes called the gateless gate. As for the foolish, they cannot even see the gate, much less go through it.

For both the wise and the foolish, this gate is really a doctrine or method to give us a direction; it is a dharma gateway into seeing the nature. But once we see the nature, we realise there was no gateway to go through. That is the meaning of Huineng’s “gateway.”

Some may think that practice is the gateway to seeing one’s nature, but practice is actually a direct way to see the nature. We just practice dropping the self and phenomena, and letting go of all forms. In particular, we have to let go of the unified mind. Many people cling to the stage of unified mind. They feel that since they are unified with the universe, they no longer have a self. While they may no longer have the individual self, they have still taken the universe as their self. There is still an existent self that is at one with a limitless universe. At this stage, they are not yet enlightened and need to abandon this state of mind.

In both the huatou and silent illumination methods, our practice may reach the state of unified mind. In huatou, this occurs when the great doubt arises; in silent illumination, it happens when one feels at one with the environment. If it seems like we are speaking of two kinds of unified mind, that is correct. The difference is that in the case of huatou, one is not yet in samadhi; one is still grappling with the great doubt. However, both are states of unified mind.

There are some who consider unified mind to be enlightenment, and I do not wish to dispute that. However, unified mind is not Buddhist enlightenment, because there is still a notion of self; there is still an “I” who feels at one with the huatou, or with the universe. For a practitioner of Chan, unified mind is a stage in the practice, but not yet realisation. One needs to go beyond unified mind to where the “self” has been totally left behind, and one experiences no-mind. At this point one may actually realise the dharma of mind. And yes, this can be called enlightenment.

Ven Sheng Yen 29..jpg

Great affection is often the cause of violent animosity. The quarrels of men often arise from too great a familiarity.

— Sakya Pandita





Present awareness is primordial purity, an immense boundlessness. You must understand that the essence of awareness is emptiness. Not realising this, if you attempt to acquire emptiness from somewhere else and place this patch of emptiness onto the essence of awareness, which is empty, this is what is meant by the first straying point. One has made emptiness into an object of knowledge, and this is straying into emptiness’ having the character of a knowable object, the first straying point.

— Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

The Four Layers of Consciousness
by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Vietnamese Zen Master Thuong Chieu said, “When we understand how our mind works, our practice becomes easy.” To understand our minds, we need to understand our consciousness.

The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.

Mind consciousness is the first kind of consciousness. It uses up most of our energy. Mind consciousness is our “working” consciousness that makes judgments and plans; it is the part of our consciousness that worries and analyses. When we speak of mind consciousness, we’re also speaking of body consciousness, because mind consciousness isn’t possible without the brain. Body and mind are simply two aspects of the same thing. Body without consciousness is not a real, live body. And consciousness can’t manifest itself without a body.

It’s possible for us to train ourselves to remove the false distinction between brain and consciousness. We shouldn’t say that consciousness is born from the brain, because the opposite is true: the brain is born from consciousness. The brain is only 2 percent of the body’s weight, but it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. So using mind consciousness is very expensive. Thinking, worrying, and planning take a lot of energy.

We can economise the energy by training our mind consciousness in the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment and allows our mind consciousness to relax and let go of the energy of worrying about the past or predicting the future.

The second level of consciousness is sense consciousness, the consciousness that comes from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. We sometimes call these senses “gates,” or “doors,” because all objects of perception enter consciousness through our sensory contact with them. Sense consciousness always involves three elements: first, the sense organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body); second, the sense object itself (the object we’re smelling or the sound we’re hearing); and finally, our experience of what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.

The third layer of consciousness, store consciousness, is the deepest. There are many names for this kind of consciousness. Mahayana tradition calls this store consciousness, or alaya , in Sanskrit. The Theravada tradition uses the Pali word bhavanga to describe this consciousness. Bhavanga means constantly flowing, like a river. Store consciousness is also sometimes called root consciousness (mulavijñana in Sanskrit) or sarvabijaka, which means “the totality of the seeds.” In Vietnamese, we call store consciousness “tang”. “Tang” means to keep and preserve.

These different names hint at the three aspects of store consciousness. The first meaning is of a place, a “store,” where all kinds of seeds and information are kept. The second meaning is suggested by the Vietnamese name, because store consciousness doesn’t just take in all the information, it holds it and preserves it. The third meaning is suggested by bhavanga, the sense of processing and transforming.

Store consciousness is like a museum. A museum can only be called a museum when there are things in it. When there is nothing in it, you can call it a building, but not a museum. The conservator is the one who is responsible for the museum. Her function is to keep the various objects preserved and not allow them to be stolen. But there must be things to be stored, things to be kept. Store consciousness refers to the storing and also to what is stored — that is, all the information from the past, from our ancestors, and all the information received from the other consciousnesses. In Buddhist tradition, this information is stored as bija, seeds.

Suppose this morning you hear a certain chant for the first time. Your ear and the music come together and provoke the manifestation of the mental formation called touch, which causes store consciousness to vibrate. That information, a new seed, falls into the store continuum. Store consciousness has the capacity to receive the seed and store it in its heart. Store consciousness preserves all the information it receives. But the function of store consciousness isn’t just to receive and store these seeds; its job is also to process this information.

The work of processing on this level is not expensive. Store consciousness doesn’t spend as much energy as, for example, mind consciousness. Store consciousness can process this information without a lot of work on your part. So if you want to save your energy, don’t think too much, don’t plan too much, and don’t worry too much. Allow your store consciousness to do most of the processing.

During the night if your room becomes cold but you continue to sleep, your body can sense the cold without the intervention of mind consciousness. Store consciousness may give the order to your arm to pull up the blanket without your even being aware of it. Store consciousness operates in the absence of mind consciousness. It can do a lot of things. It can do a lot of planning; it can make a lot of decisions without your knowing about it.

When we go into a department store and look for a hat or a shirt, we have the impression, while looking at the items displayed, that we have free will and that, finances permitting, we are free to choose whatever we want. If the vendor asks us what we like, we can point to or verbalise the object of our desire. And we likely have the impression that we are free people at this moment, using our mind consciousness to select things that we like. But that is an illusion. Everything has been decided already in store consciousness. At that moment we are caught; we are not free people. Our sense of beauty, our sense of liking or disliking, has been decided very certainly and very discreetly on the level of store consciousness.

It’s an illusion that we are free. The degree of freedom that our mind consciousness has is actually very small. Store consciousness dictates many of the things we do, because store consciousness continuously receives, embraces, maintains, processes, and makes many decisions without the participation of mind consciousness. But if we know the practice, we can influence our store consciousness; we can help influence how our store consciousness stores and processes information so as to make better decisions. We can influence it.

Just like mind consciousness and sense consciousness, store consciousness consumes. When you are around a group of people, although you want to be yourself, you are consuming their ways, and you are consuming their store consciousness. Our consciousness is fed with other consciousnesses. The way we make decisions, our likes and dislikes, depend on the collective way of seeing things. You may not see something as beautiful, but if many people think that it’s beautiful, then slowly you may come to accept it as beautiful also, because the individual consciousness is made up of collective consciousness.

The value of the dollar is made up of the collective thinking of people, not just of objective economic elements. People’s fears, desires, and expectations make the dollar go up and go down. We are influenced by the collective ways of seeing and thinking. That’s why selecting the people you are around is very important. It’s very important to surround yourself with people who have loving-kindness, understanding, and compassion, because day and night we are influenced by the collective consciousness.

Store consciousness offers us enlightenment and transformation. This possibility is contained in its third meaning, its always-flowing nature. Store consciousness is like a garden where we can plant the seeds of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and then flowers, fruits, and vegetables will grow. Mind consciousness is only a gardener. A gardener can help the land and take care of the land, but the gardener has to believe in the land, believe that it can offer us fruits, flowers, and vegetables. As practitioners, we can’t rely on our mind consciousness alone; we have to rely on our store consciousness as well. Decisions are being made down there.

Suppose you type something on your computer and this information is stored on the hard drive. That hard drive is like store consciousness. Although the information doesn’t appear on the screen, it is still there. You only need to click and it will manifest. The bija, the seeds in store consciousness, are like the data you store on your computer. If you want to, you can click and help it appear on the screen of mind consciousness. Mind consciousness is like a screen and store consciousness is like the hard drive, because it can store a lot in it. Store consciousness has the capacity of storing, maintaining, and preserving information so that it can’t be erased.

Unlike information on a hard drive, however, all the seeds are of an organic nature and they can be modified. The seed of hatred, for example, can be weakened and its energy can be transformed into the energy of compassion. The seed of love can be watered and strengthened. The nature of the information that’s being kept and processed by the store consciousness is always flowing and always changing. Love can be transformed into hate, and hate can be transformed back into love.

Store consciousness is also a victim. It’s an object of attachment; it’s not free. In store consciousness there are elements of ignorance — delusion, anger, fear — and these elements form a force of energy that clings, that wants to possess. This is the fourth level of consciousness, called manas , which I like to translate as “cogitation.” Manas consciousness has at its root the belief in a separate self, the belief in a person. This consciousness, the feeling and instinct called “I am,” is very deeply seated in store consciousness. It’s not a view taken up by mind consciousness. Deeply seated in the depths of store consciousness is this idea that there is a self that is separate from non-self elements. The function of manas is to cling to store consciousness as a separate self.

Another way of thinking of manas is as adana consciousness. Adana means “appropriation.” Imagine that a vine puts forth a shoot, and then the shoot turns back and embraces and encircles the trunk of the tree. This deep-seated delusion — the belief that there is a self — is there in store consciousness as the result of ignorance and fear, and it gives rise to an energy that turns around and embraces store consciousness and makes it the only object of its love.

Manas is always operating. It never lets go of store consciousness. It’s always embracing, always holding or sticking to store consciousness. It believes store consciousness to be the object of its love. That’s why store consciousness isn’t free. There’s an illusion that store consciousness is “me,” is my beloved, so I can’t let it go. Day and night there’s a secret, deep cogitation that this is me, this is mine, and I have to do everything I can to grasp, to protect, to make it mine. Manas is born and rooted in store consciousness. It arises from store consciousness and it turns around and embraces store consciousness as its object: “You are my beloved, you are me.” The function of manas is to appropriate store consciousness as its own.

Now we have the names of the four layers of consciousness, and we can see how they interact. Store consciousness is a process — always flowing, always present, never interrupted. But mind consciousness may be interrupted. For example, when we sleep without dreaming, mind consciousness is not operating. When we’re in a coma, mind consciousness stops working completely. And there are deep concentrations when mind consciousness completely stops operating — there’s no thinking, no planning, nothing — yet store consciousness continues to operate.

Some neuroscientists use the term “background consciousness” to describe store consciousness. And the level of mind consciousness is what they call, simply, consciousness. Whether you’re awake or you’re asleep, whether you’re dreaming or not dreaming, the work of processing and storing information is continuously done by store consciousness, whether you want it to or not.

There are times when sense consciousness operates in collaboration with store consciousness without going through the mind. It’s funny, but it happens very, very often. When you drive your car, you are able to avoid many accidents, even if your mind consciousness is thinking of other things. You may not even be thinking of driving at all. And yet, most of the time at least, you don’t get into an accident. This is because the impressions and images provided by eye consciousness are received by store consciousness, and decisions are made without ever going through mind consciousness. When someone suddenly holds something close to your eyes — for instance, if someone is about to hit you, or when something is about to fall on you—you react quickly. That quick reaction, that decision, is not made by mind consciousness. If you have to make a quick maneuver, it’s not your mind consciousness that does it. We don’t think, “Oh, there is an accident, therefore I have to quickly swerve to the right.” That instinct of self-defense comes from store consciousness.

In the cold room at night, even though you’re not dreaming, and mind consciousness isn’t functioning, the feeling of cold still penetrates into the body at the level of sense consciousness, which makes a vibration on the level of store consciousness, and your body moves the blanket up to cover you. Whether we’re driving, manipulating a machine, or performing other tasks, many of us allow our sense consciousness to collaborate with store consciousness, which enables us to do many things without the intervention of mind consciousness. When we bring our mind consciousness into this work, then suddenly we may become aware of the mental formations that are arising.

The word “formation” (samskara in Sanskrit) means something that manifests when many conditions come together. When we look at a flower, we can recognise many of the elements that have come together to make the flower manifest in that form. We know that without the rain there can be no water and the flower cannot manifest. And we see that the sunshine is also there. The earth, the compost, the gardener, time, space, and many elements came together to help this flower manifest. The flower doesn’t have a separate existence; it’s a formation. The sun, the moon, the mountain, and the river are all formations. Using the word “formation” reminds us that there is no separate core of existence in them. There is only a coming together of many, many conditions for something to manifest.

As Buddhist practitioners, we can train ourselves to look at everything as a formation. We know that all formations are changing all the time. Impermanence is one of the marks of reality, because everything changes.

Formations that exist in consciousness are called mental formations. When there’s contact between a sense organ (eyes, ears, mouth, nose, body) and an object, sense consciousness arises. And at the moment your eyes first gaze on an object, or you first feel the wind on your skin, the first mental formation of contact manifests. Contact causes a vibration on the level of store consciousness.

If the impression is weak, then the vibration stops and the current of store consciousness recovers its tranquility; you continue to sleep or you continue with your activities, because that impression created by touch has not been strong enough to draw the attention of mind consciousnesses. It’s like when a flying insect lands on the surface of the water and causes the water to ripple a little bit. After the insect flies off, the surface of the water becomes completely calm again. So although the mental formation manifests, although the current of the life continuum vibrates, there’s no awareness born in mind consciousness because the impression is too weak.

Sometimes in Buddhist psychology, one speaks of forty-nine or fifty mental formations. In my tradition, we speak of fifty-one. Of the fifty-one mental formations, contact is the first, followed by attention, feeling, perception, and volition. These five mental formations can take place very quickly, and their intensity, their depth, varies in each level of consciousness. When we speak of attention, for instance, we can see attention in the context of store consciousness, and we can see attention on the level of mind consciousness, and the intensity or the depth of attention is quite different on the two levels.

The fifty-one mental formations are also called mental concomitants; that is, they are the very content of consciousness, the way the drops of water are the very content of the river. For example, anger is a mental formation. Mind consciousness can operate in such a way that anger can manifest in mind consciousness. In that moment, mind consciousness is filled with anger, and we may feel our mind consciousness is full of nothing but anger. But in fact, mind consciousness is not just anger, because later on compassion arises, and at that time, mind consciousness becomes compassion. Mind consciousness is, at various times, all fifty-one mental formations, be they positive, negative, or neutral.

Without mental formations, there can’t be consciousness. It’s as if we’re discussing a formation of birds. The formation holds the birds together, and they fly beautifully in the sky. You don’t need someone to hold the birds and keep them flying in one formation. You don’t need a self to create the formation. The birds just do it. In a beehive, you don’t need someone who gives the order for this bee to go left and that bee to go right; they just communicate among one another and are a beehive. Among all the bees, every bee may have a different responsibility, but no bee claims to be the boss of all the bees, not even the queen. The queen is not the boss. Her function is simply to give birth to the eggs. If you have a good community, a good sangha, it’s like this beehive in which all the parts make up the whole, with no leader, no boss.

When we say it’s raining, we mean that raining is taking place. You don’t need someone up above to perform the raining. It’s not that there is the rain, and there is the one who causes the rain to fall. In fact, when you say the rain is falling, it’s very funny, because if it weren’t falling, it wouldn’t be rain. In our way of speaking, we’re used to having a subject and a verb. That’s why we need the word “it” when we say, “it rains.” “It” is the subject, the one who makes the rain possible. But, looking deeply, we don’t need a “rainer,” we just need the rain. Raining and the rain are the same. The formation of birds and the birds are the same — there’s no “self,” no boss involved.

There’s a mental formation called vitarka, “thinking.” When we use the verb “to think” in English, we need a subject of the verb: I think, you think, he thinks. But, really, you don’t need a subject for a thought to be produced. Thinking without thinker — it’s absolutely possible. To think is to think about something. To perceive is to perceive something. The perceiver and the object that is perceived are one.

When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” his point was that if I think, there must be an “I” for thinking to be possible. When he made the declaration “I think,” he believed that he could demonstrate that the “I” exists. We have the strong habit of believing in a self. But, observing very deeply, we can see that a thought does not need a thinker to be possible. There is no thinker behind the thinking — there is just the thinking; that’s enough.

Now, if Mr. Descartes were here, we might ask him, “Monsieur Descartes, you say, ÔYou think, therefore you are.’ But what are you? You are your thinking. Thinking — that’s enough. Thinking manifests without the need of a self behind it.”

Thinking without a thinker. Feeling without a feeler. What is our anger without our “self”? This is the object of our meditation. All the fifty-one mental formations take place and manifest without a self behind them that’s arranging for this to appear, and then for that to appear. Our mind consciousness is in the habit of basing itself on the idea of self, on manas. But we can meditate to be more aware of our store consciousness, where we keep the seeds of all those mental formations that are not currently manifesting in our mind.

When we meditate, we practice looking deeply in order to bring light and clarity into our way of seeing things. When the vision of no-self is obtained, our delusion is removed. This is what we call transformation. In the Buddhist tradition, transformation is possible with deep understanding. The moment the vision of no-self is there, manas, the elusive notion of “I am,” disintegrates, and we find ourselves enjoying, in this very moment, freedom and happiness.

Thich Nhat Hanh 49.

Those who know contentment,
although lying on the ground,
nevertheless have peace and bliss.

Those who not know contentment,
although in heavens,
also will not be satisfied.

— The Buddha