Our mind is something that we change, keep things in, and sometimes go out of. But what is our mind? Mind cannot be discussed unless it is defined. If we ask ten psychiatrists to define mind we will probably get ten different answers. My dictionary defines mind as “the ability to think, feel emotions, and be aware of things.” If we ask our psychiatrist friends what are
thoughts, emotions, and awareness, they will probably start talking about the electrochemical activity of neurones in the brain. Most people do not distinguish between the mind and the functional activity of the brain and nervous system.
According to Buddhism, mind and body are mutually dependent but different entities. The “substance” of mind has nothing to do with atoms and molecules: it is the phenomenon of awareness itself. Thoughts, emotions, and awareness are functions of mind. We have six types of awareness: the five sensory consciousnesses and mental consciousness. The latter
includes our capacities to think and to know things intuitively. Mental consciousness thinks about sensory experiences and initiates behaviour directed towards gaining the maximum amount of sensory pleasure and minimum discomfort in life.
Buddhism defines mind as that which has mere clarity and awareness. “Mere” excludes the need for any significant strength of comprehension. Thus deep sleep is a state of mind. “Mere” also excludes an independent, self-reliant “me” or “mind” within the head that is an agent controlling the experience, a specific entity or substance that is being aware, feeling
emotions, or doing the thinking. Like all things, mind is only nominally existent; it is simply established to exist by giving the name “mind” to the combination of clarity and awareness. If we check up, neither clarity nor awareness, nor their combination, is mind itself.
In general, “clarity” refers to the non-physical nature of mind, its lack of colour, shape, or material dimension. At a deeper level, clarity is that function of mind which gives rise to appearances or images of the things that are known, like a mirror gives rise to reflected images of objects.
“Awareness,” or knowing, is the function of mind. Mind knows its object, and it also knows itself in the sense that we are aware of our subjective experience of things. A mirror may reflect things, but it does not know what it is reflecting. A computer may calculate things, but it does not know what it is calculating. Can a computer ever be made to think? His Holiness the Dalai Lama answered that question by saying, “Perhaps, if they ever make a
computer that is a suitable support for consciousness.”
His Holiness was implying that a computer cannot create consciousness, and could only have the capacity to know things if a pre-existing mind could take residence within it. Similarly, our body cannot have created our mind because awareness is not a material phenomenon. Present awareness can only arise as a continuity of past awareness, therefore, our mind must be a continuum of awareness that existed prior to our body and only took
residence within it when there was a suitable support for consciousness — a fertilised egg in our mother’s womb.
“But,” say the scientists, “Mind is a product of evolution.”
“No,” say the Buddhists, “Evolution is a product of mind.”
Prior to the condensation of our world from a swirling mass of gas, our minds inhabited subtle bodies in an ethereal realm of mental happiness. As our karma for such bliss began to wane, more base desire for physical pleasures arose as a result of mental tendencies from past lives. Our collective karma for earthly existence interacted with the activity of atoms and molecules and resulted in the evolution of primitive organisms, some of which became suitable supports for consciousness. After dying in the ethereal realm, our minds came to inhabit these gross bodies, which, under the influence of desire, became progressively more complex instruments for experiencing sensory pleasure. The difference between animals and
plants is that the bodies of animals are karmically shaped for indulging in the pleasures of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, whereas the bodies of plants grow, reproduce and die without any mental involvement or feelings at all.
Even though plants do not have mind, their existence is related to the collective karma of the humans, animals, spirits, and divine beings who make use of plants. The condensation of the earth from hot gas was also influenced by our collective karma, and certainly the appearance of the first primitive organisms was related to our collective karma. Thus mind is
the prime mover of the entire universe. Buddhism has no problem with the fact of evolution; it merely adds the interesting proposition that mind — in particular, the selfish desire for sensory pleasure — is the driving force of evolution.
So, what went wrong? If our human bodies are designed to experience pleasure, why is life so miserable? Why do we experience pain, the inability to find pleasure, dissatisfaction with whatever pleasure we do find, and the terrible sadness of being separated from friends and pleasant situations? The problem is that the designer, our mind, is flawed by ignorance. Unaware of how things exist in reality, we generate mistaken preconceptions about the world and ourselves. These wrong ideas obscure the natural clarity of our minds so that whatever appears to our minds is distorted, like the reflection in a twisted mirror. The root distortion is the appearance of our own self to be an entity that exists in its own right, independent of everything else. Grasping at this wrong appearance to be true, we anxiously need to reaffirm our phantom self-existence at every opportunity, and we become obsessed with having to feed this insatiable hallucination with pleasure and protect it from pain.
The self exists but, like the mind, it is only a convention. It is established to exist merely by giving a name to our combination of body and mind. Nothing exists beyond this act of labelling that can be established to be the self. The self too is only nominally existent. With regard to the world, we are unaware of the subjective role played by mind in our experience of life, so we ignorantly believe ourselves to be passive experiencers of an independent “world out there.” Just as we misconceive the self to have intrinsic existence,
through ignorance, the entire world appears to have its own intrinsic reality. In fact, the world too is established merely through the power of convention. In other words, the people, things, and events in our life are established by our own minds, not from their own side.
For example, when we are in love, the person we love appears to us as the most beautiful person in the world. Later, when we are divorcing them, to our hostile mind they appear to be the ugliest person in the world. For the person with whom they ran off, however, they appear to be beautiful. This shows that beauty and ugliness come from the mind, not from the side of the object. Thus, although external conditions do exist, the appearance of objects depends upon the state of mind of the observer. Therefore, the primary source of happiness and sadness is our mind, not the outside world. Our problems arise from the impossible belief that we can rid our world of ugliness and fill it with beauty. The Garden of Eden exists in our mind, not out there, and the key to that garden is wisdom and compassion.
Without that key, we shall forever be chasing illusions and running from shadows. While this world endures, a few will enter the garden, and the remainder will continue to experience the highs and lows of the wheel of life. At the end of the world, those who have not found the key will again be born in the ethereal realms of mental happiness, only to born once more in the realm of sensory desires on a new Earth when their karma for the ethereal realm eventually expires. And so the wheel has been turning since beginningless time.