Luminous Mind


Luminous mind (‘brightly shining citta’) is a term attributed to the Buddha in the ‘Nikayas’ (Bhuddist scripture); the mind is said to be ‘luminous’ whether or not it is tainted by mental defilements.

The statement is given no direct doctrinal explanation in the discourses, but later Buddhist schools explained it using various concepts developed by them.  There are two major sects in Buddhism, the older and more conservative Theravada and the larger, more modern Mahyana.

The Theravada school identifies the ‘luminous mind’ with the ‘bhavanga’ (‘ground of becoming’) the most fundamental aspect of mind in Theravada Buddhism. The later schools of the Mahayana identify the ‘luminous mind’ with both the Mahayana concepts of ‘bodhicitta’ (‘enlightenment-mind,’ the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion with all sentient beings) and tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature). The idea is also connected with features of Dzogchen thought. According to Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen is the natural, primordial state or natural condition, and a body of teachings and meditation practices aimed at realizing that condition.

Buddha states: ‘Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.’ The discourses indicate that the mind’s natural radiance can be made manifest by meditation. Ajahn Mun, the leading figure behind the modern Thai Forest Tradition (a tradition of Buddhist monasticism), comments on this verse: ‘The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits – passing defilements – come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don’t go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun. So meditators, when they know in this manner, should do away with these counterfeits by analyzing them shrewdly… When they develop the mind to the stage of the primal mind, this will mean that all counterfeits are destroyed, or rather, counterfeit things won’t be able to reach into the primal mind, because the bridge making the connection will have been destroyed. Even though the mind may then still have to come into contact with the preoccupations of the world, its contact will be like that of a bead of water rolling over a lotus leaf.’

Similarly, Ajahn Thate remarks: ‘The Buddha taught, ‘The mind is unceasingly radiant; defilements are separate entities that enter into it.’ This saying shows that his teaching on the matter is in fact clear. For the world to be the world, every one of its constituent parts must be present: its existence depends on them. The only thing that stands by itself is Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. One who considers Dhamma to be manifold or composite has not yet penetrated it thoroughly. Water is in its natural state a pure, transparent fluid, but if dyestuff is added to it, it will change color accordingly: if red dye is added it will turn red; if black dye, black. But even though water may change its color in accordance with substances introduced into it, it does not forsake its innate purity and colorlessness  If a wise person is able to distill all the colored water, it will resume its natural state. The dyestuff can only cause variation in outer appearance… The heart is that which lies at the center of things, and is also formless. It is simple awareness devoid of movement to and fro, of past and future, within and without, merit and harm. Wherever the center of a thing lies, there lies its heart, for the word ‘heart’ means centrality.’

The Buddha says that if developed, the mind is supremely ‘pliable’ and ‘workable.’  When the mind is defiled by the five hindrances, it is neither pliable, nor workable, nor luminous, nor perfectly concentrated for the destruction of the fetters (shackles). The Buddha also compares the defilements of the mind to impurities in gold ore, implying that just as gold does not manifest its intrinsic radiance when it is in its raw state mixed with impurities, so is the intrinsic radiance of the mind not apparent when it is defiled by the hindrances. A gold-refiner washes gold ore three times to get rid of gross, moderate, and fine defilements, and then properly smelts it until it is free of dross; only then is it ‘pliable, workable, brightly shining, no longer brittle’ and ready to be fashioned into a final object. The sutta (Bhuddist commentary) compares this process with that of a monk as he gets rid of various mental defilements before he attains unification of mind, which is then used for spiritual attainments.

In the canonical discourses, when the brightly shining citta (state of mind) is ‘unstained,’ it is supremely poised for arahantship (reaching nirvana), and so could be conceived as the ‘womb’ of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata ‘one who has thus gone.’ The discourses do not support seeing the ‘luminous mind’ as ‘nirvana within’ which exists prior to liberation. While the Canon does not support the identification of the ‘luminous mind’ in its raw state with nirvanic consciousness, passages could be taken to imply that it can be transformed into the latter. Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, ‘the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations.’

The Mahayana interprets the brightly shining citta as ‘bodhicitta,’ the altruistic ‘spirit of awakening.’ The ‘Astasahasrika Perfection of Wisdom Sutra’ describes bodhicitta thus: ‘That citta is no citta since it is by nature brightly shining.’ This is in accord with a reference to ‘brightly shining citta’ saying that even the slightest development of loving-kindness is of great benefit. This implies that loving-kindness – and the related state of compassion – is inherent within the luminous mind as a basis for its further development. The observation that the ground state of consciousness is of the nature of loving-kindness implies that empathy is innate to consciousness and exists prior to the emergence of all active mental processes.

The Eight Consciousnesses is a classification developed in the tradition of the Yogacara school of Buddhism. They enumerate the five senses, supplemented by the mind (‘citta’), the ‘obscuration’ of the mind (‘manas’), and finally the fundamental store-house consciousness (‘vijnana’), which is the basis of the other seven. According to Asanga: ‘Thus we can see that Vijnana represents the simple reaction or response of the sense organs when they come in contact with external objects. This is the uppermost or superficial aspect or layer of the Vijnanaskanda. Manas represents the aspect of its mental functioning, thinking, reasoning, conceiving ideas, etc. Citta which is here called Alayavijnana, represents the deepest, finest and subtlest aspect or layer of the Aggregate of consciousness. It contains all the traces or impressions of the past actions and all good and bad future possibilities.’

Both the Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra describe the tathagatagarbha (‘arahant womb’) as ‘by nature brightly shining and pure,’ and ‘originally pure,’ though ‘enveloped in the garments of the skandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining.’ It is said to be ‘naturally pure,’ but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha. (Some Gelug philosophers, in contrast to teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra, maintain that the ‘purity’ of the tathagatagarbha is not because it is originally or fundamentally pure, but because mental flaws can be removed — that is, like anything else, they are not part of an individual’s fundamental essence. These thinkers thus refuse to turn epistemological insight about emptiness and Buddha-nature into an essentialist metaphysics.)

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