MindScience - Selections

An East-West Dialogue


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Chapter 1: The Buddhist Concept of Mind

The Dalai Lama
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Geshe Thupten Jinpa

I would like to explain briefly the basic Buddhist concept of mind and some of the techniques employed in Buddhism for training the mind. The primary aim of these techniques is the attainment of enlightenment, but it is possible to experience even mundane benefits, such as good health, by practicing them.

As a result of meeting with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, including scientists and radical materialists, I discovered that there are some people who do not even accept the existence of mind. This led me to believe that Buddhism could serve as a bridge between radical materialism and religion, because Buddhism is accepted as belonging to neither camp. From the radical materialists’ viewpoint, Buddhism is an ideology that accepts the existence of mind, and is thus a faith-oriented system like other religions. However, since Buddhism does not accept the concept of a Creator God but emphasizes instead self-reliance and the individual’s own power and potential, other religions regard Buddhism as a kind of atheism. Since neither side accepts Buddhism as belonging to its own camp, this gives Buddhists the opportunity to build a bridge between the two.

First of all, I would like to give a brief account of the general approach of Buddhist thought and practice common to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism.

One very obvious feature in Buddhism is the element of faith and devotion. This is particularly apparent in the practice known as “taking refuge in the Three Jewels”: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. To understand the role that faith and devotion play in this practice, emphasis is placed on clearly understanding the nature of the path in which one is taking refuge, called Dharma or the “Way” by the Buddha.

The emphasis on first understanding the nature of the path, or Dharma, can be appreciated by considering how we normally relate to someone whom we take to be a great authority on a particular subject. We do not regard a person as an authority simply on the basis of their fame, position, power, good looks, wealth, and so on, but rather because we find what they say on issues related to their particular field of expertise convincing and reliable. In brief, we do not generally take a person to be an authority on a subject simply out of respect and admiration for him or her as a person.

Similarly, in Buddhism, when we take the Buddha as an authority, as a reliable teacher, we do so on the basis of having investigated and examined his principal teaching, the Four Noble Truths. It is only after having investigated the validity and reliability of this doctrine that we accept the Buddha, who propounded it, as a reliable guide.

In order to understand the profound aspects of the Four Noble Truths, the principal doctrine of Buddhism, it is crucial to understand what are known as the “two truths.” The two truths refer to the fundamental Buddhist philosophical view that there are two levels of reality. One level is the empirical, phenomenal, and relative level that appears to us, where functions such as causes and conditions, names and labels, and so on can be validly understood. The other is a deeper level of existence beyond that, which Buddhist philosophers describe as the fundamental, or ultimate, nature of reality, and which is often technically referred to as “emptiness.”

When investigating the ultimate nature of reality, Buddhist thinkers take the Buddha’s words not so much as an ultimate authority, but rather as a key to assist their own insight; for the ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis. This is why we find various conceptions of reality in Buddhist literature. Each is based on a different level of understanding of the ultimate nature.

In the sutras, the collected original teachings of the Buddha, the Buddha himself states that his words are not to be accepted as valid simply out of respect and reverence for him, but rather should be examined just as a goldsmith would test the purity and quality of gold that he wished to purchase by subjecting it to various types of examination. Similarly, we should examine the words of the Buddha, and if we find them to be reliable and convincing through our own reasoning and understanding, we should accept them as valid.

Another area in which we find the element of faith and devotion playing an obvious and crucial role is in the practice of Buddhist tantra. But even here, careful examination will show that the entire system of tantric practice is based upon an understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. Without this, one cannot even begin a genuine practice of tantra. So, in essence, reason and understanding are fundamental to the Buddhist approach on both the theoretical and the practical levels.

One of the fundamental views in Buddhism is the principle of “dependent origination.” This states that all phenomena, both subjective experiences and external objects, come into existence in dependence upon causes and conditions; nothing comes into existence uncaused. Given this principle, it becomes crucial to understand what causality is and what types of cause there are. In Buddhist literature, two main categories of causation are mentioned: (1) external causes in the form of physical objects and events, and (2) internal causes such as cognitive and mental events.

The reason for an understanding of causality being so important in Buddhist thought and practice is that it relates directly to sentient beings’ feelings of pain and pleasure and the other experiences that dominate their lives, which arise not only from internal mechanisms but also from external causes and conditions. Therefore it is crucial to understand not only the internal workings of mental and cognitive causation but also their relationship to the external material world.

The fact that our inner experiences of pleasure and pain are in the nature of subjective mental and cognitive states is very obvious to us. But how those inner subjective events relate to external circumstances and the material world poses a critical problem. The question of whether there is an external physical reality independent of sentient beings’ consciousness and mind has been extensively discussed by Buddhist thinkers. Naturally, there are divergent views on this issue among the various philosophical schools of thought. One such school asserts that there is no external reality, not even external objects, and that the material world we perceive is in essence merely a projection of our minds. From many points of view, this conclusion is rather extreme. Philosophically, and for that matter conceptually, it seems more coherent to maintain a position that accepts the reality not only of the subjective world of the mind but also of the external objects of the physical world.

Now, if we examine the origins of our inner experiences and of external matter, we find that there is a fundamental uniformity in the nature of their existence in that both are governed by the principle of causality. Just as in the inner world of mental and cognitive events every moment of experience comes from its preceding continuum and so on ad infinitum, similarly in the physical world every object and event must have a preceding continuum that serves as its cause, from which the present moment of external matter comes into existence.

In some Buddhist literature, we find that in terms of the origin of its continuum, the macroscopic world of our physical reality can be traced back finally to an original state in which all material particles are condensed into what are known as “space particles.” If all the physical matter of our macroscopic universe can be traced to such an original state, the question then arises as to how these particles later interact with each other and evolve into a macroscopic world that can have direct bearing on sentient beings’ inner experiences of pleasure and pain. To answer this, Buddhists turn to the doctrine of karma, the invisible workings of actions and their effects, which provides an explanation as to how these inanimate space particles evolve into various manifestations.

The invisible workings of actions, or karmic force (karma means action), are intimately linked to the motivation in the human mind that gives rise to these actions. Therefore an understanding of the nature of mind and its role is crucial to an understanding of human experience and the relationship between mind and matter. We can see from our own experience that our state of mind plays a major role in our day-to-day experience and physical and mental well-being. If a person has a calm and stable mind, this influences his or her attitude and behavior in relation to others. In other words, if someone remains in a state of mind that is calm, tranquil, and peaceful, external surroundings or conditions can cause him or her only limited disturbance. But it is extremely difficult for someone whose mental state is restless to be calm or joyful even when he or she is surrounded by the best facilities and the best of friends. This indicates that our mental attitude is a critical factor in determining our experience of joy and happiness, and thus also our good health.

To sum up, there are two reasons why it is important to understand the nature of mind. One is because there is an intimate connection between mind and karma. The other is that our state of mind plays a crucial role in our experience of happiness and suffering. If understanding the mind is very important, what then is mind, and what is its nature?

Buddhist literature, both sutra and tantra, contains extensive discussions on mind and its nature. Tantra, in particular, discusses the various levels of subtlety of mind and consciousness. The sutras do not talk much about the relationship between the various states of mind and their corresponding physiological states. Tantric literature, on the other hand, is replete with references to the various subtleties of the levels of consciousness and their relationship to such physiological states as the vital energy centers within the body, the energy channels, the energies that flow within these, and so on. The tantras also explain how, by manipulating the various physiological factors through specific meditative yogic practices, one can effect various states of consciousness. According to tantra, the ultimate nature of mind is essentially pure. This pristine nature is technically called “clear light.” The various afflictive emotions such as desire, hatred, and jealousy are products of conditioning. They are not intrinsic qualities of the mind because the mind can be cleansed of them. When this clear light nature of mind is veiled or inhibited from expressing its true essence by the conditioning of the afflictive emotions and thoughts, the person is said to be caught in the cycle of existence, samsara. But when, by applying appropriate meditative techniques and practices, the individual is able to fully experience this clear light nature of mind free from the influence and conditioning of the afflictive states, he or she is on the way to true liberation and full enlightenment.

Hence, from the Buddhist point of view, both bondage and true freedom depend on the varying states of this clear light mind, and the resultant state that meditators try to attain through the application of various meditative techniques is one in which this ultimate nature of mind fully manifests all its positive potential, enlightenment, or Buddhahood. An understanding of the clear light mind therefore becomes crucial in the context of spiritual endeavor.

In our own day-to-day experiences we can observe that, especially on the gross level, our mind is interrelated with and dependent upon the physiological states of the body. Just as our state of mind, be it depressed or joyful, affects our physical health, so too does our physical state affect our mind. As I mentioned earlier, Buddhist tantric literature mentions specific energy centers within the body that may, I think, have some connection with what some neurobiologists call the second brain, the immune system. These energy centers play a crucial role in increasing or decreasing the various emotional states within our mind. It is because of the intimate relationship between mind and body and the existence of these special physiological centers within our body that physical yoga exercises and the application of special meditative techniques aimed at training the mind can have positive effects on health. It has been shown, for example, that by applying appropriate meditative techniques, we can control our respiration and increase or decrease our body temperature. Furthermore, just as we can apply various meditative techniques during the waking state, so too, on the basis of understanding the subtle relationship between mind and body, can we practice various meditations while we are in dream states. The implication of the potential of such practices is that at a certain level it is possible to separate the gross levels of consciousness from gross physical states and arrive at a subtler level of mind and body. In other words, you can separate your mind from your coarse physical body. You could, for example, separate your mind from your body during sleep and do some extra work that you cannot do in your ordinary body. However, you might not get paid for it!

So you can see here the clear indication of a close link between body and mind: they can be complementary. In light of this, I am very glad to see that some scientists are undertaking significant research in the mind/body relationship and its implications for our understanding of the nature of mental and physical well-being. My old friend Dr. Benson, for example, has been carrying out experiments on Tibetan Buddhist meditators for some years now. Similar research work is also being undertaken in Czechoslovakia. Judging by our findings so far, I feel confident that there is still a great deal to be done in the future.

As the insights we gain from such research grow, there is no doubt that our understanding of mind and body, and also of physical and mental health, will be greatly enriched. Some modern scholars describe Buddhism not as a religion but as a science of mind, and there seem to be some grounds for this claim.


How to cite this document:
© Mind/Body Medical Institute Inc. & Tibet House New York Inc., MindScience (Wisdom Publications, 1991)

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