A Change of Expression (Part 1)

by Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche

"Cognition can function in two ways, like a face with two different expressions:
clear away the frown of confusion and the confusion-free smile will naturally take its place."

The text on which the teaching is based is a treatise on how to differentiate between ordinary consciousness and original awareness, written by Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa. Although short (six folios), it contains the main points of the workings of the mind both when it is clouded by ignorance and when it is fully aware.

Mind at the Root of Confusion

Who created the world? Where did life come from? What is the cause of suffering, how can we overcome it and be happy? Intelligent people, as distinct from those content to remain ignorant, have been asking themselves such questions since the dawn of mankind. 2500 years ago, the Buddha Shakyamuni expounded the true nature of things. Great thinkers throughout the course of history have achieved some degree of understanding of the nature of reality, as perfectly taught by the Buddha. In this essay, we will examine these different schools of thought.

Non-Buddhist Thinking

  • the non-theistic approach
  • In ancient India there were three hundred and sixty different non-Buddhist philosophical positions concerning the cause of the world. Among these was the Samkhya school of thought, which maintained that the world was part of the creator's being. In their view the world is the creation of a Principle, which is a balance of happiness, suffering and neutrality, and which has five characteristics proper to it. It is permanent, unique, it is not inanimate matter, it is invisible, and has an unhindered capacity to produce emanations of itself. The Principle is the cause of the world; the world itself is the behavior or functioning of the Principle. The world is therefore part of the Principle and not external to it, making the Samkhya school an example of the type of philosophy that believes the world to be part of, rather than different from its creator.

    On the receiving end, as it were, is the self or entity which experiences the world and which is quite different from the Principle. There is only one self for all living beings. This self is like two-sided mirror. One side faces outwards and receives the reflection of the forms emanated by the Principle. The self is distracted by these forms, takes them to be real and falls under their influence, becoming deluded as a result. The emanations sent out by the Principle trick the self into a state of confusion that leads to suffering. So, far from being compassionate, the Principle actually harms the self.

    The Samkhya student is therefore advised to keep his attention focused inward and remain undistracted by the manifestations of the deceitful Principle. To the extent that the Samkhya student does this, the Principle's tricks will be unsuccessful. Consequently, the main practice of this school is meditation that closely resembles Buddhist tranquillity meditation, with similar results. When the mind is withdrawn from involvement in the distractions of the outside world it becomes peaceful and settled. This happy state is described as being the result of the Principle's 'embarrassment'. Not only is the mind of the student calmed, but the Principle is induced to reabsorb the world it has emanated, whereupon the self is liberated from its deceit.

    Similar to their meditation method, the Samkhya lifestyle is designed to reduce and finally eliminate the influence of the Principle. To allow attachment to continue is to fall under the power of the Principle's functioning, therefore stress is laid on non-attachment as the means to liberation. The Samkhya student will live on as little food and drink as possible, and always of the slightest quality, wear few or no clothes (they are often referred to as 'the naked ones'), and have no permanent home.

    There are many weaknesses in the Samkhya philosophy, not the least of which is that it has to be accepted on blind faith alone. Many questions remain unanswered: 'Where does the Principle come from? Why is there only one self or entity for all living beings? If that is the case, how is it that when one individual is liberated, the whole of the self, that is to say all living beings, is not also liberated at the same time?' and so on. But despite these objections, the Samkhya was the best of the non-Buddhist views existent at the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Why? Because it recognized that while the self is controlled by distraction, there is no liberation, and that the means to eliminate distraction is to meditate so that mind's involvement in the outer world lessens. On the subject of mind, the Samkhyas had more understanding than the other philosophical schools in India at that time.

  • theistic beliefs
  • Another type of philosophy is the kind of theistic belief that holds the world to be produced by a creator god. Many of the Indian beliefs of that time fell into this category. Let us examine in more detail the views and practices of the worshipers of Ishvara, and this will serve as a general model.

    Ishvara is said to possess eight characteristics: he is single, constant, moving, divine, worthy of respect, pure, the creator, and free and independent. The possession of these eight characteristics is what qualifies him as a supreme being. The world that he creates is not part of his being or functioning, as in the case of the Samkhya system: his creation is and remains quite other than himself, although he does have influence over it. He has the power to send to heaven or paradise those who please him and do his will, and to send to hell all who disobey or displease him. The principle practices of the Ishvarites consist of making burnt sacrifices and other offerings to propitiate their god, meditating on the visualized form of Ishvara and performing various yogic practices.

    Like the Samkhya view, the Ishvarite belief has to be accepted by blind faith alone, leaving many unanswered questions. The tragic flaw in this kind of philosophy is that it does not explain where the creator himself came from. One can also raise the following objections to the creator's supposed characteristics: he is said to be constant and at the same time moving, but these are two mutually exclusive characteristics, since movement implies change. Besides this, his purity is defined as being 'the quintessence of loving-kindness and compassion', but since he has and exercises the power to send beings who displease him to hell, this seems to be inconsistent with one of his eight characteristics, that of purity. These are only some of the objections that can be raised, and the same doubts apply to other views dependent on the idea of a creator god.

    Both the Samkhya school and the schools that believe in a creator god fail to see that at the root of cyclic existence and its misery is the clinging to the notion of 'I' or ego. Misunderstanding the cause of suffering, they are unable to eliminate it. Even though some of their practices - for example, the tranquillity meditation of the Samkhyas and the visualization of the creator god traditions - are similar to methods used in Buddhism, because their initial viewpoint is mistaken, their methods cannot be successful. They have missed the point.

    This can also happen to the tantric Buddhist. Someone who engages in the practice of the visualization without recognizing that the visualized form is at the same time empty of any real being or existence, is making the same mistake as the theistic practitioner. In tantra, the creative phase of a visualization should always be associated with its completion phase, that is to say that a visualization should always be based on an understanding of emptiness, the Perfection of Wisdom. The meditator who has not grasped the central aspect of emptiness and who meditates on the creative phase, is practicing like an Ishvarite. In his work, the Bodhicaryavatara Shantideva says that if one does not recognize the Mother Prajnaparamita (emptiness or the Perfection of Wisdom), all tantric practices will produce the same result as these theistic views.

  • the nihilistic viewpoint
  • Another type of belief rejects all views concerning the cause of the world. Its adherents say, 'The sun rises, rivers flow downhill, peas are round, thorns are sharp, the eye in the peacock's feather is beautiful. These and everything else in the world were not made by anyone, they occur naturally by themselves.' Such an attitude rejects completely the notions of cause and effect and future lives, and is therefore completely amoral, since actions, good or bad, are not considered to have any consequences.

    This view is the most unintelligent one of all, and can be refuted simply by looking at the workings of the law of cause and effect in the world around us. If there were no such law, everything would be completely arbitrary. One might plant wheat and get barley, humans might give birth to animals, and so on. Since this is obviously not the case, the standpoint of causelessness taken up by those who 'cast far away' all theories can be easily discounted.

    All the views considered so far have been non-Buddhist. None of them enable their adherents to forsake the suffering of cyclic existence, for the simple reason that, despite their various theories, they remain ignorant of its fundamental cause.

    Buddhist Thinking

    In contrast to the above views, the different Buddhist schools of thought recognize that it is ignorance and ego clinging which cause and perpetuate cyclic existence, and that liberation from such an existence involves the eradication of the emotionally afflicted mind. Among the four main schools of Buddhist thought, some are considered superior by virtue of the fact that although they all provide the means for achieving liberation from cyclic existence, not all of them have necessary scope to be able to lead the disciple to perfect Buddhahood which is complete in all respects.

  • the vaibhasikas
  • Let us begin our examination of the Buddhist philosophical schools with a survey of the Vaibhasika view. This schools teaches that all the gross forms we encounter are only real in a relative sense, that their ultimate reality consists of the indivisible particles or atoms, in the original sense of the word, of the different elements, of which they are composed: earth, water, fire, air and space. These particles do exist, but are not the product of the creation.

    Just as the ultimate reality of the gross forms of the outside world is the particle, so the ultimate reality of the mind within is the 'mental moment', the 'mental atom', an indivisible instant of consciousness. These mental moments are real, but the duration of mind is not real. The mind of the past is gone, the mind of the future has not yet arrived, so the only thing which can be said to exist is the present moment of mind. What seems to us to be the continuity of mind is simply the sum of a series of mental moments. Therefore the phenomenon of mind, like the gross forms of the outside world, is only relatively real, its ultimate reality being the indivisible particle.

    All Buddhist schools recognize that suffering occurs because of misunderstanding about the relationship between the mind that knows and the objects of which it has knowledge. The confused mind clings to an idea of its own distinct identity which separates it from the objects it perceives, considered by it to be real. This separation means that when an object judged ' beautiful' by the mind occurs, attachment is born, and when an object is judged 'unpleasant', the feeling of aversion is produced. Following these two reactions, with the mind inclining towards or away from the object, the confused mind becomes afflicted by emotions, its actions become subject to the law of cause and effect, and the result is suffering.

    Recognition of this whole process is common to all Buddhist schools. Differences do occur, however, in the view of the exact nature of the connection between mind and objects. The Vaibhasika school maintains that there is direct contact between the consciousnesses of the sense organs and their objects, without any intermediary being involved. The next school we will examine, the Sautrantika, refutes this.

  • the sautrantikas
  • According to the Sautrantika view, any direct contact between mind and the particles of the outside world is impossible due to the radical difference in their respective natures. The mind is clear like glass, and aware. The material world is dead and inanimate. Mind can only know directly something that is of the same nature as itself, therefore knowledge of the world outside must occur through some process other than a direct encounter between mind and matter.

    The Sautrantikas postulate a mentally accessible image of the material object, produced as a natural effect of the object's existence, which can be grasped and known by mind because it is of the same nature as mind. The object itself is real and exists, but would be hidden from mind were it not for the mental emanation it produces which can be picked up by mind. The mind takes this mental image to be real, and this institutes the process described above, which culminates in suffering. Note that it is not the objects themselves that cause suffering, but the mind's clinging to the reality of the mental images they give off.

    Both the Vaibhasika view and the Sautrantika view can lead the disciple to Arhhatship. By the meticulous analysis of the body-mind thought of as 'I', the disciple is freed from ego-clinging. By the realization that everything on which he bases his idea of 'I' can be reduced to impersonal physical or mental particles, none of which can justify the existence of the 'I' he cherishes. This realization of non-ego allows the disciple to divest himself of his emotional afflictions and reach Arhatship.

    To this analytical process the Sautrantikas add their understanding that the body to which they are so attached is not even the real body composed of particles, but only its mental image - all the less reason for considering it to be real and identifying it as 'I'. Both schools practice meditation to calm and stabilize the mind, then carry out their analytical examination from within this stability.

    Because of these two schools' belief in the ultimate reality of the particles which make up mind and matter - the contact between the two being direct or indirect according to each school's particular position - they are obliged to maintain that after all beings become enlightened, the world outside, lifeless, still continues to exist. According to the teaching on the Perfection of Wisdom, it is precisely such a view that prevents the realization of complete Buddhahood, since it causes a subtle veil which clouds omniscience. However, once the disciple following the Vaibhasika or Sautrantika views reaches Arhatship, his mind no longer clouded by emotional afflictions, he can immerse himself in inexhaustible contemplation, upon which he realizes his mistake and adjusts his view to clear away the final veils masking full enlightenment.

    One may wonder why the Buddha taught the views held by these two schools, if in fact no real particles exist, either material or mental, to make up things of the material and mental worlds. The reason is that such a teaching is indispensable to that category of persons who are not yet ready to accept the unreality of the world outside. The particle theory, despite its inability to lead the disciple to full enlightenment, is nevertheless capable of ridding him of emotional affliction and granting him Arhatship, by which time his understanding will have expanded to such a point that he can accept the truth about the objects of the outside world and gradually progress towards complete Buddhahood.

    Mahayana Views

    For those capable of aiming directly at full enlightenment, the Buddha taught the full truth about mind and the material world. He explained that it is mind's lack of awareness of its own true nature that gives rise to different worlds and the various beings inhabiting them. Due to such ignorance, the mind conceives a world outside separate from itself, whereas the world is actually the mind's own projection. It is not therefore something which exists as part of its creator's being, nor is it external to its creator, nor is it due to a combination of both factors, nor is it completely without cause.

    If it were part of its creator's being, it would have to exist already and there would be no need to bring it into existence a second time. If it were external to its creator, it would also have to exist already to be defined as external to a pre-existing creator. How can there be an object, if there is not first an 'I'? To say that the world came about through a combination of both these factors is to make both of the mistakes just mentioned. As for causelessness, we have already stated that this is obviously to be discounted, since we can see with our own eyes how the actions of parents cause a child to be born, how wheat develops from a seed - its cause - and so on.

    So what is the world? The Buddha taught that it is made up of interdependent relationships. One thing is based on another thing, which is itself dependent on something else. Nothing can be said to truly exist, because for something to exist it must be a self-contained and independent phenomenon. There is therefore no point in searching for the cause of the world, because it has no existence of its own. Let us take the example of a house: there is no house which exists independently of walls, ceiling, floors, etc. Even these do not exist independently of their own component parts. Not even the smallest possible particle exists independently of its different parts, and this the same whether we are talking of the material or the mental atom. There is no body existing independently of its parts, there is no mind existing independently of its mental moments. Relatively speaking, the house, the wall, the atom, the mind, all have the same reality, but ultimately a close examination reveals that none of these are independent of their parts; therefore, they are empty of any true reality of their own.

    We have therefore two kinds of reality: the relative truth which is what appears to be there, and the absolute truth which is what really is there. These two truths or realities are not one and the same thing, otherwise seeing one would automatically entail seeing the other, which is not the case since we can remain ignorant of ultimate reality even while being aware of an object's relative reality. Nor can the two be completely distinct and independent of each other, since they cannot be separated one from the other, simply because the absolute reality of an object is the true nature of its relative reality. It is not justifiable to say that relative reality is false, because its appearance is quite genuine, just as a reflection in a mirror or an illusion conjured by a magician is really there. However, in the sense that it has no real essence of its own, that it is 'empty' of meaning from the point of view of ultimate reality, it would also be wrong to say that relative reality is true.

    Understanding of how the world arises from mind can come from two quarters. One can have direct understanding gained from meditation and other practices which have the effect of reducing ignorance enough to allow the mind to become aware of its own nature and workings. This is not something handed out by a Lama, but depends entirely on the efforts of the disciple. Another, inferior kind of understanding - but nevertheless one which is essential for those whose ignorance still clouds direct understanding - is that which emerges from logical deduction and valid reasoning. Through listening to explanations and arguments and then carefully reflecting upon them, one can deduce that the world is born from mind. This kind of process is like looking at our face in a mirror and being able to tell whether it is beautiful or not. We are not actually looking at the real face, only at its reflection, but we can still reach a conclusion. To take another example, we can deduce the presence of fire by a glimpse of smoke, even without having to see the actual fire. This kind of indirect understanding is enough to start with, since it provides a basis for meditation that will then eventually lead to the more valid direct understanding.

    Manifestation: Mind's Achievement

    In the act of knowing, there are two elements: the knower, which is the mind within, and the known, the objects about which the mind has knowledge. There is obviously a connection between the two, because of the effect objects have on the mind. Beautiful objects generate attachment, unpleasant objects produce aversion, and neutral objects indifference. Therefore, either mind and its objects have the same essential nature, or there is a causal relationship between the two of them, like the connection that exists between smoke and fire.

    The Sautrantikas have already pointed out that for mind to know something, the object must be of the same nature as mind. If objects were material in substance, how could they ever be known by mind? The mind is immaterial and formless. Its essence defies description. It cannot be defined in terms of shape, color, or whatever. The essence of a material phenomenon, however, is quite definable; one can talk about its form, shape, dimensions, and color. Given the complete difference in the essences of the material and the immaterial, any contact would be quite out of the question. Visual cognition could never relate to form, aural cognition grasp sound, and so on. This very difference in essential nature would also preclude a causal relationship. Totally alien in nature, how could material objects occur as a result of mind, or how could mind be produced by material objects?

    The only conclusion one can draw is that objects are mind, in which case no such problems arise. Mind can have knowledge of objects because they are made of mind, and mind can give birth to mind. Take the example of a dream: if one dreams of a horse, one can perceive the horse because it is mind-made, it is produced by mind and has the same nature as mind. In the same way, all the different objects and the sensory cognition of them that is fed to the mental processes are composed of mind.

    In fact, if we look more closely, we discover that a material world composed of indivisible particles is an untenable theory because of the impossibility of their existence. An 'atom' has been defined as the smallest possible particle, so minute as to be incapable of further division. If something is no longer divisible, then it cannot have any dimensions, because if it does, it can be divided once more into a back and a front, a left and a right. So, by definition, an atom is without dimensions, but in that case how do atoms join together to form larger masses? Without dimensions, an atom has no faces or sides to which another atom could adhere, either directly or through the intermediary of some kind of force. The same argument applies to the mental particle, the mental moment, of which mind is said to be composed. The atomic theory is consequently reduced to a logical absurdity.

    It may be difficult at first to accept that the world is not composed of atoms. We may object that it is quite obvious that things are made up of particles. A house, for example, is a conglomeration of particles of stone, cement, and so on. A child on a beach builds a castle out of grains of sand. However, this may be how things seem to the confused mind, but it is not so in reality. The confused or mistaken mind is like a dreaming mind that thinks that what is taking place is real. One may dream of a child on a beach making a sand castle, but neither the castle nor the grains of sand composing it are real; they only seem real to the confused dreaming mind. Similarly, things can seem to be composed of particles in terms of relative truth, but in terms of ultimate truth none of the objects of the senses has any material reality.

    When discussing sensory objects, we must remember that the mind also has its own faculty with its corresponding cognition, which conceptualizes the information received via the other five sense faculties. The objects of this sixth sense, mind, are called dharmas, a dharma being in this case defined as something about which the mind can have knowledge. The following example illustrates the relationship between one of the five sense faculties and the mental faculty.

    In the act of seeing a glass, the glass is a form which presents itself to the visual faculty; it is recognized as a form (but not yet as a glass) by the visual faculty, and is then transmitted as a dharma, something that can be known, to the mental faculty. Registered by the cognition of the mental faculty, the mind begins a process of elimination in order to conceptualize the object of knowledge. Working from past experience, the mind cam recognize that the image it is receiving is not, for example, a cup or a spoon, but a glass. The appropriate label is applied, and the image transmitted from the visual faculty is 'known' by the mind as a glass.

    The mental faculty and its cognition therefore have the role of conceptualizing objects and perceiving them to be this or that by distinguishing one object from another. The mental faculty also evaluates objects, judging them to be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, which produces the corresponding reaction of inclining towards or backing away from the object.

    The cognition belonging to the five senses have nothing to do with this conceptualization; they are aware only of forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations. The conceptualizing of the mental faculty's cognition is therefore what is responsible for our perception of the world around us. For example, if a tigress' attractiveness were part of her nature, she would be attractive not only to a male tiger but to men or other animals as well. Since this is not the case, we can conclude that her attractiveness is due not to her but to the conceptualizing mental cognition of the male tiger.

    This shows how the whole world around us is delineated by the mind's conceptualizing activity.

    - An excerpt from the book "Change of Expression Working with the Emotions"

    Buddhism Today Vol.8, 2000