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.
There is no independently existing substance, from a tiny particle to a huge mountain. All things exist only in relation to other things. Without a left, there can be no right. If there is no hot, there is no cold; if no long, then no short; if no 'I', then no 'you'. Nothing exists independently.
It therefore follows that if there is no separate object of cognition, there can be nothing separate that is cognizing it. If the object of perception does not truly exist independently, then neither does the mind that perceives it. The moments of perception that make up mind have no independent reality; they are dependent upon objects for their existence. If there is no sound, then there is no auditory consciousness, and so forth. The conceptualizing faculty of mind delineates the world outside, yet not even that cognition has any independent reality of its own. Both perception and its object are unreal in themselves, nothing other than the mind's projections. Mind is the source of everything, yet mind does not exist unconditionally.
Participants in Confusion
The conceptualization of the confused mind gives rise to the world that exists relatively - not in its own right - but dependent upon causes and conditions. These causes and conditions consist of the eight types of fragmentary consciousness, of which the basis is the fundamental consciousness (alaya in Sanskrit).
The fundamental consciousness is the basis for the other seven types of fragmentary consciousness that are projected from it. These seven are consciousness belonging to each of the five senses, to the mental faculty, and the emotionally afflicted consciousness. All eight share the same essence, just as the waves on the ocean's surface are the same water that lies in its depths. In the same way that the waves manifest a variety of forms and shapes, so the various types of fragmentary consciousness differ according to the nature of the object of which they are cognizant. There is a visual consciousness that responds to form, an olfactory consciousness responding to smell, etc.
In the outside world, the condition for confused perception is the imagined sense object: a form, sound, smell, taste, or tactile object. Lying within us is the determining condition provided by the sense faculty of the corresponding organ. This faculty is not the physical organ, but only a subtle part of it, which defines the object and allows perception of it to occur. Each sensory consciousness is linked to the sense faculty, not just to the organ as a whole. A person may have eyes, but if the visual consciousness is damaged, he will not be able to see.
the momentary mind
The sixth consciousness, the mental faculty, has for its object any knowable thing. This is known as the momentary mind, whose subtle sensory faculty is mental in nature. It is called the momentary mind because it occurs each moment mental cognition begins or ceases. This moment allows mental perception to occur; it is the space between consciousness and its object. This is like a space between one's face and a mirror, without which it would be impossible to see oneself. The momentary mind is the gap that separates consciousness and its object, the distance between them. However, it is not a vacuum, but something mental in nature. Through meditation it is possible for the mind to know its own sensory faculty.
The six sensory faculties, the six fragmentary consciousnesses belonging to them, and the six objects which stimulate them, all emerge from the fundamental consciousness and dissolve back into it like waves rising up and sinking into the ocean. All these eighteen different factors are mind's projections, including the so-called sensory objects, which have no material reality. In addition, these different factors exist only in relation to each other, and not independently in their own right.
How does this interdependent relationship of the sensory processes occur? Since beginningless time, out habitual behavior, derived from ignorance, has left traces that are stored in the fundamental consciousness. The fundamental consciousness fails to recognize its own true nature and takes itself and the five psycho-physical constituents (skandhas in Sanskrit) to be a 'self'. This mistaken belief causes the emotional afflictions to emerge, which then govern behavior. The self's actions are subject to the law of cause and effect, leaving traces or propensities that are stored in the fundamental consciousness until they ripen, producing the realm of perception that corresponds to that particular propensity. For example, if the potential for becoming a human being is stored in the fundamental consciousness, when this ripens, there will emerge the six sensory faculties, their six objects, and the six fragmentary consciousnesses proper to human existence.
The basis for perception of the world is the fragmentary consciousness of the mental faculty, or the momentary mind, because it is this which conceptualizes the objects received by the other five sensory faculties, retaining them, distinguishing one from the other, and then inclining towards or away from them. This is one kind of attachment. Another kind is that formed by the emotionally afflicted mind. The nature of the emotional mind is the same as that of the momentary mind, although the ensuing attachment happens in a slightly different way.
the emotional mind
It is the emotionally afflicted mind that clings to the idea of a self, the aspect of mind that assumes that 'I exist' and 'I am better and more important than others'. These assumptions are quite incorrect, since there is no self in any of the eight consciousnesses. This idea of the existence of an 'I' gives rise to the various emotions that afflict the mind. It is also this emotionally afflicted mind that is the source of what are technically called 'distractible associations'. Thinking of the five psycho-physical constituents as real and forming a self out of them, the mind creates associations that do not really exist and that can therefore be destroyed by careful inquiry into their true nature.
To sum up, the arising of the momentary mind is the condition that allows fragmentary consciousness to be born. The emotionally afflicted mind is the condition that lets the mind become clouded by the confused emotions.
the fundamental consciousness
The fundamental consciousness is the storehouse where all the karmic seeds resulting from our previous actions are stored until they ripen. It is therefore the ground from which the mature seeds arise, the basis for the world around us. Our world that we perceive is the activity of the seven kinds of fragmentary consciousnesses, themselves the product of this fundamental consciousness.
All the actions of these seven types of consciousness leave virtuous or negative traces to be stored in the fundamental consciousness, which itself is essentially neutral; it knows neither good nor bad. It is like a vast ocean - from the surface ripening propensities rise like vapor. The seven types of fragmentary consciousness are like rain - their activity forms rivers that flow back into the ocean where all their water is preserved without loss until evaporation recurs.
The fundamental consciousness is also known as 'the taker', in the sense that it takes one rebirth after another. When this present human life ceases, it is followed by the bardo experience, when the fundamental consciousness once again projects the six types of fragmentary consciousness as well as the emotionally afflicted mind, and takes on that type of existence. When the bardo comes to an end, again it is from the fundamental consciousness that consciousnesses, the sensory faculties, and the sensory objects gather together to create the next existence.
Another name for the fundamental consciousness is the conditional consciousness, conditional because it depends on the other seven for its existence. To follow the illustration used above, just as the ocean cannot exist without rain, rivers, and evaporation, so the fundamental consciousness cannot exist without the activity of the seven types of consciousness and the traces they leave. When the mind is no longer ignorant of its true nature and therefore no longer confused, the activity of the seven types of fragmentary consciousness is counteracted and they come to an end. At the same moment the fundamental consciousness also comes to an end.
It is very important to understand this point about the fundamental consciousness being a dependent phenomenon. If it existed in its own right without the activity of the seven types of consciousness, it would be same as the principle of the Samkhya school of thought and the Buddha's teaching would be indistinguishable from that early Indian philosophy.
Mind's Original Nature
The essence of the fundamental consciousness is the changeless buddha nature that always remains the same, whether clouded by ignorance or not. When the mind recognizes its true nature, the fundamental consciousness and the seven types of fragmentary consciousness belonging to the confused mind are replaces by the different enlightened modes of being. These modes are the spheres of activity of the different forms of primordial awareness.
The Path Out of Confusion
The transformation of the eight fragmentary consciousnesses into the enlightened mode of being takes place during the practice of the path leading to full enlightenment. This path has five stages.
the path of accumulation
The first stage is known as the path of accumulation. Stored in the fundamental consciousness are the seeds resulting from previous emotionally defiled actions that will ripen into existences where there is so much suffering that spiritual practice is impossible. These seeds must be prevented from ripening in that form by an accumulation of virtuous actions that must continue until the last traces of the suffering-bearing seeds are destroyed, just as a piece of wood has to keep burning until it has been turned into ashes by fire.
The process could also be compared to taking an antidote after swallowing poison. The remedy for having killed, for example, is to protect and save life; the practice of generosity acts as an antidote for theft; and so on. The eventual result of the accumulation of such positive actions is a human rebirth, indispensable for reaching buddhahood, since it is only as a human being that we can practice the path.
It is when we begin the path of accumulation that we begin to meditate. The type of meditation that we practice on the path of accumulation (Sanskrit: shamatha; Tibetan: shine) develops mental calm and stability to prepare the mind to glimpse its original nature. The way to induce stability is to train the mind to rest on an object with single-minded attention.
Initially in meditation, the mind is invariably either full of thoughts and wildly out of control, or it is drowsy and sunk in mental dullness, so that mental calm seems almost unattainable. However, through gradual practice the mind becomes stable, able to remain on its object naturally while remaining clear and alert.
This meditation on the development of peace establishes the basis for the practice of insight meditation (Sanskrit: vipashyana; Tibetan: lhagthong), which is comprised of techniques for a deep examination of non-self in order to become aware of the true essence of the fundamental consciousness.
the path of junction
The meditation we practice while on the path of accumulation gives rise to four experiences that indicate we have progressed to the next path. The path of junction gets its name from the fact that it is the link to the first realization of primordial awareness, the first bodhisattva level, where all gross mental cloudiness is removed. The four experiences of the path of junction signal that our meditation is beginning to bear fruit.
The first of these experiences is called ' warmth', but not because it has anything to do with physical warmth, or with kundalini yoga. Warmth is a sign of approaching fire, like when an electric radiator is first turned on, before it becomes really hot. This first glimpse signals the approach of primordial awareness. To experience this requires a profound insight meditation. Do not presume that any unusual feeling you may have while meditating is a sign of warmth.
The second experience, named 'peak' or 'summit', occurs when we reach stability in our practice. At this level, our growing personal experience of meditation leads to complete certainty about the teaching of the Buddha; we are now convinced of its validity and that through its practice we can reach perfect buddhahood. Up to this point in our spiritual development, doubts have occurred from time to time, and the teaching has had to be taking on faith. From this point onwards, however, we understand the law of cause and effect directly: we know that suffering will ensue from negative actions, and so on. All doubts have been removed.
The dawning of the third experience, 'tolerance', signals an increase in the force of our understanding. The positive activity of insight meditation has become so strong that it has the power to suppress any negative propensities in the fundamental consciousness, even those severe enough to produce rebirth in hell. Positive action is more powerful than the cloudiness caused by negative and emotionally afflicted action. The positive is sufficiently strong to tolerate the negative and not be overcome by it. Practice in general is characterized by a progressive weakening of negative actions and a strengthening of positive ones, but it is only at this stage of tolerance that the positive actually becomes capable of withstanding any negative propensity, however strong it may be.
The forth and final experience is called 'the best in the world', because it is best of all experiences to have while in this world of samsara. With the next step we enter the path of seeing and are no longer in the realm of the mundane. This 'best in the world' is the gateway to the experience of primordial awareness.
the paths of seeing and meditation
The instant when primordial awareness is perceived marks the beginning of the path of seeing. We have now left the cycle of existence, never to return, since the gross cloudiness of emotional afflictions has been destroyed. This vision of primordial awareness is like seeing the new moon: while it is the real moon, it is not in its complete form. During our progress along the next path, the path of meditation, our vision expands until, on the next tenth bodhisattva level, it becomes complete like the full moon.
the path of no more learning
This fifth and final path marks the total transformation of the fundamental consciousness into primordial awareness. This transformation has occurred without changing the essence of the fundamental consciousness. The true nature of the fundamental consciousness has always been the sphere of activity of primordial awareness, but recognition of this has been prevented by the cloudiness of emotional states of mind, ripening karmic propensities, and so on. With this cloudiness now removed, the fundamental consciousness can be seen for what it really is. So nothing essential has been given up.
- An excerpt from the book "Change of Expression Working with the Emotions"