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Transformation at the Base (Talk 5 of 8)

A series of talks on the Mind Only school of Buddhist thought

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 31, 2003
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
Zoketsu comments on Thich Nhat Hanh's Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness. - a readable version by Nhat Hanh of the complicated Buddhist teachings on “Mind Only” philosophy, the nature of mind and karma.
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Transformation at the Base Talk 5 of 8

Zoketsu Norman Fisher


Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


Today we are talking about Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fifty Verses, verses 20 through 27.

We could call manas, the 7th consciousness, the experience of self. Manas is turning the mind in the wrong direction, seizing on a perceiver within the sphere of the 8th consciousness. In the 8th consciousness, a perceiver and an object of perception exist in harmony in a field of unity. Manas takes the perceiver out of this unity and separates it. Manas could be restored to its wholeness and not see the world as separate.

The energy manas uses to create this false sense of separation is the energy of grasping and clinging that is created by action. The seeds in the 8th consciousness are in and of themselves not troublesome or bothersome, but the habit energy changes those seeds. This habit energy comes from karma and is reinforced continually by the activity of body, speech and mind.

Manas is fundamentally fictional; it is not a substantial reality the way it appears to us. Even though it is really convincing, it is not in fact reality. This is important because it shows us we are not trying to eliminate our sense of self. We need only to see through it and understand it. So in a way you could say that we don’t need to change anything or alter anything; we only need to see through the experience we are having for what it actually is. So you don’t have to destroy ego. Manas is covered over with the habit energies and the bonds. Our job is simply to remove the covering. Every act of perception, every act of thought, is in the mode of manas; therefore, every act of perception and thought is distorted by the coverings and habit energies that create the turning outward of manas that creates separation

It is tricky to work with the effort that we make in practice, because we make it on the basis of manas. We’re trying to reverse ignorance by using ignorance. So, in other words, if we are working really hard with our grasping and clinging to make it change, we’re doing that work with the energy of manas. So we are actually digging a hole deeper for ourselves. Most of the effort that we make is that of clinging and grasping and desire, but, paradoxically, in practice we have to make a different kind of effort. Dogen talks about an effortless effort, an effort that is not based in desire.

That’s why in classical Mahayana Buddhism there is an emphasis on motivation. First of all, start with your motivation, clarify your motivation. Then develop bodhichitta, because the motivation should be to save all sentient beings, to practice for the benefit of others. Somehow along the way we have recognize that the way to practice is not to force practice but to let go. To release yourself to practice rather than to press or force practice.

So our effort is returning. You can translate taking refuge as returning. We are returning, restoring the perceiver to the perceived, restoring ourselves. We are conditioned in our lives to see a kind of exile, gap or a gash between the self and the world. We’re always longing to get what we have lost. The theme in spiritual practice of longing is a deep, deep theme. The effort of returning is to restore ourselves to the wholeness of our self with the world. We’re lovers and friends with the world. We need to return, so our practice is a letting go. So we rely on life itself and consciousness itself to take care of us.

So Thich Nhat Hanh’s text speaks about four characteristics of manas, which he gets directly from the Thirty Verses. He repeats the ideas in the Thirty Verses about the four characteristics of the grasping nature of manas: self-ignorance, self-view, self-pride and self-love. These are ascending levels of confusion and suffering, beginning with self-ignorance.

Self-ignorance is the experience that body and perceptions are “me” and that other bodies and other things in the world are “not me.” This view is called self-ignorance, but it’s obvious that we all see the world that way. It’s so ingrained that the idea that this might not be so seems absurd!  It seems absurd to think of it, but that is the beginning of self-ignorance. If you really think about it long enough, you will see that there really is no real reason to define the body and the perceptions as “me” and objects out in the world as “not me.” It’s just a big habit that we have, but there is no actual reason for it. Self-ignorance begins with the carving up of this flow of perception and dividing it up into “me” and “not me.”

Self-ignorance is the first stage, and then the second stage is called self-view. The self-view is that “me” is absolutely independent and eternal. We know that if you ask anybody if the self is eternal they would say, No, I know that everyone dies.  Still, if you analyze the way people behave, we all behave as if self were absolutely independent and eternal and never-ending.

Based on that self-view comes self-pride. Self-pride is basically comparative mind. First, I think that there is “me” and “you.” There is no comparison; there is just this distinction. Then I think, “me” is eternal and independent.  Next comes comparative thinking. We think: I am better than you, or I’m worse than you, or You make me mad. So think of all the suffering that occurs because of comparative mind. And that’s not just from comparing oneself to others, it’s also from comparing one’s self to one’s possible self: I am such a lousy person, I could be so much better. So self-pride is the comparative mind. It would be interesting to observe your mind and see how often thoughts of comparing arise in your mind and see whether they lead to pleasant states of mind or not. It would be a useful exercise. I recommend it.

So then, based on the self-pride, comes self-love.  Self-love is when we have a powerful attachment to the self; it can be positive or negative. Usually in most people it is both. You know: I’m the worst person in the world. I really think I’m awful and terrible.  But if someone offends me: What?! You dare to criticize me? I am going to kill you!

So in the description of these four aspects of self, we can see how the energy of manas manifests and becomes a self. All other afflictive emotions arise from this: anger, hypocrisy, greed, violence, you name it. For example, when someone hits you, and you get angry, the cause here is not, She hit me, so she made me angry. The only thing that ever makes you angry is you. If there were no you, there would be no anger. So the root cause of all these afflictive emotions is this confused, very persuasive habit of viewing the self in a particular way.

How can we work with this? There are things that we can do that we know are wholesome dharmas. You can rest assured that if you do wholesome things, the results will be wholesome, even if you don’t know exactly how or when. That is why the Buddha was so big on hammering home the point that there are actions that we can do.

The 8th consciousness is very lofty and is always fine. The 7th consciousness is deeply disturbed, as we’ve discovered. But it is constant and comes from the beginning-less past, so we can’t do anything about it. This is why we like the 6th consciousness. The 6th consciousness has a variety of modes of operation that the 7th and 8th consciousness don’t have. It can operate with the senses. It can also operate independent of the senses, and here is the part that is important: it can be “dispersed, concentrated, stable or unstable.” The 6th consciousness can be developed according to our activity. If it’s stable, it can be wholesome. If it is concentrated, it can be wholesome. If it is not concentrated or stable, it can be destructive. A dispersed and unstable mind is a mind that is constantly colluding with manas, encouraging the distortion. But the mind that is concentrated and stable and listening is the mind that can help us see through manas.

So the final point here is there are two fundamentally connected but different ways of working with manas. Ultimately to reverse manas perfectly would be to be a Buddha. This is our goal; we are trying to do that. The way to reverse manas completely and become a Buddha is to see through manas and understand it directly. This is like a cosmic enlightenment experience: to see the nature of self. To have true knowledge of the nature of self is what we are doing on our cushions in intensive meditation practice.

That is why when we go to sesshins. One of the things we work on in an intensive meditation practice is concentrating the mind and sitting with the experience of the self, seeing through it, reversing it. That is basically the definition of shikantaza: just sitting. We are no longer being driven by manas. Just sitting means to enter Perfect Mirror Awareness. So that is the kind of effort we are making in intense sitting in order to understand the nature of self.

That’s one thing. The other thing is that we have to work on the knots and the habit energies.  We undo and let go of the bad habit energies and the seeds of distortion and confusion; we raise up and encourage the good seeds and the good habit energies. So that’s daily life practice. That’s working with our afflicted emotions, working with our thoughts, working with the  precepts of right conduct and right speech. The eight-fold path is the path of untying the knots.

We need to do work on our cushions and also our daily life practice. We can’t really have one and not the other. If we think we are going to go gung-ho and only do sesshins, chances are that we are going to miss the subtle levels of habit energy and knots that are in us. If we just focus on seeing through the manas, we are going to miss the subtle distortions.

Interestingly enough, almost all maps of the path show that you can be very developed as a meditator, but still you have to be about 80% of the way before self-pride and self-clinging actually fall away. You just refine the self-pride and self-clinging to subtler forms of it, but the basic distortion is there. So if you are a good meditator, but you don’t take care of daily life practice, there is going to be a lot of subtle self-deception that goes on. And you see that all the time in the spiritual realm of people who are so profoundly awakened with their meditation practice; they fool themselves. It happens. They don’t realize that there are subtle forms of self-clinging that they haven’t attended to through working with their daily life practice, and then boom it comes up suddenly when they least expect it.

On the other hand, if we just work on our knots and our habit energies without really working hard on our cushions, we might cultivate a lot of goodness and let go of a lot of bad habits, but we might never realize that good and bad are both designations. We really need to see and to hold our daily life practice in the proper attitude. We need to see that good and bad are designations based on distorted manas. We do have to understand on our cushions the nature of manas. We have to have both of these things; in other words, both insight on our cushion and ethical conduct in our daily life..

So what this teaching is saying to us is that the practice we are doing is rooted in the nature of mind. It is based on recognition that this is how the mind works and how suffering occurs. If you are practicing this way, you are practicing based on the way mind actually works, and so the practice will be effective.

 As I said in the beginning, these are all words. These are descriptions. They don’t describe hard and fast realities. But they are useful descriptions, useful words.  They can point us in the direction of ways of being and practicing that are actually effective and transformative for our lives.