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Transformation at the Base (Talk 6 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 6)

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

 

Today I would like to talk about the Sixth Consciousnesses, but first I would like to repeat the very helpful metaphor about the ocean and waves that are used in these teachings. Consciousness is the ocean. It’s water throughout. It’s not separable into parts. But the ocean, when conditions arise in a particular way, produces waves. We could say: There’s a wave, there’s a wave and there’s a wave. Although they are similar, the waves are all identifiably different from each other. We can know that the wave that is breaking now is not the same wave that broke a moment ago, and the wave over there is not the same as the wave over here.

There is no separate thing that is a wave. The wave is movement within the ocean at this particular time and in this particular place. The Eight Consciousnesses are waves on the ocean of consciousness. The ocean is constantly flowing, constantly tosssing up new formations, which quickly pass and then are recycled – on and on. Our life is like that from beginningless time.

The five sense consciousnesses always exist in relation to an object. There’s a seed of a sense organ and a seed of the object. (A “seed” is defined as something capable of manifesting.) A seed of the organ arises; a seed of the object arises; the organ and the object come into contact with each other. Then consciousness arises in tandem with that to produce an experience. Without the consciousness, we don’t have an experience. It’s not enough to have the organ and the object, there also has to be the consciousness.

The five sense consciousnesses can work separately or together. If we are sitting in a symphony orchestra listening to a concert, we hear the concert, we see the concert, and we might be tasting a mint while we’re watching the show. We have a total experience that may involve many senses. If we go swimming in the ocean, we can feel the touch of the water, we can smell the water, we can hear the water, and we can see the water. We don’t separate out those different experiences. Yet they are actually quite different from one another.

The good news about the five senses is that they are capable of touching things as they really are. Every experience has within it the potential reality of things as they really are, but every experience is also a distortion and a representation. Most of what we are thinking and living is a distorted representation of something that is in a pure state of things as they are.

The good news is that when we have an immediate perception, the senses can directly touch suchness, directly touch things as they are. “Immediate” means without mediation of the mind and memory and desire: all the things that are usually operating whenever we have a perception. When we see a person, we are not experiencing the immediacy of that person. The person is like a wave on the ocean of consciousness existing in time, a radically beautiful and impossible thing. We don’t see that. We see our history with the person, our wishes and desires, or possibly our whole history with every other human being we have ever met. But if we could have an immediate perception, without all of that distortion and thinking, then we would be touching things as they are. There would be a kind of wholeness and deep sense of satisfaction in that act of seeing.

Sometimes we have those experiences. I think we often have them in nature, when we hike for four or five days and finally shake off the dust of the world. We look at a tree and have such a sense of satisfaction and peace. We think to ourselves, Why doesn’t this usually happen to me? How come I never feel this way?

Martin Buber talks about this in his book I and Thou. Buber was a great stylist in German, and often some of his points turned on the particular meaning of German words. There is one passage in which he talks about the “I-thou” experience. There is true encounter; there is a subject and an object, but they merge to such an extent that they touch. There is true satisfaction; there is true meeting. So he says, “This is not an experience.” In German, the word for experience is similar to the word “tourist” in English.  We go around seeing the sights. So he says that’s why this I-Thou meeting is not experience, because it’s not driving around on the surface seeing many sights.

So this is the practice of listening that I have been encouraging us to do both on and off our cushions. Listening so that we can cooperate, allowing the five senses to find their own way to things as they are, to have the experience of being quiet in our acts of perception rather than going out and grabbing something. Dogen talks about letting the 10,000 things come forward and experience the self, instead of having the self rushing out and grabbing something. This is one of the reasons why sesshin, even with all of its troublesomeness sometimes, can be so satisfying an experience. The senses do quiet, and we allow the world to come forward to us. In other words, we don’t need much, because the senses are now quiet, and we are really practicing. In effect, listening so the smallest things become tremendously inspiring and satisfying, even though we might find the same thing the next day to be annoying. We quiet the five senses, and we allow them to do their natural work of touching things as they are. When we know the world of representation as the world of representation, it doesn’t catch us.

So the mind distorts perception because of manas. Manas puts a little charge on every memory, desire and habit energy. Because of manas, we see our past and our conditioning instead of the thing itself. If we train our mind, we can see just the representation without all the extra baggage to it. And we can let go of it when it arises. Then we can have the experience of appreciating things as they really are.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s text, as in the classical text, every time one of the categories of consciousness is brought up, the question arises: What sorts of mental formations are associated with it? In the Abhidharma, there’s a list of various mental formations, wholesome and unwholesome, an array of which, at any given moment, make up our state of mind.

With the alaya consciousness, the only mental factors that arise are the five universal ones—universal because they arise with any experience: contact, interest, feeling, perception and volition. In other words, something is manifested, and there is interest in it, an engagement with it. That’s the basic bottom line of consciousness. Consciousness is always conscious of something, and it’s always engaged. With alaya, there’s only that. There is no sense of good or bad. There is only engagement. Direct perception goes beyond preference. Direct perception is always whole.

It’s the mind, manas, that makes what we experience bad or good, and the basis of that judgment is our distorted sense of separation of self. That’s what’s behind the arising of all unwholesome or unhappy states, like anger, fear and violence. Manas is the root of all that; in other words, the projected sense of separation and exile. That’s the basic root cause of all unwholesome painful states, not the experiences that seem to give rise to them. Whatever happens is not necessarily going to produce anger or fear without the distortion of manas.

The teaching here is not saying, although it could sound like that, that self is the problem. The world already exists in the Eighth Consciousness. And for the world to exist, there’s already what appears to be a subject and an object. So that in and of itself is not a problem. What is a problem are the dharmas that are always associated with manas: self-ignorance, self-view, self-pride and self-love.

The existence of perceiver and perceived is not in itself a problem. Every experience that is arising always includes the perceiver. Although we think that I am over here and that’s over there, there is no me without that. There’s no this without a that. They come up together and they go away together. So when you see that, the self is no problem. The self is only a problem when you rip the self out of the picture and hold it separate. It’s the grasping, the self-view, the self-pride, the self-love that cause suffering. So our goal here is not to become ego-less, to make the self evaporate, but rather to restore the self to its context, to its collaboration and cooperation with everything.

So consciousness, as it’s meant in these teachings, is not an entity, not something independent within which phenomena arise. So the word storehouse, alaya, might be problematic. Consciousness always arises with an object; there’s no seeing without seeing something. There’s no thinking in the abstract without thinking of something. Thinking and thoughts co-produce each other; seeing and objects of sight co-produce each other; and a speaker and a listener co-produce each other. 

So there’s no such actual thing as consciousness, as if it were a monolith in and of itself. There are only many different momentary flashes of consciousness, which come one after the another, each one arising with its object. Just two seeds in alaya producing each other in an ever changing flow. It’s like the analogy of movie film: picture, picture, picture, picture, one after the another. Each picture coming and disappearing, and giving rise to a successive picture. This looks like a flow of existing things, but in fact, it’s one picture succeeding another, flashing on and off in the dark. This a pretty good analogy to our life.

So life is actually the endless turning on and off of activity and peace—of flickering light and darkness. That is the flow of reality. Awakening and peace are actually fundamental to the shape of every moment. We don’t see that. But it’s true. That’s why you don’t have to go somewhere far away to seek peace and awakening. It’s always where you are in each moment.

Onto this flow of wholeness and beauty – which is incomprehensible and ineffable – manas projects all sort of concepts like self and other, birth and death, inside and outside, and so on. But none of these concepts hold up.

So our job is to let go of our conceptualizations, understand them as conceptualizations, and return to joining our actual experience. And all of our concepts are conceptualizations. The eight consciousnesses are conceptualizations; Buddhism is a conceptualization. If you attach the idea of eight consciousnesses as something really existing, it would be just the same as anything else. Our goal here is not to have more and improved concepts, but to go beyond our concepts and release ourselves to our actual lives. This is the only redemption and enlightenment that we really need. 

Trust the nature of our life, trust the nature of mind, knowing that whatever you really need for your life will be there. If you can relax and let it be.