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.
Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness
(Talk 3 of 8)
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum, and Cynthia Schrager
I am going to say more about the eighth consciousness. The eighth consciousness, as you will remember, is called the alaya consciousness, the storehouse consciousness. It is also called “all the seeds”to make it clear that it is not like some big box out there that holds the seeds. The eighth consciousness is not different from the seeds. It’s the sum total of all the seeds, of all that is. Everything – physical, mental, emotional – manifests from this eighth consciousness. It is never static. That which exists as a potential is constantly manifesting according to conditions.
The seeds that make up the eighth consciousness are neutral. They will not necessarily manifest as good, not necessarily manifest as bad. They have the potential for both. The way in which they manifest depends on a word that is often translated as “perfume” or sometimes translated as “habit energy.” The habit energy comes from our actions and reactions. We have the habit of strong, conditioned responses to a particular kind of phenomena. For example, we might see a person, whom we have never met, and the person is seemingly distant or reserved. We might be conditioned to think, He doesn’t like me. He’s ignoring me. He’s got a problem with me. Why would we react that way? Because of our seeds from the past, which are already perfumed such that we react in the same way. We strengthen the habit energy.
The habit energies can be transformed, because they don’t change the nature of the seeds. The nature of the seeds is neutral. If we can begin to change the habit energies, then the seeds can manifest differently. And that is the point of our practice. Maybe we can say, to extend the metaphor, that when we sit in zazen, we’re airing out the seeds. By being present with openness, by listening, creating space and breathing mindfully, we create the possibility that we will no longer be so compelled by our habit energies.
When the seeds manifest according to conditions, there is a perception. If our habit energy is strong enough, the perception is distorted, so that we see the world not as it is, but in a distorted way. And then we’ll react to the world that we ourselves created.
The teachings of Mind Only school go into the question of perception in more detail, because it’s important to see exactly how the perception is distorted and how to reverse that. The teachings say that there are three modes of perception. The first mode is called “things as they really are“—the direct and immediate perception of things, unmediated, uncalculating, undistorted. It has been called the perception of suchness.
The second mode of perception is called “representations.” The object is not seen directly. There are, because of habit energies and karma, distortions on top of that suchness. That’s ordinary, everyday perception. When you see another person, there is already some distortion. Just by looking, even if you don’t have any thoughts, the perception is already perfumed by the habit energy.
The third mode of perception is called “mirror images.” That’s when you see a tree with your eyes closed or in a dream. It is manifested simply by images in your mind.
So of these three modes of perception, the second and the third are false. If this is so, if all of our perceptions are distorted, even before we are thinking, is it possible for us to have direct perception? Can human beings have direct perception?
The six sense organs can have direct perception, especially seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. When there is pure sensory experience without any judging or comparing, we have an immediate experience. It’s a taste of the realm of seeing things directly as they are. I think that’s the experience of beauty. When we really experience something, all of a sudden it arrests us, and we appreciate its immense beauty, such as a flower.
I have been encouraging us all to sit and listen to sound. When you listen to sound without mediation, sometimes, if the mind is clear enough, there can be pure sensation. But then, of course, right away after you have that experience, the sixth consciousness kicks in and explains, defines, compares, complains, and then it’s no longer immediate. It’s now mediated by the mind and the mental faculties. We can have a habit of always using our mind in that way, so that we very seldom have the experience of any kind of arresting moment of beauty.
So our goal here is not to stop our mind, not to have a sixth consciousness. The human journey is to have a mind with this powerful tendency to distortion and also to have the possibility that we can experience reality as it is, with all the transcendent aspects of life.
We’re on a double edged sword. On one hand, we have to admit how dark and murky our faculties are, and at the same time, we know that it’s possible for us to live life in some pure and direct way. Each one of us has this work to do to make that shift, not only for our happiness, but for everyone else’s.
I don’t think we’re trying to have every thought be pure and every moment pristine. That’s not the point, because we have these minds that produce confusion. The point is to know the difference between the two: to know distortion as distortion and to know clarity as clarity, and not to let our self be pushed around by our distortions. In sitting, we are not trying to have a certain kind of mind. We are trying to be present, letting what comes come, and then letting it go.
When you sit and listen, sitting in the present moment with a kind of feeling of openness, allowing things to come and go, there really isn’t that much difference between a thought that arises in your mind and the sound of a bird. It’s because you take the thought personally that it seems different. But both are in your mind, right? Both are equally experiences that arise. But we think that the bird is over there, but the thought is inside our skulls. But that is not really true.
So in that sense, we can have a direct perception, even of our delusions. Do you understand? If we have a direct perception, even of our delusions, we don’t take them so personally and don’t bemoan the fact, Oh no, there I am again! We can experience them as the same, as the direct experience of something beautiful. The human mind, and all of its confusion, is also something beautiful. So we’re not trying to have direct perception all the time. We’re just trying to enjoy direct perception when we have it and to be less tied up in knots, to know that distortion is always coming, and when it comes, we’re not fooled by it. We can even learn to appreciate it and enjoy it.
So to summarize working with habit energies: first of all, you realize that mostly what goes on is distortion. What we’re seeing is not necessarily what’s going on; it’s what we are seeing. We find ourselves caught in complicated story lines that cause us suffering, especially when we notice that they are the same ones that keep coming back over and over again. We notice that that is a complicated story line based on fundamental distortion. We catch ourselves; we recognize the story line. We slow ourselves down a little bit. The first thing is to know our mind and to know our habits.
Then it really helps to label it. To say what it is: this is a habit of distortion and confusion; this is my old habit of getting slighted and angry when I don’t really need to. It’s a habit. And apply a label to it, so as to stop the ongoing energy of a train of thought that goes on every single time we are confronted with a particular kind of phenomenon. We are convinced that that’s just the way it is, but it’s not. So we notice what’s going on, we label it for what it is, and we try to prevent that endless habit energy from strengthening itself over and over and over again.
The next thing is we try to forebear from acting on those moments of perception with body, speech and mind. We extend our capacity to be aware of what’s going on in our mind and heart. And we need to cultivate the ability to be a little bit more present. So you say, Oh! That’s going on again. I don’t need to do that anymore. That’s my old habit of self-clinging. If you go to therapy, maybe you have all kinds of ideas why you have that habit. But even if you don’t have any idea why you have that habit, you know that you do have it. And then you can know the effects that it has had on your life. So you name it, forebear and be patient.
One of my favorite things to say is that you don’t have to convince anybody not to stick their hand in a flame and hold it there for a long time. They don’t stick their hand in the flame and leave it there, because they know they’re going to get burned. And yet we do exactly that emotionally. We keep putting our hand in fires, and we wonder why we’re unhappy. Then our strategy for overcoming that is to take gigantic logs and throw them on the fire. This is exactly what we do. This is our way of making the fire go out, by putting giant logs on it. It would be folly to think that even if we immediately stopped putting logs on fire, that it would go out. It already has a lot of fuel. But it will burn out if you don’t add more fuel to it. What I am talking about concerning working with these distortions is just simply not to make it worse; eventually it gets better. All of our habit energies burn up. The fire burns out eventually, if we stop making it worse.
So that’s wisdom: just stop making it worse. Stop adding logs to that fire. In order to do this, we have all these great lists of Buddhist virtues, because it takes a certain amount of faith to do that. You have to believe it’s possible; you have to have enough mindfulness to notice it in the moment; you have to have enough patience to realize that you are not perfect and will make mistakes. You keep going. Otherwise you’d give up immediately. It takes a while.
When the eighth consciousness is purified, it is no longer called the eighth consciousness. It no longer is a store house for seeds; it is called the Great Mirror Wisdom. In this sense, the arhat, the Buddha, doesn’t have an eighth consciousness. The Buddha has the Great Mirror Wisdom. Each thing that appears in front of him is reflected back upon itself perfectly and beautifully. This is complete enlightenment, human perfection.
As human beings, we have no choice but to aim for it and make that our goal. If we don’t, we’ll always be dissatisfied. The only thing that will really satisfy us is absolute perfection, complete enlightenment. So we really have to try to practice in that way, knowing that it will take a long time. Maybe it’s just a dream, a projection of our minds. But it’s a beautiful dream, and since it’s a projection of our minds it’s real. It’s what we most truly are, and so we make that effort.