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 (Talk 4 of 8)
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Welcome to our discussion of Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness, a book by Thich Nhat Hahn.
Briefly to review some of the things we already know, the eighth consciousness is sometimes defined as all the seeds. There is no separate entity that contains the seeds. “All the seeds” means absolutely everything: the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, all the elements of your own body and mind and heart and spirit.
The seeds of this consciousness are indeterminate, which is to say they are neither good nor bad. They’re just there. It’s the karmic spin that is put on those seeds by virtue of action that makes them either good or bad. They manifest as either good or bad, but in and of themselves the seeds are neither.
So what we can extrapolate from these basic facts about reality, about the eighth consciousness, is that we can be confident in the course of our practice that it’s not really a matter of our skill and talent and effort. I’m in cooperation with all this, with everything, so that practice doesn’t depend on just me. It’s not just about me. It’s about my releasing myself to this big picture. In a way you could say that the eighth consciousness is the big picture, a wider perspective in which we are all held.
We are now ready to talk about manas. If it weren’t for the emergence of manas, there’s nothing in the picture of the eighth consciousness that would account for the suffering that is so pervasive and endemic to life in this world. Manifested life seems to be somehow enmeshed with suffering. All we have to do is think about our personal lives and history for about two seconds to realize it’s not getting any better. We’re not solving the problems. So what accounts for this? That’s where the emergence of manas, or self, from the eighth consciousness makes sense.
Manas is a product of fear, defensiveness and clinging. Manas is the energy to grip, to hold onto, to possess, to seize and control. It reduces the bigness of the eighth consciousness to something manageable. The seed of manas is in alaya, like the seed of everything else.
So the development of manas out of alaya is part of the necessary development. Consciousness is in a constant process of evolution and transformation. The arising of manas, with all the suffering it brings, is an inevitable and necessary part of the process of transformation. Even though manas is the cause in all suffering, it’s not as if it’s the bad guy that we’re trying to excise and eliminate. What we’re trying to do is understand its nature and understand its place in the process of transformation. So it’s not a mistake. It’s part of development, part of the way consciousness operates and evolves.
This is the challenge we’re all given: how to be a self and to transform through the process of being who we are. This is a quotation from Vasubandhu’s Fifty Verses about manas: “It evolves supported by alaya, and has the nature and character of thinking. It’s always accompanied by four passions: self-delusion, self-view, self-conceit and self-love.“
This is very interesting, because this teaching acknowledges that there is a difference between thinking itself and the sense of a subject that thinks. In other words, thinking arises when there is a subject that thinks. So manas is a basis for thinking, but it is not precisely the same thing as the act of thinking. These things are very, very close to one another. In these teachings, there is the sense of teasing out the difference between the feeling of being a subject and the activity that goes along with that feeling of being a subject: the flow of subjective experiences, thoughts, emotions, and so on.
One of the most important things about this whole way of thinking is that in Western thought, from the very beginning, there has been a big gap between mind and matter. They are categorically different kinds of things. In this teaching, they are not categorically different. A sense of subject manifests out of alaya. Out of a sense of subject emerges the mind, and out of the mind emerges the world. So this is saying there is no world without a subject. There is no world without subjectivity. We could imagine the idea of some sort of world in which there were no subjects, that there would be stuff like rocks and trees. But this says that the existence of anything at all can’t exist without the simultaneous existence of a subject.
How does manas develop? If we could for a moment pretend there is such a thing as the eighth consciousness independent of manas, it would be whole, complete, unified, continuous. There would be no basis for separation or discrimination. There would be no “this” or “that.” There would only be “is.” There would only be an all-inclusive flow of reality without any sense of discrete parts. But within this flow, within this big picture, there are some seeds that are called the “perceiver” and some seeds that we could call the “perceived.” So in other words, within this flow, there are elements that could be called “subjects” and elements that could be called “objects” that those subjects perceive.
The eighth consciousness itself includes all that. It’s like a picture, like a total world in which none of these things are separate or opposed to each other, but a total world in which they’re all arrayed. They appear. They flash into existence, and then they flash out of existence. They again flash in and out, and each picture is like a movie frame that changes a little bit, so there is an appearance of an ongoing flow. But it’s really a flashing in and a flashing out of the total frame. So that’s the way the eighth consciousness appears in every moment.
So it’s interesting to think that as beings we are coming and going in time, co-created with everything that exists in the world. We can imagine a person that’s abstracted from the world, but actually there is no such person. There could not be a person such as you or I without this entire world that has co-created that person and continues to co-create that person on every moment. We continue to evolve and change moment by moment in concert with everything that appears with us throughout our whole lives.
So that means when you are looking at the sky, it really is true that at that moment the sky is creating you as a person and you are creating the sky, because that sky that you experience would not be what it is without the experience of your perception of it. I often give the example of this moment that I am speaking to you. I feel that we are co-creating this moment. You are creating my speaking. I am creating you, and you are creating me. This is not a metaphor. On a very real level we are creating each other’s lives as I’m speaking and you’re listening. So this is how it is on every moment.
However, manas gets a little greedy. Not quite satisfied with this picture, manas grabs hold of the seed of the perceiver, and its energy grips the perceiver so tightly that it is seemingly ripped out of the picture. Manas then makes a representation of it, a false perception out of it, that is called “me.” This experience of subjectivity is not a problem, but the reification of a “me,” an “I,” a person, ripped from this picture, is a falsehood, a delusion. It’s a non-real entity. Manas is clinging to a false perception, a deluded representation with a very strong grip. Then based on that grip, and based on the belief in this deluded entity, thinking arises, and out of thinking a whole world of separation arises.
The whole world that we live in, the world that seems to be made of separate people and other objects, is a world created by manas. Our acts of perception, the way we perceive the world and feel about the world, is embedded in the delusion that manas creates. Then we’re afraid of being diminished. We’re afraid of somehow losing our body, losing our mind. We have longing for completion. And yet we’re already complete; it’s impossible to be incomplete. But these longings and fears create habit energies, until the grip of manas becomes quite strong. The sense of separation from the world becomes quite convincing.
So the seeds, which initially are indeterminate, not a problem in and of themselves, become seeds of suffering by virtue of the habit energies. These energies then harden into what the texts call fetters, chains. The habit energies harden into chains. So we become beings living under compulsion, basically without freedom. We become the victims of manas and our own perceptions. Then we want to say: Where did this come from? How come this is there in the beginning? Buddhists simply say, The energy of this manas has existed from beginning-less time, from beginning-less karma.
So again, to repeat, this is about the evolution, the transformation of consciousness. Our job here, and this is the revelation in this teaching, which I think is so useful for us, as Westerners, is that the Self has built into it a very deep, long-standing delusion that can be transformed. It has to be transformed, not eliminated, but transformed. That’s our job.
So in the end, what this really means is a transformation and an evolution toward a truly loving heart. Not a loving heart that is sentimental—like, I am over here and you, darling person, are over there, and I really love you, because you are so nice. Rather there’s an absolute identification and non-distinction between the subject and the world. Therefore, life is love. It’s a much more profound sense of identity and unity and affection.
Now getting really practical here, there are two levels to the way that we work on this process. One is on a very practical mundane daily level, and the other one is the continuous effort that we make through our meditation practice to see this reality for ourselves. So on one level, we have these chains, really strong habits. We have habit energies that reify and strengthen our habit of separation and alienation and fear. Our first job is to try to see these things when they arise, understand them for what they are, understand this whole picture that we are talking about and try to practice letting go. For example: Oh, this is not about her. This is my fear! This is not about this or that. This is my loneliness!
So we begin to see that and begin to loosen up around those things in our daily living. It’s gradual; it’s a long haul. But we have to go through this. We do that every day, all the time working on our habit energies.
The second level that we work on this is on our cushions. Through our contemplation and study, we really try to understand and train our way of thinking and our way of apprehending and feeling the world. We all have an understanding of the world that is just wrong. And this misunderstanding reinforces all of our worst habits. So we work on this in our practice, in our studies, listening to dharma talks. We especially do this on our own cushions through short sittings, long sittings, daily sittings. We work on letting the view that we and the world are not separate become part of our experience, part of our very body and mind.
So in our work in the dharma, in our daily life practice, on our cushions, we’re removing the coverings from manas. We allow the experience of subjectivity to be more and more inclusive with others and with the world. The nature of that inclusion is a relaxation, a loosening, a letting go of the grip of manas that sees the perceiver as a separate abiding entity. With that relaxation, the subject can take his or her true place in this picture and enter into a constant dialogue and sharing with all that is. So manas is not the enemy; ego is not the enemy. Ego does not need to be eliminated. Ego is the path. Self is the path.