The True Mind


Translated by Andrew Yang

The Dharma is infinitely profound. A novice practitioner, faced with an immense body of the Tripitaka written sometimes in abstruse language, finds it challenging to grasp the key principles of Buddhism. Mention one term, the “true mind”, and you find countless synonyms in the scriptures.

Parinirvana Sutra names it “Buddha nature”, Surangama Sutra simply calls it “true mind”, the Prajna series of sutras calls it “Bodhi”, Avatamsaka Sutra calls it  “Dharmadhatu” or “Dharma realm”, the Diamond Sutra calls it “reality”, the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment calls it “dharani”, the Pure Name Sutra (a version of Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra translated by Xuanzang) calls it “Dharma body”, the Golden Light Sutra calls it “tattva” or “thatness”, Srimaladevi Siṃhanada Sutra calls it “Tathagatagarbha”, and the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana calls it “Tathata”. Whichever term is used, they are all interpretations given under specific circumstances, as Master Yongming Yanshou (904-975) emphasizes in Mind Only Rhymes, “One Dharma may have a thousand names, all used with particular karma…… If one awakens to a single Dharma, he is perfectly awakened to ten thousand Dharmas”. Although these terms are different, what the various scriptures try to convey is nothing but the way of the mind.

What is the way of the mind? Master Yongjia Xuanjue (665-712) of the Tang dynasty (618-907) in his Song of Enlightenment says it well, “The mind is the root, and the Dharmas the dust, like marks of dirt on a mirror. Light does not shine through until the dirt is gone. Likewise, once both mind and Dharmas are forgotten, what is left is true nature.” If one contemplate on these lines, trying to fathom the way of the mind, the root, dust and consciousness and the interrelation between reality and illusion, and  practise meditation and introspection, they will certainly advance in their cultivation.

“The mind is the root, and the Dharmas the dust” means that illusion and mental attachment are both produced by the sensory organs including the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and the mind. The eye is  sight, the ear is hearing, the nose is smell, the tongue is taste, the body is the ability to touch, and the mind the ability to think. These six roots in a human body constantly generate infinite afflictions by clinging to things around them.

The six types of “dust” are collectively called Dharmas, are part of an external circumstance, corresponding to the six types of physical sensation, i.e., colour, sound, fragrance, taste, feel and things perceived by the mind.  Colour is light in different shades emitted from substances and received by the eye. Sound is speech and vibration caught by the ear. Fragrance is the scent of things received by the nose. Taste is the sensation of flavour acquired by the tongue. Feel is the sense of touch received through physical contact. And lastly, dharmas are every thing and phenomenon that is contemplated by the mind.

In Buddhism, when any of the six roots, i.e., sensory organs, interacts with any of the six types of dust, i.e., physical sensation, one of the six types of consciousness arises. Together, these eighteen elements are known as the eighteen fields. Of them, Volume 71 of Abhidharma Mahavibhasa Sastra says, “The eighteen fields cover all Dharmas”. Consciousness means recognition and distinction. For instance, through looking at the body of the opposite sex, the eye gives rise to the eye consciousness of desire, and then a thought of lust. Hearing something coarse or obscene, the ear gives rise to a consciousness of bad language, which could result in anger. Smelling something fragrant, the nose gives rise to a conscious to recognize a flower and then a feeling of fondness. Tasting a delicacy, the tongue gives rise to consciousness of fine taste and then forms a desire to eat. Touching a piece silk, the body gives rise to a consciousness of smoothness, and triggers a thought to steal. When the mind is tinted by the illusory material enjoyment and gives rise to a consciousness of fame and fortune, and then attachment for those is created.

In this way, a confused mind comes from any of the interactions between the six roots and six types of dust. Like the roots and dust, then, the mind and the ideas it forms are also dust on a mirror that gets in the way of mirroring an image. Hence, these words from the Song of Enlightenment by Master Yongjia Xuanjue, “The mind is the root, and the Dharmas the dust, like marks of dirt on a mirror”.

If one is in illusion, his mind conceives thoughts of greed, anger and delusion, leading to depraved behaviour such as killing, theft, sexual misconduct, lying, swearing, flattery and slander. Consequently, he suffer retribution of the bad karma and stay in perpetual transmigration.

“Light does not shine through until the dirt is gone”, meaning that once the traces of dust from these eighteen fields are all cleared from one’s mind, it is as if the mirror is able to restore its original brilliance. Only then, “once both mind and Dharmas are forgotten, what is left is true nature.” That is, as both the mind and all external circumstance are completely obliterated, the true mind is able to fully manifest itself.

But how could one wipe out his illusion to let the true mind manifest itself? Zen Buddhists employ an “no mind” approach.

Straight Talk about the True Mind written by the Zen master Zhina (1158-1210) lists ten methods in the “no mind” approach. Below are five of them summarized for your reference, as they are easier to practise. It is more appropriate for the starter to practise them in sitting meditation. When they are familiar with the method, they could practise them while walking, standing, reclining or sitting.

First, being alert. The practitioner is always wary of his own thoughts, and once an illusory thought is mounted, he destroys it by being alert. In the meantime, he does not cling to the wisdom of this alertness, thus feeling neither illusion nor alertness. As ancient sages say, “Be not afraid of a thought arising. Be afraid only that one is aware too late. Pursue not the truth, for one needs no more than being alert.”

Second, being restful. When illusion rises, try not to judge but immediately let it rest. Like a flowing stream and moving clouds, let there be no break before you put it to rest. “White clouds move by but the mountain stays put,” say wise men.

Third, eliminating the mind but letting the circumstance be. Let no illusion occur but be alert whatever the circumstance.  This is called “removing the mind but not circumstance” by Master Yixuan (?-866), founder of the Linji School of Chan Buddhism.  That is, erasing subjectivity while letting the non-subjective be, to break all attachment to self and others. As the sages say, “Do not be concerned about ten thousand things, in spite of the ten thousand of things constantly surrounding you.”

Fourth, eliminating the circumstance but letting the mind be. Contemplate all internal and external circumstances as a silent void. That is, contemplate all Dharmas as emptiness, leaving nothing but a contemplative mind. This is what the Linji school calls “removing the circumstance but not the mind” by capturing nothing but subjectivity, as the world manifests itself in the mind, a mind that contemplates all as empty without contemplating its existence. In this respect sages say, “Do not keep company with any Dharma nor any type of dirt. Were the mind still with the circumstance, it should be illusory. But since there is no circumstance now, then there is no illusion.”

Fifth, eliminating both mind and circumstance. This is done by first contemplating all as emptiness, and then abandoning a contemplative mind. Once mind and circumstance, on both inside and outside, are cleared, no illusion occurs. This is a method of removing both mind and circumstance, decimating both subjectivity and the non-subjective and exterminating all attachment, either to self or to Dharmas. Here, sages also say, “As water flows while clouds scatter, empty and clear are heaven and earth”.

Buddha preaches the Dharma in order to help sentient beings root out their illusion in achieving the truth. The true mind is not attainable by deliberate hunting. In fact, as soon as a confused mind is put to rest, the true mind naturally sets in to manifest itself. In saying that once both mind and Dharmas are forgotten, what is left is true nature, Master Yongjia, in a simple way, sums up the essence of an important approach to expunging illusion for the truth in a few words, “once both mind and Dharmas are forgotten, what is left is true nature”. Indeed, this should be a motto for all Buddhists.



Leave a Reply