Mind only (citta-matra)

Posted by on Nov 22, 2013 in Buddhism | 33 Comments

What if I told you you’re not reading my words right now? What if I told you you’ve never met another human being?

You’ve never smelt the fresh air, never heard good music, never enjoyed a nice cup of coffee.

What if I told you everything you’ve ever experienced was actually only a flickering mind experiencing itself?

Kind of like The Matrix, only this script was written 2000 years ago.

Early Buddhism

Early Buddhism acknowledged that there’s a process involved in perceiving things that means we can’t really know what’s ‘out there’.

Something is experienced by one of our senses and our ‘sense organ’ (eg the eye) communicates that to the mind.

Only at that point have we perceived it. But what have we perceived?

The early Buddhist take on it is that once the eye has passed on a signal to the mind, the mind has an immediate reaction. It experiences the stimulus as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

From there we get into craving (if it was pleasant), aversion (if it was unpleasant) or confusion (if it was neither).

This, for most of us, is how we live our lives. We’re so caught up in our own responses and the limitations of our own senses’ ability to register stimuli that we never directly experience anything.

We’re just some kind of weird self-watching cinema, playing out dramas we created ourselves.

We can’t do a great deal about some of this process. It’s hardwired in as a result of our karma.

The trick, as a practitioner, is to get in between the initial feeling sensation (pleasant, unpleasant or neither) and our response to that. Mindfulness is a key tool in this, but all of Buddhist practice is designed to help.

If we can do that, we break out of the cycle. If we can keep it going, no more of our karma will ripen, and basically we’re a Buddha. We’ll die with a big cheesey grin on our face, never to be reborn.

The Yogacara school

There were a bunch of early schools and they liked to debate. Plenty of time on their hands for sitting around discussing whether or not time exists and such like. Easy life!

Anyway, this kind of debate led to a development of new ideas and perspectives, as debate often does.

The Yogacara school (which came a little later but is still over 1500 years old) is an example of this, though they were big on the meditation stuff as well, and that informed their perspective.

The yogacarins said that, not only can you never really directly experience the outside world because it’s mediated by so many other stages in the process, the outside world is also mind.

Hence the ‘mind-only’ idea.

Now, when I say ‘mind’ I’m not talking about your mind. We’re not saying that you are the centre of your own universe and it’s all a dream.

What we’re saying is there is no fundamental distinction between subject and object. They’re two ends of the same spectrum, and both subject and object are empty of inherent existence.

You could say all is mind only, and there is no mind.

Sounds kind of Zen, huh.

What do you think about all this? Did the early Buddhists have too much time on their hands? Were the Mahayanists borrowing the Saivites’ chillums too regularly? Or did they have a genuinely mind-blowing and deeply insightful point?


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