Everyday Consciousness and Buddha-Awakening
by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
The Six Collections of Consciousness
Let’s first look at ourselves. Within the realms of sentient beings, we have taken on a human body. A human being consists of body, speech, and mind; these are called the three gates. As for the gate of speech, it is nothing other than the sounds with which we can express ourselves and which can be heard by others. Much more important is our body and our mind. Depending on the circumstances, it is sometimes our body that is the center of our concern, but at other times it is also our mind. Body and mind are closely connected, so that we consider them practically the same, as if they had the same essence. But if we analyze more closely we find that our body is matter composed of atoms and our mind is something that is clear and cognizing. As for the body, there have to be many different components to make up the flesh, the blood, the bones, the intestines, and so forth, so that the whole body is formed. The mind, however, has completely different characteristics. It is not matter, nor is it composed of atoms. Mind is defined as clear and cognizing. It is the mind that knows and understands things. That’s how, through detailed analysis, we can come to understand that body and mind are completely different in terms of their essence.
Though body and mind differ from the point of view of their essence, nevertheless we can’t separate them. This is due to the fact that for as long as we live the body is dependent on our mind and, vice versa, the mind is bound to our body. That’s why we see them as a unit. However, we should absolutely be able to distinguish between these two. Therefore, we shall analyze mind separately here.
Mind is described as the eight collections of consciousness. Of course, mind in its essence is just one, but it can be divided by means of eight different aspects of consciousness, each of which has its distinct characteristics.
As long as sentient beings dwell within conditioned existence, known as the impure phase, mind expresses itself in the form of the eight collections of consciousness. As a result of dharma practice and meditative concentration (Skt. samadhi), the eight kinds of consciousness will be purified. At that point they will transform and thus reveal themselves to be the five kinds of primordial awareness. In order to understand the essence of these five kinds of awareness, we first have to look at the eight collections of consciousness.
Understanding how consciousness transforms itself into primordial awareness also helps us to understand the way the paths to Buddhahood are traversed and which kinds of result can be attained by each path. Furthermore, it contains a temporary benefit for our meditation practice, which is to know how meditation functions. This is valid for meditation on the body of a deity as well as for other kinds of meditative concentration, such as calm abiding or deep insight. For those times when we just let our mind rest within itself, it is very beneficial to know about the characteristics and divisions of the eight kinds of consciousness.
For the meditation on the nature of your own mind it is customary to ask your teacher for pointing-out instructions. Some practitioners are lucky enough to recognize their true nature of mind straight away, whereas others merely perceive a sensation of it, a certain experience of the true nature of mind. But if they don’t know exactly how mind and the consciousnesses function, their experience will dissolve after a few days. The understanding of mind and the eight kinds of consciousness is obtained through the highest understanding (Skt. prajña) of listening and reflecting. When we really meditate on this basis and glimpse the true nature of mind, we will be able to steadily increase our experience of it through all subsequent meditation. That’s why it is extremely useful to know about the eight kinds of consciousness.
A beginner who visualizes the body of a deity and does not know the distinctive characteristics of the different aspects of consciousness would think that the deity must be seen as clearly during the mental meditation as if seen directly with the eyes. The eyes, however, have a much coarser way of perceiving concrete forms. Beginners do indeed meditate in the hope of attaining such clarity. Nevertheless, it will not arise, because the meditation on a deity does not happen through the medium of the eye consciousness, but through the medium of the mind consciousness. The objects of the mind consciousness are much less clear. The mind consciousness most definitely does not work like the eye consciousness. That’s why some meditators who perceive a vague mental image think they are not capable of meditating correctly on a deity. The result is that they develop an aversion for their meditation. Those, however, who understand that each consciousness perceives in a different way know that mental images aren’t as clear as the forms perceived with the eyes, and therefore they are content with their meditation. They know how to meditate, do indeed so meditate, and thus their meditation works well.
The Five Sense Consciousnesses
The consciousnesses are divided into two categories: “stable consciousnesses” and “unstable consciousnesses.” An unstable consciousness arises and vanishes straight away. After that, a new unstable consciousness arises which also vanishes straight away. A stable consciousness, however, lasts all the time. No matter what you are doing, it will not vanish. Nevertheless, it is much easier to recognize an unstable consciousness.
Six kinds of consciousnesses are categorized as unstable consciousnesses. These are the five sense consciousnesses and the mind consciousness. Again these can be divided into “thought-free” consciousnesses and one consciousness “involving thoughts.” All of the sense consciousnesses are thought-free, because they merely perceive their specific object without any kind of conceptual associations happening. The mere sense consciousnesses do not make up thoughts such as “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” At the moment of perception there is also no sensation of desire or anger. The mind consciousness, however, takes its form in connection with thoughts of attachment and aversion, thinking “That’s good,” “That’s bad,” “What’s that?” “I need this,” or “I don’t want that.” Therefore, it is called a consciousness involving thoughts.
In Tibetan the five sense consciousnesses are called the consciousnesses of the five gates. “Gate” is used here as an example. As with a house—if you want to go outside, you need a door to do so—so it is with each sense consciousness. It leaves through the gate of the eye to be able to perceive outer form, or through the gate of the ear to be able to perceive outer sound. In the same way the different inner consciousnesses leave through the gate of the body to clearly perceive an outer object. That’s why these consciousnesses are called the consciousnesses of the five gates.
Each of the five kinds of thought-free sense consciousness arises based on a specific sense faculty. First of all, the consciousness that is based on the eye faculty: It perceives visible form as its specific object of perception; that is, anything that arises as outer form. This consciousness is called the “eye consciousness” and its defining characteristic is “to see form.” Other than form, there is no sense object that it can perceive. It does not hear sounds, nor does it smell odors, recognize tastes, or sense any physical sensations. Generally this is so with any consciousness: it perceives just its own specific sense object. Thus it is the specific function of the eye consciousness to perceive outer form, and to do so it relies on the inner sense faculty of the eyes. This so-called eye faculty is an extremely subtle faculty within the eyes. As the eyeball is the basis for the eye faculty, it is thus called the “faculty basis.” The Buddha and all the siddhas who are endowed with extrasensory perception and who are able to work miracles described the eye faculty thus: the faculty that gives rise to the eye consciousness looks like a flax flower, blue and extremely small and subtle. However, it is no coarse form consisting of atoms, but a “clear form,” a manifestation of light. When a person dies, or when the sense organs are damaged and cease to function, the clear form of the sense faculty dissolves. It won’t remain. In a living person, however, it is present as a manifestation within the sense organ. Within the eyes, the eye faculty takes on the form of a flax flower.
The second of the five sense consciousnesses is the ear consciousness. It arises based on the sense faculty of the ears. It cannot view forms, nor can it perceive the other sense objects except for sound, since its specific object of perception is sound. But it can perceive sound of any quality, whether it is loud or low, pleasant or unpleasant. In general, the ear consciousness arises in our ears. Again, however, it is not the ears themselves, but the ear faculty that is within them that gives rise to the consciousness. It is described in the following way: the ear faculty is like the knotty protuberances in the bark of birch trees. Its clear form is also a manifestation of light. Though it is said to be a form, it is not a coarse but an extremely subtle form. When it is damaged, it dissolves without leaving a findable residue. Yet the ear consciousness can only perceive sound on the basis of this subtle light manifestation of the ear faculty.
The third consciousness, the nose consciousness, functions in the same way. It just perceives smells as its specific object, good smells, bad smells, natural smells and also manufactured smells. The perception of smells is based on the nose faculty, the subtle manifestation of light that resembles two parallel, extremely fine copper needles. In the sutras the Buddha describes them as copper-colored. Based on this nose faculty, the nose consciousness arises, and smells can be perceived.
The fourth consciousness is the tongue consciousness. It perceives only tastes as its specific object, and it is based on the tongue faculty. This faculty is described by the Buddha in the sutras and also by the siddhas who possess extrasensory perception: the sense faculty that gives rise to the tongue consciousness resembles the half-moon. It is found on the tongue as its faculty basis. This light manifestation gives rise to the tongue consciousness so that tastes such as sweet, sour, and so forth can be perceived as the specific sense objects.
The fifth consciousness is the body consciousness. It perceives everything physically tangible as its specific object, such as what is soft, hard, or rough. The body consciousness also arises based on an inner sense faculty, namely the body faculty. The sense faculties of the first four consciousnesses are specific faculties that are found in a special location within the body. They body faculty, however, is not specially bound to one location, but instead spread over the whole body from head to toe, except for the hair and nails. It also permeates the body from the outer skin to the inner organs, including the skeleton. That’s why everything tangible can be perceived both outwardly at the body surface and inwardly within the interior of the body itself. The body faculty is said to be like the covering skin of the bird “Soft to Touch,” and it takes shape and color according to the part of the body that it covers. At the skin it is skin-colored, and at the bones it is bone-colored. Here, also, the faculty is just a clear manifestation of light.
Without closer examination it seems to us as if we see something with our eyes. Since the eyeballs are the basis for the eye faculty, we consequently think that it is the faculty basis that would perceive form. However, the eye is of material form, a form made of atoms which cannot see in the least. Nevertheless, it is the abode of the eye faculty. Thus the question arises whether it is the eye faculty that perceives the outer forms. The sense faculty, however, cannot see, because it is a material form as well, though only a very subtle material form which gives rise to a consciousness that in its essence is clear and cognizing. It is a knowing with a clear and cognizing appearance. So it is not the eye itself that sees the form, but the eye consciousness. In the same way it is not the ear that hears the sound, but the ear consciousness, because the consciousness has a clear and cognizing appearance. The same is valid for all of the five senses. If we think the sense faculties of the body perceive the sense objects, that’s not true. They nevertheless constitute the basis for a consciousness to arise, and due to the arising of the consciousness the sense object is perceived. Thus perception can only function if three factors come together: an object, the corresponding sense faculty, and the corresponding consciousness. If, for instance, the object is a form with shape and color, and if it meets with the eye faculty, an eye consciousness can arise so that this form is perceived.
The Mind Consciousness
The five sense consciousnesses are the thought-free consciousnesses. They directly perceive the object and cannot create thoughts. The consciousness involving thoughts is the mind consciousness. It is the thinker who entertains all the different thoughts. The mind consciousness does not have a specific gate through which to leave as the sense consciousnesses of the five gates do, because there is no definite location with which it can be associated. The scholars and siddhas of Buddhist philosophy call it “the sixth, the mind consciousness,” because when they expound on the consciousnesses they generally present the five sense consciousnesses first and then, as the sixth, the mind consciousness. Thus when they talk of the sixth consciousness as such, the “six” has no other meaning than a merely numerical one.
Usually we create many thoughts such as “I am fine” or “I am miserable.” In this way as well, positive thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion arise, as also do negative thoughts such as those of anger or desire. When we are extremely happy, of course it is a case of having happy thoughts, and when we are sad, unhappy thoughts arise. All this kind of thinking is called the mind consciousness.
The mind consciousness has different defining characteristics than the above-described five kinds of sense consciousness, each of which is based on a clear form, a sense faculty. That raises the question, upon which basis does the mind consciousness arise? It arises immediately after a sense consciousness. Thus a preceding eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body consciousness serves as its basis. In the case that there is no arising of any of the five sense consciousnesses, the mind consciousness can also arise after the preceding moment of a mind consciousness. In that way one mind consciousness arises immediately after the other, and its “sense” faculty is not a clear form, but consciousness. Thus mind consciousness is based on any preceding moment of consciousness, no matter which kind of the six collections of consciousness it is.
What kind of object does the mind consciousness perceive? The Buddhist scholars call the specific object of perception of the mind consciousness “phenomena,” Within the sphere of phenomena each kind of sense object can appear as an object of the mind consciousness; thus any form, sound, smell, taste, and physically tangible object can also appear as an object of the mind consciousness, not only all the outer but also all the inner objects. These objects can all appear, but they do not appear directly. The mind consciousness creates an image of the perceived objects, which means the external visual form is not seen by the mind consciousness, but instead a mental image similar to that perceived by the eye consciousness appears to the perspective of the mind consciousness. Or, an appearance similar to the sound that is perceived by the ear consciousness appears to the perspective of the mind consciousness. In the same way, there appear mental images similar to the smells, tastes, or physically tangible objects that are perceived by the remaining sense consciousnesses. This is why the mind consciousness apprehends all of the outer objects, but cannot perceive them clearly.
The mind consciousness does not recognize clearly, does not see clearly, nor does it perceive the sense objects clearly. Nevertheless, it is endowed with extraordinary qualities that are not shared with the sense consciousnesses. Its special qualities are the many different thoughts that appear within it. In this way, among all the six collections of consciousnesses, the mind consciousness has the busiest job! The five sense consciousnesses merely perceive. The mind consciousness, however, judges this mere perception immediately afterwards with thoughts such as “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” For this reason the mind consciousness is especially important for us as human beings.
For as long as we circle within samsara, the mind consciousness plays the most important part in this. It is also extremely important in terms of our dharma practice. When for example, we visualize a deity, from whose perspective do we meditate? It is not the eye consciousness that meditates on the form, because the five sense consciousnesses cannot meditate. It is the mind consciousness that meditates, in so much as it brings the form to consciousness. When we know this, we understand why it is that during the meditation on a deity the visualization does not appear so clearly. Mind does not take an object directly; instead, it perceives its own self-created mental images of the apprehended objects. Thus, whether your visualization is clear or not depends on the stability of your mind.
Some meditators think that they have to visualize as clearly as when the eye perceives something. However, the object will not be so clear, since it is not the eye that meditates. The eye consciousness is thought-free. It is not in the least able to meditate on a deity. It merely perceives what is in its sight, but it cannot “visualize” as such. It is the mind consciousness that visualizes the deity. While the mind consciousness is meditating there is no real external object, as is the case when the eye perceives forms. Nevertheless, there is a kind of image of the object that appears to the mind consciousness. This image is created by the mind itself. As soon as the mind wavers, the object that it has created will change as well and at once be unstable. That’s why we cannot visualize clearly while the mind is unstable. When the mind becomes more stable it is able to keep the self-created appearances longer. When the mind creates the appearance of a deity freshly and is not stable while doing so, this appearance will almost immediately vanish as soon as it arises. If the mind is a bit more stable, however, this reflection will remain for much longer. Whether the visualization of the deity in our meditation is clear or not depends solely on the stability of our mind. And this is exactly what we are training in when we meditate on a deity.
In the meditation on calm abiding also, it is not the five sense consciousnesses that meditate, but the mind consciousness. Some practitioners believe that when they constantly see objects with their eyes while meditating on calm abiding, their meditation is impaired, or that when they perceive sounds with their ears, their meditation will not be that beneficial. However, the five sense consciousnesses are not in the least able to create anything; therefore they cannot distract our mind either. The eyes indeed see forms, but it doesn’t matter. Likewise the ears hear sounds, and the nose perceives smells, yet this does not disturb the meditation in the least, because the sense perception does not involve any thoughts. It is only a matter of mere appearances. This is the reason why we do not have to stop them. We would not even be able to stop them, calm abiding: when the mind relaxes, senseless thinking will effortlessly diminish.
All of the six consciousnesses apprehend objects; therefore they are also called the “six apprehending consciousnesses.” The five sense consciousnesses apprehend their respective objects directly, whereas the mind consciousness apprehends these indirectly and allows thoughts to arise. Thus the most important consciousness by far is the mind consciousness. It acts as the root for all attachment and aversion, all happiness and suffering. Thus it is as important for our daily life as it is for our meditation. For it is only the mind consciousness that can meditate. In the context of the three activities of Buddhist practice—namely listening, reflecting, and meditation—the mind consciousness plays the largest part. “Listening” happens immediately after the arising of an ear consciousness which itself merely perceives the sounds of the words but which cannot itself connect the sounds to any meaning. “Reflecting” about the meaning of the words is undertaken solely by the mind consciousness, which is also responsible for “meditating,”
Thus the six collections of consciousness constitute two different categories of consciousness, each with different defining characteristics. There are the five sense consciousnesses that clearly perceive and have direct contact with the object. And then there is the mind consciousness that merely perceives its own self-created images of these objects, and therefore these objects appear as vague, wavering, or unclear.
Another difference between the five sense consciousnesses and the mind consciousness concerns time. The sense consciousnesses can only perceive in the very present moment, whereas the mind consciousness can think about the past, the present, and the future. Buddhist scholars use the following simile: “The five sense consciousnesses are like a mute with good eyes.” They perceive clearly, but are not able to express themselves or to ‘talk’ about what something actually looks like nor what indeed it is that they perceive. The quote continues: “The thoughts are like blind persons who are gifted speakers.” This refers to the mind consciousness which, although it only perceives the objects in a vague and unclear way, “talks” a lot about them, commenting with its many thoughts on the vaguely perceived objects like a well-gifted speaker.
The Stable Consciousness
The five sense consciousnesses and the mind consciousness are not stable, because sometimes they arise and then they vanish, only to freshly arise again and again. As soon as we open our eyes the eye consciousness arises, but when we close our eyes it is not possible for the eye consciousness to arise. When we open our eyes again, it will arise again. When—in stormy weather, for example—we hear the sound of thunder, it means that an ear consciousness has arisen. As soon as the sound fades away, the corresponding ear consciousness vanishes. With the next sound of thunder another ear consciousness would arise afresh.
The stable consciousnesses, however, work differently. They are uninterruptedly present and function continuously while we are walking or sitting, whether we are distracted or concentrated, while we sleep or we work, and even during a fainting fit or being anesthetized. Whenever it may be, the clear essence of mind, the essence that retains memories clearly, never dissolves. That’s why these kinds of consciousness are called the stable consciousnesses.
The two kinds of stable consciousness include the klesha-mind (literally, the mind endowed with afflictions) and the all-base consciousness.
The Klesha Mind
Though the klesha-mind is characterized as the “mind endowed with afflictions,” it does not include all of the mental afflictions. Desirous attachment, anger, dullness, or similar afflictions are not referred to here, but only those that are included in the category of “holding on to a self.” These can be divided into two kinds: holding on to the self of the person and holding on to the self of phenomena.
The first of these appears in the form of the thought “I”: this is exactly what the klesha-mind is. When occasionally the conception of an “I” is very gross, this is not a function of the klesha-mind, but has instead to do with the sixth consciousness, the mind consciousness. The thoughts of the klesha-mind are not very clear to us. They consist of us continuously thinking of holding onto an “I”. It is a case of the most utterly subtle conception of an “I”, comparable to someone who continuously thinks “I” without ever for an instant forgetting it. These rigid and inflexible thoughts of self-cherishing arise involuntarily.
Since the klesha-mind’s subtle conception of an ‘I’ is never interrupted—no matter what we are doing—it is, as is the case with the all-base consciousness, classified as a stable consciousness. The klesha-mind’s continuous and uninterrupted thinking of an “I” is always accompanied by subtle mental events. It is not only the mere conception of an “I” that is just thinking “I”; in addition there is the unnoticed thought “I am important,” which is the “attachment to the I.” Simultaneously the conception of an “I” admits of ignorance and haziness, because the “I” is not realized as being false. Furthermore, the klesha-mind is suffused by a subtle pride that generally expresses itself in the thought “I am better than others.” These four mental events—the conception of an “I”, the attachment to the “I”, ignorance, and pride—continuously accompany the klesha-mind; this is why it is called “the mind endowed with afflictions.” It serves as the basis for the mind consciousness to build up the coarse grasping at a self, the force of which increases more and more.
Usually, mind is divided into the principal mind and mental events. Generally speaking, the eight collections of consciousness belong to the principal mind, which means the klesha-mind does as well. It is, however, continuously accompanied by the above-mentioned mental events. In this context the “subtle conception of an I” is also designated as the “view of the conception of an I.” It is called “view” in order to indicate that it includes a slight aspect of clarity.
The afflictions of desirous attachment, anger, and dullness are compounded of negative thoughts. The affliction grasping at a self, however, is not a negative thought, but instead a neutral one. It is the continuous attachment of thinking “That’s me,” and that thought is neither positive nor negative. It is not a question of negativity nor of virtue; nevertheless, grasping at a self can bring about the states of negativity or virtue. It is the cause for all positive and negative actions. In its own essence, however, grasping at a self is neutral.
In this context we can differentiate two kinds of neutrality. In any case, “neutral” means neither positive nor negative. However, something can indeed be neutral but still obscure the level of liberation, in which case it is called both “obscuring and neutral.” The klesha-mind, that is, our grasping at a self, is generally considered neutral. Nevertheless, it is a hindrance to attaining liberation. Though its essence is not negative, it does, however, obscure the ultimate fruition; hence it is “obscuring and neutral.” “Non-obscuring and neutral” is used to describe anything that is neutral and does not cause any obscurations to liberation as, for example, walking back and forth, sitting or any other kind of ordinary behavior of this type.
In our present situation, that of being an ordinary person, the klesha-mind, as a stable consciousness, is permanently present, no matter what we are doing, whether we are sleeping or awake. Besides, there will come a point in time when it will be abandoned.
Let’s first look at the noble ones (Skt. arya) of the first bodhisattva level. The moment they see the truth of dharmata directly, the klesha-mind is not present because what they are realizing is the nonexistence of a self.They’ve got a vastly clear appearance of the nonexistence of a self. At this moment the klesha-mind stops functioning. However, through the power of their karmic imprints the klesha-mind appears again when they don’t meditate. This is why their klesha-mind is still present during their post-meditational phase. From the point of view of the path of the hearers (Skt. shravaka) during the attainment of arhatship the nonexistence of a self of the person is totally realized, both within meditation as well as outside, during post-meditation. Thus, when a hearer achieves arhatship the klesha-mind is totally abandoned. From the point of view of the great vehicle (Skt. mahayana), the klesha-mind is totally abandoned on the eighth bodhisattva level. At this point it totally transforms, and above the eighth level it no longer exists as such.
It is very important to understand the actual way of being of the klesha-mind. Since its essence is neutral, this is precisely why, in spite of grasping at a self, it is possible to temporarily accumulate what is called “defiled virtue.” From the ultimate point of view, however, the klesha-mind has to be abandoned, because grasping at a self is the root of all mental afflictions—all of which, in turn, must obviously be abandoned. Abandoning the afflictions coincides with the abandonment of grasping at a self.
The All-Base Consciousness
The last of the eight collections of consciousness is the all-base consciousness. It is the second of the stable consciousnesses. The all-base consciousness is the general basis for the whole mind, and thus for all of the consciousnesses. Though each of the particular consciousnesses has its own specific functions and defining characteristics, you can, from the absolute point of view, only talk of the mind as a singularity. The mind is one; its essence is one. It has its specific defining characteristics and functions, but only a single expression which is clear and cognizing. When the eyes see an object and the mind immediately apprehends that object without having to check or confirm it through any other process, or, when the mind consciousness understand the ear consciousness immediately, a connection of mutuality is indicated. Though the mind is divided into particular categories, the connection comes about due to the single nature of the all-base consciousness. Being the basis for all aspects of the mind, it is designated as the eighth consciousness.
The all-base consciousness expresses itself in two different ways. Firstly, it is the “all-base that seizes karmic imprints.” That means all karmic imprints, such as the perceptions of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or those of the body, as well as all mental activities including those of a studious nature, are grasped by the all-base so that they will not be forgotten. In this way memories are made: something is seized and not thereafter forgotten. None of the consciousnesses of the six collections can seize their imprints. These consciousnesses dissolve as soon as they arise. However, the corresponding karmic imprints are stored within the all-base. They are collected there, and thus not forgotten. If we learn something today the corresponding information is stored in the form of karmic imprints within the all-base, and this is why it is possible to remember it tomorrow or at a later date. In this respect—that of the functions of seizing, storing, and not thereafter forgetting—the all-base consciousness is called the “all-base that seizes karmic imprints.”
The second aspect of the all-base consciousness is called the “all-base of complete ripening.” This designates the possibility of allowing the karmic imprints that were once stored in the mind to reappear again. The future reappearance of the karmic imprints is the function of the all-base of complete ripening. Generally, as is the case for perception, it seems as if the sense organs and their corresponding faculties were located inside the body and the perceived objects outside. We take it for granted that, for example, the eye and the eye faculty are inside and the perceived form, the eye object, outside. While we are engaged in the act of seeing, the eye seems to look at the object, a form that is present outside. We therefore think that forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects are externally present and that their corresponding consciousnesses are internal. From the Buddhist point of view this is certainly not the case. In our view the eye consciousness merely perceives a mental image of the form to be perceived. This form is not really external, but merely mental. The same is the case for all other sense objects; the mind itself appears in their form. Other than that they don’t exist externally at all. If we ask ourselves how the objects appear, we can say that it is the all-base consciousness itself that appears in the form of these objects, which are then perceived through the perspective of the sense consciousnesses. This is why this aspect is called the “all-base of complete ripening.”
When we teach that all appearances are just appearances of the mind, it often happens that beginners cannot put their trust in that. This is because our karmic imprints have been stored since beginningless time, one of which is the assumption that the sense objects are external and the mind internal. With precisely this imprint we have a difficult time understanding that the objects appear as an image of the mind. In order to clarify this point through careful analysis, we can take dreaming as an example. In the context of a dream mountains, houses, horses, elephants, and so forth appear to us, and we take it for granted that these appearances are actually present externally. We think that the mountain is actually there. The same is valid for the house in a dream: we think it is really present. In reality, however, there does not exist the slightest trace of any house or mountain. They are not actually there, but still they appear as if they were.
So where is it that they appear? They appear in the essence of the mind. Since every one of us has our individual experiences in dreams, it is easy for us to understand that the dream objects merely appear within the mind. As with the dream objects, in this example, the same applies to the whole of reality while we are not dreaming. We assume the appearances of objects in ordinary life, when we are not dreaming, are indubitably there. However, they are not truly present externally. They appear on the basis of the inner mind, in the same way as appearances in a dream. The karmic imprints once stored in the all-base reawake, emerge, and appear to us.
The all-base consciousness works like a savings bank. Continuously money is paid into the bank and continuously it is taken out again. In the same way karmic imprints are absorbed by the all-base, are stored there, and can therefore be brought forth again. Learning, for example, occurs through the mind consciousness. The mind consciousness itself vanishes. Nevertheless, on the next day we have a memory of what we learned. At this time of remembrance, the mind consciousness of what we learned is no longer actually present, since it has ceased to exist. Yet, still we did not forget what we learned previously. What we learned was seized by the all-base in the form of karmic imprints, and stored. Due to the “all-base of complete ripening” these imprints can be re-awakened, so that the mind consciousness perceives them afresh. This is why we learn things. It is similar with strong mental afflictions. When one day we have a fight, it can happen that the anger is still raging the day after. This is because the karmic imprints of the anger were stored in the all-base and are raised to consciousness again the next day. Thus all karmic actions cause a future result on the basis of the all-base consciousness’s capacity to store and to bring forth.
The example of the savings bank is particularly effective, especially in the context of karmic actions. Whoever puts money into the bank can get it out again later, often including interest! In the case of karma, we can see that even from a small karmic action it is possible to reap a heavy consequence. Though the cause may be small, the result is often large, or heavier.
Once the imprints of our actions are stored in the all-base, it is sometimes possible that a long period of time elapses before the result shows itself. Sometimes, however, only a little time is needed. The result can ripen in two ways: as the “result in accordance with the cause” and as the “completely ripened result.” As for the “result in accordance with the cause,” the causal action is similar to the later experienced result. If, for example, we are angry, a greater anger may later be the result. Or, should a person develop compassion, this compassion can increase more and more. This is due to the power of the karmic imprints. As for the “completely ripened result of our actions,” it is a reply to the causal action. If we are nasty to another person, as a reply, later, we will experience nastiness inflicted upon ourselves. This, also, is due to the power of karmic imprints.
The completely ripened result of an action can express itself in four different ways. If we have got an intensely strong intention and act accordingly, this is said to be a “karmic action with the result being experienced in this life.” This means that, when we act virtuously we will experience the positive result with our present body of this life. Whoever commits negative actions will experience the corresponding negative result within this life. In other cases, however, the fruit might not ripen within this life but within the next. Then it is a case of “karmic actions with the result experienced after rebirth.” It can also happen that the result is neither experienced in this life nor in the next, but at some time thereafter, when the right causes and conditions come together. This means that in some future life, at some time or other, the result will show. This is called a “karmic action with the experience of the result after an uncertain number [of rebirths).” If the causal action has even less power than this, it is uncertain whether the result will be experienced at all. If it is very weak, it is possible that the result is lost entirely due to other, stronger conditions. In this instance it is a case of a “karmic action with uncertainty over the experience of a result.” In all these cases the karmic imprints are stored in the all-base and can come out in all these various ways.
Even while meditating, karmic imprints are formed. Within calm abiding the sixth consciousness, the mind consciousness, relaxes. While doing that, however, it still continues to function. Even if the mind rests in total calm, the stream of its clarity aspect is uninterrupted; only the coarse thoughts are calming down. One can compare the mind consciousness to waves and the all-base consciousness to the ocean. In the same way that the waves arise from the ocean, the mind consciousness emerges from the all-base. When the waves collapse and smooth out, the ocean becomes quiet. This corresponds to the relaxed abiding of the mind consciousness within the all-base. All the coarse thoughts have become calm. Nevertheless, we do not meditate like a stone, for the clarity aspect of mind that knows and understands everything is never interrupted. Due to this reason the mind is clear and radiant, even when it rests within the all-base.
In the case of deity meditation, it is the mind consciousness that creates the body of the deity. It is thus a mentally created body, and thus, so to speak, unreal. When, however, the karmic imprints of this visualization get stored in the all-base and become more clear and more stable, it is actually possible to meet the deity one day, of Guru Rinpoche, for example, face to face! This is the result of deity meditation with in-front visualization.
As for self-visualization, we meditate on ourselves as being the deity. In the beginning this thought—that we ourselves are the deity, or for example Guru Rinpoche, is unreal as well. However, when the karmic imprints of that become more stable, the mind, primordial awareness, compassion, and all the innate qualities of Guru Rinpoche will manifest within ourselves. This is so because we already have these qualities within our mind. They are just temporarily obscured, and the obscurations can be removed step by step through meditation using the method of self-visualization.
Thus all karmic imprints are stored within the mind. This is also true of the imprints of our dharma practice. Whoever is able to practice the true dharma in a perfect way will soon reach the ultimate result. If, however, we are not able to practice in such a perfect way—for example when we only practice occasionally—the karmic imprints will not get lost, because they are also stored with the mind, i.e., the all-base. They function like a rooted seed that will grow bit by bit. Some practitioners think that their practice does not manifest any results; nevertheless, just carrying this seed of practice is very beneficial.
This was taught by Buddha Shakyamuni in the sutras. In this context he taught that even practicing only a small act of dharma activity is beneficial. When he was asked whether it was beneficial to show your respect by just raising one hand instead of folding both in a gesture of prayer, he explained that ultimately the level of buddhahood can be reached through doing only that. The reason for the attainment of such an unsurpassable result is not the raising of one hand—there is no inherent benefit in this—but it is the karmic imprint of respect that is stored within the all-base, and therefore is able to increase more and more without getting lost. This is why the ultimate fruit of buddhahood can result from just a small act of dharma activity.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is the ninth incarnation of Thrangu Rinpoche and a holder of the Zhentong lineage handed down by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. He is the Abbot of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada. His publications include The Three Vehicles of Buddhist Practice, The Four Foundations of Buddhist Practice and Transcending Ego-Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom.
From Everyday Consciousness and Buddha-Awakening by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche.