Luminous mind (also, "brightly shining mind," "brightly shining citta") (Pali, pabhassara citta) is a term attributed to the Buddha in the Nikayas. The mind is said to be "luminous" whether or not it is tainted by mental defilements.
The statement is given no direct doctrinal explanation in the Pali discourses, but later Buddhist schools explained it using various concepts developed by them. The Theravada school identifies the "luminous mind" with the bhavanga, a concept first proposed in the Theravada Abhidhamma. The later schools of the Mahayana identify it with both the Mahayana concepts of bodhicitta and tathagatagarbha. The idea is also connected with features of Dzogchen thought.
In the Anguttara Nikaya (A.I.8-10) the Buddha states: "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements." The discourses indicate that the mind's natural radiance can be made manifest by meditation.
- The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits – passing defilements – come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don’t go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun. So meditators, when they know in this manner, should do away with these counterfeits by analyzing them shrewdly... When they develop the mind to the stage of the primal mind, this will mean that all counterfeits are destroyed, or rather, counterfeit things won’t be able to reach into the primal mind, because the bridge making the connection will have been destroyed. Even though the mind may then still have to come into contact with the preoccupations of the world, its contact will be like that of a bead of water rolling over a lotus leaf.
Similarly, Ajahn Thate remarks:
- The Buddha taught [‘Pabhassaramidam bhikkhave cittam, tañca kho agantukehi upakkilesehi upakkilittham.’] 'The mind is unceasingly radiant; defilements are separate entities that enter into it.' This saying shows that his teaching on the matter is in fact clear. For the world to be the world, every one of its constituent parts must be present: its existence depends on them. The only thing that stands by itself is Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. One who considers Dhamma to be manifold or composite has not yet penetrated it thoroughly. Water is in its natural state a pure, transparent fluid, but if dyestuff is added to it, it will change colour accordingly: if red dye is added it will turn red; if black dye, black. But even though water may change its colour in accordance with substances introduced into it, it does not forsake its innate purity and colourlessness. If a wise person is able to distil all the coloured water, it will resume its natural state. The dyestuff can only cause variation in outer appearance... The heart is that which lies at the centre of things, and is also formless. It is simple awareness devoid of movement to and fro, of past and future, within and without, merit and harm. Wherever the centre of a thing lies, there lies its heart, for the word ‘heart’ means centrality.
The Buddha says that if developed, the mind is supremely "pliable" and "workable." A verse with wording parallel to that of A.I.8-10 and surrounding verses occurs at S.V.92-32. It indicates that when the mind is defiled by the five hindrances, it is neither pliable, nor workable, nor luminous, nor perfectly concentrated for the destruction of the fetters. S.V.92-93 also compares the defilements of the mind to impurities in gold ore, implying that just as gold does not manifest its intrinsic radiance when it is in its raw state mixed with impurities, so is the intrinsic radiance of the mind not apparent when it is defiled by the hindrances. A.I.253-255 also uses the simile of gold-refining to illustrate the process of meditative development. A gold-refiner washes gold ore three times to get rid of gross, moderate, and fine defilements, and then properly smelts it until it is free of dross; only then is it "pliable, workable, brightly shining, no longer brittle" and ready to be fashioned into a final object. The sutta compares this process with that of a monk as he gets rid of various mental defilements before he attains unification of mind, which is then used for spiritual attainments.
Ajahn Maha Boowa's comments on A.I.8-10 may seem to contradict those of his teacher Ajahn Mun. Ajahns Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro write that rather than contradicting his teacher, which Ajahn Maha Boowa would not do, his comments should be read as a warning of the danger of subtle forms of identification and attachment, even to radiance itself.
In the canonical discourses, when the brightly shining citta is "unstained," it is supremely poised for arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata. The discourses do not support seeing the "luminous mind" as "nirvana within" which exists prior to liberation. While the Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" in its raw state with nirvanic consciousness, passages could be taken to imply that it can be transformed into the latter. Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations."
The Theravadin Angutta Nikaya Atthakatha identifies the luminous mind as the bhavanga, the "ground of becoming" or "latent dynamic continuum", which is the most fundamental level of mental functioning in the Theravada Abhidhammic scheme. Thanissaro Bhikkhu holds that the commentaries' identification of the luminous mind with the bhavanga is problematic, but Peter Harvey finds it to be a plausible interpretation.
The Mahayana interprets the brightly shining citta as bodhicitta, the altruistic "spirit of awakening." The Astasahasrika Perfection of Wisdom Sutra describes bodhicitta thus: "That citta is no citta since it is by nature brightly shining." This is in accord with Anguttara Nikaya I,10 which goes from a reference to brightly shining citta to saying that even the slightest development of loving-kindness is of great benefit. This implies that loving-kindness - and the related state of compassion - is inherent within the luminous mind as a basis for its further development. The observation that the ground state of consciousness is of the nature of loving-kindness implies that empathy is innate to consciousness and exists prior to the emergence of all active mental processes.
Citta and Alaya-vijnana
According to Walpola Rahula, all the elements of the Yogacara store-consciousness (alaya-vijnana) are already found in the Pali Canon. He writes that the three layers of the mind (citta, called "luminous" in the passage discussed above, manas, and vijnana) as presented by Asanga are also used in the Pali Canon: "Thus we can see that Vijnana represents the simple reaction or response of the sense organs when they come in contact with external objects. This is the uppermost or superficial aspect or layer of the Vijnanaskanda. Manas represents the aspect of its mental functioning, thinking, reasoning, conceiving ideas, etc. Citta which is here called Alayavijnana, represents the deepest, finest and subtlest aspect or layer of the Aggregate of consciousness. It contains all the traces or impressions of the past actions and all good and bad future possibilities."
According to Yogacara teachings, as in early Buddhist teachings regarding the citta, the store-consciousness is not pure, and with the attainment of nirvana comes a level of mental purity that is hitherto unattained.
Both the Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra describe the tathagatagarbha ("arahant womb") as "by nature brightly shining and pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining." It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha. (Some Gelug philosophers, in contrast to teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra, maintain that the "purity" of the tathagatagarbha is not because it is originally or fundamentally pure, but because mental flaws can be removed — that is, like anything else, they are not part of an individual's fundamental essence. These thinkers thus refuse to turn epistemological insight about emptiness and Buddha-nature into an essentialist metaphysics.
The Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra also equate the tathagatagarbha (and alaya-vijnana) with nirvana, though this is concerned with the actual attainment of nirvana as opposed to nirvana as a timeless phenomenon.