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The Luminous Nature of the Mind by Peter Morrell

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The Luminous Nature of the Mind
by Peter Morrell

‘...the mind itself is a sentience or awareness that is a factor of luminosity and knowing...preceded by a similar factor of luminosity and knowing.’[1]
Mind...[is] described as being in essence empty, but nevertheless exhibiting natural clarity and unimpeded manifestation...’ [2]
‘...consciousness is that which is luminous and knowing...not something physical...does not have shape or color...its nature is luminous, clear, and capable of knowing any object through reflecting the aspect of that with which it comes into contact.’ [3]
‘...our consciousness is in the nature of luminosity and knowing...’ [4]

Once the details of impermanence and death have been thoroughly contemplated in depth, one then arrives at the conclusion that samsara is a pretty unpleasant place to be and one feels inspired with a wish to leave it.

‘Uncompounded phenomena are considered to be permanent things; forms, consciousnesses, and non-associated compositional factors...are considered to be impermanent things.’ [5]
Impermanence confronts us with the immanence of death and the utter groundlessness for our hopes that anything we now enjoy will outlast the moment. We are urged to use our fear of death as a motivation for religious practice.’ [6]

However, this is just the beginning of the Buddhist path. Once these ideas are thoroughly absorbed and understood, then the mind truly becomes a tool suitable to contemplate impermanence more closely - even until the finest and most subtle aspects of it can be apprehended.

‘...every moment we have many different levels of consciousness - coarse and subtle.’ [7]

Truly useful contemplation begins when we can place our mind in a neutral or natural state. That state is often referred to in the great texts. It means when there is neither attraction nor aversion, neither love nor hatred, no desire and no repulsion. In that state where there is no thought of good or of ill, in which one is truly in a neutral frame of mind, it is as if the mind is dampened, reacts to nothing but remains in a neutral, lucid and steady state at all times.

‘Since desire, hatred, and ignorance cause birth into cyclic existence, the only way to become free is to eliminate your own desire, hatred and ignorance.’ [8]

Once that is the case, then the mind can be used to contemplate impermanence, undistracted by any such thoughts or biases and then we can begin to make some real progress in understanding the way the world is, the way mind is and the way we ourselves are, and the situation we find ourselves in.

‘...the reason it is hard to identify the nature of the mind is that it is as if covered over by our own conceptions.’ [9]
‘...let the mind flow of its own accord, without conceptual overlay.’ [10]

The neutral state of the mind is like a mind without any bias or preoccupation. It means that the mind has no strong feeling either way about things. It is like a state with no drugs, no alcohol, no anger or aversion, no strong desire, no sex, no appetite for anything - a very bland and neutral state. The mind is calm and flat like water, not choppy or agitated. Bright, yet empty at the same time.

‘...meditation...[is] withdrawing this scattered mind on one object inside...’ [11]

Only when the mind is in such a state can it be truly considered suitable for contemplating impermanence and death and such subtle subjects in the type of depth Buddhism requires of us.

‘If you repeatedly meditate on impermanence, attraction to the things of this life will be lessened...there are many types of meditation in Buddhism, and the best is the jungle the elephant has the biggest footprint, and in meditation the greatest mark or effect is left by meditating on impermanence. This is a great quintessential instruction...keep this understanding of impermanence in your consciousness, never allowing your mind to lose it.’ [12]
‘When you pay the closest attention to transitoriness by death, above all you give yourself a push on entering the Dharma, which creates a favourable condition for persevering in the practice of good, and lastly you acquire an intimate understanding of the sameness of all constituents of reality.’ [13]
‘...if you generate an understanding of impermanence in your mental continuum, it will ultimately release you into the clear light of your own mind.’ [14]
Meditation on impermanence begins with reflection on the impermanence of the external world.’ [15]
‘All compounded phenomena are necessarily impermanent...’ [16]
‘ ebbs from moment to moment, means that life continually passes away and so approaches death.’ [17]

The mind itself also becomes a subject of study for itself and that also gives rise to a degree of subtle detachment. It is a state beyond ego, beyond desire, beyond all attractions and desires, beyond art and aesthetics, beyond ‘I like this’ and ‘I don't like that’ - even in its most subtle sense.

‘In order to recognize and identify the essential nature of the mind, it is necessary to peel away the different conceptual layers and clear the obscurations...’ [18]

Unless and until the mind is freed from these biases which distract it from perceiving itself and the world in their raw suchness, then it is not a clear and naked mind and thus cannot perceive clearly and neutrally very much at all.

‘...there is utterly no such thing as non-mind becoming mind or mind becoming non-mind.’ [19]
‘...matter cannot serve as the substantial cause of a consciousness.’ [20]

Once we see that mind can be separated out from the impermanent evanescent flux that is samsara, on the basis of its qualities, properties and how it operates, then it follows logically, that because the mind can be so separated, then it must be of a very different nature compared thereto.

‘Without a preceding mind a later mind cannot be produced...there is no beginning to consciousness, and in the same way there is no end to the continuum of a person’s consciousness.’[21]

Thus it follows, that mind is not so subject to impermanence or the forces of change, loss and decay, as are samsaric forms. The mind essentially stands above the impermanent flux of samsara and must go forwards and be indestructible. It is in the world, but not of the world.

‘...there existed a mind that was the earlier continuum of the present mind...’ [22]
‘This empty mind, which is happy and sad, not physical and not just nothing, cannot possibly end.’ [23]
‘Any instance of consciousness requires a substantial cause in the form of another preceding moment of consciousness...consciousness is infinite and beginningless.’ [24]
‘The main reason establishing rebirth is the continuation of mind.’ [25]
‘An eye consciousness is generated as an entity of luminosity and knowing is due to an immediately preceding moment of consciousness that serves as its immediately preceding condition.’ [26]

This therefore begins to become a very joyful matter. Once this vivid and luminous nature of mind is realised, then it follows that none of the changes that occur in the outer world of samsara can really affect it unless it allows them to. Thus, to believe that the mind must have become a slave to its own constructs and a slave to its own perceptual field.

‘...phenomena exist only nominally, or conventionally...there is a disparity between the way things appear to us and the way they exist. This is why they are said to be illusory...but conventional reality cannot be logically proven.’ [27]

It sees what it wants to see, but it does not see what it chooses not to. This is a great shame, as it means we follow the transient nature of outer forms and believe that the same processes also apply, by reflex, to our minds. Thus, we actually come to believe that death is the end and that when a physical machine is broken or destroyed, so the body is the same and thus the mind goes with it. We rarely conceive that because impermanence does not apply to the mind, therefore mind is ‘a cut above’ and thus not so transient.

‘...the essentially empty, without limiting characteristics or ultimate reality. This empty mind, however, has its projection, which is the whole phenomenal world....once we see, through meditation, that the nature of mind is fundamentally empty, we become automatically aware that the projections of mind are fundamentally empty too...’ [28]
‘The universe is a projection of mind.’ [29]
‘...the experience of the illusion of waking reality.’ [30]

Mind thus appears like a part of a timeless realm with only some transient qualities pertaining to it. In many respects, it is unlike the physical forms of the outer world, which are all such fundamentally perishable items that will pass away so soon and disappear.

‘Our body is like a boat which takes us across the oceans of samsara.’ [31]
‘Nothing we experience is anything more than the mind’s perception of its own projections, the reality of which is only conventional.’ [32]

Although people die, we can posit that their mindstreams have not passed away, but endure somewhere, maybe not here with us, but they are imperishable. This is a very joyous realisation.

‘ will develop conviction that these physical things as well as your life, have an end.’ [33]

It is comforting to be reassured that we are indestructible. That those we have loved, and who have loved us, are still nearby and are not gone for good. Fate brings us back together many times. The mind is really the mover of the machine, it is the ‘ghost in the machine’ and being the organiser and controller, moves on into an unknown realm. How can the controller of the biochemical machine perish when the machine is tired out and old and about to perish? How can that vital, organising principal, which has kept us alive for so long, suffer the same fate as the molecules which it used to control so effortlessly? But we believe this - through our association with matter, mind has come to believe that the same rules also apply to it.

Rebirth in the wheel of existence…is always based on causality and the karmic influences that go with it.’ [34]
‘Through the power of ignorance...we are reborn into samsara...’ [35]
Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence, it is a cause of suffering...’ [36]
‘...attachment to cyclic existence acts as a cooperative condition for the production of suffering...’ [37]
‘ is said that as long as one is in cyclic existence, one is in the grip of some form of suffering.’ [38]
Cyclic existence has a nature of suffering...thus it is develop a revulsion from it, thereby engendering an attitude seeking liberation [from it]...’ [39]

Regarding the defilements, these are adventitious rather than primary, they are more like stains within the fabric of the mind and carried along with it.

‘...delusions and afflictive emotional and cognitive states, are adventitious, they are occasional...they are not enduring...’ [40]

Yet the fundamental ‘Buddha consciousness’ is present in all of us, regardless of what non-virtues may also be present. If we compare the ‘Buddha nature’ [[[Tathagatagarbha]]) to a bright mirror, then the defilements are like smears and fogs that cloud that mirror. The polishing of the mirror has been described as one function of religious practice.

‘The fundamental threefold nature of mind - empty, clear and unimpeded - is Tathagatagarbha, the seed of enlightenment, possessed by every living being, human or otherwise...the fundamental purity of the mind’s intrinsic nature...all beings are innately enlightened but...adventitious obscurations block the experience of enlightenment.’ [41]
‘...the various contaminated states of mind, such as delusions and afflictive emotional and cognitive states are adventitious, they are occasional; they arise in a certain moment but soon disappear...they are not enduring.’ [42]
‘...the conventional nature of the mind is clear light, and thus defilements do not reside in the very nature of the mind; defilements are adventitious, temporary and can be removed. From the ultimate point of view the nature of mind is its emptiness of inherent existence.’ [43]

The defilements comprise bad habits of mind from previous lifetimes, negative traits of desire and hatred which have been indulged repeatedly in past lives. These repeated actions have set up ‘grooves’ of habit in the mind such that they are acted out repeatedly over many lifetimes.

‘...your own virtuous and non-virtuous actions determine what your mind will undergo during death and afterwards. The effects of these actions follow the mind like a flower and its scent.’ [44]

It is like the drug addict always wanting his fix, so the mind has become accustomed to doing whatever it does.

‘Transmigrating beings first conceive of a truly existent I and then in dependence upon that, conceive of truly existent mine. Through the force of such, beings wander in samsara, like a bucket powerlessly travelling up and down in a well.’ [45]

Removing these defilements is an important part of religious practice that enables a person to train their mind over many years to relinquish bad habits and establish good ones.

‘Through my own experience, I know that the mind can be trained, and by means of that training we can bring about a profound change within ourselves.’ [46]
‘I am convinced that through constant training one can change one’s mind...our positive attitudes, thoughts, and outlook can be enhanced, and their negative counterparts can be reduced.’ [47]
‘...over time as years pass, it will improve - the amount of anger will decrease...the situation will change, if you work at it wisely and not just with stubbornness. The mind is such that if we make a plan...and carry it out with strong determination, the mind will definitely change.’ [48]
‘...since the mind is an entity of mere luminosity and knowing, when the basis of training is the mind, it is possible through gradual familiarisation to develop salutary attitudes limitlessly.’ [49]
‘...qualities that depend on the mind can be increased limitlessly.’ [50]
‘...good attitudes can be increased limitlessly.’[51]
‘...mental pangs and regret disappear, and when those are absent, one attains physical lightness and pliancy. Consequently, mental joy and bliss increase, through the power of which the mind comes to abide one-pointedly.’ [52]

The mind is fundamentally pure from first to last in its innate, natural and naked state. It is pure and undefiled, stain-free and radiantly pure as if no non-virtues are present. It is like a clear flowing stream of fresh water - carrying little, crystal clear and always moving. This is the absolutely pure state of the mind as a radiant, clear and knowing consciousness, the mind we see reflected in the little baby’s eyes.

‘...all of us have the fundamental substances necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood.’ [53]

It is the pure and bright [vivid and clear] consciousness of the waking mind, and by analogy, the same mind of the young child. It is a mind that has no preconceptions or biases, it has no strong conceptual overlay - it travels light. What karmic patterns it may contain remain dormant and undeveloped, inactive and thus do not interfere with its radiant clarity. This is the waking mind, the mind of meditation, the mind referred to in texts as the mind in its naked state.

‘In its most fundamental sense, mind is not something we can has no particular shape, size, location, colour or form, or any other limiting has the illuminating potential to perceive anything whatsoever’ [54]
‘...on the ultimate level the empty, clear and unimpeded nature of mind exhibits no limiting qualities such as maleness or femaleness, superiority or inferiority...even in the various realms of rebirth, there is no ultimate difference between one mind and another.’[55]

The mind comes and goes successively like night and day, but a very subtle level of consciousness is always present.

‘...between the arising of different moments of conceptual thought, the clear light nature of mind occurs uninterruptedly.’[56]

This is the same level of consciousness, which passes through sleep and through death and re-emerges at the other side of both. Mind, like a light, is always aglimmer and can never be utterly destroyed or extinguished.

‘At the moment of death a separation occurs between...physical body and mind, and the mind is plunged into a state in which there is no conscious mental activity...the mind dissolves back into its own fundamental state of unconsciousness...’ [57]

Even after death, the mind of clear light is pure and undefiled. It is this mind that passes on from life to life, as a small corpuscle [[[bindu]] = droplet].

‘At death...what continues is the individual consciousness, the mind...[which] continues to follow its habits and to manifest its set patterns...what happens [in the after-death state) resembles what happens in the dream state and waking consciousness.’ [58]
‘ the moment we are experiencing a certain level of consciousness; again, when we are dreaming, it is another, deeper level. Then, in dreamless deep sleep, we experience another, deeper level of consciousness.’ [59]

In the new body, at incarnation [the embryo at conception], the corpuscle of mind, like a small pea, resides at the heart. Gradually it unravels its subsidiary minds, which take up residence in the sense organs, and the pervasive mind that fills the body through the nervous system. In this way, over months and the first year or two, the incarnated mind gradually gains full control of the body and all its sense faculties.

‘...our eye consciousness is dependent upon the physical eye organ; therefore, if something has happened in the organ, the consciousness cannot function normally...’ [60]

Each of the five sense consciousnesses is really a small offshoot [outpost] from the main consciousness, and conveys to it the impressions deriving from the sense organ in question.

‘The eighteen constituents are...the six constituents that are the sense powers - the eye, ear...the six consciousness constituents...eye, ear, nose...the six constituents that are objects - the observed objects - forms, sounds, odors...’ [61]

During the onset of sleep, as in death, the mind goes through the reverse process, withdrawing from and shutting down each sense consciousness in turn and withdrawing back, like tentacles, those subsidiary minds into the corpuscle at the heart, re-packing them before it leaves the body entirely [in death). The sense consciousnesses diminish in power and clarity in successive waves until only the bright consciousness at the heart is left.

‘...during dreams, we inhabit a different kind of body, and experience a different state of being...we see, smell, touch, hear, feel, think and communicate - we experience a complete universe. But when we awaken it becomes obvious that the universe of the dream has no ultimate reality...when the dream is over, its ‘reality’ simply disappears - it was only a projection of mind...our experience in the waking state is of the same general nature...’ [62]

Sleep and death have so many strong and interesting parallels. Indeed, the very fact that daily we can sleep and then awaken is almost personal, positive proof in itself that life follows death over and over again. In both cases the coarse and bright consciousnesses of the waking self [what we might term the ‘day mind’] is ‘closed down’, and progressively diminished in clarity, until only the more subtle internal consciousness remains [the ‘night mind’].

‘The dying process begins with the dissolution of the elements within the body...’ [63]
‘...[leaving only] the fundamental innate mind of clear light - that is, the subtlest level of mind...’ [64]
‘...the most subtle is the mind of clear light...’ [65]
‘...this subtlest consciousness is what transmigrates...’ [66]
‘This consciousness is the innermost subtle mind. We call it the Buddha nature, the real source of all consciousness. The continuum of this mind lasts even through Buddhahood.’ [67]

Eventually, both in sleep and in death, only the most subtle of all consciousnesses is left, and that passes forward into the next life. Without exploring these subtle forms of mind in meditation, Buddhists would be as oblivious of their existence as the rest of us. Because they have made it their business to explore these matters, so that forms the basis and authority of what they say.

‘...realisation of bodhicitta - [is] the altruistic aspiration, based on love and compassion, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings.’ [wotb, p.94]


  1. Dalai Lama, 1985, Opening the Eye of New Awareness, Wisdom Books, London, p.36
  2. Kalu Rinpoche, 1986, The Dharma that Illuminates all Beings Impartially like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, SUNY Press, New York, p.16
  3. Dalai Lama, 1988, The Dalai Lama at Harvard, Snow Lion, pp.49-50
  4. Dalai Lama, 1995, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Books, London, p.48
  5. Geshe Lhundup Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins, 1989, Cutting through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion, USA, p.182
  6. Jamgon Kongtrul, 1977, The Torch of Certainty, Shambhala, USA, p.29
  7. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.29
  8. Khetsun Sangpo Rimbochay & J Hopkins, 1982, Tantric Practice in Nyingma, Rider, London, p.64
  9. Dalai Lama, 1984, Kindness Clarity and Insight, Snow Lion, p.20
  10. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.20
  11. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.20
  12. Rimbochay & Hopkins, op cit., p.62
  13. sGampopa, 1959, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Translated and Edited by Herbert V Guenther, Rider, London, p.54
  14. Rimbochay & Hopkins, op cit., p.63
  15. Rimbochay & Hopkins, op cit., p.57
  16. Sopa & Hopkins, op cit., pp.194-5
  17. sGampopa, op cit., p.46
  18. Dalai Lama 1995, op cit., p.152
  19. Dalai Lama, 1985, op cit., p.36
  20. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.41
  21. Dalai Lama 1988, op cit., p.42
  22. Dalai Lama, 1985, op cit., p.36
  23. Rimbochay & Hopkins, op cit., p.64
  24. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.49
  25. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.41
  26. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.42
  27. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.50
  28. Kalu, op cit., p.48
  29. Kalu, op cit., p.15
  30. Lama Lodro, 1987, Bardo Teachings, Snow Lion, p.2
  31. Lama Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa, 1987, The Opening of the Lotus, Wisdom Books, London, p.49
  32. Kalu, op cit., p.116
  33. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.99
  34. Amipa, op cit., p.52
  35. Amipa, op cit., p.54
  36. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.37
  37. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., pp.37-8
  38. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.48
  39. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.127
  40. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.100
  41. Kalu, op cit., p.115
  42. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.100
  43. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.18
  44. Rimbochay & Hopkins, op cit., p.64
  45. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.83
  46. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.74
  47. Dalai Lama 1995, op cit., p.64
  48. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.124
  49. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.19
  50. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.19
  51. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.20
  52. Dalai Lama, 1985, op cit., p.50
  53. Dalai Lama, 1984, op cit., p.19
  54. Kalu, op cit., p.57
  55. Kalu, op cit., p.92
  56. Dalai Lama 1995, op cit., p.151
  57. Kalu, op cit., p.16
  58. Kalu, op cit., p.49
  59. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.114
  60. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.30
  61. Dalai Lama, 1985, op cit., p.44
  62. Kalu, op cit., p.48
  63. Dalai Lama, 1995, op cit., p.137
  64. Dalai Lama 1995, op cit., p.95
  65. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.81
  66. Dalai Lama, 1988, op cit., p.115
  67. Dalai Lama 1988, op cit., p.45
  • Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Random House, London
  • Lati Rinbochay & Jeffrey Hopkins, 1981, Death, Intermediate State & Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, Rider, London


By Peter Morrell