Introduction, Welcome and Summaries of the 50 Verses on Nature of Conciousness
In Understanding Our Mind, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how cultivating a deep understanding of our own mind is essential to realizing peace in our world. As we steadfastly care for and meditate on these teachings, they ripen in us and become a source of benefaction for the entire community of living beings. It is an honor to write an introduction to this wonderful and important book.
One of the sources for Thich Nhat Hanh’s Understanding Our Mind is the Abhidharma literature, the first compilation of commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings on philosophy and psychology. As a young Zen student in the late 1960s, I had heard that these commentaries were so highly valued that they had been inscribed on gold tablets, and a great temple had been built to house and protect them. Their importance in the tradition of the Buddhadharma moved me to study them, but reading them seemed so dry, like reading the lists of names in the white pages of a telephone directory. I had trouble finding any life in them, and soon gave up the study.
The depth and poetic intensity of the teachings on mind that constitute this dynamic turning of the Dharma are not easily met or mastered. As part of his study as a novice monk, Thich Nhat Hanh memorized Vasubandu’s Twenty Verses and Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only. Memorization may seem difficult and old-fashioned, yet the process enables us to receive these complex teachings in small digestible bites, and to chew them until they are learned by heart and become part of our body and mind. Then meditating on them comes quite naturally because they are deeply woven into the fabric of our conscious activity. Devoting our energy wholeheartedly to the study in this traditional way reveals the deep warmth and vitality of these apparently cold and impenetrable teachings.
These teachings on mind are difficult, daunting, and complex. But I have found that by going back to them when the time was right and approaching them as an amateur, again and again and again, what was originally cold stone broke open and revealed a great, warm heart, the heart of Buddha’s desire that we awaken to the wisdom at the core of these teachings. I have joyously continued to study them up until this day.
Studying these Mahayana teachings on the nature of mind, we realize the mind’s true emptiness. When we realize this emptiness, we are free of the conceptual clinging that obscures the true interconnectedness of mind and nature. In this freedom we are able to teach, in creative ways, the intimate and inseparable interdependence of all living and non-living phenomena.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Understanding Our Mind is a fresh example of such creative teaching, inspired by and true to the ancients. It conveys the profound wisdom of Buddha’s teaching with the simplicity of a warm and peaceful heart.
Tenshin Reb Anderson
Senior Dharma Teacher, Green Dragon Temple
Green Gulch Farm, November 18, 2005
THE TWELFTH-CENTURY Vietnamese Zen master Thuong Chieu (“Always Shining”) said, “When we understand how our mind works, the practice becomes easy.” This is a book on Buddhist psychology, an offering to help us understand the nature of our consciousness.
These Fifty Verses are a kind of road map to the path of practice. The Fifty Verses draw upon the most important streams of Buddhist thought in India, from the Abhidharma teachings of the Pali Canon to later Mahayana teachings such as the Avatamsaka Sutra.1
These verses are based on Vasubandhu’s Twenty and Thirty Verses, which as a novice monk in Vietnam I studied in Chinese. When I came to the West, I realized that these important teachings on Buddhist psychology could open doors of understanding for people here. So in 1990 I composed the Fifty Verses to continue to polish the precious gems offered by the Buddha, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Xuanzang, Fazang, and others. This book was originally published as Transformation at the Base. Since its publication, psychologists, therapists, and seekers of all religions have told me how they have found this book helpful in their teachings. With this new edition, I hope to make these teachings accessible to even more readers.
You don’t have to have a degree in psychology or know anything about Buddhism to enjoy this book. I have tried to present these teachings in a simple way. If, while reading, you don’t understand a particular word or phrase, please don’t try too hard. Allow the teachings to enter you as you might listen to music, or in the way the earth allows the rain to permeate it. If you use only your intellect to study these verses, it would be like putting plastic over the earth. But if you allow this Dharma rain to penetrate your consciousness, these Fifty Verses will offer you the whole of the Abhidharma teachings in a nutshell.
One could spend an entire lifetime looking deeply into these teachings. Please do not be daunted by their complexity. Go slowly. Try not to read too many pages in one sitting and take the time to absorb each verse and its commentary fully before moving on to the next. Bring mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to your reading of these verses and they will shine light on how the mind works and on the very nature of consciousness.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness
PART I. STORE CONSCIOUSNESS
ACCORDING TO THE TEACHINGS of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects or, we can say, eight “consciousnesses.”2 The first five are based in the physical senses. They are the consciousnesses that arise when our eyes see form, our ears hear sounds, our nose smells an odor, our tongue tastes something, or our skin touches an object. The sixth, mind consciousness (manovijñana), arises when our mind contacts an object of perception. The seventh, manas, is the part of consciousness that gives rise to and is the support of mind consciousness. The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijñana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. 3
Verses One through Fifteen are about store consciousness. Store consciousness has three functions. The first is to store and preserve all the “seeds” (bija) of our experiences. The seeds buried in our store consciousness represent everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived. The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the “subject” of consciousness. The store consciousness draws together all these seeds just as a magnet attracts particles of iron.
The second aspect of store consciousness is the seeds themselves. A museum is more than the building, it is also the works of art that are displayed there. In the same way, store consciousness is not just the “storehouse” of the seeds but also the seeds themselves. The seeds can be distinguished from the store consciousness, but they can be found only in the storehouse. When you have a basket of apples, the apples can be distinguished from the basket. If the basket were empty, you would not call it a basket of apples. Store consciousness is, at the same time, both the storehouse and the content that is stored. The seeds are thus also the “object” of consciousness. So when we say “consciousness,” we are referring to both the subject and the object of consciousness at the same time.
The third function of store consciousness is as a “store for the attachment to a self.”4 This is because of the subtle and complex relationship between manas, the seventh consciousness, and the store consciousness. Manas arises from store consciousness, turns around and takes hold of a portion of store consciousness, and regards this grasped part as a separate, discrete entity, a “self.” Much of our suffering results from this wrong perception on the part of manas, and it is the subject of our in-depth study in Part II of this book.
Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
This mind-field can also be called
“all the seeds.”
In us are infinite varieties of seeds—
seeds of samsara, nirvana, delusion, and enlightenment,
seeds of suffering and happiness,
seeds of perceptions, names, and words.
Seeds that manifest as body and mind,
as realms of being, stages, and worlds,
are all stored in our consciousness.
That is why it is called “store.”
Some seeds are innate,
handed down by our ancestors.
Some were sown while we were still in the womb,
others were sown when we were children.
Whether transmitted by family, friends,
society, or education,
all our seeds are, by nature,
both individual and collective.
The quality of our life
depends on the quality
of the seeds
that lie deep in our consciousness.
The function of store consciousness
is to receive and maintain
seeds and their habit energies,
so they can manifest in the world, or remain dormant.
Manifestations from store consciousness
can be perceived directly in the mode of things-in-themselves,
as representations, or as mere images.
All are included in the eighteen elements of being.
All manifestations bear the marks
of both the individual and the collective.
The maturation of store consciousness functions in the same way
in its participation in the different stages and realms of being.
Unobstructed and indeterminate,
store consciousness is continuously flowing and changing.
At the same time, it is endowed
with all five universal mental formations.
Although impermanent and without a separate self,
store consciousness contains all phenomena in the cosmos,
both conditioned and unconditioned,
in the form of seeds.
Seeds can produce seeds.
Seeds can produce formations.
Formations can produce seeds.
Formations can produce formations.
Seeds and formations
both have the nature of interbeing and interpenetration.
The one is produced by the all.
The all is dependent on the one.
Store consciousness is neither the same nor different,
individual nor collective.
Same and different inter-are.
Collective and individual give rise to each other.
When delusion is overcome, understanding is there,
and store consciousness is no longer subject to afflictions.
Store consciousness becomes Great Mirror Wisdom,
reflecting the cosmos in all directions.
Its name is now Pure Consciousness.
PART II. MANAS
VERSES SIXTEEN TO TWENTY-TWO are about the seventh consciousness, manas. The relationship between manas and the store consciousness is very subtle. Manas arises from store consciousness, and takes a part of store consciousness to be the object of its love, the object of itself, and it holds onto it firmly. It regards this part of store consciousness as a separate entity, a “self,” and grasps on to it firmly. Manas attaches to the store consciousness just like a small child who clings to her mother’s skirt, not allowing her to walk naturally. In the same way, manas hinders the functioning of the store consciousness and gets in the way of transforming the seeds.
Just as the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth causes the tides, the grip of manas on the store consciousness is the energy that brings about the manifestation of seeds as mental formations in our mind consciousness. Our habit energies, delusions, and craving come together and create a tremendous source of energy that conditions our actions, speech, and thinking. This energy is called manas. The function of manas is grasping.
Like store consciousness, the nature of manas is continuous. It functions day and night without stopping. We have learned about the three modes of perception. The first is direct, the second is by inference or deduction, which may be either correct or incorrect, and the third is erroneous. The mode of perception of manas is always this third mode, false perception. Because the wrong perception of manas, especially its view of a “self,” is the cause of so much suffering, it is important to understand the role of manas in creating and maintaining erroneous perceptions.
Seeds of delusion give rise
to the internal formations of craving and afflictions.
These forces animate our consciousness
as mind and body manifest themselves.
With store consciousness as its support,
Its function is mentation,
grasping the seeds it considers to be a “self.”
The object of manas is the mark of a self
found in the field of representations
at the point where manas
and store consciousness touch.
As the ground of wholesome and unwholesome
of the other six manifesting consciousnesses,
manas continues discriminating.
Its nature is both indeterminate and obscured.
Manas goes with the five universals,
with mati of the five particulars,
and with the four major and eight secondary afflictions.
All are indeterminate and obscured.
As shadow follows form,
manas always follows store.
It is a misguided attempt to survive,
craving for continuation and blind satisfaction.
When the first stage of the bodhisattva path is attained,
the obstacles of knowledge and afflictions are transformed.
At the tenth stage, the yogi transforms the belief in a separate self,
and store consciousness is released from manas.
PART III. MIND CONSCIOUSNESS
THE NEXT FIVE VERSES, Twenty-Three through Twenty-Seven, describe the nature and characteristics of the sixth consciousness, mind consciousness (manovijñana). As we have learned, manas is the base of mind consciousness, and because the mode of perception of manas is always erroneous, much of what we perceive in our mind consciousness is also false. Because the nature of manas is obscured, our mind consciousness is often also covered over by delusion. Unlike manas, however, our mind consciousness is capable of other modes of perception as well—direct or inferred. When our mind consciousness is able to perceive things directly, it is capable of touching the realm of suchness.
The way to train our mind consciousness in correct perception is through mindfulness. This is the most important contribution of the mind consciousness. When we are mindful, when we are aware of all our actions of body, speech, and mind, we can choose to act, speak, and think in wholesome ways rather than in harmful ways. With the energy of mindfulness generated by our mind consciousness, we can avoid watering seeds of anger, craving, and delusion in our store consciousness and we can water seeds of joy, peace, and wisdom. This is why it is so important to train our mind consciousness in the habit of mindfulness.
With manas as its base
and phenomena as its objects,
mind consciousness manifests itself.
Its sphere of cognition is the broadest.
Mind consciousness has three modes of perception.
It has access to the three fields of perception and is capable
of having three natures.
All mental formations manifest in it—
universal, particular, wholesome, unwholesome, and indeterminate.
Mind consciousness is the root of all actions of body and speech.
Its nature is to manifest mental formations, but its existence is not continuous.
Mind consciousness gives rise to actions that lead to ripening.
It plays the role of the gardener, sowing all the seeds.
Mind consciousness is always functioning
except in states of non-perception,
the two attainments,
deep sleep, and fainting or coma.
Mind consciousness operates in five ways—
in cooperation with the five sense consciousnesses
and independent of them,
dispersed, concentrated, or unstably.
PART IV. SENSE CONSCIOUSNESSES
VERSES Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Nine, and Thirty describe the nature and characteristics of the five sense consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. We have already learned something about these five consciousnesses in our discussion of the store consciousness, manas, and mind consciousness. Just as store consciousness is the base of manas, and manas is the base of mind consciousness, these five sense consciousnesses are based in the sixth consciousness, mind consciousness. All eight consciousnesses are in this way connected and interdependent.
The senses from which these five consciousnesses arise are sometimes referred to as “gates” because all of the objects of our perception—all dharmas—enter our consciousness through sensory contact with them. For this reason, it is important to learn how to guard these gates into our consciousness, to choose wisely what we allow to enter and become seeds. The way we do this is through mindfulness.
Based on mind consciousness,
the five sense consciousnesses,
separately or together with mind consciousness,
manifest like waves on water.
Their field of perception is things-in-themselves.
Their mode of perception is direct.
Their nature can be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral.
They operate on the sense organs and the sensation center of the brain.
They arise with the
universal, particular, and wholesome,
the basic and secondary unwholesome,
and the indeterminate mental formations.
PART V. THE NATURE OF REALITY
Consciousness always includes
subject and object.
Self and other, inside and outside,
are all creations of the conceptual mind.
Consciousness has three parts—
perceiver, perceived, and wholeness.
All seeds and mental formations
are the same.
Birth and death depend on conditions.
Consciousness is by nature a discriminatory manifestation.
Perceiver and perceived depend on each other
as subject and object of perception.
In individual and collective manifestation,
self and nonself are not two.
The cycle of birth and death is achieved in every moment.
Consciousness evolves in the ocean of birth and death.
Space, time, and the four great elements
are all manifestations of consciousness.
In the process of interbeing and interpenetration,
our store consciousness ripens in every moment.
Beings manifest when conditions are sufficient.
When conditions lack, they no longer appear.
Still, there is no coming, no going,
no being, and no nonbeing.
When a seed gives rise to a formation,
it is the primary cause.
The subject of perception depends on the object of perception.
This is object as cause.
Conditions that are favorable or non-obstructing
are supporting causes.
The fourth type of condition
is the immediacy of continuity.
Interdependent manifestation has two aspects—
deluded mind and true mind.
Deluded mind is imaginary construction.
True mind is fulfilled nature.
Construction impregnates the mind with seeds of delusion,
bringing about the misery of samsara.
The fulfilled opens the door of wisdom
to the realm of suchness.
PART VI. THE PATH OF PRACTICE
VERSES FORTY-ONE through Fifty describe the way to practice. Meditation on the nature of interdependence can transform delusion into illumination. With the daily training of looking deeply, of using our mindfulness to shed light on the interdependent nature of things, we can get rid of our tendency to perceive things as permanent and having a separate self. With this illumination, we see that the world of birth and death, the world of samsara, has the same ground as the realm of suchness, nirvana. Samsara and suchness are not separate from each other. They are two dimensions of one reality. If we are able to look deeply into even a single formation belonging to the world of samsara, we can break through and touch the ground of suchness.
The purpose of meditation is to touch the ground of no birth and no death, the realm of suchness. A Zen parable tells of an eleventh-century disciple who asked his master, “Where can I touch the reality of no birth and no death?” The master replied, “Right in the world of birth and death.” By touching deeply the wave, you touch the water. By touching the world of samsara, you touch the world of suchness. We have been given the tools we need to touch the realm of suchness right here in samsara.
Meditating on the nature of interdependence
can transform delusion into enlightenment.
Samsara and suchness are not two.
They are one and the same.
Even while blooming, the flower is already in the compost,
and the compost is already in the flower.
Flower and compost are not two.
Delusion and enlightenment inter-are.
Don’t run away from birth and death.
Just look deeply into your mental formations.
When the true nature of interdependence is seen,
the truth of interbeing is realized.
Practice conscious breathing
to water the seeds of awakening.
Right View is a flower
blooming in the field of mind consciousness.
When sunlight shines,
it helps all vegetation grow.
When mindfulness shines,
it transforms all mental formations.
We recognize internal knots and latent tendencies
so we can transform them.
When our habit energies dissipate,
transformation at the base is there.
The present moment
contains past and future.
The secret of transformation
is in the way we handle this very moment.
Transformation takes place
in our daily life.
To make the work of transformation easy,
practice with a Sangha.
Nothing is born, nothing dies.
Nothing to hold on to, nothing to release.
Samsara is nirvana.
There is nothing to attain.
When we realize that afflictions are no other than enlightenment,
we can ride the waves of birth and death in peace,
traveling in the boat of compassion on the ocean of delusion,
smiling the smile of non-fear.