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What is the Mind?—A Meditator’s Guide

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Man meditating at Sunset

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“Mind precedes its objects. They are mind-governed and mind-made.” –Dhammapada 1

What is the mind? The language of Buddha, as well as Pali in which his complete teachings are set down, was based on Sanskrit, so we can get some understanding by looking at the Sanskrit terms from which the Pali was derived.

Sanskrit and Pali have the same word for mind: mana. Mana comes from the root verb man, which means “to think.” However, mind takes in more territory than the intellect; it includes the senses and the emotions, because it is in response to feelings and sensory impressions that thoughts arise in the attempt to label and understand them.

Evolved minds have the capacity to think abstractly and to determine what shall be experienced by the senses or the feelings. In lesser evolved minds these impressions precede thought, but in higher evolved minds thought becomes dominant and not only often precedes those impressions but also determines them. Undoubtedly this is progress, but like everything in relative existence it has a down side, and that is the capacity of the mind to “create reality” rather than simply respond to it or classify it.

What is perception?

Perception is not a matter of exact and undistorted experience. Perception itself is learned, and is therefore extremely subjective. People born blind who later gained their sight have said that it took them weeks to tell the difference between circles, squares, triangles, and other geometric shapes–as well as the difference between many other kinds of visual impressions.

This tells us that we do not just perceive spontaneously through the senses. We learn perception–it is not just a faculty. In other words, the senses do not perceive; it is the mind alone that perceives even though it uses the impressions of the senses as its raw material for those perceptions. Objectivity in human beings is virtually impossible. We might even hazard the speculation that objectivity is impossible outside of enlightenment.

Life experience as a training film

The understanding to be gained from this is that our life experiences are a training film, an exercise in the development of consciousness with the mind as its main instrument. We are to look and learn. The question of “Is it real?” is almost irrelevant, “Is it comprehensible?” being more vital.

There is a sense in which the individual alone exists and all that he experiences is but the shifting patterns of the movies of the mind–but for a purpose: insight that leads to freedom from the need of any more movies. Then the liberated can rest in the truth of his own self.

The problem is that those who have only an intellectual idea about the relation of experience to reality will come to erroneous conclusions that may result in very self-destructive thought and behavior. Only right experience garnered from right meditation and right thought (which is based on meditation) can clear away the clouds of non-perception and misperception and free us.

The demarcation between “out there” and “in here” must become clear to us in a practical sense, as must “me” and “not me.” We must also come to understand that “real” and “unreal” have both correct and mistaken definitions, that all our perceptions are interpretations of the mind and never the objects themselves.

Going beyond the mind

Our perceptions may be more or less correct as to the nature of an outside object, but how can we know? The enlightened of all ages have told us that a stage of evolution can be reached in which the mind is no longer necessary, a state in which we can go beyond the mind and enter into direct contact and communication with “out there” through a state of unity with “in here” and then perceive objects as they truly are–or at least as they momentarily are. The knowledge of temporality or eternality is inseparable from that state, so confusion cannot arise regarding them.

In our childish way we always think of perfection as consisting of all our good traits greatly increased and our bad traits eradicated. (If we are “good” enough children to admit we have bad traits, that is.) In the same way we think of eternity as time without end rather than a state that transcends time. Our ideas of eternal life are pathetic since we have no idea what life is, much less eternity.

It only follows, then, that our ideas of enlightenment and liberation are equally puerile and valueless. This is why the wise center their attention on spiritual practice rather than theology and philosophy. Experience–Right Experience–will make all things clear or else enable us to see that they do not exist.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"8987","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"220","style":"font-size: 13.008px; width: 180px; height: 220px; float: right; margin: 2px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"180"}}]] About the Author: Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri) is the founder and director of the Light of the Spirit Monastery (Atma Jyoti Ashram) in Cedar Crest, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous books on meditation and practical spiritual life. His writings can be found at www.ocoy.org.

This article is an excerpt from his book The Dhammapada for Awakening: A Commentary on Buddha's Practical Wisdom, which brings a refreshing and timely perspective to ancient wisdom and showing seekers of inner peace practical ways to improve their inner lives today. You can read the full book online at the monastery’s website here. The book is also available in print and as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.


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