We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Being Fixated and Being Free
What’s actually happening when you practice shamatha and vipasyana along the path to enlightenment? The Eight Kinds of Consciousness is a very powerful and fairly simple teaching that is like opening the hood of your car and studying the engine so you can see what makes the car stall out and what makes it move down the road.
Rather than thinking there are actually eight separately existing things, instead regard them as eight different ways the mind experiences phenomena. This view helps you approach this teaching as a way to understand how you can go from being bound to being free.
The Five Senses
The first five consciousnesses are the five senses. The teachings on vipasyana in Chapter 19 talked about observing how direct perception occurs through your five senses, and then how you label what you perceive. Training your mind in direct perception without labels is one way of experiencing vipasyana, or insight into how things really are.
By engaging this training, you begin to understand that there is a real difference between perceiving the world with labels attached to your perceptions, and dropping the filter of these labels so that you experience things directly and nakedly. It is like the difference between hanging out with your longtime, good friend and experiencing his presence now, versus experiencing your memory of him, frozen in time.
Each of the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching have their own sense organ, of course. But in Buddhist psychology it’s not the sense organ itself that experiences sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Rather the mind experiences them, and the organs are merely gateways. To illustrate, it’s pretty clear that while a corpse has these five sense organs, it does not experience anything.
The experiences that arise from these gateways are called “pure perception.” They are called “pure” in the sense that they are immediate and free of any conceptual overlay. Think back to the teaching on first thought in vipasyana in Chapter 19. These types of perceptions occur before you come up with thoughts or words to describe them.
The Mind That Thinks
Next, there’s a sixth consciousness, which is generally referred to as “the mind that thinks.” It could also be thought of as the logical mind, the reasoning mind, or the dualistic labeling mind. The fact that it labels experience is not regarded here as undesirable or unneeded, but simply as a description of how it functions. In the world, concepts and labels are, of course, essential if you are to communicate with anyone at all.
This is the mind that for each sense identifies, “I am seeing the blue sky…I am hearing reggae music…I am smelling chopped onions.” It’s the mind that knows what it knows. And it is admittedly conceptual; it’s not direct, pure perception anymore.
This is dualistic mind. It “takes care of business”, as it were, and therefore it always relates to the world as if the subject-object distinction were ultimately real. The sixth consciousness, then, is akin to how Freud defined the ego: the managerial consciousness we use to cope with the details and challenges of life.
This is also the mind that practices shamatha. The sixth consciousness can be educated about what the object of meditation is, and then knows how to come back to it again and again. In order to keep functioning properly, it can call upon memories of what it previously learned. While this is somewhat mechanical, it is clear and intelligent in being able to function at this level with great efficiency.
Storehouse of Experience
Because the seventh consciousness plays such a vital role in linking the sixth and eighth consciousnesses, I will return to discuss it after we have examined the eighth.
The eighth consciousness serves as a storehouse or reservoir that holds the traces of all your previous experiences. The difference between the Buddhist understanding of the unconscious and the Western understanding derived from Freud, is that the eighth consciousness holds—not just the experience you have inherited from this life you are currently living, but also from previous lives. This is understood to be the only aspect of you that survives or persists from one life to the next.
This reservoir is therefore a huge repository that includes: all that you have experienced; the positive and negative imprints these experiences have made on you; and all the information, life lessons, and karmic influences that you have internalized as a result of those imprints.
The eighth consciousness is the foundation for perpetuating your past in the form of memory, and your future in the form of intentions and expectations. Therefore it keeps providing you with all the material that you need for this dualistic world to keep reappearing to you and confirming your sense of separateness, as well as all the value judgments and projections that go along with it.
The seventh consciousness is the connecting link between the eighth, which is latent, and the sixth, which is the conceptual mind with which you actively experience the present moment. My teacher called the seventh consciousness “the mind of subconscious gossip,” or the “subconscious nuisance” mind. The seventh is a kind of pipeline that keeps drawing material out of the eighth and pumping it, as it were, into the sixth.
The seventh is also called the klesha mind. This Sanskrit word means “tortured emotions”, or “conflicting emotions” and is used to describe all neurotic thought states that bring suffering.
This mind is always busy drawing material from your eighth consciousness and, in effect, interrupting the ability of your sixth consciousness to remain fully present with your experience, whether in meditation or in daily life. This is why at first it is so difficult to practice shamatha. The sixth is trying to rest on the object of meditation, but the seventh keeps interrupting the sixth with distractions from the eighth.
Finding Enlightened Mind in Ordinary Mind
These three mind-consciousnesses are not actually separate. But because you perceive the world in a dualistic and divided way, you need a model that can clearly explain how that dualistic distortion operates in your daily life, and when you are practicing meditation.
The wonderful news is that you can use the framework of this eightfold mind to become enlightened, or simply to progress on the spiritual path. According to Buddhist psychology, you can progress by training the seventh consciousness to break its compulsive habit of activating the eighth. And beyond that, you can attain enlightenment by, as one teacher puts it, convincing the seventh that the eighth is not a self, not an “I” that really exists in a solid and separate and dualistic way.
The result of this two-fold training is that the unconscious imprints of the eighth gradually lose their power to influence our present experience. Over time, all that unconscious material is completely liberated.
The process is similar to the analytic journey in Freud’s psychoanalysis, where the purpose is to make the unconscious fully conscious. However, there are two crucial differences. Freud’s conception of the unconscious does not encompass past lives. And Freud believed the best we could hope for was an uneasy truce between conscious and unconscious minds, whereas the Buddha—and countless masters of the dharma since—assert that the eighth consciousness can eventually be completely purified, completely liberated.
Liberation occurs when the seventh finally realizes that it has been fooled in assuming that the eighth is a separate, truly existing self. At that point, the dualistic barrier between the seventh and the eighth dissolves, and their inseparability becomes the awakened mind itself.
The Experience of Enlightenment
Despite the fact that the teaching on the eight kinds of consciousness is conceptual, it is a strikingly elegant model that helps you grasp what happens when the mind is freed from fixation into liberation.
In one sense, all of the eight consciousnesses become enlightened at once, in that there are no longer any conflicts or struggles between any of their functions or relationships with each other. The five senses continue to function in a direct, non-conceptual way.
The sixth experiences faultless, still mindfulness; it may at times generate conceptualizations and thoughts but without being distracted or identified with them in the old way any longer. The seventh resolves its confusion about the eighth through the insights of vipasyana. The eighth, which previously held all the unconscious material from the past, is purified of all those traces and remains as a clear knowing—without any confusion in it any longer. There’s no more clinging to an idea of “me” anywhere. At this point the eighth becomes what is traditionally called the Clear Light Awareness, and the practitioner becomes enlightened.
The source of the problem has become the source of the solution.
The Dualism of the Modern Scientific Approach
When studying this model or the Five Skandhas, some interesting questions may arise for a modern Western person raised with a scientific appreciation of the world. You may wonder whether current discoveries in neuroscience render these ancient models as quaint, or even obsolete. But the models generated by neuroscience are still embedded in a dualistic understanding of the mind. While these models have a great deal to tell us about the connection between neurological processes and mental and emotional states, and are very useful for treating psychological disorders, they rely on the scientific method, which is a dualistic, cause-and-effect viewpoint.
As a result, these models do not yet account for the non-dual experience that has universally been understood as the basis for the awakened state. These models may give us more tools to manage our confusion and disease, but they do not provide the tools to set us free.
Agnostic Approach to Rebirth
Implicit in the description of the eighth consciousness is the doctrine of rebirth, which may inspire questions. Many Asian cultures that housed Buddhism believe in reincarnation or rebirth, or the conviction that there must be something in the very essence of us that continues from life to life, and cannot die. Whereas many Western people are deeply drawn to Buddhist theory and practice, but not all believe unquestioningly in rebirth.
While the traditional model of the eight kinds of consciousness sees the eighth as that which continues from one life to the next, we also have this intriguing teaching from the Buddha:
He told his monks that even if there were no past and future lives, if they practiced in the way he instructed them they would die without fear or regret.
For modern Western students of the Dharma, especially those of you who remain agnostic about the existence of past and future lives, this teaching can help you practice wholeheartedly in this life without excessive hope and fear about what may or may not happen in a future life.
In doing this, it can strengthen your commitment to cultivating the fearless experience of nowness as the foundation for your spiritual path.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner