Cultivating and Nourishing Consciousness for Love and Understanding

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

As the word referring to our mental states and functions, Buddhism sees “consciousness” (vinnana in Pali, vijnana in Sanskrit) as a composite entity having the horizontal extension as well as the vertical structure. The horizontal extension of consciousness can be expressed by the term, the “fields of consciousness,” whereas the vertical structure of consciousness by the term, the “layers of consciousness.”

Among the “fields of consciousness” are those mental states and functions that can be classified as belonging to the cognitive field, those belonging to the affective field, and those belonging to the motivational field. As the Dalai Lama explains, “There are explicitly cognitive states, like belief, memory, recognition, and attention on the one hand, and explicitly affective states, like the emotions on the other. In addition, there seems to be a category of mental states that function primarily as causal factors in that they motivate us into action. These include volition, will, desire, fear, and anger.” (The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005, pp.122-123) Depending on whether the “motivational field” is excluded or included, we would be talking about the “two-fields view of consciousness” or the “three-fields view of consciousness.”

As for the “layers of consciousness,” we can also talk about the “two-layers view of consciousness” or the “three-layers view of consciousness,” depending on whether “sense consciousness” is excluded or included. The two layers of consciousness besides sense consciousness are called manovinnana (mind consciousness) and bhavanga (store consciousness), which Thich Nhat Hanh explains as follows: “According to Buddhist psychology, our consciousness contains the store consciousness at the base, and the mind consciousness in the upper level. In the store consciousness there are many seeds, both wholesome and unwholesome. These seeds are the results of our past actions, and they can either manifest or remain dormant according to how we attend to them.” (Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, 2008, p.260) As “mind consciousness” is seen being located in the upper level, while “store consciousness” at the base, or in the lower level, we can see how Buddhism views consciousness as forming “two layers.”

The “two-layers view of consciousness” becomes the “three-layers view of consciousness” when “sense consciousness,” associated with the five sense organs, is added to “mind consciousness” and “store consciousness.” Thich Nhat Hanh himself suggests such “three-layers view of consciousness” when he writes: “Mind consciousness is our ‘working’ consciousness that makes judgments and plans; it is the part of our consciousness that worries and analyzes. … [Sense consciousness is] the consciousness that comes from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. … [Store consciousness] is the deepest.” (Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment, 2007, pp.5-6)

Whether consciousness is seen as consisting of two fields or three fields, or as consisting of two layers or three layers, what is important for Buddhist practitioners is to “cultivate and nurture” consciousness so that we can find liberation from our suffering and attain happiness not just for ourselves but also for all the others in the world.

Is consciousness, then, something that can be cultivated and nourished? Indeed, consciousness in Buddhism is treated as something that needs to be cultivated and nourished through practice. This aspect of consciousness can be stated as the “plasticity of consciousness,” as the Dalai Lama suggests: “Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the ‘plasticity of the brain.’ The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change.” (The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005, p.150)

Given the “plasticity of consciousness,” how do we practitioners actually go about cultivating and nourishing our consciousness? “Mindfulness” and “meditation” are the two basic practices that are most often employed by Buddhist practitioners.

One of the most lucid explanations of mindfulness is the one given by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, who defines it as follows: “We train ourselves to see reality exactly as it is, and we call this special mode of perception mindfulness.” (Mindfulness in Plain English, 2002, p.37) As a special mode of perceiving the world around us, mindfulness needs to be cultivated and nourished. The Buddha himself recommends the practice known as satipatthana, or the “Four Establishments of Mindfulness,” consisting of kayanupassana (contemplation of the body), vedananupassana (contemplation of feelings), cittanupassana (contemplation of mind), and dhammanupassana (contemplation of phenomena). It is customary to start with the mindfulness of breathing, which also plays a key role in cultivating and nourishing consciousness, as the Buddha instructs Ananda: “Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, Ananda, is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfill the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfill true knowledge and liberation.” (Samyutta Nikaya 54:13)

Meditation is another form of practice employed by Buddhist practitioners to cultivate and nourish consciousness. Again, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana provides us one of the most lucid explanations of what meditation is all about: “Meditation is participatory observation: What you are looking at responds to the process of looking.” (Mindfulness in Plain English, 2002, p.39) Meditation, as participatory observation, is an effective way of cultivating and nourishing consciousness, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains: “The work of meditation is to cultivate the garden of our store consciousness. As gardeners, we have to trust the land, knowing that all the seeds of love and understanding, of enlightenment and happiness, are already there.” (Cultivating the Mind of Love, 1996, pp.5-6) When those seeds of love and understanding, of enlightenment and happiness, in the garden of our store consciousness grow and blossom with our cultivation and nourishment, we will have accomplished our task as the gardener, and will be able not only to enjoy the fruits of our practice ourselves but also to share them with all the others in the world around us.