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.

No Place Like Home

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“There’s no place like home,” is the old saying that has been incorporated into a song such as “Home, Sweet Home” in the 1823 opera, Clari, the Maid of Milan. Movie fans around the world are also familiar with the saying as these are the words Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, utters when she wakes up at her home in Kansas after her adventures in the Land of Oz. Whether it is in Milan or in Kansas, home is supposed to be the place where we feel safe and secure, being in the familiar environment. Indeed, the idea that one’s home is the safest refuge to everyone is found in old juristic writings such as Pandects, compiled by the order of Justinian I in 533.

While home is a special place for everyone, our relationship to our homes has undergone some changes in the world under the threat of COVID-19. For one thing, people in many countries were discouraged to go home during the 2020-21 Christmas Holidays, especially if their jobs were in large cities where the rate of infection by COVID-19 is much higher than rural areas. These people were home for Christmas only in their dreams, like a line in a popular song, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” deprived of the annual get-together with their family members and friends that, normally, would have been an occasion to say to one another, “There’s no place like home.”

What about those people who have been staying at home, like workers in information-related businesses who do not have to commute to their workplaces or senior members of the society who have already retired from their works? Even these people were affected by the stay-at-home order imposed by governments around the world during 2020, deprived of the opportunity of going out of their homes for eating out at restaurants, attending ball games, and traveling to popular tourist destinations. To be sure, we are living in the world where we can do shopping from our own homes with the widespread availability of home delivery services of all kinds of goods, including food. However, for those who enjoy going out, the stay-at-home order may have been a form of punishment not unlike house arrest.

The presumption behind the stay-at-home order is that there is less chance of catching the virus at home with limited contact with the outside world. But the potential danger of becoming victims of COVID-19 is still there in our own homes. With the medical staff at clinics and hospitals overburdened with treating COVID-19 patients, more and more patients, especially those with modest symptoms, are asked to stay home. Unfortunately, a number of these patients have died when their symptoms turned serious yet could not find clinics and hospitals ready to take them in. In a way, this is a new twist to the old saying, “There’s no place like home,” because the wonder of modern medicine that includes online diagnosis and treatment could not save these patients while they were waiting in their own homes for the treatment at clinics and hospitals that never came.

There is no question that the development of information technologies has led to the expansion of home-based activities in recent years. For example, home schooling, which used to be an option only for those parents who were not happy with the education in traditional schools, has become a viable option for many children whose parents are concerned about the possibility of their children catching the virus from close contact with other children in the classroom. While home schooling is limited to children of young ages, online education is not limited to specific age groups, and is becoming widely available for college-age students as well as for adults. In fact, the “virtual classroom” is becoming more widely used in higher education today as it allows students to stay at their homes yet enables them to interact with teachers more often and more intimately than in the classroom.

We can keep on talking about the wonders of information technologies that have made possible all kinds of home-based activities, including playing video games one of which is the 2017 horror game by the name of “Home Sweet Home”, another new twist to the old saying “There’s no place like home.” Then there are those people who have no place that they can call their homes. The slowdown in economic activities during the pandemic has increased the number of homeless people in countries around the world. We need to lend support in whatever way we can to the efforts being made by government agencies as well as private volunteer groups that are trying to provide the safe refuge for these people.

While home needs to be the safest refuge for all of us, it is important for us to maintain the connectivity with the outside world, despite the call for social distancing and self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is so not only because of the interdependence among our economies in the globalized world but also because of our life as a species takes place on Earth, on which we share our existence with all the other living beings, including viruses. The real test for us as we struggle to ride out the difficult times is whether we can say “there’s no place like home” about Earth, on which we have been living under the stay-at-home order since our birth as a biological species.