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.

Bardo: Turning Rupture into Rapture

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

There is a Buddhist term that refers to an intermediate state that exists during the period of transition from one state to another. In Pali, the term is antarabhava, which combines two words: anatara, which means “intermediate” or “transitional,” and bhava, which means “existence” or “state.” The corresponding Tibetan term is bardo, and it refers to the intermediate period, lasting up to 49 days, between the time of death and the time of rebirth. The teaching of bardo forms the core of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and is widely accepted in Mahayana schools, being incorporated into a series of ceremonies that are held by family members following the death of a family member.

Beyond such specific meaning in Tibetan and Mahayana schools, bardo has a more general, important message for all Buddhist practitioners. This is so because, as Pema Khandro Rinpoche reminds us, bardo does not just refer to the period after death: “The Tibetan term bardo, or ‘intermediate state,’ is not just a reference to the afterlife. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. … But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.” (“Breaking Open in the Bardo”, Lion’s Roar, July 15, 2017)

The state in which we find ourselves having lost our old reality happens all the time in our lives. Some intermediate states appear as parts of the growing-up process of individuals. In fact, the intermediate period for students that lasts three years from the end of elementary schools to the start of high schools is called the intermediate school years in some countries. After graduating from colleges and universities, people find themselves in the intermediate state before they start working for companies and organizations. While some intermediate states are happy occasions like the engagement period for young couples, there are other intermediate states that are tragic and traumatic. People who have lost their family members in accidents or to illnesses find themselves in the intermediate state with the continuity of their lives being ruptured by the loss. People who have lost their jobs for one reason or another also find themselves in the intermediate state and experience the rupture in their lives, the reality of promising career and secure livelihood being taken away from them.

The death in the family and the loss of jobs are two examples of major ruptures that happen in the lives of individuals. But the fact of the matter is that there are all kinds of ruptures happening in our lives at all times. What these ruptures happening in our lives remind us is that things are always in transition, as nothing stays the same. And because of these constant changes we see in the world around us, bardo points to the new state that will open up inevitably sooner or later. If so, instead of feeling lost in the rupture of bardo, we need to embrace it as a prelude to something new that will unfold around us, as Pema Chodron suggests us to do: “Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.” (When Things Fall Apart, Shambhala, 1997, p.10)

An even more encouraging message about what bardo can do for us comes from Pema Khandro Rinpoche. In the same article quoted above, she states: “There is an incredible reality that opens up to us in those gaps if we just do not reject rupture. In fact, if we have some reliable idea of what is happening in that intermediate, groundless space, rupture can become rapture.”

Rupture turning into rapture! Considering what rupture means in such cases as the rupture of a blood vessel, that of a fuel tank, and that of a cordial relationship between nations, the statement by Pema Khandro Rinpoche may sound too far removed from the bad connotations we find in this word. However, what she is trying to convey is that it is up to us whether rupture is turned into rapture. Indeed, the teaching of bardo is something we need to embrace in our practice, especially now when people all around the world are going through one of the most serious ruptures in their lives in the form of a pandemic.