Everything’s Made of Mind

All that we are and experience is mind, explains Zen teacher Norman Fischer. That mind is original enlightenment itself.

Norman Fischer
27 February 2019
Photo by Monil Andharia.

The teachings about mind are perhaps the most precious, profound, and foundational in Buddhism. Without some understanding of the expansive concept of mind described in these teachings, it’s hard to appreciate the full context of Buddhist meditation practice and the enlightenment promised as its ultimate goal.

The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, an important text in Far East Asian Buddhism, begins by saying that mind—not only mind in the abstract but the actual minds of sentient beings—“includes within itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendent world.”

In other words, mind isn’t just mental. It isn’t, as we understand it in the West, exclusively intellectual and psychological. Mind includes all the material world. It also includes the “transcendent world,” which sounds odd. Isn’t it commonplace to think of Buddhism as having, refreshingly, no idea of the transcendent, which sounds like God? We are told that Buddhism is practical and down-to-earth, a human teaching for human beings. It’s about calming and understanding the mind in order to put an end to suffering.

This is certainly true, and is the dominant theme of early Buddhism. But in contemplating what mind is, later Mahayana Buddhist pundits teased out huge and astounding implications embedded in the early teachings.

They began by distinguishing two aspects of mind—an absolute aspect and a relative, phenomenal aspect. These, they said, are both identical and not identical. So mind (not only in the abstract, but also my mind, your mind, the mind of all sentient beings) is at the same time both transcendent and not.

Mind equals reality equals impermanence equals eternity.

This means that the transcendence isn’t a place or state of being elsewhere or otherwise: it is here and now. Mind and matter, space and time, animate and inanimate, imaginative and real—all are mind. Mind can be both absolute and phenomenal because it is empty of any hard and fast characteristics that could distinguish one thing from another. It is fluid. It neither exists nor doesn’t exist. So, strictly speaking, it isn’t impermanent. It is eternal.

In effect, mind equals reality equals impermanence equals eternity. All of which is contained in the workings of my own mind and that of all sentient beings. So this little human life of mine, with all its petty dramas, as well as this seemingly limited and painful world, is in reality the playing out of something ineffably larger and grander. As Vasubhandu, the Indian Yogachara (Mind-Only) sage, writes in his famous Thirty Verses, reality is simply the transformations of mind.

This is staggering, baffling, and heady. What does it have to do with the inescapable fact that I definitely feel as if I am suffering? My mind may be empty, eternal, transcendent, and vast, but I still experience my life unhappily. What to do?

We could pose the question like this: If my mind is mind, and mind is reality, what is the relationship of my unenlightened mind, the cause of my suffering, to the enlightened mind that puts suffering to an end?

From a psychological and logical point of view, enlightenment and unenlightenment are opposites. I am either enlightened and not suffering, or unenlightened and suffering, and these certainly feel to me like vastly different states. But the teachings on mind assert that enlightenment and unenlightenment are in actuality not different. They are, fundamentally suchness (and the word “fundamentally”—meaning “at bottom,” at their core”—is important here). “Suchness” is a word coined in the Mahayana to connote the mind’s perfect appearance as phenomena. When we receive phenomena as suchness, we don’t experience what we call suffering—even if we suffer!

What we call suffering, and experience as suffering, isn’t actually suffering. It is confusion, illusion, misperception, like seeing a snake that turns out to be merely a crooked stick. Suchness is the only thing we ever really experience. But since we mistake it for something painful and dangerous, we stand apart from it. We see ourselves as its victim, and so are pushed around by it, although in truth there is nothing that pushes, nothing that can be pushed, and no reason in the first place to feel pushed. Reality is not, as we imagine it to be, difficult and painful. It is always only just as it is: suchness.

But lest we project suchness to be something we can reach for or depend on, something other than what we are and see all the time in front of us, we are reminded that suchness isn’t anything. It is a mere word, and the limit, so to speak, of verbalization. It is a word proposed for the purpose of putting an end to words and concepts whose mesmerizing effect on us is the real source of our initial mistaken perception. Since all things are equally and fundamentally suchness, there is literally nothing to be said. Even calling it suchness.

So my suffering, as real as it seems to me, is delusional. But it’s a powerful delusion! Its very structure is built into mind, and therefore my personal consciousness. Since its shape and location (these words are metaphorical: mind has no shape or location) is the same as that of enlightenment, to which it is identical, and since both are empty of any grounding reality, my delusion can’t be gotten rid of. How can you get rid of something that doesn’t exist? Trying to get rid of it will only make matters worse. Besides, to get rid of my delusion is to get rid of my enlightenment, which is my only hope!

In a famous metaphor, Mahayana teachings liken the relationship of delusion to enlightenment to that of a wave and the ocean. The wave is delusion, full of motion and drama. It rises up, crests, breaks, dissipates, and gathers strength to drive again. With my eyes on the wave, I see it as real.

We desire a destination, a state, that will bring us peace. But we don’t know how to get there.

But the wave isn’t anything. There is no such entity as “wave.” There is only water, in motion or not. Wind acts on water to make what we call a wave. If the wind stops, the movement ceases and the water remains quiet. Whether there are waves or no waves, water remains always water, salty and wet. Without wind, the water is quiet and deep. But even when wind activity is strong on the surface, deep below water remains quiet.

Mind is like this. It is deep, pure, and silent. But when the winds of delusion blow, its surface stirs and what we call suffering results. But the waves of my suffering are nothing more or less than mind. And even as I rage, the depths below remain quiet. Life is the wind. Life is the water. As long as life appears as phenomena there will be the stirrings of delusion. Delusion is in fact the movement, the stirring, of awakening. My ocean mind is inherently pure and serene, always. When I know this, I can navigate the waves with grace.

The Awakening of Faith, the text I referred to above, offers an even better analogy. A man is lost. He is confused about which way is north and which way south. He has a place he is trying to go but because of his confusion he can’t get there. He feels disoriented and deeply uncomfortable. He has that sinking feeling of being lost, of not being in the place he wants and ought to be. But then he suddenly realizes there actually is no north or south—that these are just names people give to this way or that way, and that, no matter where he is, he is in fact here, where he has always been and will always be. Immediately, that man no longer has a feeling of being lost.

Likewise we are lost when we don’t settle our lives in suchness. Misperceiving the wholeness of our mind, we see confusion and lack, which naturally gives rise to desire. We desire a destination, a state, that will bring us peace. But we don’t know how to get there. We feel lost, ungrounded, desperate for road signs.

“Delusion” is the place we are fleeing. “Enlightenment” is the destination we seek. But it is a false destination. The path and all its teachings are like north and south, names for various directions that have some provisional value but in the end only confuse us if we take them as real in a way they are not.

Since people need maps and directions when they feel lost, enlightenment is proposed as a destination some distance from delusion. The teachings are serviceable, if provisional, navigation aids to point us in what we believe to be the right direction. But after we have gone on long enough to have calmed down a bit, we see the truth: there is nowhere to go and no way to get there. We have been there all along. In Mahayana Buddhism this is called original enlightenment, or tathagatagarbha—the Womb of Suchness.

This same point is made in a famous parable in the Lotus Sutra, an important text of Chinese Buddhism. People are lost. They hire a caravan leader who takes them to what turns out to be an illusory city, where they find some respite. Somewhat refreshed, they are then told by the caravan leader that this is not and has never really been their destination. The destination is endlessly far ahead. In effect there is no destination; they have always been where they wanted to go. But if the caravan leader had told them this at the outset they would never have believed him.

Now lets get practical. Given all this, what does what we think of as enlightenment actually amount to? Are these teachings proposing, as they seem to be, that we give up practice altogether and somehow suddenly leap out of what we experience as suffering, by some kind of mental magic trick? That we somehow will or think ourselves into enlightenment?

No. The entire culture of practice (including meditation but also study, dharma relationships, ritual, and much more) is necessary. But not in the way we thought it was, not as a way to make things different. Rather, we practice to shift our understanding of our lives. In effect, as The Awakening of Faith puts it, “The process of actualization of enlightenment is none other than the process of integrating the identity with the original enlightenment.”

Practice, then, is both a sudden (we have flashes of insight) and a gradual (it develops over a lifetime) identity shift. We stop seeing ourselves as the child of our parents, a poor lonely soul in a difficult world, with various conditioned imperfections, drawbacks, desires, and hopes, most of which remain unfulfilled. Instead we have confidence in our original enlightenment, which is and has always been at the center of our lives, despite our limitations and pain. The Awakening of Faith: “The state of enlightenment is not something that is to be acquired by practice or to be created. In the end, it is unobtainable, because it has been there from the very beginning.”

This teaching about mind reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother toward the end of her life. She was dying. I knew it, everyone in our family knew it, but we didn’t talk about it because my mother didn’t like to think about it. But once, when we were having bagels and lox at a little deli near where she lived, she said to me, casually, as if it were a matter of mere curiosity, “What do Buddhists think happens after you die?”

“Well,” I said to her, “it depends on who you think you are. If you think you are just this body and mind, just these memories and experiences and relationships and thoughts, then death is very bad news. Because when you die you will lose all that. But if you think you are also more than this, something you don’t understand but somehow feel and have confidence in, then when you die that something—which was never born and so can’t die—never goes away. And that would make it easier and happier to die.”

I am not sure my mother got any comfort from those words. As I recall now, she looked more bewildered than comforted. But perhaps what I said did help toward the end, when her consciousness faded and her mind was quiet.

Certainly, the intention of the great Buddhist teachers who over the centuries have detailed these teachings on mind is not only to comfort us. They offer us these teachings on what mind really is to give us a sound basis for a way of practice that can transform our lives, and the world.

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.