The Mind That Knows Itself

Until we begin to make the distinction between observing thoughts and observing the knowing mind, writes Ayya Dhammapida, “we have not yet begun to study or to experience the mind directly.”

By Ayya Dhammadipa

Photo by Floriana Barbu.

Both thoughts and the mind that observes thoughts are equally mind. Thoughts arise within a context, and it is that vast field of receptive awareness called mind that provides the context for thoughts. That is, there is a mind without thoughts and without a sense of self, that can and must be found. It is a mind that is not bound by the brain, nor is it limited to interaction with the environment. It is not defined by the past, nor is it looking to the future. It does not move, does not reach out to take hold of anything in the physical or mental spheres. It is a mind that knows itself, and yet it can drop the perspective of an observer in an instant. Though we live right in the midst of it, this mind is subtle and, therefore, easy to miss.

Until we begin to make the distinction between observing thoughts and observing the knowing mind, we have not yet begun to study or to experience the mind directly. This is due to the deeply rooted tendency to accept thoughts as true and complete representations of reality. They are anything but that, though, because they are used as tools for sustaining the sense of a permanent, continuous self that is a fiction. Therefore, the study of thought is useful, but it is an indirect way to search for the mind.

This context is important because thoughts can be either the product of stimulation of the sense fields or the direct objects of the mind’s knowing. They arise in response to the moment-by-moment interactions constantly taking place among three aspects: the knowing mind, the environment, and the sense fields. When the contact that sparked a thought is based in one of the physical sense organs, the thoughts that arise ripen into perceptions of the body, and of the environment in which we find ourselves. Thoughts are like secretions of the mind, as tears are to the eyes. Thoughts are not, however, just byproducts of the moment. They are also heavily influenced by the past, by the attitudes toward the body, and by other thoughts of self.

For this reason, the Buddha offered a variety of frameworks by which to investigate and discover the nature of mind. One framework mentioned in the Salayatana-vibhanga Sutta (MN 137) is the analysis of the six sense fields. According to this and other suttas, in addition to the sense fields of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, the Buddha also referred to a sixth internal sense field: the mind. Likewise, in addition to hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, these texts reveal that the Buddha considered thought a sense object.

Years ago, when I was training at a Zen monastery in a fishing village in Japan, I was asked to pick chamomile flowers to make tea. Sitting on a tiny bench in the middle of the vegetable garden, I was faced with a bush blossoming in a hundred tiny white flowers, all in different stages of development. I’d never made chamomile tea from flowers before, and I knew that there were usually very specific instructions for the way in which things were done at the monastery. Suddenly I felt unsure, and I didn’t know how to proceed. Looking up from the bush, I turned to Shodo, the German monk who managed the garden and did much of the interpretation from Japanese to English. “Which of these should I pick, Shodo-san? Only the ones with all the petals? Or is it okay to pick the buds? What about the ones whose petals have dropped?” Looking up from his work, Shodo-san scowled, “Are you asking me when a flower becomes a flower?” There was a long pause before I replied, “Well, maybe.” Shodo-san simply shook his head and went back to digging. It took a while for me to realize that he was pointing to the quality of knowing, of sensing and experiencing a flower without defining it, without drawing a diagram, creating an abstract concept, or counting petals. Shodo-san was pointing to the mind.

The suttas describe the Buddha using aspects of the natural world as metaphors for the human experience.

For many of us, this way of thinking about the mind and thoughts is novel. It means that the mind is just like the ear, receiving stimulation and thinking about it, without the need for any intentionality on our part. Just that much insight can greatly reduce our reliance on, and belief in, the self. It also means that thoughts are just like sounds, mere phenomena interacting with the field of mind, sometimes melodious and sometimes cacophonous, always in flux. And, perhaps, it raises the question of how we can experience this sense organ called mind when it is significantly less tangible than the ear.

This is where the sutta provides practical instruction. The Buddha first defines “contact” as the coming together of a sense organ, its corresponding object, and the consciousness of that organ. For example, he says that when a sound meets the ear, ear consciousness arises, and the presence of the three aspects is called contact. That definition is particularly instrumental for a clear understanding of mind, because it points to the way in which stimulation at each sense door colors the corresponding mental experience of it. That is, the taste of the flower affects the mind differently than the touch of it.

Knowing this, we can choose to focus our study on those aspects of experience that feel most accessible to us. Most of us are inclined more favorably toward certain types of sensory experience. It is easy to understand this inclination by observing it in everyday life. For example, I might be someone who learns more easily from auditory stimulation, hearing a Dhamma talk, while you might be someone who is a visual learner and would prefer to watch someone draw a mandala to explain a concept. If we are aware of these inclinations, we might choose to begin our investigation of mind with the sensory experiences that we access more easily.

The definition of contact implies the presence of a larger field in which that mental experience arises. In order for ear consciousness to arise, the knowing mind must have been present; if there were no mind present, stimulation of ear would not result in any form of consciousness. In fact, the presence or absence of this dynamic is one of the ways in which doctors determine whether someone is dead. If the body is stimulated in various ways, and there is no evidence of corresponding mental activity, either in the form of measurable brain waves or physical manifestations of having received the stimulus, that person is said to be “brain dead.” Therefore, contact becomes a focal point for determining the presence of life, and for the study of both the knowing mind and thoughts.

In this analysis of the sense fields, the Buddha continues, we notice that, from contact, feeling tone arises. When the light and form of the chamomile flower reaches the eye, and I become aware of it, a feeling tone arises in the mind. The Pali word for this is vedana. This component of mental experience is so crucial to practice that it is mentioned in several of the frameworks that the Buddha taught, including the four foundations of mindfulness, the five aggregates, and the chain of dependent origination. We can think of it as a basic building block of cognition. It is a preverbal impression that the contact is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. This is a primitive form of thought, very spontaneous and intuitive. In the case of discerning the difference between thoughts and mind, feeling tone is a helpful marker because observing it keeps our attention close to the point of contact. When intimate with the contact, we can widen our attention to observe the mind, where contact and feeling tone occur.

A good application of the inquiry into feeling tone is studying one’s response to environmental stress. In the summer of 2020, we had an exceedingly active fire season in California, with more than eleven thousand lightning strikes in a single week sparking hundreds of new fires, even as other fires were already burning. The result was skies so choked with smoke that they were orange, and so thick with ash that they appeared dark even at midday. Many people, on their social media accounts and when visiting in person, spoke and wrote about feeling anxious or uneasy about this. Seeing an orange sky created a negative perception. That negative perception, in the form of uneasiness, arose from an unpleasant feeling tone. And it made sense. Our most primitive cognitive faculty knows that smoky skies are not safe, not healthy. The mind understands intuitively that this visual experience means something is wrong in the environment. And try as we might to reduce it rationally, to dismiss it or explain it, that basic negative feeling tone pervades the experience. There is nothing wrong with that. Experiencing a negative feeling tone in that situation does not mean that there is something faulty about our thinking or that we are overreacting. And it is not something we should ignore; this visual object does mean that there is something wrong in the environment, something to which we should respond.

Our constant contact with our environment creates a deep human vulnerability, but it also creates a profound connection. Now that I am practicing in the Theravada, I appreciate how the suttas describe the Buddha using aspects of the natural world as metaphors for the human experience. One such example, described in the Phena Sutta (“Lump of Foam”; SN 22.95), is his explanation of the mental aggregates as being insubstantial, like bubbles on a puddle or a desert mirage. That is, the Buddha encouraged practitioners to observe phenomena in our environment and relate them to the way our minds work. Later, in Chan Buddhism, Master Tong’an Changcha also used natural phenomena as metaphors for mental experience. For example, in verse 9 of his Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth, he described the experience of one who has realized the Dhamma:

All afflictions become like rain and dew in the vast sea.

All ignorance becomes like clouds and thunder on a mountain.

Through their descriptions of nature, Master Changcha’s and the Buddha’s teachings on the experience of the mind become elegant and intuitive to us, even today.

The six senses are particularly useful portals for practitioners—they are the points of contact, the doorways between our inner world and our outer world. So tuning in to the sense experience can be informative in two directions. One direction takes us out of our conceptual bubble by tracing thoughts back to the point of contact at a sense organ, making the embodied aspect of experience more available to the knowing mind. The other direction brings clarity to the components that make up our mental experience; it reveals how thoughts are generated by the interactions between physical objects and their corresponding physical sense fields, and how thoughts can also be generated by each other. Both of these directions of inquiry are skillful.

Having explored the mechanism that is occurring at the point of contact, we can also rest the mind there long enough to notice that the sense of interaction between two aspects, mind and body, can dissolve. This is samadhi, the experience of the mental narrative dropping away in a mind that is immersed within itself. At times, even the perspective of there being an observer that relates to objects can drop away. Samadhi is traditionally developed through the deep and continuous investigation of one type of contact, such as the tactile sensation of the breath, or the feeling of loving kindness. When the mind is able to rest on a single object with enough continuity and ease to be fully engaged, then it will naturally move away from the physical sense bases, drop duality, and become still. This too is the study of mind, a knowing mind that is clear and composed.

Ultimately, the teaching on the six sense fields is an invitation from the Buddha to return to that which is most intimate, most present. It invites us to study the ways in which the knowing mind is distinct from, and receptive to, the senses and their interactions with the environment, a fact that creates vulnerability and an intuitive sense of connection. It invites us to recall the influence of the mind on the body, which responds by revealing our inner sense of what is pleasant or unpleasant about the world we live in. And it reveals contact as the basis for the feeling tones of experience, tones that underlie more complex thoughts and emotions.

By investigating sense contact, we come to know thoughts as only one aspect of the study of mind. We come to know that an understanding of thoughts, no matter how thorough and accurate, is not a complete understanding of the mind; the knowing mind is revealed, a receptive field in which thought arises due to contact with the senses. And we discover that it is only by experiencing both thoughts and the knowing mind that is free of thoughts that we will recognize the flowers in our own lives.

Ayya Dhammadipa

Ayya Dhammadipa

Ayya Dhammadipa has been practicing Buddhism since 1987. She was ordained as Rev. Konin in the Soto Zen tradition in 2007 but moved ten years later to Aloka Vihara, where she took up the Theravada Forest Tradition, a natural extension of her longtime metta practice and study of the Pali suttas. She was recently ordained as a bhikkhuni. She also teaches in Spanish, is an interfaith chaplain, and enjoys being a mother