Everyday Consciousness and
Buddha-Awakening

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

Featured in Mountain Record 24.1, Fall 2005


The Six Collections of Consciousness

Let’s first look at ourselves. Within the realms of sentient beings, we have taken on a human body. A human being consists of body, speech, and mind; these are called the three gates. As for the gate of speech, it is nothing other than the sounds with which we can express ourselves and which can be heard by others. Much more important is our body and our mind. Depending on the circumstances, it is sometimes our body that is the center of our concern, but at other times it is also our mind. Body and mind are closely connected, so that we consider them practically the same, as if they had the same essence. But if we analyze more closely we find that our body is matter composed of atoms and our mind is something that is clear and cognizing. As for the body, there have to be many different components to make up the flesh, the blood, the bones, the intestines, and so forth, so that the whole body is formed. The mind, however, has completely different characteristics. It is not matter, nor is it composed of atoms. Mind is defined as clear and cognizing. It is the mind that knows and understands things. That’s how, through detailed analysis, we can come to understand that body and mind are completely different in terms of their essence.

Though body and mind differ from the point of view of their essence, nevertheless we can’t separate them. This is due to the fact that for as long as we live the body is dependent on our mind and, vice versa, the mind is bound to our body. That’s why we see them as a unit. However, we should absolutely be able to distinguish between these two. Therefore, we shall analyze mind separately here.

Mind is described as the eight collections of consciousness. Of course, mind in its essence is just one, but it can be divided by means of eight different aspects of consciousness, each of which has its distinct characteristics.

As long as sentient beings dwell within conditioned existence, known as the impure phase, mind expresses itself in the form of the eight collections of consciousness. As a result of dharma practice and meditative concentration (Skt. samadhi), the eight kinds of consciousness will be purified. At that point they will transform and thus reveal themselves to be the five kinds of primordial awareness. In order to understand the essence of these five kinds of awareness, we first have to look at the eight collections of consciousness.

Understanding how consciousness transforms itself into primordial awareness also helps us to understand the way the paths to Buddhahood are traversed and which kinds of result can be attained by each path. Furthermore, it contains a temporary benefit for our meditation practice, which is to know how meditation functions. This is valid for meditation on the body of a deity as well as for other kinds of meditative concentration, such as calm abiding or deep insight. For those times when we just let our mind rest within itself, it is very beneficial to know about the characteristics and divisions of the eight kinds of consciousness.

For the meditation on the nature of your own mind it is customary to ask your teacher for pointing-out instructions. Some practitioners are lucky enough to recognize their true nature of mind straight away, whereas others merely perceive a sensation of it, a certain experience of the true nature of mind. But if they don’t know exactly how mind and the consciousnesses function, their experience will dissolve after a few days. The understanding of mind and the eight kinds of consciousness is obtained through the highest understanding (Skt. prajña) of listening and reflecting. When we really meditate on this basis and glimpse the true nature of mind, we will be able to steadily increase our experience of it through all subsequent meditation. That’s why it is extremely useful to know about the eight kinds of consciousness.

A beginner who visualizes the body of a deity and does not know the distinctive characteristics of the different aspects of consciousness would think that the deity must be seen as clearly during the mental meditation as if seen directly with the eyes. The eyes, however, have a much coarser way of perceiving concrete forms. Beginners do indeed meditate in the hope of attaining such clarity. Nevertheless, it will not arise, because the meditation on a deity does not happen through the medium of the eye consciousness, but through the medium of the mind consciousness. The objects of the mind consciousness are much less clear. The mind consciousness most definitely does not work like the eye consciousness. That’s why some meditators who perceive a vague mental image think they are not capable of meditating correctly on a deity. The result is that they develop an aversion for their meditation. Those, however, who understand that each consciousness perceives in a different way know that mental images aren’t as clear as the forms perceived with the eyes, and therefore they are content with their meditation. They know how to meditate, do indeed so meditate, and thus their meditation works well.