In Zen, and in Chinese Buddhism generally, there are often statements like “the triple world is mind only.” Often we don’t know what to make of them, other than appreciating that it’s probably not a claim that the external world is magically created from our individual brain, or similar nonsense.
But how do we understand it?
The easiest way for us to start to understand is to appreciate that the world doesn’t come pre-formed. Whilst we might understand a camera, for instance, to be an image capturing device, someone from a different culture could see it as a soul capturing device.
Similarly, we might understand a window to be something which enables us to see the world, but someone else could think it’s a miraculous mirror which only appears when it gets dark and there is light in your room.
So we can understand that, in terms of how we conceive the world, it’s not pre-formed: it’s culturally formed. We see some things and not others. This varies from culture to culture and more generally it’s species specific—we will be seeing differently from other creatures.
We can use the traditional language and refer to that in terms of karma.
We can also understand that we respond to particular things or occurrences in the world in terms of our individual karma. The feelings, associations and emotional responses that we’ll have to things that appear to us are specific to us ( at least in combination), and derive from our history, relationships, patterning. and so on. Our particular karma.
With these understandings, we can start to get an understanding of what’s meant by ‘the world is mind only.’ The statement isn’t making some kind of ontological statement about the world. It’s not philosophical idealism. It’s saying that as Buddhists and meditators, what we’re concerned with is the world as it appears to us.
And as it appears to us, there’s not a division between ‘self’ and this karmic world of concepts, pictures and feelings.
Thinking phenomenologically is helpful, because it stops us falling into the familiar error of mistaking Buddhist statements as being statements about the reality or nature of the world. Buddhism as philosophy, rather than Buddhism as experience.
But it still doesn’t really get us to the essence of the statement.
To understand the statement that the triple world is mind only, we need to understand what’s meant by “mind.”
In the Treatise on Awakening Faith in the Mahayana, ( which is almost certainly Chinese in origin, and probably written around the middle of the 6th century) ‘mind’ is explained as that pre-existing, underlying unity prior to ( in the sense of ‘more fundamental than’) division into mind and body, self and world, self and others, and so on.
The primary metaphor which is used is that of the wind and the ocean.
The ocean, in its intrinsic nature, is still and peaceful, quiescent. That’s ‘Mind’, in its essential nature.
But when the wind blows, waves are created on the surface of the ocean. We can think of these in terms of thoughts or emotions -‘mind’ in the normal sense, but which in this metaphor are disturbances to the essential nature. We can also imagine each wave thinking that it’s separate, both from the ocean and from the other waves.
The wind is the wind of ignorance and ‘ignorance’ means the belief in a separate self.
We can then see the importance of faith to practice. If we believe this underlying essence of mind, it opens up a way of practice.
It is widespread in western approaches to meditation not to challenge our everyday assumptions about separation, which is odd, given that non separation is the essence of the buddhist message. Rather, we are instructed to allow our thoughts and feelings to come and go freely and not to attach to them. The suggestion is that the less intrusive our thoughts are, the better we will be as meditators, and the happier we will be in our life. There is nothing wrong with this, obviously, but it’s ego psychology, not Buddhism. In this way, all around us, Buddhism is killed. Not by tyrants, but by kindness.
But the metaphor opens up the possibility of regarding meditation in a completely different way.
We can welcome the waves, we can welcome the individual ‘disturbances’ of thought and emotion. We do that because that creates the possibility of the wave, as it were, understanding its own depth; understanding that it’s not separate from the vastness of the ocean; that it’s not separate from the other waves. That it’s only through the wave that the ocean can be activated in our own lives.