406. What is ‘Mind’?

What is ‘Mind’?

Dogen says in various places that Mind is walls, fences, tiles, etc. 

That’s quite typical in Zen literature, where ‘Mind is World’ propositions are common.

At first blush, this looks like a state very different from our ordinary state. They seem to be statements of radical non-duality, primarily between Mind and World, and derivatively, between Mind and Body.

Although these statements seem to give a perspective dramatically different from what we now understand as original Indian Buddhism, I’m not sure that’s so. And though they also appear radically different from ways in which we talk and think about the Mind, again I’m not sure that’s true.

One of the earliest Buddhist texts is the Dhammapada, which is a collection of sayings in verse attributed to the Buddha.  At the very start there’s a statement: Mind precedes all mental states. Not ‘Mind precedes all disturbed mental states’ or ‘Mind precedes all conditional mental states’. All mental states.

I think that immediately gives us pause, because whilst a lot of meditation seems to be about calming the mind, I don’t think we’re necessarily justified in interpreting ‘Mind’ purely psychologically; as being the functionality of the brain, or similar.

Indeed, verse 37 of the Dhammapada says that the home of the mind is in the cave of the heart.  (Indians, like the Greeks, believed the mind is in the heart, not the head; I think it’s naive for us to simply take this literally, as anatomical ignorance)

Verse 37 also says the mind is without specific location. It wanders here and there. It’s using the metaphor of a person whose true home is in the cave of the heart but who wanders hither and thither throughout the world.

So for the Dhammapada, ‘Mind’ has a much broader range of meanings than  the psychological functions of self consciousness, or subjective experience.

If ( as is always useful) in examining the meaning of terms we start with our experience in meditation, it’s clear that  there isn’t the sharp distinction between mind and world that conceptual thinking conjures up. 

Our experience in meditation is both personal and universal. Obviously, it’s this person practising at this moment. Yet we can’t say that this sense of spacious awareness in meditation  belongs to me, that somehow is internal to me.

The whole phenomenology of meditative awareness is, to a greater or lesser extent, non-dual.

People experience that right from the get-go. It’s not something which only Enlightened people (whoever they may be) experience.

Additionally, common usages of mind which we have in the West are often different from what we imagine. For example Carol Gilligan, in her fieldwork on how patriarchy suppresses the voices of teenage girls observed that often they would make a distinction between ‘my brain’ and ‘my mind’.

And if we look around, we often get distinctions like that operating in the language, in different ways.

My personal favourite is Iain McGilchrist’s distinction between left and right brain hemispheres, but it’s widespread.  People will often make a distinction between ‘my mind’ and ‘my heart’ or ‘my mind’ and ‘my soul’. We don’t need to imprison experience within the categories of an imaginary observer in a white coat.