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.


400. The Dharmadhatsu

Nagajuna famously said trying to understand emptiness was like trying to pick up a poisonous snake. Without skill, you would be caught by the venom. And the most usual venom is nihilism. Poisonous Nothing.

It’s something which Buddhists have been accused of almost from the start: if everything is empty then nothing has any meaning. So we can do whatever we like. More broadly, emptiness, and hence buddhism, is attacked as a joyless pessimism—it’s vacuity, nothingness.

Buddhists have grappled mightily against this charge. One of the most profound refutations was by the Chinese Huayan School, those practitioners who focused on The Flower Garland Sutra and who primarily flourished in 7th Century T’ang dynasty China.

Their starting point is looking at the statement “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” in a different way. To just focus on the first part is unbalanced, we need to focus on both. If we do,  then everything: me, the wall, you, the trees, the birds; everything is, as it were, both form and emptiness.

Because emptiness is indivisible, like space or like the ocean, there isn’t a million billion bits of emptiness to correspond with the million billion forms, there’s just one emptiness. So every ‘thing’ – including you and me – is both particular and universal.

From that basic realisation they manifest a new world of interrelatedness and interdependence. Because emptiness reaches everywhere and is a fundamental aspect of form, of me and you, then, as it were, we penetrate everywhere, and so does everything else. And thus, everything, everywhere, interpenetrates me. This is the vision expressed in Indra’s Net.

In elucidating all of these ideas [and moving further away from erroneous conceptions of emptiness] they make use of the Chinese terms Li and Shi.

Li wasn’t originally a Buddhist term. It originally meant something like ‘underlying principle’. For example, that which causes the heavenly bodies to move predictably in the sky.

Shi is phenomena. Li and Shi completely interpenetrate, like form and emptiness, but without the nihilistic baggage that emptiness often seems to carry. 

The Huayan Masters adapt Li and Shi to fit within a re-envisioned buddhism, Li coming to mean something like emptiness and Shi something like form. The terms are usually translated into English as principle and phenomena, and they crop up all the time in the Chinese buddhist texts, for example, the Sandokai.

Their vision occurs in apparently nonsensical statements. Dogen, for example, talks about Mount Sumeru being contained within a mustard seed, which is a direct quote from The Flower Garland Sutra.  This interpenetration of everything is a radical restatement of dependent origination.

The particular innovation of the Hauyen school is to say not only that  form and emptiness don’t obstruct each other but  form and form don’t obstruct each other either.

The actualisation of this interpenetration and mutual non-obstruction they call the Dharmadhatu, The Buddha Realm. Zazen is often described as objectless meditation, but I don’t think that’s true. The Dharmadhatu, is the ‘object’ of meditation, while at the same time we, and everything else, are within it. That’s the real koan. And just as the Dharmadhatsu is like a body, so our body mind within Zazen is like the Dharmadhatu 

Excluding Nothing


388. Sangha Buddha

In Zen legend, when Master Bodhidharma was approaching death,  he called together his four senior disciples and asked them to explain their understanding. 

The first three gave verbal answers. Bodidharma said to them respectively “you have my skin”, “you have my flesh” and “you have my bones”. The fourth disciple Huike (Eko) said nothing, simply did prostrations then returned to his place. Bodhidharma then gave the transmission to him.

That story was subsequently used in zen to justify an anti-intellectual stance, which continues to this day.

Though not from Dōgen. In Katto, he gave an entirely different interpretation of the story. In his view, it was a completely erroneous understanding to think that skin is superficial and marrow is profound. Or, as he said in another context “If your speech is superficial, why would your silence be profound?”

There’s an aspect to the story which I don’t think has been properly explored. In the translations, Bodhidharma appears to refer to his skin, his flesh, his bones, his marrow, but I don’t think that’s an accurate rendition.  He wasn’t talking about his own body.

Or just his own body. He was talking about the body of the True Teacher.

The True Teacher appears when sincere practitioners gather together.

What could you call that True Teacher?

You could say that we’re not him, that we’ll never be him, but we can be a part of him, this body of sincere practitioners.

I believe Bodhidharma was referring to the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of The True Teacher, not his own puny body and mind.

In Buddhism there is the idea that the Buddha has three bodies; his historical body, the universal body (dharmakaya) ,and a third body, which is sometimes called the body of joy.

I think that the third body is more accurately rendered as the True Teacher; we could call that person Sangha Buddha. 

Thus we have the historical Buddha, the Reality Buddha and the Sangha Buddha.

Those three Buddhas are not three separate jewels But the one Jewel, seen differently.


383. The banality of reincarnation

Before he became the Buddha, the Buddha is said to have had 500 lives as a Bodhisattva. 

Originally the word ‘bodhisattva’ was only used for these previous lives. 

But here’s the thing: a Buddha is someone who fully understands the nature of interdependence—the fact that there is no fixed, immutable self. 

And that is a clue about how we might think about reincarnation, because to think about it seriously is not to think about it literally.

Ordinarily, reincarnation is thought of as there being a self or a soul that goes from one life to another. That’s obviously un-Buddhist in the sense that Buddhists deny that there is a fixed self. 

But also in a more subtle way. If this life, this existence, is simply one in a series of ongoing linked threads, then the fabric of all beings can never be woven.

So we oppose reincarnation in this sense, not because it’s implausible, but because it is banal, and it separates that which should not be separated.

And it does that by leaving unexamined the idea of this person. Almost the whole point of Buddhism is to claim that when we look seriously at our experience, it is very difficult for us to say there is a single, fixed, indivisible self. Rather, it is as if there is a multitude inside us:  certainly in my case a good number of idiots; some kind and wise people; lots and lots of beings, as it were.

The point of practice is not to elevate some of those beings and to exile others, but to actualize the vast compassionate space which holds all beings. 


When we practise, we’re practising within this small space—traditionally this 12 foot square space. Within this space everything matters and everything is interconnected. Nothing is background.

Through this practice, one which is not a practice of the self, those walls can become fluid, pellucid. And so, even although the room remains tiny, no beings are excluded.


376. Mappo

In traditional Buddhism there’s an idea of the various Ages that the world goes through. 

In the time of  the historical Buddha, we’re in the first Age, which lasts for about 500 years.In that time, it’s easy for people to be liberated.  Following that there’s an Age that’s not quite so good.Liberation is much more difficult. Following that is an age that’s distinctly degenerate. Liberation is impossible. And following that agre, Buddhism disappears.  We simply have to wait for the next Buddha to come along

But I wonder if there’s a different way of regarding these Ages. 

You could say that all the ages are all there, all at the same time.  But one has more prominence than the others.  If you look at China, for instance, Chinese Buddhism doesn’t really acquire any of these distinctive characteristics until about 500 years or so after Buddhism first arrives in China.

At that point there is an incredible flowering of Chinese Buddhist culture, evidenced in, amongst others, the ‘Awakening the Faith in Mahayana’ and the writings the T’ien Tai school,  the Huayan school, the Zen school, and the Pure Land school.

Similarly, in Japan, it takes about 500 years or so between the arrival of Buddhism and the flowering that it had in the 13th century of distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism; specifically for us the Buddhism of Dogen but also Nichiren, Shinran and others that all appeared much about the same time. 

It seems to me that when Buddhism first goes to a different culture, that’s its degenerate phase. It’s degenerate because the characteristic way that civilizations will deal with something new is that they’ll either imitate it or they’ll attempt to assimilate it to existing ideas.

We can see this very clearly in the West.  In terms of imitation, we’ve all these people dressing themselves up as Asian monks and constructing dojos that purport to replicate medieval Japanese dojos and so on. 

And we have assimilationists.  Much [but not all] of the Mindfulness Movement would be in that category. They say well, this is Buddhism, but we can fit it within our ideas of wellness and individual development. We can  get rid of all the historical  barnacles that disguise that. 

I think that we are not, at least on the surface, in a great stage of Buddhism.  The degenerate stage occurs first and a long time into our future —hundreds of years perhaps, at that point, there’s the potential for us; both to take Buddhism seriously and to understand it; but also to have digested it.

So then what comes out of us is something valuable—something genuinely new. 


372. The Three Natures

In the  Yogacara  perspective  there are said to be three natures:  the  conditioned nature, the dependent nature,  and the perfected nature.

The conditioned nature  is the way that the ordinary person  sees the world; as constructed of  familiar  objects, as seen conceptually.

The dependent nature, is seeing  everything as  impermanent, as interdependent. 

The  perfected nature  is seeing everything as  suchness. 

The metaphor  which is used to explain the distinction  between these three  natures is the metaphor of  a person with cataracts seeing  flowers in the sky. Flowers which obviously aren’t  there. In the conditioned nature, a person seeing these  flowers in the sky, unaware he has cataracts,  will think of  the sky flowers as real.

For the dependent nature  the person seeing these sky flowers  realises that he has cataracts and so he understands  that the phenomena of sky flowers,  is simply  generated  by  a matrix of causes and conditions.  The fact that he has cataracts,  the pattern of  light  playing  on his cataracts and so on.

In the perfected nature  the person with cataracts  understands that the sky flowers are  neither  real or  unreal. They’re not  real because they’ve no  self nature  yet they’re not unreal because all experience is real. That position,  where  there is plainly  experience but  where one cannot assert a self  behind that  experience, or behind phenomena, is suchness.

The problem  with  schemas such as this  is  that they can be quite  bloodless. It seems that they’re  inviting us  to  understand the world in a conceptual way. That’s very unfortunate  because what these apparent concepts are  designed to do  is to  take us into  an emotional,  feeling position, because that’s where we change. 

You could say that  in the dependent nature  it’s as if I’m travelling through  the landscape of my life—like in a  train or like a car. I’m seeing my life—but I’m seeing it  in a disconnected  way. It has a  slightly unreal  quality to it  and I’m  not  intimately  part of it. 

For the  dependent nature  it’s as if in a dream. I’m always running towards something, yet just as  I’m  approaching it, it vanishes into nothingness.

In the perfected nature  I understand – at a  visceral  level –  that all  experience  is a miracle.


368. The door is always open

A central idea within Mahayana Buddhism is the Dharmakaya,  the universal body of the Buddha — the whole universe is the body of the Buddha.

Although this is quite difficult for us, it’s a perspective which is fairly constant within Chinese Buddhism. It appears in various forms.

For example,in the Huayan school, the foundational idea is derived from the proposition that everything’s empty.  And because, like space, emptiness is one, there’s not a billion, billion pieces of emptiness.

And because that is so, each thing is all things and each thing is identical with each other thing. Identical, because different. 

There is a striking resemblance with Spinoza’s idea that there is nothing which is not God.

What this supports – and this is the real point –  is the insight that our liberation is not transcendent. There is not some other special place that we need to go to—it’s not attainment. 

It is understanding that our true nature and the nature of this world is not separate.  The perspective is immanent rather than transcendent. That changes everything.

The dharmakaya is ‘virtual’ in the Deleuzian sense: it only appears through individual things. These individual things are both in their particular dharma position, but also, in their emptiness, they escape from that particularity.

We’re not confined within the boundaries either of our own skin or of the feeble stories we tell ourselves. 

The dharmakaya, erroneously thought of as a proposition about the nature of reality, is quite abstract. Huayan makes it brilliantly real.  The whole universe, like a body, is whole, integrated, diverse and alive—each part is its own part and is also whole. 

We need to understand that the door is always open.


361. What is meant by ‘Mind’?

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.


360. Entirely bodhisattvas

The four bodhisattva vows are –  in one sense – a response to the four noble truths.

The first two noble truths are that our life is unsatisfactory (‘suffering’, in the traditional language), and the cause of that suffering is ignorance, which creates a belief that there is a permanent self, which in turn causes desire, aversion and attachment, which perpetuates suffering.

The third noble truth is that there’s a way out of this suffering, which the fourth noble truth identifies: the noble eightfold path.

 It is, quintessentially, a solo perspective. Someone living alone on an island or living a solitary existence in the forest could practice these four noble truths.

The bodhisattva vows aren’t like that.  They are a creative and compassionate response to suffering, not primarily through recognizing the unreality of a fixed self, but by recognizing and trying to live within the oneness of everything.

The term ‘bodhisattva’ was originally used for the Buddha alone, describing his 500 lives before he became the Buddha. 

It was only in the Mahayana sutras that bodhisattva became wider in meaning, and eventually ubiquitous. For example, in the Lotus sutra, there is a scene where countless bodhisattvas, who have been concealing themselves for aeons in an empty space within the earth, burst forth.

Mahayana practitioners often refer to fellow practitioners as bodhisattvas.  

Just as the first of the pre-socratic philosophers Thales said,”Everything is full of gods”, from the  Mahayana perspective everything is, as it were, full of bodhisattvas.

So when we talk in terms of the first bodhisattva vow—All living beings, I vow to save them- we’re not talking about a unitary self being compassionate towards other unitary selves and things. We’re talking about an entirely reconfigured world and person, which is entirely 



353. The Treasure House

The last sentence of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, his universal recommendation of Zazen is, “The treasure house will open by itself and you may use it freely.”

The meaning of his masterwork Shobogenzo is The Treasury (Zo) of the True Dharma Eye.

When we hear treasury we may well think of it as being a piece of poetic ornamentation that we can safely disregard.

We can’t, because it’s the key to illuminating a neglected major influence on Zen— Yogacara. We think of ourselves as descending simply from Nagarjuna and the emptiness teachings, but it’s not true. 

 When the Chinese were looking for a suitable word for tathagatagarbha, which can mean Buddha embryo or Buddha womb, the word they chose was Zong

Zong variously means treasure house—womb—depository—storehouse. ‘Zo’ is the Japanese translation of ‘Zong’. This decisively shifted the idea of Buddha Nature from something that will happen to something present now. The argument which then took place within Chinese Buddhism was whether all beings or only some beings had this—the universal view eventually winning out.

And when the Chinese came to render alaya consciousness, storehouse consciousness

(the 8th and foundational consciousness in the Yogacara system) they used the same word—Zong.

In this way, two ideas which were distinct, Alaya consciousness and inherent Buddha Nature, came to be closely linked. The identity of the two seems to have originated in the Lankavatara Sutra, which was Indian, but which was brought to China – symbolically, one imagines – by Bodhidharma, the first Zen Patriarch.

Yogacara as a school didn’t prosper in China, perhaps because of its denial of universal Buddha nature, and although it remained a major strand of Zen, its influence was concealed in Zen mythology by the Sixth Patriarch’s emphasis on The Diamond Sutra (one of the prajnaparamita sutras) rather than The Lankavatara Sutra. The creators of the Platform Sutra, our source for ‘information’ about him, were almost certainly adherents of the Oxhead School, the Zen School which cleaved most closely to Nagarjuna.

Once uncovered, you can see Yogacara’s influence everywhere. For example, there is a very close affinity between Dogen’s Kuge and the ‘three natures’ set out in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the primary Yogacara Sutra, as well as the simile of ‘Sky Flowers’ which appears in that sutra. 

It’s hard to see at first, because Zen language is poetical, vigorous and everyday whereas Yogacara is academic and hairsplitting, but it’s clearly there.

Arguably Yogacara is a major component of Zen, but Zogacara in a Chinese sense, one perhaps Indian Buddhists wouldn’t recognize , and which modern Zen has actively concealed, perhaps because of a misunderstanding about Yogacara.

That misunderstanding is to see Yogacara as Idealistic rather than Phenomenological. If we see it making statements about the nature of our experience, rather than the nature of reality, then we can see it as the logical development of Nagarjuna, not as some embarrassing Indian exoticism which denies the reality of anything other than the mind. It is the other side of Emptiness, as it were, considering it from the subjective side, rather than the objective side of Nagarjuna.