SIX VIJÑANA MIND MODEL
One of the ways to understand how conceptions of psychology have changed since the time of the Buddha is by looking at how the model of the mind has elaborated. In the earliest scriptures, the Buddha talks in terms of six vijñanas. These are the five senses plus “manovijñana”. Manovijñana is, as it were “the mind's eye” except that in this conception there is no mind separate from these six. In this earliest model, these six constitute the complete basis of what we call mind. What is thought of as self was understood as an illusory effect of the repetitiveness of the activity of these six.
An implication of this model is that the mind composed in this way has no content. What we nowadays think of as the content of the mind was conceived to be external. Buddha talks of eighteen dhatu or “bases”. These are the six vijnaña faculties (eye, ear, etc), their respective objects (sights, sounds, etc.) and the power that links the two. So when we say that we have something “in mind”, this was conceived as the manovijñana perceiving a mind object via a mind object power. So when we say “A thought just came to me,” this was understood in a much more literal sense than we generally intend. The thought did come to us. Perhaps it was brought by a deva. Devas are beings, invisible to most of us, who nonetheless influence our lives. Among other thing, they are the (external) delivery system of the things that we moderns think are inside us.
Now it is an experiential fact that until the thought “just came” one was not conscious of it, so literally one did not have it “in mind”, so this original six vijñana mind model in many ways reflected the phenomenology of mind (the way we actually experience it) with some accuracy.
Later, by the time that the Lankavatara Sutra was composed, this model had been added to. A few centuries after the Buddha people were thinking of the mind as having content and as therefore having a “store”. The word for a store or accumulation is alaya. We are familiar with this word, since it occurs in the name of the mountains north of India, the Himalaya, “him” being snow. The Himalaya are full of snow that just landed there and stuck to other snow until there was a great accumulation. Similarly, it came to be thought that the mind accumulated mental formations (samskara) and that these were stored as the alaya. In time, just as the word "store" can mean both the accumulation (eg. a squirrel’s store of nuts) and the place where the accumulation is kept, alaya became part of the topography of mind. But if the mind has a store - a kind of hard disc, to use a computer analogy - then it also needs a processing unit to do things with these mind contents. This processing unit is called manas. So now we arrive at an eight vijñana model: the six original vijñanas plus manas and the alaya.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE POINT MIND: LOKA
Here, however, I’d like to stay with the six vijnaña model and the eighteen dhatu, since it is interesting to reflect upon a completely different way of conceiving mental process from the one we are used to. There are a number of interesting implications of this model.
If the mind has no content, then it is, as it were, like a point moving about in a domain. There could be a number of domains. These domains are called loka. In particular, the unenlightened mind moves about in the kamaloka. Kama (as in Kamasutra) means sensual desire. The kamaloka is ruled over by Mara, who is the god of death. So the point mind bounces about from one kama to another like a ball in a pinball machine. When the pin ball reaches the bottom, it is shot back up again. In principle there is no reason why this should not go on forever. This is the functioning of samsara.
On the other hand, it might be possible for the mind to bounce right out of the machine, as it were, and land up in a different loka. In particular, it might arrive in the rupaloka. The word rupa originally meant an icon or idol, in other words, something worshiped. Now, to be in a world where everything around you is worthy of worship is quite different from being in a world where everything is an object of craving. The rupaloka, therefore, is a world in which the relation of the six vijnaña to their respective objects is more or less the opposite of what it is in the kamaloka. In the kamaloka, one craves for this, that and the other, so these things have a coercive power, pulling one this way and that, like a cork on the waves. In the rupaloka, however, one worships each thing that comes along, so there is a respectful attitude. This is liberating. With craving one moves toward whereas with reverence one sets oneself at a distance. Thus moving from the kamaloka to the rupaloka is an act of renunciation.
The rupaloka is outside of the domain of Mara. Mara, therefore, strives to ensure that beings do not leave the kamaloka. This is why, when the Buddha was on the point of enlightenment, Mara assailed him with every kind of sensual delight, trying to keep him in the domain of kama. However, the Buddha-to-be had already arrived at a turning away (paravritti) from sensuality and even Mara’s most powerful attempts were to no avail. They were turned into celestial flowers, or rupa, in this original sense of the term. When everything is rupa in this sense, there is still a power at work, but it is functioning in a quite different way. We could say that instead of pulling you down it pulls you up.
Just as in our language terms can have an elevated and a common usage, so rupa in the context of the kamaloka refers to the things that one “worships” in a mundane sense, as some people worship money and others worship status or sex. You can even, in this sense, worship icecream or chocolate or even narcotics. So, in the kamaloka, rupa refers to the way we perceive things when they exercise the power of evoking desire. Rupa in the kamaloka has a power, but it is a mundane rather than a holy power. This mundane power is called marana. You can see “mara” within this word, so marana could be translated as deathness. Everything in the kamaloka is deathly, wasting our lives and yet endlessly pulling us back into more and more wasted incarnations.
Now in our modern way of thinking in which we assume that all this that is described above is actually going on inside our heads rather than in external domains, we naturally tend to think that enlightenment will be some kind of mental content that we are going to acquire, that it is something that is going to be inside us, that we shall discover, say, that we have got Buddha nature in us. We read plenty that tells us that this is not the right way to think of it, but it is a natural tendency when one has a modern sense of psychology.
In the point mind model, on the other hand, what is conceived to be happening is not that the mind is taking things into itself, but that it is moving through lokas. We might, with help from the Buddha, move from the kamaloka into the rupaloka, but this is not all. Beyond the rupaloka is the arupaloka. If rupaloka is the world of icons and idols, arupa is the domain where they are absent. Icons and idols are not worshipped for themselves, but for what they represent. We bow to a statue of Buddha, but we do not think that Buddha is a piece of stone or metal. Beyond the rupa is the dharma and the dharma is formless (arupa). The kamaloka is a domain in which everything is profane; the rupaloka is a domain where everything is holy; the arupaloka is beyond the holy and the profane. In the kamaloka one is seized by the fever of desire. In the rupaloka one is taken up by the holy passion of devotion. In the arupaloka one is at peace.
In addition to the three lokas talked about here there are many other lokas - like the six lokas that we see depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of Life, but most of them are sub-realms of kamaloka. The threefold schema set out in this essay gives an overall framework.
One of the epithets of the Buddha is lokavid. This means that he clearly perceives all the lokas. He can move between them at will because he is lokuttara, which means he has gone beyond them all. He may be most at home in the arupaloka, but compassion requires him to move also in the other lokas in order to reach other beings and help them to escape from the domain of Mara. Thus, in the wheel of life pictures, there is a small Buddha depicted in every domain, even in the hell realms.
Thus, conceptions of mind, mental factors and mental processes, as well as their relation to the world and the nature of the world itself have changed over the centuries. This is the same in all enduring cultures. The world as it was conceived in the time of Jesus was quite different from how it was understood in the middle ages and both the classical and the medieval were vastly different from our modern conception. By medieval times, Buddhism had developed an eight vijñana and even a nine vijñana model and with such a model, internalised mental constructs were recognised and it was even possible for some Buddhist philosophers to go to the opposite extreme and deny the existence of the external world: instead of everything coming from outside, now it could be asserted that everything was projection of mind, but that is another story.
Although the conceptual framework of psychology has changed over the years, the basic message of the Buddha remains the same. It has been a challenge for Buddhist teachers in different ages to find ways to express the Dharma in the idiom of the day. We can ground our practice in a modern psychological framework to good effect. However, there is also some value in trying to project ourselves back into the framework that informed the earliest Buddhist writings as this enables us to understand them better. It also throws our modern ideas into perspective, showing that they are not the only way of thinking about things and this relativisation liberates us from a kind of complacency.
The mind lost in the kamaloka has no hope except to be rescued by Buddha and thus find a refuge. When it does so, it finds itself in the rupaloka where everything points to the arupaloka beyond. Such is the spiritual life. Ultimately there is the state of lokuttara, beyond all of these worlds, which is Buddhahood. This is one of the ways in which Shakyamuni, back in the early days, showed people the Dharma.
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