Learning & Practice

Understanding the Heart-Mind (Consciousness)

“If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows them like a never-departing shadow.”

— Buddha

Let's now turn to the concept of the heart-mind or consciousness as it relates to the Path of the Everyday Bodhisattva. At Rooted In Mindfulness (RIM), we acknowledge teachings from many schools of Buddhism. One school within the Mahayana tradition is known as Yogacara. This tradition, sometimes called the 'Mind-Only' school, places significant emphasis on the role of consciousness in interpreting and shaping our reality. According to Yogacara, we have eight types of consciousness. The first five are associated with the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Today, we'll focus on the sixth, seventh, and eighth consciousnesses.

  • The sixth consciousness, often called the 'thinking consciousness,' is associated with the discriminative and conceptual mind. It's responsible for our ability to distinguish, label, assess, and reason. It's also where our likes and dislikes, our attachments and aversions, thoughts, and emotions take shape.
  • The seventh consciousness, or 'manas,' is the seat of self-clinging and self-identity. It apprehends our experience through the lens of I, me, and mine. It’s here that we conceive of a 'self' and 'other,' often leading to feelings of separation, possessiveness, and defensiveness. It has a strong affinity, but is not identical, to the common western concept of ego.
  • The eighth consciousness, also known as 'alaya-vijnana' or the 'storehouse consciousness,' is like a repository of all our experiences, impressions, and karmic seeds. It is not a fixed “thing”, rather it is a dynamic process that “remembers” and manifests according to the convergence of past experience with present moment experiences. It’s from here that our habitual tendencies and patterns emerge.

Now, how does this relate to our practice of cultivating Bodhicitta and upholding the Bodhisattva vows? Let's explore.

The late and great Dharma Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expressed the process of the consciousnesses beautifully; “Whether we have happiness or not depends on the seeds in our consciousness. If our seeds of compassion, understanding, and love are strong, those qualities will be able to manifest in us. If the seeds of anger, hostility and sadness in us are strong, then we will experience much suffering. To understand someone, we have to be aware of the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. And we need to remember that his is not solely responsible for those seeds. His ancestors, parents, and society are co-responsible for the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. When we understand this, we are able to feel compassion for that person. With understanding and love, we will know how to water our own beautiful seeds and those of others, and we will recognize seeds of suffering and find ways to transform them.”

When we set the intention to care for all beings, abandon harmful patterns, enter all Dharma gates, and fully embody the Dharma Way, we're essentially working with each of these levels of consciousness. We're inviting our thinking consciousness to align with wisdom and compassion. We're challenging the self-centeredness of manas by embracing an altruistic, other-focused orientation. And we're transforming the seeds in our storehouse consciousness by nurturing positive habits and weakening negative ones.

In other words, our Bodhisattva vows serve as a powerful tool for reshaping our heart-mind and aligning our actions and intentions with the path of awakening. As we internalize these vows, they become part of our consciousness, guiding our behavior and responses in everyday life.

Please keep in mind that the process of transformation of consciousness is mostly a gradual process of self-cultivation and self-purification. But with heartfelt sincerity and commitment, we can positively transform our heart-mind and awaken the Bodhisattva within us.

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