That which is commonly called “mind” is best understood within the context of the teaching on the eight consciousnesses.
If we observe clearly the process of perception, we will recognize that mere contact between sense organs and sense objects does not guarantee perception. When we are distracted, even a well-functioning eye with a clear view of a particular object will not ‘register’ the perception of that object. We may be staring right at our keys, for example, and not see them, until someone tells us that they are in front of us.
It is necessary for there to be an eye consciousness, or attention to the contact between the sense organ and the sense object, for us to perceive that object. Similarly, an ear consciousness is required to perceive the contact between the ear (the organ of hearing) and a sound, and the same holds true for every other sense.
Thus, any understanding of the mind requires that we acknowledge the function of five sense consciousnesses:
- Ear Consciousness: attention to the contact between the organ of hearing and a sound;
- Body Consciousness: attention to the contact between the organ of touch and a tangible object;
- Eye Consciousness: attention to the contact between the organ of sight and a visible form;
- Tongue Consciousness: attention to the contact between the organ of taste and a flavor; and
- Nose Consciousness: attention to the contact between the olfactory organ and an odor or smell.
However, not all of our perceptions require contact between a sense organ and a sense object, as there can be internal perceptions, as in memories or dreams. In both cases, there can be a purely mental representation of perceptions that would usually require such contact. For example, we can remember the taste of our mother’s cooking and dream of seeing an old friend, without the mediation of the tongue or the eyes.
Thus, to the above mentioned five sense consciousnesses, we must add a sixth:
6. Mind Consciousness: attention to an internal perception unmediated by contact between a sense organ and a sense object.
All perceptions, whether mediated by contact between sense organs and sense objects or mentally generated, are appropriated and assimilated by an imputed self, the ego or defiled consciousness. It is this mental function which determines that a particular perception is “my perception”.
To the above six consciousnesses, we then must add a seventh:
7. Defiled Mind Consciousness: an appropriating function that assimilates the experience as “mine”.
This Defiled Mind Consciousness also turns ‘inward’ and imputes identity, permanence, and independence to the mere collection of all appropriated experiences. This collection, or experiential storehouse, is the eighth consciousness:
8. Storehouse Consciousness: the repository of all experiences of a particular mental continuum, imputed by the Defiled Mind Consciousness to be a permanent, independent ‘self’.
These eight consciousnesses constitute what we know as the ordinary mind.
However, supporting these eight consciousnesses of the ordinary mind, there is an unobstructed expanse, a luminous clarity in which all thoughts arise, much like a clear sky is the space in which clouds appear and disappear, without affecting its empty, unobstructed nature.
It is this luminous clarity of the mind —its true nature—that we approach in meditation, when the agitation of the eight consciousnesses settles into the peace of the profound, non-dual ground, our Buddha Nature.