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«Abstract In the early Therav›da Buddhist view, the bhavaºga, literally, the “ground of becoming,” may be characterized as a relative vacuum ...»

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“Vacuum States of Consciousness:

A Tibetan Buddhist View”

B. Alan Wallace


In the early Therav›da Buddhist view, the bhavaºga, literally, the “ground of

becoming,” may be characterized as a relative vacuum state of consciousness,

voided of all manner of mental activity known as javana. This appears to be

identical to the substrate consciousness (›layavijñ›na) asserted in the later Great

Perfection (Dzogchen) school of Tibetan Buddhism. This state of consciousness is presented not simply as a philosophical speculation but as an experienced mental phenomenon that can be accessed through the achievement of meditative quiescence (Ÿamatha). According to the Great Perfection school, primordial consciousness (jñ›na) may be regarded as an ultimate ground state of consciousness, and it can allegedly be ascertained non-dually through the cultivation of contemplative insight (vipaŸyan›). These relative and ultimate vacuum states of consciousness bear remarkable similarities with the definitions of relative and absolute vacuum states of space presented in contemporary physics. The Buddhist and scientific views may be regarded as complementary, each having its own strengths and weaknesses.

Key Words javana, mental activity bhavaºga, ground of becoming ›layavijñ›na, substrate consciousness dharmadh›tu, absolute space of phenomena jñ›na, primordial consciousness relative and absolute vacuum states Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Hebrew people were living in exile in Babylon, with their prophets crystallizing their religious faith and belief in the one true God. In doing so, they were creating the paradigm for what we in the West now call religion. During the same period, the first Greek pre-Socratic thinkers on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor were emphasizing the use of speculative reason in the quest for the one fundamental stuff underlying the physical world. In doing so, they were laying the foundations for what we now call philosophy and science. In the meantime, another way of exploring reality was emerging in India that has played at most a peripheral role in the West, but which has the potential to provide an important bridge between religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy on the other.

In the midst of this diverse social milieu, a loose-knit movement of counter-cultural contemplatives (Ÿr›ma˚as) emerged, consisting of individuals who were primarily interested in fathoming by means of direct experience the nature and potentials of consciousness and its relation to the lived world of experience (loka). Their primary means for exploring the mind was first subjugating the passions, then developing advanced degrees of meditative concentration (sam›dhi). Considering their focus on spiritual liberation (mok˝a), we might regard this movement as a religious reformation; or, given their emphasis on observation, experimentation, and reason, it could be deemed a scientific revolution. But I find it more fitting to call it a Noetic Revolution, drawing from the Greek term noetos, referring to the cognitive faculty that apprehends non-sensuous phenomena.

The Buddhist exploration of the mind and the rest of the natural world, which grew out of this Noetic Revolution, began with Siddhartha Gautama, but it did not end with him. Since his time, one hundred generations of Buddhist contemplatives have engaged in their own investigations, following his themes of pragmatism, skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism. Out of these centuries of inquiry has emerged a theory of consciousness that first of all distinguishes between mental activity, called javana, and the mental ground out of which such activity emerges, known as the bhavaºga.1 The early Buddhist term javana refers to all types of active mental processes, including sensory perceptions, discursive thoughts, memories, intentions, desires, and imagination. These are the dynamic processes of the space of the mind, many of which can be observed by means of mental perception.

The cognitive basis of all mental activities and sensory perceptions is the bhavaºga, literally, the ground of becoming, which supports all kinds of javana, as the root of a tree sustains the trunk, branches, and leaves.2 This is the resting, ground state of consciousness, withdrawn from the physical senses. While all mental and sensory processes are conditioned by the body and the environment, in the Buddhist view they actually emerge from the bhavaºga, not the brain.

Described as the natural, unencumbered state of the mind, its innate radiance and purity are present even when the mind is obscured by afflictive thoughts and emotions.3 The bhavaºga may be characterized as a “vacuum” state of consciousness, voided of all manner of javana. Generally speaking, it is indiscernible while the mind is active, for it normally manifests only in dreamless sleep and during the very last moment of a person’s life. Indeed, Buddha declared that there are multiple similarities in the cognitive processes while falling asleep and dying.4 To unlock this natural purity and luminosity of consciousness so that its radiant potential is revealed, one must calm the involuntary activity of the mind through the practice of meditative quiescence.5 In this way, one can see through the superficial turbulence of the mind into its limpid depths. In the Buddhist view, the bhavaºga acts as the basis for all volitional states of consciousness, and thus for karma; and it is therefore the basis for the emergence of the world experienced by each individual.

The world each of us experiences does not consist of an independent subject observing independent objective phenomena. Rather, the various modes of sensory and mental consciousness arise from moment to moment in relation to the phenomena that appear to them and in dependence upon those cognitive faculties. The duality of subject and object is something conceptually superimposed on experience, not something that is discovered through empirical observation. So without resorting to the stance of philosophical idealism, it may be said that the bhavaºga serves as the nondual source of creation of each person’s experienced-world-and-its-experiencer.

The above account of javana and the bhavaºga is based on the Buddha’s discourses recorded in the P›li language and their earliest commentaries. A remarkably similar description of the ground state of consciousness appears in the later Great Perfection (Dzogchen) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Here a distinction is made between the substrate (›laya) and the substrate consciousness (›layavijñ›na). Tibetan contemplatives describe the substrate as the objective, empty space of the mind. This vacuum state is immaterial like space, a blank, unthinking void into which all objective appearances of the physical senses and mental perception dissolve when one falls asleep; and it is out of this vacuum that appearances re-emerge upon waking.6 The subjective consciousness of this mental vacuum is called the substrate consciousness. In the natural course of a life, this is repeatedly experienced in dreamless sleep and finally experienced in the moment before death. A contemplative may consciously probe this dimension of consciousness through the practice of meditative quiescence, in which discursive thoughts become dormant and all appearances of oneself, others, one’s body and one’s environment vanish. At this point, as in the cases of sleeping and dying, the mind is drawn inwards and the physical senses become dormant. What remains is a state of radiant, clear consciousness that is the basis for the emergence of all appearances to an individual’s mind-stream. All phenomena appearing to sensory and mental perception are imbued with the clarity of this substrate consciousness. Like the reflections of the planets and stars in a pool of limpid, clear water, so do the appearances of the entire phenomenal world appear within this empty, clear substrate consciousness. Contemplatives who have penetrated to this state of consciousness describe it as “an unfluctuating state, in which one experiences bliss like the warmth of a fire, luminosity like the dawn, and nonconceptuality like an ocean unmoved by waves.”7 The above description can easily be misinterpreted as an expression of philosophical idealism. However, these contemplatives are not claiming that the entire universe is of the nature of the mind, only that one’s individual world of appearances arises from this substrate consciousness. Moreover, the qualities of bliss, luminosity, and nonconceptuality associated with the realization of the substrate consciousness have led many contemplatives to mistake this for the ultimate nature of reality, or nirv›˚a. But simply dwelling in this relative vacuum state of consciousness does not liberate the mind of its afflictive tendencies or their resultant suffering. By fathoming the nature of the substrate consciousness, one comes to know the nature of consciousness in its relative ground state. This realization, however, does not illuminate the nature of reality as a whole. It is also important not to confuse this substrate consciousness with a collective unconscious, as conceived by Carl Jung. Buddhist accounts of the substrate consciousness all refer to it as an individual stream of consciousness that carries on from one lifetime to the next.

The Buddhist tradition claims that the appearances to our senses do not exist in external, physical space, independent of perception. Likewise, the objects that make up our experienced world, each of them imbued with sensory attributes, such as color, taste, smell, and texture, are not to be found in the objective space described by modern physics. But within the context of our experienced world, it is conventionally valid to say that the physical objects we perceive in the world around us, such as planets and stars, exist within the external, intersubjective space of consciousness; and the mental objects we perceive, such as thoughts and mental images, exist in the internal, subjective space of the consciousness of each individual.

Neuroscientists commonly assume the human brain exists in the real, objective space of physics, but all their sensory images and concepts of the brain appear in the space of consciousness. Moreover, all the sensory images of space experienced by physicists arise within the external space of their consciousness, and all their concepts of space emerge within the internal space of consciousness.

Although we may believe in the existence of space independent of consciousness, all our concepts of such real, objective space arise within the space of consciousness. As for the relation between sensory images and their related objects believed to exist in the objective world independent of consciousness, neurologist Antonio Damasio acknowledges, “There is no picture of the object being transferred from the object to the retina and from the retina to the brain.”8 To generalize, the appearances to our senses are not replicas, or re-presentations, of phenomena in objective, physical space. They are fresh creations arising in the space of consciousness. Likewise, our concepts of space and the objects within it are not replicas of anything existing independently of the mind. In short, the brain believed by neuroscientists to exist in real, objective space is as devoid of consciousness as is the physical space conceived of by physicists.

Neither the external space of the physical senses nor the internal space of the mind exists in the brain, nor are any of the contents of such external or internal space located inside the head. Within the context of the experienced world, the demarcation between external and internal space is one of convention, not absolute reality. We may experience mental images, for example, not only in our “mind’s eye,” with our eyes closed and our attention withdrawn from the physical world. We may also superimpose mental images on our sensory fields of experience. For example, we may imagine the face of a man on the moon or an archer outlined in a configuration of stars.

Does the face or the archer we imagine exist in internal space or external space? They are free creations of the mind, yet they appear to be in external space; but that external space may be singularly subjective, not intersubjectively experienced by all competent observers. On the other hand, when we turn our attention inwards and focus on a mental image of the moon, the image we perceive mentally may be virtually identical to other people’s mental images of the moon. While occurring in the internal space of our minds, it is more intersubjective than the images we externally superimpose on the constellations.

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