The mind is not born and does not die. It is our essence. It is the Dharma body of all Buddhas and the wisdom inherent to all sentient beings. The intrinsic nature of the mind is that which embraces all merit, virtue, and wisdom, and turns away from delusion and attachment. All sentient beings have a mind such as this, but its nature is obscured by ignorance and delusion. When the true mind is known, we will grasp its incredible potential. How can we come to know the mind?

Where is the Mind?

The mind neither comes nor goes. It has neither direction nor location. It is not inside, nor is it outside. It is not in between. It leaves no trace anywhere. In the Surangama Sutra, there is a section in which Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, asks the Buddha about the location of the mind. Ananda proposed seven different locations, and the Buddha refutes each one in turn.

Ananda asks the Buddha, “Does mind reside in the body? Does it reside outside the body? Is it hidden in the eyes? Is the mind located in the darkness of the body? Is it located where causes and conditions come together and where existence arises? Is it located between the six sense organs and the six sense objects? Does it not abide anywhere?” In his answers, the Buddha shows Ananda again and again that mind cannot be located nor pinned to any one of these places. If this is so, then where is the mind located?

The mind does not leave a trace, but when we need it, we see that it is everywhere. There is a Buddhist saying, “The mind is neither inside, outside, nor in between. But the mind is completely present in all states.” The mind interpenetrates all things and permeates the ten directions. It is in all places and is present at all times. The mind does not exist in form, nor can any trace of it be found in the material world. That said, there is nowhere that is without the mind, and no time that it does not exist. Where then, do we go to find the mind?

During the Tang dynasty, Chan Master Huairang visited Chan Master Songshan Huian. One day, Huairang asked Huian, “What is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the west?”

Huian turned it around and asked, “Why don’t you ask yourself?”

Huairang then asked, “What is the meaning of self?”

Huian replied, “Pure vision of the hidden function.”

Huairang inquired, “What is the hidden function?”

Chan Master Huian then opened and closed his eyes. At that moment, Huairang had a great awakening.

What opens and closes are our physical eyes, that which gives the command is the true mind. This mind is not separate from us even for an instant, but its presence is ignored by us most of the time.  The mind is called a “hidden function,” because its activity is not obvious, and in fact, often exists without our awareness. There is a Buddhist saying that, “If you want to know the ‘original self,’ see it directly in daily life, for there is no separation.”

The Nature of the Mind

Mind is formless. It has no size, shape, sound, nor smell. It cannot be touched nor held, but when it comes in contact with sense objects it will appear. There is an old Chinese saying, “If you want to understand what the mind is like, it is neither long nor short, neither blue nor white. If you want to see the mind, open your eyes and it is there, close your eyes and it is there. This side is mind and that side is mind.”

Mind is our true nature. It is our Buddha nature. The only reason we do not see our own Buddha nature more clearly is because it is obscured by attachment and delusion, like dust that obscures the surface of a mirror. The Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra says, “The mind is the source of unwholesomeness and the body is a gathering of wrongdoings.” When the sutra speaks about the mind in this way, it is referring to the mind that is obscured by defilement and attachment. This is also called the “mind of sentient beings.” Alternatively, when the mind faces a situation and does not become attached, but instead remains pure and carefree, this is the true mind, the “Buddha mind.”

National Master Zhongfeng (1263-1323) said:

The mind is of several types. The physical mind is part of the body that we inherit from our parents. The conditioned mind creates distinctions between good and bad, and positive and negative in each moment. The spiritual mind is beyond worldly distinctions, is free from confusion, and unchanging. This mind is luminous, preeminent, and unique. The spiritual mind is not greater in sages or lesser among ordinary people. In the ocean of birth and death, it is like a bright pearl that illuminates the sea. On the shore of nirvana, it is like a moon that hangs in the sky.

The Sutra on the Five Kinds of Suffering says, “The mind leads us to hell, the mind leads us to the realm of hungry ghosts, the mind leads us to the animal realm, and the mind leads us to heaven and the human realm. All actions and appearances are created by the mind. Those who can control their minds are the most powerful. Having struggled with the mind for countless kalpas, today I attain Buddhahood and escape from the three realms because of it.”

Buddhist sutras use many metaphors and similes to help us understand the nature of the mind. In the following sections, I will discuss ten of these metaphors in some detail:

  1. The Mind Is Like a Monkey

    The mind is like a monkey, for it is hard to control. There is an old Chinese saying, “the mind is a monkey and thoughts are like horses.” Ordinarily the mind is like an energetic and restless monkey. Active by nature, it jumps around and runs wild in the jungle without a moment of rest.

  2. The Mind Is Like a Flash of Lightning

    The mind is as fast as a flash of lightning or sparks from flint. Nothing moves faster than the mind. From moment to moment, it races through the universe without any obstructions. For example, you may think about traveling to Europe, and in an instant, scenes of Europe will appear in your mind.

  3. The Mind Is Like a Wild Deer

    The mind is like a wild deer chasing the sense objects. When a deer is thirsty, it goes to a stream. When it is hungry, it searches for grass. The mind is like the wild deer, unable to resist the temptations of the five desires of wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep, and the six sense objects. It spends most of its time chasing after sights and sounds of the mundane world to fulfill its appetite.

  4. The Mind Is Like a Thief

    The mind is like a thief, such that it steals our positive karma. The sutras often compare the body to a walled city, the five sense organs to city gates, and our mind to a thief. It carries away our virtue and the merit of our positive karma just as a thief might carry away the hard-earned savings of the people in the town. The Chinese scholar, Wang Yangming (d. 1173) said, “It is easy to capture a bandit in the mountains; it is difficult to catch the thief in the mind.” If we can tame the mind, then we will become its master and increase our positive karma.

  5. The Mind Is Like an Adversary

    The mind is like an adversary, for it causes us suffering. The mind is always causing us trouble. The sutras say, “The nature of negative karma is empty. It is created by the mind. If and when the mind disappears, karma is gone.” Some people may feel that their negative karma is very weighty, such that it is permanent or unchangeable.  But we know that all phenomena are empty by nature, and the nature of karma is the same. Therefore, we can alter negative karma. If we sincerely repent our wrongdoings, we can lessen the effects of our negative karma. The mind always possesses Buddha nature, pure and at ease. It is only because of delusion that we suffer. If we can eliminate these deluded and destructive thoughts, we can befriend the adversary that is the mind.

  6. The Mind Is Like a Servant of Affliction

    The mind is like a servant of affliction, for it is ordered about by worldly temptations. The mind is attached to external circumstances, and creates various afflictions. The sutras describe the mind as having three poisons, five hindrances, and eighty-four thousand afflictions. These hindrances and afflictions can cover up our wisdom, restrain the mind, and cause us to lose our clarity and freedom.

  7. The Mind Is Like a Powerful King

    The mind is like a powerful king, in that it has supreme power over the body. It gives the commands to our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body; produces their sensory output; and controls perception.

  8. The Mind Is Like an Ever-flowing Spring

    The mind is like an ever-flowing spring. It is like China’s Yellow River, in that it frequently changes course. Likewise, because of the world’s growing energy problems we continue to seek “renewable” energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower. The mind is like the rushing rivers that power hydroelectric plants; if we can learn how to apply the renewable energy of the mind, we need not fear scarcity.

  9. The Mind Is Like a Painter

    The Flower Adornment Sutra says, “The mind is like an artist. It can paint all things.” If the mind is pure and good, it will paint beauty and tranquility. If the mind is defiled and malicious it will paint something monstrous. According to an old Buddhist saying, “Appearances are born from the mind.” As the mind becomes a more skillful painter, it can create a world of unlimited beauty and compassion.

  10. The Mind Is Like Boundless Space

    The nature of the mind is like the vastness of space, in that it can embrace everything. The Flower Adornment Sutra says, “If you want to know the state of the Buddha, purify the mind so that it is as vast as space.” Space is boundless; it encompasses all without distinction. If we want to understand the state of the Buddhas, we should open our mind so that it extends as far as space, and eliminate any attachments. Then, we will be able to embrace all things and benefit all sentient beings.

Master Dadian (732-824) said, “The mind without delusion is the true mind.” When a thought arises in our minds, we should observe it. If the thought arises from purity, equality, compassion, and equanimity, it has arisen from the true mind. If the thought arises from delusion, attachment, jealousy, and arrogance, it has arisen from the defiled mind. Wholesome thoughts come from the true mind; unwholesome thoughts come from the defiled mind. When all of our thoughts are wholesome thoughts, then the true mind is everywhere. But when all of our thoughts are unwholesome thoughts, the true mind will be obscured.

The Wondrous Buddha Mind

The true mind belongs to everyone. It is also called the “original self,” the “Dharma body,” and “Buddha nature.” No matter what we do, where we go, or what we think, the mind is always in charge, and always with us. When we are hungry, the mind reminds us to eat; when we are thirsty, it reminds us to drink; when the weather turns cold, it reminds us to put on more clothes. The mind cares for us as a mother does. When we see forms or hear sounds, the mind manifests itself, and when we need clothing or food its great strength and kindness carries us.

Chan Master Deshan of Northern China, an expert on the Diamond Sutra, wrote the Blue Dragon Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. He had heard about the Southern Chan School’s method of “sudden enlightenment,” and he heartily disagreed with it. Therefore, he decided to go to Southern China and debate this method, carrying the Blue Dragon Commentary on the Diamond Sutra with him. On the way, he passed by a small shop. In the shop was a little old lady. Seeing that Deshan wanted to buy some refreshments, she asked him, “What are you carrying on your shoulder?”

Deshan replied, “The Blue Dragon Commentary on the Diamond Sutra.”

The old lady said, “Then, let me test you with a question on the Diamond Sutra. If you can answer it, the refreshments will be free.”

Deshan confidently agreed.

The old lady continued, “The Diamond Sutra says, ‘the mind of the past cannot be obtained, the mind of the present cannot be obtained, and the mind of the future cannot be obtained.’ May I ask: which mind wants to eat refreshments?”

Deshan was stunned and did not know how to answer.

How could the true mind be divided into past, present, and future? The thoughts that we have in this very moment are a function of the true mind. The mind is neither obtainable nor non-obtainable. Chan Master Hanshan captures the wondrousness of the mind in a poem:

My mind is like the autumn moon,

Clear and bright as a jade pool.

Nothing compares to its beauty,

How can I describe it?