Thich Nhat Hanh on mind and consciousness

During a question-and-answer session at a 2012 retreat in the UK, Thay was asked, “What is this consciousness, this mind? Is it just a part of my physical body? Or is it something else? What is it and where does it come from?”

Below is Thay’s answer.

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

In neuro-science, they speak of ‘background consciousness’, which is very much equivalent to our ‘store consciousness’.

In Buddhism, we speak of store consciousness as a part of consciousness that always operates, day and night. Store consciousness is capable of receiving information, storing information, processing information, and learning. 

When you drive a car, it is store consciousness that is driving, not your mind consciousness. In the beginning, when you learn driving, you have to use your mind consciousness. You have to focus your attention. It is difficult. But in the process of doing so, store consciousness learns. And eventually, you don’t have to think about it, and can drive while your mind is thinking about other things. So, it is the store consciousness that is doing most practical things, including driving. 

During the night, your mind consciousness might be in a dream. You might imagine you are swimming in an icy lake. If your body feels cold, your hand reaches out for a blanket. That is store consciousness, not mind consciousness.

Mind consciousness is much slower. While you are driving, if you encounter something and very quickly avoid an accident, that is store consciousness. It has learned and reacted very quickly. If you had to wait for your mind to make a decision, it might be too late. 

That is why we can conclude that the mind is slower, and more expensive also. Because our brain spends a lot of energy, while our store spends much less. 

Mind consciousness is a kind of consciousness that can, from time to time, stop operating altogether, while store consciousness continues always. 

When you are in a coma, mind consciousness may stop completely. Or when you enter a kind of concentration called no-mind concentration, you also completely stop your mind. There is no thinking at all. And mind consciousness can operate jointly with eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose, tongue, body. And the mind can operate alone. When you shut down the windows of the five senses, the mind can work by itself. 

When you practice deep concentration, you can ignore everything happening around you; you close all the five sense doors, and are deep in meditation with mind consciousness. And mind consciousness can be in a state of concentration, or mind consciousness can be in a state of confusion.

The opposite of concentration is a dispersed mind. And mind consciousness can also be in a state of psychosis. 

In the teaching of the Buddha, both mind consciousness and store consciousness must lean on the body. They cannot manifest without the body. And the body can also not be on its own without consciousness. So body and mind ‘inter-are’. It’s like the left and the right. 

If you think that the body can be without the mind, that is wrong. That is not a living body, that is a dead body. That is why the mind must lean on the body to be a mind, and the body has to lean on the mind in order to be a body. Mind and body inter-are; they manifest at the same time. 

You cannot say that the body is first and the mind is later. There is a process of mutual manifestation. And if you go deeper, you see that the mind is a kind of body, and the body is a kind of mind. Your body is, first of all, an object of your mind. 

Not only your body, but everything else, like a flower or a tree or a mountain; you may think that they are objects existing outside of your mind. But there is only one thing that you can be sure of: that the mountain, the flower, and the tree are objects of your mind. You cannot demonstrate that these things exist outside of your mind – yet you still behave as if they do.

But, in this teaching, your body, your environment, everything is an object of your mind. That is why, in the teaching of Buddha, there are four realms of meditation. You meditate on your body, your feelings, your perceptions, and on the objects of your perception, which is the object of your mind.

The mind is an object of meditation, and the objects of the mind are an object of meditation, instead of saying mind and reality are outside of the mind. And in Buddhism, we always say mind and objects of mind. The mind and objects of the mind inter-are. Without the mind, there are no objects of the mind. Without objects of the mind, there is no mind. And if you look deeply, you see that the notion of mind and matter should be removed. Our distinction between mind and matter is an obstacle. And nowadays, scientists have discovered that an elementary particle is very intelligent. There is mind in it. 

So, when we look at the planet Earth, if we see it as a block of matter, we are wrong. We have to begin to see the Earth as a living organism. And to describe the Earth as the mind only is wrong. To describe Mother Earth as matter only is wrong. We have to transcend both notions. And the same applies to us.

In Buddhism, we say ‘nama-rupa’: body and mind. But nama and rupa lean on each other to manifest. And yesterday, we learned about action. Our action continues always, and our action is a kind of energy, produced by us.

And energy can manifest itself into mind-body again and again. And, if we live in mindfulness, we can ensure a more beautiful continuation in the future as nama-rupa, mind-body. Mind-body is not two.    

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  1. It s something to consider and deepen . Our views need to make a shift. Thank you for this wonderful tech presentation.

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