The Direct Teaching described by Master Huìnéng (638–713 c.e.), the founder of Zen, is at once immediate and elusive. In his teachings, compiled in the Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra (citations below refer to page numbers in this text), he describes his realization of the Original Mind in ways that are simple and profound: he begins his teaching by telling his students to simply attend to the purity of their own nature (7). Yet this recognition of the fundamental purity of mind cannot be attained, achieved, or worked towards. There is no direct nor gradual teaching (47), and relying on will or intellect is a mistake (25). These apparent paradoxes are pointing at a greater, all-encompassing truth, and this approach to awakening is perhaps no better articulated than in his statement “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi”. What a conundrum! Certainly ordinary people don’t experience themselves as Buddha, nor do they experience tumultuous emotions as the awakened mind (bodhi बोधि). This warrants further investigation.
Mental affliction (kleśa, क्लेश in the Sanskrit language) is described as anything that disturbs a person’s perfect peace of mind: not a perfect unmoving stillness, but rather the ability for the mind to be “everywhere engaged but nowhere attached” (32). Being free of kleśa does not necessarily preclude the existence of thoughts and feelings. Instead, one’s personal sense of peace is undisturbed by whatever passes through the contents of consciousness. Indeed, Master Huìnéng describes quite pointedly that the blissful realm of the Buddhas is no further away than our own immediate experience: “A person’s own physical body is the city of the Pure Land,” he tells us, “the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and tactile sense are its gates.” In addition he describes the “inner gate, the gate of consciousness.” (41) So indeed the experience of awakening to Buddhahood is imminent, to be found in one’s own sensuous and intellectual experiences.
The mind is interpreting the senses, compiling and labeling the incoming raw data to create the narrative of experience. This process takes a split second, so the mind—one’s own self-consciousness—is continually a moment behind actual reality. In that moment the present becomes the past. The mind is continually trying to keep up with the present moment as sense data becomes memory, and thus the story of one’s life unfolds.
In the buddhist understanding of perception, this process is occurring mostly in the eighteen dhātu (धातु): the sense organs (eyes, ears, olfactory nerves in the sinus cavities, tongue, and peripheral nervous system), the sense objects (light and color, vibrations through a fluid, vapors or particulate chemicals, chemicals in solids or liquids, and physical vibrations on or near the body), and the sense consciousnesses that mediate between the two. Buddhist physiology includes an additional sixth sense: consciousness or the mental sense, which perceives mental objects, such as thoughts and feelings, distinct from the other five senses. The mind (itself an elusive concept) then collects all this sense data from the sense consciousnesses, classifies it as pleasant or unpleasant, and applies labels and names to create a narrative for the ego to ride along. The sense data is essentially neutral; it’s the interpretation that creates thoughts and feelings which are upsetting, whether pleasantly or unpleasantly so. Perturbing experiences are actually purely mental.
According to evolutionary biology, emotions developed over time as mammal nervous systems became more sophisticated, communities began to form, and interactions with the environment became more complex. When creatures from the sea made their way onto land their range of vision increased by virtue of the fact that light can travel much further through air than through water. For the first time creatures could see predators and other dangers long before they encountered them, and this created an opportunity to evaluate options and consider how to react.
Disgust and fear were the first emotions to develop. Disgust is a primitive emotion to help an organism avoid substances which would be toxic if consumed. Fear is clearly a reaction to potentially dangerous situations which triggers enhanced senses and faster reflexes, but today is activated by perceived threats such as information coming from the news media. Pride, in which puffing up the chest increases lung capacity and makes one look larger to a potential opponent, has evolved to relate to conveying social status and is generally considered to be a positive emotion, while contempt is a later evolutionary development specifically for primate alphas conveying social status to boisterous and competitive youngsters. The point here is that emotions are physiological reactions to stimulus which have changed in function as animals have formed complex social structures. Disgust is rarely biologically required to prevent one from drinking contaminated water or eating putrified food but is still useful for conveying to another person when they exhibit behavior which is socially unacceptable. Indeed, perhaps many emotions could be interpreted very differently today than when they were strictly necessary for survival. (See Paul Ekman’s research on emotion for more information on this topic.)
Relating the above to Master Huìnéng’s assertion, it seems plausible that the reaction to stimulus could be altered, or the imposed narrative dropped altogether. Master Huìnéng alludes to this process of reinterpreting the afflicted mental states into the pure mind of a Buddha when he describes a method of practice: “transform the three poisons [greed, hatred, and delusion] into morality, contemplative calm, and insight” (27). He states that a person could live a life of happiness, and that bliss is imminently accessible: “Ordinary deluded people do not realize that the Pure Land is within themselves” (39).
The Pure Land he is referencing is the abode of a specific perfected being, a Buddha named Amitabha. This enlightened being is part of a matrix of Buddhas of transformation, collectively known as the Buddha Families. They’re called families because they include the collection of beings who share a particular mental affliction in common (though of course all unenlightened beings experience all the afflicted states at some time or another).
There are many correspondences to each of the Buddha families such as, in Amitabha’s case, an affinity for the Western direction, the sense of taste, the color red (representing passion and bliss), and so on. Each describes a mentally afflicted state as well as an associated quality of the enlightened mind: these Buddhas are telling us that once the deluded narrative is dropped, the energy of the afflicted state is a quality of the enlightened mind.
Amitabha is specifically oriented with ignorant desire, also called lust or greed; the deep-seated sense that we can somehow resolve suffering by acquiring enough stuff or just the right thing, that the source of one’s happiness is an intrinsic component of the object of desire. If the story is dropped, the resulting awareness is discrimination: the capacity to assess and evaluate this or that, to recognize clearly the qualities of different objects, not as objects with intrinsically desirable qualities but for what they truly are: the subject-object-perceptual relationship of the eighteen dhātu.
Amitabha has four other colleagues: Akshobya, Ratnakara, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairochana. Each is connected with an afflicted, ignorant emotional state: respectively anger, pride, jealousy, and delusion itself. Each is the epitome of the alternative enlightened state of mind: clear reflective wisdom, equanimity, accomplishment, and understanding of metaphysical reality itself. The promise of each of these Buddhas is that the very thing we call the mental affliction can be ridden, surfed like a wave, into its resultant enlightened state of mind.
Let’s look briefly at the other four Buddha Families.
Anger, which was evolutionarily developed to give an animal the power and focus to overcome an obstacle, has at its root the awesome power of clarity. This clarity in the enlightened state is a deep understanding of interdependence. No singular phenomena exists without all of the causes and conditions of the entire universe. Ignorance is thinking “I’m right and you’re an idiot,” while the Buddha Akshobya guides people to recognize how all phenomena are connected.
Pride is the afflicted state of thinking one is special, that one’s unique gifts make one superior to others. The awakened quality of the Buddha Ratnakara is equanimity. All beings are fundamentally equal: all share in the riches of the Buddha Nature, and have the same capacity to be awake in this very moment.
Jealousy or envy is the sister affliction of pride, when one has ill will towards others, wishing their personality, possessions, or relationships to be one’s own. One actually has to see the positive qualities in another person to be jealous of them, but with a little humility one can instead have admiration and respect. An interesting characteristic of envy is that this could allow someone to see the previously envied one as a teacher, which in the appropriate context could lead to a relationship with them as a Spiritual Advisor. Buddha Amoghasiddhi embodies the enlightened quality of accomplishment: seeing that the work is already done, that Buddhahood is imminent and ever-present, that the good qualities we see in others are in fact good qualities we all share together.
In a way, the final mental affliction of ignorance itself encompasses the other four. Delusion, after all, is the basis for all other mental afflictions. As Master Huìnéng points out, “In one past moment of confused thought you are just an ordinary person. If the very next thought is awakened, you are a Buddha.” (27) Vairochana’s name translates into English as “appearances,” and indeed reality contains the phenomena-show of all appearances and experiences. However, ignorance leads beings to perceive the apparent world as full of dangers and delights, overlooking the fundamental equanimity of all beings, the infallibility of interdependence. Ignorance is, quite simply, misperceiving how the world is working, and the enlightened quality is clarity into how things really are. So we have another dhātu, a different way that the eighteen dhātu of sense perceptions can function: dharmadhātu, the enlightened quality of Buddha Vairochana, the realm of reality, the sphere of Truth, the infinite play of interdependence, perception of the container of the universe and everything within it.
Thus, mental afflictions do not need to be eradicated, as they are a part of Buddhahood. The energy of mental afflictions is the same energy of Awakening, simply with a change of perspective and perception. Buddha Nature is already present, it is just obscured by misunderstanding. There is no real difference between an ignorant person and an awakened person; an awakened person is simply aware of what’s actually happening, instead of being caught up in her narrative and story around it. We would already be awake; it is merely because of the mental afflictions that we are asleep.
When Master Huìnéng gives the apparently paradoxical instruction that “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi,” he is speaking to a simple truth: if we drop the story we tell ourselves about our thoughts and feelings, we can ride those very same energies to Awakening. There is no difference between ignorance and awakening; just pay attention to what is.