Chan: Human Consciousness


Chan Buddhist View of Consciousness

Normally, the Chan tradition does not use the term “consciousness,” instead, using “mind.” The Buddha-mind they speak of refers to the true mind of wisdom, while the mind of ordinary sentient beings refers to the false mind of vexations. The purpose of Chan is to illuminate the mind and see “the nature.” What mind does one illuminate? What nature does one see? One illuminates the true mind, and sees Buddha-nature. Since the mind of sentient beings has consciousness of self as well as the interests of the self, it cannot be objective. Therefore, it is in the dark. Illuminated mind is the wisdom that is revealed after one breaks away from self-centeredness; namely, it is the true mind. Only after the true mind is revealed can one see Buddha-nature, which is inherent in every person, and possessed by all sentient beings.

Consciousness vs. Mind

Rather than speaking of “consciousness” or “thought,” the Chan records and discourses mostly refer to “mind,”, whether it is of false mind or true mind. Before one has begun to practice, the mind is unsettled and anxious- it has vexations. Discovering that one has vexations, one would hope to obtain help through spiritual practice. In Chan, this spiritual practice is called calming the mind, resting the mind, clearing the mind, or contemplating the mind, which all aims to deal with the false mind. There is the term “beginner’s mind,” which refers to the initial aspiration, the initial generation of the mind of bodhi, or awakening. Thus, bodhi-mind is the true mind, illuminated with the light of wisdom.

Those who understand Chan know whether the mind that Chan masters speak of is the mind of wisdom or the mind of delusion. Indeed, in the process of spiritual practice it is the false mind, while the aim of spiritual practice is the true mind. Thus, regardless of whether it refers to the basis, the process, or the purpose, Chan expresses it with just the one word: mind.

True Mind / Pure Consciousness

However, Western psychology employs the term “consciousness,” and thus does not explain mind in the Buddhist context that cover the whole mental process. It is hard to explain “true mind” and “base consciousness” from the viewpoint of Western psychology, or indeed, of most people. Consider that the mental activities of people with wisdom are also called “consciousness.” When those who have attained liberation perceive things as they truly are, with the genuine wisdom of unselfishness and no-self, it is very ambiguous to still call this activity consciousness. If one insists on calling both the wisdom of liberated people and vexations of ordinary people the same as the functions of consciousness, then it would be better to label them as “pure consciousness” and “impure consciousness.”


Chan Buddhist View of consciousness, Chan: Human Consciousness,
Chan and Enlightenment, pp 199-200,

Dharma Talk given by Master Sheng Yen, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, November 8, 1990.

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