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Cognitive Apparatus and the Nature of the Mind in Tibetan Buddhism

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Trolltunga, Norway. Image courtesy of the author
Trolltunga, Norway. Image courtesy of the author

A human being is a complex entity, eager to know the outer and inner world. The process of acquiring such knowledge is possible through our cognitive apparatus, which includes mind, consciousness, senses, and so on.

Tibetan Buddhism has a unique system of understanding cognition and a profound knowledge of the nature of the mind. Various Tibetan terms express different aspects of this cognitive apparatus. Sem translates as “mind” and “consciousness,” and refers to the ability to think and perceive. Yid is also translated as “mind,” but also as “intellectual faculty” and is associated with the idea of ​​“conceptual mind.” Lo is a different term for “conceptual mind” and “intellect.” Namshe or nampar shepa means “consciousness,” “cognition,” and the awareness that there is something that knows and perceives. Another term for awareness is rigpa, which also means “knowledge.” There is also “enlightened mind”—thug, associated with the primordial state of the Buddha.

According to the canonical Buddhist Abhidharma texts, the mind is composed of a primary or dominant mind (tso sem) and a secondary mind or mental factors (sem jung). In each moment of the flow of mind (gyun) there is a moment of awareness, which is central, and in parallel are different mental models. The primary mind is like a guide around which other mental factors appear. It is associated with one of the six types of consciousness (namshe tsig drug), which represent the cognitive abilities of the mind and senses (wang po). The six consciousnesses are: visual consciousness (mig gi namshe), auditory consciousness (nawe namshe), olfactory consciousness (ne namshe), gustatory consciousness (chei namshe), tactile consciousness (lu kyi namshe), and mental consciousness (yi kyi namshe). The senses represent a certain type of consciousness, due to the fact that through them we acquire a certain type of information about the external world.

Mental factors are numerous. Shakyamuni Buddha himself stated that there are 84,000 of them in the human mind, similar to the number of his teachings. Each aspect of the secondary mind corresponds to a certain delusion. According to the Abhidharma, there are different levels of classification for mental factors; they can be divided into groups of 51, 1,000, 500, 110, and so on.

According to the Tibetan Buddhist percepts, consciousness is considered one of the five aggregates or skandhas (phungpo nga) that form the human personality. They are the psycho-physical components of beings in samsara and are the main cause of attachment to the self. The five skandhas are: form (zug), sensation (tsorwa), perception (dushe), mental formations (duche), and consciousness (nampar shepa).

Form is the object of sight, a combination of all material things that are not mental. Through the combination of the five elements (jungwa nga), the body, its sensory organs, and the objects of these organs are born. Sensation is a component of the dualistic process of perception evoked by a particular object. The result of contact with the object of perception appears as an experience in the mind, which can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Sensations are one of the main reasons for the emergence of cyclical existence. Perception is a function of the dualistic mind, which distinguishes characteristics such as shape and color. This aggregate is related to the process of using conceptual constructs, which are used as actually experienced objects so that the mind has the means to recognize. The mental formations encompass patterns that are not part of the aggregates of sensation or perception, and are controlled by numerous causes and conditions. It is the most important part of the process that gives rise to cyclical existence. Ignorance is the main reason why mental formations are created in the mind and why they sow karmic seeds, which are the basis of future rebirth. Consciousness is an aggregate that realizes the superficial aspects of reality and perceives various objects.

Trolltunga, Norway. Image courtesy of the author
Trolltunga, Norway. Image courtesy of the author

Ultimate freedom is achieved by penetrating deeply into the nature of all aggregates, which is free from independent existence. Understanding the five skandhas is essential to realizing the fundamental Four Noble Truths associated with suffering in cyclic existence. When the five aggregates are perceived as constituting our individuality, it helps to avoid identification with momentary perceptions and habits, and to develop self-knowledge. Our ego, personality, or sense of individual self does not have an independent and constant nature, but is a manifestation of the illusory effect of the aggregates. Analytical meditation on the skandhas removes misconceptions associated with the self, and meditation on the foundations of the senses removes strong desires by withdrawing and realizing the sensory objects that evoke feelings and passionate desires.

Another cognitive faculty related to the Buddhist meditation is mindfulness (drenpa), one of the 51 mental factors defined in Abhidharma literature. Mindfulness provides a way to liberation through paying attention to sensory experience, preventing the arising of disturbing thoughts and emotions, which cause further chains of reactions leading to rebirth.

Through the practice of meditation we can go beyond the mind, beyond our thoughts, in the mind’s true condition, which is beyond all limits. The basis for all the ordinary perceptions, thoughts, and emotions of the ordinary mind is the nature of the mind (sem nyi). Recognizing the nature of the mind, which is beyond duality, is described in Buddhist texts as returning home. In this process of returning to the true essence, the mastery of the cognitive apparatus plays an essential role.

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