As the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage
All that we are
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts from an evil thought, suffering follows him as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts from a pure thought, joy follows him as his own shadow that never leaves him.
– Dhammapada 1, 2
Consciousness – the sum of our thoughts and awareness – determines our happiness and suffering. In fact it determines our entire existence. Without consciousness or the state of being aware, there is really no existence, for both the one who perceives and the object of perception.
If a tree fell in the forest and there is no one to hear it, then for all practical purpose, no tree has fallen there.
Even when the tree is falling in front of you but you are not paying attention, the fall has no existence for you. As far as you are concerned, you are "dead" to the event. It did not happen when there is no one to see or hear it, when no one is conscious of it.
Reality is no more than a perception, the remembered experiences of the consciousness. But the mental world inside each of us is not a monolithic entity called "the mind", explains the Dalai Lama. As we experience it, consciousness is made up of a stream of myriad highly varied and often intense mental states, he says.
"There are explicitly cognitive states, like belief, memory, recognition and attention on the one hand, and explicitly affective states, like the emotions, on the other. In addition, there seems to be a category of mental states that function primarily as causal factors in that they motivate us into action. These include volition, will, desire, fear, and anger.
"Even within the cognitive states, we can draw distinctions between sensory perceptions, such as visual perception, which has a certain immediacy in relation to the objects being perceived, and conceptual thought processes, such as imagination or the subsequent recollection of a chosen object. These latter processes do not require the immediate presence of the perceived object, nor do they depend upon the active role of the senses."
In the Indian-Tibetan Buddhist thought, two features -- clarity and knowing -- have come to characterise "the mental".
Clarity refers to the ability of mental states to reveal or reflect. Knowing, by contrast, refers to the faculty to perceive or apprehend what appears.
"All phenomena possessed of these qualities count as mental," says the Dalai Lama. "These features are difficult to conceptualise, but then we are dealing with phenomena that are subjective and internal rather than material objects that may be measured in spatiotemporal terms. Perhaps it is because of these difficulties -- the limits of language in dealing with the subjective -- that many of the early Buddhist texts explain the nature of consciousness in terms of metaphors such as light or a flowing river.
"As the primary feature of light is to illuminate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illumination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing, or cognition, and that which knows."
[from "Studying Mind from the Inside," Shambhala Sun, September 2005.]
In other words, what His Holiness is saying, is that there is no knower behind the knowing, no thinker behind the thinking – just a stream of mental states knowing, thinking, and perceiving, moment to moment. This is the central truth in Buddhist teaching – other views are just plain wrong.
Of course we don't take this statement by faith. The Buddha urged us to do meditation practice and discover, experience this truth for ourselves.
In meditation then, we discover the essential emptiness of all phenomena. In the Heart Sutra, which crystallises Buddhist thinking, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara tells Sariputra:
"Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, what is empty does not differ from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Feeling, perception, intention, and consciousness are also the same.
"Sariputra, all things having the nature of emptiness have no begining and no ending, they are not defiled and pure, increased or decreased. Thus, in emptiness, there is no form (shape), no feeling, no perception, no intention, no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. Therefore, there is no sight, sound, odour, taste, object, and knowledge. There is nothing from the visual world to the conscious world."