Seeing All External Objects as Phenomena of the Mind

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 1189)

In everyday life, whether the environment is perceived as mind itself or not is inconsequential. However, in mind training, it is critical that practitioners see all external objects as phenomena of the mind. This understanding can be established through the methods of reasoning below.

Overturning our mistaken view

All human beings come into the world with a certain view that is inherent at birth. This view is “self-attachment,” a kind of blind attachment that is totally unfounded. It is not conferred by our parents or by our teachers, but it is innate in all of us. Where does this attachment come from?

This attachment originates in “ignorance”; with ignorance, there is self-attachment. The transition from the luminous mind of the tathagata to afflictions is a process that is clearly elucidated in tantra, but less so in sutra. Generally speaking, the nature of all phenomena is luminosity (or clear light), but due to various circumstances, a very subtle thought is produced. This thought itself is an attachment – an attachment to self in phenomena which then leads to an attachment to self in person. With the attachment to oneself, desire, anger, delusion, and other afflictions are produced. With afflictions, karma is created, both good and bad. With karma, the world of mountains, rivers, and vast expanses of land is formed. This is the process by which the external objects come into being.

From the perspective of an ordinary person, all things on the outside exist; these things that we can see, touch, and hear are very real. However, this is just our viewpoint. We need to overturn this view, perception and way of reasoning, also our habitual tendencies since beginningless time, including such things people deem to be really exceptional. If we do not make this effort, we will remain ordinary people forever bound to the cycle of life and death in samsara.

Many people nowadays think mankind is already very civilized, that there is much to be admired and envied in our way of life. But what is civilization? For human beings in samsara, this so-called “civilization” is no more than a relatively good way of survival. In fact, this way of survival is also rooted in ignorance. As soon as we dispel ignorance, we can overturn the perceptions ordinary people have. This thought produced from the luminous mind of the tathagata has progressed all along the path of cyclic existence; now with its dissolution, we can return to the original state of luminosity. This is truly returning to our original nature.

Many worry whether this means civilization is going backwards. Whether this runs counter to social development and human progress. Whether this violates the natural law. But what is the natural law?

The activities of the mind and body that constantly preoccupy us are not the natural law. Why is that? They are all contrivances rooted in ignorance – a misapprehension. Actually, the Dharma teachings are precisely the tool to overturn these deep-rooted wrong views.

Thinking all religions are dogma, some people hold a strong bias against Buddhism and go so far as to deride it. Certainly, some religions fall in this category but not all. If proponents of either the Idealist or Realist school want their argument to be accepted but cannot provide evidence of any kind, that constitutes dogma. It is not possible to overturn a viewpoint with dogma. To overturn any view, we must use methods based on logical reasoning that everyone can accept. There are many different methods in Buddhism, such as the logic in Madhyamaka (Middle Way) and Yogacara (Mind Only) ; the common goal of all these methods is to eradicate our deluded view.

Our sense perceptions are not reliable

The first thing to refute as truly existent is the external objects perceived through our eyes.

All external objects are phenomena of the mind; this is one aspect of the view held by the Yogacara True Aspectarians. One may question the validity of such a statement: if the external objects, such as mountains and rivers, buildings, these tables and chairs included, are outside, and our mind is inside the body, how can external objects and mind – two entirely unrelated entities – be one and the same? Regarding this question, let us see if we can first set aside our habitual way of thinking, be objective and examine how we come to the conclusion that external objects exist. A lot of people simply assume that because we can see the color and shape of things, hear sounds, and touch objects hard and soft, the external objects must be real.

This kind of logic is prevalent, not just among a few people, but among mankind as a whole. Moreover, the particle accelerator, electron microscope and other such instruments have further substantiated our belief in the existence of the external objects by making it possible for us to see even more particles we believe to be real.

Have we ever considered, however, it is by way of our eyes that measurements using the particle accelerator, electron microscope and other instruments are made? A microscope has been added, but ultimately it is still the eyes that confirm the findings. If the eyes do not actually perceive objects outside, what can the microscope really tell us or validate? Along the same line of reasoning, the sounds we hear, and the notion of right and wrong, good and bad, existence and non-existence all come from our sense organs, but how reliable are these faculties?

The Buddha expounded early on that our five sense organs are not reliable; although on the surface they can sense the existence of objects, this kind of feeling is just an illusion. To see a thing clearly, we cannot go by its appearance alone. For example, if we want to do a careful check on a car, we need to take apart all its components, then examine the parts individually. In so doing, we will find the original car has disappeared in our hands and cannot be found. If the car truly exists, it cannot disappear. This testifies to its lack of inherent nature. Why do we always persist in thinking external objects exist? Because we have complete faith in our five sense organs; we think things are real if they can be seen and heard, without ever investigating the logic behind it. Because we hold on to a very simplistic view, our five senses have deceived us since beginningless time. It is only upon careful analysis that we discover the things we see and hear ordinarily are but an illusion.

Cause and result are falsely established

Most people believe cause and result truly exist. What is the connection between cause and result? For example, when we build a fire, there is smoke. Fire is the cause, smoke the result. With fire, smoke will arise; without fire, smoke will not arise.

In the example of a seed and sprout, the seed is the cause, the sprout is the result. We all believe in this causal relationship. But can we confirm they are connected in this way?

In the first instance, we will definitely say they are cause and result. Let us now take a closer look at the nature of that connection.

Most of us say the seed and sprout exist at the same time. The sprout can arise from the seed for this reason. Just as when the hand touches an object, contact is possible only when both exist at the same time. This is a common view. But it is logically untenable upon examination.

If cause and result occur simultaneously, it would imply the result is there already at the time of the cause. Of what use is the cause then? The specific function of a cause is to produce a result which does not yet exist. If cause and result exist at the same time, the result does not depend on the cause for its production since the result exists already; thus the existence of the cause is meaningless. In the same way, there is no causality between the left hand and the right hand; the hands exist at the same time, so one does not produce the other.

Another viewpoint asserts: cause is the first instant, result is the second instant; cause and result occur sequentially. The cause exists first, the result is produced thereafter. This interpretation seems more reasonable, and is accepted by a lot of people. However, on closer examination, it is still inaccurate.

When the cause exists, does the result also exist? If the result also exists, it is the same view stated before. If, however, the result does not exist, how is the result produced from the cause? This is a question we need to investigate.

For instance, when the seed exists but the sprout does not, where is the sprout at the time of the seed? It cannot be found anywhere; it does not exist because it has not been produced yet. How then does the sprout arise from the seed? There is no way to answer that, even if we rely on different instruments. Everyone knows a sprout arises when a seed is given the proper conditions, such as soil, temperature and moisture. Originally, there is no trace of a sprout either within or outside the seed, but with the right conditions, the sprout appears. Where does it come from? After this analysis, a lot of people must think: the sprout comes from the seed. But as we have just explained, at the time of the seed, there is no sprout, so how does the sprout appear? If two objects exist simultaneously, one object can affect the other and cause it to change; however, if one of the objects does not even exist, how can it produce a change in the other? It is not possible. That being the case, how does it come into being? In Buddhism, this is said to be “dependent arising.” In fact, on careful examination, we will discover cause and result cannot communicate at all.

Take the example of a father and son, the father dies before the child is born; after the child is born, one is alive, the other dead. There is no way they can communicate with each other, but we acknowledge they are father and son. This is a relatively coarse perception that our eyes can see, so everyone recognizes the relationship. Similarly, in the microscopic world that our eyes cannot see, these kinds of appearances are everywhere. Without valid reason or basis, a result is produced – this is called dependent arising. All phenomena arise or come into existence depending on causes and conditions. When causes and conditions come together, a different object is produced. From our perspective, the object that comes after is produced by the object before it, but this view cannot be substantiated.

Perhaps some people believe there are methods in science. The fact is science cannot validate these appearances either because of its own limitation. We know, in the microscopic world, with the breakdown of matter into ever smaller particles, the explanation given by science is increasingly ambiguous. At present, quantum mechanics is the most advanced theory in physics, but doubt remains whether its logic is absolute. The achievements of many scientists, like Newton and Einstein, were widely regarded to be the highest point in science during their time; even these have been overturned one by one. Actually, this is all clearly elucidated in the early Buddhist texts, specifically in Nagarjuna’s exposition of emptiness and dependently arisen phenomena. The Yogacara tenets postulate that cause and result is a phenomenon brought about by the orderly ripening of a seed in the alaya consciousness; it is not an entity that exists outside.

All external objects are a manifestation of our mind

Many people cannot comprehend how external objects can be our mind. Take these flowers for example: clearly they were first grown, then sold by the vendors to us; how can they be our mind? If the flowers were our mind, why would we need to pay for them? What about the money and the vendors?

There is really no difference between the events that happen in the daytime and in our dreams; they are all phenomena of our mind. In the dream, we still have to climb the stairs one step at a time; we still have to buy a ticket to get on the plane; we still have to pay for the flowers, unless in the dream they are stolen. All that happens to us in the daytime can also happen in our dream; as long as the dream continues, there is no difference between the two.

A person may ask: the world our eyes can see is outside, our mind is inside the body. How can these two entities be one? The best evidence we have is from our sense organs, but this is exactly where our problem lies. What does it mean to say the eyes can see? Most people will say it means the eyes can see the object itself; actually, our eyes only have a sense of the object they are looking at. What is a sensation? Sensations and feelings are the uncommon function of the mind. Apart from the mind, a physical object does not have this function. A blind person does not have this sensation, so he or she cannot see; a normal person has this sensation, so he or she can see. Similarly with the ear, our ear consciousness has a sensation that allows us to hear sounds; a person who is deaf does not have this sensation and cannot hear anything. If we lose our five organs, we also lose the five kinds of consciousness, at which point we will discover nothing exists.

When we see a flower, we sense the flower is outside and our eye consciousness is inside; however, this is the perception of the mental or sixth consciousness, not the eye consciousness. What is eye consciousness? For instance, at the time we see an object, that “seeing” is in itself eye consciousness. There is no other eye consciousness besides this. Perhaps someone thinks eye consciousness is likened to light, which shines on a certain object and allows it to be seen. This is not the case. When an object appears before our eyes, eye consciousness is that which sees it instantly in its entirety, i.e., has a sense of the object.

Many people think our mind is the mental consciousness. In Yogacara, the mind is composed of eight kinds of consciousness – the five kinds of sense consciousness, the sixth mental consciousness, the seventh manas (defiled) consciousness and the eighth alaya consciousness. The alaya consciousness is the base or ground of all consciousness. So, our mind is not just the mental consciousness.

As for the view that “mind is inside, objects are outside,’’ this is the perception of the mental consciousness. For instance, when our hand comes into contact with fire, it is very hot to the touch, but what is this thing called hot? It is also a kind of sensation. In addition, when our hand touches an object, most of us think there must be such an object out there. If not, how can we possibly touch it? Most people are of this opinion, but it is mistaken. We can cite numerous examples to refute this perception.

For example, everyone thinks these mala beads are round, but on what basis do we say they are round? Actually our eyes can only see one side of the bead; like looking at a photo, we can only see the front, not the back. However, if we touch the bead with our thumb and middle finger, we can touch both the front and the back and say it is round. Our thumb has a sensation, our middle finger also has a sensation. The two sensations combined produce a feeling that it is round. Nonetheless, these are two sensations, not one. It is our mind that pulls all the information together and concludes the bead is round; it is the mind’s perception and finding. This is a misapprehension. Without investigation, we also accept the conclusion it is round; however, upon examination, we begin to question how we can be certain it is round. We will never know for sure since this feeling is specific to our sense faculty and mind. Most people think these sensations can be traced to an object. But who can prove they are based on a truly existent object outside? It can never be proven.

Whether an object is square or round, it is first by way of our eyes that we see it. Initially, we see the color and shape of the object; then as the hand comes in contact with it, we believe the object is square or round, and conclude it exists objectively. However, the perceptions that come by way of the eye and hand cannot be trusted. Since the sensations of the eye and hand are basically unreal, the findings based on this foundation are also unreal.

In Yogacara, there are two subschools: the True Aspectarians and the False Aspectarians. The True Aspectarians have a common view and an uncommon view. The common view accepts the existence of matter; it is the uncommon view that most people find difficult to comprehend – that is, when we see an object, we only see the surface, not the object itself. For instance, when a person sees someone with clothes on, he or she does not see the skin, muscles and bones under the clothes; from the person’s perspective at the moment, they do not exist. To the vast majority, this is illogical. Clearly, one can see the skin and muscles when the clothes are removed, or when a body is dissected into its many parts. On this point, most people are of the same opinion. However, this view has already been overturned in Yogacara.

For instance, in a dream, a cow is slaughtered; when the skin is removed, we see all of its parts – blood, muscles and bones, as clearly as we would see them in the daytime. But no one will believe the muscles, bones and inner organs in the dream are real. If we think the dream is not real, we should think the circumstances in the daytime are no different. Why is it we cling to our existence in samsara, but not to the experience in a dream?

Because a dream is very short. Upon waking up, we quickly come to the realization that the circumstances in the dream are unreal and do not exist. In contrast, samsara lasts a long time, the end is not yet in sight. When the bodhisattvas, who were once ordinary people, attain the first bhumi, it is like wakening up from a dream; they instantly realize all is an illusion, like a dream. Why is it we do not have this capability? The reason is we are still dreaming. In the dream, we cannot discern what is real or unreal, so we continue to grasp and cling to worldly existence.

This is the view held by relatively advanced practitioners among the Yogacara True Aspectarians. In their encounter with ordinary people, however, they do not make this assertion since it cannot be comprehended by most. They acknowledge the existence of other sentient beings (so it is not Solipsism). In a group of one hundred people all looking at the moon at the same time, each will see the moon differently. But those with common karma will all have the same feeling and believe they are looking at the same moon. If one person closes his or her eyes, leaves the group or dies, that person’s perception disappears, but all others will still think the moon exists. The logic employed in the True Aspectarian view is very complete and has yet been refuted.

There are other examples that further support our view. If fire is a substantive thing that is very hot to the touch, any person or living being should upon contact have the same sensation. But in fact that is not the case. According to sutra, there is one species of rodents that consumes fire and also lives inside the fire. Many other beings also live inside the fire. Or, for example, if we swap the natural habitat of a tropical fish and any fish in general, neither will survive – one will die from the cold, the other from heat. These examples tell us: there is basically nothing called “hot” or “not hot” that exists in and of itself; whether something is hot or not depends entirely on each one’s own perception.

Some scientists have already shown that certain aquatic animals exist in the ocean at the crater of a volcano where the temperature is 200C. Imagine mankind engaged in a debate with the fish that occupy these waters. A human would say water at 100C is extremely hot, but the fish would say water at 100C is not hot at all; a human would say that which is called “hot” is his or her own sensation; the fish would also say that which is called “not hot” is its own sensation. Who is right? From the standpoint of mankind, the human is correct because human beings have the same feeling; however, if the fish were to judge, the answer would be different.

In the absence of a conclusion, one can only say for the time being they are both correct. The fish is correct from its standpoint; the human is correct from a human standpoint. Why is that? If the fish left its 200C habitat for warm water, it would freeze to death; if a human being stepped into the 200C water, the human would undoubtedly burn to death. The two sides would never be able to compromise or reach a consensus. This clearly confirms all phenomena are merely our own reflection; they do not exist objectively. If things truly exist, that thing called hot should stay hot forever, that thing called cold should stay cold forever; it should not depend on the sensation of different sentient beings. People who do not understand this logic can cite numerous explanations for the appearance of things, all of which in the end will be refuted. This is because their viewpoint can never escape the domain of ignorance.

In Beacon of Certainty, it is also said: a bowl of water to a human being is just a bowl of water; to the sentient beings in hell, it is molten lava; to the hungry ghosts, it is pus; to the heavenly beings, it is nectar; to the bodhisattvas at the eighth ground, it is pure land; to the buddhas, it is dharmadhatu. If we invite the sentient beings of the five realms, and the buddhas and bodhisattvas to look at the same bowl of water simultaneously, they will arrive at different conclusions. They will all maintain different points of view. Which of the views at these seven levels is correct? Certainly that of the buddha, who has absolute wisdom and is completely free of defilements. From this, we can see even more clearly why the so-called world outside is an illusion. Rongzom Pandita and other great scholars of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism placed particular emphasis on this way of reasoning. In expounding the pure perception of Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, this was the method they used.

Mind and its surroundings are in accord
when emptiness is realized

Practitioners who have realized emptiness can, on entering the state of emptiness, step on a stone as if on clay and leave behind clear footprints. However, prior to realizing emptiness, they are like ordinary people; the stone under the feet feels just as hard.

There is this description in Khenpo Ngachung’s biography: once when he was waving the vajra and bell, he carelessly dropped them on a stone. When they landed, the stone suddenly became as soft as butter. The vajra and bell formed a clear impression on the stone; an image of the stone was also clearly etched on the vajra and bell. In many monasteries in Tibet, a lot of masters left behind similar footprints and handprints.

However, we should point out not all footprints are traced to highly accomplished practitioners. There are non-Buddhist methods that can also bring about the same result. It is said when a certain animal oil is applied to the hand, grabbing a stone is like grabbing a handful of clay. So we should not readily assume anyone with this ability is a highly accomplished practitioner. These appearances do not necessarily testify to the person’s realization, but they can further confirm that phenomena are a projection of the mind. If the external world and mind are separate, practitioners would not be able to leave behind footprints and handprints.

In Milarepa’s biography, there is this story: once Milarepa and a student of logic engaged in a heated debate. The opposite side asked, “Are there obstructions in space?” Milarepa replied, “Certainly there are obstructions in space.” Just when his opponent thought he had the advantage, Milarepa unexpectedly flew into space and proceeded to walk and stand in the sky, as though on land. The opposite side again asked, “Does the rock have obstructions?” Milarepa answered, “The rock does not have obstructions.” To prove his point, Milarepa passed through the rock at will, rendering everyone quite speechless. This amply demonstrates our viewpoint that external objects and mind are of the same essence; when the mind is at ease, the external world manifests accordingly.

Perhaps many people think these are all myths – they are not to be believed. But consider this: a myth is something that people believe fundamentally does not exist or cannot possibly exist. The reason a lot of people do not think it exists is because they were not there to see it with their own eyes. But is that proof it does not exist? If this line of reasoning were established, many of the viewpoints we have today would all be refuted immediately. For example, if we had tried to talk to ordinary people about spaceships, computers, etc. a thousand years ago, they would definitely have thought all that is nonsense. In the same way, when we talk about the workings of our inner world, a lot of people nowadays also reject it. It is not a common experience, since the vast majority of people have not yet developed their mind. Be that as it may, there are people who have already developed their mind and attained realization. Therefore, this viewpoint can withstand analysis and is absolutely true.

In tantra, for instance, everything is the mandala of the buddha. Some beginners on the tantric path will question or doubt this assertion (although not out loud for fear of breaking the tantric vows). If I am a buddha already, why do I need to cultivate my mind? Although this is true, we need to undergo practice and tame the mind before a state of realization can manifest. Why is that? Because all phenomena are a projection of the mind; when we succeed in taming the mind after diligently staying on the path of practice, we can also affect the world around us. This is likened to watching a slide; the images we see on the screen are a projection of the slides in the projector. In the same way, the external objects that we see are reflections of the habitual tendencies and seeds stored in our mind. Once our mind is pure, all external objects are also pure, we will no longer transmigrate in the cycle of existence.

These viewpoints are the direct realization of countless practitioners. Actually, as long as we work hard at cultivating our innate wisdom, we can all enter this state of realization and comprehend the true nature of reality. The Buddha proclaimed everyone has this ability; it is not the domain of heavenly beings only. If we diligently follow the teachings of the Buddha, we can attain blessings in life and rebirth in Pure Land; we can also actualize buddhahood in this lifetime.

Practice is essential to attaining liberation

If you are extremely attached to the circumstances in a dream, then stay in the dream, do not wake up. Similarly, if you cling to existence in samsara, then stay attached to the things around you, do not reflect on their inherent nature. But you would only be fooling yourself! If you are dissatisfied with your current situation and wish to take a closer look, you may upon investigation become increasingly disappointed with the external world, and gradually lose trust in your own eyes and ears. It is not that the Buddha wanted us to distrust our senses, rather it is that we cannot find reason to believe in our senses. With evidence, we can believe; without evidence, we cannot believe; if without evidence we also believe, that is ignorance!

Human beings have very diverse capacities, so their goal in life is also diverse. Some are content to just meet their basic needs; some chase after happiness; some are not content with pursuing sensual pleasures and want to look into life’s ultimate meaning. If our only aspiration in life is to satisfy our basic needs, we are no different from ordinary animals. We should have wisdom, which is the biggest difference between a human being and other animals; wisdom is also the special advantage we humans have. To bring this advantage into full play, we have to perceive the world clearly and know our true purpose in life. When we see the truth, we may feel let down by our old ways of perceiving things; however, this disappointment is very different from other kinds of disappointment. This is realization of emptiness. It is a very important step.

To realize emptiness, we must first have the right understanding: all things are phenomena of the mind; moreover, the mind is inherently empty. Regarding this understanding, there are also many levels, the highest of which is Dzogchen. It is the view in tantra and the third turning of the wheel of Dharma that all worldly phenomena are an illusion and that mind is clear light in essence. This understanding is extremely important.

Although a small part of the view held by the Yogacara True Aspectarians and that set forth by the empirical idealist George Berkeley appear similar in some places, Buddhism is neither Idealism nor Realism, neither philosophy nor science, it is beyond all these. Nonetheless, it does contain many elements of Idealism, Realism, philosophy and science. Buddhism has explanations for many of the problems Western philosophers do not have an answer for; everyone can refer to and study Commentary on Valid Cognition and Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary on the text. The teachings of the Buddha can withstand analysis; moreover, the further we examine its standpoint, the greater is our certainty that all phenomena are created by the mind.

Of course, not everyone has to come to this realization; the True Aspectarians do not represent all of Dharma either. Fundamentally, Buddhism is likened to a supermarket that can offer products to meet the needs of different people. If this viewpoint does not appeal to you, you can set it aside for the time being and choose another method of liberation, but you can never overturn it. Just as certain drugs are effective in treating different ailments, they can also have the opposite effect on some people. If we cannot accept the view on emptiness, we can start with understanding cause and result, doing good not evil, and generating renunciation and bodhicitta. All tall structures are built from the ground up. The Buddha gave us eighty-four thousand methods, each of which can directly or indirectly lead us to liberation; the key is whether we have the resolve to stay on the path.

Many beginners on the Buddhist path seem to have strong faith and a revulsion toward worldly things; however, this quickly dissipates after a few years. The problem is not with the teachings; without the teachings, the actual accomplishments of the great masters, of which there were many in history, would not have been possible. The fault lies entirely with not putting the teachings into practice. Liberation cannot be attained just by securing the blessings of a living buddha, receiving a special empowerment, acquiring a Dharma name or cultivating virtuous affinities.

The Dharma places emphasis on the unity of knowing and practice, the importance of understanding and practice. To attain liberation, we must practice. In the absence of practice, our ignorance will not dissolve on its own; we will continue to follow our karma and wander in the cycle of existence. Sometimes it is darkness, sometimes it is a bit of light; eighty to ninety percent of the time it is darkness, the rest of the time it is light; within the light, there is also darkness. So, light in the cyclic existence is extremely rare. If we choose to remain infatuated with worldly existence and ignore the truth, we can only expect to go on indefinitely like this.