Following on from my previous post about the Buddhist understanding of our mode of existence, we can now look at arguably the most important part of the Spiritual Path of a Buddhist – namely, how we actually become happier, how we actually reduce our suffering and how we actually attain complete liberation samsara.

As I said in the previous post, when we enter a room and see what is there, our normal understanding is that we are seeing objects which are ‘out there’, separate from our self and our mind. In fact what is happening is that these objects are coming ‘into focus’, and have been ‘in our mind’ all along.

So what are these objects? They are manifestations of our mind, in the same way as dream elephants are manifestations of our dreaming mind. The objects we normally see are simply appearances to our waking mind, which are temporarily in focus.

Another way of thinking about this is to say that the ‘mind appears the object’ rather than ‘the object appears to the mind’. In saying that the mind appears the object, we are conceptualising the idea that the mind creates the object and that the object is not different from or separate from our mind.

Sometimes these objects seem pleasant, and sometimes they seem unpleasant. Why is this?

All the objects that appear to us arise from our mind, and we must understand that at the moment our mind is unclean. It is thoroughly polluted by the pollution of delusions – specifically the delusion of self-grasping. This means that when our mind appears an object, it is tainted with an appearance of inherent existence – it appears to exist ‘out there’, and our habit of self-grasping assents to this appearance and we believe that the object exists ‘out there’. This is mistaken appearance.

This is a fairly subtle taint, but it causes us to make the serious mistake of believing in our hearts that there is an external world and we are separate from it. The big problem is that in accepting the appearance as real, we pollute our mind with the tendency to have more apparently ‘real’ objects appear to us in future.

A more pronounced aspect of the objects which our mind appears is that they appear to be inherently pleasant, inherently unpleasant or simply neutral. Normally we do not think we have anything at all to do with these aspects of appearance, but the truth is very different. Since the objects that we see arise from our mind, they have the nature of that mind. If the mind is polluted, then the objects that arise from that mind will also be polluted. If our mind is heavily polluted, then the majority of the objects that appear will be polluted, or unpleasant. This is our current situation. Most of the things that appear to us are unpleasant, or at best, neutral. Only a very few things that our mind appears are pleasant. These objects have arisen from the few parts of our mind where there is the least pollution.

How did our mind get so polluted?

The Buddhist view is that when we perform a negative action, this pollutes our mind.

The cycle of samsara is that we encounter an unpleasant situation (which is really a manifestation of a polluted part of our mind) and we experience suffering. By experiencing the unpleasant situation, we purify that part of our mind. However, if we react to the situation with a negative action, such as becoming angry, and we cause our mind to be polluted some more. If we get very angry, we end up creating more pollution than we purified by experiencing the unpleasant situation in the first place.

We are like a fish swimming around in a tank full of filthy water. As we swim we encounter filth, but we can purify the water through our gills.  It hurts but we purify the water. However, in reaction to the pain we automatically defecate into the water, making it even filthier.

Dirty tank

In this analogy what we need to do is experience the water, purify it, but not make it dirty again. Eventually, we will have purified all the water in the fish tank, and there will be no pollution at all in the water we encounter.

clean fish tank

This is how Buddhists become Buddhas. We encounter contaminated objects, but we do not react with negative actions. Thereby we slowly purify our mind. Eventually our mind (the water in the tank) is completely clear and free from any pollution. However, we will still have the appearance of the water itself, and the appearance of how the water is different from ourself.

Finally we purify even the appearance of the difference between the water and ourself, so that all we perceive is clarity. We are then an Buddha. We are completely mixed with all the water and can experience any part of it instantly. This is why the definition of a Buddha is someone who is omniscient – namely that they perceive all objects of knowledge – past, present and future, instantly and simultaneously.

Through purifying the water of our minds, may we experience the clarity of lack of inherent existence of all phenomena.