The Myth of Original Enlightenment

A person has six properties, six media of sensory contact, eighteen considerations, & four determinations. He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace. One should not be negligent of discernment, should guard the truth, be devoted to relinquishment, and train only for calm. This is the summary of the analysis of the six properties.

— Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties

Majjhima Nikaya 140

Much can be gleaned from this simple statement. The eighteen considerations, for example, refers to the six senses, their objects and their consciousnesses. Simply by mentioning them the Sutta suggests that they are objects or processes that we should be aware of. The Sutta flatly states that a person has these eighteen considerations, they ought to be examined and taken into account when we look at the experiences we are having.

The four determinations have to do with the perfection of Adhitthana, meaning determination, will or even will power. The Sutta simply says, the person has four of them. These are four things that we ought to exert our will to understand or ought to put effort into to understand how they affect our experience. “A person has four determinations”:

    • The determination for discernment,
    • The determination for truth,
    • The determination for relinquishment,
    • The determination for calm.

The determination for discernment is the resolve to make skillful decisions about what is doing us good — supporting our practice as we journey toward our unique awakening. The resolve to unearth truth seems simple enough, but it is a very difficult thing to do for most people. Truth is simply what is really being experienced — without the construing that our mind is usually doing. Truth exists when we do not fabricate. The Suttas speak of truth that is construed, that is, the reality we fabricate. They also speak of a higher truth in terms of things as they are. There is no mention of nonduality in the words of the Buddha. Non-dualistic spiritual traditions are far from consistent with each other, but comprise, rather, a wide variety of views profoundly different and inevitably colored by the broader conceptual contours of the philosophies which encompass them. The Suttas speak of a lower truth and a higher truth, but not an absolute truth outside of the Four Noble Truths.

The determination for relinquishment, usually called “renunciation” is a little harder to grasp. It refers to the idea that we can let go of what is harming us and go toward that which helps us. The determination for calm is exactly that which we are striving for. Determination, discernment, truth, relinquishment and calm are five of the ten perfections. To stick with these four determinations, the mind has to make some assumptions about itself: its power to do the necessary work and to receive the anticipated benefits.

Later in the Sutta, it is said that…

One should not be negligent of discernment, should guard the truth, be devoted to relinquishment, and train only for calm.’ Thus was it said. In reference to what was it said? And how is one not negligent of discernment? These are the six properties: the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, the wind property, the space property, the consciousness property.

Here, the Buddha’s words are a little more specific. Discernment is the ability to judge well and has to do with wisdom, another of the ten perfections. We are told it should not be neglected. Truth should be guarded in the sense that we cannot allow our mind to run off into the wilderness of its fabrications. We ought to be devoted — committed — to letting go of our habits of thinking the way we do about our cravings. Then we are told to train exclusively for calm. These are very specific instructions and ones that we are not often given during our studies with the contemporary masters of “Buddhism.”

Still, the instruction does not stop there. It goes on to tell us exactly what we are not to neglect in our effort to be discerning: the six properties of the human being. They are earth (solidity), liquidity, heat, air, space, and consciousness. These are things that we can directly see, touch, experience without fabrications. These are the areas where we need to cultivate judgement.

The Buddha’s strategy as a teacher seems very contemporary because even though his primary focus was on the mind nowhere does he define what the mind is. As he said, if you define yourself, you limit yourself. Instead he focused on his assumptions on what the mind can do. He has already told us the mind can construe things otherwise than they really are and if we are paying attention we too will see that. Just as our fabricated reality is unique to each of us, so is the higher reality we see without our construal. How our mind has been liberated from construing is also a condition of the mind. It all depends on how the mind is conditioned.  If there were an absolute reality we could all see that absolute reality and we would all agree; humans, goldfish, cats and spiders. We would all experience it the same way, but we do not. What we experience is that which we have been conditioned to experience, whether on the typical level or the highest level. Conditioning is a function of the mind.

Having said that we also have to realize that the mind can change very quickly. There is no adequate analogy for how quickly the mind can change — and the Buddha looked for one. We might say that it can change in the twinkling of an eye — it’s actually much faster than that. At the same time, we can readily see that it is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — it can do a huge variety of both good and bad actions. The Buddha said, the mind is more variegated than the animal kingdom. Think of it — there are many species of species of fish in the sea, birds in the sky, animals on the land and under the ground, whether extant or extinct: All of these species are products of minds, and the mind can take on a wider variety of forms than even that. It can imagine animals that exist, no longer exist or have never existed.

This variety comes from the many different choices the mind makes under the influence of ignorance and defilement. The greater the ignorance, the more sophisticated the delusions, the wider the variety of choices we have. We can eventually catalog an infinite number of choices and most of them probably bad for us.

The mind doesn’t always have to be defiled. There are some contemporary Buddhist teachers that will maintain that everything we do and think and even happens to us is the result of our past “karma.” This is not what the Buddha taught. He said, 

Moḷiyasīvaka: There are some contemplatives & brahmans who are of this doctrine, this view: ‘Whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before.’ Now what does Master Gotama say to that?

The Buddha: There are cases where some feelings arise based on bile [i.e., diseases and pains that come from a malfunctioning gall bladder]. You yourself should know how some feelings arise based on bile. Even the world is agreed on how some feelings arise based on bile. So any contemplatives & brahmans who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those contemplatives & brahmans are wrong.

There are cases where some feelings arise based on phlegm… based on internal winds… based on a combination of bodily humors… from the change of the seasons… from uneven [‘out-of-tune’] care of the body… from attacks… from the result of kamma. You yourself should know how some feelings arise from the result of kamma. Even the world is agreed on how some feelings arise from the result of kamma. So any contemplatives & brahmans who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those contemplatives & brahmans are wrong.

— Samyutta Nikaya 36.21

In other words, there are feelings we feel that are not based on past kamma. They are based on present circumstances. Sometimes, no matter how good our kamma is, conditions arise that make us feel bad. If you walk outside this evening and a rock falls from the sky and hits you, that might have nothing to do with your kamma, past or present. Sometimes things fall out of the sky. Circumstances cause that to happen. Conditions were right, you happened to be outside and a rock fell out of the sky and hit you — stupid Newtonian physics! 

Kamma is non-linear. Sometimes the results of an action don’t appear immediately, or even in the immediate next life. The mind plays a role that the in determining how the results of kamma are experienced, and  there is an intelligent way to use the Buddha’s teachings on kamma when reflecting on one’s own past bad kamma so as to train oneself in the proper frame of mind.

He asked Ananda, “if there were no kamma ripening in the sensuality-property, would sensuality-becoming be discerned?” — Bhava Sutta: Becoming (Anguttara Nikaya 3.76) This tends to limit kamma to a psychological level, as does the statement, “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.” (Anguttara Nikaya 6.63)

Past kamma is not entirely deterministic. Even though past kamma shapes the range of options open to the mind in the present, it doesn’t have to determine present kamma — the intentions by which the mind chooses to fabricate actual chooses its experiences from among those options.  Present kamma can choose to continue creating the conditions for more ignorance, or not, because our present choices are what keep ignorance alive. Although no one — not even a Buddha — can trace back to when the defilement of ignorance first began, the continued existence of ignorance depends on conditions continually provided by unskillful kamma.

So it is not our past kamma that is causing us to do the things we are doing. Once I took to the teaching that at the time we are doing something we could not do otherwise than what we are doing because our kamma has conditioned us to do those things.Not only did I embrace those teachings but I also taught them. Today I can see how wrong I was. It is not that our past kamma determines our present actions or even circumstances; but it is our past kamma that presents us with opportunities of choices. Our present kamma determines what choice we will make, and even that is not enough to account for the specific choice itself. The act of deciding is based on our intentions. What we intend in that very moment will become our kamma in the instant of the decision making process. Unfortunately, there is not just one intention involved in that decision. The very act of deciding contains many present kammas which is evident from our subtle process of deciding amongst all the possibilities. In the process we are using a myriad of old kammas while creating a plethora of new ones.

Kamma is incredibly subtle. This is why the Sutta challenges us to be discerning so we can understand the process as it works.

The good news is that if these conditions are removed, ignorance will disband. Yes, it is true that the mind without defilement is pure luminescence. Ignorance, attachment, & aversion need not be a permanent part of our mental landscape. Defilements simply come and go — mainly come — and the mind is not doomed to be permanently stained. This is why the Buddha said that the mind is luminous. Taken out of context, this statement might be construed as implying that the mind is inherently awakened.

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.”

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements.”

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind.”

“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind.”

— Anguttara Nikaya 1.49-52

In context the Buddha is simply saying that the mind, once stained, is not permanently stained. When the conditions for the stains are gone, the mind becomes luminous again. The mind, he says, can be developed, but notice too, he says that the average person isn’t even aware that the luminescent mind is even there. While the luminosity is universal and can be developed it is not an awakened nature.

In the scheme of the four noble truths, if something is to be developed it’s not the goal; it’s part of the path to the goal. After this luminosity is developed during the advanced stages of concentration. If you are not one of the well-trained disciples there is no development. Once developed, however, it is to be abandoned once it has done its work in helping to pierce through the veil of  ignorance.

Anything that is to be developed is not the path but only a part of the path. Anything to be abandoned is not the path, only part of the path. The luminescence is not some kind of innate enlightenment.

In some sects of East Asian Buddhism the word hongaku is used to describe this luminosity. It comes from honga (primordial or original) + ku (light or energy). It was intrinsic to T’ien T’ai (Tendai in Japanese) Buddhism in China and through that school the notion both evolved and spread. The concept pre-dates T’ien T’ai by a couple of centuries when the work was used in the famous Chinese work The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, attributed to Aśvaghoṣa, who lived in India between 80 – 150 CE. Like many of the Mahayana writings from that era, only the Chinese version exists, the “original Sanskrit” version was conveniently lost. Modern scholars agree that the text was composed in China and had nothing to do with Aśvaghoṣa. It is also believed that Aśvaghoṣa was not from the Mahayana at all but seems to have been ordained into a sub-sect of the Mahasanghikas, and closer in sentiment to Theravada than to Mahayana.

Huineng was the Sixth and last patriarch of Ch’an, also mentions hongaku in the Platform Sutra. Among the many curious teachings found in the Sutra, are the concepts of hongaku as “innate enlightenment,” “sudden enlightenment,” and Southern and Northern schools of Buddhism. The last is interesting in that it has been popularly, although erroneously, said to refer to Theravada and Mahayana schools. It actually applies to two different Ch’an schools. It was the Southern school that developed the notion of “sudden enlightenment” over gradual enlightenment as taught by the Buddha. The Southern school also promoted the idea of “inherent” or “innate” enlightenment by conflating luminous mind (Sanskrit prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta, Pali pabhassara citta) with the inherent enlightenment of all living things.

Hongaku then became an East Asian Buddhist doctrine often translated as “inherent”, “innate”, “intrinsic” or “original” enlightenment and is the view that all sentient beings already are enlightened or awakened in some way. This would include your drug addled Aunt Alice, your homophobic boss, your goldfish and ameba in your water. The idea is closely tied with the concept of Buddha-nature and Tathagatagarbha.

This version of hongaku is defined by two major philosophical elements

1. Radical non-dualism — everything is empty and interconnected, so that the differences between ordinary person and Buddha and all other distinctions, were ontologically negated.

2. Hongaku affirms the perceptual world as an expression of the non-dual realm of Buddha nature.

This affirmation lead to such strange sayings as, “The worldly passions are precisely enlightenment” and “birth and death are precisely nirvana.” These sound very cool but are very far from the teaching of the Buddhadhamma. It also leads to a redefining of the role of “emptiness” in daily life. If it were true that the perceptual reality of the mundane world is simply an expression of the ideal world of non-duality, seen as some “ultimate reality,” then any act of immorality could also be said to be an expression of enlightenment.

This teaching tends to dilute the original teaching and intent of the Buddha. It also tends to seem delusional just on the surface of it. They also tend to justify not developing the resolve to become awakened, discernment, calm, or dispassion, the very things that are the signature characteristics of Buddhism. There is also a tendency in this trend to accept any delusion as true Dharma precisely because “delusion is enlightenment and enlightenment is delusion” according to this view.

Interesting questions now arise. If something with an awakened nature can suffer, what good is that awakened nature anyway? How could something innately awakened become defiled in the first place? If your original Buddha nature became deluded, what’s to prevent it from becoming deluded after it’s reawakened? Why does the Buddha only speak of awakening and never of reawakening?

Recently in a Linkedin discussion group, several nominal Buddhists raised the question of reaching “nirvana” only to return to the mundane world as if “nirvana” were some temporary experience. It was as if they could reach enlightenment only to lose it again. This is the inevitable result of this strange teaching of “original enlightenment” hongaku shiso as it is called in Japan.

Luminosity of the mind is neither good nor evil. It does allow you to know what is skillful and what is unskillful. It literally creates the circumstances in which skillful qualities can be brought into being, in which they can do their work to bring the mind to a place where it goes beyond both the good and the evil, beyond that luminosity. Phenomena are preceded by the mind, ruled by the mind, made of the mind (Dhammapada verse 1).

This means that the path is not inevitable as the Hongaku shiso doctrine suggests. We don’t have an awakened nature that forces us to gain awakening at some point. That is still a matter of free will.

What we do have is a desire for happiness, and a luminous mind that can know.

This mind is very capable of knowing that there is suffering and it’s capable of watching how this suffering arises. It is also capable of developing the qualities that allow us to see where the suffering comes from, and to see that it is not necessary to suffer, that an end to it.

Sometimes when people gain a luminous state of mind, or a wide-open state of mind, they think they’ve hit their awakened nature. There are many articles and books available that are written by self-proclaim Arahants who seem to have reached this state and mistook it for awakening. Luminosity is it’s a condition that allows the mind to see, but the awakening comes from our determination not to keep on suffering.

Each one of us has a warrior doing battle with defilement. Discernment is our primary weapon. What in the mind is that warrior? It is the determination not to come back and be the butt of the defilements joke — the determination not to suffer again. We cannot afford let go of that determination until it has done its job. Willing is a necessary element of the path. Without that willing, it just does not happen. The luminosity of the mind is what allows the will to do its work, allows us to straighten out our own

The Buddha tells us that mind can be trained

    • To awaken,
    • To see the causes of ignorance and
    • To bring them to an end.

The first step in this training is the first determination: not to neglect discernment.

We have to ask ourselves, to what extent do we consciously neglect discernment?

Discernment is insight into how the mind fabricates its experiences. The process of fabrication is going on all the time right before our eyes — even nearer than our eyes — and yet part of the mind chooses to ignore it. We tend to be more interested in the experiences that result from the fabrication: the physical, mental, and emotional states we want to savor and enjoy.

It’s like watching a play. We enjoy entering into the make-believe world on the stage, and prefer to ignore the noises made by the back-stage crew that would call the reality of that world into question. We have accepted the “willing suspension of disbelief.” In doing so we have chosen to remain ignorant — ignoring what is really going on. This ignorance is willed, which is why we need an act of the will to see through it, to discern the back-stage activities of the mind.

Discernment thus has two sides: 1) The understanding that the mind’s fabrications as just fabrications. We can look less for the what, what they are and more for the how they are part of a causal process. 2) The other side is motivation to develop this discernment, to see why we want it to influence the mind. Without this the mind will not have the conditions to grow.

Things are actions and events emerging in patterns of cause and effect. It also involves seeing how some actions are unskillful and will lead us to stress and suffering; while others are skillful and bring stress to an end. We have the freedom to choose skillful actions or not to choose them. This understanding underlies the basic framework of the four noble truths and is called appropriate attention. The motivation to develop appropriate attention grows from combining good will with this understanding.

We have to set our vision on a happiness that is totally harmless to ourselves and others. We see that if we make unskillful choices, we are going to cause suffering not only to ourselves but also to others. If we make skillful ones, we won’t. This motivation thus combines good will with attentiveness, the quality that underlies every step on the path.

Attentiveness lies at the root of all skillful qualities in the mind. In encouraging people to awaken, the Buddha never assumed that their Awakening would come from the innate goodness of their nature. He was not naive idealist, but a tough minded realist. He assumed something very obvious and ordinary: that people like pleasure and hate pain, and that they care about whether they can gain that pleasure and avoid that pain. It was a mark of his genius that he could see the potential for Awakening in this very ordinary yearning.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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