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Luminous Mind

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Luminous mind (also, "brightly shining mind," "brightly shining citta") (Sanskrit prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta, Pali pabhassara citta) is a term attributed to the Buddha in the Nikayas.

The mind (Citta) is said to be "luminous" whether or not it is tainted by mental defilements.

The statement is given no direct doctrinal explanation in the Pali discourses, but later Buddhist schools explained it using various concepts developed by them.

The Theravada school identifies the "luminous mind" with the bhavanga, a concept first proposed in the Theravada Abhidhamma.

The later schools of the Mahayana identify it with both the Mahayana concepts of bodhicitta and tathagatagarbha. The idea is also connected with features of Dzogchen thought.

Anguttara Nikaya

In the Anguttara Nikaya (A.I.8-10) the Buddha states: "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements." The discourses indicate that the mind's natural radiance can be made manifest by meditation.

Ajahn Mun, the leading figure behind the modern Thai Forest Tradition, comments on this verse:

The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits – passing defilements – come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds.

Don’t go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun. So meditators, when they know in this manner, should do away with these counterfeits by analyzing them shrewdly...

When they develop the mind to the stage of the primal mind, this will mean that all counterfeits are destroyed, or rather, counterfeit things won’t be able to reach into the primal mind, because the bridge making the connection will have been destroyed.

Even though the mind may then still have to come into contact with the preoccupations of the world, its contact will be like that of a bead of water rolling over a lotus leaf.


Main article: Buddha-nature


Main article: Bhavanga

The Theravadin Angutta Nikaya Atthakatha identifies the luminous mind as the bhavanga, the "ground of becoming" or "latent dynamic continuum",

which is the most fundamental level of mental functioning in the Theravada Abhidhammic scheme.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu holds that the commentaries' identification of the luminous mind with the bhavanga is problematic, but Peter Harvey finds it to be a plausible interpretation.


Main article: Eight Consciousnesses

According to Walpola Rahula, all the elements of the Yogacara store-consciousness (alaya-vijnana) are already found in the Pali Canon. He writes that the three layers of the mind (citta, called "luminous" in the passage discussed above, manas, and vijnana) as presented by Asanga are also used in the Pali Canon:

Thus we can see that Vijnana represents the simple reaction or response of the sense organs when they come in contact with external objects.

This is the uppermost or superficial aspect or layer of the Vijnanaskanda.

Manas represents the aspect of its mental functioning, thinking, reasoning, conceiving ideas, etc.

Citta which is here called Alayavijnana, represents the deepest, finest and subtlest aspect or layer of the Aggregate of consciousness.

It contains all the traces or impressions of the past actions and all good and bad future possibilities.

According to Yogacara teachings, as in early Buddhist teachings regarding the citta, the store-consciousness is not pure, and with the attainment of nirvana comes a level of mental purity that is hitherto unattained.


Main article: Svasaṃvedana

In Tibetan Buddhism, the luminous mind (Tibetan: gsal ba) is often equated with the Yogacara concept of svasaṃvedana (reflexive awareness).

It is often compared to a lamp in a dark room, which in the act of illuminating objects in the room also illuminates itself.


Main article: Tathagatagarbha

In the canonical discourses, when the brightly shining citta is "unstained," it is supremely poised for arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata.

The discourses do not support seeing the "luminous mind" as "nirvana within" which exists prior to liberation.

While the Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" in its raw state with nirvanic consciousness, passages could be taken to imply that it can be transformed into the latter.

Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations."

Both the Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra describe the tathagatagarbha ("arahant womb") as "by nature brightly shining and

pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining."

It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements.

Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha.

(Some Gelug philosophers, in contrast to teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra, maintain that the "purity" of the tathagatagarbha is not because it is originally or fundamentally pure, but because mental flaws can be removed — that is, like anything else,

they are not part of an individual's fundamental essence. These thinkers thus refuse to turn epistemological insight about emptiness and Buddha-nature into an essentialist metaphysics.)

The Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra also equate the tathagatagarbha (and alaya-vijnana) with nirvana, though this is concerned with the actual attainment of nirvana as opposed to nirvana as a timeless phenomenon.


The Mahayana interprets the brightly shining citta as bodhicitta, the altruistic "spirit of awakening."

The Astasahasrika Perfection of Wisdom Sutra describes bodhicitta thus:

"That citta is no citta since it is by nature brightly shining."

This is in accord with Anguttara Nikaya I,10 which goes from a reference to brightly shining citta to saying that even the slightest development of loving-kindness is of great benefit.

This implies that loving-kindness - and the related state of compassion - is inherent within the luminous mind as a basis for its further development.

The observation that the ground state of consciousness is of the nature of loving-kindness implies that empathy is innate to consciousness and exists prior to the emergence of all active mental processes.


Wikipedia:Luminous Mind