Mind vs. Consciousness

I got a question via email that went like this:

I really enjoyed your talk yesterday on Dogen’s Mujo Seppo. Your speculation that perhaps the sun has some form of consciousness made me realize that I don’t really understand the difference between “mind” and “consciousness” in Zen, or if there even really is one, as it seems that “vijñana” is often translated as both.

If everything is mind, then it seems that to speak of “my mind”, or “your mind”…etc. is ultimately mistaken and that one should just speak of “mind”. But, it seems, at least to me, that the notion of consciousness is more wrapped up with self. You once told me that Nishijima Roshi, said, “consciousness is just an idea.” Does this mean that what we call consciousness is illusory? Could it be said that consciousness is an illusion that occurs when I think of mind as “mine”? 

Here’s how I answered:

In Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts, the word translated as “mind” is a character that’s pronounced shin, or kokoro. It can also mean “heart.”

A character  pronounced shiki is what gets translated as “consciousness.” It’s the character used to translate the Sanskrit word vijnana. The same Chinese character can also mean “to discriminate” or “to know.”

In Buddhist terms, all things are mind. Consciousness is one of the functions of mind. However, in Advaita Vedanta philosophy, everything is consciousness and the word “mind” is used to mean the personal sense of self or the individual perceptive sense. 

When Nishijima Roshi said, “Consciousness is just an idea,” he was responding to a guy who thought he had it all figured out. Everything is consciousness. He might as well have been using the word “God” instead. The guy’s head was in the clouds. He was one of those self-styled “spiritual” type people. After that exchange I never saw him again. 

It all comes down to what you mean when you use these words. Each person’s definition is a little different. Different traditions divide their various concepts up differently. None of the words we use are accurate. They’re just ways of dividing reality into conceptual parts. But it’s like dividing colors and naming them. The Japanese word aoi includes both what we call “green” and what we call “blue.” They consider all of what we call “blue” and all of what we call “green” to be a single color and then they divide that color into shades that have different names. 

Words are just ways of communicating to each other. But it’s important to agree upon their general meaning if you want communication to go smoothly. The problem is that we get tricked into thinking the divisions we impose upon the world are real.

ANYWAY… in Buddhist terms, consciousness generally means the relationship between subject and object. It’s related with the concept of “contact.” Both of these are part of the twelve-fold chain of co-dependent co-origination. So there is an eye, and there is a box of cereal, and in between is “eye consciousness,” which connects them and you go, “I see a box of cereal.” But the Buddhists also say that this is an illusion. There aren’t three things (eye, cereal box, eye consciousness). There is just one event that includes all three.

Also, in Buddhist terms, each sense has its own consciousness. So there’s eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness. Which is different from the idea that there is one thing called “consciousness” that takes in all of these things. In Buddhist terms, it’s “Mind” that does that. In Advaita Vedanta terminology, consciousness is the big thing and mind is smaller.

Dogen wrote an essay called The Triple World (aka the entire universe) is Mind Alone (Sangai Yuishin). In that essay he defines “mind” in very broad terms. There is just one Mind. The idea that there is “your mind” and “my mind” is a mistake. Mind is everything, including all of what we call “matter.” But that doesn’t mean everything is what we conceive of as “mind.”

If everything is mind but also it’s wrong to say “everything is mind,” then why do they say things like the entire universe is mind? Why does Dogen keep saying things that sound like, “I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens”? I think the idea is to get us out of our habitual relationships with the material world. In the end, anything we say about it is wrong.

Since I have been reading lots of Advaita Vedanta philosophy lately, I’m probably sloppy with my use of the words “consciousness” and “mind.” I apologize.


Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check aczc.org


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