Different Buddhist traditions have some mention of an original, primordial mind of some sort. If there is one, what are its attributes.

  • This kind of question varies according to tradition and sect and I think that it needs to be further specified. Perhaps you should rephrase it as "Is there an original mind according to school x" or "what are the positions of the different schools on a primordial mind" or something like that.
    – Bakmoon
    May 22, 2015 at 7:12
  • @Bakmoon- thanks I taken your suggestion and wording.
    – Samadhi
    May 22, 2015 at 7:35

4 Answers 4


Bhavanga, Pabhassara-cita and Nibbana (Theravadin perspective from Ajahn Mun's Thai forest tradition)

To get from bhavanga, pabhassaara to nibbana and understand how kamma effects are stored in the present and transmigrated to the future we have to explore some terms.

What happens in-between times when we are not thinking, when we are in a dreamless sleep? Is there still the arising and falling of consciousness (citta)?

In this tradition there is the bhavanga-citta which arise after the rebirth-linking consciousness (patisandhi-citta) that form the “life-continuum” in the next existence.

The 'Visuddhimagga' (XIV, 114) states with regard to the bhavanga-citta: When the patisandhi-citta has ceased, then, following on whatever kind of rebirth-consciousness it may be, the same kinds, being the result of the same kamma whatever it may be, occur as bhavanga-cittas with that same object; and again those same kinds. And as long as there is no other kind of arising of consciousness to interrupt the continuity they also go on occurring endlessly in periods of dreamless sleep, etc., like the current of a river.

A bhavanga citta is a vipaka citta (kamma-result), but called bhavanga (literally meaning “factor of life”) because it performs the function of the “life continuum”.

Now we come to the question how is it stored?

Dynamically maintained throughout one life to another is just a postulation with no-doctrinal evidence:

“.., kamma and vipaka don't get stored into some kind of immutable and centralized "repository", instead they're continuously and dynamically re-inforced or weakened from life to life with the patisandhi citta acting as the "link".”

Now onn how kamma is stored from doctrinal text.

“Questions about the persistence of latent dispositions and accumulation of karmic potential thus remain: once the cognitive processes are activated, are they transmitted through the six modes of cognitive awareness? If so, why do they not influence these forms of mind? If not, how do they persist from one moment of bhavaṅga-citta to the next without some contiguous conditioning medium? The bhavaṅga-citta does not directly address these persisting questions, adumbrated in the Kathavātthu so many centuries before. Nor, to my knowledge, do subsequent Theravādin Abhidhamma traditions discuss these questions in dhammic terms.” - Waldron, William S. Buddhist unconscious: the ālaya-vijñāna in the context of Indian Buddhist thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p.83.

Rupert Gethin in 'Bhavanga and Rebirth According to the Abhidhamma.' in The Buddhist Forum. Vol III. T. Skorupski and U. Pagel (eds.), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, pp. 11–35.

“..it does not seem possible on the basis of what is said explicitly in the texts to justify the claim that the bhavanga carries with it all character traits, memories, habitual tendencies, etc." .

From the above it appears that the Theravada Commentators have resisted the temptation to create mechanism for the "transmission" of kamma, in contrast to other traditions.

Briefly, in the tradition of the Yogacara Buddhist they have a concept of store –consciousness (alaya-vijnana).

We shall now leave the subject of bhavanga, and how kamma is stored in the consciousness and turn elsewhere for help.

Unable to find any doctrinal support, we shall now turn to the people most qualified to speak on the subject, the meditators, who many believed to have experience the ultimate and have spoken on it and I refer to Ajahn Mun of the Thai forest tradition and he spoke of the luminous mind(pabhassara-citta)

I quote from the above link:

“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.” ..from Ven. Ajahn Mun, ‘A Heart Released,’ p 23. Found in Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbāna, pages 212-213.

In the same link above Pabharassa-citta is identified as 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.[11] 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. In Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pabhassara Sutta he gives his reason in Note 1.

(I’ll refer to Note 1 to it later). I do not have access to Peter Harvey’s views. But in the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta(MN49) translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, there is a description of “'Consciousness without surface, endless, radiant all around” and in his Note no. 9 in MN49 he argues that:

Consciousness without surface (viññanam anidassanam).. for the arahant, nibbana is not an object of consciousness. Instead it is directly known without mediation. Because consciousness without feature is directly known without mediation, there seems good reason to equate the two.

That this consciousness is Nibbana!

But yet in his Note 1(which I promise to come back) in Pabhassara Sutta he says:

Another interpretation equates the luminosity of the mind with the "consciousness without feature," described as "luminous" in MN49, but this interpretation also has problems. According to MN 49, that consciousness partakes of nothing in the describable world, not even the "Allness of the All," so how could it possibly be defiled? And, because it is not realized until the goal of the practice is reached, why would the perception of its luminosity be a prerequisite for developing the mind? And again, if "mind" here means consciousness without feature, how could the sutta talk of its development?

Here is Ajahn Sujato's Pabhassara reading that the mind is somehow radiant!

The beginning of the Sutta has the Buddha (presumably, although it doesn’t actually say so), saying, “This mind is radiant…” The particle “idam”, “this”, functions to limit and specific: This mind, not “the mind” (as in Thanissaro’s translation). As well as the gold/samadhi passages, we might compare to the Upakkilesa Sutta, where the Buddha speaks of how he meditated, then light arose, but because of “defilements” (upakkilesa, the same word as our sutta), the light vanished. The word for light is different (obhasa), but is from the same root with the same basic meaning.

This is the normal way the Buddha talked about the mind. It is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. Our passage, which is unique, without parallels in any early Suttas, syntactically awkward, clearly the subject of editing, can be read as suggesting a different take on things, that the mind is somehow “radiant” even when covered by defilements. Or it can be read in line with the other, more clear suttas.

In either case, there is no suggestion here that the “radiant mind” be connected with Nibbana. Quite the opposite: the whole point of the sutta is that it can be defiled, so it cannot be Nibbana.

Ajahn Sujato stop short of connecting the "radiant mind" with Nibbana because ..it can be defiled.

The answer is provided by Ajahn Mun’s description:

“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”…. “When they develop the mind to the stage of the primal mind,..”

So in the Pabhassara sutta when it is said:

“Luminous, monks, is the mind.[1] And it is defiled by incoming defilements." {I,v,9}

"Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements." {I,v,10}

"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." {I,vi,1}

"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." {I,vi,2}

Both Ajahn Mun and the Buddha are saying the same thing but Ajahn Mun had clarified that the luminous mind has lost it radiance when it is obscured by defilements and that we have to get rid of the defilements to reach the state of the primal mind (why would we want to go back to the primal mind, only if it is inherently luminous).

The Buddha stated very clearly that whether the mind is defiled or not it is still an inherently luminous mind. (inherently - my addition in light of Ajahn Mun's clarification)

Is an inherently luminous mind therefore the same as "consciousness without feature" i.e. Nibbana?

What Ajahn Mun's has said is that the primeval mind is defiled in the way of being obscured by defilements and not as altered ". What is intrinsically bright cannot be defiled by alteration but can be obscured, ...like the clouds covering the sun.

The inherent luminous mind obscured by defilements is therefore bhavanga.

1) So is the true characteristics of Bhavanga, Pabhassara and Nibbana, the same, "consciousness without feature", except that Bhavanga has defilements obscuring its true nature?

2) Or is Bhavanga and Pabhassara the same, both luminous primodial mind, and different from Nibbana?

3) Or is Pabhassara, a luminous primodial mind with Avijja, not the same as Nibbana, pure awakened mind with vijja and Bhavanga just "emanations" of Pabhassara?

The Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Mun seems to adopts the third view.

  • 1
    In light of further research I've added Ajahn Sujato's reading of the Pabhassara sutta and his comments.
    – Samadhi
    May 23, 2015 at 10:07

Mahayana (Tathagata-garbha, Buddha-nature, Buddhabood, Indra's net)

Eight Consciousnesses

The Eight Consciousnesses is a classification developed in the tradition of the Yogacara school of Buddhism. They enumerate the five senses, supplemented by the mind, defilements of the mind, and finally the fundamental store-house consciousness, which is the basis of the other seven.

All surviving schools of buddhist thought accept – "in common" – the existence of the first six primary consciousnesses (Sanskrit: vijñāna, Tibetan: རྣམ་ཤེས་, Wylie: rnam-shes).[1] The internally coherent Yogācāra school associated with Maitreya, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu, however, uniquely – or "uncommonly" – also posits the existence of two additional primary consciousnesses, kliṣṭamanas and ālayavijñāna, in order to explain the workings of karma.

The ālaya-vijñāna doctrine arose on the Indian subcontinent about one thousand years before Tsong kha pa. It gained its place in a distinctly Yogācāra system over a period of some three hundred years stretching from 100 to 400 C.E., culminating in the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha, a short text by Asaṅga (circa 350), setting out a systematic presentation of the ālaya-vijñāna doctrine developed over the previous centuries. It is the doctrine found in this text in particular that Tsong kha pa, in his Ocean of Eloquence, treats as having been revealed in toto by the Buddha and transmitted to suffering humanity through the Yogācāra founding saints (Tib. shing rta srol byed): Maitreya[-nātha], Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu.

In Mahayana schools of Chan/Zen Buddhism, the alaya-vjnana is identical with the tathagata-garbha, and is fundamentally pure.

Mahayana other schools, starts with the interpretation of the Luminous Mind (Prabhasvara citta)

According to Wayman, the idea of the tathagatagarbha is grounded on sayings by the Buddha that there is an innately pure luminous mind[18] (prabhasvara citta[19]), "which is only adventitiously covered over by defilements (agantukaklesa)"[19] This luminous mind is being mentioned in the Anguttara Nikaya:[20] "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements."

The Mahāsāṃghika coupled this idea of the luminous mind with the idea of the mulavijnana (*Eight consciousnesses), the substratum consciousness that serves as the basis consciousness.

Pure consciousness

From the idea of the luminous mind emerged the idea that the awakened mind is the pure, undefiled mind. In the tathagatagarbha-sutras it is this pure consciousness that is regarded to be the seed from which Buddhahood grows: When this intrinsically pure consciousness came to be regarded as an element capable of growing into Buddhahood, there was the "embryo (garbha) of the Tathagata (=Buddha)" doctrine, whether or not this term is employed.

Mahayana further developed Dharma-dhātu - The realm of the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra which results in the Tiantai, Tendai and Nicheren school of Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra asserts ..

"..Skillful means of most enlightened Buddhas is itself the highest teaching (the Lotus Sūtra itself), in conjunction with the sutra's stated tenets that all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of this highest truth, that there are not actually Three Vehicles (three kinds of teachings, each tailored to the capacity of a specific set of practitioners) as previously taught, but only One Vehicle (Skrt. Ekayāna, the Buddha’s ultimate teaching transcending limitations in the capacity of practitioners) leading to Buddhahood."

Then came the development of AvataṃsakaSūtra – the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism , characterise by a philosophy of interpenetration: all levels of reality are related and interpenetrated. This is depicted in the image of Indra's net.


Vajrayana(Primordial mind, clear light and Primordial Buddha)

In Vajrayana the primodial mind ((Wylie: 'hod-gsal, 'od gsal), Clear light (Sanskrit prabhasvara)or "Radiant Light":

..refers to the intrinsic purity of the substratum of the mindstream , which is the moment-to-moment continuum (Sanskrit: saṃtāna) of awareness, which provides a continuity from one life to another.The concept developed in later Yogacara, to avoid “making real” of the store consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) – *which is a store for kamma results.

Definitions Patrul Rinpoche et al. (1994: p.410; p.403) define 'Clear light' (Tibetan: 'od gsal) as the:

...spontaneous, luminous (or knowing) aspect of the nature of Mind - or awareness (rig pa), the original state of Mind, fresh, vast, luminous, and beyond thought.[6] In the tradition of Namkha'i, it is held that Ösel reveals the natural luminosity of emptiness, the 'true nature of Mind' (Sanskrit: cittatva).[citation needed] Ösel is taught as one part of the six yogas of Naropa. Keown, et al. (2003) identify the Ösel or "clear light", as that by which the natural luminosity (Five Pure Lights) of emptiness (Śūnyatā) is apprehended. [7]

Berzin, in the Berzin Archives Glossary,

identifies the "mental continuum" (Sanskrit: citta santana) as constituted by the "clear light awareness" which is his rendering of ‘od-gsal (Wylie). Berzin defines ‘od-gsal thus: The subtlest level of mental activity (Mind), which continues with no beginning and no end, without any break, even during death and even into Buddhahood. It is individual and constitutes the mental continuum of each Being. It is naturally free of conceptual cognition, the appearance-making of true existence, and grasping for true existence, since it is more subtle than the grosser levels of mental activity with which these occur. IT is named the Light. [8]

Commentary and critique: Kapstein (2004: p.124) in mentioning the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā and Haribhadra states:

Though some later Tibetan authors do suggest that this lends support to the concept of a sort of luminous spiritual substance underlying the mind, the most influential of the Indian commentators on this text, Haribhadra, by contrast says: "Wherefore it is far removed from the nature of the one and the many, the nature, or essence, of Mind, being unoriginated, is clear Light" for the darkness of all conceptions of being is destroyed." Thus, Haribhadra will commit himself to no more than a metaphorical interpretation of the Light of Mind. In this, his perspective seems entirely continuous with the dominant scholastic trends of early Buddhism.[9]

Clear light, Primodial Buddha and Creator God by Dalai Lama:

I understand the Primordial Buddha, also known as Buddha Samantabhadra, to be the ultimate reality, the realm of the Dharmakaya-- the space of emptiness--where all phenomena, pure and impure, are dissolved. This is the explanation taught by the Sutras and Tantras. However, in the context of your question, the tantric tradition is the only one which explains the Dharmakaya in terms of Inherent clear light, the essential nature of the mind; this would seem imply that all phenomena, samsara and nirvana, arise from this clear and luminous source. Even the New School of Translation came to the conclusion that the "state of rest" of a practitioner of the Great Yoga--Great Yoga implies here the state of the practitioner who has reached a stage in meditation where the most subtle experience of clear light has been realized--that for as long as the practitioner remains in this ultimate sphere he or she remains totally free of any sort of veil obscuring the mind, and is immersed in a state of great bliss.

We can say, therefore, that this ultimate source, clear light, is close to the notion of a Creator, since all phenomena, whether they belong to samsara or nirvana, originate therein. But we must be careful in speaking of this source, we must not be led into error. I do not mean chat there exists somewhere, there, a sort of collective clear light, analogous to the non-Buddhist concept of Brahma as a substratum. We must not be inclined to deify this luminous space. We must understand that when we speak of ultimate or inherent clear light, we are speaking on an individual level.

Likewise, when we speak of karma as the cause of the universe we eliminate the notion of a unique entity called karma existing totally independently. Rather, collective karmic impressions, accumulated individually, are at the origin of the creation of a world. When, in the tantric context, we say that all worlds appear out of clear light, we do not visualize this source as a unique entity, but as the ultimate clear light of each being. We can also, on the basis of its pure essence, understand this clear light to be the Primordial Buddha. All the stages which make up the life of each living being--death, the intermediate state, and rebirth--represent nothing more than the various manifestations of the potential of clear light. It is both the most subtle consciousness and energy. The more clear light loses its subtlety, the more your experiences take shape. ...


It is my thinking that for an original mind to be it has to have an essence, i.e. essentially existent. All other phenomenon are without essence and consequentially conditional, relatively existent.

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