Can an enlightened mind go shopping?

opinion November 14, 2013 00:00

By Ye Olde Curmudgeon
Special to

Recently The Nation published a feature article by a prominent scholar that dealt with the Buddhist concept of mind. ("What the luminous mind of the Buddha shows us", by Michael McGhee, honorary senior fellow in the philosophy department of the University

I don’t know, because I’m not thoroughly awake. (Some people will tell you I’m not even half awake, especially before my morning coffee.) But the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu summed up the essence of Buddhism in a single line from the Pali canon: “Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to.” The Diamond Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism agrees: “One should develop a mind that does not abide anywhere.” By using these and other scriptures as a guide, we can make some educated guesses about what an enlightened mind might be like.    

Such a mind would be defined largely in negative terms. It would be devoid of craving, grasping, clinging, attachment. It would also be devoid of what Buddhism calls defilements: harmful emotions like greed, lust, anger and hatred; harmful mental states like delusion, doubt, conceit, restlessness and torpor. Among its positive qualities would be equanimity, altruism, loving kindness and compassion.

If the average reader has read this far without yawning and tossing the newspaper into the trash, I can hear him (or her) saying, “Boring! No fun at all! The enlightened mind isn’t interested in shopping? It’s not all a-quiver to buy the latest app? It doesn’t get excited over the latest smartphone? It doesn’t salivate over the latest iPad, or an account with Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? Not to mention iSnap. What would such a mind be doing on planet earth in the 21st century?”

Good question. Such a mind would find itself severely out of place in our high-tech, razzle-dazzle, gimme-gimme world. Its owner would either be tarred, feathered and run out of town, or elevated to godlike status, extolled in flowery language, worshipped in golden statues – and then quietly ignored. The first fate is more likely. But it would be preferable, because at least it would be honest.

Mahayana Buddhism sometimes uses the image of luminosity to describe the true nature of the mind. In its original state, the mind is said to be pure and undefiled. Indeed, when it is in that state, Tibetan Buddhism calls it the Clear Light Mind. 

Hinduism uses the same image of luminosity to describe the atman, the universal self or soul. “That shining, everything shines. By its light all this is illumined.” This verse is so important that it is repeated in exactly the same words in three different Upanishads:  Katha (2.2.15 and 5.15) , Mundaka (2.2.11), and Shvetashvara (6.14). Buddhism doesn’t believe in any kind of atman (self, soul). But it does believe in the mind. 

Why do both religions use the same image of luminosity? We can only speculate. It is possible that, in deep states of meditation, advanced practitioners of both faiths perceived light flooding the universe. The Hindus identified that light with the atman. The Buddhists couldn’t do that, because they don’t believe in an atman. Instead, they identified it with the mind.

Exactly what is this mysterious luminosity? We don’t know. Some people build theories around it, and give it names like the Absolute, the Ground of Being, the Godhead. Others, more hard-headed, dismiss it as a hallucination experienced by deranged ascetics who haven’t had enough to eat.  

Whatever it is, giving it a name and trying to conceptualise it is a very bad idea. Both Hindus and Buddhists strive to attain a state of non-attachment. But once you conceptualise any phenomenon and give it a name, you’ve made it a potential object of attachment.  

Even the concept of non-attachment is a possible object of attachment. How can you become non-attached if you’re attached to non-attachment? This question will give you headaches every time.          

The answer might be not to try too hard. Take it easy. Give it a rest. Jai yen yen. Trying too hard is a bummer. Aside from giving you headaches, it stresses out the mind – and a stressed-out mind isn’t going to get you anywhere, except maybe into a mental institution.  

The Buddha used the image of tuning a lute. If you tighten the strings too much, they’ll snap. If you leave them too loose, they’ll produce only a chuff-chuff-chuff sound. In religious practice, as in many other spheres of life, we have to find the Middle Way. The Buddha himself learned by experience that trying too hard is counterproductive. He gave up his extreme ascetic practices, had something to eat, and sat down under the Bo tree.  There, with a tranquil mind, he attained enlightenment. 

There remains the troublesome question of why an enlightened mind wouldn’t be able to go shopping, look at the latest apps, own smartphones and iPads, and even open accounts with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Not to mention iSnap. Actually, I suppose it could. It just wouldn’t be attached to them. 

But in that case, why bother?  

Ye Olde Curmudgeon, as his name suggests, is an old curmudgeon.

You can scold him for that c/o