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Luminous mind (Skt: prabhāsvara-citta or ābhāsvara-citta, Pali: pabhassara citta; Tib. འོ་སལ་གྱི་སེམས་ ’od gsal gyi sems; C. 光明心 guangmingxin; J. 光明心 kōmyōshin; K. kwangmyŏngsim) is a Buddhist term which appears in a sutta of the Pali Anguttara Nikaya as well as numerous Mahayana texts and Buddhist tantras. It is variously translated as "brightly shining mind", or "mind of clear light" while the related term luminosity (Skt. prabhāsvaratā; Tib. འོ་སལ་བ་ ’od gsal ba; Ch. guāng míng; Jpn. kōmyō; Kor. kwangmyōng) is also translated as "clear light" in Tibetan Buddhist contexts or, "purity" in East Asian contexts. The term is usually used to describe the mind or consciousness in different ways.
This term 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 Theravāda Abhidhamma. The later schools of the Mahayana identify it with both the Mahayana concepts of bodhicitta and tathagatagarbha. The notion is of central importance in the philosophy and practice of Dzogchen.
Luminosity in early Buddhist texts
In the Early Buddhist Texts there are various mentions of luminosity or radiance which refer to the development of the mind in meditation. In the Saṅgīti-sutta for example, it relates to the attainment of samadhi, where the perception of light (āloka sañña) leads to a mind endowed with luminescence (sappabhāsa). According to Analayo, the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels mention that the presence of defilements "results in a loss of whatever inner light or luminescence (obhāsa) had been experienced during meditation". The Pali Dhātuvibhaṅga-sutta uses the metaphor of refining gold to describe equanimity reached through meditation, which is said to be "pure, bright, soft, workable, and luminous". The Chinese parallel to this text however does not describe equanimity as luminous. Analayo sees this difference due to the propensity of the reciters of the Theravada canon to prefer fire and light imagery.
"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."
Another mention of a similar term in the Pali discourses occurs in the Brahmanimantaṇika-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya and in the Kevaḍḍha-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, the latter has a parallel in a Dharmaguptaka collection surviving in Chinese translation. The Brahmanimantaṇika-sutta describes an “invisible consciousness” (viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ) that is "infinite” (anantaṃ), and “luminous in every way” (sabbato pabhaṃ). However, there is disagreement among the various editions of the Pāli Canon as to whom the statement is spoken by, and in some editions it seems as if it is spoken not by the Buddha but by the deva Baka Brahma in a debate with the Buddha. The Chinese parallel to the Brahmanimantaṇika-sutta has the term used by Baka Brahma.
Consciousness that is invisible, Infinite, and luminous of its own: This ceasing, the four elements cease, Coarse and subtle, pretty and ugly cease. Herein name-and-form cease. Consciousness ceasing, the remainder [i.e. name-and-form] also ceases.
However, Analayo mentions that parallel recensions of this sutra in other languages such as Sanskrit and Tibetan do not mention luminosity (pabhaṃ) and even the various Pali editions do not agree that this verse mentions luminosity, sometimes using pahaṃ ("given up") instead of pabhaṃ. Whatever the case, according to Analayo, the passage refers to "the cessation mode of dependent arising, according to which name-and-form cease with the cessation of consciousness".
According to Bhikkhu Brahmāli, the references to luminosity in the Brahmanimantaṇika-sutta refers to states of samadhi known only to ariyas (noble ones), while the pabhassaracitta of Anguttara Nikaya (A.I.8-10) is a reference to the mind in jhana. He cites a common passage which notes that the mind with the five hindrances is not considered radiant and thus it makes sense to say that a mind in jhana, which does not have the five hindrances, can be said to be radiant:
So too, bhikkhus, there are these five corruptions of the mind (cittassa), corrupted by which the mind is neither malleable nor wieldy nor radiant (pabhassaraṃ) but brittle and not rightly concentrated for the destruction of the taints. What five? Sensual desire ... ill will ... sloth and torpor ... restlessness and remorse ... doubt is a corruption of the mind, corrupted by which the mind is neither malleable nor wieldy nor radiant but brittle and not rightly concentrated for the destruction of the taints. (SN V 92 and A III 16, cf. AN I 257 and MN III 243).
The Theravadin Anguttara Nikaya Atthakatha commentary 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. This interpretation is also used by Buddhaghosa, in his commentary on the Dhammasangani. Buddhaghosa also mentions that the mind is made luminous by the fourth jhana in his Visuddhimagga.
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.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu sees the luminous mind as "the mind that the meditator is trying to develop. To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed, aversion, or delusion are not intrinsic to its nature, are not a necessary part of awareness." He associates the term with the simile used to describe the fourth jhana which states:
"Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness."
Other Buddhist schools
is initially or originally contaminated by defilements, and must be purified by abandoning defilements. For them a primordially luminous mind cannot be contaminated by adventitious defilements. If such a mind were contaminated by adventitious defilements, then these naturally impure defilements would become pure once they become associated with the naturally luminous mind. On the other hand, if adventitious defilements remained to be impure, then a naturally luminous mind would not become defiled by their presence. For them the constantly evolving mind is in possession of defilements.
In Mahayana Buddhism
In Sanskrit Mahayana texts and their translations, the term is a compound of the intensifying prefix pra-, the verbal root bhāsa (Tibetan: 'od) which means light, radiance or luminosity and the modifier vara (Tibetan: gsal ba) which means 'clear,' and also 'the best of, the highest type.' Jeffrey Hopkins' Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary glosses the term compound as:
clear light; clearly luminous; transparently luminous; translucent; brightly shining; transparent lucidity; splendor; radiance; illumination; spread the light; lustre; come to hear; effulgence; brilliance.
Mahayana sutras generally affirm the pure and luminous nature of the mind, adding that this is its natural condition (prakrti-prabhsvara-citta). In the Pañcavimsati Prajñaparamita sutra, the prabhsvara-citta is interpreted thus:
This mind (citta) is no-mind (acitta), because its natural character is luminous. What is this state of the mind’s luminosity (prabhsvarat)? When the mind is neither associated with nor dissociated from greed, hatred, delusion, proclivities (anusaya), fetters (samyojana), or false views (drsti), then this constitutes its luminosity. Does the mind exist as no-mind? In the state of no-mind (acittat), the states of existence (astit) or non-existence (nstit) can be neither found nor established... What is this state of no-mind? The state of no-mind, which is immutable (avikra) and undifferentiated (avikalpa), constitutes the ultimate reality (dharmat) of all dharmas. Such is the state of no-mind.
A similar teaching appears in some recensions of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 lines) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Edward Conze considered the teaching on the "essential purity of the nature of mind" (prakrti cittasya prabhasvara; xinxiang benjing, 心相本淨) to be a central teaching of the Mahayana. However according to Shi Huifeng, this term is not present in the earliest textual witness of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, the Daoxing Banruo Jing, attributed to Lokaksema (c. 179 CE). Mahayana texts like the Ratnagotravibhanga, also associate prabhsvara with awakening (bodhi) and also another term, natural or original purity of mind (cittaprakrtivisuddhi). In some Mahayana shastras, natural purity is another term for Emptiness, Suchness and Dharmadhatu. Asanga's Mahayanasamgraha for example, states:
The essential purity (prakṛtivyavadāna), i.e., the true nature (tathatā), emptiness (śūnyatā), the utmost point of reality (bhūtakoti), the signless (animitta), the absolute (paramārtha), the fundamental element (dharmadhātu).
The Bhadrapala-sutra states that the element of consciousness (vijñanadhatu) is pure and penetrates all things while not being affected by them, like the rays of the sun, even though it may appear defiled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Luminosity or clear light (Tibetan 'od gsal, Sanskrit prabhāsvara), is a central concept in Esoteric Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. It is the innate condition of the mind, associated with buddha-nature, the realisation of which is the goal of meditative practice. It is said to be experienced when the coarse and subtle minds dissolve during deep sleep, during orgasm, and during the death process. All systems of Tibetan Buddhism agree that the clear light nature of mind is non-conceptual and free from all mental afflictions, and that tantra is the superior method of working with this nature of the mind.
The Indian tantric commentator Indrabhuti, in his Jñanasiddhi, states that
Being luminous by nature, this mind is similar to the moon’s disc. The lunar disc epitomises the knowledge (jñāna) that is luminous by nature. Just as the waxing moon gradually emerges in its fullness, in the same way the mind-jewel (cittaratna), being naturally luminous, also fully emerges in its perfected state. Just as the moon becomes fully visible, once it is freed from the accidental obscurities, in the same way the mind-jewel, being pure by nature (prakṛti-pariśuddha), once separated from the stains of defilements (kleśa), appears as the perfected buddha-qualities (guṇa).
Luminosity is also a specific term for one of the Six Yogas of Naropa. In his commentary, Pema Karpo says that the clear light is experienced briefly by all human beings at the very first moment of death, by advanced yogic practitioners in the highest states of meditation, and unceasingly by all Buddhas.
Various Vajrayana practices involve the recognition of this aspect of mind in different situations, such as dream yoga. In this case, the practitioner trains to lucidly enter the deep sleep state. If one has the ability to remain lucid during deep sleep, one will be able to recognize the luminosity of death and gain Buddhahood. This is called the meeting of mother and child luminosities, resulting in the state of thukdam at death.
In Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen literature, luminosity ('od gsal) is associated with an aspect of the Ground termed "spontaneous presence" (Lhun grub), meaning a presence that is uncreated and not based on anything causally extraneous to itself. This term is often paired with 'original-purity' (ka dag), which is associated with emptiness (shunyata), and are both seen as inseparable aspects of the Ground. Other terms used to describe this aspect are dynamism or creative power (rtsal) and radiance (dwangs).
- Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 653.
- Casey Alexandra Kemp, Luminosity, Oxford Bibliographies, LAST MODIFIED: 26 MAY 2016 DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0219
- Harvey, page 99.
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- Harvey, page 94. The reference is at A I, 8-10.
- Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, .
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- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Pabhassara Sutta: Luminous Note #1.
- Harvey, pages 98-99. See also pages 155-179 of Harvey2.
- 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. Available online at  Archived 2010-05-23 at the Wayback Machine.
- Tony Duff, The Illuminator Tibetan Dictionary
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- Huifeng Shi, An Annotated English Translation of Kumārajīva’s Xiaŏpĭn Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Asian Literature and Translation Vol. 4, No 1, 2017, 187-236.
- Robert E. Busswell, 2004, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 52.
- Williams, Paul, Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryavatara, page 10
- Brunnholz, Karl, When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra, Shambhala, 2015, page 1023.
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- Walpola Rahula, quoted in Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66, .
- Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology. Routledge, 2002, note 7 on page 154.
- Harvey, page 96.
- Harvey, pages 94, 96.
- Harvey, page 97. He finds the reference at S III, 54, taking into account statements at S II, 13, S II, 4, and S III, 59.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, .
- Harvey, page 99.
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- Harvey, page 97.
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- Harvey, page 97.
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- Harvey, page 97.
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- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400848058. Entry on "prabhāsvara".
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2006). Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-55939-300-3.
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- Ponlop, Dzogchen (2008). Mind beyond death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 86–7. ISBN 1-55939-301-7.
- Rinpoche, Dudjom (2001). Counsels from My Heart. Boston: Shambhala. pp. 59–76. ISBN 1-57062-844-0.
- Van Schaik; Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig (Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism), 2004, 52
- Van Schaik; Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig (Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism), 2004, 54.
- Maha Boowa, Arahattamagga, Arahattaphala. Translated by Bhikkhu Silaratano. Available online here.
- Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, 1989.
- Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995.
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- Kenneth Liberman, Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture: An Ethnomethodological Inquiry Into Formal Reasoning. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
- B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007.
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