Mind Space Light
André A. Pais·Wednesday, August 12, 2020·Reading time: 11 minutes

Most spiritual traditions realize that the essence of the spiritual work that is to be done lies within the mind: either pacifying the mind, transcending it altogether, or simply knowing its nature.

Some traditions aim at pacifying the mind, ridding it of agitation, extraneous thoughts and troublesome emotions; some aim at transcending the mind, or simply ignoring it, in the hope that some other reality or essence might be attained; others solely aim at knowing what the mind is, what its nature is, its way of existing.

Using the example of a sheet of paper, imagine a sheet that is totally filled with ink, random letters, drawings and symbols. Its space and whiteness are totally obscured. Some spiritual traditions aim at reducing the amount of "dirt", chaos and randomness in that sheet of paper; others aim at totally removing all additions, recovering the original whiteness of the paper, its original purity; finally, some schools aim at examining the nature of this sheet of paper, at knowing what it really is.

Coming back to the mind, what these last traditions try to do is pinpointing exactly what and where mind is; does it arise from anywhere? Does it cease anywhere? Is its arising and ceasing perceptible at all? And while it remains, does it have a color, a shape, a center and a periphery? Does it abide inside the body or outside the body? Is it physical or ethereal, or no substance can be attributed to it at all?

The interesting thing is that, and coming back to the example at hand, the traditions that aim at the content of the sheet of paper tend to end up stuck at the level of the sheet of paper. On the other hand, the traditions that study and investigate the nature of said paper end up stumbling at a remarkable event: the recognition that there is no sheet of paper, a possibility that may seem so outrageous and improbable that, unless pointed out, it's unlikely to arise spontaneously. By deeply investigating the nature of the sheet of paper, these traditions go totally beyond the sphere or dimension of sheet of paper, and wind up landing, which is actually no landing at all, in a much subtler realm - space.

Concerning mind, what is found is that it very much resembles space - it has no color, no center or shape, no specific location, it is free from arising and ceasing, and, concerning how it abides or remains, even when investigated nothing can actually be found. Some traditions call the nature of mind the "basic space of phenomena". Phenomena themselves, when scrutinized, are realized as being unfindable, giving way to space. If we deconstruct any appearance, it is seen as nothing but an aggregate of multiple parts, and putting aside each and every part, or by zooming in penetratingly, all that is found is unfindability itself - that is, space.

The advantage of realizing space as the groundless ground of reality, rather than establishing it as mind, awareness, spirit or God, is that space has an utterly impersonal feel to it. Very few things are as impersonal as space - after all, space isn't a thing at all to start with. And while awareness or spirit aren't things either, the truth is that we commonly envision ourselves as possessing, or making use of, awareness, a spirit or a soul. These are terms that, no matter how abstract they may seem, are still very much tainted by personalistic traits and anthropomorphic tendencies. Feeling like personal attributes, they aren't totally helpful when trying to arrive at an understanding of no-self, emptiness or lack of identity.

So, we could say: mind is no mind, its nature is space. Space couldn't in any way be more impersonal, to the point that it may even feel somewhat uninspiring, dry and profoundly unmystical. This apparent downside to space, however, offers a superb opportunity of liberation from our deep-seated grasping tendencies. Moreover, it is a very intuitive concept - the notion that things need a space to exist in. So, what the mind is, is this very space that accommodates all appearances; and mind, lacking any specific location - since it has no characteristics that could be located somewhere -, is the space where all notions of location arise. "Here", "there", "elsewhere" and "everywhere" actually appear nowhere, meaning in groundless space.

So, space arises initially as an impersonal realm - as the actual nature of the mind, of beings and of phenomena. In this sense, although it is synonymous with utter freedom and openness, like stated previously it may seem a bit dry and prosaic. And yet, it gets reframed in a very interesting way when we introduce another characteristic of space.

According to certain philosophical views, space isn't a thing in itself; and although that point was already touched upon, the idea here is rather different. Despite the fact that space isn't considered to be an object, we ordinarily conceive it as a vast ground, realm or intangible dimension in which things arise, abide and then cease. We imagine that, if all phenomena were to be removed from space, space itself would still be there. Empty of performers, the stage remains; empty of images, the screen remains. However, this second characteristic of space defines it as a non-affirming negation, which is a technical term meaning that the concept of space is used to deny something, but not to affirm anything else. It's like a scalpel that removes something, but adds nothing; like an antidote, removing poison but adding nothing extra, serving only the purpose of reestablishing the natural state of health.

So, space being a non-affirming negation, what is it that it negates and what is it that it does not affirm? Space negates the notion that things are rigid, stuck in their very specific ways of being, unmovable, unchanging. Ultimately, space merely points to the natural unobstructedness of experience, to the naturally interpenetrative nature of reality. It's deeply tied with the notion of impermanence, change and, ultimately, emptiness - absence of reference points and modes of existence. As a non-affirming negation, it doesn't serve any function other than removing the notions of solidity, essence, permanence, etc. But we could say that, and this is what we must be particularly attentive to, what space is definitely and specifically not affirming is the presence of some ground, basis or open vastness that remains after appearances or phenomena vanish. That would be just a huge - vast - object of clinging, a seed for identity to establish itself and fill our experience with limitations, dualities and suffering.

For example, if space is seen as the vast container of all things, then there is immediately a distinction between space and phenomena; and if such an intrinsic distinction exists, then it is impossible for space and phenomena to interact and interpenetrate and we therefore end up with the problem of having space and phenomena abide in two separate, impenetrable planes of existence. We find a space devoid of phenomena, and phenomena abiding somewhere outside of space. Moreover, if space refers to physical extension - which is what the term "vastness" usually implies -, then the inseparability of subject and object becomes problematic, and the primordial wound that we innately inflict unto experience - the subject-object, inner-outer, essence-appearance split - becomes unsolvable.

Thus, if space was initially introduced as an impersonal realm, a helpful insight in deconstructing personal identity, it is later reframed as to point to, or consisting of, no realm at all, becoming a helpful insight in deconstructing phenomenal identities - the identity of objects and appearances, namely that of space itself. Space, in this later sense, doesn't set in place the conventional notions of distance, separation and extension usually associated with the term. Space merely means interpenetration, the natural flux of appearances - no duality or separation are implied; not even distance or extension.

Usually, when it is said that mind resembles space, such statement is immediately followed by the affirmation that it is, however, not like space, since space is entirely non-sentient and unaware, while mind very clearly is of a knowing nature. Here, we'll stick with the notion of space, because a mind knowing an object or an object being known by a mind amount, experientially, to the same thing - a process whose only visible aspect is the resulting appearance itself. In this sense, to speak of a knowing mind serves only to posit a structure justifying the vivid clarity of appearances that obviously arises as experience.

So, more than speaking of knowing or being known, here we'll point to the natural luminosity or clarity of experience, that arises naturally with its own self-evident brightness, shining spontaneously without the need of being recognized by some external agent of perception. In this sense, the notion of space serves two primary purposes: first it refutes the seeming identity and fixed existence of the entity or principle we ordinarily call mind - and yet, such negation of a mind does nothing to the natural radiance of experience that still unimpededly manifests; secondly, space serves the purpose of characterizing this natural clarity we call appearances, pointing out that such clarity flows and manifests in an unobstructed, interpenetrating fashion. Again, space initially is perceived as an impersonal realm; later, as no realm at all, or even the understanding that the very notion of some extended "realm" or location" is merely inferred from interpenetrating appearances which, arising as a space-mind devoid of location or dimension, can't themselves have such dimensional characteristics.

Therefore, we can say that natural clarity - appearances - arises not in space, but as space. Space, being less of a container and more of a way of being, is not where clarity appears - where appearances manifest - but how clarity unobstructedly functions. We could, perhaps poetically, affirm that light is the body of reality, while space is its soul; clarity is how reality appears, while its empty and unobstructed nature is how it functions. So, bridging back to the theme of mind, we could now quote a Prajnaparamita Sutra that says: mind is no mind, its nature is luminosity.

The term "unobstructedness", like space, can be read as having two different intentions. Initially, it points to the way appearances - the so called objects - interpenetrate, how everything functions together, how information travels and is processed in a natural way, how phenomena are supported by each other in an intricate web of conditionality, how everything inter-is. In this sense, unobstructedness refers mainly to impermanence and interdependence. Later, we come to appreciate what is perhaps a more nuanced and potentially deeper and more liberating meaning of the word. Unobstructedness points to the fact that reality - experience - presents no obstruction to the arising of anything. As long as conditions are present, anything whatsoever can arise or manifest. Clarity has no specific nature to respond to, no intrinsic and unsurpassable characteristic that must not be violated, like some cosmic law. The groundless ground - space - of reality is unobstructing to the arising of anything.
After all, what could limit existence itself? What could impose some format or limit to reality? Sure, conventionally, minds and bodies are seemingly limited in their capacity to experience; existence itself, however, must necessarily be unrestrained by anything at all. In this context, the notion of unobstructedness is equivalent to emptiness, in the sense of absence of intrinsic nature - and thus absence of any intrinsic limitation.

This unobstructed nature of experience, reality or natural clarity points to its plasticity, its capacity to limitlessly shape and reshape itself according to conditions. If specific beliefs and conceptual frameworks are present, clarity shapes itself as a materialistic and dualistic landscape; if a more contemplative and explorative context is given, then clarity may present itself as a non-dual luminous field. Space and time may arise experientially, or they may not, depending on the conditional configuration of some specific luminous appearance. An infinity of beings may arise experientially, or it may not. Lacking any specific nature or way of being, perception and experience can assume any possible shape, gesture or structure. And what is it that is possible? Everything at all, except rigid, unchanging phenomena, closed in self-existing independent natures. The fabricless fabric of reality is unobstructing - it imposes no limitation whatsoever - to the arising of anything at all.

For an experience limited by somatized conceptual structures, the expression of such experience is necessarily very limited - in accordance with the nature of such beliefs. To the omniscient space-mind of what is called a Buddha, experience is unconfined by any limitation and thus the entirety of existence, both in extension and duration, manifests unimpededly, revealing the utter plasticity of time and space themselves. To a Buddha, there's no contraction into a limited, specifically located self-center, and no distinction between him/herself and existence is made, and so "whole universe" and "personal experience" are synonymous from such a perspective.

As a summary, the following may be offered:

Looking for mind, we find only space;
Looking for space, we find only light;
Looking for light's nature, we find no nature.
Looking for no nature, we find it arises as anything at all.

And Tilopa has said:

Just as we apply the term empty to space,
In fact, there is nothing within space
That we are accurately describing by that term.
In the same way, although we call the mind
Clear light or luminosity,
Simply calling it so does not make it true
That there is actually any thing within the mind
That is a true basis for that designation.

Thus, all words can really do is point, inspire, invite a certain contemplation and experience. To attribute any name to the groundless ground - awareness, God, emptiness, dharmakaya, soul, universe - is nothing more than sticking a label to empty space, just writing - not even on water - but in mid air. From a certain perspective, the deepest pointers only aim at fully deconstructing our innermost assumptions and going beyond all extremes of existence, all possible reference points, inviting us to rest in natural clarity and pierce through to the
nameless, centerless heart of reality.
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