Dzogchen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Discerning the Ground (shiy) from the Factors of the Mind (Citta)

By Adam J. Pearson

White Tibetan letter Ah.

My friend Steph recently asked me an excellent question:

“According to Buddhism, the condition of ‘knowing’ arises with what is ‘known’; the two are interdependent arisings.

What, then, can be beyond the knowing and the known?”

My response:

While I can’t speak as an authority on Buddhism, I can attempt to convey the fruits of my own understanding in relation to some of the Buddhist terms you may be familiar with.

Note: if any Buddhist teachers, rinpoches, monks, or nuns are reading this and feel I have made any errors in Dharma terminology, please feel free to correct me; I humbly welcome your feedback and instruction.

Let’s look at this the mental process of knowing. What is involved in an instance of knowing?

There has to be some kind of mechanism to enable the knowing. We know various things through sensation and perception, through intuition, and through cognition and conceptualization, which draw upon memory.

All of these processes, according to Buddhism and our own direct experience, are interdependent co-arisings. In other words, they depend on certain contributory causal factors and sufficient conditions outside themselves to be met or be present so they themselves can arise. When these conditions are met, they appear; when these conditions cease to hold, they vanish.

Thus, they are empty of their own separate being. As the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, we can’t say that any form in the universe “is” unto itself, but only that all things “inter-are,” that is, that each form that we encounter exists in relation to other things on which it depends.

In Buddhism generally, cognitive and perceptual ‘knowing’ is discerned to depend upon the operations of a functioning body-mind, which is seen as being made up of the five skandhas (psychophysiological aggregates, or collections of mind and body ‘stuff’), which are all impermanent and contingent and exist only in relationship with other things. Thus, in this sense, they are all empty of separate existence

Knowing is itself a contingent, dependent arising. When causes and conditions are sufficient for knowing to arise, knowing arises; when causes and conditions are not sufficient for knowing to arise, knowing does not arise. This conditional nature of knowing means that when there is a body-mind here with senses, reason, memory, attention, intuition, and so on, there can be knowledge.

Once a baby is born into this world and opens his or her eyes for the first time, sensation, perception, cognition, and memory encoding and retrieval all begin. All of the forms of knowing arise with the mechanisms that facilitate and enable them, which belong to the body-mind, that is, they are biological and psychological.

So, what we conventionally call ‘knowing’ always involves a subject (e.g. a living human organism) and an object–something knowable through the senses, reason, emotion, memory, etc. We immediately notice that duality is apparent here: knower and known, subject and object. Both poles of this dualistic relationship depend on causes and conditions to arise, both are impermanent, and both arise only in relationship; they inter-are. In this sense, Buddhism teaches that knowledge and knowing are ’empty;’ their nature is marked by ’emptiness of separate-being ‘ (Sunyata) or the absence of a separate self (anatman).

The Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen go a step further, however; they point out that there is something deeper and more fundamental that is aware of when knowledge is present and a state of knowing is arising in the body-mind, and is even aware of when knowledge is not present and there is a state of not-knowing in the body-mind. Knowledge arises and subsides within this luminous, spacious awareness, so it cannot be dependent upon knowledge; even when the mind is empty of all content that could be known, it remains.

What is this deeper, more fundamental nature that is ever-present, that Erik Pema Kunsang  in Quintessential Dzogchen calls “the original wakefulness” that is present in every experience and even in the absence of any particular experience?

Paul Hedderman refers to it as “the constant underlying bass note of all experience.” While everything else changes, comes, and goes, and depends on impermanent, contingent, and shifting conditions, this vibrant emptiness remains ever-present, ever-luminous, and ever-clear.

Everything with a distinct form–whether physical, emotional, cognitive, chemical, biological, physiological, and so on–comes and goes; what is aware of all the comings and goings?

According to Advaita Vedanta, it is Nirguna Brahman, qualityless, nondual, transconceptual awareness. The great teachers of Dzogchen describe it as this ever-present, wide-awake, wide-open lucidity. They call it shyi, meaning “the Ground.” Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche describes it as having three central qualities:

(1) Ngowo (Tib. ངོ་བོ་ essence): the Ground (shyi) is totally empty of any form or substance totally open to what appears.

(2) Rang shyin (Tib. རང་བཞིན་ nature): the Ground (shyi) exhibits total luminosity, clarity, or lucidity that is pristine and cannot be tainted or dulled; impermanent interdependent co-arisings (forms) leave no traces within it.

(3) Tukjé (Tib. ཐུགས་རྗེ power): the Ground (shyi) displays an enlightening–in two senses: both illuminating and burden-alleviating–compassionate responsiveness; it represents, in each being, the capacity to wake up to the true nature of reality, the emptiness of all phenomena (interdependence, contingency, impermanence, and interrelatedness), and realize its nature as the Ground (shyi).

Realizing the Ground (shiy), which is the same as “Buddha nature” in Zen, is the essence of Buddhist practice. It’s waking up to our true nature, to what the Zen Master Bankei called our “Unborn Buddha Mind.” According to Longchempa, in his Treasury of Words and Meaning, the Ground (shiy) combines “primordial purity and spontaneous presence,” or the union of the three qualities mentioned above: empty openness, luminous clarity, and compassionate responsiveness.

How does this relate to the cultivation of discernment in Buddhist practice?

In very specific terms, central to the work of discernment is learning to discern the Ground (shiy) from the following psychological factors:

  • ahamkara (the ego/selfing/identification mental process)
  • buddhi (the discriminative (vikalpa) intellect)
  • manas (volitions)
  • saṃjñā (conceptualization and higher-order cognition)
  • vijñāpti (mental representation / imagination)
  • citta (working and long-term memory, the ‘storehouse’ of sensory and cognitive memory)
  • alaya-viññāṇa (the unconscious ‘repository of impressions’)
  • and viññāṇa more generally (visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile perception and transient mental states).

Note: these definitions represent syntheses of many different Buddhist texts where they may sometimes be used in more technical and specific ways.

Thus, the Ground (shiy) can be discerned to be distinct from identification, intellect, volition, conceptualization, mental representation, cognition, imagination, the unconscious repository of impressions, perception, and transient mental states.

It is not dependent on any of the shifting, impermanent factors that make up what we more generally call “mind,” and what Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Higher Knowledge simply refer to as mind (citta). In this sense, it is prior to any body-mind-dependent states of knowing or not-knowing. The Ground (shiy) alone is beyond the knowing and the known as that which illuminates both.

What does “beyond the knowing and the known mean”? It means that which never enters into the duality of subject-object and knowable-unknowable. It’s prior to all knowing and not-knowing. It is the Ground (shiy) of Dzogchen, the “Buddha nature” of Zen, the Nirguna Brahman (reality without attributes) of Advaita Vedanta, and the “Unborn” of Zen Master Bankei.

It can never become an object of knowing or a subject that knows, but it illuminates all apparent subjects and objects in its pristine and ever-present lucidity, which never either dims nor dulls. There is no path to its illumination for it illuminates all paths. It is nothing that can be seen, but it is ever-present where we are seeing from as what one Zen koan (test case) called “your Original Face before your ancestors were born…”

Part of a series on Buddhism:

Willing the Way: Wanting What’s Happening

Stabilization, Insight, and the Four Images of the Diamond Sutra

The Power of Myth and the Three Daughters of the Lord of Pleasure

The Integral ‘Now’: Towards an Integration Of Einstein’s Relative Simultaneity and Eckhart Tolle’s Eternal Present

Emptiness in Emptiness

The Vibrancy of Life and the Deadness of the “Story of Me”

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