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Dzogchen, Chinese Buddhism and the Universal Mind - Universal Mind
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Universal Mind


One way in which ideas found in the Mahayana Sutras were interpreted and developed by native Chinese Buddhists who had not studied in India was the introduction of the concept of a Universal Mind The Chinese had accepted the idea of karma (yeh). The individual sentient being is actually an endless chain of causes and effects; one's present life being but one phase in a beginningless causal process. Moreover, death is not the end of existence or this causal process; it is only another aspect of one's experience which is dependent upon the individual's karma. What one is now in this present life is the result of what one has done in the past; what one does in this present life will determine what one is in the future. What one does at the present moment will have consequences in future lives, and this causal process continues ad infinitum. All of the suffering experienced in life arises from a fundamental ignorance of the nature of things. All of the phenomena of the universe, that is to say, the universe of the individual sentient being, are but the manifestations of one's mind and, therefore, they are illusory and impermanent. Nonetheless, the individual craves for them and continually seeks to grasp after them. This is because of ignorance (wu-ming) or non-enlightenment. It is from ignorance that craving and attachment arise and thereby the individual is bound to a beginningless cycle of death and rebirth. The only solution to this predicament is to replace ignorance with enlightenment.

This state of enlightenment is called Nirvana. But what is Nirvana? One particularly Chinese interpretation asserted that it represents an identification of the mind of the individual sentient being with a Universal Mind, or what is called in the Sutras "the Buddha-nature." Or to put it another way, Nirvana is the realization of the individual's original identification and "at-one-ment" with the Universal Mind. The individual sentient being is in essence this Universal Mind, but due to ignorance, one has not realized this previously. The adherents of this view were known as the Hsing Tsung, "the School of Universal Mind." For this school, nature (hsing) and mind (hsin) are the same. In its hermeneutics of the Sutras, this school introduces the notion of the Universal Mind into Chinese thought, but other schools of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the K'ung Tsung, "the School of Emptiness," which followed the tradition of the Indian Madhyamaka, did not describe Nirvana in this way, but expressed it in terms of the traditional via negativa. However, the influence of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and the writings of the Hsing Tsung school spread this idea of the Universal Mind, but before the advent of this interpretation, there did not exist the notion of a Universal Mind in Chinese philosophy. The Tao was not understood as "Mind."

This exposition of the Universal Mind in the Hsing Tsung is very close to the views of Evans-Wentz as he expressed them in his interpretation of Dzogchen texts. However, Evans-Wentz derived his ideas directly from the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, rather than from a reading of Chinese Buddhism. As we have pointed out elsewhere, it is true that the Dharmakaya, the dimension of reality, is universal, like infinite space itself. It is one in the sense of transcending all dualities. It is omnipresent and all-pervading and all sentient beings, the enlightened and the unenlightened, equally participate in this single Dharmakaya. But Dharmakaya refers not to mind (sems), but to the Nature of Mind (sems-nyid) and this is a crucial distinction in Dzogchen. Furthermore, the Dharmakaya, which is understood in Dzogchen as the state of Shunyata and the basis of everything (kun-gzhi), is not a mind, let alone the One Mind or the Universal Mind, even though it is the context for the activities of thought. For this reason, the Dharmakaya is compared to the clear open sky, whereas thoughts are compared to the clouds that come to fill the sky. Moreover, there is also the Rupakaya or Form Body, the dimension of form, which is equally the manifestation of Buddhahood and this Rupakaya is always individual in its nature. Therefore, the enlightenment of a Buddha has both a universal aspect, the Dharmakaya, and a particular and individual aspect, the Rupakaya.

The Hsing Tsung is a particular interpretation of certain Mahayana Sutras, an interpretation that originated in China as a consequence of the efforts of some Chinese authors to understand these oft-times recondite Indian texts. The Hsing Tsung had no discoverable influence in Tibet and was not the historical source of Dzogchen, for that lies in the direction of India and Uddiyana. Except for a brief flirtation with Ch'an in the early days of Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century, the Tibetans exhibited almost no interest at all in Chinese Buddhism, except for translating a few Sutras from Chinese for which they did not possess Indian originals. (To be continued.)

[The above represents portions of two chapters from the original manuscript version of Self-Liberation through Seeing with Naked Awareness by John Myrdhin Reynolds (reprinted by Snow Lion Publications, 2000) and omitted from the published version.]