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Level 1 is the primary level of immediate experience in the present moment and the stream of consciousness. This is the pure phenomena of consciousness before judgment and concept comes into play. This is the moment of pure awareness or primary cognition (jnana, ye-shes) before the mind (manas, yid) comes into operation with its judgments and concepts. In a sense, we could say that this pure awareness is beyond the mind, at least in the sense that it occurs before the various mental processes of the mind come into operation. Sensation occurs at this primary level.
Level 2 is the secondary level at which the processes of perceiving, thinking, judging, and conceptualizing come into operation. Language and memory also come into operation here. Collectively these processes are known in Buddhist psychology as Samjna or functional perception. It is this meta-process that organizes sensation into a recognizable perception having an identity and a name. Collectively, the programs that accomplish this are known as Manas or the functional mind. In some ways this Manas may be compared to a computer with its basic operating system and word processing programs..
Level 3 is the tertiary level at which occur ego identification and emotional reactions. Ahamkara or ego identification is the process where we identify ourselves with each sensation, thought, or emotion that arise in consciousness. This false identification is then compounded by Atmagaraha or grasping at this fictitious “I” which does not belong to immediate experience. As a result, certain impulses, thoughts, and emotions arise out of unconsciousness as reactions to the perceptions constructed at the secondary level. These are known as samskaras or unconscious impulses. These impulses include both thoughts and emotions; they basically represent energy emerging from the unconscious. Action may occur at this point impulsively or there may occur a further elaborations in terms of thoughts and emotions.
Level 4 is the quaternary level at which the advanced programs are run, those relating to culture, social and personal interactions, as well as ethical considerations. Here commences the processes that elaborate thoughts, building the original perception into a concept and a thought construction. This is the meta-process of Vikalpa or discursive thought. It is on this plane that our consciousness usually dwells, the plane furthest removed from immediate experience in terms of time and space. When discursive thought is operating, the immediate experience is already long in the past. Therefore, our consciousness is living in the past, not in the present.
Manas or the functional mind runs like a batch of computer programs operating above the basic operating system. Manas is our human bio-computer and it may run oftimes on automatic. But a mechanical computer lacks consciousness and although we human beings are made of flesh and blood, we are not machines, but are self-conscious and aware. We humans are much more than a computer. A computer is merely a sophisticated tool, a very useful one, but even a very young child can do many things the most advanced computer cannot. The consciousness that operated in association with the perception process and the functional mind is known as Manovijnana or mental consciousness. It is this consciousness that is aware of thoughts and thought processes. In some ways Manas can function as a sense organ, being aware of mental events, but it also has the integrative function of organizing raw sense data into recognizable perceptions.
We may ask, what lies below or beyond this Level 1? That is Level 0 or what is called in Buddhist terminology Shunyata. This term literally means “emptiness”. But this does not mean just nothingness or mere absence. Rather, it means the pure potentiality for all possible manifestations. This level may be compared to an empty mirror that has the capacity to reflect whatever is set before it. Whereas the other levels, primary and above, are referred to as mind (sems), this level is referred to as the Nature of Mind (sems-nyid). The distinction between mind and the Nature of Mind are like the reflections and the mirror. This Nature of Mind has the capacity to be aware of whatever may arise or manifest. This capacity is called Rigpa or intrinsic awareness. Whereas Sutra meditation and Abhidharma psychology is concerned with the phenomenology of consciousness (Levels 1-4), Level 0 is accessed directly through Dzogchen practice.