‘Beholding the mind’ & awakening

The mind is a most mysterious phenomenon. Pondering on what it is prompts us to think in paradoxes and ambiguities. We feel it belongs to us, as if it is ‘ours’, yet we cannot easily describe, let alone define, it. It has no form and appears to have no boundaries or edges. It seems to reside within us, yet we cannot say where it is. Mind and consciousness seem to be closely aligned and yet we talk about ‘bringing something to mind,’ as if the ‘something’ is coming from another place. People talk of being ‘of one mind’ when there is agreement and consensus – a meeting of minds. Minds communicate, mingle and merge. We talk of someone being ‘bloody-minded,’ when they are stubborn, awkward or opposed to our own views and desires. We even use the phrase, ‘my mind is made up’ – as if the procession of thoughts, decisions and interactions is suddenly frozen into finality.

We use the word ‘mind,’ a noun, as if the mind was an object, a container – a vessel that contains all our thoughts, feelings and sensations – yet it might be just as accurate to talk of the mind as a process, an active organ, a verb – minding its way through life. The mind is our storehouse of memories, sorting-office, administrative centre, security service and government. And yet it is also the medium of thought, feeling and sensation – an active agent in the world. In our everyday speech we talk of the mind and body as being separate entities, yet few, if any of us, have met a disembodied mind – a mind wandering the world untethered to its host body. Our mind seems to be the ultimate residence of this entity we call ‘me,’ and yet we can observe and think about our body, our limbs, our organs, even our thoughts, feelings and sensations, as if they were separate from, outside or inside the mind. On the other hand, damage to part of our body, particularly the brain, can damage the mind – suggesting they are deeply united.

In our everyday existence we tend to attach ourselves to thoughts feelings and sensations, identifying with them as being ‘ours’. We rarely pay attention to the mind itself – the boundless space within which thoughts, feelings and sensations seem to arise and pass away. It is as if we perceive the fish, yet hardly notice the water in which they swim. It seems odd to me that we should identify so much with the thoughts and feelings that flicker briefly in our consciousness and yet we hardly identify at all with the mind itself – the generative space in which thoughts are born and die. In mindful meditation it is important to pay attention to this vast open space – to ‘take the backward step,’ as Dogen puts it, from observing the flickering thought-fish and currents of feeling, to noticing the mind-water itself.

In Buddhism reference is made to Buddha Mind, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Don’t Know Mind, and so on. Each of these terms is a kind of shorthand pointing to the importance of what Bodhidharma calls, ‘beholding the mind.’ Bodhidharma, the legendary figure associated with the introduction of Buddhism to China and a formative influence on the development of Zen – or Chan as it is known in China – writes about the mind in a short text titled the ‘Breakthrough Sermon.’ I will paraphrase a short extract from Red Pine’s translation of this text. To the question, ‘what is the most essential method for achieving enlightenment?’ Bodhidharma replies, ‘The most essential method, which includes all other methods, is beholding the mind.’ He is then asked, ‘but how can one method include all the others?’ He answers in this way: ‘The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It’s like the roots of a tree. All a tree’s fruit and flowers, branches and leaves, depend on its roots. If you nourish its roots, a tree grows and flourishes. If you cut its roots, it withers and dies. Those who behold the mind and understand it, are enlightened. Those who don’t, will strive in vain.’

Bodhidharma goes on to quote from this extract of the Avatamsaka Sutra – again this is my paraphrase: ‘All beings have the Buddha-nature and Buddha-nature is awareness, insight and being mindful. To practice mindful awareness is liberation.’ By ‘awareness’ Bodhidharma means ‘to behold the mind,’ that is to observe, without attachment, commentary or judgment, the open vibrant space of the mind – the space in which thoughts, feelings and sensations appear and disappear. We can think of the mind as a boundless ocean with all its temporary inhabitants: exciting rainbow thought-fish; dull flat-fish flapping in the mud; angry sharks; gentle angel fish; delicate seahorses; tiny plankton; some creatures are beautiful, some ugly; some long-lived, some gone in a flash; big waves and small waves; currents and tides – all of this motion and life coming and going in the watery medium of the oceanic mind. Every aspect of this beautiful quirky diversity of life and activity is important to the ocean – it is all embraced and nurtured within the benign disinterested space of the watery firmament.

When we behold the mind, we pay attention to all of it equally – noticing how everything is transient and interrelated. We see how every thought, feeling and sensation has its place, how each is dependent on, and interacts with, all of the others. So let them be – the fears and worries, excitements and joys, pleasures and pains – let them come and go as they will. Be open to them all without dwelling on any of them. Do not disturb them or be disturbed by them. See them clearly for what they are. This is an ecological way of paying attention to the beauty and interconnectedness of everything – observing the play of cause and effect (karma) within the oceanic mind.

Bodhidharma argues that what prevents us beholding the mind are the ‘three poisons,’ namely ‘greed, anger and delusion’ – that is, insatiable desire, negative reactivity and misunderstanding These three factors cloud our vision and distort our view of what is happening. It is only by developing a compassionate yet disinterested attention, open to all that comes and goes, that we can clearly observe what is going on. In the practice of ‘beholding the mind’ we are cultivating clarity and peace of mind, and deep understanding – that is, insight or prajna. In other words, when we behold the mind, we realise or manifest our Buddha-nature. Beholding the mind, is both the path to awakening and awakening itself.


Red Pine, trans. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. 1989. New York: North Point Press.