The idea of an intrinsically “luminous” mind is quite common in many Buddhist traditions. Within the Theravāda tradition, a short discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya is usually brought up in reference to this.
Bhikkhu Sujato has already discussed these passages in a blog post titled “On the radiant mind” suggesting that it is a reference to samādhi (to the consternation of most of the commenters, it seems).
A 2017 paper by Bhikkhu Anālayo titled “The Luminous Mind in Theravāda and Dharmaguptaka Discourses” looks at a number of references to luminosity in early texts and comes to similar conclusions as made by Bhikkhu Sujato; that the idea of an intrinsic luminous mind is a later invention not in accord with early Buddhist thought. Nonetheless, the idea of an intrinsic pure mind as related to awakening is widespread through much of the Buddhist world. Ven. Anālayo quotes many texts from different Buddhist traditions (Tibetan Dzogchen, Chinese Chan, Japanese Zen, Thai Forest) to demonstrate this.
Though it’s a long read, it is a very interesting paper that I believe should receive wider attention; therefore I’ve quoted some of it below (bold emphasis mine).
Ven. Anālayo’s begins by discussion of the terms luminous (pabhassara) and invisible (anidassana) as applied to consciousness. He suggests that the qualification of ‘luminous’ to the infamous line about “invisible consciousness” (viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ) in the Kevaḍḍha-sutta is probably a later addition and is not found in Sanskrit and Tibetan parallels:
Discourse parallels to the Kevaḍḍha-sutta extant in Sanskrit and Tibetan do not qualify the invisible consciousness as luminous. The same holds for a discourse quotation in the Mahāvibhāṣā. A reference to the present passage in the Ratnāvalī also does not mention any luminosity.
To summarize, in the passage from the Kevaḍḍha-sutta the original reading might well have been pahaṃ; the notion of luminosity would consequently be a later development. Understood along the lines of the suggestion by Rhys Davids and Stede, the verse might have been a pointer to consciousness “given up in every way”, sabbato pa(ja)haṃ, as the condition for the four elements to cease. Such an interpretation would better concord with the final line of the same poem in the Kevaḍḍha-sutta, which concludes that “through the cessation of consciousness”, viññāṇassa nirodhena, name-and-form (as well as concepts related to the experience of the four elements) come to cease. The whole passage could then be understood to express poetically the cessation mode of dependent arising, according to which name-and-form cease with the cessation of consciousness.
For more on this topic, see the following posts on Bhikkhu Sujato’s blog:
Then the discussion moves on to references to luminosity. After going through a number of instances that mention luminosity with relation to the metaphor of heated gold (usually compared with an equanimous mind, the discussion moves to the famous passages in the Aṅguttara-nikāya.
Ven. Anālayo’s translation of the Aṅguttara-nikāya section:
This mind is luminous, monastics, and it is defiled by adventitious defilements; an unlearned worldling does not understand that as it really is. I declare that therefore there is no cultivation of the mind for an unlearned worldling.
This mind is luminous, monastics, and it is freed from adventitious defilements; a learned noble disciple understands that as it really is. I declare that therefore there is cultivation of the mind for a learned noble disciple.
I quote parts of the following discussion here:
From the viewpoint of this usage, it could even seem as if the luminous mind was somehow in existence earlier and the defilements are a sort of visitor that came later. The idea that a mental defilement could somehow be set apart from the mind in which it occurs is to my knowledge not attested anywhere else in the early discourses.
In other words, according to early Buddhist epistemology it would not be possible to identify a time in the past at which a supposedly luminous mind was already in existence and after which only it came to be defiled by craving. Once a time in the past when craving and defilements have not been present in the mind is not discernible, there seems little scope to postulate that the mind is naturally pure. Instead, one might even say that it is naturally defiled. But since defilements are conditioned phenomena, they can be removed. That is, purity and freedom from defilements is a potentiality of the mind that requires being brought about through meditative cultivation, rather than being a return to an already existing inherent nature.
Yet this is to some extent a sense conveyed by the identification of cultivation of the mind in the Aṅguttara-nikāya passage with knowing its luminous condition. In the early discourses in general the task is to purify the mind gradually through various practices, to be cultivated by avoiding the two extremes of excessive striving and undue laxity. In contrast, the present passage could give the impression that recognition of luminosity is what really matters for “cultivation of the mind”. Although this is just a nuance in the above passage, later tradition will articulate this more fully, in that “cultivation of the mind” comes to be concerned with recognition of its alleged innate purity. I will return to this below.
The Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its parallels list various states of mind for mindful contemplation, distinguishing between, for example, mind with lust, sarāgaṃ cittaṃ, and mind without lust, vītarāgaṃ cittaṃ. The contrast between “with lust” and “without lust” made in this way shows that early Buddhist thought was able to express the possibility of mental purification and freedom from defilements without needing to postulate an essential nature of the mind that is in principle unaffected by defilements. By way of illustration, just as for fruit to ripen there is no need to postulate that the ripe fruit already exists in the corresponding flower that has just blossomed on a tree, so for a mind to become purified there is no need to postulate that an intrinsic purity already exists in its present defiled state. Instead of creating a contrast between an allegedly inherent nature of the mind and defilements set apart as something adventitious, in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and other early discourses the mind is simply viewed as an impermanent and conditioned process that can occur either “with” or else “without” defilements. Here citta simply refers to a contingent mental state.
Moreover, a state of mind with lust or any other such defilement would not be luminous. According to the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels, the presence of any out of a range of defilements (upakkilesa) results in a loss of whatever inner light or luminescence (obhāsa) had been experienced during meditation. This confirms that, from the perspective reflected in the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels, a mind defiled by defilements does not remain in a condition of luminosity. In other words, the luminous mind can be expected to lose its pure condition once a defilement manifests in it.
In this way the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels show that early Buddhist thought does recognize meditative experience of light or luminescence, but these are meditative visions rather than an intrinsic quality of the mind. In fact references to mental experiences of luminosity are cross-cultural phenomena, thus my exploration in this article is certainly not meant to deny the subjective validity of such experiences. My intention is only to discern developments in the interpretation of these experiences. From the viewpoint of the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels, it seems clear that inner experiences of luminosity come into being through successful cultivation of concentration and the temporary absence of defilements, but with the arising of defilements and the consequent loss of concentration they disappear.
As pointed out by Karunaratne:
what is meant by lustrous and pure mind (pabhassara/prakṛtipariśuddha) is not a state of mind which is absolutely pure, nor the pure mind which is synonymous with emancipation. It may be explained as pure only in the sense, and to the extent, that it is not disturbed or influenced by external stimuli.
Similarly Shih Ru-nien explains that
the Pali texts only emphasize the knowledge of the innate purity of the mind as a prerequisite step in the cultivation of the mind and the restoration of the purity of the mind is not the end of religious practices. As a matter of fact, after the removal of the defilements, the mind is not only pure, tranquil, and luminous but also soft, pliant, and adaptable. It then becomes suitable for the destruction of all the āsavas or the cultivation of the seven limbs of wisdom, and the like. This means that the tranquil, luminous, and pliable mind is just the basis for further religious practices.
The various points explored so far make it, in my view, safe to conclude that the working hypothesis mentioned earlier is indeed correct. In other words, the present passage in the Aṅguttara-nikāya does seem to be distinctly late. It builds on and further expands a notion resulting from a description of gold that led to the addition of a qualification of the mind as “luminous”. At the time of the coming into being of this apparent addition, the resultant phrasing in the passage in the Aṅguttara-nikāya need not have carried any special implications. In line with other instances surveyed earlier, it can be assumed to have been just another instance where the fascination exerted by the imagery of luminous gold and its potential as a metaphor influenced the wording of a description originally not concerned with any luminosity of the mind.
Given that the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels describe inner experiences of light during meditation, a qualification of the mind as luminous is hardly problematic in itself. Even though the use of the same qualification is less straightforward when applied to equanimity or the body of the Buddha, leaving room for a more metaphorical understanding could still accommodate such instances. What does make the above Aṅguttara-nikāya passage problematic, however, is the actual formulation that results from this apparent addition, as this can be read in ways that reify the ‘real’ mind as naturally pure and luminous, rather than being simply a series of different states, none of which is more real or natural than the other.
Such a reading would in turn have invested the actual formulation resulting from the introduction of the motif of luminosity in the Aṅguttara-nikāya passage with increased significance. Once the imagery of luminescence designates a nature of the mind considered to be unaffected by defilements and hence intrinsically pure, inner light-experiences of the type described in the Upakkilesa-sutta and its parallels could easily have come to be invested with an increased degree of importance. Instead of being just a reflection of having achieved some degree of concentration, they can be seen as rather profound realizations, authenticating a practitioner as having become a truly noble disciple acquainted with what it takes to cultivate the mind.
Another and perhaps even more powerful stimulant for an increasing interest in the mode of description found in the Aṅguttara-nikāya passage under discussion would have been the coming into vogue of the theory of momentariness. Once the mind is conceptualized as a series of discrete mind-moments that pass away as soon as they arise, something has to be found to explain continuity, in order to account for memory, identity, and rebirth. A search in this direction would naturally have led to an increased interest in the Aṅguttara-nikāya passage’s description of a mind that apparently remains in a condition of luminosity independent of the arising and passing away of any defilements.
The next section of the paper provides references from many later Buddhist traditions that show the idea of an intrinsic luminous mind eventually became widespread and came to be associated with awakening.
A passage in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā proposes that the luminous mind is neither conjoined with lust, aversion, and delusion, nor disjoined from these. This sets a contrast to the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its parallels, mentioned above. In these texts, the mind can be conjoined with lust, aversion or delusion, or disjoined from it. They do not conceive of a mind as apart from these two alternatives.
Another quote in the Ratnagotravibhāga proclaims that this intrinsic nature of the mind is without causes and conditions and hence also beyond arising and cessation.The Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta provides an additional example for the powerful influence of the notion of a mind that is by nature pure. In the words of Silk
ultimately the intrinsically pure mind is identified with the dharmadhātu itself … this mind which is so fouled by defilements is actually pure and luminous just as is the dharmadhātu, the pure ground of being itself, virtually identical with Buddhahood …
the initial and innate state of the mind is equivalent to awakening, and realizing this means that no further practice is necessary.
The idea that no further practice is necessary, together with the emphasis on the need to realize the true nature of the mind, have had considerable impact on how cultivation of the mind came to be conceptualized in various practice lineages. Before surveying a few selected examples, I would like to clarify that my intention in what follows is decidedly not to debunk various meditation traditions or to pretend that they are not based on, or conducive to, genuinely transformative experiences. My aim is only to explore the degree to which the powerful imagery of the luminous and/or pure nature of the mind continues to influence the discourse on meditation practice and experience in these traditions.
Following this is a selection of quotes by various Buddhist authors ancient and modern. I quote some of them below:
According to a mahāmudrā text by the eleventh-century Maitrīpa:
The naturally luminous jewel [of this] nature of mind, which is self-awareness, is bright, pure and unobstructed. Natural luminosity is not found through [any] conceptual [state of] meditation or non-meditation: It is the uncontrived, undistracted ease in undistracted non-meditation.
Not to conceptualize anything, not to intend anything, not to grasp anything, devoid of conceptual analysis, and nothing that needs to be done, this is self-luminous awareness, the ornament of natural liberation without having to correct or modify [anything].
Ten centuries later the Tibetan Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche explains:
In Dzogchen the way one behaves in the state of presence is the Fruit, and there is nothing else to obtain. When one has this knowledge, one discovers that everything was always already accomplished from the very beginning. The self-perfected state is the inherent quality of the condition of ‘what is’; there is nothing to be perfected, and all one needs to do is to have real knowledge of this condition.
In twelfth century China, master Hóngzhì (宏智) offered the following instructions:
Completely and silently be at ease. In true thusness separate yourself from all causes and conditions. Brightly luminous without defilements, you directly penetrate and are liberated. You have from the beginning been in this place; it is not something that is new to you today. From the time before the vast eon when you dwelled in your old [original] home, everything is completely clear, unobscured, numinous, and singularly bright.
Korean master Sung Bae Park clarifies that
attaining enlightenment requires nothing other than giving up the search for it. At the moment we stop seeking, enlightenment is there. What is enlightenment? It means returning to our original nature.
A position held by some members of the Theravāda tradition in Thailand stands in continuity with the passages surveyed above, as evident in the following statements by Mahā Boowa Ñāṇasampanno:
where is the real substance behind the shadows of anicca, dukkha and anattā? Drive on further! Their real substance is in the citta …the citta by its very nature is amata―Undying―even when it still has kilesas …
the kilesas can’t destroy the citta … this nature is unassailable, absolute and permanent … this nature is complete, perfect and immaculately pure.