Does the "luminous mind" debate carry any significance for those of us who are not yet anagamis?

There is a debate which I am sure is well-known to most here over the nature of references in the Suttas to luminous consciousness and its relation/non-relation to nibbana. On one side, largely coming out of the Thai Forest tradition there are those such as Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Thanissaro, LT Maha Boowa etc who hold that the descriptions point to an unconditioned form of pure consciousness/citta which is equivalent to the attainment of nibbana. On the other side, there are more critically minded scholars such as Bhante @sujato , Ajahn @Brahmali and Bhikkhu Analayo who hold these references refer to a mind free of defilements in samadhi, but which is still conditioned and thus distinct from nibbana. While as an intellectual question, I find it quite interesting to follow both sides of this debate, I am left wondering, what, if any, are the practical implications of this debate for the overwhelming majority of us who are still light years away from arahantship. If I am not currently practicing for the obtainment of nibbana directly, does the nature of this luminous mind and whether it is equivalent to nibbana matter at all to me or my practice?

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It’s a dangerous concept to associate with nibbana because of indicating some substance. Even at an early stage nibbana forms an unknown foil or pivot as the unconditioned element as opposed to the conditioned element- it enables a dynamic of insight. This duality is implicit in the Buddha’s teaching and it’s often overlooked that the person delivering the teachings knows nibbana, but it’s not profitable to refer to it in words. Therefore it’s an unknown but always present as the unconditioned element, and can be proven through renunciation. That’s to say denying conventional patterns and ‘truths’ does not result in any calamity, and the practitioner lives taking refuge in the knowledge of the unconditioned element as a reality.

Contrast is a mechanism essential to understanding dhamma:

“Monk, the property of light is discerned in dependence on darkness…” —SN 14.11

" There is, monks, an unborn[1] — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.[2]"—Ud 8.3

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Thanks for your thoughts! Could you expand a little on what you’re getting at here?

I know these are incidental details and I don’t want to divert your thread, but I can’t help myself! :man_shrugging:

“Argue” and “assert” should be swapped.

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fair fair–I didn’t intend any passing of value one way or the other. I think I’ll replace both terms with “hold.”

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The general idea is that it will matter when you get samādhi as this is the stage where it’s easy to overestimate yourself, and the Ajahn Mahabua etc teachings are especially easy to misunderstand / misuse at that point.

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In his description of his path to (at least what he thought was) arahantship, he talks about getting stuck with attachment to samadhi for a number of years, but then goes onto his whole thing about how “the citta is pure” after passing that stage of attachment to samadhi. How would you interpret that? Just that he had reached an even deeper state of samadhi that he misinterpreted as nibbana? Thanks for your thoughts Bhante.

Well, you asked for my own interpretation, so I’ll give it, with the caveat that this is my perspective (as a disciple of a student of Ajahn Mahabua’s):

No, Luangta really was an arahant. When you make the final breakthrough you realize the genuinely pure citta which is entirely free of the kilesas. Just know that you’re likely to be fooled by relatively pure states along the way to the completely pure state, that’s all.

It’s like if you’re from a farming village in Pennsylvania and you’re on your way to New York City. You are likely to mistake Scranton for NYC when you get there, cause it’s the largest city you could possibly even imagine. But the real NYC is even bigger than that.

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The luminous consciousness camp sounds quite a bit like Tathagatagarbha thought (aka Buddha nature) among Mahayanists, and even among Mahayanists they were controversial and considered heterodox. I can’t recall any sutras other than those written by Tathagatagarbists that support such a position, really, myself.

Metaphors of light are often used to illustrate the way wisdom destroys ignorance (which is likened to darkness). This is probably where all of this started, IMO.

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And even among the Tathagatagarbha sutras, only a smaller subset of these unabashedly support atmavada (I’m thinking of the Nirvanasutra), others either do not discuss ontology (and focus only on metaphors, such as the Tathagatagarbha sutra) or reject atmavada outright, like the Srimaladevi, which literally states “the tathāgatagarbha is not a substantial self” or the Laṅkāvatāra which equates this idea with emptiness.

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Just to be clear, Ajahn Mahabua (to my knowledge) did not teach that nibbāna is a luminous consciousness. He actually explicitly called the luminosity a subtle form of avijjā He taught that: The pure citta of the Arahant is empty even of luminosity

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Yes, about this he says: "This radiance is the most conspicuous among them. It is the ultimate counterfeit. Since you cherish and safeguard it more than anything else, you will hardly want to interfere with it. Within the entire physical body, nothing stands out so prominently as this brilliance. It provokes such a mesmerizing sense of inner amazement—and, consequently, such a protective feeling of attachment—that you want nothing to disturb it. There it is. Look at it: it is none other than the supreme ruler of the universe—avijjã. But you don’t recognize it. Never having seen it before, you will naturally be deceived by the radiance you encounter at this stage. Later, when mindfulness and wisdom are fully prepared, you will know the truth without any need of prompting. This is avijjã. The true avijjã is right here. It is nothing but a mesmerizing point of brilliance. Don’t imagine avijjã to be a demon or a beast; for in truth, it is really the most alluring and endearing paragon of beauty in the whole world". (arhattamagga/phala, page 58)

venerable @Khemarato.bhikkhu

He also taught:

“But the citta, the true knowing essence, does not arise and pass away like the body and the feelings do. The citta’s knowing presence is the one stable constant”. (maha boowa, arahattamagga/phala, page 30)

What does venerable Maha Boowa mean by this?

  • Does he mean this knowing essence is permanent, not subject to arising and ceasing?
  • This knowing essence is this different from the brilliance he describes above?
  • Is there a knowing essence apart from the knowing aspect of vinnana (vinnana which is not stable at all?) Two basis for knowing? The citta and vinnana?
  • Is this citta, this knowing essence, in fact the same as Nibbana in the Canon?
  • Can we say Maha Boowa taught that the pure citta is even empty of luminosity/brilliance but not empty of knowing?
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I believe so. There’s a Thai Book that talks about this in more detail

Yes

I believe that was his position, yes. That vinyana is the citta connected to the senses.

No

I’m not sure on this one, sorry. That’s above my pay grade :grimacing:

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Thanks venerable @Khemarato.bhikkhu,

Unfortunately i cannot read that suggested book. I assume it is not yet translated in English?

Regarding citta and vinnana i did a little bit more research: “With the citta absorbed in total stillness, the body and the external world temporarily disappear from awareness. Once the citta is satiated, it withdraws to normal consciousness on its own”. (page 40)

I think he also makes very clear that while the citta enters this stillness, and body and external world disappear from awareness, there is still a knowing. The stillness is known. One does not become unconscious.

He talks about vinnana, i think, as normal consciousness, at least that’s how it seems translated in arahahattamagga/phala. Normal consciousness comes back again after this stillness, because sankhara’s arise again, first as riples and then quicker and quicker, until normal consciousness, sense-consciousness i think, is back again (page22)

Maha Boowa also teaches that the knowing quality of the citta …" converges from all areas of the body into one central point of focus at the middle of the chest. The knowing quality manifests itself prominently at that point. It does not emanate from the brain. Although the faculties of memorization and learning arise in association with the brain, direct knowledge of the truth does not". (page 49)

Vinnana, normal consciousness, is seen as something flowing out from the citta and always unstable and unreliable. “The conscious acknowledgement of phenomena as they arise and cease is called viññãna"…"Viññãna, therefore, is consciousness as a condition of the citta. Sankhãra, or thoughts and imagination, is also a condition of the citta. Once the citta has given expression to these conditions, they tend to proliferate without limit. On the other hand, when no conditions arise at all, only the citta’s inherent quality of knowing is apparent”. (page 95/96, Appendix)

Based upon the above it looks like it is not empty of knowing.

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I’m a little confused what the luminosity refers to then–I always thought it was the mind free of defilements ability to know, i.e. just as a lamp illuminates an object, the citta illuminates that which it knows.

@Green – I’m not sure that the quote you cite means that the citta knows the stillness. It merely states that the citta is “absorbed in total stillness,” but it doesn’t say anything about knowing that stillness

Hi @1hullofaguy

When i read Maha Boowa descriptions of his practice and experiences in the book arahattamagga/phala i belief he talks like someone ho had really seen and experienced all these things. He does not refer to some theory, i belief, but he talks from his own experiences.

He talks about the citta who knows when it is calm, the citta who knows when the awarenress of body and world disappear. That kind of things, apparantly, do not stay unknown to the citta. I see no reason to think the stilness is not known. How would we otherwise be able to talk about it?

The one stable, not desintegrating, is according Maha Boowa (page 30&31), the knowing essence of mind. This is called citta and is not vinnana.

On page 62 he says: "When the truth is known in this way, the citta feels no anxiety or apprehension concerning the life and death of the khandhas. The citta simply perceives the activities of the khandhas—how they arise, interact and cease; and how they eventually disintegrate at death. But since the essential knowing nature of the citta never dies, fear of death is not a factor. One accepts death—when it comes—as well as life—when it continues. Both are aspects of the same truth".

The effect of avijja on the mind is described like this:
“The real nature of the citta is so well concealed by avijjã that the incredible natural wonder of the genuine citta is never seen”. (page 65)

I think Maha Boowa teaches that it can be seen.

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I find Maha Boowa’s descriptions intriguing, though it is like listening to an Advaitan - did he have a background in that tradition?
I’ve heard Advaitans make that distinction between awareness (turiya?) and sense-consciousness, and awareness converging in the middle of the chest is reminiscent of the Upanishads, where the Atman is said to reside in the cave of the heart.

Hi Bhante, Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Ajahn Mahabua.

I have not studied Ajahn Mahabua’s teachings beyond reading one of his books several years ago, so it is very interesting to hear your thoughts about the subtlety of what he was pointing to. I’ve occasionally heard teachers suggesting to pay attention to some constant background awareness, which always seemed odd, given that according to the texts, vinyana is obviously not constant. My thought, reading your posts on this thread, is that these teachers may have been influenced by Ajahn Mahabua (or others). However, they (or listeners such as me), may be mistaking vinyana (which does seem rather stable when one is not very developed) for what he is pointing to. This would clearly be a serious impediment, so I have been very cautious about following such advice. I would be very interested in your thoughts.

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Indeed. I’ve never heard of Luangta teaching anything like this.

The closest I can think of is his descriptions of upacara-samadhi, but he was clear that this is a temporary state and not a “constant background”

Yes. In the original talks, in context, it’s usually quite clear what Luangta is talking about, whether it be the near-perfect stability of the anāgāmī’s mind or the brightness of upacara, etc. But people love to skip all the hard work, jump straight to the inspiring, high level Dhamma talks, and turn them into some kind of metaphysical statement.

Indeed a wise attitude! :slight_smile:

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Is vinnanam-anidassanam (“consciousness without surface”) relevant to this discussion?
Might that refer to a sort of “pure consciousness”, or an awareness not involved in ordinary sense-consciousness (vinnana)?

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