'The mind is luminous.'

Joseph Goldstein states the Buddha said this “The mind is luminous” in a dhamma talk on the mind, Citta. However there is confusion because, searching on this topic, apparently the Buddha was debunking the idea. If I understand correctly there are wholesome and unwholesome states of mind as defined by the mental factors. The universals and occasionals can span either group. If only an unwholesome or wholesome mental state exists where does the luminous mind fit in. If the luminous mind exists what is the feeling tone associated with it?

Many, many questions, the wheel keeps spinning!

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Luminous mind may indicate the color of the mind at that time

Or it can indicate the wisdom of mind,mind with wisdom = bright mind while dumb mind = dark mind

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As somebody interested in the intersection between neurology and religion, I have found how often EBT contains some very well described neuroscientific descriptions of what in general terms we can call the mind and so maybe when the Buddha refers to the mind as luminous maybe it is not a total metaphor as (see among other studies this one. In short, it appears that biophotons seem to be produced naturally in the brain and elsewhere by the decay of certain electronically excited molecular species. Studied have shown that humans and mammals’ brains produce biophotons with wavelength of between 200 and 1,300 nanometers—this is from near infrared to ultraviolet spectrum!

This research on the potentiality of “light” communication of the brain by the way, might have some implication also in the practice of Metta meditation as described in several ETB suttas.


It is worth using the search function for this site. This topic has been discussed numerous times. If there is no-one around to answer your question directly, you can still find the answers.

Just click on the magnifying glass in the top right row of icons. ‘Luminous mind’ yields the following links

with metta


This is a misquote. Unfortunately, it is common in Buddhist circles that even the most senior teachers—or perhaps especially the most senior teachers—keep repeating the same debunked ideas. :man_shrugging:

What the text says is, rather, that “this” mind is radiant, where “this” refers to the mind in jhana. The pali word idaṁ here serves to delimit and specify the mind in question.

The phrase Goldstein is referring to is, in Pali, found in two pairs of discourses, at AN 1.49–50 and in slightly expanded form at AN 1.51–52.

The context is crucial, because this portion of the canon, the Anguttara Ones, is entirely made up of sutta fragments; that is to say, discourses consisting of one or two sentences that have been splintered out from a full discourse in order to fill out the collection. In doing so, the context that gave them meaning has been stripped. With care and attention, though, it can be reconstructed to some degree.

In this particular case, the text has been stripped and divided in two at AN 1.51–60, then duplicated and fragmented again and placed in the previous chapter. When reading such texts, one must take extra care to consider the broader context. Think of our sutta fragment as an injured patient on life support. Almost everything is gone from it, so we would take super-duper care to ensure that nothing else is lost.

The text at AN 1.51 says this (my translation):

“This mind, mendicants, is radiant.
“Pabhassaramidaṁ, bhikkhave, cittaṁ.
But it is corrupted by passing corruptions.
Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṁ.
An uneducated ordinary person does not truly understand this.
Taṁ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṁ nappajānāti.
So I say that the uneducated ordinary person has no development of the mind.”
Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī”ti.

As the context makes clear, it is a text about “development of the mind”, i.e. the meditative practice otherwise known as samadhi or jhana. Words for “brightness”, “light” or 'luminosity" are constantly used by the Buddha to describe such a mind. The “defilements” obscure that brightness, like a pollutant in an oil lamp. This is taught, using the exact same terminology as the above fragment (pabhassara, upakkilesa) in such suttas as SN 46.33, AN 5.23, or AN 3.101, or MN 140.

The fact that this is part of a process of “development” shows that it cannot be something intrinsic or innate. The mind is not “naturally” radiant; it is “naturally” conditioned. But apparently the attachment to consciousness as a higher self runs so very deep that a single fragment can be snatched up and used to bolster the sense of self, despite everything the Buddha said about conditionality and impermanence.

In taking the phrase out of context and misquoting it, not only is an unwarranted sense imputed to the Buddha’s words, but the actual point he was making is lost. The phrases yathābhūtaṁ (“as it really is”, “truly”, “as it has been produced”) and “unlearned ordinary person” (contrasted with “noble disciple” in the next sutta) indicate that the passage is making a distinction between someone who has attained at least stream entry and someone who has not.

For those who are yet to realize the four noble truths, the nature of the mind is still unclear and the development of the mind is patchy and subject to regression. Thus the text says that for such a person there is no development of mind. Obviously this should not be taken to mean that an unenlightened person should not develop their mind (since that is taught many times elsewhere). Rather, it emphasizes the fragility of mental development before enlightenment, and reminds us that, while we may progress or regress, we have not really seen the causes and conditions until we have reached the noble fruits.

The message of the sutta is, then, that since the mind is conditioned, we must take special care that any progress in samadhi (“radiance”) does not falter due to the re-arising of defilements (upakkilesa). Such defilements are “passing” or “transient”, since they are temporarily suppressed in jhana and re-appear unexpectedly, though the meditator may think they have gone forever. Only with the attainment of noble insight will we really understand this process, after which our meditation will be much more stable.


Radiant will be an even better description for biophotons. I wonder if this means that our mind in certain states can actually “radiate” its condition. Indeed we can say “radiate Metta”. Interesting enough, before you can do so, you should be very well established in sila and have the capacity to a certain level of concentration.
I think that some of the descriptions of the mind by the Buddha were not just metaphors. Moreover, if a form of communication does happen through biophotons in the brain capacities such as mind readings and so on, sound to be possible :slight_smile: the mind is a profound state of meditation that works on a different level than the usual one.
I am sure the more we learn about the deep mystery of our brain/mind the more we see that the Buddha had indeed explained before.

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Thanks. Bio-photons, the power house for quantum computing. Computers with luminous minds, interesting or scary?

Thank you Sujato. Will digest your words.

Or perhaps “metaphor” is a deeper part of reality than we think.


Extremely good point, Bhante! :pray:

On a related note, the Buddha does use light to travel anywhere in the universe.

If he wished, Ānanda, a Realized One could make his voice heard throughout a galactic supercluster, or as far as he wants.”

“But how would the Buddha make his voice heard so far?”

“First, Ānanda, a Realized One would fill the galactic supercluster with light. When sentient beings saw the light, the Realized One would project his call so that they’d hear the sound. That’s how a Realized One could make his voice heard throughout a galactic supercluster, or as far as he wants.”

and light needs to be developed to see other beings

The Blessed One said, “Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, I perceived light but did not see forms. The thought occurred to me, ‘If I perceived light and saw forms, then this knowledge-&-vision of mine would be purer.’

“So, at a later time—staying heedful, ardent, & resolute—I perceived light and saw forms, but I did not associate with those devas, didn’t converse with them, or engage them in discussion. The thought occurred to me, ‘If I perceived light and saw forms; and associated with those devas, conversed with them, and engaged them in discussion, then this knowledge-&-vision of mine would be purer.


And MN 128 also talks about developing that light.


Hi Sujato
Been reading and thinking on this.

If the ‘ground state’ of the mind is naturally conditioned then it cannot be purified. It would mean that the development of radiance is merely a gloss over it. There is a quote somewhere that talks of purifying gold, that gold and the impurities is the mind and the impurities are refined out of it giving gold it’s radiance. By this the extension is the mind is both radiant and defiled rather than just conditioned. Meditative training is the refinement process.


Really this whole debate sounds like a bunch of nitpicking over terminology. Like, what does “innately luminous” or “innately defiled” even mean?

Is the sky innately cloudy (because sometimes clouds come to block sunlight) or innately sunny (because the sun is always shining above the clouds)?


So here’s my two cents-
Seems to me, the two passages fit nicely together (using Ven. Nanananda’s translation here):

This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by extraneous defilements. That, the uninstructed ordinary man does not understand as it is. Therefore, there is no mind development for the ordinary man, I declare.

And the second part:

This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is released from extraneous defilements. That, the instructed noble disciple understands as it is. Therefore, there is mind development for the instructed noble disciple, I declare.

As a set, isn’t this style of comparison very common in the suttas?
What would a noble disciple understand that an uninstructed ordinary man not? Opening of the Dhamma Eye?

So this is what I think it is saying:

Imagine a village surrounded by high mountains which are constantly shrouded in clouds. One day, a skilled mountain climber is out climbing one of the cloud-shrouded mountains and as he comes up on top of it- his head pops up above the clouds and its a bright sunny day and he can see for miles and miles.

Now a villager who has never ventured out climbing would have no idea that such a mountain even exists – as they are always shrouded in clouds – nor the skills required to climb such a thing.

Our skilled climber - who has already been on this mountain (noble) also has the needed skills to get there (instructed).

You could look at this as explaining why a person who has entered the stream will ultimately make it all the way where as a worldly person may not ever get there at all.

It isn’t saying that the mind is naturally radiant, it is saying that when one first directly experiences the undefiled mind – radiant is a good desciption. It is not a teaching on higher self but rather comparing the experience of the defiled mind of a worldly person with the experience of the undefiled mind at Stream Entry.

Mind should not pose a problem here. The liberated mind ‘knows’ that it is liberated. The undefiled mind knows it suffers. Knowing is something we all know. We keep on knowing that we know until maybe we don’t know but one thing for sure is that no one will ever know that they don’t know. So I think it makes no sense to talk about eternal or non-eternal mind unless we are at the end of time and we know it. And with aliens at the gates, who knows.


It’s like contemplating unanswerable questions. The point is the process.

A dark mind is agitated and only sees a cloudy sky. We must all consider our cloudy skies with diligence.

With Metta.

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Having read through the posts on this topic, I cannot help thinking that the elephant in the room is the Mahayana Wisdom literature. One could say it’s highly influenced by Daoism, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. IMHO


The Mahayana Sutras were (in the main) composed in India, so there was no Daoist influence in their composition. There was Daoist linguistic influence in translation to Chinese (magga is in fact translated as “dao”) but that is not in itself problematic, as any translation can only work with the language it has available. We can assess this by comparing the Chinese translations with Tibetan or Indic versions.

The Buddhists in China were very linguistically and doctrinally sophisticated, and were well aware of the distinction between Buddhism and Daosim. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there can’t be any influence either subconscious or by way of deliberate synthesis. At the same time, it would be interesting to see whether the influence may have gone the other way.


For now I translate Citta as attention. So just based on what you’ve quoted, I could interpret that as saying, the attention illuminates, which it does! Where as the mind Manas interprets and remembers, and the psyche Cetas controls where the attention is directed and how it is interpreted or misinterpreted. So it is according to MN-20 that the 5th basis for staying discursive thought vitakka, the Cetas restrain the Citta according to my amateurish translation.

Ayya, great to see you learning Pali, but I’m afraid that none of these words have this meaning in the suttas.

Citta doesn’t normally mean “attention”, that would be manasikāra. Citta means “mind” and similar. Since it has an extremely wide range of senses, in some cases, perhaps it might mean “attention”, although I can’t think of any right now.

Manas is not closely associated with interpretation (that would be saññā) or remembering (sati) but with intention (cetanā).

Cetas has nothing to do with directing attention, but is a synonym for citta. However it tends to be used in more emotional or “whole” senses, somewhat comparable to “mind” vs. “heart” in English.

All these words are well known and well studied in the grammars and dictionaries.

That would require something like cittaṁ pabhassati, which is not what the text says.

This is an unusual idiom, in a highly unusual passage. This advice, which is unusually harsh for the Buddha, resembles Jain meditation and may be influenced by it. As a rule, we should not rely on such passages to determine the meaning of common words, as they may rely on contexts with which we are unfamiliar.

Here the idiom translated as squash “mind with mind” (cetasā cittaṁ) uses cetas in instrumental form together with citta. Most translators, including myself, do not read any significance into this, as the two words are synonyms. The commentary supports this, reading kusalacittena akusalacittaṁ.

Perhaps one might read it as saying that the “whole mind” (i.e. the relatively unified mind developed in meditation) squashes the “small mind” (i.e. the errant thought). But this would be a stretch. Generally speaking, follow the “principle of least meaning”: words should be treated in the thinnest possible way supported by the context, and let meaning emerge from sentences and passages.


Hi Bhante,

Try Iain McGilchrist ‘The master and his emissary.’ Interesting read.

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