Month: May 2014

On not finding the mind’s colour

It is a very important point of many teachings that, though we might look for mind, we cannot find it.  Milarepa sang in The Root Verses Illuminating Primordial Wisdom of Mahamudra,

It is the thought of the buddhas and mind of sentient beings.

It is without colour, form, centre or periphery.

It is free from bias in any direction.

It cannot be experienced as existent or non-existent.

(rje brtsun mi la’i phyag rgya chen po ye shes gsal byed kyi rtsa ba, gdams ngag mdzod, vol 7, pp.66-67, trans. Lama Jampa Thaye 1990)

And of course this kind of presentation of the view is stated in many places not unique to the Kagyu lamas.  The particular observation I want to make here concerns the freedom of mind – or, here, the basis mahamudra, which is the same thing – from colour and form.  I want to apply to this a very insightful point made by Wittgenstein on the nature of meaning, which leads to two ways this might be understood.

Is it that in some circumstances other than those in which we find ourselves, it could have been the case that mind has a colour, or a shape?   But, as it happens, under the actual circumstances, mind does not happen to have either.  Is it, in other words, a contingent fact that mind is not coloured or shaped, a fact which could be altered under the right circumstances?

Now this is surely not what is meant when we say that mind does not have a colour or shape.  We mean that it is in some sense impossible for mind to have a colour or shape, that such a thing is necessarily ruled out, even absurd.  It is essential to mind that it has no colour or shape.  There is no such thing as a mind with a colour, or a shape.

Here is the point.  If there is no such thing as mind having a colour or shape, there is no kind of search or empirical investigation that could discover or learn this knowledge about mind.  If it is true that mind has no colour or shape, I already know this about mind.  Such knowledge is like the bedrock along which a river must run.  Or it is like a rule one must not violate if one wishes to make sense.  It is not a contingent fact about the world or the nature of mind.  It is not so much false to say that mind is red, or cubic, as it is wrong.  It is wrong to say that, because we can find no meaning or usefulness in making such a statement.

This is like the difference between the false claim, ‘my eyes are blue’ and the claim ‘my eyes are loud’.  Checking the colour of my eyes involves looking, but there is nowhere to look to check whether they are loud or quiet.  I do not have to look or search to know they cannot be either.  Similarly, what kind of looking can one do to check whether or not mind has a colour or shape?

One can search for a poetic or metaphorical meaning to a statement like ‘her eyes were loud’, but mind’s not having colour or shape is not a poetic device.

It is simply not possible to look for the colour of mind like one looks for the colour of someone’s eyes.  This is not because we lack some kind of ability which a super-being might have.  It is that nothing counts as looking or checking for mind’s colour or shape.

There is an important caveat to this.  We might create or invent an activity, and call it ‘looking at my mind’.  We might sit cross-legged and engage in introspection.  We might ask ourselves, ‘Is my mind red?  Is it round?’  We might think, ‘I do not see that my mind is red.  It is not round, either.”  We might then call this activity ‘looking at the mind’.

In doing so, we do not learn anything we did not previously know about mind.  We do create a sense for the expression  ‘seeing my mind is not red’.  But this is nothing like seeing my eyes are not red, or that the ink is not red, social institutions far more grounded in human realities.

My conclusion is – the act of looking for mind is not something we should assume we know how to do.  There is no reason to assume it has anything much in common with what we normally mean by looking, checking, searching for things with colours and shapes.