Luminous mind

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Translations of
English luminous mind,
mind of clear light,
brightly shining mind,
brightly shining citta,
Pali pabhassara citta
Sanskrit prabhāsvara-citta
Chinese tbd
Japanese tbd
(rōmaji: kōmyōshin)
Tibetan འོད་གསལ་ཀྱི་སེམས་
(Wylie: ’od gsal gyi sems
THL: ö sal gyi sem

Luminous mind (Sanskrit: prabhāsvara-citta; Pali: pabhassara citta), also translated as mind of clear light, refers to the "underlying radiant or luminous intrinsic nature of the mind (citta), especially when freed from the enveloping overlay of defilements (kleshas)."[1]

Within the Theravadin Abhidharma teachings, the term is identified with the bhavanga.[2][3]

Within the Mahayana tradition, the luminous mind is closely associated with concept of buddha nature, or elightenment potential in all beings.[4]

Luminous mind is also an important concept within Vajrayana and Dzogchen thought.[5]


Within the Theravadin Abhidharma teachings, the luminous mind is identified with the bhavanga.[6][7]

For example, the Theravadin Anguttara Nikaya Atthakatha commentary identifies the luminous mind as the bhavanga, the "ground of becoming" or "latent dynamic continuum", which is the most fundamental level of mental functioning in the Theravada Abhidhammic scheme.[8] This interpretation is also used by Buddhaghosa, in his commentary on the Dhammasangani. Buddhaghosa also mentions that the mind is made luminous by the fourth jhana in his Visuddhimagga.[9]

In the Anguttara Nikaya (A.I.8-10) the Buddha states:[10] "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements."[11] The discourses indicate that the mind's natural radiance can be made manifest by meditation.[12]

Ajahn Mun, the leading figure behind the modern Thai Forest Tradition, comments on this verse:

The mind is something more radiant than anything else can be, but because counterfeits – passing defilements – come and obscure it, it loses its radiance, like the sun when obscured by clouds. Don’t go thinking that the sun goes after the clouds. Instead, the clouds come drifting along and obscure the sun. So meditators, when they know in this manner, should do away with these counterfeits by analyzing them shrewdly... When they develop the mind to the stage of the primal mind, this will mean that all counterfeits are destroyed, or rather, counterfeit things won’t be able to reach into the primal mind, because the bridge making the connection will have been destroyed. Even though the mind may then still have to come into contact with the preoccupations of the world, its contact will be like that of a bead of water rolling over a lotus leaf.[13]

Thanissaro Bhikkhu sees the luminous mind as "the mind that the meditator is trying to develop. To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed, aversion, or delusion are not intrinsic to its nature, are not a necessary part of awareness." He associates the term with the simile used to describe the fourth jhana which states:

"Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness."[14]


Within the Mahayana tradition, the luminous mind is closely associated with concept of buddha nature, or elightenment potential in all beings.[15]


In Sanskrit Mahayana texts and their translations, the term is a compound of the intensifying prefix pra-, the verbal root bhāsa (Tibetan: 'od) which means light, radiance or luminosity and the modifier vara (Tibetan: gsal ba) which means 'clear,' and also 'the best of, the highest type.'[16] Jeffrey Hopkins' Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary glosses the term compound as:

clear light; clearly luminous; transparently luminous; translucent; brightly shining; transparent lucidity; splendor; radiance; illumination; spread the light; lustre; come to hear; effulgence; brilliance.[17]

Mahayana texts

Mahayana sutras generally affirm the pure and luminous nature of the mind, adding that this is its natural condition (prakrti-prabhsvara-citta).[9] In the Pañcavimsati Prajñaparamita sutra, the prabhsvara-citta is interpreted thus:

This mind (citta) is no-mind (acitta), because its natural character is luminous. What is this state of the mind’s luminosity (prabhsvarat)? When the mind is neither associated with nor dissociated from greed, hatred, delusion, proclivities (anusaya), fetters (samyojana), or false views (drsti), then this constitutes its luminosity. Does the mind exist as no-mind? In the state of no-mind (acittat), the states of existence (astit) or non-existence (nstit) can be neither found nor established... What is this state of no-mind? The state of no-mind, which is immutable (avikra) and undifferentiated (avikalpa), constitutes the ultimate reality (dharmat) of all dharmas. Such is the state of no-mind.[9]

A similar teaching appears in some recensions of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 lines) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Edward Conze considered the teaching on the "essential purity of the nature of mind" (prakrti cittasya prabhasvara; xinxiang benjing, 心相本淨) to be a central teaching of the Mahayana. However according to Shi Huifeng, this term is not present in the earliest textual witness of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, the Daoxing Banruo Jing, attributed to Lokaksema (c. 179 CE).[18] Mahayana texts like the Ratnagotravibhanga, also associate prabhsvara with awakening (bodhi) and also another term, natural or original purity of mind (cittaprakrtivisuddhi).[19][20] In some Mahayana shastras, natural purity is another term for Emptiness, Suchness and Dharmadhatu.[21] Asanga's Mahayanasamgraha for example, states:

The essential purity (prakṛtivyavadāna), i.e., the true nature (tathatā), emptiness (śūnyatā), the utmost point of reality (bhūtakoti), the signless (animitta), the absolute (paramārtha), the fundamental element (dharmadhātu).[22]

The Bhadrapala-sutra states that the element of consciousness (vijñanadhatu) is pure and penetrates all things while not being affected by them, like the rays of the sun, even though it may appear defiled.[9]


Editor's note: this section needs attention. Review-icon.png

According to Walpola Rahula, all the elements of the Yogacara store-consciousness (alaya-vijnana) are already found in the Pali Canon.[23] He writes that the three layers of the mind (citta, called "luminous" in the passage discussed above, manas, and vijnana) as presented by Asanga are also used in the Pali Canon.[24]

According to Yogacara teachings, as in early Buddhist teachings regarding the citta, the store-consciousness is not pure, and with the attainment of nirvana comes a level of mental purity that is hitherto unattained.[25]


In Tibetan Buddhism, the luminous mind (Tibetan: gsal ba) is often equated with the Yogacara concept of svasaṃvedana (reflexive awareness). It is often compared to a lamp in a dark room, which in the act of illuminating objects in the room also illuminates itself.


In the canonical discourses, when the brightly shining citta is "unstained," it is supremely poised for arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata.[26] The discourses do not support seeing the "luminous mind" as "nirvana within" which exists prior to liberation.[27] While the Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" in its raw state with nirvanic consciousness, passages could be taken to imply that it can be transformed into the latter.[28][29] Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations."[30]

Both the Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra describe the tathagatagarbha ("arahant womb")  as "by nature brightly shining and pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining." It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements.[31] Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha.[32] Some Gelug philosophers, in contrast to teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra, maintain that the "purity" of the tathagatagarbha is not because it is originally or fundamentally pure, but because mental flaws can be removed — that is, like anything else, they are not part of an individual's fundamental essence. These thinkers thus refuse to turn epistemological insight about emptiness and Buddha-nature into an essentialist metaphysics.[33]

The Shurangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra also equate the tathagatagarbha (and alaya-vijnana) with nirvana, though this is concerned with the actual attainment of nirvana as opposed to nirvana as a timeless phenomenon.[34][35]

Loving kindness

According to scholar Peter Harvey, loving-kindness is a quality of the luminous mind (aka brightly shining citta). Harvey writes:

The following Sutta (A.I.l0-11) implies that lovingkindness (metta) is a quality of the brightly shining citta. The passage refers to knowledge of this citta as leading a person to meditatively develop their citta, and then immediately says that the development of lovingkindness-citta, for however little time, is always of great benefit. This implies that the brightly shining citta, which is always there to be 'uncovered', is already endowed with lovingkindness, providing a sound basis for any conscious development of this quality. Accordingly, it is said that the liberation of mind by lovingkindness 'shines (bhiisate) and glows and radiates' and is like the radiance (pabhii) of the moon (lt.l9-20).[36]

The observation that the ground state of consciousness is of the nature of loving-kindness implies that empathy is innate to consciousness and exists prior to the emergence of all active mental processes.[37]


Luminosity or clear light (Tibetan 'od gsal, Sanskrit prabhāsvara), is central concept in Esoteric Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. It is the innate condition of the mind, associated with buddha-nature, the realisation of which is the goal of meditative practice. It is said to be experienced when the coarse and subtle minds dissolve during deep sleep, during orgasm, and during the death process.[38][39][40][9] All systems of Tibetan Buddhism agree that the clear light nature of mind is non-conceptual and free from all mental afflictions, and that tantra is the superior method of working with this nature of the mind.[41]

The Indian tantric commentator Indrabhuti, in his Jñanasiddhi, states that

Being luminous by nature, this mind is similar to the moon’s disc. The lunar disc epitomises the knowledge (jñāna) that is luminous by nature. Just as the waxing moon gradually emerges in its fullness, in the same way the mind-jewel (cittaratna), being naturally luminous, also fully emerges in its perfected state. Just as the moon becomes fully visible, once it is freed from the accidental obscurities, in the same way the mind-jewel, being pure by nature (prakṛti-pariśuddha), once separated from the stains of defilements (kleśa), appears as the perfected buddha-qualities (guṇa).[9]

Luminosity is also a specific term for one of the Six Yogas of Naropa.[42] In his commentary, Pema Karpo says that the clear light is experienced briefly by all human beings at the very first moment of death, by advanced yogic practitioners in the highest states of meditation, and unceasingly by all Buddhas.[43]

Various Vajrayana practices involve the recognition of this aspect of mind in different situations, such as dream yoga. In this case, the practitioner trains to lucidly enter the deep sleep state.[44] If one has the ability to remain lucid during deep sleep, one will be able to recognize the luminosity of death and gain Buddhahood.[45] This is called the meeting of mother and child luminosities, resulting in the state of thukdam at death.[46]


In Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen literature, luminosity ('od gsal) is associated with an aspect of the Ground termed "spontaneous presence" (Lhun grub), meaning a presence that is uncreated and not based on anything causally extraneous to itself.[47] This term is often paired with 'original-purity' (ka dag), which is associated with emptiness (shunyata), and are both seen as inseparable aspects of the Ground. Other terms used to describe this aspect are dynamism or creative power (rtsal) and radiance (dwangs).[48]

See also


  1. Oxford Reference, Luminous mind
  2. Collins, page 238.
  3. Harvey (2004), p. 173
  4. Harvey (2004), p. 173
  5. Wallace, page 96.
  6. Collins, page 238.
  7. Harvey (2004), p. 173
  8. Harvey, page 98.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Skorupski, Tadeusz. “Consciousness and Luminosity in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.” In Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation Practice: Academic Papers Presented at the 2nd IABU Conference Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, Main Campus Wang Noi, Ayutthaya, Thailand, 31 May–2 June 2012.
  10. Harvey, page 94. The reference is at A I, 8-10.
  11. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [1].
  12. Harvey, page 96.
  13. Ven. Ajahn Mun, ‘A Heart Released,’ p 23. Found in Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbāna, pages 212-213. Available online at [2].
  14. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Pabhassara Sutta: Luminous Note #1.
  15. Harvey (2004), p. 173
  16. Tony Duff, The Illuminator Tibetan Dictionary
  17. Jeffrey Hopkins, Tibetan-Sanskrit-English Dictionary Digital version: Digital Archives Section, Library and Information Center of Dharma Drum Buddhist College 法鼓佛教學院 圖書資訊館 數位典藏組
  18. Huifeng Shi, An Annotated English Translation of Kumārajīva’s Xiaŏpĭn Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Asian Literature and Translation Vol. 4, No 1, 2017, 187-236.
  19. Robert E. Busswell, 2004, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 52.
  20. Williams, Paul, Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryavatara, page 10
  21. Brunnholz, Karl, When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra, Shambhala, 2015, page 1023.
  22. Lamotte, Étienne , MAHĀYĀNASAṂGRAHA (La Somme du Grand Véhicule d'Asaṅga), Volume II, page 165.
  23. Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66.
  24. Walpola Rahula, quoted in Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66, [3].
  25. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology. Routledge, 2002, note 7 on page 154.
  26. Harvey, page 96.
  27. Harvey, pages 94, 96.
  28. Harvey, page 97. He finds the reference at S III, 54, taking into account statements at S II, 13, S II, 4, and S III, 59.
  29. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [4].
  30. Harvey, page 99.
  31. Harvey, pages 96-97.
  32. Harvey, page 97.
  33. Liberman, page 263.
  34. Harvey, page 97.
  35. Henshall, page 36.
  36. Hopkins (2004), p. 174
  37. Wallace, page 113.
  38. Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400848058. Entry on "prabhāsvara".
  39. Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2006). Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-55939-300-3. 
  40. Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2006). Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-55939-300-3. 
  41. Alexander Berzin, Making Sense of Tantra, 2002
  42. Tsongkhapa and Mullin, Six Yogas of Naropa, Snow Lion, 1996, pages 81-84.
  44. Ponlop, Dzogchen (2008). Mind beyond death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 86–7. ISBN 1-55939-301-7. 
  45. Ponlop, Dzogchen (2008). Mind beyond death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 86–7. ISBN 1-55939-301-7. 
  46. Rinpoche, Dudjom (2001). Counsels from My Heart. Boston: Shambhala. pp. 59–76. ISBN 1-57062-844-0. 
  47. Van Schaik; Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig (Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism), 2004, 52
  48. Van Schaik; Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig (Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism), 2004, 54.


  • Maha Boowa, Arahattamagga, Arahattaphala. Translated by Bhikkhu Silaratano. Available online here.
  • Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, 1989.
  • Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995.
  • Ron Henshall, The Unborn and the Emancipation from the Born. Thesis by a student of Peter Harvey, accessible online from here.
  • Kenneth Liberman, Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture: An Ethnomethodological Inquiry Into Formal Reasoning. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
  • B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007.

External links

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