prabhāsvara (P. pabhasarra; T. ’od gsal འོད་གསལ་; C. guangming; J. kōmyō; K. kwangmyōng 光明) is translated as "luminous," "luminous clarity," "radiant awareness," etc. This term is "often used as a metaphor for either deep states of meditation or, especially, the nature of mind."
Generally speaking, according to tradition, the mind is naturally luminous (pabhasarra), but this luminosity is obscured by defilements such as the kleshas. When these defilements are purified, the mind's innate luminosity is revealed.
The mind is naturally luminous
A frequently quoted passage from the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 1.51-1.52) states:
- This mind, mendicants, is luminous (pabhasarra). But it is corrupted by passing defilements. An uneducated ordinary person does not truly understand this. So I say that the uneducated ordinary person has no development of the mind.
- This mind, mendicants, is luminous. And it is freed from passing defilements. An educated noble disciple truly understands this. So I say that the educated noble disciple has development of the mind.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu provides the following explanation of this passage:
- A more reasonable approach to understanding the statement can be derived from taking it in context: the luminous mind is the mind that the meditator is trying to develop. To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed (lobha), aversion (dosa), or delusion (moha) are not intrinsic to its nature and are not a necessary part of awareness. Without this understanding, it would be impossible to practice. With this understanding, however, one can make an effort to cut away existing defilements, leaving the mind in the stage that MN 24 calls “purity in terms of mind.”
- This would correspond to the luminous level of concentration described in the standard simile for the fourth jhāna:
- “And further, with the abandoning of pleasure & pain—as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress—(the monk) enters & remains in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. 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.”
- From this state it is possible to develop the discernment that not only cuts away existing defilements but also uproots any potential for them to ever arise again. Only in the stages of awakening that follow on those acts of discernment would “consciousness without surface” be realized.
Some Pali commentaries interpret the term pabhasarra in the above passage as being equivalent to the term bhavanga-citta. Thanissaro Bhikkhu finds this explanation unsatisfactory, noting that "there is no reference to the bhavaṅga-citta or the mental stream in any of the suttas."
Like the sun obscured by clouds
Thai teacher Ajahn Mun states:
- The mind is something more radiant (pabhasarra) 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.
The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines (Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā prajñāpāramitā) states:
- The mind is devoid of mind,
- For the nature of mind is luminous.
The Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Lines (Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā prajñāpāramitā) states:
- This mind (citta) is no-mind (acitta), because its natural character is luminous. What is this state of the mind’s luminosity (prabhāsvaratā)? When the mind is neither associated with nor dissociated from greed (rāga), hatred (dvesha), delusion (avidyā), proclivities (anuśaya), fetters (saṃyojana), or false views (dṛṣṭi), then this constitutes its luminosity.
- Does the mind exist as no-mind? In the state of no-mind (acittatā), the states of existence (astitā) or non-existence (nstitā) can be neither found nor established... What is this state of no-mind? The state of no-mind, which is immutable (avikāra) and undifferentiated (avikalpa), constitutes the ultimate reality (dharmatā) of all dharmas. Such is the state of no-mind.
Luminousity (prabhāsvaratā) is an important concept in Vajrayana (aka tantra).
Casey Alexandra Kemp states:
- Tantric teachings tend to emphasize the direct realization or experience of luminosity as itself a means for enlightenment. According to tantric interpretations, luminosity as an experience of consciousness (rather than a mere characteristic of mind’s potentiality) can naturally arise once the gross and subtle levels of consciousness dissolve, such as during orgasm, at the moment of falling asleep, and particularly at the moment of death. A Buddhist tantric practitioner can potentially train in simulating this dissolution process of consciousness during meditation in order to directly recognize the appearance of luminosity, thus leading to liberation and Buddhahood. In the esoteric Tibetan traditions of Dzogchen (Rdzogs chen) and Mahāmudrā, luminosity is emphasized as synonymous with the dharmakāya, the dharmadhātu, and the fundamental nature of all phenomena and reality. It also becomes central for the other-emptiness (gzhan stong) views as maintained by some Tibetan traditions, particularly the Jonang school.
See also: prabhāsvaracitta
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. prabhāsvara.
- Kemp 2021.
- Numbered Discourses 1.51–60: 6. Finger Snap, SuttaCentral
- Luminous: Pabhassara Suttas (AN 1:50–53), Dhammatalks.org
- Mun 1995, section 10.
- Pasanno & Amaro 2013, pp. 212-213; This anthology also includes this same passage from Ajahn Mun's text.
- Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines
- Skorupski 2012, p. 51.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Kemp, Casey Alexandra (2021), Luminousity, Oxford Bibliographies Online
- Mun, Ajahn (1995), Thanissaro, Bhikkhu, ed., A Heart Released:The Teachings of Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Thera, Metta Forest Monastery
- Pasanno, Ajahn; Amaro, Ajahn, eds. (2013), "Chapter 12: Knowing Emptiness and Radiant Mind", The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbāna, Amaravati Publications
- Skorupski, Tadeusz (2012), "Consciousness and Luminosity in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism", Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation Practice (Academic Papers presented at the 2nd IABU Conference), The International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU)