April 20, 2011

Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu's The Brightened Mind

Yesterday the newest book by Thai Forest monk Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu arrived in the Tricycle office: The Brightened Mind: A Simple Guide to Buddhist Meditation. I am familiar with two of the author's previous works, Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest and Meeting the Monkey Halfway, and met him once many years ago, in the late 1990s. I enjoyed both the previous books very much, in particular Questions from the City, which has a great dialectic format that makes for very clear reading.

The Brightened Life opens with a series of statements about what you will gain from reading the book: "You will be able to recognize concentration (samadhi) from insight (vipassana) and the difference between shallow (mundane) happiness and unfettered (profound) happiness." This happens to be one of the very few places in the book the author resorts to Buddhist terms, probably because these are oftem thought (by publishers and editors) to be off-putting to the general reader. Buddhist concepts, however, are employed throughout. One section I admired very much was the section on good friends, as the idea of friendship, in particular spiritual friendship, is one that I think sometimes gets short shrift.

I was not so enamored of the idea of Universal Mind, which is given a large section in the beginning and is something we are supposed to "access" through meditation:

Trying to describe the Universal Mind is like asking the eye to describe itself. There is an inherent difficulty because there is nothing behind this mind that could observe it from any distance. It is unobservable because it is the observer itself. It is simultaneously both everything and nothing. In the end all we can say is that the profound Universal Mind is stateless, as it contains and incorporates all possible states. It is the fountainhead of life, the source of reality.

Suzuki Roshi talked about Big Mind and so, later, did Genpo Roshi. Universal Mind sounds like Absolute reality, the ultimate, the Tao. It is also referred to as the "power source," the "ultimate observer," and an "energy field." Wikipedia tells us that Universal Mind may have originated with Hegel, which would be something like der absolute Geist. Humanity's link to the Universal Mind is "our primary asset as human beings."  In other words, Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu seems to have moved toward a more Mahayana understanding of meditation. I hope that doesn't come across as pejorative, because it isn't meant to be.

The meditation exercises in the second half of the back are very clear and firmly grounded in Buddhist forms readers will recognize: breathing exercises, lovingkindness, and so on. I think this slim volume can serve as a very nice intorduction to Buddhist meditation, without a lot of jargon. The concept of Universal Mind may make some readers hesitate, because this Mind seems something we can access without a huge amount of effort and once accessed, we don't need anything more to lead full lives, and this of course was one strong and recurring criticism of Big Mind. But if it gets people started on the path,on the cushion, and more importantly, as Ajahan Sumanao Bhikkhu says, thinking and learning and creatively engaging with our lives, it will be worthwhile.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

A more accurate western term would be universal life. Mind implies activities of a (supreme) brain, an anthropomorphic notion not unlike using the word "God". Such a perception is inherently dualistic, splitting the life of the human being from the larger life of the universe, of which he or she is an integral, albeit smaller, part. Buddhism calls this larger, universal life "buddha nature", and describes the human being who realizes his or her life is identical with that of the universe as "enlightened".

celticpassage's picture

I think I'm ok with universal mind.
I don't think universal mind necessarily implies a 'supreme brain'. That's applying a limited physical understanding (a brian or person) on something perhaps beyond rational understanding. So also the use of God in Christian terms doesn't impy the existence of a super-natural person or brain.

celticpassage's picture

How do you know there is no universal mind or what the Buddha really believed?

maximohudson's picture

On Universal Mind - Is there some "thing" (universal or otherwise) called mind?

What do we actually experience? There are sense organs. There are objects of perception. There are the cognitive abilities of the brain which attemps to interpret that which is perceived/misperceived. It's as simple as that. If we want, we can elaborate and say that like flowers which track the sun humans exhibit signs of awareness, but there is no need in all of this to mention god, soul, or mind.

The concept of mind predates Buddhism and in fact was highly developed by the time the Tathagata came along. It's no wonder then that when asked by others to describe the world from his awakened point of view that he spoke in terms they could understand (such as that of the concept of mind). The Buddha spoke of mind not because he believed there was some "thing" called mind which he himself believed existed, but because it was a "raft for crossing over."