The Radiant Mind

Originally printed in the July - August 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Cianciosi, John. "The Radiant Mind." Quest  91.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2003):124-128.

By John Cianciosi

Theosophical Society - John Cianciosi, a student of the late Venerable Ajahn Chah, was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1972 and served as spiritual director of monasteries in Thailand and Australia. He is author of The Meditative Path and is currently the director of public programs at the Theosophical Society.The mind is at the center of all experience and thus it is the most important factor in determining the quality of life. Although we may talk of a world out there, in reality, the only world we can experience directly is in our own mind. As it says in an ancient Buddhist text, the Dhammapada: "Our life is shaped by our mind, we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it, while happiness follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves."

But what is this thing we call mind that animates the body and means we are alive? I know that I must have a mind for I perceive a distinct difference between my present state and that of a corpse, which is simply matter devoid of consciousness or mind. Is this mind my thoughts? Western culture is heavily influenced by the French philosopher Rene Descartes' famous equivocation: "I think, therefore I am." But what happens if I stop thinking—does my mind disappear? What of all the feelings, emotions, desires, and aspirations that are so powerful and yet undeniably transient? Where do they come from, how do they arise, and where do they go?

These are fascinating questions that many of us will have asked at one time or another. But it is difficult to arrive at satisfactory answers, and science does not seem to be much closer to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness.


In the teachings of ancient traditions such as Buddhism, there is great emphasis on the practice of introspection, or looking deeply within to discover answers to these questions. This approach has lead to deep insights into the real nature of mind.

The Buddha said that the mind in its original or fundamental state is radiant or brilliant. However, it becomes tarnished, so that the radiance is obscured, by the defilements that arise in it. This tells us that the underlying nature of the mind is bright, still, silent, and peaceful. It is empty of all the multiplicity of thoughts and concepts. There is only a bright, vibrant state of knowing. On the other hand, the defilements are visitors that come and go—they are creations of the mind.

Thus, that original radiance is obscured when the mind gets entangled in its own creations, the jungle of thoughts, memories, hopes, fears, and the countless other possible mental states. Some of these creations of the mind are wholesome, positive, and even beautiful, while others are negative and ugly. Nature allows us to create anything—the good and the bad, the refined and the coarse, heaven and hell.

Some people create a tangle of awful, negative, nasty, and mean thoughts, full of anger and resentment. The original radiant and pure mind is completely obscured by these defilements. It becomes worse when, having created these states of mind, one proceeds to act on them through one's speech and body. This is how all cruel and inhumane behavior arises. War starts in the minds of people, and cruelty comes from cruel intentions that originate in the mind.

But nature also allows us to create that which is good and beautiful. If we rise to the occasion by applying our mind in the right way, we can create compassionate, kind, and loving thoughts. In this case, the original radiance of the mind is also obscured, but by positive and wholesome creations. These thoughts and intentions lead to action that is kind and benevolent, conducive to the well being of oneself and others.

Nature allows both possibilities. So in the world we find both saints and monsters—people whose lives are a blessing to the world—and those who only live to bring misery and suffering.

Of course, the vast majority of us are just ordinary people with both good and bad tendencies. Thus we create and experience a variety of mental states and emotions, some of which are positive while others are negative. However, few of us can actively direct what we create in the mind. At times, it is as if the mind has "a mind of its own." In a sense it does. It is driven by the power of past conditioning, by habit and instinct. That is why we tend to recreate old patterns and react in similar ways to particular situations and people, even when we don't want to. On many occasions we may want to respond in a positive way, but instead find ourselves dwelling in petty or negative states of mind. Obviously, we are not yet masters of our own creations.


When we appreciate that the mind is the source of all that we create, then we will recognize the importance of meditation or mental cultivation. Through the practice of meditation we can empower ourselves by developing the mental qualities that allow us to shape our own destinies. These qualities enable us to choose what we create in our own minds and thereby influence the world we live in. Furthermore, if we are persistent and sincere in our practice, we can also experience directly the radiant mind that underlies creation.

Although there is an increasing interest in the practice of meditation, it is not uncommon for people to seek short cuts to quick experiences of altered states of consciousness. Personally, I do not see much benefit in such approaches because those experiences rarely translate into insights that people can actually live. Often, they only cause more confusion. As one teacher put it, "If you expand a deluded mind, all you end up with is expanded delusion!" Though a slow process requiring considerable training, the practice of meditation actually empowers us, and leads to insights that bring about real changes in our lives.

Meditation is an inner journey of introspection and training that involves both systematic mental exercises and a general meditative approach to ordinary life. I have come to call this whole process "The Meditative Path". There are two fundamental qualities that we need to cultivate in order to progress along this path—awareness and concentration.


Awareness, which we might also call mindfulness, is the state of "the mind being fully present." An aware mind is not just conscious in the ordinary sense, because we can be conscious without being fully aware, without clearly knowing what the mind is involved with, or where the attention is at that time. We often go through life with only a modicum of attention to our present experience, operating mainly on automatic pilot and just reacting to situations out of habit. That is why it is so hard to change, even when we want to. Freedom of choice eludes us.

However, we do have some awareness, or moments when the mind is fully awake to the present experience. It is important to recognize the subtle but profound difference between just being conscious and being mindful, or having consciousness with awareness. Have you ever been driving in a car when you suddenly think, "Oh! Where am I? I've gone past my turn off!" What was your mind doing before that moment of awareness? You were conscious, but your mind was not fully present—not awake, clear, and mindful.

In meditation, we want to cultivate that fullness of mind that lets us be truly sensitive to the present moment. Stop for a moment and consider, "What am I feeling now? Where is my attention now?" Awareness makes this type of introspection and exploration possible. It is an essential element in the practice of meditation, and only through the development of this quality can we cultivate concentration and insight.

It should be noted that being aware is not the same as being alert. Alertness is a heightened state of attention that is usually associated with some degree of stress arising from fear or excitement. There is an "edge" to it that is not conducive to a state of peace. However, awareness involves no stress and is not driven by fear or excitement. The mind is fully awake in the present but it is relaxed and balanced—not on edge.

Being aware does not require that we keep our attention on one thing or that there must be no thinking. Even as the attention moves from one thing to another, we can still remain aware, because awareness flows with the conscious experience. It acts like light and it illumines the experience so that it is clear in consciousness. Thus, with awareness we clearly know what we are thinking, feeling, intending or doing. Therefore, it is something that can be maintained at all times and we can strive to develop it even while going about our ordinary daily activities. In fact, whatever we do will be done better when we are fully present. By bringing more awareness into our ordinary life, we can transform it into a meditation practice. Awareness allows us to clearly see our internal world, the creations of our minds, and gradually the door to understanding and freedom opens to us.


However, for us to experience the radiant mind or have the power to direct the creations of our minds, it is essential that we also develop concentration. This is the ability to direct and hold our attention on one thing for a desired period of time. If we think of awareness as light, then we might think of concentration as a laser, or focused light. The strength of concentration is determined by how fully we can focus and how long we can sustain that attention.

It is concentration that gives us the ability to go beyond concepts and thoughts so as to realize the radiant mind. Concentration also enables us to direct our mental creations for it is said that true masters can think what they want to think when they want to, and not think when there is no need for it.

Again it is worth noting that we all have the ability to concentrate to some degree. However, most people in ordinary life have learned to concentrate by forcing the mind to remain focused on some task. Concentrating in this way is usually stressful and tiring. Thus we do not enjoy doing it and avoid it when possible. We must be careful not to use this forceful approach in our meditation practice. Rather we should use gentle effort to teach the mind, encouraging it to abandon its endless "thinking about" and incline towards a state of stillness and silence which is refreshingly restful.


There are a great many meditation methods, using different meditation objects, that can be utilized for training the mind and cultivate both awareness and concentration. The method I am most familiar with uses the natural flow of the breath as the object of meditation. Often referred to as "Mindfulness of Breathing," it is one of the most widely used meditation techniques.

The theory and the basic technique of this meditation method are simple and easily understood. However, developing the skill and experience required for achieving deep concentration will take much practice, under suitable conditions and wise guidance. Training the mind is not easy, but it can be done with patient, gentle effort, and dedication. Even a journey of a thousand miles can be successfully undertaken, and it begins with a few humble, but important steps. Thus we must start by making time for practicing meditation, and then try to do it regularly.

In "Mindfulness of Breathing" we do not interfere with the breath. We simply let the body breathe as it wants and when it wants. Our effort is directed at cultivating mental awareness and concentration rather than teaching the body how to breathe.

The basic instructions are as follows. Find a quiet place, and sit in a posture that feels reasonably comfortable and balanced. Try to keep your back erect, but avoid tension in the body. Allow your eyes to close gently and let the body breathe naturally through the nose.

Leaving everything aside, bring your attention inward and experience the body as it sits still. Spend a little time relaxing any unnecessary tension in the body and then turn your attention to the breathing. Arouse the awareness that simply knows when the breath is flowing in and when it is going out. Try to sustain that knowing by encouraging the mind to relax with the breath—peacefully breathing in, peacefully breathing out.

Allow everything else to fade into the background as you continually arouse interest in the flow of the breath. While the attention remains on the breath, your awareness will know it. When the mind drifts away to something else, just note this fact with awareness, and gently but firmly bring the attention back to the breath. Continue training the mind in this way with patient and vigilant effort for the duration of the meditation.

In the early stages of your practice, you will find that when you try to remain attentive to the breath, the mind will still be quite busy, thinking about one thing or another. At this level of awareness, the experience of the breath remains superficial and sporadic. However, you can sharpen your awareness if you continue to practice on a regular basis and make an effort to thin out the jungle of thoughts. By continually letting go of the various distractions that arise, and encouraging the mind to embrace only the breath, gradually the experience of each inhalation and exhalation becomes more prominent in consciousness. The meditation deepens as the internal chatter quietens and the quality of the breath is increasingly clear to the mind. Awareness gradually becomes more sharp and continuous, and concentration becomes more focused and sustained.

Have you ever been to the beach and walked slowly out into the sea? As you walk in, the water gradually covers your feet, ankles, knees, waist, and so forth, until you are completely immersed. We can think of progress in meditation as being a similar experience: a gradual immersion into the sea of serenity as the mind becomes increasingly attentive to the breath.

Eventually the mind embraces the breath as its sole object of attention. It is content and happy to experience each breath, savoring every peaceful moment as a timeless "now". There will no longer be any internal commentary about the breath, let alone anything else. Within that resounding silence, we begin to experience the joy of just being without doing.

With the deepening of the meditation experience, the breath will naturally become increasingly subtle and fine. Eventually, in very deep meditation, the mind begins to perceive the breath not as a physical object but purely as a mental image, which usually manifests as light. A present-day meditation master, Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso, describes this transition in the following way.

When you are passively observing just the beautiful breath in the moment, the perception of in breath or out breath, or of beginning or middle or end of a breath, should all be allowed to disappear. All that is known is the experience of the beautiful breath happening now'Here we are simplifying the object of meditation, the experience of the breath in the moment, stripping away all unnecessary details, moving beyond the duality of in and out, and just being aware of a beautiful breath that appears smooth and continuous, hardly changing at all.

'Now the breath will disappear, not when "you" want it to, but when there is enough calm, leaving only "the beautiful." 'Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking its own object. You are not aware at all of the breath, body, thought, sound, or the world outside. All that you are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever your perception will later call it. You are experiencing only beauty, with nothing being beautiful, continuously, effortlessly.

As this description indicates, at this level of meditation the mind is so still that it is beyond creating concepts and labels. There is only the experience of mind as knowing, radiant, and unobscured.

The Buddha gave the following simile to illustrate this process. On a full moon night, althought here is a bright full moon in the sky, it can be almost completely obscured by thick clouds. However, when those clouds are dispersed, then the brilliantly shining disc of the moon becomes clearly visible. In this simile, the clouds represent the creations of the mind — thoughts, emotions, perception of the body and the physical senses. The shining full moon, of course, refers to the radiant mind released from all obstructions.

In all contemplative traditions, when practitioners reach such deep levels of meditation, they often describe an experience of radiant light. Naturally, they may interpret that experience differently according to their beliefs; but the experience is the same. This is because the fundamental nature of the mind is that radiant state before the arising of concepts. In it there are no characteristics that would make it male or female, white or black, young or old, Christian or Buddhist, yours or mine. These are labels, concepts and constructs that can arise only when the creating process begins in the mind.

From the Buddhist perspective, this mind is not a by-product of the body, nor does it arise and cease with the birth and death of the body. Furthermore, this fundamental nature of mind underlies the process of consciousness in all other living beings, whether animal, human, or celestial. This is why an enlightened person, such as the Buddha, will naturally have boundless compassion for all forms of life.

We could even say that, as living beings, the radiant mind is our inheritance, regardless of whether or not we have directly experienced it. Therefore, we may want to protect this inner treasure from being tarnished by defilements. Using the awareness we have developed through our practice, we can clearly recognize the various creations of the mind. If we are vigilant and wise, we will encourage those positive and wholesome states of mind that are conducive to inner peace and happiness. Only in this way can we bring peace and harmony into the world, because what we create in the world is simply a reflection of what is in our minds.

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