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Luminous mind (also, "brightly shining mind," "brightly shining citta") (Pali, pabhassara citta) is a term attributed to the Buddha in the Nikayas. The mind (citta) is said to be "luminous" whether or not it is tainted by mental defilements.[1]

The statement is given no direct doctrinal explanation in the Pali discourses, but later Buddhist schools explained it using various concepts developed by them.[2] The Theravada school identifies the "luminous mind" with the bhavanga, a concept first proposed in the Theravada Abhidhamma.[3] The later schools of the Mahayana identify it with both the Mahayana concepts of bodhicitta and tathagatagarbha.[4] The idea is also connected with features of Dzogchen thought.[5]


There is a clear reference in the Anguttara Nikaya (A.I.8-10) to a "luminous mind" present within all people, be they corrupt or pure, whether or not it itself is pure or impure:[6]

Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.[7]
The Buddha says that if developed, it is supremely "pliable" and "workable."[8] The discourses indicate that its natural radiance can be made manifest by meditation.[9]

A verse with wording parallel to that of A.I.8-10 and surrounding verses occurs at S.V.92-32. It indicates that when the mind is defiled by the five hindrances, it is neither pliable, nor workable, nor luminous, nor perfectly concentrated for the destruction of the fetters. S.V.92-93 also compares the defilements of the mind to impurities in gold ore, implying that just as gold does not manifest its intrinsic radiance when it is in its raw state mixed with impurities, so is the intrinsic radiance of the mind not apparent when it is defiled by the hindrances. A.I.253-255 also uses the simile of gold-refining to illustrate the process of meditative development. A gold-refiner washes gold ore three times to get rid of gross, moderate, and fine defilements, and then properly smelts it until it is free of dross; only then is it "pliable, workable, brightly shining, no longer brittle" and ready to be fashioned into a final object. The sutta compares this process with that of a monk as he gets rid of various mental defilements before he attains one-pointedness of mind, which is then used for spiritual attainments.[10]

Maha Boowa comments on A.I.8-10:

When referring to the original citta, the Buddha stated: Pabhassaramidam cittam bhikkhave. Pabhassara means radiant, it does not mean pure. His reasoning is absolutely correct; it is impossible to argue against it. Had the Buddha equated the original citta with the pure citta, one could immediately object: "If the citta was originally pure, why then should it be born at all?" The Arahant, who has purified his citta, is one who never comes to birth again. If his citta were originally pure, why then would he need to purify it? This would be the obvious objection: What reason would there be to purify it? The radiant citta, on the other hand, can be purified ...[11]

Sue Hamilton writes that the passage does not suggest an "original purity"; as one's state of mind is an abstraction, there is an abstract sense in which one's citta (or, state of mind) could be thought of in principle as pure. Just as a pool of water might be thought in principle to have a calm surface which displays ripples and muddiness, so one's state of mind might be thought to in principle be luminous (as in jhana) but to display all mental activity.[12]


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.[13] The discourses do not support seeing the "luminous mind" as "nirvana within" which exists prior to liberation.[14] While the Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" with nirvanic consciousness, passages could be taken to imply that it can be transformed into the latter.[15][16] 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."[17]

Later developments


The Theravadin Angutta Nikaya Atthakatha 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.[18] Thanissaro Bhikkhu holds that the commentaries' identification of the luminous mind with the bhavanga is problematic, but Peter Harvey finds it to be a plausible interpretation.[19][20]


The Mahayana interprets the brightly shining citta as bodhicitta, the altruistic "spirit of awakening."[21] The Astasahasrika Perfection of Wisdom Sutra describes bodhicitta thus: "That citta is no citta since it is by nature brightly shining." This is in accord with Anguttara Nikaya I,10 which goes from a reference to brightly shining citta to saying that even the slightest development of loving-kindness is of great benefit. This implies that loving-kindness - and the related state of compassion - is inherent within the luminous mind as a basis for its further development.[22] 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.[23]

Citta and Alaya-vijnana

According to Walpola Rahula, all the elements of the Yogacara store-consciousness (alaya-vijnana) are already found in the Pali Canon.[24] 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: "Thus we can see that Vijnana represents the simple reaction or response of the sense organs when they come in contact with external objects. This is the uppermost or superficial aspect or layer of the Vijnanaskanda. Manas represents the aspect of its mental functioning, thinking, reasoning, conceiving ideas, etc. Citta which is here called Alayavijnana, represents the deepest, finest and subtlest aspect or layer of the Aggregate of consciousness. It contains all the traces or impressions of the past actions and all good and bad future possibilities."[25]

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.[26]


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.[27] Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha.[28] (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 [29]).

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.[30][31]


The dimension of mind the Buddha describes in the Pali canon is remarkably parallel to teachings of the Great Perfection (Tib. Dzogchen) school.[32] It is presented both by the Buddha and by modern-day Theravadins and Mahayanists not as a product of mystical speculation, but as a phenomenological account of a state of consciousness realized through the cultivation of meditative stabilization.[33] It may be identified with the "substrate consciousness" (Skt. alaya) of Dzogchen teachings, said to be the most fundamental level of mind by that school.[34] In that analysis, the substrate consciousness differs from the non-dual "primordial consciousness."[35]

See also


  1. Harvey, page 94.
  2. Harvey, page 99.
  3. Collins, page 238.
  4. Harvey, page 99.
  5. Wallace, page 96.
  6. Harvey, page 94. The reference is at A I, 8-10.
  7. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [1].
  8. Harvey, page 94. The reference is at A I, 8-10.
  9. Harvey, page 96.
  10. Harvey2, page 168.
  11. Maha Boowa, page 101.
  12. Sue Hamilton, Identity and Experience. LUZAC Oriental, 1996, page 113.
  13. Harvey, page 96.
  14. Harvey, pages 94, 96.
  15. 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.
  16. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [2].
  17. Harvey, page 99.
  18. Harvey, page 98.
  19. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [3].
  20. Harvey, pages 98-99. See also pages 155-179 of Harvey2.
  21. Harvey, page 97.
  22. Harvey, page 97.
  23. Wallace, page 113.
  24. Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66.
  25. Walpola Rahula, quoted in Padmasiri De Silva, Robert Henry Thouless, Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Third revised edition published by NUS Press, 1992 page 66, [4].
  26. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology. Routledge, 2002, note 7 on page 154.
  27. Harvey, pages 96-97.
  28. Harvey, page 97.
  29. Liberman, page 263.
  30. Harvey, page 97.
  31. Henshall, page 36.
  32. Wallace, page 96.
  33. Wallace, page 96.
  34. Wallace, page 96.
  35. B. Alan Wallace, [5]. Explained in more depth in Contemplative Science, pages 14-24.


  • 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.
  • Harvey: Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, 1989.
  • Harvey2: 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.

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