Pabhassara Suttas (AN 1:50–53)
“Luminous, monks, is the mind.1 And it is defiled by incoming defilements.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it has come to be, which is why I tell you that—for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person—there is no development of the mind.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it has come to be, which is why I tell you that—for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones—there is development of the mind.”
1. This statement has engendered a great deal of controversy over the centuries. The commentary maintains that “mind” here refers to the bhavaṅga-citta, the momentary mental state between periods when the mental stream adverts to objects, but this statement raises more questions than it answers. There is no reference to the bhavaṅga-citta or the mental stream in any of the suttas (they appear first in an Abhidhamma treatise, the Paṭṭhāna); and because the commentaries compare the bhavaṅga-citta to deep sleep, why is it called luminous? And why would the perception of its luminosity be a prerequisite for developing the mind? And further, if “mind” in this discourse means bhavaṅga-citta, what would it mean to develop the bhavaṅga-citta?
Another interpretation equates the luminosity of the mind with the “consciousness without surface,” described as “luminous” in MN 49 and DN 11, but this interpretation also has problems. According to MN 49, that consciousness is not mediated by anything in the describable world, not even the “Allness of the All,” so how could it possibly be defiled? And, because it’s not realized until the goal of the practice is reached, why would the perception of its luminosity be a prerequisite for developing the mind? And again, if “mind” here means consciousness without surface, how could the sutta talk of its development?
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, aversion, or delusion 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.
See also: AN 10:61