Consciousness Is Its Own Broom

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Suzuki reports the following curious exchange between Yun-men (a Zen master) and a fellow monk. When asked “Who is Buddha?” Yun-men said: “The dried-up dirt cleaner.”

To my analysis, this a rather profound response, although it doesn’t seem so at first. After all, Buddha as a dirt cleaner? What does that mean?

Let’s take a look. But first, a word about the meaning of “buddha.” There’s nothing religious about this word—it simply means “awakened, aware” and originates from the Pali verb budh, meaning “to awaken." Thus, the term “buddha nature” can be taken to mean animated nature, nature that is aware.

Buddha nature is consciousness. Here’s the Dalai Lama equating buddha nature with consciousness: “This consciousness is the innermost subtle mind. We call it Buddha nature, the real source of all consciousness” (1988, 45). Indeed, consciousness, since it exists, is part of nature and its defining characteristic is that it is aware. In fact, the two words “consciousness” and “awareness” are functionally interchangeable.

So, what did Yun-men mean when he described Buddha as a dirt cleaner? Perhaps that buddha nature (consciousness) is self-cleaning.

Consider a lava lamp. Within it there is wax (the substance, the essence) and then there are various forms that it takes (the information). The mind is made of consciousness, just like any given wax-form is made of wax. As the wax moves, it self-cleans: through constant movement, it continuously sheds one form after another. It is the very movement of the underlying wax substance that accounts for the arising and the cessation of any given form. It works the same way with consciousness: in its continuous, uninterrupted flow, consciousness cleans its own house—each thought, feeling, and sensation that emerges eventually passes.

Consciousness is its own broom. It takes out its own mind-garbage. In its ceaseless flow, consciousness wipes its own slate clean time and again. Information ripples through consciousness like a wave across the ocean until it eventually fades out.

Here’s what Thich Nhat Hann, a noted Buddhist thinker, says on this point in Opening the Heart of the Cosmos: Insights on the Lotus Sutra: “The wave does not have to seek to become water—she is water, right here and now. In the same way, you are already a Buddha.”

If so—if consciousness, like water, is self-cleaning—then why should you bother with an identity (informational) detox if there’s never been a thought that didn’t go away? The point is to help the process along, to tone down the informational tsunami, to learn to surf the mind-waves without drowning.