MIND AND MENTAL FACTORS
Religion does not mean just precepts, a temple, monastery,
or other external signs,
for these as well as hearing and thinking are subsidiary factors in taming the
When the mind becomes the practices, one is a practitioner of religion,
and when the mind does not become the practices one is not.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 'Deity
Understanding the functioning of our mind forms the basis of Buddhist philosophy
and practice; as the first verse of the Dhammapada (quotations from the
"All things are preceded by the mind, led by the mind,
created by the mind."
Similarly, in the Abidharma (the earliest attempt at a systematic representation
of Buddhist philosophy and psychology), the world is regarded as a phenomena
originating in the mind.
Mind is defined in Buddhism as a non-physical phenomenon which perceives,
thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment.
The mind is described as having two main aspects: clarity and knowing; meaning
that the mind is clear, formless and allows for objects to arise in it, and
that the mind is knowing, an awareness, a consciousness which can engage with
"What is the mind? It is a phenonmenon that is not body, not substantial,
has no form, no shape, no color, but, like a mirror, can clearly reflect
Lama Zopa Rinpoche
The two main types of mind are explained as the conceptual and the non-conceptual.
The conceptual is the "normal" mind aspect we use to survive in daily life,
but is ultimately mistaken about the way in which reality exists. The non-conceptual
type of mind is also called the Buddha nature, rigpa (Tib.), fundamental
pure nature of mind which realises emptiness (see the page on Wisdom).
Study and training the mind in wisdom uses the conceptual mind, like preparing
the mind before the underlying non-conceptual Buddha-nature of the mind can
In Buddhist psychology, much emphasis is given to the so-called delusions,
which we need to diminish and ultimately even eliminate for spiritual progress.
An over 1800 year old 'one-liner' by Nagarjuna:
"Without the discipline of guarding the mind, what use are any
"In Pali, heart and mind are one word (citta), but in English we have
to differentiate between the two to make the meaning clear.
When we attend to the mind, we are concerned with the thinking process and
the intellectual understanding that derives from knowledge, and with our
ability to retain knowledge and make use of it.
When we speak of "heart" we think of feelings and emotions, our
ability to respond with our fundamental being.
Although we may believe that we are leading our lives according to our thinking
process, that is not the case. If we examine this more closely, we will
find that we are leading our lives according to our feelings and that our
thinking is dependent upon our feelings. The emotional aspect of ourselves
is of such great importance that its purification is the basis for a harmonious
and peaceful life, and also for good meditation."
For more information on counteracting these delusions, like anger and attachment,
see the pages on delusions.
A 'person' can be described as a number of phenomena into a single working
unit. In Western philosophy, one usually refers to Body, Mind and (sometimes)
Soul or Spirit. In Buddhism, the Five Aggregates (Skandhas in Skt.) are used
to analyse a person. Please note that the terminology can be confusing, as
e.g. the term 'Feeling' refers to something very specific here: :
1. Form (rupa Skt.) - the body
2. Primary Consciousness (vijnana in Skt.) - Awareness, experience, in the sense that the presence of consciousness together with the sense organ and the object of the sense organ produces a sense experience or awareness.
3. Perception (samjna Skt.) - the five sense consciousnesses
(smell, touch, taste, seeing and hearing) and mental consciousness, in other
words, direct perception. Perception also refers to the activity of recognition, or identification, such as attaching a name to an object of experience. It includes the formulation of a concept about a particular object.
4. Feeling (vedana in Skt.) - this refers only to the mental separation of perceptions
into pleasant, unpleasant and neutral (nothing more).
5. Compositional Factors, Volition (samskara Skt.) - these are all other remaining
mental processes, in general "thoughts".
To begin with, it is interesting to see that four out of five aggregates
are concerning the mind, and they do not directly correspond to the divisions
made in Western psychology at all. Furthermore, the distinctions in Buddhist
psychology are made from the point of view of how to obtain liberation and
buddhahood; and certainly not to figure out how 'the brain works'.
Simply said, in Buddhism, the brain is considered a part of the body where
many of the instructions of the mind are led to the other parts of the body,
it is not regarded as the 'factory of thoughts'; thoughts are purely a function
of the non-physical mind.
"From contact comes feeling.
From feeling comes reaction.
This is what keeps us in the cycle of birth and death.
Our reactions to our feelings are our passport to rebirth."
To use a simple example of how this works, let's say: something touches
- This is physical contact, and (as we know from Western science) our nerve
cells pick up the movement of the skin, and translate it into energy (more
subtle part of the Body).
- This energy is then picked up by Primary Consciousness, which
is an aspect of the mind, in Buddhism, this is actually called the Contact
(see below as the 5th. Omnipresent Mental Factor); the contact between the
physical and the mental aspects.
- Next, the mental process of Feeling evaluates the Perception and decides
it to be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
- Simultaneously, Perception (Recognition/Discrimination) gets to work in finding out what
the thing is that touches my hand, is it pressure or heat, etc. and is it related
to other information; maybe I see a table near my hand and consider it likely
that my hand must be touching the table.
- Based on the Feeling and Discrimination, the mind creates the Compositional
Factors/Volition, which are for example, the reaction to the hand to withdraw
if it is unpleasant, an instruction to the eyes to check what is touching
the hand, possibly projections/thoughts like 'it must be this bothersome fly
again' or 'I am touching the table I am walking past' etc.
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THE MIND AS OUR SOFTWARE
To illustrate the Buddhist approach to the mind, let us compare our body
and mind to a computer. In this simile, the body is the hardware and the mind
is the software.
As mentioned above, the mind is defined as a non-physical phenomena which
perceives, thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment,
not unlike computer software.
Although software needs to be imprinted or registered in something like the
hard-drive before it can do anything, in itself, a program represents a lot
of thinking by the software manufacturer. Without software (mind), the hardware
(body) is just a 'dead thing'. The hardware (body) is of course important
in what the computer can do; how fast it is, which programs can be run, and
how the computer can interact with the world. However good the hardware is,
it can ultimately only perform what the program 'knows'. The hardware can
get damaged, or even 'die', and the software can be moved onto another set
of hardware; not unlike rebirth!
The software needs to use the 'senses' of the hardware, like the keyboard,
the mousea, a video camera, a modem etc. to receive 'input'; just like the
mind needs the senses the receive the 'input' of the outside world.
This leads to an important observation: it is easy to recognise that a computer
is not 'objective' about the world; depending on what kind of video camera,
microphone or modem we connect it to, the input will be different. Similarly,
our bodily senses cannot really be objective: people's ears are different,
the eyes are different etc., so how can someone ever claim to be an 'objective
observer'? Above and beyond that lies the software; the more advanced this
is, the more 'intelligent' it will be able to read the world and determine
what is the best thing to do. Similarly, the more advanced our mind is, the
more intelligent and wise we will be, providing we are not hampered by serious
physical problems. As the software actually determines what the hardware does,
so is the mind the master of the body - within the physical limitations of
the body. But the Buddha made it clear that a human body is the best type
of available hardware!
There are limits to the development of the hardware; for example, the amount
of electrical circuits on chips is getting larger and larger, but there are
physical limits which the developers encounter. With the software, the limit
appears to be much less clear; the first types of computers behaved with the
intelligence of an on/off switch, but already they can beat a grandmaster
at chess and nobody can say where it will end. Similarly, Buddhism teaches
that there is no real limit to the development of our mind, and in fact omniscience
is possible. At that stage, all our normal values and concepts dissolve as
limited and non-objective. Buddhism encourages us to develop the software
of our mind to enter into a different state which is beyond limitations, suffering
The method to develop our mind is summarised as study and meditation. Initially,
we need to understand how the programs of our mind work and how they can be
improved, and then do the reprogramming in meditation. This is why psychology
and meditation are so important.
Below listing of aspects of the mind may appear very dry and boring, but
remember, so are computer manuals...
In Tibetan Buddhism, often the so-called 'clear-light mind' is mentioned.
This is the most subtle level of mind (see also death
& rebirth), which we are normally not even aware of. It appears to
the very advanced meditator and during the death process, but in this case,
also only advanced meditators will be able to notice it. It is a non-conceptual,
'primordial' state of mind.
From a talk given by HH Dalai Lama. Oct. 11-14, 1991 New York City. Path
of Compassion teaching preliminary to Kalachakra:
Question: When people hear of luminosity of clear light that dawns
at the moment of death they ask why it is called clear light. What has this
got to do with light as we know it?
"I don't think that in the term clear light, light should be taken
literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology
of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive
mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So
it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used.
Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis
or the source from which eventual experience or realisation of Buddhahood,
Buddha's wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light. Clear
light is a state of mind which becomes fully manifest only as a consequence
of certain sequences or stages of dissolution, where the mind becomes devoid
of certain types of obscurations, which are again metaphorically described
in terms of sun-like, moonlike and darkness. These refer to the earlier
three stages of dissolution which are technically called, including the
clear light stage, the four empties. At the final stage of dissolution the
mind is totally free of all these factors of obscuration. Therefore it is
called clear light. Sort of a light. It is also possible to understand the
usage of the term clear light in terms of the nature of mind itself. Mind
or consciousness is a phenomena which lacks any obstructive quality. It
teaching from Venerable Ajahn Chah (Pra Bhodinyana Thera):
"About this mind... In truth there is nothing really wrong with it.
It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it's already peaceful. That the
mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. The real mind
doesn't have anything to it, it is simply (an aspect of) Nature. It becomes
peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid.
Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness
and sorrow, but the mind's true nature is none of those things. That gladness
or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained
mind gets lost and follows these things, it forgets itself. Then we think
that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.
But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful... really
peaceful! Just like a leaf which is still as long as no wind blows. If a
wind comes up the leaf flutters. The fluttering is due to the wind -- the
'fluttering' is due to those sense impressions; the mind follows them. If
it doesn't follow them, it doesn't 'flutter.' If we know fully the true
nature of sense impressions we will be unmoved.
Our practice is simply to see the Original Mind. So we must train the mind
to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them. To make it peaceful.
Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through."
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51 MENTAL FACTORS
In the Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandu, 51 types of mind states or mental
factors are distinguished. They are mainly categorised by the way they are
related to the main delusions of attachment, anger and ignorance, (see below)
and their relevance to mind training. Note that the English terms used often
have different connotations than the actual definitions in Buddhism. Although
below list may appear a dull list of definitions, a careful study of it can
explain much of the Buddhist attitude towards the mind.
The list does not have the intention to be complete in describing all possible
mental states, but describes merely the most important ones in relation to
THE 5 OMNIPRESENT (EVER-RECURRING) MENTAL
1. Feeling (the first aggregate)
2. Recognition / discrimination / distinguishing awareness (the second
3. Intention / mental impulse - I will ...
4. Concentration / attention / mental application - focused grasping
of an object of awareness
5. Contact - the connection of an object with the mind, this may be
pleasurable, painful or neutral as experienced by the aggregate of Feeling.
THE 5 DETERMINATIVE MENTAL FACTORS
6. Resolution / aspiration - directing effort to fulfil desired intention,
basis for diligence and enthusiasm.
7. Interest / appreciation - holding on to a particular thing, not
8. Mindfulness / Recollection - repeatedly bringing objects back to
mind, not forgetting
9. Concentration / Samadhi - one-pointed focus on an object,
basis for increasing intelligence
10. Intelligence / Wisdom - "common-sense intelligence", fine discrimination,
examines characteristics of objects, stops doubt, maintains root of all wholesome
THE 4 VARIABLE (POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE)
11. Sleep - makes mind unclear, sense consciousness turns inwards
12. Regret - makes mind unhappy when regarding a previously done action
as bad, prevents the mind from being at ease.
13. General examination / coarse discernment - depending on intelligence
or intention, searches for rough idea about the object.
14. Precise analysis / subtle discernment - depending on intelligence
or intention, examines the object in detail.
THE 11 VIRTUOUS MENTAL FACTORS
(Note that 18 and 19 are not necessary always virtuous. The first 3 are also
known as roots of virtue.)
15. Faith / confidence / respectful belief - gives us positive attitude
to virtue and objects that are worthy of respect. Three types are distinguished,
with the last one being the preferred type:
a. uncritical faith: motivation is for no apparent reason
b. longing faith: motivation is by an emotionally unstable mind
c. conviction: motivated by sound reasons
16. Sense of Propriety / self-respect - usually the personal conscience
to stop negative actions and perform positive actions
17. Considerateness / decency - avoids evil towards others, basis for
unspoiled moral discipline.
18. Suppleness / thorough training / flexibility - enables the mind
to engage in positive acts as wished, interrupting mental or physical rigidity.
19. Equanimity / clear-minded tranquility
- peaceful mind, not being overpowered by delusions, no mental dullness or
20. Conscientiousness / carefulness - causes avoiding negative acts
& doing good; mind with detachment, non-hatred, non-ignorance and enthusiasm
21. Renunciation / detachment - no attachment to cyclic existence and
22. Non hatred / imperturbability - no animosity to others or conditions;
23. Non-bewilderment / non ignorance / open-mindedness - usually understanding
the meaning of things through clear discrimination, never unwilling to learn
24. Non violence / complete harmlessness - compassion without any hatred,
25. Enthusiasm / diligence - doing positive acts (specifically mental development
and meditation) with delight
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THE 6 NON-VIRTUOUS MENTAL FACTORS
THE 6 ROOT DELUSIONS (Delusion is defined as any secondary mental factor
that, when developed, brings about suffering and uneasiness to self or others.)
26. Ignorance - not knowing karma, meaning and practice of 3 Jewels,
includes closed-mindedness, lack of wisdom
27. Attachment / desire - definition:
not wanting to be separated from someone or something. Grasping at aggregates
in cyclic existence causes rebirth & suffering of existence
28. Anger - definition: wanting to be separated
from someone or something, can lead to relentless desire to hurt others; causes
- inflated superiority, supported by one's worldly views, which include
disrespect of others
/ deluded indecisive wavering - being in two minds about reality; usually
leads to negative actions
31. Wrong views / speculative delusions - based on emotional afflictions.
Distinguished in 5 types: belief in the self as permanent or non-existent
(as opposite to the view of emptiness); denying karma, not understanding the
value of the 3 Jewels; closed-mindedness (my view -which is wrong- is best);
wrong conduct (not towards liberation)
THE 20 SECONDARY NON-VIRTUOUS MENTAL FACTORS
Derived from anger:
32. Wrath / hatred - by increased anger, malicious state wishing to
cause immediate harm to others
33. Vengeance / malice / resentment - not forgetting harm done by a
person, and seeking to return harm done to oneself
34. Rage / spite / outrage - intention to utter harsh speech in reply
to unpleasant words, when wrath and malice become unbearable
35. Cruelty / vindictiveness / mercilessness - being devoid of compassion
or kindness, seeking harm to others.
Derived from anger and attachment:
36. Envy / jealousy - internal anger caused by attachment; unbearable
to bear good things others have
Derived from attachment:
37. Greed / avarice / miserliness - intense clinging to possessions
and their increase
38. Vanity / self-satisfaction - seeing one's good fortune giving one
a false sense of confidence; being intoxicated with oneself
39. Excitement / wildness / mental agitation - distraction towards
desire objects, not allowing the mind to rest on something wholesome; obstructs
single pointed concentration.
Derived from ignorance:
40. Concealment - hiding one's negative qualities when others with
good intention refer to them this causes regret
41. Dullness / muddle-headedness - caused by fogginess which makes
mind dark/heavy - like when going to sleep, coarse dullness is when the object
is unclear, subtle dullness is when the object has no intense clarity
42. Faithlessness - no belief of that which is worthy of respect; it
can be the idea that virtue is unnecessary, or a mistaken view of virtue;
it forms the basis for laziness (43)
- being attached to temporary pleasure, not wanting to do virtue or only little;
opposite to diligence )
44. Forgetfulness - causes to not clearly remember virtuous acts, inducing
distraction to disturbing objects - not "just forgetting", but negative tendency
45. Inattentiveness / lack of conscience - "distracted wisdom" after
rough or no analysis, not fully aware of one's conduct, careless indifference
and moral failings; intentional seeking mental distraction like daydreaming
Derived from attachment and ignorance:
46. Hypocrisy / pretension - pretend non-existent qualities of oneself
47. Dishonesty / smugness - hiding one's faults, giving no clear answers,
no regret, snobbery & conceit, self-importance and finding faults with
Derived from attachment, anger and ignorance
48. Shamelessness - consciously not avoiding evil, it supports all
root and secondary delusions
49. Inconsiderateness - not avoiding evil, being inconsiderate of other's
50. Unconscientiousness / carelessness- 3 delusions plus laziness;
wanting to act unrestrained
51. Distraction / mental wandering - inability to focus on any virtuous
Click on the link for a List of Sample Meditations.
An interesting page on The Science
Of Collective Consciousness, by Robert Kenny
More on the mental delusions in this article by
Ven. Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.
Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.
What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.
Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?
Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be
Sir Karl Raymund Popper
October 6, 2011