Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Buddhist psychology: Mind and mental factors

Note: This is according to the Sautrantika school

Closeup of the face of a Buddha.
Photo by Harwig HKD

Mind: clear and knowing. Included in the category of mind are:

  1. Primary minds: primary cognizers that know the mere entity (fundamental presence) of the object.
    • five sense consciousnesses: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile
    • mental consciousness
  2. Mental factors: cognizers apprehending a particular quality of the object and arising in attendance upon a primary mind with which it has certain similarities.

A mind and its mental factors have five similarities:

  1. Basis: they both depend on the same sense power.
  2. Observed object: they apprehend the same object.
  3. Aspect: they are generated in the aspect of the same object, i.e. the object appears to both of them.
  4. Time: they are simultaneous.
  5. Substance: one moment of a primary mind can be accompanied by only one feeling, for example. Also, both are either conceptual or non-conceptual.

The 51 mental factors are divided into six groups:

  1. 5 omnipresent mental factors
  2. 5 object-ascertaining mental factors
  3. 11 virtuous mental factors
  4. 6 root afflictions
  5. 20 secondary afflictions
  6. 4 variable mental factors

Five omnipresent mental factors

These five accompany all minds. Without them complete apprehension of an object cannot occur.

  1. Feeling: a distinct mental factor that is an experience of pleasure, pain or indifference. Feeling experiences the results of one’s past actions and can lead to reactions of attachment, aversion, closed-mindedness, etc.
  2. Discrimination: a distinct mental factor that has the function to distinguish “It is this and not that” and to apprehend the characteristics of the object. It differentiates and identifies objects.
  3. Intention: a distinct mental factor that moves the primary mind with which it shares five similarities and other attendant mental factors of that primary mind to the object. It is the conscious and automatic motivating element that causes the mind to involve itself with and apprehend its object. It is action, karma. It makes the mind engage in what is constructive, destructive and neutral.
  4. Contact: a distinct mental factor that by connecting the object, the organ and the primary consciousness, activates the organ, i.e. the organ is transformed into an entity with the ability to act as a basis for feelings of pleasure, pain and indifference. It is the cause of feeling.
  5. Mental engagement (attention): a distinct mental factor that functions to direct the primary mind and mental factors with which it is associated to the object and to actually apprehend the object. It focuses and holds the mind on an object without allowing it to move elsewhere.

Five object-ascertaining mental factors

These five are called object-ascertaining or determining mental factors because they apprehend the individual features of an object.

  1. Aspiration: a distinct mental factor that having focused upon an intended object, takes a strong interest in it. It is the basis for joyous effort.
  2. Appreciation: a distinct mental factor that stabilizes the apprehension of a previously ascertained object and cherishes it such that it can’t be distracted by anything else.
  3. Mindfulness: a distinct mental factor that repeatedly brings to mind a phenomenon of previous acquaintance without forgetting it. It doesn’t allow the mind to be distracted from the object and is the basis for concentration.
  4. Single-pointedness (samadhi, concentration): a distinct mental factor that is capable of dwelling one-pointedly, bearing the same aspect, for a sustained period of time upon a single referent. It is the basis for increasing intelligence and for developing calm abiding.
  5. Intelligence or wisdom (prajna): a distinct mental factor that has the function of discriminating precisely with analysis the qualities, faults or characteristics of an object held by mindfulness. It cuts through indecision and doubt with unilateral certainty and maintains the root of all positive qualities in this and future lives.
    1. inborn intelligence: natural acuity of mind that we have due to our karma from previous lives.
    2. wisdom arising from hearing: understanding that comes when hearing or discussing a topic.
    3. wisdom arising from contemplation: understanding that comes through thinking about a topic on our own.
    4. wisdom arising from meditation: understanding that is conjoined with serenity and insight.

Eleven positive mental factors

They cause the omnipresent and object-ascertaining and variable mental factors to take on a virtuous aspect and produce peace for oneself and others. Each of these is an antidote to certain afflictions.

  1. Faith (confidence, trust): distinct mental factor that when referring to things such as the law of karma and its effects, the Three Jewels, produces a joyous state of mind free from the turmoil of the root and secondary afflictions. It is the basis for generating aspiration to develop new virtuous qualities and increasing virtuous aspirations already generated.
    • clear (pure, admiring) faith: knows the qualities of the object and rejoices about them.
    • aspiring faith: knows the qualities of the object and aspires to attain them.
    • convictional faith: knows the qualities of the object and has confidence in it.
  2. Integrity: a distinct mental factor that avoids negativity for reasons of personal conscience. It enables us to restrain from harmful physical, verbal and mental actions and is the basis for ethical conduct.
  3. Consideration for others: a distinct mental factor that avoids negativity for the sake of others. It enables us to restrain from harmful physical, verbal and mental actions, acts as the basis for maintaining pure ethical conduct, prevents others from losing faith in us, and causes joy to arise in others’ minds.
  4. Non-attachment: a distinct mental factor that when referring to an object in cyclic existence, acts as the actual remedy for attachment towards it. Not exaggerating the object, it remains balanced and doesn’t grasp onto it. It prevents and counteracts attachment, and subdues the attitude that is obsessed with something.
  5. Non-hatred (love): a distinct mental factor that when referring to one of the three objects (someone who harms us, the harm itself, or the cause of the harm) bears the characteristics of love, which directly overcomes anger and hatred. It is the basis for the prevention of anger and the increase of love and patience.
  6. Non-confusion (non-closed-mindedness): a distinct mental factor that arises from an inborn disposition, hearing, contemplation or meditation. It acts as a remedy for confusion and accompanies the firm wisdom that thoroughly analyses the specific meanings of an object. It prevents confusion (ignorance), increases the four types of wisdom and helps to actualize virtuous qualities.
  7. Joyous effort (enthusiasm): a distinct mental factor that counteracts laziness and joyously engages in constructive actions. It acts to generate constructive qualities that haven’t been generated and to bring those which have to completion.
  8. Pliancy: a distinct mental factor that enables the mind to apply itself to a virtuous object in whatever manner it wishes, and interrupts any mental or physical tightness or rigidity.
  9. Conscientiousness: a distinct mental factor that cherishes the accumulation of virtue and guards the mind against that which gives rise to afflictions. It brings to fulfillment and maintains all that is good, keeps the mind from contamination, and is the root for attaining all the grounds and paths.
  10. Non-harmfulness (compassion): a distinct mental factor that lacking any intention to cause harm, considers, “How wonderful if sentient beings were separated from suffering.” It prevents us from disrespecting others or harming them, and increases our wish to benefit and bring them happiness.
  11. Equanimity: a distinct mental factor that without having to exert great effort to prevent agitation and laxity, does not let the mind be affected by them. It enables the mind to settle and remain upon a virtuous object.

Six root afflictions

They are called root afflictions because:

  • they are the root of cyclic existence.
  • they are the root or cause of the secondary (proximate) afflictions.
  1. Attachment: a distinct mental factor that when referring to a contaminated phenomenon exaggerates its attractiveness and then wishes for and takes a strong interest in it.
  2. Anger (hostility): a distinct mental factor that in reference to one of three objects (someone who harms us, the suffering itself, or the cause of the harm), agitates the mind through being unable to bear or through intending to cause harm to the object.
  3. Conceit (arrogance): distinct mental factor that, based upon the view of a personal identity apprehending either a self-existent “I” or “mine,” strongly grasps at an inflated or superior image of oneself.
  4. Ignorance: an afflictive state of unknowing brought about by the mind being unclear about the nature of things such as the four truths for aryas, karma (actions) and their results, the Three Jewels.
  5. Afflictive doubt: mental factor that is indecisive and wavering, and tends towards an incorrect conclusion about important points such as actions and their results, the four noble truths, the Three Jewels.
  6. Afflictive views (mistaken views): either an afflictive intelligence that regards the aggregates as being inherently “I” or “mine” or in direct dependence upon such a view, an afflictive intelligence that develops further mistaken conceptions.
    1. View of a personal identity (view of the transitory aggregates, jigta): afflictive intelligence that when referring to the aggregates of body and mind, conceives them to be a self-existent “I” or “mine.” (It is an intelligence in the sense that it analyzes something.)
    2. View holding to an extreme: afflictive intelligence that when referring to the “I” or “mine” conceived by the view of a personal identity, regards them in an eternalistic or nihilistic fashion.
    3. Holding (wrong) views as supreme: afflictive intelligence that regards other afflictive views as best.
    4. Holding incorrect ethics and modes of conduct as supreme: afflictive intelligence that believes purification of mental defilements to be possible by means of ascetic practices and inferior codes of ethics that are inspired by mistaken views.
    5. Wrong views: afflictive intelligence that denies the existence of something which in fact exists.

Twenty secondary afflictions

They are so-called because:

  • they are aspects or extensions of the root afflictions.
  • they occur independence on them.

Afflictions derived from anger:

  1. Wrath: mental factor that due to an increase of anger is a thoroughly malicious state of mind wishing to cause immediate harm.
  2. Vengeance (grudge holding): mental factor that without forgetting, firmly holds onto the fact that in the past one was harmed by a particular person and wishes to retaliate.
  3. Spite: mental factor that preceded by wrath or vengeance and as an outcome of malice, motivates one to utter harsh words in reply to unpleasant words said by others.
  4. Jealousy (envy): a distinct mental factor that out of attachment to respect or material gain, is unable to bear the good things others have.
  5. Harmfulness (cruelty): mental factor that with a malicious intention devoid of any compassion or kindness, desires to belittle and disregard others.

Afflictions derived from attachment

  1. Miserliness: mental factor that out of attachment to respect or material gain, firmly holds onto one’s possessions with no wish to give them away.
  2. Complacency (haughtiness): mental factor that being attentive to the marks of good fortune one possesses, brings the mind under its influence and produces a false sense of confidence.
  3. Excitement (agitation): mental factor that through the force of attachment, does not allow the mind to rest solely upon a virtuous object, but scatters it here and there to many other objects.

Afflictions derived from ignorance

  1. Concealment: mental factor that wishes to hide one’s faults whenever another person with a benevolent intention free from nonvirtuous aspiration, confusion, hatred or fear, talks about such faults.
  2. Dullness (foggy-mindedness): mental factor that having caused the mind to lapse into darkness and thereby become insensitive does not comprehend its object clearly as it is.
  3. Laziness: mental factor that having firmly grasped an object offering temporary happiness, either does not wish to do anything constructive, or although wishing to, is weak-minded.
  4. Lack of faith (lack of conviction): mental factor that since it causes one to have no belief in or respect for that which is worthy of confidence—such as actions and their results—is the complete opposite of faith (conviction).
  5. Forgetfulness: mental factor that having caused the apprehension of a constructive object to be lost induces memory of and distraction towards an object of affliction.
  6. Non-introspective awareness: mental factor that being an afflictive intelligence that has made no or only a rough analysis, is not fully alert to the conduct of one’s body, speech and mind and thus causes one to enter into careless indifference.

Afflictions derived from both attachment and ignorance

  1. Pretension: mental factor that when one is overtly attached to respect or material gain, fabricates a particularly excellent quality about oneself and then wishes to make it evident to others with the thought to deceive them.
  2. Dishonesty: mental factor that when one is overtly attached to respect or material gain, wishes to confuse others by keeping one’s faults unknown to them.

Afflictions derived from all three poisonous attitudes

  1. Lack of integrity: mental factor that does not avoid negative actions for reasons of personal conscience or for the sake of one’s Dharma.
  2. Inconsideration for others: mental factor that without taking others or their spiritual traditions into account, wishes to behave in a manner that doesn’t avoid negative behavior.
  3. Unconscientiousness: mental factor that when one is affected by laziness, wishes to act freely in an unrestrained manner without cultivating virtue or guarding the mind against contaminated phenomena.
  4. Distraction: mental factor that arising from any of the three poisonous attitudes and being unable to direct the mind towards a constructive object disperses it to a variety of other objects.

Four variable mental factors

In themselves, these four are not virtuous or non-virtuous, but become so in dependence upon our motivation and other mental factors.

  1. Sleep: a mental factor that makes the mind unclear, gathers the sense consciousnesses inwards, and renders the mind incapable of apprehending the body.
  2. Regret: a mental factor that regards an appropriate or inappropriate action which one has performed of one’s own accord or under pressure as something one does not wish to repeat.
  3. Investigation: a distinct mental factor that in dependence upon either intention or intelligence searches for merely a rough idea about any object.
  4. Analysis: a distinct mental factor that in dependence upon intention or intelligence, analyzes the object in detail.
Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

More on this topic