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Mind and Mental Factors

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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 mind.
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 Yoga'


Understanding the functioning of our mind forms the basis of Buddhist philosophy and practice; as the first verse of the Dhammapada (quotations from the Buddha) states:

"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


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 objects.

"What is the mind? It is a phenomenon that is not body, not substantial, has no form, no shape, no color, but, like a mirror, can clearly reflect objects."

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 appear.

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 other disciplines?"

Ayya Khema:

"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.

The Aggregates

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: :


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."
Ayya Khema

To use a simple example of how this works, let's say: something touches our hand:

- 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.

The Mind As Our Software

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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 and problems.

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.

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Below listing of aspects of the mind may appear very dry and boring, but remember, so are computer manuals...

Clear-Light Mind

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?

Dalai Lama:

"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 is non-obstructed."

A 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."


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 spiritual practice.

The 5 Omnipresent (Ever-Recurring) Mental Factors

1. Feeling (the first aggregate)

2. Recognition / discrimination / distinguishing awareness (the second aggregate)

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 fulfill desired intention, basis for diligence and enthusiasm.

7. Interest / appreciation - holding on to a particular thing, not allowing distraction

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 qualities.

The 4 Variable (Positive Or Negative Mental Factors


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 agitation

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 objects

22. Non hatred / imperturbability - no animosity to others or conditions; rejoicing

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, pacifist

25. Enthusiasm / diligence - doing positive acts (specifically mental development and meditation) with delight

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 of emptiness.

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 unhappiness

29. Pride - inflated superiority, supported by one's worldly views, which include disrespect of others

30. Doubt / 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)

43. Laziness - being attached to temporary pleasure, not wanting to do virtue or only little; opposite to diligence [25])

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 others

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 practice, ingratitude

50. Unconscientiousness / carelessness- 3 delusions plus laziness; wanting to act unrestrained

51. Distraction / mental wandering - inability to focus on any virtuous object