Essay: On The Importance of Understanding Mind and Mental Factors


All sentient beings desire happiness and strive to avoid suffering at all costs. Yet our understanding of happiness is mistaken – we are tricked into believing that the eight worldly dharmas1 are happiness when instead they are suffering in disguise. The Buddha’s explanation of the nature of suffering is presented as the First Noble Truth. What are the causes of our suffering? The Second Noble Truth reveals how two factors, karma and delusions, trap us in a cycle of miserable re-births. In order to break this vicious cycle, we need to be convinced that 1) suffering exists, and 2) we have the ability to put an end to it by extinguishing the wildfires of our delusions and by mitigating our negative karma. By understanding the dangerous consequences resulting from allowing our minds to be under the control of delusions, we are inspired to diligently counteract each delusion one-by-one.

Part 1 provides a brief overview of the relationship between the mind and mental factors as presented in Vasubhandu’s Treasury of Manifest Knowledge. Part 2 explores the importance of understanding how our minds work. Part 3 offers some suggestions on how to apply Buddhist epistemology in daily life.

Part 1. An overview of minds and mental factors

Vasubhandu’s description of minds and mental factors follows his discussion of the five aggregates and twenty two powers. The afflictive emotions are the rope that tightly bind us to the stake of samsara: the five aggregates. The five aggregates are form, feeling, compositional factors, discrimination, and mental consciousness. Feeling and discrimination are also included in the presentation of minds and mental factors.

Karma ripens as the experience of feeling. Feeling, in this context, is the inherent quality of existence present in every mental state. Geshe Rabten writes in The Mind and Its Functions, “The general function of feeling is to fully experience the ripening effects of our previous actions. Its specific function is that of leading to the reactions of attachment, hatred and bewilderment.” Moreover, what we experience as the passage of time is merely, in Asanga’s words in his work the Abidharmasamaccaya, “the continuous ripening of causes and their effects”.

Feeling and discrimination are known as mental factors. The Vaibashikas identify 46 mental factors and the Prasangikas identify 51. Mental factors are closely related to primary minds (the five sense consciousnesses and mental consciousness), but they are not identical. The primary minds reflect the overall, general impression of an object – such as the color, shape, size – but without great detail. The function of the mental factors is then to fine-tune how the mind holds the object. Jeffrey Hopkins writes in his book Meditations on Emptiness, “A mind is a knower of the mere entity of an object whereas a mental factor is a knower which, on the basis of knowing that object, engages in the object from the point of view of other features such as function and so forth.”

The five similarities which relate mind and mental factors are: 1) sameness of base, 2) sameness
of object of observation, 3) sameness of aspect, 4) sameness of time, 5) sameness of substantial entity. These similarities are like the glue that bonds a primary mind together with the associated mental factors.

The mind’s perception of an object therefore depends on which mental factors predominate. The initial response that arises when we encounter an object is either positive (happy), negative (suffering), or neutral (equanimity). Based on this response, the mental factors move us towards the object, push away from the object, or remain steady.

The Vaibashika’s divide the mental factors into groups:

10 Levels of Mind – feeling, intention, discrimination, aspiration, contact, wisdom, mindfulness, mental attention, belief, stabilization. These arise simultaneously with every main mind.

Virtuous or Non Virtuous Levels – a main mind can be flavored by either virtuous or non-virtuous mental factors much as when we add syrup (chocolate, butterscotch etc.) to our ice cream so that it takes on the taste of the syrup. The 10 virtuous levels are: faith, conscientiousness, pliancy, equanimity, non-attachment, non-hatred, non-harmfulness, shame, embarrassment, and effort. The two non-virtuous levels are: non-shame and non-embarrassment.5 In both cases (virtuous and non-virtuous) all of these corresponding mental factors are present simultaneously.

Afflictions – there are two groups of afflictions: six levels of great afflictions and ten levels of small afflictions. The six great afflictions are: ignorance, non-conscientiousness, laziness, non-faith, laxity, and excitement. The minds of ordinary sentient beings in samsara are always polluted by the six great afflictions. The ten small afflictions are companions to the great afflictions, they are: belligerence, resentment, dissimulation, jealousy, spite, concealment, miserliness, deceit, haughtiness, and harmfulness.

Indefinite Mental Factors – there are eight mental factors which may or may not be present with afflicted or non-virtuous minds: attachment, anger, pride, and doubt. The last three are included as Root Afflictions in the Prasangika’s explanation. Both the Vaibashikas and Prasangikas specify four changeable factors: sleep, regret, investigation, and analysis. These factors can be either virtuous, non- virtuous, or neutral depending on one’s motivation or a particular situation.

Part 2. Why is it important to understand how our minds work?

To seek Enlightenment – Enlightenment is not a place that we travel to, or an object that we acquire, rather it is a state of mind. In order for us to strive for Enlightenment, we need to completely trust that we can transform our ordinary minds into the Enlightened mind. So the first step is to understand what we’re starting with – how our mind currently works. At the beginning it is difficult to control our minds and meditation is a challenge. The more we meditate, the more distractions seem to multiply! But by carefully watching our minds and honestly examining our thoughts, we recognize how harmful thoughts arise due to our innate attachment to our deluded Triple Gem, ‘Me-Myself-I’. After identifying the symptoms and causes of our disease, we can then take the medicine to cure it.

To understand the continuity of karma – Mind is without beginning and without end, and we are neither identical with our minds nor with our bodies. What then is re-born? It is nothing more than an extremely subtle consciousness that continues through time and it functions to contain the karmic seeds of our actions. It is due to this continuity that there is the necessary causal connection between the ‘do- er’ of an action and the ‘recipient’ of its result in the future. As such, there is an ethical dimension to our actions.

To see that all sentient beings are our mothers – By understanding that the universe(s) contain a finite set of minds (continuums of consciousness) and that none are created or destroyed, we realize that therefore, all sentient beings must be our mothers at some point. Love and compassion arise because we see that they – like ourselves — are helplessly trapped by their karma and hallucinating minds.

To see how our experiences are mistaken – ordinarily we do not directly perceive the nature of objects. Instead, our construction of reality is moderated through an intricate mosaic of mental images and verbal conventions that give rise to appearances that we incorrectly believe are inherently existing. We must fully comprehend valid and invalid cognition.

To realize emptiness – we need to understand how the mind works so that we develop faith in the teachings on emptiness and the purification practices for eliminating both knowledge obscurations and afflictive obscurations.

To realize evident, slightly concealed, and extremely concealed objects – by studying the mind, we open the door to the possibility that there are many phenomena which we can not experience via our ordinary perception such as directly seeing Buddhas, past and future lives, emptiness, and the specific karmic causes of an event in this life. This is important because these ideas are crucial for accepting that Enlightenment is indeed possible.

Part 3. Seeing things from the inside out

We have to apply our understanding of mind and mental factors in our daily lives. We can use our formal meditation sessions to sharpen our mindfulness so that we quickly identify afflictions when they arise. Just as when we’re fighting allergies and we test what triggers an allergic reaction, likewise for each of our negative emotions we need to pinpoint what causes it to flare up and when. While we may not be able to avoid situations or people who cause us to react negatively, we can prepare ourselves in order to minimize our response. More importantly, through our practice we will perceive that negative experiences are the product of our own deluded minds. The real enemy lies within; we are our own worst enemy.

We should not feel guilty that we have so many afflictions. Instead, recognizing that the afflictions are an intrinsic quality of samsaric existence comes as a relief. There’s no need for us to waste time and energy feeling bad about ourselves. We see that our laziness, angry outbursts, rivalry with co-workers and even fellow Dharma practitioners – are merely inner demons which we can exterminate but only if we have the will power to do so. Compassion blossoms when we look around us and see all other sentient beings trapped in the same predicament – stuck in hells of their own creation.

Purification practices are the medicines prescribed by the doctor to cure us of our afflictions. We undertake them with joy and a sense of urgency when we see how dangerous our minds can be. At the same time, we nurture our innate virtuous qualities and enjoy the strength and happiness that they impart.

In summary, it is important to study the nature of mind in order to cultivate the conviction that we can definitely accumulate the causes and conditions that will result in Buddhahood and that it is worth perhaps eons of sacrifices and strenuous effort to achieve this goal – a goal that is empty of inherent existence. Why are we who lack inherent existence doing this? For the benefit of our fellow sentient beings who are also empty of inherent existence.

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One thought on “Essay: On The Importance of Understanding Mind and Mental Factors

  1. Pingback: Can Enlightenment be traced to specific correlates of the Brain, Cognition, or Behavior? | Contemplative Mind in Life

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