Mental Factors

An excerpt from Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

John Dunne

John Dunne holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his PhD in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies from Harvard University.

The following is his introductory essay to Mental Factors, Part 2 of Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind.


Categories of Mind

As discussed in part 1, the Indian Buddhist account of mind argues for a causal continuum of “minds,” such that each unique mind or mind event in the continuum arises from the previous moment and also acts as a cause for the arisal of the next unique mind event. In this way a mind or moment of consciousness is causal in nature, but this causal process is not simply a matter of one mind moment producing the next. Instead, at least some other fundamental elements known as dharmas must be involved. More specifically, a core set of dharmas categorized under the general rubric of mental factors (Skt., cetasika or caitta) must be in place for a mind moment to occur, and often many other mental factors are also active. In this account, consciousness thus involves a complex interaction of multiple cognitive and affective elements, and from the earliest days of Buddhism until roughly the end of the first millennium, Indian Buddhist theorists articulated multiple finely grained accounts of these mental factors and their various functions. To introduce this part of our volume on mind, I will begin by examining some of the basic motivations that inform the analysis of mental factors. The key features of the most prominent account will then draw our attention, and I will conclude with some reflections on some revealing aspects of this model, including the absence of any category for emotions.


Abhidharma Motivations

While other topics treated in this volume draw on the wide range of sources introduced in part 1, the topic of mind and mental factors is based almost entirely on the Abhidharma literature, and the general motivations of Abhidharma analysis are clearly reflected in this material. In particular, two overall motivations underlie the detailed analysis of the mental factors that contribute to a moment of consciousness. First, a dominant, if implicit, role is again played by the critique of an enduring, autonomous self (Skt., ātman) that seems to act as an agent of cognition, an ­experiencer of affective states, a controller of the mind-body system, and so on. In ways that were already evident in part 1, the history of Abhidharma accounts of mind can be read in part as an attempt to construct models that explain how mental processes can work in the absence of any such essentialized self. The taxonomic analyses of mental factors, however, play another important role: they provide a mapping of the mind-body system that serves to direct contemplative practices whose goal is, quite literally, to search for precisely the kind of autonomous, controlling self whose existence is so strongly suggested by our ordinary intuitions—though from the Buddhist perspective these intuitions are both false and the ultimate cause of suffering. By carefully parsing the constituents of consciousness into discrete elements, the Abhidharma taxonomy of mental factors enables practitioners to search for this alleged self in a systematic way. Of course, from the Abhidharma standpoint, the conclusion of that search is that no such self can be found, but without a thorough taxonomy of the elements of experience, one might suspect that some key candidate for such a self has somehow been overlooked. By providing what purports to be an exhaustive map of all the possible candidates, the Abhidharma analysis enables one to make one’s search conclusive.

Another motivation for these detailed taxonomies emerges from concerns with transforming inner lives and behaviors. Buddhist practices aim to radically transform individuals by uprooting ignorance, the mental distortion that creates the illusion of an autonomous self. Yet this final goal is understood to be preceded by a long period of preparation that involves intermediate goals, especially the attainment of mental capacities and behaviors conducive to contemplative practice. A widespread model maintains that the wisdom or insight required to uproot ignorance can only emerge with the suitable level of meditative concentration (Skt., samādhi), and since the requisite concentration cannot be developed in a chaotic mind, practitioners must first cultivate a lifestyle that embodies ethics (śīla). The claim here is that a mind filled with disturbing, nonvirtuous mental states such as hatred will necessarily be unstable, and the Abhidharma analysis of mental factors is thus also concerned with a detailed account that distinguishes nonvirtuous (akuśala) mental states from virtuous (kuśala) ones. Through that analysis, practitioners learn to identify these states and can apply various techniques for reducing the nonvirtuous and enhancing the virtuous.

Along these same lines, the account of mind and mental factors also provides a model for understanding how specific practices affect cognitive and affective processes in beneficial ways. A straightforward example is the role that the mental factor called aspiration (chanda) plays in attentional processes, such that in the absence of aspiration—which involves an intense interest directed toward an object—sustained attention can easily degrade. Another example is mindfulness (smṛti), also a key mental factor in practices that seek to enhance attention. The detailed analysis of the capacity of this mental factor to, for example, inhibit attention capture or distraction clearly connects to some of the contemplative techniques discussed in part 6. In this way, the account of mental factors is best read with an eye to the way that these analyses enhance the psychological and behavioral changes that are targets of Buddhist practice.

"The account of mind and mental factors also provides a model for understanding how specific practices affect cognitive and affective processes in beneficial ways."

Asaṅga’s Model: Omnipresent and Determinate Factors

Indian Buddhist theorists developed various and somewhat divergent accounts of the mental factors, and given the usual importance accorded Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Knowledge, one might expect that text to play a central role here as well. Nevertheless, for this particular topic, Tibetan scholarship has instead focused on the model presented by Asaṅga (ca. fourth century) in his Compendium of Knowledge (Abhidharmasamuccaya). This text is often called the “higher Abhidharma” because it is inspired by a higher level of philosophical analysis in contrast to Vasu­bandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, which is “lower.” Our authors do discuss Vasubandhu’s approach along with several other models, but the focus of their treatment is Asaṅga’s model. Here, they follow the “mind and mental factors” (Tib., sems dang sems byung) literature, a genre in Tibet that involves extracting from Abhidharma texts—especially Asaṅga’s—the material specifically relevant to this topic. Asaṅga’s list of mental factors is extensive, but he identifies a set of particularly important “omnipresent” (Skt., sarvatraga) factors that must occur with any moment of consciousness, and he also introduces a crucial category of mental factors “with a determinate object” (pratiniyataviṣaya). Let us examine some key features of these categories in turn.


Omnipresent Factors

Centuries before Asaṅga, Buddhist theorists were already identifying the mental factors that they deemed common to all moments of consciousness, all mind events. All of these accounts assume a distinction between what Tibetan scholarship calls the main mind (Tib., gtso sems) and the mental factors that occur with it. In brief, the main mind is simply the fact of awareness of some object within any moment of consciousness. The omnipresent mental factors are the features of that moment of consciousness that must be present for consciousness to occur. This list reveals important insights about what is minimally required for an object to be presented in awareness. Based on the paradigmatic case of sense perception, traditional lists often begin with contact (Skt., sparśa), which concerns the relationship between a physical sense organ and the mind. Three factors—intention (cetanā), attention (manasikāra), and discernment (saṃjñā)—have to do with the minimal attentional features required for a moment of awareness. Attention orients the mind toward the object, and discernment is what functions to “grasp the mark” (nimittagrahaṇa), in effect, selecting the object in distinction from other objects. Finally, the mental factor of feeling (vedanā) accounts for the hedonic tone of the awareness of the object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The inclusion of feeling as necessary for any awareness points to the causal role that hedonic tone plays in Buddhist accounts of behavior, inasmuch as a positive or negative tone plays a significant downstream causal role in one’s continued engagement with the object through behaviors focused on obtaining what is pleasant and avoiding what is unpleasant.

Our authors present a succinct and clear account of these omnipresent mental factors, and there is no need to repeat their efforts here. Instead, we might consider some intriguing implications of this model. In particular, it is noteworthy that one of Asaṅga’s contributions is to narrow the list of omnipresent factors to just five items. In his Treasury of Knowledge, Vasubandhu (traditionally considered to be Asaṅga’s half-brother) bundles many more factors into the “omnipresent category,” taking the aforementioned aspiration and other factors such as concentration to be omnipresent. By removing these and other factors from the omnipresent category, Asaṅga seems to be pointing to a quite minimal moment of consciousness. To understand Asaṅga’s possible motivations, we might consider the notions of phenomenal and access consciousness.

Developed by the philosopher Ned Block, the distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness roughly parallels the Buddhist distinction between nonconceptual and conceptual consciousness. As Block puts it, “Phenomenal consciousness is experience; the phenomenally conscious aspect of a state is what it is like to be in that state.” Access consciousness, by contrast, is characterized by its “availability for use in reasoning and rationally guiding speech and action” (“On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness,” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18: 228). According to Block’s distinction, in an instance of phenomenal consciousness, we are aware of some content or object but without the ability to categorize or name what we are aware of. For example, I may have a vague feeling of unease as I am closing my car door, but I do not fully realize that this feeling is emerging from my awareness that the car keys are lying on the dashboard. In contrast, if an instance of access consciousness were active in that moment, I would know explicitly, “I left my keys on the dashboard!” Phenomenal consciousness still has downstream causal effects—my sense of unease may prompt me to wonder whether I have forgotten something—yet it does not involve explicit categorization or conscious action toward the object. It may be that Asaṅga was attempting to develop a similar distinction, perhaps because he was writing in an age when the Buddhist epistemologists were beginning to articulate a sharper distinction between conceptual and nonconceptual awareness.



Mental Factors with a Determinate Object

When Asaṅga shortens the list of omnipresent factors, he does so by creating a new, separate category: mental factors “with a determinate object.” Here, Block’s distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness again seems relevant, in that the cognitive states that involve these mental factors appear to be those required for “access,” including conscious categorization of the object and voluntary action toward it. Although Asaṅga’s account is vague at points, it seems that the presence of at least some of the factors in this category accounts for the kinds of determinate cognitions that may follow upon an initial, indeterminate moment of awareness, such as the first moment of sense consciousness. Certainly, the term determinate object itself indicates that the presence of these mental factors is what enables conceptual engagement with the object presented in cognition.

Although not explicitly thematized in this way by traditional sources, all of the mental factors with a determinate object relate to holding an object in attention, perhaps in ways similar to contemporary scientific notions of working memory, as suggested by Georges Dreyfus (“Self and Subjectivity: A Middle Way Approach.” in Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions 114). Asaṅga’s model does not specify how many factors must be present simultaneously in order for an object to be held in attention, but one insight in the formulation of this category is that the list begins with aspiration and resolution (adhimukti). Both of these factors mark a kind of goal-oriented interest in the object. If we assume that one or both of these must be present for an object to be held in attention, then this model intriguingly suggests that goal-oriented interest is a key ingredient in this form of attention.

Beyond the goal-oriented dimension of attention provided by aspiration and resolution, the mental factor of mindfulness is even more clearly attentional in nature. In part 6, we will see that the term mindfulness plays a broad role in Buddhist contemplative practice, but in the specific, technical context of mental factors, this term points especially to the capacity to block distraction. In other words, the mental factor called mindfulness does not account for one’s orienting toward, selecting, or focusing on an object; instead, when an object is being held in attention, mindfulness is what prevents attention from being captured by a competing stimulus. In this way, the original Sanskrit term smṛti, which literally means “remembering” or “recollecting,” might best be understood as a metaphor: just as “remembering” something means that we are not forgetting it, so too, when the mental factor smṛti is in place, we are not “forgetting” or losing track of the object due to our attention being captured by some other object. I will have more to say about this and other aspects of mindfulness in the introduction to part 6.

The last two mental factors in this category, concentration and wisdom (prajñā), at first glance may seem to apply uniquely to the realm of meditative practices designed to cultivate them. And our authors do indeed acknowledge the importance of these factors in the contemplative context, not least because the term for the factor wisdom is identical to the term for the insight that uproots fundamental ignorance. Nevertheless, these factors do not just concern contemplation. Elsewhere, in the context of a “lack of meta-awareness” (asamprajanya), Asaṅga again uses the term for wisdom, prajñā, but notes that, in that context, it occurs with afflictive mental states that produce suffering and that it is thus involved in nonvirtuous behavior. And even the high level of one-pointed attention involved in the mental factor of concentration need not be necessarily virtuous. And as it turns out, for Asaṅga and many other (but not all) Abhidharma theorists, even the mental factor of mindfulness can occur in “afflicted” (saṃkliṣṭa) or nonvirtuous mental states. The upshot is that, while this category of mental factors is clearly associated with the cultivation of highly focused states of extraordinary attention, the cultivation of refined attention in itself does not guarantee that the mind will be in a wholesome state. This is undoubtedly one reason Abhidharma theorists are so concerned with properly distinguishing virtuous mental factors from those that they refer to as “afflictions.”

"In brief, the main mind is simply the fact of awareness of some object within any moment of consciousness."

Virtuous Factors, Mental Afflictions, and Compassion

As we have seen, Asaṅga’s model—the most dominant one for the Tibetan tradition—lays out the minimal set of omnipresent mental factors that must be present in any moment of consciousness, and he articulates a set of factors that must be present, at least in part, for more stable attentional states to occur. At the same time, however, a moment of consciousness can (and usually does) include many other mental factors, and these are parsed into three categories: virtuous factors, nonvirtuous factors called mental afflictions (kleśa), and variable factors that can be either virtuous or nonvirtuous. Let us examine some key features of this part of Asaṅga’s model.

Overall, the distinction between virtuous and nonvirtuous factors is based largely on the functions and effects of these processes and states. In the long term, virtuous factors produce sukha—which can be translated as happiness, pleasure, or well-being—because they establish karma or mental conditioning that creates such results. In contrast, nonvirtuous states have the long-term effect of duḥkha—suffering, pain, or dissatisfaction—because they establish the conditioning that leads to duḥkha. In nearer terms, these virtuous and nonvirtuous factors also support more immediate downstream effects. For example, Asaṅga notes that the virtuous factor nonhatred (adveṣa), which inhibits the arisal of hatred, functions in a way that prevents negative or destructive behavior. The nonvirtuous state of anger (dveṣa), in contrast, functions to induce unpleasant mental states and to induce negative, destructive behavior.

While mental factors are often described in terms of their function, phenomenological features also appear in their descriptions. In particular, mental afflictions—the general rubric for nonvirtuous states—are said to arise in such a way that the mind is disturbed or unsettled (apraśamita) in various ways, including by distraction and agitation. Here again, we see the influence of concerns about contemplative practice in these accounts of mental factors. As noted above, Buddhist theories of spiritual transformation maintain that, while only wisdom can uproot the deepest causes of suffering and dissatisfaction, one must also train in meditative concentration, since the cultivation of wisdom requires that capacity. Likewise, the contemplative training in concentration will not succeed with a chaotic mind; one must also train in ethics—that is, one must cultivate virtue and reduce nonvirtue—precisely because mental afflictions, or nonvirtues, cause the mind to be unsettled in a way that inhibits the cultivation of attention.

Along similar lines, our authors also examine several virtues central to Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practice—love, forbearance, and compassion—even
though these virtues do not figure explicitly in Asaṅga’s list of virtues. Here, our authors cite a beloved verse from the work of Śāntideva, “All those who are happy in the world are so from wanting others to be happy; all those who suffer in the world are so from wanting themselves to be happy.” As suggested by this verse, love, forbearance, and compassion are crucial because they enable practitioners to radically reorient their self-focused, self-cherishing attitudes and motivations in such a way that their mental life and manifest behavior become focused on the welfare of all others impartially, and through that shift in perspective, practitioners achieve their own highest spiritual goals, including authentic happiness. This reorientation toward concern for others, however, can be effected by beginning with the kind of innate, spontaneous loving kindness and compassion we feel, in a biased way, toward our loved ones and others whom we experience, in some sense, as extensions of ourselves. In this section, our authors thus explore some of the contemplative techniques that use our own innate capacity for loving kindness and compassion as a springboard toward the development of unbiased, universal forms of these capacities.


Variable Lists and the Question of Emotions

As we have just seen, loving kindness and compassion are key virtues targeted by Buddhist contemplative practice, but they do not figure explicitly in Asaṅga’s list. Their absence points to some important issues around the categorization of mental factors, and our authors end this part with an inventory of lists found in Buddhist sources other than Asaṅga’s work. These include not only other Abhidharma sources but even scriptural materials, such as the Sūtra on the Application of Mindfulness (which is exactly not the same as the well-known Pali text, the Satipaṭṭhānasūtta). The mere presence of so many alternative accounts—without coming to any final reconciliation—points, first of all, to the instrumental nature of these lists: they are motivated by the transformational goals of Buddhist practice. The lists also make sense as responses to the variety of goals and historical contexts that characterize the Buddhist traditions. This does not make these accounts somehow “unscientific”; after all, numerous historians and philosophers of science have articulated the way that the concerns and cultural contexts of modern science also shape its models, theories, and outcomes. Seeing the various lists of mental factors as responsive to motivations and contexts in this way also helps to explain one of their striking features: the absence of any category for emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barrett and others have argued that contemporary approaches to the science of emotions reflect age-old cultural assumptions that inform the creation of such a category, especially by setting “emotions” in opposition to “reason.” When traced back to Greek philosophers such as the Stoics, the Western cultural heritage of emotion as a category often characterizes emotions as clouding reason, even to the point that the complete elimination of emotion is seen as a worthy goal of rational, philosophical practice. Scientific work first championed by Antonio Damasio has shown, however, that this perspective is deeply flawed: without emotions, our capacity for reason becomes severely impaired. Nevertheless, the divide between reason and emotions persists as a cultural motif, in part because it suggests a path for cultivating a virtuous life where the pursuit of “higher” reason is what keeps in check the base, even animalistic, “passions” that motivate nonvirtuous acts.

As we have seen, a crucial distinction for Buddhist theorists is between virtuous and nonvirtuous mental factors. The question of whether a mental factor might be called an emotion is simply not relevant. We have seen that a nonvirtuous mental state is one that, on the one hand, is disturbed or unsettled, and on the other hand, produces suffering and dissatisfaction, at least in the long term. Additionally, mental afflictions such as anger are also rooted in a fundamental confusion about the nature of personal identity, or even about reality itself. Thus even purely cognitive factors such as inquiry, which could scarcely be categorized as an emotion, manifest as nonvirtuous when they perpetuate that fundamental confusion. And of course, ignorance—the root of that confusion—also is not what we would call an emotion, yet it is seen as the most destructive mental affliction.

Thus, in contrast to the divide between reason and emotion, the Buddhist approach is far more concerned with the distinction between wisdom and ignorance. And this interest may help to explain the absence of nearly all the “basic emotions” identified by Paul Ekman and other scientists who champion the notion of universal, transcultural emotional states. Ekman’s list consists of six such emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. In the most influential account, the one by Asaṅga, only anger appears as a mental factor, and while at least one other list (in the Sūtra on the Application of Mindfulness) includes fear and sadness, none include all six of Ekman’s basic emotions. From this, we might conclude that these Buddhist theorists were not very skilled at their observation of mental states. But given the increasing importance within the contemporary science of emotions of the role that culture and context play in our conceptualization of emotions, a more likely conclusion might be that Asaṅga and other Buddhists theorists have not simply missed something. Instead, perhaps what they offer is an intriguing, alternative approach to categorizing the facets of our mental lives.

John Dunne

"Overall, the distinction between virtuous and nonvirtuous factors is based largely on the functions and effects of these processes and states."

This, the second volume in the Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics series, focuses on the science of mind. Readers are first introduced to Buddhist conceptions of mind and consciousness and then led through traditional presentations of mental phenomena to reveal a Buddhist vision of the inner world with fascinating implications for the contemporary disciplines of cognitive science, psychology, emotion research, and philosophy of mind. Major topics include:

– The distinction between sensory and conceptual processes and the pan-Indian notion of mental consciousness

– Mental factors—specific mental states such as attention, mindfulness, and compassion—and how they relate to one another

– The unique tantric theory of subtle levels of consciousness, their connection to the subtle energies, or “winds,” that flow through channels in the human body, and what happens to each when the body and mind dissolve at the time of death

– The seven types of mental states and how they impact the process of perception

– Styles of reasoning, which Buddhists understand as a valid avenue for acquiring sound knowledge

In the final section, the volume offers what might be called Buddhist contemplative science, a presentation of the classical Buddhist understanding of the psychology behind meditation and other forms of mental training.

To present these specific ideas and their rationale, the volume weaves together passages from the works of great Buddhist thinkers like Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, Dignāga, and Dharmakīrti. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s introduction outlines scientific and philosophical thinking in the history of the Buddhist tradition. To provide additional context for Western readers, each of the six major topics is introduced with an essay by John D. Dunne, distinguished professor of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice at the University of Wisconsin. These essays connect the traditional material to contemporary debates and Western parallels, and provide helpful suggestions for further reading.


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