Mind in the Abhidharma
A Comparison of Mental Factors in the Theravāda, Mūlasarvāstivādin and YogācāraTraditions
By Ven Geshe Tenzin Namdak, Sera Jey Monastic University
Buddhist psychology of the Abhidharma (Abhidhamma), as taught by the Buddha and elucidated by the scholars of Theravāda, Mūlasarvāstivādin and Yogācāra traditions, is a science of the mind that explains methods to eliminate destructive emotions and cultivate all positive qualities. This leads not only to the achievement of more inner peace of mind, a more harmonious world around us, but ultimately it leads to nirvana (nibbana). Destructive emotions—like attachment, anger and ignorance— cause suffering for the individuals in whose mind they arise. People with strong afflictions harm others and create disturbances in society. The elimination of these emotions leads to a more peaceful inner and outer world. In order to progress on this path of purification one needs a good understanding of consciousness (citta) and of these afflictions which are non-virtuous mental factors. Mental factors (cetasikas) can also be virtuous, changeable or neutral or can have various functions that help us to understand the world around us. Mental factors will be explained below in accordance with three traditions: 1) the Abhidhamma Theravāda tradition which mainly depends on Acariya Anuruddha’s Abhidhammattha Sangaha, 2) the Abhidharma Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition, which mainly depends on Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā, and 3) the Abhidharma Yogācāra tradition which mainly depends on Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya.First the mental factors will be explained in general, after which the afflictions, attachment, anger and ignorance will be discussed together with an explanation of the methods that eliminate these afflictions and free us from suffering. Finally a conclusion will be given.
Primary consciousness and its mental factors
In the Abhidharma, consciousness is divided into two types, primary consciousness (citta) and mental factors (cetasikas).The primary consciousnesses, or main minds, are of six types: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental primary consciousness. The, Theravāda, Mūlasarvāstivādin and Yogācāra traditions all accept this same division.
Primary consciousness and mental factors differ in the way they engage in their objects. Maitreya’s Madhyantavibhaga, says:
That which sees an object is primary consciousness.
That which sees its attributes is a mental factor.
This means, that which knows the mere entity of an object is primary consciousness. Mental factors take as their basis the same objects as the primary consciousness they accompany. They engage their objects by means of different attributes, such as function, and examine the different aspects of their object. For example the mental factor discrimination helps the primary consciousness, apprehending our body, to focus on the impermanent aspect of the body. It is only through the action of mental factors that an object can be realized and that primary consciousness becomes virtuous, non-virtuous or neutral.
The way the mental factors are related to primary consciousness can be understood as similar to the relationship between a king and his retinue: a king does not travel alone but is always accompanied by ministers and attendants. Similarly, every primary consciousness is accompanied by mental factors. They work together to engage objects in different ways.
According to Acariya Anuruddha’s Abhidhammattha Sangaha there are four characteristics that define how primary consciousness and mental factors are related:
- Mental factors arise together with a primary consciousness (ekuppāda)
- Ceasing together with consciousness (ekunirodha)
- Having the same object as consciousness (ekālambana)
- Having the same base as consciousness (ekavatthuka)
Vasubandu explains in his Abhidharmakośakārikā five similarities between primary consciousness and mental factors:
- Similar support: if primary consciousness is supported by a sense power, then the mental factors in its retinue are also supported by that sense power (sense organ).
- Similar object of observation: primary consciousness and mental factors in its retinue have the same object.
- Similar subjective aspect: when primary consciousness has the aspect of apprehending the color blue, then the mental factors in its retinue have also the aspect of apprehending the color blue.
- Similar time: primary consciousness and mental factors in its retinue are simultaneous, they are produced, abide and cease at the same time.
- Similar substance: one primary consciousness can only have one mental factor of a similar type in its retinue. For example only one type of feeling, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, can accompany one primary consciousness.
Asanga also explains five similarities between primary consciousness and mental factors in his Abidharmasamuccaya: 1) similar substance, 2) similar object of observation and subjective aspect, 3) similar entity, 4) similar time, and 5) similar realm and level. Of these five similarities: similar object of observation, similar time, similar entity and similar substance are the same as in the Abhidharmakośakārikā. Similar “realm and level” is uncommon to the Abidharmasamuccaya. Similar realm and level means: if primary consciousness belongs to the desire realm, then in its mental factors in its retinue, also belong to the desire realm.
In the above one can see that most of the similarities between primary consciousness and mental factors are the same in the three traditions. All three mention the “similarity of the object of observation”. The Abhidhammattha Sangaha divides “similarity of time”, mentioned in the other two traditions as one, into two. In a similar way all the traditions mention the “same base or similar support”; for example if primary consciousness is supported by a sense power, then the mental factors in its retinue are also supported by that sense power (sense organ). There is a difference of similarities with regard to “subjective aspect”, “entity”, “realm and level” and “substance”. Similar “subjective aspect” mentioned in the Abhidharmakośakārikā is the same as “similar entity” mentioned in the Abidharmasamuccaya. “Realm and level” is only mentioned in the Abidharmasamuccaya as being a similarity within this group. The other two traditions except that this similarity exists between the between primary consciousness and mental factors but don’t classify it in the groups mentioned here.
The division of mental factors
In all three traditions the description of how primary consciousness and mental factors are similar in time and so forth are more or less the same. When it comes to the divisions of mental factors however, there are differences in number and in the classifications of various groups.
In his Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Acariya Anuruddha lists fifty-two mental factors classified into three general or eight sub groups:
- Thirteen ethically variable factors: common to different types of primary consciousnesses
- Seven universal mental factors: common to all primary consciousnesses.
- Six occasional mental factors: their function is similar to the universal mental factors but they are not found in all types of primary consciousness.
- Fourteen unwholesome mental factors: non-virtuous mental factors.
- Four universal mental factors: common to all primary consciousnesses of this group.
- Ten occasional mental factors: their function is similar to the universal mental factors but they are not found in all types of primary consciousness of this group.
- Twenty-five beautiful mental factors: virtuous mental factors.
- Nineteen universal mental factors: common to all primary consciousnesses of this group.
- Three abstinences: abstinence from wrong conduct.
- Two illimitables: attitudes developed toward all sentient beings.
- One non-delusion.
In his Abhidharmakośakārikā, Vasubandu lists forty-six mental factors and divides them into the following groups:
- Ten basis of mind mental factors: common to all primary consciousnesses
- Ten virtuous grounds: virtuous mental factors.
- Six great afflicted grounds: non-virtuous mental factors.
- Two non-virtuous grounds: non-virtuous mental factors.
- Ten lesser afflicted grounds: non-virtuous mental factors.
- Eight indirectly indicated mental factors: a miscellaneous group of mental factors which cannot be classified in any of the above groups.
In his Abidharmasamuccaya, Asanga lists fifty-one mental factors classified into the following groups:
- Five omnipresent mental factors: common to all primary consciousnesses.
- Five object-ascertaining mental factors: these mental factors hold an object through apprehending the individual features of the object, their function is to help the primary consciousness they accompany to realize or ascertain its object.
- Eleven virtuous mental factors.
- Six root afflictions: these are non-virtuous mental factors.
- Twenty secondary afflictions: non-virtuous mental factors.
- Four changeable mental factors: can become virtuous, non-virtuous or neutral, depending on the motivation or intention.
Lists of the all mental factors mentioned in the above three texts can be found in appendix 1, 2 and 3 below. Some of the differences of the divisions of these mental factors will be analyzed in the next section by taking three mental factors, which are root afflictions, as the basis for discussion.
The mental factors attachment (or greed (lhoba)), anger (or hatred (doso)) and ignorance (moha or avijā) are root afflictions, or sometimes called “the three poisons” in the Yogācāra tradition, and “rooted cittas” in the Theravāda tradition. In the three traditions discussed here these three mental factors have similar definitions but different group classifications. .
Acariya Anuruddha includes the three poisons in the group of “fourteen unwholesome mental factors”. Vasubandu places them in the “eight indirectly indicated mental factors” and Asanga posits them in the “six root afflictions”. Although these different authors give varying classifications, there is no real contradiction if we know the reasons behind their classifications. Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā says, for example, that whatever is a mental factor of “an afflicted ground” it should accompany every afflicted primary consciousness either in a manifest or in a more dormant manner. This is the reason for Vasubandu to say that attachment and anger, which are not always present in each afflicted primary consciousness, don’t belong to the group of “an afflicted ground”, but they fall in the category of the “eight indirectly indicated mental factors”. The Abidharmasamuccaya says that there is no need for all “six root afflictions” to accompany every afflicted primary consciousness, so there is no fault of classifying attachment and anger in the group of the “six root afflictions”. The definition of this group is that the six root afflictions give rise to the “secondary afflictions”, thus are called “root afflictions”. It is interesting to see that the Abhidhammattha Sangaha includes attachment and anger in “unwholesome occasional mental factors”. Here also we see that these two factors are non-virtuous but don’t have to accompany every non-virtuous primary consciousness.
The question might arise: “Why are there different numbers of mental factors by different authors?” Well, according to the Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition the Buddha taught the Abhidharma to different groups of disciples at various places and times after which the seven books of the Abhidharma where compiled. Also, after the Buddha’s passing, various schools and traditions developed. Because of this history of the different schools and traditions, explanations of certain aspects of the Buddhist teachings may vary. Within one particular school or tradition one can see more uniform interpretations. Vasubandu for example explains in his Abhidharmakośakārikā, taking the seven books of the Abhidharma as a basis of explanation, forty-six mental factors divided in the groups mentioned above. This same author mentions in his Paňcaskandhaka-Prakaraņa, following the Yogācāra tradition and taking the whole Abhidharma Piţaka as a basis of explanation, the exact same number and classification of mental factors as Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya. So, one can see that one particular author can compose two texts with different divisions. There is no real contradiction between the two texts mentioned here, because each text is written within a particular tradition using a particular set of teachings of the Buddha as the basis.
When it comes to the definitions of individual mental factors, one can see that most definitions are very similar. From among the three root afflictions mentioned here, ignorance (avidyā in Sanskrit or moha or avijā in Pali) is considered the root of all afflictions. It is deemed the root of all that is unwholesome in all three traditions. All traditions also describe ignorance as having the characteristic of unknowing (aňňāņa) with its function of non-penetration of the real nature of the object, acting as a support for the arising of wrong ascertainment, and being the basis for karma and afflictions to arise.”Attachment has the characteristic of grasping an object, clinging to the three realmsand has the function of producing suffering. Anger has the characteristic of malice or ferocity and has the function of acting as a support for misconduct.
Methods to abandon afflictions
In order to abandon the afflictions the abhidharma explains the three trainings: morality, concentration and wisdom. Many of the purifying paths can be condensed within these three trainings. The Abhidhammattha Sangaha explains that the seven purifications (of virtue, mind, view, overcoming doubt, knowledge of what is and is not the path, knowledge of the way and knowledge and vision) are to be attained in sequence. The first of these seven corresponds to morality, the second to concentration and the last five to wisdom. Another method that eliminates the afflictions is the eight fold path. Vasubandu explains in his Abhidharmakośakārikā, that right view, right intention and right effort fall in the category of the training in wisdom, right mindfulness and right concentration fall in the category of training in concentration and right speech, right action and right livelihood fall in the category of the training in morality. Vasubandu uses the example of a wheel of a chariot to explain this: the spokes are like the training in wisdom, because wisdom has the power to eliminate the abandonments; the encircling rim is like the training in concentration, because it withdraws the mind to its object and prevents the mind from going out; the center of the wheel is like the training in morality as it is the basis for the two other trainings. In order to abandon the afflictions one needs a sharp ax of wisdom with a stable hand of concentration. The practice of morality gives rise to the mental factors mindfulness (smaratā or smŗti in Sanskrit and sati in Pali) and introspection (samprajanya in Sanskrit), that helps one to be constantly aware of what actions to take up and which to abandon. Mindfulness and introspection are also essential mental factors for the generation of calm abiding (shamatha). In order to achieve ultimate happiness of nirvana one needs the training of wisdom. The training in wisdom also relies on mental factors to realize that a permanent self does not exists and thus eliminates the mental factor ignorance, the root cause of samsara. Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya mentions the need for the five object-ascertaining mental factors in order to generate the realizations of wisdom.
From the above one can see the need for knowing the mental factors in order to abandon suffering. Although the different Abhidharma traditions and their scriptures mention different classifications, they are not really contradictory. It is helpful to study the various traditions because the more one learns about different interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha, the better one’s understanding of the mind becomes. In this way, when the mind is trained through study, one’s contemplation and meditation become more profound and effective. Many Buddhist scriptures talk about three stages for generating realizations: 1) listening to teachings and studying, 2) contemplation; and 3) meditation. In Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā, these stages are explained with an analogy of learning how to swim. Initially one needs to continually depend on a buoyant swimming board; in the second stage, one tries a bit by oneself and has to rely on the swimming board occasionally; in the third stage, one can swim all by oneself. The swimming board symbolizes dependence on the words of the scriptures and swimming by oneself illustrates dependence on the meaning of the scriptures. We are very fortunate that the different Buddhist traditions are still available to be studied and practiced because, through their unique interpretations, they each bring greater richness to the Buddha’s teachings. In this way all of us trained in different Buddhist lineages help one another to eliminate suffering and achieve temporary and ultimate happiness.
Appendix 1: List of the mental factors in each group of Acariya Anuruddha’s Abhidhammattha Sangaha
The fifty-two mental factors in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha
|Thirteen ethically variable factors:
Seven universal mental factors:
6) Life faculty
Six occasional mental factors:
8) Initial application
9) Sustained application
|Twenty-five beautiful mental factors:
Nineteen universal mental factors:
4) Fear of wrong
7) Neutrality of mind
8) Tranquility of mental body
9) Tranquility of consciousness
10) Lightness of mental body
11) Lightness of consciousness
12) Malleability of mental body
13) Malleability of consciousness
14) Wieldiness of mental body
15) Wieldiness of consciousness
16) Proficiency of mental body
17) Proficiency of consciousness
18) Rectitude of mental body
19) Rectitude of consciousness
20) Right speech
21) Right action
22) Right livelihood
24) Appreciated joy
25) Wisdom faculty
|Fourteen unwholesome mental factors:
Four universal mental factors:
3) Fearlessness of wrong
Ten occasional mental factors:
6) Wrong views
Source: A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006
Appendix 2: List of the mental factors in each group of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā
Forty-six mental factors in the Abhidharmakośakārikā
|Ten basis of mind grounds:
8) Mental engagement
|Two non-virtuous grounds:
|Ten lesser afflicted grounds:
3) Deceit of hiding faults
8) Deceit of pretending having qualities
|Ten virtuous grounds:
|Eight indirectly indicated mental factors:
|Six great afflicted grounds:
Source: Tibetan version of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā with the English terms according to Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, Lati Rinbochay and Elizabeth Napper, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, USA, 1986
Appendix 3: List of the mental factors in each group of Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya
The fifty-one mental factors in the Abidharmasamuccaya
|Five omnipresent mental factors:
|Twenty secondary afflictions:
|Five object-ascertaining mental factors:
4) Meditative stabilization
|Eleven virtuous mental factors:
|Four changeable mental factors:
|Six root afflictions:
6) Afflicted views:
· View of the transitory collection
· View holding to an extreme
· Conception of a bad view as supreme
· Conception of bad ethics and modes of conduct as supreme
· Wrong view
Source: Tibetan version of Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya with the English terms according to Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, Lati Rinbochay and Elizabeth Napper, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, USA, 1986
Acariya Anuruddha’s Abhidhammattha Sangaha is the main primer of for the study of Abhidhamma used throughout the Theravada Buddhist world. See: Bhikkhu Bodhi, A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006
Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā explaining the Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition, and the Abidharmasamuccaya of Asanga explaining the Yogācāra traditions are the two basic texts in the study of the Abhidharma of the Nalanda Sanskrit traditions followed by the Tibetan monastic institutions.
This text is followed by Asanga, the author of Abidharmasamuccaya
An Explanation of the Compendium of Knowledge, A Tibetan commentary on Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya by Gyeltsab Dharma Rinchen.
A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006
 See also: A Necklace for Those of Clear Awareness Clearly Revealing the Modes of Minds and Mental Factors, Yeshe Gyeltsen, Translated from Tibetan by Toh Sze Gee, FPMT, 2005
This division is made according to A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006
Many scholars explaining this point in the introduction to the Tibetan translation of the auto commentary (chosmngonp’Imdzodkyibshad pa) of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā printed by Ganden Shartse Library, 2013
 Mentioned in: A comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006 and in: Asanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya
 Mentioned inAsanga’s Abidharmasamuccaya
Mentioned in Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā
 The three realms are: desire, form and formless realm