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Mind and Mental States in Buddhist Philosophy


A fundamental idea of all nonmaterialist Indian schools of philosophy, whether orthodox ones that follow the Vedas or heterodox ones such as Buddhist and Jaina that do not, is the cultivation of mind and mental states. Techniques of yoga in Hindu tradition aim at attaining a conscious state in which ordinary mental activities, such as perception and imagination, are suspended. Classical yoga, as expounded by Patanjali's Yogasutra (Woods, 1927), is widely influential in the Hindu tradition.

Orthodox and Heterodox Schools

In Buddhism, citta, mano, and vinnana are three of the main terms to do with mind and mental states. These terms are highly nuanced but are roughly translatable as heart, mind, and consciousness, respectively. These are best understood as processes, not substances, and none are permanent. The Majjhima Nikaya (Middle length sayings), Digha Nikaya (Long discourses), Samyutta Nikaya (Kindred sayings), and Anguttara Nikaya (Gradual sayings) are the basic four collections of suttas (discourses) expounding the early Buddhist position, and Vissudhimagga (The path of purity) is a salient text.

Indian schools of philosophy include three heterodox (nastika ) schools, which do not accept the Vedas as divine revelation. These three schools (Carvaka, Jainism, and Buddhism), each in their different ways, put more emphasis upon experience than revelation. The three schools represent a continuum on metaphysical matters from most materialistic (Carvaka) to least materialistic (Buddhism). Jainism at midpoint asserts a material, adhesive soul that gets darkened with negative karmic particles due to wrong actions such that many jivas (souls) cannot retain their natural luminosity.

According to ancient Indian materialism (Carvaka school), perception is the basic pramana (valid means of knowing), and accordingly, matter is the only reality because it alone is perceived. Here the soul is understood as a living body with the quality of consciousness. But how could materialists show that consciousness does not exist independently of body? Orthodox schools as well as the other two heterodox schools, Jainism and Buddhism, found materialistic reductionism of the mental to the physical unconvincing.


Jainism is especially well known for two doctrines: the view that all judgments of non-omniscient beings need to be qualifiedthat is, the "somehow view" (syadvada ); and non-injury to sentient beingsthat this, the nonviolence view (ahimsa ). According to Jainism, consciousness is the essence of the jiva, and human consciousness is limited so that ordinary judgments of nonomniscient beings must be qualified by syat (somehow) to express conditional knowing. Only one of the Tirthankaras, that is, those who cross over to liberation, have omniscience in regard to salvific knowledge. In Jainism the jiva is self-luminous and illuminates other things, filling out the body like a radiant, eternal light within it. Jains believe that the jiva can attain complete freedom (kaivalya ). When the jiva is in a state of ignorance or bondage, it is because its vision is obscured due to karmic particles adhering to it. So, although Jainism has a spiritual, ethical outlook that aspires to personal self-transformation, its metaphysics of the soul holds that the soul is material, of the shape of the body, and is afflicted by karmic particles. When these are thrown out of the jiva due to penance or good works, the jiva can see clearly. Harming living beings is one thing that causes karmic particles to cloud the soul's vision. In ethics, Jains think that the passions impeding liberation are anger, pride, infatuation, and greed. These sorts of passions bind the jiva to matter. Since there is consciousness in all parts of the body, the soul is coextensive with the body. Potentially, all souls are equal since all have the capacity for liberation (kaivalya ).


Another of the heterodox schools, Buddhism, holds that right concentration of mind through four stages is the way to nirvana (enlightenment). The first stage is on reasoning and investigation regarding the truths; here there is the joy of pure thinking. The second stage of concentration is unruffled meditation, freedom from reasoning, and the arising of the joy of tranquillity. The third stage of concentration is detachment from even the joy of tranquillity; here there is indifference even to such joy and a feeling of bodily ease. The fourth stage of concentration is detachment from this bodily ease: At the fourth jhana (level of consciousness in meditation), there is perfect equanimity and the attainment of nirvana. At this level the psychic powers (abhinna ) are said to develop. Overall, sila, samadhi, and panna (morality, concentration, and wisdom, respectively) form the essentials of the eight-fold noble path in Buddhism (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right minfullness, right effort, right contemplation, right concentration). In Buddhism there is no permanent substance (svabhava ) either in humankind or in deities, for experience shows that all things are impermanent, nonsubstantial, and unsatisfactory. The doctrine of anatman (no self, or nonsubstantiality) implies that there is no substance of a permanent, blissful, center of consciousness anywhere in the universe.

The doctrinal context of jhana is four noble truths: suffering, its arising, passing away, and the path to its passing away. The cessation of suffering occurs through meditation. The jhanas were instrumental in Buddha's enlightenment in that jhanas prepare one for higher insights (abhinna ), are associated with liberating wisdom (panna ), and are the spiritual endowment of the fully liberated person (tathagata ). Jhanas have their own internal dynamic, contributing to purification and liberation of mind. In developing jhanic insight, one focuses on experience, eliminates ignorance, and achieves wisdom. There are really two systems: tranquillity and insight. The development of serenity or tranquillity meditation (samatha bhavana ) is one system; the other is the development of insight meditation (vipassana bhavana ) is the other. The former is also called development of concentration (samadhi bhavana ); the latter is also called the development of wisdom meditation (panna bhavana ). The practice of serenity meditation aims at developing a calm, concentrated, unified state of consciousness to experience peace and wisdom. Insight meditation requires development of samadhi, and serenity is useful for this too, so the two systems work together. Jhana belongs inherently to the serenity side. Translation of jhana is difficult, with absorption coming closest. Jhanas involve total absorption in the object.

Conceptual Structures in Buddhism

orality and mentality

Oral tradition and group recitation of sutras marked the very beginnings of Buddhism of the Pali Nikayas (collections of suttas in different texts, e.g., Majjhima Nikaya ). Despite the strong tradition of text, commentary, and subcommentary, Buddhism initially developed from oral tradition, as did Hinduism. In contrast with the European and North American preoccupation with journal articles and books as vehicles for intellectual debate, the power of the spoken word remains very much a part of Buddhism. This power of the spoken word can be seen, for example, in the Indo-Tibetan tradition of debate and the Sino-Japanese kung-an and koan traditions of perspectival shifts while becoming one with the koan.

It is clear is that Buddhism did not begin with manuscripts. It is not a religion as in the monotheistic (JudeoChristianIslamic) tradition but developed out of a forest tradition of meditation in which monks stayed in orchards, deer parks, mango groves, and forests, periodically reciting the words of the Buddha aloud in group recitation. Eventually, councils and canons of texts emerged. It was not so at first, and it is reasonable to believe that the authority of individual experience is at the heart of early Buddhism rather than hierarchy and the authority of promulgated texts.

miracles of instruction, conversion, and mindfulness

An unrepeatable event, violation of law of nature, and any extraordinary event are senses of miracle ordinarily recognized in Anglo-American philosophy of religion as a starting point for discussion. In Buddhism, the miracle of instruction is the starting point. Traditionally, one has to come and sit down by the side of the teacher. Texts show that dhamma (truth, doctrine) teaching sometimes includes a miracle, where conversion occurs and miracle becomes part of the experience of a Buddhist practitioner.

Oral recitation makes of oneself a holy scripture as the embodiment of truth: Truth is not so much a property of abstract disembodied proposition as it is embodied in the lives of those who practice Buddhism. Belief in the Buddha, the doctrine, and the Sangha (order of monks and nuns) is the recited three refuges formula for being Buddhist. Both confidence and knowledge are operative in Buddhism, both belief in and belief that. Buddhism did not emphasize authority of the guru or pundit but the authority of one's own experience, so there is no blind faith.

The baseless faith of the Brahmins is contrasted with the rational faith of the Buddhists. Brahmins are depicted as a string of blind people, each relying on the other but none of them seeing things as they really are. Buddhism is, by contrast, self-reliance, with several stages of confidence or faith. There is initial faith in coming to hear whether there is anything in the Buddhist doctrine, then there is path faith that is compatible with doubt and struggle, and then there is the achievement of a realized nonbacksliding faith; realized faith is the wisdom of knowing and seeing for oneself as things really are.

mind and morality

By mind all things are made, all things are made by mind: Thus begins the Dhammapada (The path of purity), a popular Buddhist text. Morality is intimately connected with mentality on the Buddhist view, and intention is far more important than consequences in assessing sila, or morality. It would go too far to say that consequences are totally irrelevant to Buddhists: Following the first precept of harmlessness shows a concern with outcomes as well.

Buddhism defies categorization in Aristotelean, Utilitarian, and Kantian categories, not because of this conceptual confusion but because of its distinctive voice. Buddhism is most importantly about wisdom, not knowledge alone, and it is also about compassion, which is one of the ways to enlightenment. Although Mahayana Buddhism emphasized altruism and Theravada Buddhism had comparatively little to say about kindness and compassion, it is clear that there are Pali Canon texts that commend kindness, and value it as a means of attaining nirvana (Gombrich 1998). Metta, karuna, and mudita (loving kindness, compassion, and sympathy) are valued, ethically related mental states in even the earliest stratum of Buddhism, just as priti (joy) is a characteristic of Buddhist monks.

meditation and confirmation of pre-existing beliefs

There is an epistemological basis for belief in propositions concerning kamma and punabbhava (rebirth; literally, "again becoming"). This emphasis on one's own experience extends even to epistemology, where the pramana (valid means of knowing) of experience and, to a limited extent, inference based on experience, are emphasized instead of testimony, comparison, and divine revelation. The epistemological basis of belief in karma and rebirth is said in the texts and by modernist interpreters such as K. N. Jayatilleke (1963), K. N. Upadhyaya (1998), and D. J. Kalupahana (1992), to rest on meditational experience at the fourth jhana.

Some in Buddhism hold that knowing and seeing rebirth provides empirical justification for belief in karma and rebirth. These same thinkers believe that Buddhism has no metaphysics. However, first, it is dubious that memory, bodily continuity, or self-awareness will work as meaning conditions for the reidentification of the same person across lives. Second, metaphysics is not the same as speculation, and Buddhism can be antispeculative and still have metaphysical commitments to beliefs such as rebirth.

It is tempting to think of Buddhism as empiricism since it is described in the Pali texts as a come and see (ehipassika ) doctrine, but while its claims may, in a weak sense, be experientially verifiable if true, they are not falsifiable if false. Hence they are not verifiable in a sufficiently robust sense to distinguish Buddhism from other path faiths and to count as empirical verification. What is at work, instead, is experiential confirmation. In addition, the mind and senses are not separated in Buddhism but are together the six gateways to knowledge so that there is no sharp cleavage between empiricism and rationalism, as there is in European and North American thought. All that can be had in Buddhism is experiential confirmation, as in the cases of other worldviews, such as that of Christianity. Psychological certainty is not identical to logical certainty. Experiential justification may be entirely convincing on a personal basis yet fall short of the objectivity involved in establishing the truth of observation, sentences that are testable and repeatable at will.

continuity, personal identity, and namarupa

The strength of a cord does not always depend on something running end to end, as in Buddhism where there is continuity of process but no speculative belief about a permanent substance underlying it all. In Buddhism, vinnana (consciousness) develops (rather than descends) in the womb in the rebirth process across lives. There is no one term that provides a link between lives in early Buddhism. Perhaps sankhara (dispositions) comes closest.

A view that superficially looks like the Buddhist one is Hume's phenomenalist view of the self. Here, the self is a bundle of perceptions. Hume famously says that all perceptions are distinct existences and that the mind never recognizes any necessary connections between these perceptions. However, one does not find exactly this view in Buddhism. Hume had a problem with combining the two assumptions about distinct existence of perceptions and no necessary connections, but early Buddhism's problem is not Hume's problem: To ask what keeps the perceptions of a person together in early Buddhism is to make what from an early Buddhist view is the unwarranted assumption of the distinct existence of perceptions.

Namarupa may be understood as that which appears (appearance or phenomenon) in its interrelationship with nama, or that which one uses to get a handle on an appearance (the concept). So namarupa is the reality formed by the unity of concept and phenomenon; it is conceptualized reality or the process of ordinary experiencing. Inadequate are "mind and body" or "name and form" as translations (Ross Rheat, in Potter: 1996 VII 45). It is evident that namarupa provides no evidence for substantialist mind-body dualism in early Buddhism. As Surendranath Dasgupta rightly observes (1922), matter and mind dualism and opposition are absent from Buddhism, Upanishads, and Samkhya schools of philosophy. Overall, Buddhismwhich differs from Hume on the point of distinct existenceson the issue of self, is closer to Process philosophy than to either Humean empiricism or Cartesian rationalist dualism.

"life after death": eternal life and endless life

In macro view the punabbhava rebirth realms, that is, humans, gods, animals, hungry ghosts, purgatory beings, and titans, may be viewed ontologically or psychologically. Viewed ontologically, in the Buddhist metaphysical view of the process of rebirth, the ordinary case is that one is reborn. There is also the extraordinary case of the Tathagata (the thus gone liberated one, e.g., Buddha Sakyamuni) who passes away in parinibbana (final enlightenment) having achieved nibbana (enlightenment) in this very life. Yet, no early Buddhist text gives a theory about what, if anything, happens after death in the case of the Tathagata. Afterlife views are regarded as speculative and discussing them not conducive to enlightenment. The antispeculative emphasis informs the Ten Speculative Questions (speculative questions that the Buddha would not commit to answering because they involve knowledge claims that go beyond experience) set aside by Buddha. The deathless (amata ) may be viewed simply as the elimination of obsession, hate, and confusion in everyday life of the Buddhist practitioner.

Heaven (devaloka ), the world of the gods, is simply another rebirth station. What is translated, devaloka is neither a permanent resting place nor a monotheist's beatific vision. From it some devas (the shining ones) may be reborn elsewhere, including as humans, before attaining final liberation.

The Buddhist goal is stopping the wheel of birth and death rather than attaining endless life. The emphasis is on attaining eternal life in the here and now by purifying ones heart and living well. In this conceptual scheme in which impermanence, nonsubstantiality, and suffering play key roles, the idea of striving after an immortality viewed as endless life would be not simply be unattainable but logically incoherent.

Accordingly, terms for mind and mental states in Buddhism are not terms for a permanent stuff or substance that is independent of conditions. Saying so does not deny continuity across lives. There is continuity without self-same substance. There is a stream of consciousness depending for its continuance on union of male and female, proper timing, and presence of gandhabba (cupid). Without these three conditions, there is no rebirth.


That Buddhist rebirth is not Hindu transmigration is evident from the anatta doctrine of Buddhism juxtaposed with the atman doctrine of Hinduism. At the level of meditation, there is considerable overlap of technique; however, such that an attempt to forge a complete disjunct between these two traditions will distort both history and practice. Buddha was born a Hindu and is considered by Hindus as an avatara of Vishnu. For polemical and practical purposes of building a Sangha, Buddhist texts routinely depict Buddhists triumphing over Jains and Brahmins in debate. So there is a distinctive Buddhist mentality such that Buddhism will never be rightly described as assimilable to Hinduism without remainder.

Early Buddhist texts are not perfectly consistent in the use of terms for the state of consciousness called enlightenment or being awake. However, a frequent finding is that nibbana (enlightenment) while alive is distinguished from parinibbana (final enlightenment) after death of a Tathagata. This distinction is subject to a range of textual emphases and resultant interpretations. The simplest, most clear way to draw the distinction is to say that enlightenment in life is the destruction of raga, dosa, and moha (obsession, hate, and confusion) in everyday life; that final enlightenment is death of one who has already been enlightened in life.

That dying is, but death is not, an experience in life is itself a conceptual truth. Hence, it is not logically possible to experience death and describe it, and there are no mental states to be ascribed to the Tathagata after death. Asked whether the Tathagata exists, does not exist, both, or neither, Buddha refused to assent to any of these. Buddha's silence shows that the matter of final enlightenment (parinibbana ) is beyond experience.

See also Aristotle; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Brahman; Buddhist Epistemology; Cartesianism; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy; Mysticism, the Indian Tradition; Negation in Indian Philosophy; Philosophy of Language in India; Self in Indian Philosophy; Truth and Falsity in Indian Philosophy; Utilitarianism.


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Frank J. Hoffman (2005)

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