Introduction to the Mind and Mental Factors
Session One: Mind as Mental Activity
This evening we’re going to begin our discussion of mental factors. This is a topic which is part of a larger discussion, which is the discussion of what we mean by “mind.” We were speaking, so far, about various ways of knowing, and of course that is done in terms of mind, and so what do we actually mean by “mind” in Buddhism (before we start looking at subdivisions of it)?
The word “mind” in our Western languages is not consistent. In each Western language, the words don’t actually correspond to each other. If you look at French or German, the words there not only include what we would normally call “mind,” but they also include spirit. And so it becomes a little bit larger. And, in fact, the German word for it even means ghost as well—spirit in both the spiritual sense and in the ghost sense. And if that’s true simply in our Western languages, it’s even more true that there’s a big difference in terms of what we mean by the word “mind” in Buddhism as is formulated in the original Asian languages.
If we look at what is meant by this in the Indian and the Tibetan contexts, we find, first of all, that we’re not making a differentiation between what in the West we might call “mind” and “heart.” “Mind” in the West—in English, let’s leave it in that language—implies the whole intellectual side, the rational side. And the “heart” is dealing with the emotional and intuitive side, and perhaps irrational side as well. But there isn’t that split—there’s no dichotomy like that—there’s only one word that covers both, and not only does it cover both, but it also covers all aspects of perception, all the different ways of knowing that we were discussing—that’s also part of what’s meant by “mind.” And even more radically different is that, in the Buddhist context, we are not talking about some sort of object. We’re not talking about a thing that actually does the perceiving or thinking or feeling as its function, but actually what we’re talking about is just simply what I call “mental activity”—or “cognitive activity,” if you want to be a little bit more technical, because it covers the senses as well. And generally when we say “mental” we mean both the senses and the mind (the thinking), so let’s call it “mental activity” for simplicity’s sake. And we’re talking about something that’s happening, not the thing that does it. There’s no actual thing inside our head or our hearts, or wherever we might want to locate it, that actually is physically doing all of this mental activity. It’s just happening. There’s a physical basis, but it’s not a separate organ that’s doing it—something that is physical like the brain, or something metaphysical like what we mean by “mind” in the West.
So, mental activity, going on moment to moment to moment, and it’s individual and it’s subjective. This is very important to recognize. We’re not talking about some universal type of mind—a universal consciousness, or anything like that. Everybody’s mental activity is individual. If I am happy, that doesn’t mean that you’re happy. If I’m hungry, that doesn’t mean that you’re hungry. It’s individual and it’s subjective. Everybody’s experience… let’s say a whole group of people go to a movie and see the same movie. Well, the mental activity of seeing it is the same, but everybody’s experience of the movie—whether they liked it, whether they were bored, whatever—is quite different. And so we’d have to say that that mental activity is both individual and subjective. It’s not like we’re part of a Borg Collective, or something like that, and we’re all having that type of collective experiencing of something.
Now if we want to describe that mental activity, it’s described by its defining characteristics. And the definition in Tibetan, specifically in the Gelug tradition, is given with three words, and the three words are all referring to the same mental activity—we’re just describing it from different points of view. The words are usually translated as “mere” (which means “only”), “clarity,” and “awareness.” Now both of those latter two words, the “clarity” and “awareness,” are a bit misleading, and it’s very important to actually understand what’s meant by them. Otherwise, when we are asked in, for instance, mahamudra meditation (which is an advanced type of meditation on the nature of the mind) to focus on mind, if we have some distorted idea—as we were speaking the other day about: a distorted cognition you have, thinking apples when we should be thinking oranges—then we’re focusing on something inappropriate to the actual intended object of meditation. And so it’s important to understand what we mean.
Let’s deal with one at a time. First of all, clarity (gsal) is, again, an action, an activity. We’re not talking about focus or some sort of light, or something like that, that’s illuminating. But, rather, we are talking about the appearance-making (snang): mental appearance-making or cognitive appearance-making. The actual Tibetan word is the word that’s used for the rising of the sun (shar-ba), but in an active sense—of making something arise. And so there’s this function of an appearance-making, a cognitive appearance-making.
We were speaking before in terms of cognition theory—how, when we perceive something, actually there’s the focal object, but then there’s a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental hologram) which, in a sense, is like a reflection of that external object. And whether we think of that in terms of, in the Western sense, electric impulses and stuff like that, that is another question—how we would want to actually describe this cognitive aspect—but that’s what we actually perceive. Now Gelug would say, in sense perception, that it’s transparent, and through it you see the actual object. (In non-Gelug, they would say that it’s opaque, because the actual object that caused it ceases to exist—that was a previous moment—so there’s a sort of a time lag there.) And in conceptual cognition, it is semitransparent, they say. (Again, this is the Gelug explanation.) It’s semi-transparent: The mental aspect is an idea, and through the idea… Let’s say if you have an idea of your mother, of what she looks like. Then, well, the focal object is what she looks like, but through the idea—that’s what actually arises. And it’s not transparent—like seeing her, in which you vividly see her—it veils it; it’s mixed. And so an idea is never as vivid, and thinking of your mother, imagining her, is never as vivid as actually seeing her.
[For a more precise description, see: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation.]
So we have these mental aspects, and this is what we’re talking about here. Whether it’s a mental aspect of sense data—colored shapes or sounds—or whether it’s some conceptual construct, like we were speaking about language: Actually we only hear one vowel or one consonant at a time. You don’t hear a whole sentence at one moment; it goes over a period of time. And, when you’re hearing later sounds, the earlier sounds don’t exist anymore, do they? They’re finished. And so it’s an idea, it’s a mental construct—a mental aspect—that makes it into words and sentences and phrases that actually we can associate meaning to. Which is a very far out type of process, if you think about it, it really is. So these are all mental aspects, and that’s one part of the defining characteristic. The mental activity is the arising of these mental aspects.
When I say it’s not an organ that’s doing it—of course, you can describe it from an energy point of view—there’s the physical basis of it, but it’s not that there’s a separate organ doing that. It just sort of happens. So we have the arising of appearances, and they don’t have to be in focus. That’s why the word “clarity” is misleading. It could be confusion that arises; could be a blur that arises. It doesn’t have to be clear in that meaning of the word “clear.” “Clear” here is more like a verb—to make something clear so that it appears. And “appear” doesn’t have to be visual. We don’t really have a good word for it in our languages.
So there’s this cognitive appearance-making, I call it. Mental appearance-making. And then the word “awareness” (rig) is describing exactly the same activity, but from a different point of view. And this different point of view is defined by the word “engaging” (‘jug). It’s a cognitive engagement: cognitively engaging with something. There’s the arising of an appearance and cognitively engaging with it. It’s the same thing. “Cognitively engaging” means some sort of cognitive activity—which could be knowing it, not knowing it, understanding it, not understanding it, seeing it, thinking it, feeling it, liking it, disliking it—some sort of cognitive engagement or activity toward it. And so “awareness” is also a misleading word, because there’s an activity making something aware. Well, that’s not quite good grammar, but you get the idea. And the word “awareness” has that limitation that means that you are conscious of it, but you’d have to include here things that we are unaware of—subliminal things—and you’re not paying attention, and all that sort of thing. Being inattentive of something is a cognitive engagement with it.
Now these two activities, as I say, are really just one activity described from two points of view. Because it’s not the case that first a thought arises and then we think it; the arising of the thought and the thinking of the thought is the same thing. So, similarly, it’s not that there’s the arising of, let’s say, the sound of a sentence or words—that first it arises and then you hear it. So the arising and the knowing (if we want to put it in a very simple word) is the same activity.
And then we have the word “mere” (tsam) or “merely.” It’s merely that. What that implies is that that’s all that’s happening, that there is no separate “me”—now you have to get into the whole Buddhist discussion of how the self exists, and so on—there’s no separate, solid “me,” separate from the whole thing, making it happen, being the controller, or out of control, or observing it, separate from it. And there’s no concrete, solid “mind,” as a “thing,” separate from the whole procedure, making it happen. As if there’s a “me” sitting at a “mind” which is like a control board, and then that “me” presses the button and now the shutters open on the eyes and you look, or you turn the microphone on and you hear. It’s not like that, although our Western idiom tends to imply that.
“Well, use your mind and you can figure it out.” Okay, so I’ll get my mind out of the closet and I’ll use it. “Keep that in your mind.” We have very interesting expressions, which often we don’t take literally. But actually there is a little bit of flavor of this literal thing. “Picture in your minds this or that,” as if the mind were some sort of internal stage—a room. “Keep that in your mind”—it’s a box. “This person is out of their mind.” What does that mean? “I wasn’t in my right mind. I lost my mind last night when I was drunk.” So we have many different associations to the concept of mind than what is intended in Buddhism.
So that’s all that’s happening each moment. Mental activity, which is, obviously, dealing with objects; you can’t have mental activity without having content to it. And so the objects that are known, and the ways of knowing them, are the content of that mental activity. This is basically how we describe reality. How do you know reality? The need to talk about it is a cognitive engagement with it. And so everything in the Buddhist presentation is couched in these terms of mental activity. And so there are many different types of mental activity. We were speaking about ways of knowing, but if we go on a different level then we look at what are the components of the mental activity. Not so much the type of mental activity—is it bare perception, or inferential cognition, or presumption, or these sort of things—but what actually makes up that mental activity. The discussion of the mental factors comes here. And so let’s take a look at that.
[NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In the following sections, I did not differentiate with different translation terms rnam-shes and gtso-sems, but translated both as “principal awareness.” Subsequent to this lecture, I changed my terminology, and now use separate terms for each. I translate rnam-shes as “primary consciousness” and gtso-sems as “principal awareness.” A principle awareness is the cluster of primary consciousness and its accompanying subsidiary awarenesses that occur in a moment of cognition. To preserve consistency of terminology with other articles on the website and hopefully minimize confusion, I have modified the transcript to reflect the difference between these two terms, although out of necessity I have left the audio as it was originally delivered. I have put in bold the words in the transcript that differ from the audio, or which clarify it.]
We make a distinction between what’s called “primary consciousness” and what I call “subsidiary awareness” (sems-byung). That’s much closer to the Tibetan terms. “Subsidiary awareness” is usually translated as “mental factors,” but I like “subsidiary” because that’s exactly what it is—it’s subsidiary to the primary one and is always with the primary one.
In any moment of mental activity, we have a primary consciousness, and that primary consciousness would be either eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, or what’s called mental consciousness. In the West, we always speak of these as one thing that does all of these functions, in terms of the different sense fields, but in Buddhism we make a distinction among these.
And so what does a primary consciousness do? Well, if we speak about it in the most general terms, colloquial, idiomatic terms, it’s sort of like what channel are we on: Are we on the seeing channel? Are we on the hearing channel? Are we on the smelling channel? The tasting channel? Feeling a physical sensation (which can be rough or smooth, hot or cold, or motion—many different aspects of physical sensations)? Or is it the mental channel, like thinking? That gives us a general idea. And, obviously, each moment of mental activity has to be on one of those channels. Now what does it actually do, or what is its specific type of mental activity? And what it does is—to put it in the technical terms—it cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) or category of phenomenon that something is. It’s the essential nature or category of phenomenon. So the category of the phenomenon would be a sight, or a sound, or a smell, or its being a taste, or its being a physical sensation, or its being some sort of phenomenon that can be known by the mind—which is basically anything. That would be what’s called the essential nature of something. What it is. What category of thing it is.
Interestingly enough, bodhichitta is a principal awareness (gtso-sems), [consisting of mental consciousness plus accompanying subsidiary awarenesses such as intention.] What is bodhichitta? It’s very important to actually know specifically what that is. Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, very nicely said that if we want to specify some sort of mental activity, mental event, or state of mind, or however we want to call it—if we call it, in our Western terms, a state of mind that you want to generate in meditation or that you want to get rid of through meditation—then you need to specify it by two things. Sort of like when you want to specify a point, you have to specify where it is, east and west, and where it is, north and south. Similarly, to specify a mental state, you need to specify certain things. And the two things are what does it focus on? and how does it take that object?—how does it cognitively take it, what is it doing with it? If you know that, then you have some clue as to how to actually get into that state of mind. Otherwise, if you just said “Well, meditate on bodhichitta”—we don’t really know what that is; it’s pretty fuzzy. And very often people just confuse that with love and compassion. Just sort of have a kind heart and be nice, and this sort of thing. That’s not bodhichitta.
What bodhichitta is… What is it aimed at? It’s aimed at enlightenment. Well, what do we mean by enlightenment? We’re not talking about it being aimed at enlightenment in general, as a grand principle. We’re not talking about it being aimed at the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni—at somebody else’s enlightenment. What it’s aimed at is our own future enlightenment, our own individual future enlightenment, further down the line of our mental continuums. That’s what it’s aimed at. It doesn’t exist yet [in the sense that our enlightenment is not yet happening], but it is a valid probability state—if you want to say that—that can be attained. And the way that it takes it, cognitively takes it, is with an intention to reach it [and to benefit all beings.] These are the mental factors [that are part of it.] It’s a principal awareness. It’s aimed at enlightenment. As a principal awareness, all that [the mental primary consciousness part of] that principal awareness is doing is focusing on [our individual, not-yet-happening] enlightenment as [a mentally knowable phenomenon,] enlightenment. The essential nature of it is that it’s [a phenomenon validly knowable by mental consciousness, our not-yet-happening] enlightenment. It’s not samsara; it’s our specific enlightenment [that is not yet happening, but which can happen.]
Now that’s accompanied by subsidiary awarenesses, which would be intentions. What do you want to do with it? You’re not just looking at it. You’re not just focusing on it. So there’s one mental factor which is… One intention is “I want to help everybody.” So that’s like compassion, to help everybody be free of suffering; love, to help bring happiness to everybody. So that’s an intention to benefit everybody. And the intention to reach that enlightenment with the understanding that, to benefit everybody the most that’s possible, we need to reach that—and when we get there, we’re going to help others as much as possible. So that’s all the subsidiary awarenesses that go with bodhichitta.
Bodhichitta itself, what is it aimed at? That principal awareness [both the primary consciousness part of it as well as all the accompanying subsidiary awarenesses], it’s aimed at our enlightenment. So this is what the [mental consciousness part of this] principal awareness does. It just focuses on… Like my visual consciousness – this primary consciousness is just looking and seeing the essential nature of this thing in front of it, which is a shape that, in a more complex fashion, I know it’s glass and I know it’s water—it’s very complex actually—and I know that if I bring that to my mouth, and hold the glass at a certain angle, that something inside it will go inside of me and cause the effect of eliminating another sensation that I have, which is thirst. I mean, it’s really, if you start to analyze—How do you know that?—very interesting. So seeing is just—you just see it. It’s a sight. That’s all you do. Then there are all these understandings, intentions, what it is, and all these other things that come along with it. But the primary thing is that we are on the seeing channel. Everything else is subsidiary to that; it accompanies it. That’s what we call mental factors.
Now these mental factors are aware of that same object of the primary consciousness that it accompanies, and it’s aware that that mental activity of engaging with it is done in special ways. But it doesn’t interpolate—it doesn’t add anything to it, like project anything onto it—and it doesn’t repudiate (take something away). That’s something else, not included in mental factors. That’s part of conceptual cognition. That’s a whole other mechanism. The mental factors just simply color that awareness. They color it either with helping it to perform certain functions—like concentration, interest, these sort of things—or it colors it in terms of some sort of emotion. It could be a positive emotion; could be a negative one. Love, or it could be hate. And it also colors that moment of mental activity with a feeling—happy, unhappy, liking it, not liking it, these sort of things.
So these are what the mental factors do. Then it’s the whole conceptual mechanism that projects and does other things—assigns names, words, that type of stuff. So it’s all parceled out in a very nice scheme, which is helpful in the sense that when we understand that our mental activity is a composite of so many different things, so many different factors, then we can start to sort them out. We can see, well, these certain factors, these certain things are disturbing; they are destructive, not helpful at all. Like impatience, and anger, and frustration, or boredom, or these sort of things. And we can learn, well, what mental factors can I use to add to that mental activity that will get rid of these factors that are not very useful to me, and really make me unhappy, and hamper me in terms of my dealing with others in a beneficial way? And what are the actual technical things that I can work on? Let’s say, if I am insensitive to others. Well, you can work on interest—taking interest in them. That’s a mental factor. And then you can analyze, well, why would I be interested in them? Why would I care what somebody else feels, in terms of saying something to them, or coming late, or not showing up? Why would I care?
Well, now you get into some understanding there that accompanies the mental activity. That understanding would be some understanding of cause and effect, and some understanding that this is a human being and has feelings just as I do—no difference—they don’t like to be disappointed, or ignored, or yelled at, just as I don’t. So sometimes we use a line of reasoning and get an inferential understanding. Yes, they are a human being. And yes, my actions are going to have an effect on them, just as their actions would have an effect on me. So with that way of knowing, that inference, then you work yourself up to having a caring attitude and then taking interest. In this way, one can work with these mental factors, adjust them, through valid ways of knowing, to be able to make our mental activity, which is our experiencing—it’s another word for mental activity, experiencing—our moment-to-moment experiencing of life more not only constructive but happier, more beneficial to ourselves, more beneficial to others.
So sorting these mental factors out and being able to recognize them is very, very helpful. Very helpful. And, with some experience, we can start to figure out, well, what is it that’s causing the trouble. Because if we don’t analyze our mental activity into its components, and see that we can work on some, and others we might need to keep, then the danger is that you throw out the whole thing. That’s grasping to mind—in other words, grasping to this moment of mental activity—as one solid thing, one solid entity. And then you reject the whole thing: “Well, shut up!” and don’t do anything, type of response. And that’s not at all the most constructive way of dealing with someone. Although there are times when there’s that impulse that comes up to say, “Boy, is that an ugly dress you’re wearing today!”—an impulse to say that—and we hold our mouths. Because you don’t have to give your opinion on everything, and you don’t have to be honest in that sort of naive way that will hurt other people’s feelings.
So we learn to sort out the mental factors, these subsidiary awarenesses. And they are accompanying each moment of primary consciousness. The analogy that we can use is one of a chandelier. So all of them are together. The primary consciousness is like the big bulb in the center of the chandelier—if we’re using that type of chandelier—and the subsidiary awarenesses are the little bulbs around it that are all working together. And all of them share five—the technical term is concomitant features [congruent features]. In other words, five features in common that they share which helps us understand what’s going on with them. They all share the same object, the focal object (dmigs-yul). Let’s say this glass of water. And they all share the same cognitive appearance (rnam-pa, mental aspect, mental hologram), this sort of reflection—cognitive reflection or appearance. That actually is what we are cognizing—what we’re seeing—based on the focal object. And they all share the same reliance (rten), which means that they’re all relying on the photosensitive cells of the eyes; the same sensorial equipment, as it were. And they’re all occurring simultaneously. They share the same time (dus). It’s all happening at once. And they share what’s called the same natal source (rdzas, natal substance). That’s a difficult word. It means many things in different contexts. Here it doesn’t literally mean that they come from the same natal source. Natal source is like the oven for a pie. It’s where something comes from. It’s not what it’s made of; it’s where it comes from or what’s used to make it. Like the potter’s wheel for a pot. So the natal source of various types of awarenesses that we have are the karmic legacies, karmic seeds. It’s where they’re coming from. It’s sort of the oven out of which they come. Although not in such a physical sense, because neither the legacies nor the ways of being aware are physical, but sort of as a metaphor; they come from that.
And there are several systems here. In the system that I’m explaining now… There are two variant systems. This is the one that comes from Vasubandhu, a great Indian master who wrote the Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha). And there he’s not saying that they all come from the same karmic legacy or same karmic seed, but they share the same slant (ris-mthun)—that’s the meaning of it—meaning that they work harmoniously together without clashing. So they’re based on the same—either belief or intention are the two principal factors that would make all these factors that are occurring simultaneously fit together. The same belief—that this is a glass, or this is a dog, or this is true, or this is false. The same intention—to pick it up and drink it. So they’re all working harmoniously together in that slant (that’s about the best way I can think of translating the word). Otherwise you’d have contradictory things in the exact same moment. We could have indecisive wavering going back and forth; but, as we saw, indecisive wavering in one moment is only focusing on one thing, but without complete certainty about it: “I’m going to wear the blue shirt or the yellow shirt.” So, in that one moment—“Should I wear the blue shirt?”—everything has the same slant, in terms of liking blue or disliking blue, or being bored with wearing the same thing every day, whatever. It’s all sort of fitting together in that same package.
So these are the five things in common, according to Vasubandhu; that’s the Vaibhashika point of view. Asanga, his brother or relative, however you want to translate it, wrote a different version of this from another school of thought, the Chittamatra school—it’s called the Abhidharmasamuccaya (An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge)—and he gives another list, but there’s no need to go through the variant list. When the Tibetans study this material… It’s really quite interesting because, although there’s these two systems, they don’t just follow one of them. So they take this part from Vasubandhu and then they take the list of mental factors actually from Asanga, from the other one. That’s pretty hard actually to reconcile with the general principle that you don’t want to mix systems, but somehow this is the way that it’s done. And the Chinese do the same thing. That’s sort of the tradition in which this material is studied.
And so we have a cluster of various types of mental activity that are all constituting one moment of our experience, of experiencing something. You can’t experience without experiencing something; there’s always an object, its content. Mental activity has to have content.
Now how many different varieties of subsidiary awareness are there? Well, each abhidharma system—that’s special topics of knowledge—gives a different number. So we have 51 in Asanga’s system; Vasubandhu lists 46. Many of them are the same, some are not the same, and even the ones that are the same aren’t the same because he defines them differently. And you have the Theravada version that has another number. I forget the exact number; it’s 40-something. And, like this, there are many different systems.
And so what we have to realize is that these are not exhaustive enumerations but actually they’re just the most prominent ones, sort of the interesting ones for that particular author or that particular school. It’s like I often explain: You can divide a pie into 51 pieces two ways. Either you can divide the whole pie into 51 pieces, or you can divide part of the pie into 51 pieces and there’s a whole bunch of pie left over. And that’s the way that these mental factors are being specified. There’s 51 noteworthy ones, but there’s 84,000 (or something like that) different types of mental factors. So there’s tons of them. Every shade of emotion, every different type of way in which we can engage with something. Boredom, interest, etc. They divide it differently, and terms don’t always correspond to each other. I mean, they don’t even correspond to each other within the Buddhist system. As I said, these two authors will define often the same exact term quite differently; quite differently. So we always have to go back to the definition, and frequently the definition of the Tibetan term is not really the definition of the English word that’s being used to translate it. So that again becomes a bit of a problem.
Now it’s interesting if you go back to the first topic that’s studied in the Buddhist education, which is set theory. So you see, well, what areas of the two words… Let’s take—although it’s not listed as one of the mental factors, I think it’s a good example—loyalty. Well, what’s meant by
“loyalty” in a medieval European context is very different from what it would mean in a modern American context, and very different from what it would mean in a traditional Japanese context, and what it would mean in the army of these different societies, and what it would mean in the non-military societies in these different time periods. It means something different, although we use the same word. So you often will have to look at it from a point of view of set theory—how much of it overlaps with our Western usage of the word, how much does not overlap—in order to really work with it and identify it, and that’s really a great challenge for translators and teachers. The only way around it is to go to the definitions of a specific system and, if one is translating, to try to find the terms in our own languages that come the closest, even though that might not be the first try at translating the word that happens historically that the great pioneers who wrote the dictionaries came up with. There’s nothing sacred about a dictionary. Some people put it together, and just because the dictionary says this word is equivalent to that one, from one language to another language, doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s true. Again, we have to examine: Is this a valid source of information? How do you know it’s valid?
Let’s look then at some of these groups that we find in Asanga’s presentation, which is the one that the Tibetans are going to basically follow in the so-called higher schools—the Mahayana schools of Madhyamaka—as well as the Chittamatra system that this comes from. Many other factors of the Chittamatra system that are also explained in the same text are totally rejected by the Madhyamikas, but this aspect they accept. So again you have to know how it all fits in, fits into that general principle that we were discussing before—narrowing in on a more and more sophisticated understanding. So, when you narrow in, that doesn’t mean that you reject everything of the grosser explanation. A lot of it will stand okay for all the levels of explanation, but some we might have to refine. So it’s more like that, in terms of going from this system that analyzes the mental factors to other ones.
The 51 factors, subsidiary awarenesses, are divided into six groups. I don’t know that we’ll go through every one of the 51—that might be a bit tedious, especially given the limited time that we have—but I’ll discuss some of the more important ones, and see how our time goes as we go along. We have two talks for this.
The first group are what’s called the “ever-functioning subsidiary awarenesses.” These are the ones that are present in every single moment of our mental activity. And please bear in mind that mental activity never stops. Sleeping is a mental activity; in that mental state, the activity of the sense awarenesses is not functioning—they are temporarily stopped—and all that’s happening is mental consciousness, and either that’s cognizing a blankness or cognizing dreams. But it’s a mental activity.
In fact, mental activity is something which has no beginning and no end—an individual stream. Individual “stream” is not a good word—a stream is too physical—because all the points of the stream occur at the same moment, don’t they. We’re not talking like that. What we’re talking about is a continuum. It’s like a movie. It’s not that the whole movie plays at one time; only one moment of it plays at a time. So, similarly, here we’re talking like that, in terms of a mental continuum. So a “mind-stream” can be a little bit misleading. So the continuum has no beginning and no end; there’s continuity. It’s like there’s the experiencing of death, there’s the experiencing of rebirth. Ever-changing, without a break.
And there are always these five factors that are present in each moment. I’ll just go through the main categories. So there’s five of them. Then there are five what’s called “ascertaining ones.” And these are ones that help us to specify, ascertain, to become certain with specific objects. Things like concentration. To sort of get a fix on the object. Asanga defines them only in terms of when they’re accompanying constructive states of mind. Vasubandhu defines them in a more general way so that they are always present. There’s always some level of concentration, even if it’s poor concentration; that is a level. Each of these factors is spanning the whole spectrum from very, very little to a great deal. So interest: hardly any interest, or no interest (but that’s a level of interest), all the way up to super-interested. Really poor concentration—you can’t even stay on it for more than one moment—up until being able to stay on the object with concentration for hours. There’s always a spectrum. So Vasubandhu explains them in a more general sense so that they’re also always present.
Then we have—in Asanga’s list—we have eleven constructive emotions. These are constructive emotions, like believing something to be true, equilibrium, caring attitude, lack of cruelty, these sorts of positive states. It’s interesting because there are many that we would think need to be there but they’re not. Love isn’t there. Compassion isn’t there. Patience isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that those aren’t mental factors that we work with. Here we’re talking more on a fundamental level, much more fundamental. So love and compassion and patience, these would be in the part of the pie that wasn’t carved into 51.
Then we have six root disturbing emotions and attitudes. These are the real troublemakers, and there’s six of them. From our way of looking at it, there are actually ten. Because one of them, the sixth, is actually five things that are grouped together as one. Always this interesting way of counting. Different. Very funny.
I was translating for my main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, and he was explaining in the Kalachakra teachings… This is a very advanced topic of meditation that also covers astrology and astronomy, and it explains how to do various calculations like, if you’re going to a perform a ceremony, where you start, what direction; and if you are going to dig something in the ground, where you would start; and so on. So there’s calculation. And he explained it in terms of the arithmetic of how you do the calculation. And it was really something that I thought was very, very strange. And I said, “Wow. This is really strange.” Really “weird” was more the stronger word that I used in Tibetan. “It’s really weird, Rinpoche. The way that you’re adding and subtracting and multiplying.” Because they do it backwards from the way that we do it; they start at the other end. And he was always very strict with me and very, well, “heavy” I suppose is a good word for it. But he said, “Don’t be so arrogant…” Because I had a big problem with arrogance—maybe I still have a problem with arrogance—but coming out of my super Harvard background, I was pretty arrogant as a young man. And so he said, “Don’t be so arrogant. It’s different. It’s not weird. Different. Perfectly legitimate. It’s a different way of adding. Why is your way correct and the Tibetan way of doing it weird?” It’s a very good point, really a very good point. Especially when we go to our daughter’s kitchen and the way that she’s chopping vegetables is not the way—or the way she washes the dishes is not the way that we wash our dishes. It’s not that her way is weird or wrong. Different. Some parents have a problem with that.
So we have the six root disturbing emotions. Then there are 20 auxiliary disturbing emotions. They get a big play here in the list of the mental factors. You don’t have the auxiliary constructive ones, but you have the auxiliary disturbing ones. That goes into more detail. It’s not just hostility and aversion, but hatred, and spite, and keeping a grudge, and these sort of things. They fall into the categories of these six root ones, but are subcategories. And that’s a very good point, actually, because what it indicates is that we can fit all the various emotions that are not included in these lists as subcategories of the major categories, and that would be a way of, in a sense, organizing them. Not wishing harm to others, not harming others. Whether you call that “nonviolence” or whatever type of word you want to do. Well, in a sense, you can fit love, you can fit compassion—these sort of things—in that general category of not wishing harm. So we have 20 auxiliary disturbing emotions.
And then we have four changeable types of subsidiary awareness. “Changeable” meaning that they can go either one way or the other, in terms of being constructive or destructive. Like, for instance, regret. We can regret something negative that we did. That’s a positive state of mind. Mind you, that’s not guilt; that’s just regret. “I regret that I ate so much at dinner that my stomach is upset. Next time I am not going to eat so much.” That feeling that when we go to a buffet that we really have to get everything that’s there—a little bit of everything—otherwise we haven’t really gotten our money’s worth. That’s a very difficult one for many people to overcome—to just take some things at the buffet. Anyway, so you regret that you’re such a pig to eat everything and get sick. Then there’s the regret that—we regret a positive thing that we did. That tends in the negative sense. I regret that I helped somebody, for example. This sort of thing. That would be a negative type of regret. So regret is one of these changeable factors that depend on the other things that it accompanies. You see, that’s why it has to share the same slant with everything else that is occurring in that moment of mental activity.
So we have these general lists of six classes of subsidiary awareness.
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