Mental factors (Sanskrit: चैतसिक, romanized: caitasika or chitta samskaraचित्त संस्कार;Pali: cetasika; Tibetan: སེམས་བྱུང sems byung), in Buddhism, are identified within the teachings of the Abhidhamma (Buddhist psychology). They are defined as aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object, and that have the ability to color the mind. Within the Abhidhamma, the mental factors are categorized as formations (Sanskrit: samskara) concurrent with mind (Sanskrit: citta). Alternate translations for mental factors include "mental states", "mental events", and "concomitants of consciousness".
Mental factors are aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object and have the ability to color the mind. Geshe Tashi Tsering explains:
The Tibetan for mental factors, semlay jungwa chö (Skt. chaitasika dharma), means phenomena arising from the mind, suggesting that the mental factors are not primary to the mind but arise within a larger framework. A mental factor, again, is defined as the aspect of the mind that apprehends a particular quality of an object. Because it is characterized by the qualities of activity and non-neutrality, it has the ability to color the mind in dependence on the way it manifests. Hence, a feeling of desire from seeing what is conceived as a beautiful object affects the other mental factors that are present at that time, and this colors the whole mind.
The relationship between the main mind (Sanskrit: citta) and the mental factors can be described by the following metaphors:
The main mind is like screen in a cinema, and the mental factors are like the images projected on the screen. In this analogy, we typically do not notice the screen because we are so caught up on the images.
The main mind is like a king who sits passively on a throne, and the mental factors are like the king's busy ministers.
Traleg Rinpoche states that the main distinction between the mind and mental factors is that the mind apprehends an object as a whole, whereas mental factors apprehend an object in its particulars.[a]
Lists of mental factors
Within Buddhism, there are many different systems of abhidharma (commonly referred to as Buddhist psychology), and each system contains its own list of the most significant mental factors.[b][c] These lists vary from system to system both in the number of mental factors listed, and in the definitions that are given for each mental factor. These lists are not considered to be exhaustive; rather they present significant categories and mental factors that are useful to study in order to understand how the mind functions.[d]
Some of the main commentaries on the Abhidharma systems that are studied today include:
Note that this list is not exhaustive; there are other mental factors mentioned in the Theravada teachings. This list identifies fifty-two important factors that help to understand how the mind functions.
Seven universal mental factors
The seven universal mental factors (sabbacittasādhāraṇa cetasikas) are common (sādhāraṇa) to all consciousness (sabbacitta). Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "These factors perform the most rudimentary and essential cognitive functions, without which consciousness of an object would be utterly impossible."
Unwholesome consciousness (akusalacitta) is consciousness accompanied by one or another of the three unwholesome roots—greed, hatred, and delusion. Such consciousness is called unwholesome because it is mentally unhealthy, morally blameworthy, and productive of painful results.
Twenty-five beautiful mental factors
The beautiful mental factors (sobhana cetasikas) accompany the wholesome consciousnesses (kusala citta).
The twenty-five beautiful mental factors (sobhana cetasikas) are:
Wholesome consciousness (kusalacitta) is consciousness accompanied by the wholesome roots—non-greed or generosity, non-hatred or loving-kindness, and non-delusion or wisdom. Such consciousness is mentally healthy, morally blameless, and productive of pleasant results.
Mahayana Abhidharma tradition
Abhidharma studies in the Mahayana tradition are based on the Sanskrit Sarvāstivāda abhidharma system. Within this system, the Abhidharma-samuccaya identifies fifty-one mental factors:
Five universal mental factors
The five universal mental factors (sarvatraga) are:
Sparśa – contact, contacting awareness, sense impression, touch
These five mental factors are referred to as universal or omnipresent because they operate in the wake of every mind situation. If any one of these factors is missing, then the experience of the object is incomplete. For example:
If there is no sparśa (contact), then there would be no basis for perception.
If there is no vedana (feeling, sensation), there is no relishing of the object.
If there is no saṃjñā (perception), then the specific characteristic of the object is not perceived.
If there is no cetanā (volition), then there is no movement towards and settling on the object.
If there is no manasikāra (attention), then there is not holding onto the object.
Five object-determining mental factors
The five object-determining mental factors (viṣayaniyata) are:
^Traleg Rinpoche states: "The fundamental distinction made in Yogacara philosophy between the mind and mental events is that the mind apprehends an object as a whole, whereas mental events apprehend an object in its particulars. If we perceive a table, then the perception of the table itself would be related to the mind, whereas the particular characteristics of that table would be the object of perception for the mental events. First, we have an immediate perception of the table. After that, we have certain feeling-tones, certain judgments, involved with that particular perception. Those things are related to the mental events. The immediate perception is the only thing related to the mind. That seems to be the major distinction between the mind and the mental events."
^Alexander Berzin states: "There are many different systems of abhidharma (chos-mngon-pa, topics of knowledge), each with its individual count and list of subsidiary awarenesses. Often, the definitions of the awarenesses they assert in common differ as well."
^Bikkhu Bodhi states: "A second distinguishing feature of the Abhidhamma is the dissection of the apparently continuous stream of consciousness into a succession of discrete evanescent cognitive events called cittas, each a complex unity involving consciousness itself, as the basic awareness of an object, and a constellation of mental factors (cetasika) exercising more specialized tasks in the act of cognition. Such a view of consciousness, at least in outline, can readily be derived from the Sutta Pitaka's analysis of experience into the five aggregates, among which the four mental aggregates are always inseparably conjoined, but the conception remains there merely suggestive. In the Abhidhamma Pitaka the suggestion is not simply picked up, but is expanded into an extraordinarily detailed and coherent picture of the functioning of consciousness both in its microscopic immediacy and in its extended continuity from life to life."
^The lists of mental factors are not considered to be exhaustive. For example:
The Dalai Lama states: "Whether the system includes fifty-one mental factors or more or less, none of those sets is meant to be all-inclusive, as though nothing is left out. They are only suggestive, indicative of some things that are important."
Alexander Berzin states: "These lists of subsidiary awarenesses are not exhaustive. There are many more than just fifty-one. Many good qualities (yon-tan) cultivated on the Buddhist path are not listed separately – for example, generosity (sbyin-pa), ethical discipline (tshul-khrims), patience (bzod-pa), love (byams-pa), and compassion (snying-rje). According to the Gelug presentation, the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes) – mirror-like, equalizing, individualizing, accomplishing, and sphere of reality (Skt. dharmadhatu) – are also subsidiary awarenesses. The various lists are just of certain significant categories of subsidiary awarenesses."