Mental factors (Buddhism)

Mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika or chitta samskara;[1] 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).[2][3][4] 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 relationship between the main mind (Sanskrit: citta) and the mental factors can be described by the following metaphors:

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.[6][a]

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:[7]

The Mahavibhasa and Abhidharmakośa have 46 mental factors which include:

The ten kuśala mahābhūmikā dharmāḥ accompany the wholesome consciousnesses (kusala citta).

Within the Theravāda Abhidhamma tradition, the Abhidhammattha-sangaha enumerates the fifty-two mental factors listed below:[e]

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.

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."[11]

The six occasional or particular mental factors (pakiṇṇaka cetasikas) are ethically variable mental factors found only in certain consciousnesses.[12] They are:

The unwholesome mental factors (akusala cetasikas) accompany the unwholesome consciousnesses (akusala citta).

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.

The beautiful mental factors (sobhana cetasikas) accompany the wholesome consciousnesses (kusala citta).

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.

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:

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:

The five factors are referred to as object-determining is because these factors each grasp the specification of the object. When they are steady, there is certainty concerning each object.[15]

Alternate translations for the term mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika) include: