51 Mental Factors Most Relevant to Spiritual Practice from the Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandhu
In his Abhidharmakosha, Vasubandhu sets forth an exhaustive list of “mental factors’ that he considers most relevant to spiritual practice. He divides the master list of 51 into thematic groups, helping us to locate any particular factor we may need to practice with. The list and its subgroups are a deconstruction of our mental processes that explore the meaning and effect of our key mindstates on our spiritual development. Understanding and practicing with these is, for Vasubandhu, a path to wisdom and liberation. It starts with the omnipresent (factors that seem to form the basis of most human thoughts and feelings) and ends with an extensive breakdown of our occasionally-present, non-virtuous mindstates.
The 5 omnipresent (ever-recurring) mental factors
These five, which are another perspective on the Five Aggregates,* are omnipresent, not in a permanent sense of being autonomously present all the time, rather in the sense of an ever-recurring, tightly coupled series of cognitions and affects that allow for the apparent arising of a Self, as well as the arising of all our narratives about the people, places, things, concepts and beliefs that we hold so dear. Note that, counterintuitively, the fifth mental factor here, Contact, doesn’t arise until the other four have occurred because for our consciousness to become aware of a sense contact, the other four mental factors had to arise and create a narrative with us, as the contacter or perceiver who recognizes a sense contact.
In Thich Nhat Han’s updated, and in many places completely revised, version of these 51 mindstates, he places Contact first. In our DeepDharma commentary, we have held to the original order and traditional translations and understandings of the text.
* The Five Aggregates are the description for the basis of how our own awareness of our Self arises—see Five Aggregates under Ancient Texts and Commentaries.
- Feeling (the second Aggregate) – the mental assignment of an affinity or an aversion (or neither) to every sense impression, so is always present.
- Recognition / discrimination / distinguishing awareness (the third Aggregate) – enough weightiness to a sense impression to create a karmic narrative about the impression, a necessary step in all perceptions.
- Intention / mental impulse – “I will” – purposefully establishing a mental aim to make something happen mentally, or mentally and then physically; nothing can happen without an intention, intention is the mental initiator for everything we do, and so ever occurring.
- Perception/ attention / mental application – focused grasping of an object of awareness – setting the direction of the mind in response to establishing an intention; a necessary second step after intention for us to do anything and so ever-recurring.
- Contact (the first Aggregate) – the connection of an object with the mind, this may be pleasurable, painful or neutral as experienced by the aggregate of Feeling – a mental impression that arises from a sense object meeting with a sense organ (an impression, light hitting the eye, for example); this is the first aggregate and always present.
These are omnipresent. For there to be any arising of cognition or affect, these five must co-arise and co-exist. Seeing a plant on his desk, a positive Feeling arises in Carl. This Feeling immediately couples with a labeling action, “nice plant.” The labeling leads instantaneously to the setting of an Intention—I will relax at the sight of the plant. This establishes Self, Carl, the “I” in this Intention, and an intended action. This Intention shifts the mind’s Attention to focus on fulfilling the intended action, which leads to the attentional field co-arising as a Contact in Carl, the perceiver (“I, Carl, see the plant.”), who arose with the setting of the Intention.
The 5 determinative mental factors
In five different ways, the following five mindstates determine our ability to remain unwavering and constant in our practice.
- Resolution / aspiration – directing effort to fulfill desired intention, basis for diligence and enthusiasm – the extent of our resolve, the depth of our aspiration, determines, at least to a significant degree, how successful or unsuccessful we are in following the path.
- Interest / appreciation – holding on to a particular thing, not allowing distraction – the degree of attention given, one’s ability to remain single-pointed in one’s attention can also determine, at least to a significant degree, how successful we are in staying on the path.
- Mindfulness / Recollection – repeatedly bringing objects back to mind, not forgetting – this is the second part of a meditation practice; bringing the mind back to the meditative object (usually the breath) when it has been distracted; it determines our effectiveness in practice.
- Samadhi / Willfully forced focus – one-pointed focus on an object, basis for increasing intelligence – this is strongly willing the mind to stay absolutely focused on the meditative object; it determines, when it has been aroused, a very effective practice.
- Insight/ Intelligence / Wisdom – “common-sense intelligence”, fine discrimination, examines characteristics of objects, stops doubt, maintains root of all wholesome qualities – this is the ability to clearly see and understand the nature of things; it determines our ability to be steadfast in our practice.
The 4 variable (positive or negative) mental factors
There are four mental factors which Vasubandhu has observed to be sometimes positive and sometimes negative in leading us along the path. Two others have this variability, 18 and 19, Suppleness and Equanimity.
- Sleep – makes mind unclear, sense consciousness turns inwards – positively, sleep is necessary to sustain life, it recharges us; negatively, in is an inward focus that can distort awakened perceptions.
- Regret – makes the mind unhappy when regarding a previously done action as bad, prevents the mind from being at ease – positive when it leads to a peaceful change in strategy so that an action will have a peaceful outcome; negative when it leads to recrimination or guilt.
- General examination / coarse discernment – depending on intelligence or intention, searches for rough ideas about the object – positive when this is done mindfully and with wisdom; negative when this is motivated by greed/anger/delusion; this coarse examination pushes us forward to 14, Precise Analysis.
- Precise analysis / subtle discernment – depending on intelligence or intention, examines the object in detail – positive when motivated to create wholesome actions through body, speech, and mind; negative when driven by unwholesome actions.
The 11 virtuous mental factors
These eleven are virtuous mental attitudes; they are particularly efficacious in producing a mind that naturally stays on course to liberation.
Note that 18 and 19 are not necessarily always virtuous. The first three, 15 through 17, are also known as roots of virtue.
- Faith / confidence / respectful belief – gives us positive attitude to virtue and objects that are worthy of respect. Whether blind or not, all types of faith are, at least to some degree, useful and wholesome. Three types are distinguished, with the last one being the preferred type (the first being least preferred, the second being somewhat OK):
- uncritical faith: motivation is for no apparent reason – this is the “just believe it” type of blind faith that the Buddha decried but which institutional Buddhism often advocates;
- longing faith: motivation is by an emotionally unstable mind – this is a not-firmly-reasoned, intermittent belief that is fundamentally unfounded though periodically desired veneration; it is a temporary fidelity based on a desire at the moment;
- conviction: motivated by sound reasons – this is faith that arises, not blindly, but from reason and experience; it leads to liberation.
- Sense of Propriety / self-respect – usually the personal conscience to stop negative actions and perform positive actions – it is always virtuous to do “the right thing;” to look at conditions clearly and respond appropriately.
- Considerateness / decency – avoids evil towards others, basis for unspoiled moral discipline – it is always virtuous to be sensitive and mindful with regard to others; as much as possible, one should aim not to be heedless and unfeeling to others’ circumstances and feelings.
- Suppleness / thorough training / flexibility – enables the mind to engage in positive acts as wished, interrupting mental or physical rigidity – this is a virtuous response to changing conditions in which conditions are seen with awareness, not as attributes of desirableness or aversiveness which would make them unwholesome.
- Equanimity / clear-minded tranquility – peaceful mind, not being overpowered by delusions, no mental dullness or agitation – this is the virtuous, pacific mindstate that arises from a lack of greed, anger, and ignorance, it is a mental stability with characteristics such as inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, and integrity; however, when misunderstood it becomes non-virtuous and leads to indifference, aloofness, rigidity, and even nihilistic thinking.
- Conscientiousness / carefulness – causes avoiding negative acts & doing good; mind with detachment, non-hatred, non-ignorance and enthusiasm – this is being in accord with and adhering to “right” behaviors and beliefs, especially the eight rights of the noble eightfold path, and avoiding non-virtuous unwholesome behaviors and beliefs.
- Renunciation / detachment – no attachment to cyclic existence and objects – this is the most virtuous of mindstates in which there is a renunciation of Self and so of our narratives about externals as desirous.
- Non-Hatred / imperturbability – no animosity to others or conditions; rejoicing – when there is no animosity to others or to conditions, we achieve the very high virtuous positive mindstate of imperturbability in which nothing internal nor eternal can disturb our serenity.
- Non-Bewilderment / no- ignorance / open-mindedness – usually understanding the meaning of things through clear discrimination, never unwilling to learn – this is the virtue of the wisdom that arises from wisdom and seeing with unadulterated clarity.
- Nonviolence / complete harmlessness – compassion without any hatred, pacifist – a virtuous mindstate in which we act in ways that give no fear and in which there is a lack of anger or hostile feelings arising in our perceptions.
- Enthusiasm / diligence – doing positive acts (specifically mental development and meditation) with delight – this is virtuous in that it is the excitement that arises for devotion to the path as a result a deliberate and continued inspiration derived from practice.
The 26 non-virtuous mental factors
The 6 root delusions
Delusion here is defined as any mental factor or affect that, when developed, brings about suffering and uneasiness to self or others.
- Ignorance – not knowing karma or the meaning and practice of the 3 Jewels, includes closed-mindedness, lack of wisdom of emptiness – in this context, ignorance is not knowing about karma and emptiness.
- Attachment / desire – definition: not wanting to be separated from someone or something. Grasping at aggregates in cyclic existence causes rebirth & suffering of existence – this is the delusion that leads us to cling to our narratives and perceptions (note we aren’t clinging to objects, but our narratives about those objects).
- Anger – wanting to be separated from someone or something, can lead to relentless desire to hurt others; causes unhappiness – this is the delusion that people, places and thing are inherently aversive, causing us to become angry.
- Pride – inflated superiority, supported by one’s worldly views, which includes disrespect of others – this is the delusion that a puffed-up ego or Self will be somehow beneficial (see Arrogance under Beliefs and Practices).
- Doubt / deluded indecisive wavering – being in two minds about reality; usually leads to negative actions – this is the delusion that arises from conflicting perceptions what leads to wavering in our practice.
- Wrong views / speculative delusions – based on emotional afflictions. Distinguished in 5 types: belief in the Self as permanent or non-existent (as opposite to the view of emptiness); denying karma, not understanding the value of the 3 Jewels; closed-mindedness (my view -which is wrong- is best); wrong conduct (not towards liberation) – Erroneous views, particularly those just mentioned above, that leave us deluded in our worldview and practice; the worst might be the delusion of a permanent Self.
The 20 secondary non-virtuous mental factors
Attachment, Anger, and Ignorance, alone or in combination as indicated below, are the source of these next 20 mindstates.
Derived from Anger:
- Wrath / hatred – by increased anger, malicious state wishing to cause immediate harm to others – this is a deeply malevolent, forceful, often vindictive manifestation of anger; a deeply held belief in the mindstate of non-harming is the antidote.
- Vengeance / malice / resentment – not forgetting harm done by a person, and seeking to return harm done to oneself – a hostile desire for punishment or retribution for a real or imagined injury or offense believed committed to one’s person.
- Rage / spite / outrage – intention to utter harsh speech in reply to unpleasant words, when wrath and malice become unbearable – perhaps the strongest form of anger, rage is a burning, explosive response to a feeling of outrage at what is perceived to have been done to oneself; rage is often expressed in loud, severe, coarse, and rough speech.
- Cruelty / vindictiveness / mercilessness – being devoid of compassion or kindness, seeking harm to others – the intentional infliction of physical or mental pain and distress done willfully and with malice.
Derived from Anger and Attachment:
- Envy / jealousy – internal anger caused by attachment; unbearable to bear good things others have – mental anguish or resentment arising from a desire for the possessions or qualities of another.
Derived from Attachment:
- Greed / avarice / miserliness – an eager clinging to possessions and their increase with a deep seated, excessive and intense desire to acquire or possess more than has or needs; a coarse, selfish and sometimes brutal eagerness for possessions.
- Vanity / self-satisfaction – seeing one’s good fortune giving one a false sense of confidence; being intoxicated with oneself – inflating one’s sense of Self through self-admiration and attachment to one’s appearance or accomplishments.
- Excitement / wildness / mental agitation – distraction towards desire objects, not allowing the mind to rest on something wholesome; obstructs single pointed concentration – attachment to someone or something for which one has an affinity or an aversion which leaves one aroused, suffering, and lacking in mindfulness.
Derived from Ignorance:
- Concealment – hiding one’s negative qualities when others with good intention refer to them, this causes regret – the delusion that one can hide or shield from observation one’s unwholesome behaviors, speech, or thoughts without the arising of self-recrimination or guilt.
- Dullness / muddle-headedness – caused by fogginess which makes mind dark/heavy – like when going to sleep, coarse dullness is when the object is unclear, subtle dullness is when the object has no intense clarity – a lack of clarity about the ultimate nature of things; a deluded and foolish rather than mindful perception of people and places and things.
- Faithlessness – no belief of that which is worthy of respect; it can be the idea that virtue is unnecessary, or a mistaken view of virtue; it forms the basis for laziness – a lack of trust in the path, a lack of confidence in the truth of the teachings, a trust that can arise from direct experience when there is clarity of mind rather than a lack of reason.
- Laziness – being attached to temporary pleasure, not wanting to do virtue or only little; opposite to diligence – one of the five hindrances; an ignorant reluctance to labor for a more wholesome life.
- Forgetfulness – causes to not clearly remember virtuous acts, inducing distraction to disturbing objects – not “just forgetting”, but negative tendency – this is thoughtless inattention or neglect that arises from disregard for and ignorance of our spiritual path and aims.
- Inattentiveness / lack of conscience – “distracted wisdom” after rough or no analysis, not fully aware of one’s conduct, careless indifference and moral failings; intentional seeking mental distraction like daydreaming – a lack of caring for wholesome conduct and moral indifference to wholesomeness.
Derived from Attachment and Ignorance:
- Hypocrisy / pretension – pretend non-existent qualities of oneself – deludedly puffing oneself up by attaching to and falsely professing beliefs and virtues one does not have.
- Dishonesty / smugness – hiding one’s faults, giving no clear answers, no regret, snobbery & conceit, self-importance and finding faults with others – similar to hypocrisy, this is being disposed to lie, cheat, or defraud because of deluded attachments to an unaccomplished Self.
Derived from Attachment, Anger and Ignorance
- Shamelessness – consciously not avoiding evil, it supports all root and secondary delusions – a lack of a guiding sense of self-reproach leading to a lack of respect for propriety and morality; arises from sociopathy.
- Inconsiderateness – not avoiding evil, being inconsiderate of other’s practice, ingratitude – an attitude of carelessness, thoughtlessness, and deliberate inattentiveness toward others and the doing of the unwholesome.
- Unconscientiousness / carelessness – delusion plus laziness; wanting to act unrestrained – this is the opposite of mindfulness and a desire to act for the benefit of others, springing from a deluded attachment to Self and a frustration at the dictates of wholesomeness.
- Distraction / mental wandering – inability to focus on any virtuous object – our karmic greed, anger, and delusion is what distracts us from seeing clearly and walking the path without making it difficult to pay attention to the present, without making it difficult to be mindful; similar to excitement.