A. Berzin: Mind and the Five Aggregates, Karma Kagyu

Mind is the individual, subjective mental activity of experiencing something, and it constitutes a beginningless and endless individual continuum. 

Mind and the Five Aggregates: Karma Kagyu

Dr. Alexander Berzin

The Importance of Understanding the Mind

Mind is important to understand, since we all want to be happy and not to suffer and be unhappy. The source of a stable and lasting happiness, however, is not material wealth or physical pleasure, but the mind and our attitudes and emotions. Therefore, we need to understand what mind is and how it works in each moment. We also need to understand everything that makes up each moment of our minds, which is what the five aggregates are all about. When we understand them, we will understand our attitudes and emotions and how they work. If we understand how they work, we can gain confidence that we can overcome the destructive ones and we can change our attitudes. In short, we need to work on our minds, and doing that requires understanding our minds.
All Buddhist schools agree on what mind is, but there are several ways of presenting it and several different analyses in Buddhism of how mind works. Here, we shall present the sutra explanation given by the Karma Kagyu school.

Mind Is Mental Activity

In general, mind in Buddhism refers to mental activity – the individual, subjective experiencing of something. It refers to the mental activity of seeing, hearing or thinking something, and so on. That means that mind is not some immaterial “thing” that is doing the seeing, hearing or thinking of something.
Mental activity changes from moment to moment as it does different things at individual moments of its continuum, like seeing, hearing or thinking different things. In that sense, mental activity is impermanent and conditioned or affected by what it is doing. But, its essential nature – namely, its conventional and deepest natures – remains the same. In that sense, mental activity – meaning the essential nature of mental activity – is a permanent, unconditioned or unaffected phenomenon, not created by anyone.
Mental activity is individual. Buddhism does not assert a universal mind or collective unconscious. Although the conventional and deepest natures of all minds are the same, that does not make all minds one mind, like the example of noses. We all have noses, but we don’t all have the same nose. My experiencing of something and yours are not the identical experience, although both are the same in terms of their natures of being the experiencing of something.
Mental activity has a gross physical basis: in humans, a living, functioning brain and nervous system within a body. Even at the moment of death there is the mental activity of experiencing death; it occurs on the physical basis of subtlest energy. After death, there is the mental activity of experiencing the in-between state, bardo, and that occurs on the basis of subtle energy. The mental activity then continues when the mental activity connects with the gross physical elements of its next rebirth and goes on to function with them as its basis. Mind does not refer to any of these gross or subtle physical bases, but to its activity, its functioning, which in nature is always the same in essence.
Let’s restrict the discussion to just the mental activity in a human rebirth. We’re not talking about stimulating a neuron in a Petri dish with an electric current to fire. We’re talking about an actual living, functioning brain and nervous system. There can’t be mental activity without a living, functioning brain and there can’t be a living, functioning brain without some mental activity. So, mental activity cannot exist without a functioning physical basis. The activity and the functioning basis are inseparable.
Each individual continuum of mental activity is eternal. It has no beginning and no end. No one created it. It never has a break in its continuity, even when asleep, unconscious or dead. In that sense of being eternal, it is also permanent. Even with enlightenment, it still retains its individuality and goes on forever. Not all rivers enter the ocean, as in some Hindu tenets. Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha are individual different Buddhas, though their attainment is the same in nature. Their difference is demonstrated by the fact that different disciples have karmic connections with one or the other.
The functioning of mental activity, whether seeing, hearing or thinking, can be described from a physical, material point of view as the transmission of neural energy and biochemical exchanges in a neural network or it can be described from an individual, subjective point of view. Both refer to the same phenomenon, the functioning of mental activity, but can be differentiated from each other from two conceptual points of view – objective and subjective. The objectively, physically described phenomenon and the subjectively, experientially described phenomenon are nondual. “Nondual” does not mean identical. It means if one is a valid description, so is the other. The subjectively, experientially described mental activity of a living, functioning brain and nervous system is what we mean by “mind.”
Further, mental activity always has content. There can’t just be the mental activity of experiencing, it has to be the experiencing of something. There can’t be something being experienced without there being the experiencing of it. The two are nondual in this sense.

The Definition of Mental Activity: Clarity and Awareness

The most general definition of mind is clarity and awareness (gsal-rig). “Clarity” refers to the mental activity of giving rise to a mental aspect (rnam-pa) – what I call a “mental hologram.” Mental holograms are not necessarily visual, they can also be audio, olfactory and so on Further, they are not necessarily clear or in focus.

In more scientific terms, the mental activity is the activity of transforming the data of photons or electromagnetic waves, or sound waves, or the sensibilia of smell, taste or physical sensation, or brain waves, so that they arise as intelligible visual, audio or mental information. The mental activity displays that intelligible visual, audio or mental information in the form of a mental hologram of a sight, a sound or a thought. It is similar to the activity of a computer in transforming the data of strings of zeroes and ones into information and displaying that information as images on a monitor or sounds from a speaker, so that they can be further operated upon.

Awareness” refers to a cognitive engagement (‘jug-pa), though not necessarily conscious. “Cognitive” and “cognition” are the most basic terms for knowing – so, seeing, hearing or thinking something. The cognitive engagement can be accurate or inaccurate, decisive or indecisive, with understanding or without understanding, conceptual or non-conceptual.
Clarity and awareness are nondual. Transforming the data of photons or electromagnetic waves into intelligible information can be described as either giving rise to intelligible visual information or as seeing. They are nondual: they are the same phenomenon described from two points of view. Seeing is equivalent to transforming photons into intelligible visual information. It is not that the mental activity first transforms the photos into intelligible visual information in the aspect of a visual mental hologram, and then it sees that mental hologram. It is not that first a thought arises and then the thinking of the thought occurs.
Most importantly, there is no independently existent “me,” findable inside the material brain or inside an immaterial mind that uses the “brain” or “mind” to see or think things. That is a deceptive appearance. That doesn’t mean that no one is the agent of mental activity or no one is experiencing it. Mental activity, after all, is individual and subjective. It’s just that the person or individual is not something totally separate from the mental activity. However, the person is not identical with it either. Again, the person and mental activity are nondual. One cannot arise on its own without the other also arising. There can’t be mental activity without it being the mental activity of someone and there can’t be someone without some level of mental activity.
Thus, mental activity is devoid of being dualistic, both in the sense of clarity and awareness being established dualistically as existing independently of each other as well as persons and mental activity being established dualistically as existing independently of each other. The total absence of those dualities is called “voidness” (emptiness). The total absence of these pair of phenomena being established in impossible dualistic ways, when known non-conceptually, is known as voidness “beyond words and beyond concepts” (
brjod-pa-dang-rtog-pa-las ‘das-pa).

Each Moment of Mental Activity Is Made Up of Five Aggregates

Mental activity is multipart. There are seeing, hearing and thinking, but they are always accompanied by a cluster of many mental factors. These include interest, attention, concentration, feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness and either constructive emotions or disturbing ones. The various variables that make up each moment of individual, subjective experiencing of something are organized into the analytic scheme of the five aggregates. The five, though not in the traditional order in which they are usually presented, are the aggregates of:

  • Consciousness (rnam-shes-kyi phung-po)

  • Forms of physical phenomena (gzugs-kyi phung-po)

  • Distinguishing (‘du-shes-kyi phung-po)

  • Feeling a level of happiness (tshor-ba’i phung-po)

  • Other affecting variables (‘du-byed-kyi phung-po).

These five aggregates should not be thought of as five “bags” located somewhere in each of our brains; they are merely an analytical tool. One or more items from each group comprise each moment of the individual subjective experiencing of something.
The five aggregates include all non-static, changing phenomena. Although mental activity also includes static phenomena (like conceptual categories), the five aggregates do not include static phenomena, since they do not change from moment to moment.
We want to be able to identify the five aggregates in our moment-to-moment experience, so that when what we are experiencing – a mood, etc. – seems to be some solid heavy thing, we can deconstruct it into all its everchanging components, all of which are changing at different rates. Then we can understand what we need to work on and change within our mental activity.
Also, by understanding how the self, “me,” fits into these everchanging, multipart moments of experience, we can overcome our unawareness, the ignorance with which we imagine that the self exists dualistically as something separate from this clarity and awareness. Either we misconceive that the self is separate from both clarity and awareness, observing it or trying to control it, or that the self is identical with the awareness component and dualistically separate from the mental holograms that arise. When we think in either of these mistaken manners, we feel insecure. We want to try to make this independently existing “self” secure by getting things to us (desire), getting them away from us (hostility) or putting up the walls (naivety). These disturbing emotions lead to compulsive behavior and, as a result, we experience problems and suffering.

The Aggregate of Consciousness

The aggregate of consciousness included the various types of primary consciousness. There are six basic kinds – five sensory and one mental – not just one as in science:

  • Eye consciousness

  • Ear consciousness

  • Nose consciousness

  • Tongue consciousness

  • Body consciousness

  • Mental consciousness.

These six types of primary consciousness cognize the conventional essential nature of what some data is – a sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation or mental object. The five sensory ones are always non-conceptual. Mental consciousness may be non-conceptual or conceptual.
Each moment of sensory non-conceptual cognition with one of the five types or sensory consciousness is immediately followed by a moment of mental non-conceptual cognition with mental consciousness. Each of the two gives rise to mental holograms of the same information. In this fashion, the Buddhist analysis does include a presentation of the central role of mental consciousness: it just analyzes its role in more subtle detail.

Karma Kagyu accepts eight types of primary consciousness.

  • Foundation consciousness (kun-shes rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana; storehouse consciousness) is the foundation on which karmic tendencies, potentials and habits, as well as memories, are carried

  • Seventh mind (bdun-yid) is simultaneous with foundation consciousness and is aimed at it. It affects the foundation consciousness so that it gives rise to dualistic appearances.

The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena

There are three groups of forms of physical phenomena:

  • Sensibilia, meaning everchanging, momentary sensory data. These are conglomerations of particles and molecules large enough to be detected by sensory consciousness and only last for a tiny moment. They include tiny colored shapes (colored pixels of light, photons or electromagnetic waves), sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations. They arise from external elements and can be known by both a specific type of sensory consciousness and mental consciousness. This is not a Chittamatra view of Mind-only.

  • Forms that are only objects of mental consciousness – forms in dreams, imagination and visualizations, as well as atoms and subatomic particles.

  • Cognitive sensory cells – the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound sensitive cells of the ears, and so on. Although the traditional Buddhist presentation does not include here the cells of the nervous system, neurochemical transmitters and the brain, they could comfortably fit into this group.

Although the Gelug school includes as forms of physical phenomena conventional whole objects that extend over all their sensory data and extend over time, the Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya schools do not include them among the five aggregates.
Momentary photons or electromagnetic waves, sound waves, etc. are what function and produce effects. They change from moment to moment. Non-conceptual sensory cognition of them lasts only an instant, followed by an instant of non-conceptual mental cognition and then, immediately, by conceptual cognition.
During non-conceptual sensory and mental cognition, there is no manifest grasping for truly established dualistic existence. That is because during these two phases of cognition, the mental activity has not yet given rise to mental holograms of everyday, conventional whole objects. They give rise only to mental holograms of tiny colored shapes, tiny moments of sound and so forth.
First, a moment of an electromagnetic wave occurs and then, in the following moment, when that previous moment of an electromagnetic wave is no longer happening, mental activity gives rise to a mental hologram of the sight of colored shapes. The mental hologram is opaque, in the sense that the no-longer-happening moment of an electromagnetic wave that conditioned it is not visible through it. Another moment of electromagnetic wave is presently happening at that time.

Conceptual Cognition

Conceptual cognition mentally synthesizes and gives rise, as its appearing object, to an appearance (a mental hologram) representing a conventional whole object that extends over the sensory data from all the senses and over an extended period of time. As we continue to see tiny colored shapes slightly changing each moment, we have continuing conceptual cognition of this mental representation of a whole conventional object, but with a tiny time lag. These mental representations of conceptually synthesized conventional whole objects are the appearing objects of only conceptual cognition, starting the moment after sensory cognition of one moment of one sense followed by one moment of bare mental cognition. We do not actually “see” them, we only know them through mental cognition.
The conceptually synthesized conventional whole objects themselves are static, metaphysical objects. They do not actually function, because to function they would have to do something, which means they would have to change. It only seems that the nonstatic, changing mental representations of these conceptually synthesized conventional whole objects are functioning, but this is a deceptive appearance. It is an illusion. Actually, it is the everchanging, momentary electromagnetic waves that are functioning and producing effects.
Being static, mentally synthesized conventional whole objects are not included among the five aggregates. The mental representations of them are included as forms of physical phenomena knowable only by mental consciousness.
In the first moment of the arising of the conceptual cognition of a conceptually synthesized conventional whole object, there is still no manifest grasping for truly established dualistic existence, as was the case during bare non-conceptual sensory cognition followed by bare non-conceptual mental cognition. This is a special, unique Karma Kagyu assertion. That grasping only occurs from the second moment onwards, where grasping for truly established dualistic existence projects a dualistic appearance.
In the second moment of conceptual cognition, the conceptual cognition gives rise to a static, fixed category – a table, a dog, a hand and so on – which it mental labels on the conceptual synthesis of a conventional whole object. Together with this mental labeling, the habit of grasping for truly established existence now interpolates the deceptive appearance that the category is like a solid, concrete box and that the mentally synthesized whole object is a truly established object that exists in this box and is findable as a “this” or a “that.” The conceptual cognition may also give rise to a word or name designated on the category, and through the category, onto the synthesized whole object and its conceptual representation. Grasping for truly established existence takes this deceptive appearance to correspond to actuality and ignorance is unaware that this is not true. This confusion triggers disturbing emotions to arise, and they trigger compulsive karmic behavior, which results in suffering and problems.
Further, the habits of grasping for truly established existence gives rise to a dualistic appearance of the conceptually synthesized conventional whole object on the one side and the mental consciousness and mental factors cognizing it on the other, as if they were each truly established as concrete objects separately from each other. It also makes the mental consciousness and mental factors side appear as if they were identical with the self.  It is like the dualistic appearance of ourselves watching life around us as if watching a movie, with the mental side being the self, “me,” and the mentally synthesized conventional whole objects extending over time being the move we are watching from inside our heads. Grasping for truly established existence also takes that deceptive appearance to correspond to reality.
That grasping is not classified as belonging to any one of the five aggregates, but it is non-static and part of a cognition. It is neither a primary consciousness, nor a mental factor (such as attention or a positive or negative emotion), since it interpolates (projects) something that is not the case or not there, which neither primary consciousness nor mental factors do.
Karma Kagyu uniquely asserts that both non-conceptual cognition of colored shapes and this first moment of conceptual cognition of a mental synthesis into a conventional whole object are, by nature, Dharmakaya – mind-itself (clarity and awareness). Mind-itself (
sems-nyid) is like an ocean and the appearances of colored shapes and mentally synthesized conventional whole objects, as the effulgence or shining of awareness (rigs-kyi rtsal), are like waves of the ocean. These tiny first moments of conceptual cognition are not to be abandoned, just not followed out.

Mental Factors

A network of mental factors accompanies each moment of primary consciousness. Mental factors are aware of their objects in special ways, but without interpolating or repudiating anything. Interpolation (sgro-‘dogs) projects and adds something that is not there, while repudiation (skur-‘debs) denies something that is there. It is grasping for truly established, dualistic existence that interpolates and repudiates. Some mental factors perform functions that help the primary consciousness they accompany to cognitively take or engage with an object. Others add an emotional flavor to the cognitive taking of the object.

Each mental factor shares five congruent features (mtshungs-ldan lnga) with the primary consciousness it accompanies:

  • Reliance – relying on the same cognitive sensor

  • Object – cognitively aiming at the same focal object

  • Mental aspect – giving rise to the same cognitive semblance (mental hologram) of the focal object

  • Time – arising, abiding, and ceasing simultaneously

  • Natal source – having the same slant, meaning the entire network of mental factors works harmoniously together, for instance within the structure of a single belief or intention.

There are five ever-functioning mental factors (kun-‘gro lnga) that accompany each moment of mental activity. Two of them, distinguishing and feeling some level of happiness, constitute their own aggregates. This is because craving after feelings of happiness causes disputes among householders and also activates karmic potentials so that a “throwing karmic impulse” propels the mental continuum into a further rebirth. Distinguishing this view of reality from that view causes disputes among monastics. Moreover, distinguishing an incorrect view and then considering it correct is a further cause for uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

The aggregate of distinguishing focuses on a defining characteristic mark of an appearing object (a mental hologram) and differentiates it from everything other than itself. According to Karma Kagyu, in sensory cognition, which is always non-conceptual, it is unmanifest. So, when Karma Kagyu asserts that there is no distinguishing in bare non-conceptual sensory cognition or in bare non-conceptual mental cognition, this refers to no distinguishing of conventional whole objects as this or that object.
In the next moment after this sequence of bare non-conceptual cognition, conceptual cognition gives rise to an appearing object, a mentally synthesized conventional whole object that extends over all sense data and time, and a mental hologram that represents it.
In conceptual cognition of conventional whole objects, distinguishing focuses on the individual defining characteristic mark of the representation of the mentally synthesized conventional whole object and differentiates it as distinct from other objects that are not this representation. It also focuses on the composite feature of the mentally synthesized conventional whole object itself and differentiates it as distinct from other mentally synthesized whole objects that are not this object.
Starting in the second moment of conceptual cognition, distinguishing also focuses on the composite feature of the mentally labeled category and the individual defining characteristic of the designated word or name, if there is one. Distinguishing, however, does not apply a word or name. The second moment of conceptual cognition itself does that. Moreover, distinguishing is not the same as recognition. Recognition implies remembering what was cognized before and comparing with it what is cognized now.

The Aggregate of Feeling a Level of Happiness

Feeling refers to cognizing an object with happiness, unhappiness or a neutral feeling. Most feelings are somewhere on the spectrum between extreme unhappiness and extreme happiness. Most of the time they are undramatic. A neutral feeling is what we feel in extremely deep meditation in the fourth dhyana – a level of mental stability far deeper than shamatha – and in formless absorptions.

Happiness is that feeling which, when it stops, we wish to meet with it again. Unhappiness or suffering is that feeling which, when it arises, we want to be parted from it. A neutral feeling is one that is neither of the former two.

Feeling a level of happiness is defined as how we experience the ripenings of our karma – meaning the ripenings from the karmic potentials and tendencies laid down by our previous compulsive karmic behavior. What ripens is our compulsively encountering and cognizing various everchanging phenomena in each moment. Our feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness while that happens is how we experience it. Our karmic potentials do not give rise to these phenomena we experience, but to our encountering, cognizing and experiencing them.

Feeling, then, refers to

  • How we experience the aggregate factors with which we are born – body, intelligence, talents, personality, etc. – and the aggregate factors in each moment as they change moment to moment over the lifetime. Note that feeling itself is one of these aggregates

  • How we experience the environment in which we live

  • How we experience the events that happen to us similar to what we have done in the past

  • How we experience our compulsively wanting to repeat our past patterns of behavior.

We experience each of these with some level on the scale between happiness and unhappiness, or if we are in very deep meditative absorption, with a neutral feeling. A level of happiness is what we experience as the ripening of constructive karma; a level of unhappiness is what we experience as the ripening of destructive karma.Without feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness while our mental activity is giving rise to a mental hologram of these above-mentioned things and cognitively engaging in them, we are not experiencing them. Feelings can accompany sensory or mental cognition (both non-conceptual and conceptual) of these happenings and the content that arise.

The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

The aggregate of other affecting variables (‘du-byed-kyi phung-po, Skt. samskaraskandha) include all the other mental factors besides distinguishing and feeling a level of happiness. It also includes noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed), like impermanence, aging, motion, tendencies, and persons (the self). Some presentations refer to this as the aggregate of volition. This is because one of its components, urge (sems-pa), is the most prominent member of this aggregate and, in these presentations, what I translate as “urge” is translated as “volition.” But, as can be seen with the definitions of the mental factors given below, “volition” or “will” in English comes closer in meaning to the mental factor “intention,” rather than “urge.”  

The Five Ever-functioning Mental Factors

The five ever-functioning mental factors include distinguishing and feeling a level of happiness, but here, in the aggregate of other affecting variables, only the other three are included.

  • An urge (sems-pa, mental impulse) is the main mental factor that affects the mental activity and what sets it in motion, causing it to go toward something specific, like the movement of a piece of iron caused by a magnet. It causes it to go toward tiny colored shapes as well as to conceptually synthesized conventional whole objects, so as to cognitively engage with them. By describing the functioning of an urge as like the movement of a piece of iron caused by a magnet, the definition indicates that it is not that the urge first sees an object and then goes toward it in order to see it. Karma is equivalent to an urge when it is compulsive, based on previously built up potentials and tendencies. A mental urge or karma moves the mental activity into thinking something about an object. A physical and verbal urge or karma moves it into doing or saying something to or about the object.

  • Paying attention or taking to mind (yid-la byed-pa) is the mental factor that differentiates an object as an object to focus on, thus enabling the mental activity to cognize it. This mental factor pays some level of attention to the object, from very little attention to very much attention. The attention may be only momentary, or it may be repeatedly when we lose our focus; it may be painstaking or effortless. In addition, attention may consider an object in a certain manner, in which case we may call it “consideration.” It may consider its object correctly in accord with what it actually is or incorrectly as what it is not – for instance, happiness rather than suffering, clean rather than unclean, static rather than nonstatic.

  • Contacting awareness (reg-pa) is the mental factor that differentiates that the object of a cognition, whether non-conceptual or conceptual, is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and thus serves as the foundation for experiencing it with a feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling.

The Five Ascertaining Mental Factors

The five ascertaining mental factors (yul-nges lnga) help primary consciousness to take its object with certainty:

  • Intention (‘dun-pa) is, in general, the wish that causes the mental activity to take possession of this or that desired phenomenon. Aimed at a phenomenon that has previously been thought about and in which it has keen interest, the intention may be wanting to meet (or not to meet) with an object or goal previously thought about, wanting not to be parted (or to be parted) from an object or goal previously thought about, or having keen interest (or no keen interest) in an object or goal previously thought about. So, intention includes interest and varies in strength on a spectrum from strong to weak. Further, it is the wish to do something with or to the object once obtained.

  • Regard (mos-pa) takes its object to have some level of good qualities – on the spectrum from no good qualities to all good qualities – and may be either accurate or distorted.

  • Mindfulness (dran-pa) holds on to some cognized object without losing it as an object of focus. It is equivalent to a type of “mental glue” that holds on to the object of focus without letting go and prevents the mental activity from leaving it. Its strength spans the spectrum from weak to strong.

  • Mentally fixating (concentration) (ting-nge-‘dzin) keeps the mental activity staying focused on an object and may vary in strength from weak to strong.

  • Discriminating awareness (shes-rab) decisively discriminates that something is correct or incorrect, constructive or destructive, and so on. It adds some level of decisiveness to distinguishing an object of cognition – even if that level is extremely weak – and may be either accurate or inaccurate.

All Ten Ever-functioning and Ascertaining Mental Factors Work Together

If we analyze in terms of the combination of a sequence of moments of bare sensory and bare mental cognition of the data of one sense together with subsequent moments of conceptual cognition, we can understand how all ten of these factors work simultaneously and harmoniously together, directed at the same focal object with the same mental hologram and the same slant.

When cognizing an object, there is

  • Initially, a compelling urge to go in its direction

  • Distinguishing it from other objects that it is not

  • Paying attention to it

  • Regarding it as having good or bad qualities

  • Discriminating awareness, adding certainty that it is not some other object and that it is constructive or destructive

  • Intention, wishing to obtain the desired object of interest, having thought about it before, in order to do something with it or to it

  • Contacting awareness of it as pleasant or unpleasant

  • Feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness

  • Mentally fixating, staying focused on it

  • Mindfulness, not letting go.

The Eleven Constructive Mental Factors

  • Believing a fact to be true

  • Moral self-dignity or having a sense of values

  • Care for how our actions reflect on others and so restraint from acting outrageously destructive

  • Detachment – bored disgust with objects of compulsive desire

  • Imperturbability – not being belligerent in response to negative behavior of others, or getting cranky and aggressive when suffering

  • Lack of naivety, not being insensitive to the effects of our behavior on others and on ourselves, and on our own and others’ situations

  • Perseverance

  • A sense of fitness – self-confidence that we can stay focused and accomplish what we wish

  • A caring attitude – taking seriously cause and effect and situations, thus bringing us to act sensitively and constructively, not wanting to hurt others’ feelings

  • Equilibrium – mental activity without flightiness or dullness, in a natural state of spontaneity and openness

  • Not being cruel – not wishing to hurt anyone, plus compassion for them 

  • Many more – love, patience, compassion, generosity, ethical self-discipline, and so on.

Root Disturbing Emotions

Disturbing emotions are defined as mental factors that, when they arise, cause us to lose peace of mind and self-control. There are six root disturbing emotions, the last of which includes five disturbing attitudes.

  • Longing desire (for objects we do not have), attachment (not wanting to let go of what we do have) and greed (the wish to have even more of what we already have)

  • Anger (‘khon-khro) – hostility (zhe-sdang) is a subcategory of anger, aimed at persons.

  • Arrogance

  • Unawareness or ignorance – the bewilderment or dumbfoundedness of not knowing behavioral cause and effect or the very nature of reality. Bewilderment is a heaviness of mind and body. Naivety (gti-mug) is subcategory of unawareness, aimed at persons.

  • Indecisive wavering about accepting or rejecting what is true

  • Deluded outlooks – a group of five disturbing attitudes, the most important of which is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (‘jig-lta). It seeks and latches on to some transitory network from our own samsara-perpetuating five aggregates with an accompanying conceptual framework (attitude) that it tightly holds on to. The conceptual framework is that of “me” or “mine.” It itself does not fabricate and interpolate this conceptual framework; the grasping for an impossible self or “soul” of a person that accompanies it interpolates it. This grasping is for the aggregates to be either identical with a static, partless, independently existing “me” or completely separate and the possession of that “me” as something it lives in and can control.

Auxiliary Disturbing Emotions

These derive from the three poisonous, toxic disturbing emotions: longing desire, hostility or naivety. This list includes

  • Hatred

  • Resentment

  • Concealment of having acted improperly

  • Outrage

  • Envy

  • Miserliness

  • Pretention

  • Concealing of shortcomings (hypocrisy)

  • Smugness or conceit

  • Cruelty

  • No moral self-dignity (no sense of values)

  • No care for how one’s actions reflect on others (lack of restraint from outrageously destructive behavior)

  • Foggy-mindedness

  • Flightiness of mind

  • Disbelieving a fact

  • Laziness

  • Not caring

  • Forgetfulness

  • Being unalert

  • Mental wandering.

Changeable Mental Factors

These mental factors are unspecified as either constructive or destructive. They become constructive or destructive depending on the ethical status of the cognition they accompany. 

  • Sleepiness

  • Regret

  • Gross detection – rough investigation

  • Subtle discernment – fine scrutiny to discern specific details.

Bodhichitta is not included among the mental factors, and it is also not a primary consciousness. It is what is called a principal awareness (gtso-sems), a type of mental activity that is a composite of primary consciousness and specific mental factors. It consists of mental consciousness aimed at one’s own not-yet-happening enlightenment and is accompanied by the intention to attain it and the intention to benefit all beings by means of its attainment. It is held by the force of love, compassion and exceptional resolve with which it is generated.

Noncongruent Affecting Variables

Noncongruent affecting variables do not share all five items in common with the primary consciousness and cluster of mental factors that they accompany – the same reliance, focal object, mental hologram, time and harmonious slant – though they do share some, like time.
They are imputations on an individual mental continuum (mental activity), which is made up of five ever-changing aggregates of experience. In other words, they are nonstatic facts about the various items in the five aggregates. No one imputes them; they are objective facts. They perform functions; they produce effects. Examples include:

  • Impermanence

  • Change

  • Aging

  • Motion

  • Tendencies for mental factors to arise, including karmic tendencies for compelling urges to arise to repeat some behavior

  • Persons.

All these are facts that apply and, in a sense, are present, with each moment of the mental continuum. That includes the tiny moments of bare non-conceptual sensory cognition of tiny colored shapes and moments of conceptual cognition of mentally synthesized conventional whole objects.
In each moment,

  • All five aggregate factors of the cognition (the forms of physical phenomena, primary consciousness and mental factors) are impermanent (nonstatic) – they are changing

  • The forms of physical phenomena (the tiny colored shapes) are in motion

  • The primary consciousness and mental factors have varying strengths because of the strength of their potentials and tendencies to repeat, which are also changing

  • There is a person experiencing all of this

  • The person is aging.

  • And if we see the tiny colored shapes that our conceptual cognition synthesizes into an appearance representing a conventional whole body – our own or someone else’s – it is a fact that these are the colored shapes and body of a person.

Impermanence, change, aging and motion are not the same as what is impermanent, changing and aging or moving, nor can they exist on their own as something separate, independently of what is impermanent, changing and aging or moving. A tendency to repeat also is not the same as something that repeats, nor can it exist as something separate and independent of what repeats. So, these are facts about these objects that change every moment and perform functions.
Although these facts are valid facts that apply to moments of bare sensory non-conceptual cognition and all their aggregate components, they are too subtle for the mind to perceive them instantly in the first moment. Change or motion or a tendency to repeat can only be cognized over several moments, which means that they can only be cognized conceptually then as static conceptual syntheses. But that does not mean that change, motion, and so forth are just conceptual constructs, like conventional whole objects are. The motion and moment to moment changing of electromagnetic waves or tiny colored shapes are objective facts and they produce effects. The changing of the presence or strength of various mental factors in each moment is also an objective fact and it produces effects.

Persons, the “Self”

The same is the case with persons, “me” and “you.” In terms of moments of non-conceptual or conceptual mental activity made up of five aggregates, each moment is the individual, subjective experiencing of something, and so it is a fact that there is a person experiencing it. The person as someone experiencing something is not the same as what he or she is experiencing, nor can a person as someone experiencing something exist as something separate, independently of something it is experiencing. But like impermanence, change or motion, a person is too subtle for the mind to perceive instantly in the first moment – whether it is oneself or someone else.

The cognitive sequence for cognizing a person is:

  • A moment of electromagnetic waves or photons that are the basis for a person

  • A moment of bare sensory non-conceptual cognition giving rise to a mental hologram of the tiny colored shapes that are the basis for a person

  • A moment of bare mental non-conceptual cognition giving rise to the same. This moment and the previous moment of non-conceptual cognition are too short to be able to ascertain their cognitive objects, either the colored shapes or the person. They are non-determining cognitions (snang-la ma-nges-pa), without manifest distinguishing.

  • A moment of conceptual cognition giving rise to a mental synthesis of a conventional whole body of a person that extends over all sense data and over time, and a mental synthesis of a conventional whole person as an imputation on the basis of this whole body, extending over all five aggregates and over time. The mental factor of distinguishing becomes manifest and distinguishes what appears as this conventional whole body from what is not this body, but it does not distinguish what appears as the conventional whole person from what is not this person. The conceptual cognition ascertains the conventional whole body, but not the conventional whole person.

  • A moment of conceptual cognition giving rise to mental syntheses of both a conventional whole body and a conventional whole person as an imputation on it. The mental factor of distinguishing distinguishes each of them from what is not them and both the body and the person are ascertained. So far, there is no problem.

In the next moment of conceptual cognition,

  • The habit of grasping for true dualistic existence gives rise to the deceptive appearance that the conventional whole body and the conventional whole self are objects whose existence is established by something findable on their own sides, independently of the conceptual cognition that mentally synthesizes them; and this grasping cognizes them as such. It also gives rise to the deceptive dualistic appearance that the body is established by itself on one side as the cognized object, and the consciousness on the other side as the cognizing person; and this grasping cognizes them as such.

  • At the same time, the habit of grasping for the impossible self (or “soul”) of a person gives rise to the deceptive appearance of the conventional whole self as knowable by itself, independently of cognition of the conventional whole body immediately preceding and simultaneously with it.  

  • These two graspings cause discriminating awareness incorrectly to take these deceptive appearances to correspond to reality, and the accompanying ignorance (unawareness) adds not knowing that this is incorrect.

  • Based on this unawareness, mental activity gives rise to disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior. As a result, mental activity gives rise to suffering.

We need to develop discriminating awareness that this deceptive appearance is incorrect; it does not correspond to reality. The refutation that this deceptive appearance does not correspond to reality, however, does not negate the existence and functioning of the self. It is just that we cannot distinguish it in non-conceptual cognition and, when we do distinguish it, we distinguish it as a static mental synthesis, mentally constructed by conceptual cognition. But that does not render the self as merely some imaginary object that doesn’t know, do or experience anything. The self is part of the aggregate of other affecting variables, but just too subtle for us to cognize it non-conceptually. Thus, the arising of a hologram of it in non-conceptual sensory and mental cognition and the arising of a hologram representing a mental synthesis of the self into a conventional whole object are inseparable as waves of Dharmakaya.


Mind is the individual, subjective mental activity of experiencing something, and it constitutes a beginningless and endless individual continuum. It is not some immaterial object that is doing this activity, moment-to-moment. Its conventional defining characteristic is that it is clarity and awareness.
Clarity is the activity of giving rise in each moment to a mental hologram:

  • Either non-conceptually to a mental hologram of sensory information – a moment of tiny colored shapes or a momentary sound

  • Or conceptually to a mental hologram of a static conceptually synthesized conventional whole object, represented by a nonstatic mental appearance, together with a static category and often also a word or name.

Awareness is the cognitive engagement – seeing, hearing, thinking and so on. Clarity and awareness are nondual. They are two ways of referring to the same occurrence – a moment of mental activity.
Each moment of mental activity can be analyzed as comprised of five aggregate factors, but these are merely an analytical scheme that includes only the non-static components, since these are affected by other phenomena and, in turn, affect others. The static phenomena cannot be affected by anything.
The mental hologram that arises is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomenon. The cognitive engagement is made up of the four other aggregates. On the basis of these four are   items, like impermanence, motion and the self, that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something, and which are included in the aggregate of other affecting variables.
The aggregate of consciousness is the primary consciousness that cognizes the essential nature of the mental hologram as a sight, a sound or a mental object. The primary consciousness is accompanied by a cluster of mental factors sharing five things in common with it: they are focused on the same external focal object, give rise to the same mental hologram and so on. These are divided among the other three aggregates.
The aggregate of feeling is the mental factor of feeling something on the spectrum between happiness and unhappiness is how the mental hologram is experienced and it arises as what arises as a result of karmic aftermath. It can also be a neutral feeling in deep states of meditation.
The aggregate of distinguishing is the mental factor of distinguishing the individual defining characteristic mark of the mental hologram as being this and not anything other than this. It is not manifest during sensory non-conceptual cognition and mental non-conceptual cognition of tiny colored shapes, but only with conceptual cognition of mentally synthesized conventional whole objects.
The aggregate of other affecting variables includes all the remaining mental factors plus the noncongruent affecting variables, such as impermanence, motion and the self. The mental factors include:

  • Mechanical ones, like urge, attention, intention, concentration and mindfulness

  • Constructive ones, like belief in facts, love and patience

  • Destructive ones, like attachment, anger, pride, jealousy and ignorance

  • Changeable ones, like regret and sleepiness.

When we are feeling disturbed or in a bad mood, we need to deconstruct it into all its component parts with this analytic scheme of the five aggregates and recognize that each component is changing each moment and each at a different rate. There is nothing solid about the conceptually synthesized “experience.”
If one or more component is weak in the cognition, like attention or concentration, we can strengthen it, or if one component is a troublemaker, like anger, we can counter it by activating or strengthening other components, like love.
The scheme also helps us to understand that the self is a fact about each moment of the mental activity. But one moment of non-conceptual cognition is too fast to be able to distinguish and cognize the self. The self can only be distinguished and cognized conceptually, over a sequence of moments, when it is mentally synthesized into a conventional whole object.
Nevertheless, the self is not just a conceptual construct. Someone is experiencing the mental activity, not no one. But that person, me, is nondual with the mental activity. It arises simultaneously with the mental activity but is neither identical with the mental activity nor totally separate from it. It is what is called an imputation on the mental activity. When we understand that, we can counter the ignorance with which we believe that the self is a concrete separate entity, which then triggers longer desire, anger and naivety to get things to it, get things away from it or build walls around it to make it secure. In this way, we gain liberation from suffering, and eventually, with bodhichitta, enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Transcription of a seminar, Oslo, Norway, October 2019