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Analysis of Mental States
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In the Abhidharma, mental states are defined as 'those factors which are associated with consciousness, which arise and perish with consciousness, and which have the same object and bases as consciousness.' This immediately indicates the very close relationship between consciousness (chitta) and mental states (chetasika). One of the best analogies to describe their relationship is that of the framework of a building and the building materials, or a skeleton and the flesh that covers it. Here the types of consciousness are the skeleton, while the mental states are the flesh that goes to build up a body of conscious experience.

With this in mind, it is helpful to consider the types of consciousness enumerated in the Abhidharmic analysis of consciousness in terms of the mental states with which they are likely to be associated. One's own analysis will not necessarily correspond exactly to the analysis in the texts. But insofar as certain mental states naturally appear to follow from particular types of consciousness, we will arrive at an understanding of how certain mental states and types of consciousness go together. This is far more important than memorizing the list of mental states.

There are three general categories of mental states: wholesome, unwholesome, and unspecified. Unspecified mental states are neither wholesome nor unwholesome, but take on the nature of the other mental states with which they are associated. These unspecified mental states play a central role in the construction of conscious experience, much like the cement without which the building of experience cannot hold together.

There are two groups of unspecified mental states: universal (or primary), and particular (or secondary). The universal mental states are present in all types of consciousness without exception, whereas the particular mental states only occur in certain types of consciousness.

There are seven universal unspecified mental states: (1) contact, (2) feeling, (3) perception, (4) volition, (5) one-pointedness, (6) attention, and (7) vitality.

Contact is the conjunction of consciousness with an object. It is the coexistence of subject and object which is the foundation of all conscious experience. Feeling is the emotional quality of an experience--pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent. Perception implies recognition of the sense-sphere of the faculty to which a given sense impression pertains, that is, to the sphere of eye consciousness, ear consciousness, and so on. Volition, in this context, does not mean free will but an instinctive volitional response. One-pointedness occurs not in the sense of a factor of absorption but in the sense of the limitation of consciousness to a particular object. As mentioned in Chapter 34, one-pointedness occurs even in ordinary, non-meditative types of consciousness. One-pointedness is a necessary mental state in all types of consciousness because it is one-pointedness that isolates a given object from the undifferentiated stream of objects. Attention can be seen in relation to one-pointedness. One-pointedness and attention are the negative and positive aspects of the same function. One-pointedness limits one's experience to a particular object whereas attention directs one's awareness to a particular object. One-pointedness and attention function together to isolate and make one conscious of a particular object. Vitality refers to the force which binds together the other six states of consciousness.

There are six particular unspecified mental states: (1) initial application, (2) sustained application, (3) decision, (4) envy, (5) interest, and (6) desire. We have already encountered some of these in the context of the factors of absorption. The third particular mental state, usually translated as 'decision' (adhimokkha), is a very important one that indicates a particular decisive function of consciousness. The literal meaning of the original term is 'liberation,' in the sense here of 'liberation from doubt.' The sixth particular mental state, 'desire' (Chhanda), may be so translated as long as we remember that desire for sensual pleasure (kamachhanda) is negative and destructive, whereas desire for liberation (dhammachhanda) is positive and constructive. Desire, therefore, has both a wholesome and an unwholesome function, depending both on the object of desire and on the other mental states with which desire is associated.

Let us go on to look at the unwholesome mental states. There are fourteen of them, and they are associated with the twelve unwholesome types of consciousness (see Chapter 33) in five ways, which differentiates them into five groups. The first three groups take their character from the three unwholesome roots: delusion (moha), greed (lobha), and ill-will (dosa). The fourth group consists of sloth and torpor (thina and middha); the fifth consists of doubt (vichikichchha).

Let us look at the group headed by delusion. This group is universally present in all types of unwholesome consciousness and it includes four factors: delusion, shamelessness, unscrupulousness, or fearlessness, and restlessness. Both shamelessness and fearlessness have moral and ethical connotations, which function internally and externally. When we speak here of shamelessness, what we mean is an internal inability to restrain oneself from unwholesome actions due to the inability to apply one's personal standards to one's actions. And when we speak of fearlessness, or lack of dread, what we mean is the inability to recognize the application of social standards of morality to one's actions.

With these two terms, we have an indication that standards of morality are arrived at both inwardly, in relation to oneself, and outwardly, in relation to others. Particularly in cases of deluded consciousness, we find a peculiar pattern of behavior. When a person's consciousness is dominated by delusion and he is unable to apply internal standards of morality, he acts in an unwholesome way. Similarly, when he is unable to apply social standards of morality, he is careless about his actions. This inability to apply internal and external standards of morality to one's actions creates restlessness, the fourth factor in this delusion-dominated group. The second of the five groups of unwholesome mental states is the greed-dominated group: here greed is accompanied by mistaken belief and conceit. The personal and practical extension of a greed-dominated consciousness is a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, the accumulation and exhibition of knowledge, and the occurrence of pride, egoism, and conceit. The third group of unwholesome mental states is that dominated by ill-will. This ill-will is accompanied by envy, avarice, and worry. The fourth group includes sloth and torpor, which are particularly relevant in the context of volitionally induced categories of consciousness. The fifth group consists of doubt, which applies in all cases where decision is not present--namely, the decision (or 'liberation from doubt') that is one of the six particular unspecified mental states.

There are nineteen mental states common to all wholesome types of consciousness. A number of these are factors conducive to enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya dhamma), and thus play an important role in the cultivation and development of one's spiritual potential. The list begins with faith and includes mindfulness, shame, dread, non-greed, non-hatred, balance of mind, tranquillity, lightness, elasticity, adaptability, and proficiency and rectitude of psychic elements and of mind. Notice the presence of shame and dread, the direct opposites of the unwholesome mental states of shamelessness and fearlessness.

The nineteen wholesome mental states are occasionally accompanied by six additional ones: the three abstinences (right speech, right action, and right livelihood); the two illimitables or immeasurables (compassion and appreciative joy); and reason or wisdom. When these six are included, there are twenty-five wholesome mental states in all. Wisdom occupies a position within the wholesome mental states similar to the position of desire within the unspecified ones. Just as desire can be unwholesome or wholesome depending on its object, so wisdom can be mundane or supramundane depending on whether its object is ordinary knowledge or ultimate reality.

To reinforce what I have said about the close relationship between the types of consciousness and the mental states, I would like briefly to refer to the subjective classification of consciousness touched on in Chapter 33. There we spoke of the types of consciousness according to their karmic value--wholesome, unwholesome, resultant, and functional. Particularly within the sphere of sense desire, we spoke of a further classification of consciousness in terms of feeling, knowledge, and volition. Combining these, we have within the sphere of sense desire a fourfold subjective classification of consciousness according to its karmic, emotional, intellectual, and volitional value--in other words, (1) in terms of wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral; (2) in terms of pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent; (3) in terms of being associated with knowledge, disassociated with knowledge, or associated with wrong beliefs; and (4) in terms of being prompted or unprompted.With this fourfold scheme, we can see how the types of consciousness are determined by the presence of mental states. For example, within the karmic value category, wholesome types of consciousness are determined by wholesome mental states. Within the emotional value category, the types of consciousness are determined by the presence of states that belong to the feeling group (mental pleasure, mental pain, physical pleasure, physical pain, and indifference). Within the intellectual value category, the presence or absence of delusion determines whether a particular type of consciousness is associated with knowledge, disassociated with knowledge, or associated with wrong belief. And within the volitional value category, the presence or absence of doubt and decision determines whether a particular type of consciousness is prompted or unprompted, non-spontaneous or spontaneous.

Thus the four subjective classifications of consciousness clarify just how the various types of consciousness are determined by the presence of appropriate mental states--wholesome, unwholesome, associated with knowledge, and so forth.

Finally, I would like to examine how the mental states operate in counteracting each type of consciousness. This is interesting because the Abhidharmic analysis of consciousness has sometimes been likened to the Periodic Table's analysis of elements by their respective atomic values. One cannot help but be struck by the almost chemical properties of the mental states: just as, in chemistry, a base neutralizes an acid, and vice versa, so in the analysis of consciousness, one mental state counteracts certain other mental states, and vice versa.

For example, within the factors of absorption (see Chapter 34), the five mental states counteract the five hindrances (initial application counteracts sloth and torpor; sustained application counteracts doubt; interest counteracts ill-will; happiness counteracts restlessness and worry; and one-pointedness counteracts sensual desire). Where there isn't a one-to-one relationship, groups of wholesome factors counteract a single unwholesome factor or group of unwholesome factors (faith counteracts doubt and delusion; mental balance and tranquillity counteract doubt and worry; lightness, elasticity, adaptability, and proficiency of the mind and the psychic elements counteract sloth and torpor; and so forth). Again, when decision is present, doubt is not.

In this way, the various wholesome mental states counter and oppose various unwholesome ones. The presence of certain mental states eliminates states opposed to them and thus makes room for states in accord with them. Through understanding the relationship between consciousness and mental states, and through cultivating the wholesome mental states, we can gradually change and improve the character of our conscious experience.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 313-319].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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