The Buddha’s Material Mind


‘The Pali word “chitta” may be translated into the English word “mind”, subject to the proviso that the latter be not understood in the sense of something non-material which is it is usually taken to mean. For “chitta”, according to both the Hindu and Buddhist ways of thinking, is not non-material, but belongs to the side of matter, however rarefied it may be.’

Nikunja Vihari Banerjee, The Dhammapada (Page 95)

Within the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha defines reality as a combination, integration or entanglement of physical environment and mind in all its defined aspects. Notice that the Buddha defines reality as ‘matter’ prior to explaining the different aspects of the developed human mind that interacts (via the senses) with that environment. This ‘bundle’ of reality is usually translated as the ‘five aggregates’ and is always presented in the following manner:

  1. Matter – including living forms (rupa)
  2. Sensations – feelings about the external world received via the senses  (vedana)
  3. Perceptions (samjna)
  4. Thought formations (sankhara)
  5. Consciousness (vijnana)

An ‘aggregate’ is an English translation for the Pali term ‘kkhandha’, which literally means a ‘heap’, ‘gathering’, or ‘collection’ of something that is used in the Buddhist sense to define a distinct category. Matter (rupa), for instance, is used to explain the entire material realm – which includes the living body and its senses. The aggregate of matter is comprised of the four great elements (i.e. solidity, fluidity, heat and motion) and their derivatives, etc, and interestingly is said by the Buddha to include certain types of thoughts, ideas, or conceptions which exist as mind-objects (dharmayatana). This demonstrates straight away that the Buddha considered matter the basis of reality, and the mind to be an important aspect of this material realm. The aggregate of sensation includes all physical and psychological sensations – which may be defined as ‘pleasant’, ‘painful’, or ‘neutral’. The Buddha defined six senses which include the eye (visible sensations), ear (audible sensations), nose (smell sensations), tongue (taste sensations), body (sensing tangible objects), and mind (which senses thoughts, ideas and conceptions). The aggregate of perception distinguishes between physical and psychological stimulus, and identifies the differing material and psychological objects perceived through the six senses. The aggregate of thought formation represents the generation of volitional (or ‘willed’ thought – which is conditioned by the aggregates of matter, sensation and perception prior to its arising. However, as the Buddha does not posit a spirit, consciousness or mind that exists in opposition to the world of matter, the Pali term ‘sankhara’ also refers to anything in existence that is conditioned – including all psychological and physical events – as the five aggregates are used to define the entirety of conditioned existence. The aggregate of consciousness does not recognise an object, it represents only the presence of the awareness of an object. For instance, visual consciousness arises when the eye encounters an object which is blue in colour – but the visual consciousness (which underlies all ability to see with the eyes)  remains ‘unaware’ of the object of or its colour. It is only through the aggregate of perception that the object and its colour are recognised. Seeing does not mean ‘recognising’ and it is the same within Buddhist thinking for the other five senses.

The Buddha recognises ‘six’ senses because he views the mind as a ‘sense-organ’ which perceives ‘thought’ (and presumably emotion). In the contemporary West, however, although five senses are common, there are a number of extant theories advocating a higher number – including more than the Buddha’s six – with neurologists identifying as many as nine, and others as many as twenty-one!  I think the telling point is that the Buddha identifies the mind as being part of the physical body – what might today be termed the brain-mind nexus – and does not at any point state that the mind, as either consciousness or spirit, stands in opposition to a physical world. The Buddha quite clearly identifies the mind as materially derived, whilst also identifying its psychological (or ‘thought-producing’) aspect. In other words, the Buddha appears to be stating that in the natural state, a human mind cannot exist without a human body. All this is stated within the aggregate of matter – from which arise the other four aggregates. Even the Buddha’s use of ‘consciousness’ (vijnana) does not correlate in anyway with modern, Western notions of the term that are ‘idealistic’ in origination, and seem to take on a meaning that combines what the Buddha would refer to as ‘thought formations’ (fourth aggregates), with a notion of an eternal religious ‘soul’ (or ‘atma’) – an idea the Buddha thoroughly rejected. The Buddha perceived an impersonal and integrated world of mind and body that did not contain any notion of an assumed Brahmanic ‘atma’ – or ‘divine spark’. Therefore, for the Buddha, ‘consciousness’ only exists as long as a sense organ is in contact with a sense object – when this sensory contact is broken – the particular form of consciousness in question (i.e. eye or ear, etc) ceases to function. Of course, with a sensory impairment, such as blindness, eye consciousness has ceased to function altogether whilst the individual is alive, but when the physical body ceases to function at the time of death, all sensory consciousness also ceases function (along with the functioning of the other aggregates). This is an important observation, because it also suggests that for the Buddha, the concept of ‘mind’ (as thought formation) also ceases. The Buddha’s description of reality suggests that ‘mind’ only functions within a specific set of conditions, material circumstances, does not pre-exist physical birth, and does not post-exist physical death.

When all this is considered, why do many people assume that the Buddha’s thinking is ‘idealistic’? This is surely an incorrect assumption, premised upon a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. This category error probably stems from the false belief that the Buddha’s assessment of reality is ‘religious’ in nature, when it is obviously secular and premised upon a rational and empirical assessment of reality by a human mind freed from the historical conditioning of religious thinking. The Buddha rejected (as unsound) any theological notion that an unseen god created the physical universe (and all life in it), and then connected himself in a special manner to each human being through an individual ‘divine spark’. For the Brahmanic system, this  ‘divine spark’ is termed ‘atma’ or ‘breath of life’. Through introspective meditation, the Buddha looked into his psycho-physical interior and stated that no such ‘divine spark’ existed, and that when a person was fully enlightened to the nature of reality, all volitional karma ceased to function (i.e. there is no rebirth in the ultimate state of understanding), and that there were no such entities as ‘unseen’ gods, etc. The Buddha used a remarkably ‘modern’ rationale to ascertain the non-existence of the religiously inspired, immaterial realm. This has been the position of Buddhism ever since, and applies to Brahmanism just as it does to any other theistic religion – be it Islam or Christianity. The Buddha was not a god or a messenger of god – and there was no ‘hidden’ theistic meaning to existence. The Buddha achieved this insight through the meditative (i.e. psychological) exercise of non-identification with thought formation (in the mind to the point of cessation of all thought), and through the act of physical discipline (vinaya) with regards to how he ‘related’ to the material world around him. This led to the permanent state of ‘non-attachment’ to thoughts arising in the mind (and to the state of non-arising of thought), and the rejection (and complete cessation) of desire (in the mind and body) to otherwise attractive phenomena existing in the material environment. For the Buddha, this included a celibate lifestyle, and the exchanging of a ‘personal’ existence for a completely ‘impersonal’ existence. Through disciplining the mind and body, the Buddha discovered an indifferent collectivity to existence that contained no personal desire, and so saw the end of suffering caused by desire – this is the perfected, tranquil and harmonious state of ‘nibbana’ experienced by an individual that no longer exists in the dualistic, deluded or egotistically attached sense.

Given that the Buddha’s theory of mind is purely materialistic (with conscious awareness being a special arrangement of matter due to the evolutionary process as described by the Buddha in the Agganna Sutta), why is Buddhism still often misrepresented as a ‘religion’? Part of the problem is the Buddha’s insistence upon a disciplined ‘Sangha’, or ‘monastic’ community, with even the Buddhist lay-community expected to keep a certain number of moral rules or precepts. This set-up seems very similar to the Christian monastic orders that developed much later, but for the Buddha and his followers, there was no ‘grace of god’ at the end of their path.  Another reason lies in the modern Western habit of interpreting the Buddha’s path as a form of ‘idealism’ (despite all the Buddhist teachings to the contrary), and assuming the Buddha is advocating a type of ‘secular’ god-worship – with him as the physical manifestation of god on earth. Again, this is a grave error of interpretation, and bears no relation to the Buddha’s expressed teachings, even if the different schools of Buddhist interpretation are taken into account. Of course, certain politicised elements of modern Buddhism that ‘sell’ the Dharma to gullible Westerners, propagate the non-Buddhist myth of ‘reincarnation’, when it is clear from the Buddha’s description of the five aggregates that ‘nothing’ pre-exists birth, or post-exists death – certainly nothing pertaining to a ‘personality replete with memories’ that transmigrates from one life-time to another. This is true even if the Buddha’s rather vague explanation of an impersonal ‘rebirth’ is taken into account – a process that only exists in the deluded mind, and ceases with the realisation of complete enlightenment. The concept of reincarnation was probably integrated very late into certain types of Buddhist thought from theistic Brahmanism, and may relate to the ‘prophets’ that frequent the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, etc. Whatever the case, the Buddha denies any divine origin and rejects the concept of theism being of any value to practitioners. Finally, misinterpretations of the ‘Yogacara’ School have had a substantial effect upon Buddhism being mistakenly viewed as ‘idealistic’. The name itself – ‘Yogacara’ – is probably non-Buddhist in origin and translates as ‘yoga practice’, or the ‘structured practice of spiritual discipline’. From a Buddhist perspective, this school is also known as ‘Citta-matra’, or ‘mind only’, and it is this translation that has caused a number of misconceptions to arise (particularly evident in DT Suzuki’s English translation of the Lankavatara Sutra – a sleight of hand used by Suzuki to justify the distorted version of Zen that he followed and propagated in Japan leading-up to WWII – and in the West following Japan’s defeat after WWII)). The point here is easy to clear-up. The founders of the Yogacara School did not disagree with the Buddha, and did not think that the ‘mind’ as defined by the Buddha was ‘permanent’. On the contrary, the founders Asaṅga and Vasubandhu fully agreed that the mind was impermanent and subject to change and dissipation upon physical death. The point they were making, (and which is often missed), is that it is within the mind (i.e. the ‘thought formations’) that the ‘will’ to become enlightened must be propagated and developed, so as to generate the appropriate level of psychological and physical discipline, or commitment to the Buddha’s path. As the Buddha defines the mind as being part of the physical world, and considering he advocates a physical and psychological transformation into a collectively existing and impersonal being, there is nowhere in his teachings any grounds for the Buddha suggesting that ‘only the mind exists’. Mind exists temporarily (as a special arrangement of matter) just as long as a physical body is alive, but as matter (according to the Buddha) is always changing, and its forms are impermanent, so is the capacity of the human mind as defined through the five aggregates. The human mind has the power and capacity to manipulate and develop the material world (i.e. modern science and medicine, etc), but also possesses the ability to navigate an individual Buddhist practitioner from a purely selfish existence and into a selfless collectivity,

Further Reading:

Banerjee, Nikunja, Vihari, The Dhammapada, (2000), Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers

Narada Thera, The Dhammapada – Pali Text and Translation with Brief Notes, (1993), Buddha Educational Foundation

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, (1972), Gordon Fraser

Rahula, Walpola, Zen & The Taming of the Bull – Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought, (1978), Gordon Fraser


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