In Vasubandhu’s 30 verses we learn about the five universal mental factors that make up human thinking. These mental factors are: contact, attention, perception, sensation, and volition, and are defined as follows:
• Contact: One of our sense organs–eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, mind–makes contact with an object in the phenomenal world.
• Attention: The focus of our attention is drawn to the object.
• Perception: We assign the object a tone of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
• Sensation: Our perception develops into a coherent thought or emotion.
• Volition: We act on our thoughts/emotions by either bringing more mental attention to the object or doing something with our physical body.
It should be noted that the universal mental factors are not linear; they are cyclical. And they run on a loop inside our minds every second of every day.
For example, if we see a picture of a family member (contact), it may distract us from what we are doing (attention). If we recently had an argument with that person, the picture might engender unpleasant feelings (perception), which result in us feeling angry and replaying the argument in our mind (sensation). As a result of these negative feelings, we might call a friend to complain about what happened (volition).
This endless loop isn’t bad, per se. However, it can create problems for us and rob us of inner peace because our thoughts and emotions are dependent on the things happening around us.
In order to take control of the five universal mental factors we must be aware of what’s going on in our head, and we must have a safe object on which to focus our attention.
In Buddhism, we develop awareness around our thoughts through the practice of Right Mindfulness, the seventh tenet of the Noble Eightfold Path. When we practice Mindfulness, we pay attention to what’s going on in our minds instead of letting our thoughts run on autopilot.
To be clear, we don’t try to control our thoughts—that’s impossible—we just keep track of what they are. A simple way to do this is by labeling them as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We can do this practice anytime, anywhere, and as we become used to the habit of labeling our thoughts, Right Mindfulness will become our default state of being.
Next, its necessary for us to have an object to focus on when our thoughts are unwholesome. The cycle of the five universal mental factors makes it clear that what we pay attention to has a great effect on our thoughts and emotions. So if our mind is trending in a negative direction, it can be helpful to focus on something positive.
One excellent object for our attention is Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Amida is the personification of our own enlightened nature and a reminder of the infinite wisdom, infinite compassion, and infinite mercy that make up the Dharmakaya. According to Buddhist cosmology, Amida is also an enlightened being who, upon seeing the defiled nature of the world, created a land of ultimate bliss, promising that everyone who takes refuge in him would be reborn there.
So reflecting on him and his qualities leads us to have minds filled with kindness and generosity. To engage in this reflection, we simply need to chant Nembutsu. When we do this, our negative thoughts are short-circuited for a brief period, and our mind becomes more aligned with our buddha-nature. In other words, we think less like defiled beings and more like buddhas.
The Nembutsu chant is: “Namu Amida Butsu,” which means, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.” By repeatedly reciting this chant, “Namu Amida Butsu,” we are making the conscious decision over and over again to bring our attention to the positive qualities of our own enlightened nature. And we are turning away from the objects of attention, which cause negative thoughts and feelings to arise in our minds.
In this way, we become active participants in our mental habits as opposed to letting our environment and random chance determine what happens in our minds
In the example from earlier, in which someone sees the picture of a family member and becomes angry, they might chant: “Namu Amida Butsu,” and reflect on the qualities of Amida for several minutes in order to bring their mind back to a calm state.
If the anger arises again, the individual would simply begin chanting again. They do this over and over until the habit-energy of anger is dissipated, and they are able to look at the picture of their relative without negative thoughts arising.
Of course, this doesn’t only work with pictures. Any time we find our minds are filled with negative thoughts, we can use the practices of Right Mindfulness and the Nembutsu chant of Namu Amida Butsu, to cleanse our minds and save ourselves from suffering.
Namu Amida Butsu
Related features from BDG
Does Life End upon Rebirth in the Land of Bliss?
On Moral Growth and Mental Decay
Cognitive Apparatus and the Nature of the Mind in Tibetan Buddhism
What is Mindfulness, Anyway? A Look at Early Buddhist Sources
Break-Ups as Break-Throughs: Using Investigation to Turn Swords and Arrows into Flowers