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The fundamental principles of Buddhist psychology and their relevance to Buddhism as a religion

Buddhist psychology combines practical meditation with rigorous analysis of the mind. From

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 2, January 2007. 

1. Introduction

This article presents a summary elucidation of the key principles of early-Buddhist psychology, and a brief discussion of the overall significance and main functions this psychology has with regards to Buddhism as a religion.  It shall begin by bringing attention to how this psychology’s flavour and distinctiveness draws from its application and elaboration of the key Buddhist concepts of ‘non-self’ (?tman) and ‘dependant origination’ (paticca samupp?da) by elucidating three of its fundamental underlying principles: 1) the conditional nature of consciousness with regards to the duality of sense organ and object; 2) consciousness’s non-independent nature; particularly with regards to its inextricable interdependence with the other four aggregates of existence (ie, form, feeling, perception, and volition), and; 3) consciousness’s mutual dependence with n?ma-r?pa (mental factors and elements of matter).  Drawing upon the implications of these principles and further scriptural evidence, it shall then discuss the three main ways in which this psychology contributes to Buddhism as a ‘religion’: 1) in terms of underlying a systematic articulation of, and solution to, what Buddhism perceives to be the root causes of man’s fundamental existential problem; a fact that challenges the assertions put forward by some modern scholars that early Buddhism was of a strict behaviouralist inclination narrowly focusing on the observation of precepts (s?la); 2) defining the Buddhist ‘worldview’ in terms of the impact of the mind on the world of experience – a position, in conjunction with the first point, relevant to refuting the perception that early Buddhism had a ‘nihilistic’ or more broadly pessimistic inclination, and; 3) by supporting Buddhism’s identity and claims to pre-eminence as a philosophy/ religion amongst other philosophies/ religions, and indeed as a ‘middle doctrine’ between extreme views, through underlying the Buddha’s critique of the contemporaneous and dichotomous philosophical trends of sassatav?da, or spiritualist ideologies, and ucchedav?da, or materialist beliefs.

2. Not-self, dependant origination and the fundamental principles of Buddhist psychology

2.1 The guiding role of not-self and dependant origination in Buddhist psychology

As decisively established by Y. Karunadasa in his work ‘The Buddhist Critique of sassatav?da and ucchedav?da: The Key to a proper Understanding of the Origin and the Doctrines of early Buddhism(1),  Buddhism arose as a critical response to the mutual conflict between the spiritualist and materialist ideologies of contemporary India (sassatav?da and ucchedav?da respectively); the doctrinal foundation of this response being defined principally by means of: a) Buddhism’s demarcation from these ideologies’ common affirmation of the existence of a ‘self’ or ‘soul’ (?tman) through the promotion of the doctrine of ‘not-self’ (anatta), and; b) its transcendence of these views and their extreme personal and social ramifications via the ‘middle doctrine’ (majjhima-dhamma) – which describes the doctrine of ‘dependant origination’ (pa?icca samupp?da).  Indeed, as noted by Nyanatiloka, in Buddhist philosophy, these two elements could be deemed to refer to different aspects of a single truth; the first (anatta) proceeding ‘analytically’ to reduce the supposed self to a series of impersonal and impermanent elements, whilst the other (pa?icca samupp?da) proceeds ‘synthetically’ to show ‘that all these phenomena are, in some way or other, conditionally related to each other’(2).  Collectively and individually, thus, these two themes constitute important and pervasive defining attributes of the Buddhist teachings, and also serve as key standards and conceptual tools by means of which ‘truth’ is appraised in the Buddhist tradition.

In early-Buddhist psychology, it is particularly poignant that both these key aspects of Buddhist thought, and the matter of their integration, are central to defining its flavour and distinctiveness; particularly in contrast to the psychological understandings that certainly stemmed (in addition to those that most probably would have stemmed) from the sassatav?da and ucchedav?da positions. In particular, the elaboration of these doctrines in the context of Buddhist psychology gave birth to three basic principles which I will elaborate in this section; 1. the conditional nature of consciousness with regards to the duality of sense organ and object; 2. consciousness’s non-independent nature in terms of its inextricable interrelationship with the other four aggregates of the five aggregate series and; 3. consciousness’s mutual dependence with n?ma-r?pa.

2.2 The conditional nature of consciousness with regards to the duality of sense organ and object

Rather than existing as the concomitant active manifestation of a permanent/semi-permanent independent substance or identity (?tman), or as being produced mainly as a product of its own momentum or ‘self-as-cause’ (as propositioned in some later Abhidharma schools), consciousness in early Buddhism is seen as necessarily arising in dependence of conditions; a concept captured by the key phrase aññatra paccaya n?tthi viññ??assa sa?bhavo (lit: there is no arising of consciousness without reference to a condition).  Specifically, consciousness is deemed to arise in dependence on a ‘duality’ defining the simultaneous co-existence of a sense organ and its corresponding sense object.  The following point is made in the P?li Suttas:

‘What is this duality? It is [in the case of eye consciousness, for example] the eye, the visual organ, which is impermanent, changing and becoming-other and visual objects which are impermanent, changing and becoming- other.  Such is the transient, fugitive duality (of eye-cum-visible objects).  Eye-consciousness too is impermanent.  For how could eye-consciousness arising by dependence on an impermanent condition be permanent?  The coincidence, concurrence and confluence of these three factors, which is called contact, and those other phenomena arising as a result are also impermanent’.(3)

From this we can see that consciousness as it is regarded in Buddhism, particularly in virtue of both its essential ‘conditioning’ and transience or ‘impermanence’ (anicca), has neither the requisite stability, self-efficacy or continuity to be associated with the notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘self-entity’. Indeed, the understanding of this connection between the ‘conditionality’ of consciousness and its not corresponding to a ‘soul’ or self is clearly articulated in the Mah?ta?h?sa?khaya Sutta, where the Buddha introduces the notion of the conditionality of consciousness on a sense organ and corresponding sense object in the context of a critique of a Bhikkhu’s belief that ‘consciousness transmigrates through existences, not anything else’ (ie, essentially constitutes a ‘soul’ in a spiritualistsense). Further emphasising this conditionality, as well as undermining the notion that an unchanging, homogenising ‘unity’ (ie, self nature) exists in consciousness as a basis of its association with a ‘self’ notion, the Buddha went on to state in this Sutta that ‘consciousness’ should be reckoned by the conditions attributing to its arising (ie, ‘eye consciousness’ for consciousness dependant on the visual organ and visual object) ‘just as a fire is reckoned based on whatever that fire burns – fire ablaze on sticks is a stick fire, fire ablaze on twigs is a twig fire…’ etc.  This point is pressed home by the fact that immediately following this passage we see an explicit reference to the doctrine of dependant origination.

2.3 Consciousness’s non-independent nature; the inextricable interrelationship between consciousness and the four other aggregates.

In addition to being impermanent and conditioned, consciousness according to Buddhist thought can neither be equated as the abiding place of an individuated and metaphysical ‘self’ or ‘soul’, as propositioned by the berated Bhikkhu mentioned above, as it has in fact no independent existence of any kind, residing perpetually in an inextricable interrelationship with the four other aggregates into which an individual may be (conventionally) analysed.  These four aggregates are as follows: 1. form/corporeality (r?pa); 2. feeling (vedan?); 3. perceptions (saññ?), and; 4. volition/mental formations (sa?kh?ra).  The P?li Sutta’s state the following: 

‘Whoever declares that “apart from corporeality, apart from feeling, apart from perception, apart from mental formations, I will show forth the coming or the going, or the decease or the birth, or the growth, the increase, the abundance of consciousness” is misguided’.

In Buddhist literature we see the statements sabbe sa?khara anicca and, more popularly, anicca vata sa?khara. As stated by Y. Karunadasa, ‘both these formulae amount to saying that all conditioned things or phenomenal processes, mental as well as material, that go to make up the samsaric plane of existence are transient or impermanent’.  Indeed, the above statement plainly rejects the spiritualist position akin to the berated Bhikkhu’s statement that a unitary consciousness ‘transmigrates through existence’, and states consciousness is merely one of many constituent elements of the ‘psychophysical continuum’ perpetuated through dependant origination, being itself without an independent, self defining essence as is the case of other forms of impersonal phenomena.  Being without such an essence, it is thus also portrayed as being incapable of functioning as a receptacle for a ‘soul’ or self-defining individuality.  

2.4 Consciousness’s mutual dependence with n?ma-r?pa

Another related basis underlying the view consciousness cannot exist independently is the Buddhist theory of a mutual dependence between consciousness on the one hand, and on the other hand what is known as n?ma-r?pa(viññ??a-paccaya n?ma-r?pa?; n?ma-r?pam-paccaya viññ??a?); the latter of which may be described as the combination of a conventionally designated ‘person’ or ‘sentient being’s’ key mental-factors and elements of matter.  According to Buddhist theory, n?ma, or mental factors, is a collective name for five elements: feeling (vedan?), perception (saññ?), volition (cetan?), sense-impression (phassa) and mental advertance or attention (manasik?ra), whilst r?pa refers to the primary elements of matter (mah?bh?ta); earth, water, fire and wind; in addition to secondary material phenomena (upada r?pa) upon whose existence these four elements depend.

With regards to this formula of mutual independence, it can be seen that Buddhism rejects the notion that consciousness exists in the form of an eternal/semi-permanent ground or base of experience, or a subjective ‘self’.  Indeed, according to this paradigm consciousness cannot be described as having any of the qualities of a ‘self’ in terms of being a) a ‘subject’ of mental factors such as feelings, volitions, etc, b) a ‘source’ for them, nor c) a ‘container’ of them, for its own existence is itself dependant on their very functioning.  Similarly, consciousness can neither be perceived as an ‘appropriator’, ‘creator’ (in an idealist sense) or completely subjective ‘experiencer’ of material phenomena, nor can it be seen to be either in an essential dichotomy with form (duality principle – as is the spiritualist view, orsassatav?da), nor a product of it (identity principle – as is the view of materialist ideologies, orucchedav?da).  This last point in particular is of considerable significance for understanding Buddhist psychology’s formation in the context of the Buddha’s response to the religio-philosophical milieu of his time, and shall be discussed in greater detail later in this paper.

3. The relevance of Buddhist psychology to Buddhism as a religion

As with the foundational theories of dependant origination and not-self that inform it, Buddhism’s ‘psychology’ also both cuts to the core of the Buddhist soteriological mission, and has a variety of applications in its broader religious framework.  Certainly with regards to the former this key role logically progresses according to the rational Buddhist approach to humanity’s existential problem, which may be condensed as follows:

1.      The ultimate goal of Buddhism is the liberation of the mind,

2.      In order to liberate the mind it is first necessary to develop its faculties, and

3.      To develop the mind, it is necessary to understand it.

Yet to understand both the parameters and distinguishing features of the Buddhist psychological approach to man’s existential problem under this framework we must again return to the Buddhist response vis-à-vis thesassatav?da and ucchedav?da viewpoints.  Firstly and most distinctively, it is apparent that having rejected the notion of ‘self’ common to these positions as mentioned above, early Buddhism had to, in the words of Y. Karunadasa ‘psychologise without the psyche’ – it both needed to explain the nature of the mind without ‘positing the notion of the soul’, and at the same time account for the near universal belief in, and functioning of, this ‘self’ notion.  In doing so, other parameters more specifically defining the sassatav?da and ucchedav?dapositions had to be observed – namely, Buddhist psychology had to work within the bounds of an ‘empirical’ approach deprived of the conveniences of metaphysical attribution or speculation (ie, available to sassatav?dinsor ‘spiritualists’), and at the same time avoid condemning psychological processes to the eternal mechanical repetition of ‘stimuli-response’ reactions (which would rationalize or naturalize the ucchedav?da doctrine ofk?masukhalikanuyoga, or sensual indulgence).

Based on the foundation of the above principles, the conflation of these key notions – the matter of the perception and psychological response to sensual stimuli (or more correctly, ‘objects’), in addition to the formation and functioning of a ‘self’ notion, play a prominent role in the Buddhist depiction of both the nature and solution to man’s existential problem.  Also, and reflecting this above mentioned formative dialectic context, they underlie Buddhism adapting a predominantly psychological approach to two other ‘religious’ aspects of its doctrine – a) Buddhism’s understanding of the world, which we may define in terms of an articulation of how the mind impacts on the world of experience, and b) Buddhism’s critique or response to the viewpoints of competing philosophical schools, which includes what Y. Karunadasa has coined the theory of the ‘psychological mainspring of views and speculative ideologies’, and, more positively, the establishment of a new theory concerning the mind-body relationship.  We will now briefly discuss each of these theories.

3.1 The early Buddhist theory of sense perception and cognition – a Buddhist articulation of psychological suffering

In addition to the more prominent twelve-factor formulae of dependant origination, one early Buddhist theory for describing the process of the formation of psychological suffering in accordance with the notions detailed above begins with sensory contact, develops through the consolidation and application of the ‘self’ notion, and culminates at a stage of ‘conceptual proliferation’ (papañca).  The following passage appears in the P?li Sutta’s:

Depending on eye and visible form arises visual consciousness. The correlation of the three is sensory contact (impingement). Depending on sensory contact arises feeling. What one feels one perceives. What one perceives one investigates. What one investigates one conceptually proliferates. What one conceptually proliferates, due to its perception being based on diverse conceptual proliferations in respect of visual objects of the past, the future and the present, begins to assail and overwhelm the percipient individual.

This process, it can be seen, contains seven distinct steps: 1) (eye) consciousness (cakkhu-viññ??a); 2. sensory contact (phassa); 3. feeling (vedan?); 4. perception (saññ?); 5. investigation (vitakka), 6. conceptual proliferation (papañca), 7. ‘The overwhelming impact, on the percipient individual, of the conceptual proliferations’(4).  These steps can be further reduced to three stages: 1. the formation of consciousness (step one), 2. contact (step 2), and 3. the arising of the ‘I’ notion as a pretext for conceptual proliferation (3-7).  Following is a brief analysis of the internal mechanics defining and linking each of these stages:

1. (eye) consciousness (cakkhu-viññ??a)
As discussed above, this stage marks the existence of an impersonal causal process by which consciousness arises dependent on a sense organ and a corresponding sense object.  This stage represents the pre-cognitive stage of ‘mere seeing’ (dassana matta), for there is an image, but not yet a complete conceptual identification (or knowing cognition) of it.

2. sensory contact (phassa)
At this stage there is a unification of these three elements (sense organ, a corresponding object, and the corresponding consciousness that has just arisen). 

3. feeling (vedan?) –> overwhelming impact of conceptual proliferations on the percipient individual

This stage arises immediately after contact.   Upon the arising of feeling a previously impersonal process begins to become in a conventional sense ‘personalised’ by the introduction or creation of an ‘I’ notion, or a ‘subject’ of sensual experience.  As stated by Venerable Nanananda, it is at this stage that ‘the latent illusion of the ego awakens and thereafter the duality between ego and non-ego is maintained until it is fully crystallised and justified’ at the stage of conceptual proliferation.  The conditioned nature of consciousness, dependant origination and the other factors defined by the principles of psychology discussed above are at this stage obscured by the delusional segregation of reality into this dichotomy of ‘external’ perceptual experience, and a ‘subjective’ experiencer, giving rise to the notion that ‘a subject distinct from the cognitive act itself is the persisting experiencer of each fleeting occasion of cognition’ – roughly corresponding to what Buddhism describes as the notion of ‘unthought thinker, and the unknown knower’ (a description of the idea of a ‘soul’).  Rational support essential for the stabilization and justification for this idea of a ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is then found and consolidated by the identification of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ with the five aggregates of grasping (ie, form, feeling, perception, etc).  From these notions in turn craving develops, and from attachment to the objects of craving are born the essential consequences of the fear of the loss of, separation from, or annihilation of what is ‘self’ or what is desirable, and the repulsion of what is unpleasant or ego-reducing.  Thus as a consequence of

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