Although most of us are intimately identified with the contents and functions of our minds, we never make the attempt to actually see what goes on there. If we did, we might see what the Buddha saw over two thousand years ago: that we are not of one mind, but many, and that these various minds are refracted by different states of mind (or states of consciousness).
In early Buddhism there are three Sanskrit words that are most frequently translated as mind: manas, vijnana, and citta. The terms are closely related, but not synonymous. Why, then, do translators treat the words as if they were synonymous? The meanings of the words, after all, are to be found in the precise understanding of their differences. We should be mindful of the adage, Traditore, traduttore: translators are traitors to the ideas of the author.
And then there is the practicing Buddhist: When I dedicate myself “body, speech, and mind,” what do I have in mind? My own ignorance of the complexity and vastness of mind and its functions cannot be blamed on translation. The Buddha, presumably, did not rely on texts or translations. Right understanding (and right functioning) of the mind does not come from thinking, but from actively and attentively observing the complex constellation of energies and activities of mind. What is sometimes called “big mind,” or “sky-like mind,” is so essential to understanding our situation in the world that the first line of one of the most influential texts of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada, immediately calls our attention to its magnitude: “All things are dominated, governed, and created by the mind (manas).”
Of the different Sanskrit words for “mind,” manas is an easily recognizable cognate of the English “mind,” mens in Latin, and menos in Greek. The relative definitions of these terms suggest an Indo-European root, men: to remind, warn, remember; and, nominally, mind or spirit. The root meaning of the word indicates that thinking, categorizing, discriminating, etc., are secondary functions or qualities of the mind. If someone were to ask you to mind the store, would you then think about the store from the comfort of the cafe around the corner? Or would you watch the store and attend to business?
In Vedic Sanskrit manas is a difficult term, but always found at the heart of those energies and forces that one experiences as “oneself.” The Rig Veda, the most ancient collection of sacred hymns written in Sanskrit and the essential root of Hinduism, says that manas is the seat of thought and emotion, and dwells in the heart. Manas also belongs to a relatively small group of neuter Vedic words ending in “s.” Noted for their special connection with power and force, these words also point to the capacity of mind to will and wish. (In this last context manas forms a part of the suggestive compound manoratha, literally mind-chariot, which is sometimes translated as “wish-car.”)
It appears that from the earliest Vedic period manas was frequently found in conjunction with yoga as the power to restrain, tame, or yoke. In this sense manas possessed a potential power that could overcome the spontaneous effects of desires, passions, and weaknesses. As such, manas is developed as a way of restraint and constancy over and against its own inherent unstable and changing nature. In addition, the Vedic texts give every indication that manas is at the center of the question of one’s personal identity and personal survival, and is therefore often translated in the Rig Veda as soul. If you remember, there are two other Sanskrit terms that are frequently translated as mind: vijnana and citta. Buddhist texts employ vijnana to indicate consciousness or understanding either in the mundane or exalted sense. It is formed from the root jna, to know (with which it is cognate) and the prefix vi-, indicating separation or division. Vijnana would then seem to mean understanding in the sense of knowledge that had been separated and made one’s own. Vijnana is also treated as an organ of discernment or understanding, which is indeed one aspect of the mind with which we are all familiar.
Citta, on the other hand, can be understood as thought. The Buddha, we are told, became enlightened when he grasped the nature of dependent reality with a single thought (citta). It is said one becomes a “Son of the Buddha,” and enters the Buddhist path, when the “thought of enlightenment” (bodhi-citta) has arisen.
Manas is just one mind. If it “blows your mind” to see how undeniably rich and inviting this unexplored country is, then perhaps you have already discovered another mind.
By the time of the Buddha, the meaning of manas had been modified by the introduction of new terms for mental activity (buddhi, for example) and the modification of old terms for ontological identity (most notably atman). Nevertheless, Buddhism rediscovered and maintained the central importance of manas to yogic transformation. The most challenging systematic approach to the mind is given by the Yogacara school of Buddhism, the principal tenet of which is often referred to as cittamatra, “mind-only.” In this teaching manas is a particular aspect of the mind (citta, also referred to as alayavijnana, which is sometimes translated as “storehouse consciousness”). However, manas functions, to use D.T. Suzuki’s phrase, as a “double-edged sword.” It may destroy itself by clinging to the duality of the samsaric world, or, by right functioning, it can dispel ignorance and lead one to liberation. In this sense, from the Yogacara point of view, manas is critically pivotal, the attention of mind must be strengthened and must function simultaneously in two directions: toward its own source (the alayavijnana) and toward the world.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.