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Mind and Body.

posted Jul 25, 2015, 1:07 AM by Upali Salpadoru   [ updated Dec 2, 2015, 8:38 PM ]

Mind Body  and Self  as explained by the Buddha
Jagath Siri Pushpakumar, 

 Text of a speech made by Jagathsiri Pushpakumara and Don Rajapakse at an International conference on 25-07-2015. Venue:- The Victoria University, Wellington.

Mind, Body and Self 

Whitireia New Zealand,


Rajapakse, Don G. R. B.

Waiariki Institute of Technology, New Zealand,


This paper discusses the Mind, Body and Self as explained by the Buddha who preached his doctrine (Dhamma) to the world out of the great compassion. In Buddhist teachings truth is twofold: apparent and ultimate. In the ultimate sense mind and body exist as two separate entities and they interact together within a living person. Self is an egoistic belief arises in the mind as a result of mental factors such as Delusion and Wrong view about the mind and body and hence “Self” is true only in the apparent sense.

The paper further examines how the understanding of Mind, Body and Self through one’s own experience would give wisdom to unlock oneself and become liberated from the world: the ultimate freedom for every being which is the state of attaining Nibbana (The enlightenment). Even prior to one’s attaining the state of enlightenment, a little understanding of Mind, Body and Self would be very beneficial for leading a better and a happy life with others in harmony.


What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. What is the soul? It is immaterial” said Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845) a British humourist and a poet. It was not clear whether he had studied Dhamma (Buddhism) but he had given an easy entry to the topic which is much closer to what Buddha explained.

Throughout the history inquisitive nature of the man’s mind seeks answers to the above questions. Different believes, mythologies, philosophies, religions and sciences forwarded their answers. The Buddha gave an unparalleled answer 2,500 years ago, just not to satisfy the inquisitive mind, but to use it in order to lead a good life and liberating oneself from all the sufferings.

Historical background

At the time of Buddha’s birth, 623B.C. there were many religions and doctrines which provided a range of believes. It was said that there were 62 different views in India where he was born (Mutukumarana, 2010).

Prince Siddhartha who became the Buddha later set out at the age of 29 for seeking the ultimate truth of the world. He spent six strenuous years before his enlightenment by studying, examining, and practising main doctrines taught at the time (Narada, 1988, pp.8-34). Later he called this as the “Ariya Pariyesanaya” which means the greatest research (Ariyapariyesana Sutta). Perhaps this was the first ever intellectual research undertaken by any human in the history. At the end of his quest he was successful: it was through the understanding of the ultimate nature of existence gained in his meditation, he attained the enlightenment (Narada, 1988). It is also referred to as attaining Nibbana.

The Buddha then started preaching this “Path to enlightenment” to others out of the great compassion (Karuna) for all beings in the universe including humans. His doctrine is not a divine revelation but a timeless teaching which is repeatedly discovered and preached by Buddhas born in the universe from time to time as it is the mission of every Buddha. They all follow the same “Path to enlightenment” which is rediscovered by them thus the Buddhahood. As he claimed, his doctrine is for the intellectuals. In the famous Kalama Sutta, the Buddha let anybody to examine and accept his doctrine only with an open mind. This is stated in one of the six main qualities of his doctrine, as “the openness: come and see or come and examine”. Therefore, in Buddhism there is no forceful imposing of ideas or concepts on the followers and no place for the blind faith (Gnanarama, P., 2000).

The importance of the understanding of the ultimate nature of existence

The Buddha explained the ultimate nature of existence or the ultimate realities in the world in his doctrine called “Dhamma”. It should be noted that the word “world” represents the entire universe in Dhamma. In the Dhamma Buddha explained the realities of mind, body and self. Anybody who does not know what exactly these were would cling on to them and as a result would be trapped in the world: he or she will then come back to this very world repeatedly after death. This process is well explained using ‘rebirth’ in Dhamma. The continuous journey of birth-after-birth in the world brings only suffering to any. If anybody who realises what exactly the mind, body and self are, would not cling on to them and, as a result will be free from clinging (Thanha). Once realised or freed he or she will then not return back to this world after their death. This is called attaining Nibbana: which means has ended all sufferings because of no rebirth. Therefore Nibbana is called the ultimate spiritual goal for every human being especially for a Buddhist who follows Dhamma. Only a few in the world will attempt for and achieve this state of mind because it is not simple as it looks.

Understanding the teachings of the Buddha and the Abhidhamma Pitaka

When discussing mind, body and self in the Buddha’s teachings the authors refers to the texts of Theravada or Henayana tradition of Buddhism in particular the Abhidhamma Pitaka (basket) the biggest of the three collections of teachings in Buddhism. These three collections contain the Buddha’s teachings in its original form written in Pali language which language was a common language in India at the time of the Buddha. The Pali words bear the true meanings intended by the Buddha. Therefore they are the best to give the precise meaning of his teaching and for the same reason they are being used in many scholarly works in Buddhism.

Abhidhamma Pitaka which literally means the ‘Higher Doctrine” or ultimate teachings provides an excellent analytical method of treatment to oneself. More precisely “Abhidhamma” is the analytical doctrine of (1) mental faculties and (2) elements (physical) (Dhammananda, K.S., 1998. p.67). It investigates these two composite factors of so-called ‘being’ (self) to help understand things as they are (Narada, 1979, p.iii).

As Mrs. Rhys Davids (1857 – 1942) has summarised correctly: by studying and experiencing these realities explained in Abhidhamma, we will be able to get insight into: (1) what we truly are; (2) what we find around us; (3) how and why we react to what is within and around us; and (4) what we should aspire to reach as a spiritual goal (Narada, 1979; Dhammananda, K.S., 1998, p.74).

In recent times a number of well-known Buddhist monks and scholars have done commendable work to explain Dhamma to the modern world by publishing easy to understand English books and articles which explain Buddha’s teachings. Therefore in explaining the mind, body and self in the article, the authors refer to the work including of those monks and their work.


When understanding the Buddha’s teachings of realities, as in Abhiddamma, one needs to know the difference between the two realities: apparent and ultimate. Apparent reality is the ordinary conventional truth. Ultimate reality is the abstract truth (Narada, 1979, pp.6-7). For instance, the smooth surface of a table we see is the apparent reality where the modern science explains that the apparent smoothness of the table surface consists of forces, vibrations etc. which makes it really not smooth. When a number of pieces of wood assembled in a particular manner it is called a box. Suppose the same box is taken apart and the pieces of wood kept together in another form it could be called a bench. It is no longer a box, even it is the collection of the same pieces of wood, but when the shape change the name and concept change too. The apparent reality is used for the sake of convenience and for conventional purposes only (Anandamithriya, B. 1993, p.7). Science explains that the wood is a chemical composition which is made of a large number of atoms or primary particles of protons, neutrons and electrons. Thus in scientific terms all beings, living and non-living things are made up of these primary particles. Therefore the terms like sun, moon, earth, hill, tree, sea, water, air, man, woman, dog, bird, fish, country, school, box, table, etc. are just mere names and concepts and they do not really exist, they are simply masses of the same primary particles. The only difference is man, woman, dog, bird and fish have consciousness which other things don’t possess.

As explained in Abhidamma, all the above mentioned physically existing things are made out of different combinations of 28 species of “Rupa” (a Pali word). “Rupa” is the ultimate reality found in them all. “Rupa” could be generally rendered by the English words “form, body, matter or corporeality”, etc. and one particular meaning is not universally applicable. From a philosophical standpoint, “matter” is the nearest equivalent for Rupa. It should be also noted that an atomic theory prevailed in India at the time of the Buddha. The theory explained of greater minute particles than the atom in modern science (Narada, 1979, p.281). The 28 species or elements of matter in Abhidhamma are much smaller than the smallest particles found in all the sciences and theories old or new, which elements still need to be explored in the tomorrow’s world.

Out of the 28 elements mentioned above the four prime elements found in all material things are:

(1) Solidity (Patavi), (2) Fluidity (Apo), (3) Heat (Thejo) and (4) Motion (Vayo). These four elements are mixed together in an inseparable form in all materials (Chandavimala, R., 1987). Since it is not the idea of this article to give a comprehensive description of “Matter” explained in Dhamma, the remaining 24 elements are not discussed. In Dhamma the matter is explained as a conditional ultimate reality.

Abhidamma deals with realities in the ultimate sense. So far only one ultimate reality “Rupa” has been discussed briefly. Including the “Rupa” or “matter” there are four ultimate realities:

1.      Chitta - mind or consciousness, defined as ‘that which knows or experiences’ an object. Chitta occurs as distinct momentary states of consciousness. A total of 89 different Chittas or minds are explained, and according to the surrounding situation only one out the 89 Chittas arises at any one time. As this process happens so fast and a normal human being will not be able to identify the different Chittas distinctively unless the mind is settled in a very deep meditative state.

2.      Chethasika - the mental factors that arise and occur along with the Chitta. There are 52 of them which arise in varying combinations depend on the nature of the mind which arises. The primary seven mental factors named Contact, Feeling, Perception, Volition, One-Pointedness, Psychic life and Attention are common to all the minds.

3.      Rupa – (Matter) - physical phenomenon or material form. There are 28 of them. The main four has being explained above.

4.      Nibbana – the unconditioned state of bliss achieved by attaining “Nibbana” which is the final spiritual goal in Dhamma.

Chitta, the Chethasika and Rupa are all conditioned realities. They arise because of conditions and will disappear when the conditions sustaining them cease to be continued to do so. Therefore they are impermanent states in reality. Nibbana on the other hand is the only unconditioned reality where it does not arise and, therefore does not fall away.

One will not verify the existence of above realities or test them using the modern science. It should be noted that the scientific knowledge is limited to the data received from the five sense organs. It does not recognise reality which transcends sense-data. Therefore the understanding of the four realities is subject to the success of Insight–Wisdom (Vipassana pagna) using mind and not with any sense organ (Dharmadasa, G.A., 1957).   

Having identified ultimate realities in the world, the ultimate nature of existence of a life (being) could be explained using them. Life is the co-existence of mind (Chitta) and matter (Rupa). As the “body” contains “matter” the word “matter” could replace the word “body” given in the title of this article. Natural phenomena associate with a life could be easily explained with mind and matter (body). Mind and the mental factors are taken together as “Mind” in the article because mind always arises along with mental factors.

Decay due to aging is the lack of coordination of mind and matter. Death is the separation of mind and matter. Rebirth is the recombination of mind and matter. After the passing away of the physical body (matter), the mental forces (mind: Chitta and Chithasika) recombine and assume a new combination in a different material form and condition another existence (Dhammananda, K.S., 1998, p.73). Both mind and matter arise because of the conditions and perish immediately, and this is happening every moment of our lives. One needs to study the Abhidhamma for more details of mind and matter and the interaction between the two.

Realising the ultimate truth and the nature of the mind and body is possible through “Vipassana” (Insight) meditation which was introduced by the Buddha. The three main characteristics of them are:

1. impermanence (Anicca)

2. therefore they are subject to unsatisfactoriness (Dukka) and

3. absence of a self or soul (Anatta).

These three characteristics are common to all the conditioned things.

Each of us, in the ultimate sense, is mind and matter, a compound of mental and material phenomena, and nothing more. Apart from these realities that go to form the mind-matter compound, there is no self, or soul. There is no I, you, me, mine or yours in the ultimate sense. All these are merely just names and concepts because they do not really exist. They belong to apparent reality and are used in daily conversation therefore there is no real independent entity called self or soul.

What is “Self” then? The discussion is not completed unless “Self” or “Soul” associated with one’s mind and body is explained. The concept of ‘Self’ arises because of the mental factors called (1) “Delusion or ignorance (Avijja or Moha), (2) Attachment or Desire (Thanha) and (3) Misbelief or Wrong view (Ditti)”. Any person who has not attained Nibbana is not free from Delusions. Therefore he or she does not know that the life is a mere co-existence of mind and matter, thus develops an Attachment to (clinging onto) both of them and accepts a Misbelief of having a Self in them (Chandavimala, R., 1987). That is why the Self is only a concept or an apparent truth resulting from a wrong view, so as I, you, me mine, etc.. 

Not only that, he or she who assumes a Self, views the mind and body as a permanent (Nicca) and pleasant or happiness-yielding (Sukha) objects. He also view mind and body constitute a self or a soul (Atma). This view is the right opposite to the three characteristics of all the conditioned things we mentioned earlier.

The person who practises the Insight (Vipassana) meditation identifies the three main characteristics of mind and body and will invoke Insight–Wisdom (Vipassana pagna) that is the decisive liberating factor in Buddhism, though it has to be developed along with the two other trainings in Morality (Sila) and Concentration (Samadhi). The culmination of Vipassana practice leads to the stage of Holiness and to the enlightenment. 

It is to be noted that the Vipassana pagna (Insight) is not the result of a mere intellectual understanding, but has to be won through deep meditative observation of one’s own bodily and mental process (Nyanatiloka, 1991, p.197).

Could there be any benefit gained with some understanding of mind, body and self before achieving the enlightenment? Yes, in his Question time, Dhammananda, K.S. (2008) answering the question of “Who am I?” replied “We are only mind and matter. There is no I, you, me or mine or yours in the ultimate sense. Once we begin to understand this, our attitude towards others will always be positive, forgiving, understanding, etc.”(p.10). Therefore even the limited understanding of them also beneficial for the day-to-day life because it helps leading a better and a happy life with others in harmony.

An ordinary person without knowledge in ultimate realities will accept that the body is made of ‘material’ as explained in modern science. The mind is obvious to him as he could think and what we learn from Psychology. Majority of the world may reluctant to accept that there is no-soul because most religions teach that there is a soul within everybody.  During the Buddha’s time, the belief in soul and a creator God (the concept of Brahma) is so strongly rooted in the minds of many people and they were shocked to hear that the Buddha rejected these concepts. Some came to him and questioned him about this in many instances. It is worthy to study Buddha’s replies to those questions recorded in Pali Canon in understanding more about the no-soul reality.

Studying Abhidhamma in details is most beneficial for good understanding of the Mind, Body and Self.


Buddha explained what the world is and who we are in his teachings of ultimate realities. According to his Dhamma, anybody who has not experienced Insight–Wisdom (Vipassana pagna) has not fully understood what the mind, body and self are. Anybody who experienced Insight–Wisdom will know what truly they are and will be liberated achieving enlightenment. Even a limited understanding of them is also beneficial for leading a better and a happy life.

Revisiting the above discussion:

What is mind? – Consciousness which knows or experiences an object, and when it arise it arises together with mental factors.

 What is matter? - A combination of 28 species of “Rupa” in all physically existing things including humans and animals.

 What is self? - A delusionary concept in the mind which views the mind, body combination as person or being (self, soul etc.).

A Buddhist would answer to Thomas Hood’s three questions as follows:

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? No mind. What is the soul? It is a misconception”.

 Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta (May all the beings be happy and content)!!!


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