04 November 2011

Emotions in Buddhism

IN A LENGTHY WRITTEN exchange with a colleague on the subject of citta it became clear that there is something unusual about the way early Buddhism treats emotion. To begin with there is no word in Pāli or Sanskrit for "emotions" as a separate category of experience. On the other hand there are words for distinct emotions such as fear (bhaya), anger (koda, rosa), hatred (dosa), joy (ānanda, pamojja), sadness (domanassa, soka) and so on. So emotions are concepts in themselves, but do not form a natural category different from other kinds of experiences. However the received tradition is that ancient Indians treat emotions under the heading of 'mind'. Alongside this we frequently find the suggestion that citta ought to be translated as 'heart'. I want to look again at this.

When I wrote about citta back in March 2011 (Mind Words) I bent my definition to include emotions. I am not so sure now. To recapitulate: citta comes from the root √cit which I defined thus: "√cit concerns what catches and holds our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards [or away from] on the other." My colleague had consulted Margaret Cone, the Pāli Lexicographer and author of the new Dictionary of Pali, about her dictionary definition and she replied that citta means 'thinking, thought, intention'; with no mention of emotion. This raised the concern that emotions were being "left out", which is quite an interesting proposition. Are emotions being left out here?

On reflection I decided that emotions are not being left out, but they are being defined differently from how we define emotions. From the early Buddhist point of view experience has a bodily component (kāyika) and a mental component (cetasika). This much is clear from the Salla Sutta (SN 36.6, PTS S iv.207), which makes a distinction between bodily pain, and mental suffering: the arahant has the former, but not the latter. [1] Now, we know that emotions too have a felt bodily component, and hence we often use 'feeling/feelings' to talk about or describe emotions: "I feel happy", "how are you feeling" etc. And we know that emotions have a mental component and that this mental component is what distinguishes emotions from other types of bodily sensation (i.e. proprioception, the normal operation of the viscera, or physical touch).

Likewise from the point of view of physiology emotions are indistinguishable from each other. Cordelia Fine summarises some the research on this in her entertaining little book A Mind of Its Own. She points out, for instance, that the mechanism that makes our heart race with fear, exhilaration or plain physical exertion is the same in each case. The body has very limited responses to stimulation. Fine sums it up with this equation:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts.

Arousal, it turns out, comes in one flavour but differing intensities. Arousal simply prepares the body for activity. If you are shaking fear, or anger, or trembling with anticipation of reward it's all just arousal. And what makes the experience distinct is the accompanying thoughts.[2]

Now this view of emotion is quite consistent with the early Buddhist model which seems to see emotions as agitation accompanied by thoughts. The Pāli word for empathy is anukampa: literally 'to tremble along with' i.e. to feel what someone else feels. In the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta we find that one aspect of the highest blessing is:
Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na kampati;
Touched by objects of experience, his mind is not agitated. (Sn 47)
Considering lokadhamma recall that loka is our experiential world, and a dhamma is the object of manas, hence my translation as 'objects of experience'. So what usually happens when we have an experience is agitation (kampati) of our mind (citta). Interestingly when the word emotion first entered the English language from French in the 16th century it meant 'agitation'. So what has changed?

I think what changed was first the 18th century European Enlightenment, followed by the Romantic reaction against it, which itself found expression in the Psychoanalytic movement. I think this partly because I've read David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and agree that these are some of the main influences on the modern world generally, and have deeply influenced the presentation of Buddhism around the world since the 19th century. McMahan includes Protestantism as well, but we can leave that aside for now.

Partly due to Enlightenment propaganda we see the period before the emergence of science as one of rampant irrationality and superstition. (Though this was countered in the popular imagination by the Romantic idea of the "noble savage", and in fact superstition and irrationality are still rampant!) Enlightenment thinkers began to apply objectivity and reason to many problems, and discovered they could solve many of them. Whatever else we say about Newton, Locke, Hook & co. we must acknowledge their great achievements. So great was their success that they and their successors began to see reason as superior to emotion. To them the universe seemed like a giant clockwork machine that they could take apart and fully understand. To be fair this notion was not new to them, but was originally a product of theological thinking about 'the music of the spheres' and the 'great chain of being' which had been around for centuries. Enlightenment thinkers were consciously disenchanting the world, and felt more free as they did so: free from the irrational leadership of the Church which feared reason and knowledge, and free from the small fears which ruled every day life. Soon they began to be free of the fear of diseases like Smallpox as well. And free from some of the uncertainty of life. We enjoy these freedoms largely without acknowledgement these days, and with apparent resentment amongst many Buddhists (who seem to hate scientists, perhaps because they have been so successful?).

However the disenchantment cultivated by Enlightenment figures left some people feeling that such a mechanical universe was lacking something. In England especially poets began to celebrate the mystery of the cosmos, and especially to revel in the unreasoning and irrationality of flights of emotion. They sought to topple reason from the pinnacle of human endeavour and replace it with emotion. The Romantics indulged in all kinds of emotions, and produced art, literature and music designed to stimulate strong emotions - everything from love to horror. And they took all kinds of mind altering substances for the intense experiences they produced. They did not let society tell them how to live - the heroic individual and their emotional life ruled. For Romantics the exotic and mysterious provoked the kinds of emotions they enjoyed, so they cultivated an interest in them - the intellectual was seen as dull and lifeless. They also worshipped nature and valued the natural world, or at least an idealised notion of it. In many ways the morality 1960s was simply a late flowering of a seed planted by the 18th and 19th century Romantics (and just as misguided). This focus on emotion seems to underlie the idea that emotions are a particular category of human experience, and one of very high value.

In some ways we can see the Psycho-analytical movement as an attempt to reconcile these two rather monstrous cultural forces. Freud certainly saw himself as a scientist, and his subject of study was the emotional life of the patient. History has shown that Freud, while a gifted observer and writer, was no scientist. Only recently are neuroscientists starting to put psychology on a proper scientific footing. But Freud and his successors have profoundly influenced the way we view emotions. Emotions are hypostasized and become a special category of experience, distinct from thoughts and simple body sensations. Thoughts convey reason, while emotions are an expression of our mysterious 'soul' or 'spirit', a Romantic expression of our true nature. If we are to understand ourselves, the Psychologists tell us, then we must understand our inner emotional life; we must delve into the sources of our emotional reactions. It is because of the Romantics and Freud that we believe that an unexpressed emotion represents a danger to our well-being. As William Blake said:
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
This is very far from either the early Buddhist view, or the emerging consensus from neuroscience. Buddhists texts are constantly telling us to use reason to keep our emotions in check. We are to avoid stimulating agitation by withdrawing our attention from sensory stimulation. This aspect of Buddhism is notably unpopular in Romantic Western Buddhism. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that saṃsāra is all bad. We just want to enjoy ourselves a little: by which we seem to mean to stimulate the emotions: be it joy, or horror. Unfortunately for us Western Buddhism is mainly lead by people from the Baby Boomer generation, and from that part of it which saw the Hippy movement, with its Romantic hedonism, self-absorption, self-indulgence, and intoxication, as a good thing. Renunciation is anathema to the Romantic.

In conclusion early Buddhism had a very different view of emotions than the view current in the Western World. Emotions were not a distinct category of experience, though I would argue that most of what we call emotion these days does fit into the broad category of papañca (though even the definition leans towards the mental rather than physical). Therefore the Buddha has no position on emotion, and emotions as a category play no part in his methods. Yes, we cultivate metta, but note that in the locus classicus, the Karaṇīyametta Sutta it is the mind (mānaso) that includes all beings, not the heart. Yes, we cultivate pamojja; and yes we suppress anger. But there is no theory of emotions as a distinct type of experience. At best emotions simply agitate us, and can be divided into those that fool us into craving, and those that fool us into aversion.

We Buddhists have long had critiques of materialism. We understand to some extent the influence of Scientific Rationalism. We also have some understanding of the influence of Protestantism. But we seem to have almost no notion that we are influenced by the Romantic movement, or by the German philosophical counterpart Idealism. Most Buddhists get interested in Psychology to some extent since it seems to related to what we do, but we have no sense that it channels Romanticism. There is no traditional critique of Romanticism perhaps because it wasn't a traditional view, whereas some form of materialism always was. Western Buddhists (and I may say the Triratna Order in particular) desperately need to develop a critique of Romanticism because it is such a powerful influence on how we see ourselves and the world, and its unchallenged assumptions impede our progress in the Dharma. This is not to say that we should reject Romanticism out of hand, only that we should be aware of the history of these ideas and how they influence our worldview.


  1. The kāyika/cetasika distinction occurs in other places as well, e.g. M i.302, iii.288-90; S iv.209, iv.231; v.111; A i.81, i.137, ii.143.
  2. That these different kinds of thoughts are handled by different brain structures using different neurotransmitters doesn't change the facts of the physical manifestation in the rest of the body produced by the sympathetic nervous system and a narrow range of hormones.

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