25 March 2011

Philogical Odds & Ends VII - Mind Words

Many words have interesting stories associated with them. This is a seventh set of terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own. There is a list of other terms I've written about at the bottom of this post.

I've resisted this one for while because it's a tangle. Buddhist terminology for the mind is complex, and changes over time, so delineating what a particular word means is fraught. In fact understanding context is vital in the early Buddhist texts where words like citta, manas, and vijñāna start out as simple synonyms, but diverge and settle down into distinct terms. And all before the canon was closed! So I'll outline my understanding of these settled meanings, with two caveats: 1. one must always look closely at the context, and 2. I may have misunderstood them! These words stem from three main roots so I'll deal with them in groups.


The root √cit is defined in the dictionary as "knowing; thought , intellect , spirit , soul", but also "to perceive , fix the mind upon , attend to , be attentive , observe , take notice of"; and "to aim at , intend , design; to be anxious about , care for; to resolve". So √cit concerns what catches and holds our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion'; emotion comes from an old French word emouvoir meaning to 'stir up'; ultimately from Latin from ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'). And it can just be 'the mind'.

BTW I've noticed a tendency for famous translators to give verbs from √cit an 'intending' sense even when a 'thinking about' sense would seem more natural. I think they are trying to reinforce or conform to the idea that Buddhist morality depends on intention (cetanā).

One of the most common words from this root is citta. Generally speaking citta often just means 'the mind', but more specifically citta is 'thoughts'. We do have a problem finding English terms to correspond with this because in the Indian conception emotions are simply another kind of mental activity. Interestingly scientists are beginning to see emotions in this way also. Generally speaking emotion is a combination of generic physiological arousal (involving for example increased heart rate, alertness, and 'readiness'), along with thoughts which give the feelings their emotional 'colour', by telling us why we are aroused.

Citta is often translated as 'heart'. I would say that this translation reflects the Romantic trend in Western Buddhism which places a high value on inner experience, subjectivity, and especially the emotions. (Romanticism is a reaction against the rationalism of the early European Enlightenment which tended to see the world in rather mechanical terms). I don't think this is helpful as the Romantic ideology doesn't reflect the Indian idea any better than, say, scientific rationalism. Note that 'heart' is hṛdaya in Sanskrit, and hadaya in Pāli, and it has the same dual reference as in English: the cardiac organ, and the seat of the emotions. If a Sanskrit or Pali speaker meant 'heart', they had a perfectly good word for it; and, if we translate citta as 'heart', then how do we translate hṛdaya? [My friend Maitiu has written to me to suggest: " the translation of citta by heart might also be influenced by 心 xīn 'heart' being its most common translation in Chinese". Good point!] Update. Tibetan's translate citta with སེམས (sem). This can be traced back to a proto-Sino-Tibetan root *siǝm. And this is cognate with Chinese 心 xīn.

Cetas is the faculty which carries out thinking, i.e. 'the mind'. As such it is like manas (see below). Comments about 'the heart' apply to this word as well.

Cetanā means 'intention, will, volition'. It is the (e)motive aspect of thinking, the thing that sets us in motion. Hence, perhaps, the Buddha equates kamma and cetanā. In some texts (e.g. S iii.60) the confusing term saṅkhāra is explained as six types of cetanā associated with the six sense faculties.


The root √man ‘to think, believe’ evolved from the PIE root *√men also gave rise to Greek meno 'mood, anger'; Latin mēns 'mind, understanding, reason' in turn evolves into the English words mind, mental, and remind. Greek manthánein 'learn' gives us mathematics (originally ‘something to be learned’ ). PIE includes the sense 'memory', but this is lost in Sanskrit where words for memory are typically from √smṛ (e.g. smṛti) and √dhṛ (e.g. dhara).

The dictionary defines manas as "mind in the widest sense: thinking, thought, intellect, understanding, sense, conscience". Manas in Buddhism is primarily the function which processes the mental sense objects (dhammā) and the mental representations of the five physical senses.

Mati an abstract noun meaning 'mind', i.e. the manas faculty.


Root √jñā 'to know' can be used as a standalone noun as well i.e. jñā 'knowledge'. It evolved from PIE *√gnō (with many variant spellings) which gives us the Greek gnosis and Latin cognitus > English cognition and recognise. French variations on Latin cognōscent (present participle) give us connoisseur, cognisance, and reconnaissance. From the Latin nōbilis we get the English noble which originally meant ‘(well) known’. Other cognates are note, notorious and (interestingly) quaint.

Jñāna (Pāli ñāṇa) "knowledge, knowing, wisdom."

Vijñāna (Pāli viññāna) vi- prefix to indicate 'dispersal' or 'division' (it can also indicate an opposite and function as an intensifier). Generally translated as 'consciousness', but not quite synonymous with the English word. The Buddhist term refers to what arises when there is a sense faculty interacting with a sense object. What we call consciousness would include the receptive aspect of consciousness waiting for input, or functioning independent of input. The Buddhist idea is that consciousness is always consciousness of something, and makes the internal mental world a 'sense' like the five physical senses.

Saṃjñā (Pāli saññā) saṃ- + jñā. The prefix saṃ- usually has the sense of completeness or togetherness. Saṃjñā is used in the particular sense 'apperception', perception combined with recognition; but also used as a synonym for viññāna in some texts (e.g. SN 45.11 and 45.12: Communicating the Dhamma).

Prajñā (Pali paññā) The prefix pra- has several sense but probably here means 'much' rather than 'before' (c.f. Latin prognosis). In Buddhism it is virtually synonymous with vipaśyanā (Pali vipassanā) or 'seeing through'.

Recently I've been studying the Kālāma Sutta and this word viññu (Sanskrit vijña) comes up. One of the moral criteria is to avoid doing things offensive to the viññu. This is often translated as 'the wise' but this is deceptive. There is an apparent conflict because the Buddha has already told the Kālāmas 'don't [decide, thinking] we respect the religious teacher' (mā samaṇo no garūti). However the viññu and the samaṇa aren't necessarily the same, and it doesn't refer to the arahants either. The word viññu just means 'intelligent, knowledgeable, or well informed' and 'wise' is probably a poor choice.

So amongst the main terms for 'consciousness', broadly speaking: manas is the mental sense faculty; citta is the content it deals with; saññā is the function of perceiving and recognising those contents; paññā is the resulting knowledge; and viññāna is broadest term encompassing these functions.

It doesn't pay to insist on these distinctions and one must pay close attention to how the word is being used in Pāli - translators can often obscure the subtleties here - even a very reliable translator like Bhikkhu Bodhi for instance admits to translating both citta and mano as 'mind' under most circumstances. An exception is SN 12.61 which has citta, mano, and viññāna all in one sentence, where he translates as 'mind', 'mentality', and 'consciousness' - though there, ironically, they may just be simple synonyms. (Connected Discourses p.595, and p.769, n.154).


See other Philological Odds & Ends posts:
  • I: tathāgata, sūtra, śramaṇa, loka, gahapati/gṛhapati.
  • II: cakravartin, cintāmaṇi, yoniso manasikara, pāramitā, etymology.
  • III: bodhisattva, anagārikā, samyak/mithyā.
  • IV: vrata, mitra, kavi.
  • V: megha, mañju, saṅgha.
  • VI: Meditation words
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