Manas, or Mind

The Mind of Will and Delusion

 The English word mind pops up frequently in translations of Buddhist texts. Unfortunately, this one English word stands in for several different Asian words that don't mean the same thing. Unless the translator is helpful enough to footnote which mind is being discussed, the reader may be left in the dark.

One of these words is manas (Sanskrit and Pali). Trying to tie down precisely what manas means can be frustrating.

One of my authoritative sources translates manas as "intellect," and another translates it as "heart." Those are very different.

Manas is the "mind" (or "heart," or "thoughts," depending on the translator) referred to the in the opening verses of the Dhammapada:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.[Acharya Buddharakkhita translation]

or, as expressed by another translator --

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
If you speak or act
with a corrupted heart,
then suffering follows you --
as the wheel of the cart,
[Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]

So what is this "manas" that is both intellect and heart and precedes all phenomena and/or mental states? And how is it distinctive from other words translated as "mind," such as citta and vijnana?

The best brief definition of manas I can give you is that part of our thinking that flows from intention and will. This takes in other thinking functions, such as logic, reason and recognition. But perhaps a closer look at the origins of the word can help make it clearer.

Manas in the Vedic Traditons

Manas is a word found in the early Vedic religions of India that gave birth to Buddhism, HInduism, Jainism, and other traditions.

Millennia ago the Vedics developed a very sophisticated understanding of the many intertwining functions of our thoughts, feelings and predilections that westerners lump together and call "mind," and much of what early Buddhism has to say about mind was deeply influenced by this. (For an overview of how "mind" is understood in modern day Hinduism, see "What Is Mind?" in the Hinduism section of About.com.)

In the Rig Veda, a collection of hymns and mantras that probably originated about 1500 - 1000 BCE, manas signifies the seat of thought and emotion, dwelling in the heart. Manas is also associated with personal identity, and English translations of early Hindu texts sometimes translate it as "soul." (Are we thoroughly confused yet?)

Manas in Early Buddhism

In the Sutta-pitaka, manas usually refers to mental actions associated with kamma (karma). You may have heard that karma is created by "body, speech, and mind," and in this context "mind" is a translation of manas.

Manas came to be thought of as a kind of support system or sense that takes in the six modes of perceptual awareness (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and awareness; see also The Five Skandhas) and sends these on to the parts of the mind that create concepts about them.

If you are already familiar with Buddhism, you will appreciate that this is not necessarily a good thing.

Manas in Yogacara

Yogacara is a philosophical branch of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in India in the 4th century CE. The sages of yogacara developed a sophisticated understanding of how our experiences are created by the mind (in this usage, "mind" is vijnana, not manas)

Yogacara proposes eight classifications of consciousness. The first six consciousnesses correlate to the six modes of perceptual awareness listed above. Manas, also called manas-vijnana, is the seventh consciousness, which is consciousness of delusions.

Manas-vijnana perceives the eighth, foundational consciousness, alaya-vijnana, but mistakes it for a permanent, personal self. In this way, it creates a false belief, and this false belief is the basis of the Three Poisons.

The Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki explained that manas has a strong tendency to attach itself to the result of thinking. In the introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, he wrote,

"The Manas first wills, then it discriminates to judge; to judge is to divide, and this dividing ends in viewing existence dualistically. Hence the Manas' tenacious attachment to the dualistic interpretation of existence. Willing and thinking are inextricably woven into the texture of Manas."

So, simply translating manas as "mind" or "heart" or "intellect" really doesn't do it justice.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Manas, or Mind." ThoughtCo, Feb. 23, 2016, thoughtco.com/manas-or-mind-449532. O'Brien, Barbara. (2016, February 23). Manas, or Mind. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/manas-or-mind-449532 O'Brien, Barbara. "Manas, or Mind." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/manas-or-mind-449532 (accessed November 22, 2017).