Triune Mind in Buddhism
Posted on March 1st, 2015

 By Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (writing from Canada)

How many minds do you think you have?

Whaddaya mean? Of course, I have one body, one mind – if you don’t mind.

Dead on. Dead wrong! Let’s ask the Buddha.  He uses  three terms for mind: Citta, Mano and Viññāõa.  Says he in one place,  Whatever it may indeed be, oh Bhikkhus, it is called Citta,  it is called Mano, it is called Viññāõa”. Yet, elsewhere we find the terms used with distinctly different  meanings.      We have, e.g.,    samāhite citte     ‘Citta stilled’,   manopubbaügamā dhammā ‘Mind is of the nature of  forerunning’ and   cakkhuviññāõa  ‘eye-consciousness’.

Any surprise that this  has baffled  scholars, East and West?  Translations haven’t been helpful either. English, or any other Western language in particular,  has no  parallel concepts. So it was that I took  up the challenge of finding out just what is going on. So there it is. My latest article, Triune Mind in Buddhism: A Textual Exploration” in the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies (2014), pp.7-48.

My first treading ground was the Abhidhamma in which we find a detailed analysis of the mind, meaning the five physical senses as also in Western Science – eye, ear, nose, tongue and body,   but going beyond,  the mind-sense.  None of  that   ESP (extra-sensory perception) nonsense  here!  Each sense is called a door (dvāra).

The Abhidhamma shows a  Stream of Consciousness  (viññāasota), as it is called by the Buddha,   in any given sense door, as having 17 mindmoments. With different functions.

So let’s then take a quick look at the ear sense, for example.  You have a cell phone in your hand, and then suddenly, you feel a vibration (calana).  This is what takes place when a sound (stimulus) sneaks up on you through the ear door. So  you pick up the cell   and keep it to  the ear (would you not count two mindmoments, one for each action?). Now,  still not knowing who the call is from, you listen. It’s me”,  you hear the words. This is the receiving part, taking up to 6 mindmoments.

You’re now listening to your friend and chatting away. But you know what?  Your mind has already decided whether the call is related  to Passion, Hatred or Delusion (rāga, dosa, moha).  Now careful there, will ya! This is where your this-life kamma is made, because it entails ‘intent’   and choice.  ‘Intent I say is kamma’, says the Buddha.  Decision made, the psychological message is sent on its way, taking about 9 mindmoments. All of this then is the judging part.

Next it is ‘registered’. Think of a hotel guest. You come in, look for a room, and then register. Taking 2 more mindmoments, the psychological message is now sent to a bank. I’m saying ‘psychological’ here because it is not just the verbal message you’re getting from your friend. It is also the psychological impact on you.

The threesome, then,  I call the ‘Triune mind’ – i.e., three-in-one mind.  Analyzed functionally, I label Mano  as R-Mind (Receiving-Mind), Citta as J-Mind (Judging-Mind) with   Viññāa  getting the badge E-mind, registering being an executive function.

So you have three minds then. Agree? Good. But the problem is that that’s not the whole story. In our example, each mind had a single task, making each a M-Simplex.   But  they also  join  hands.     So, interconnected, the  Triune Mind is now a M-Complex. Sorry, too complex to be outlined here, but all this  is what I try to show in the rest of the paper, with evidence from the Canon.

So  each of  Citta, Mano and  Viññāa  is a mind on its own,   but  they also overlap.  Let’s say someone were to ask, What is Buddhism?”,   could we not say, The Training Principles (aka  Precepts) are Buddhism, Meditation is Buddhism, Homage to the Triple Gem  is Buddhism”? Yet each of them has  its own identity. To think of yet another  mundane example, let’s say you’re showing the Atlas of the World to your seven-year old, and turning the page, you say, Oh, this is Asia”. What’s Asia?”, asks the child.  You answer, China is Asia, Japan is Asia, India is Asia, Sri Lanka is Asia”.  While the four  countries, along with a host of other countries  together make up the land area Geographers call Asia,  they do not all  share with  each other all the features    – climate, political system, economic system,  languages,   poverty, literacy, longevity, happiness, etc.  So   each country has a life of its own, but also shares common features with others.

      These are then some of the insights the paper brings you about the mind.   Our function-related labeling of  Mano, Citta and Vi¤¤àõa   – R-Mind, J-Mind and E-Mind, hopefully overcomes the issue of having no parallels in translation, English, or any other given language.    ‘Receiving’, ‘Judging’ and ‘Executive’ are general enough in any given language, allowing the native term  to capture the meaning.

      It is hoped, then, that the paper  offers a possible solution to the confusion around the Triune Mind. Clarification comes by asking the question, Is the term  used in a specific and/or localized context, or is it in a generic and non-technical sense where  one or more of them could  be used interchangeably?”

In an  earlier research, you’ll remember that I  took you  on a macro tour of the universe, in its Devolution and Evolution cycle,   as  outlined by the Buddha in the Aggañña Sutta.  (See  Dhamma Aboard Evolution: A Canonical Study of Aggañña Sutta in relation to Science (2014)

<>.) In this research, I am  only happy to take you on a micro tour into the innards of   the mind.

Living in a western country, one of my  interests in writing on Buddhism is to bring about a conversation between   what I   call  Buddhian Buddhism and Western Science. By Buddhian Buddhism I mean nothing more than the Buddha’s words, as opposed to the Commentarial, Yanic and /or cultural interpretations. So in my paper,   I’ve tried to  use a language that is Western Science friendly, and less threatening. Thus,  the ‘Teaching’ of  ‘Conditioned Co-origination’ (paiccasamuppāda),  e.g., comes to be shortened to  ‘Con-Coor Principle’.    We call it a ‘Principle’ not just to give it scientific respectability,  but because indeed it is a principle that governs life, be it of sentient beings or of nature.  It is for the same reasons that I have retained the Pali terms, Citta,  Mano and Viññāõa, just as in Western Science, Greek terms abound.

In the course of the paper, I also introduce a few concepts: Autonomous Spiritual System (ASPS), Cardiac Theory of Consciousness  (of Ven. Buddhaghosa), Encephalic Theory of Consciousness  (of Western Science), Pancorporeal Theory of Consciousness  (of the Buddha).                                           Not to be forgotten are, of course, M-Simplex. And M-Complex, and Triune Mind: E-mind (Executive-Mind) for Viññāa, J-Mind (Judging-Mind) for  Citta and R-Mind (Receiving-Mind) for  Mano;

The Paper  is available for free download at


Wishing you the best in health and happiness!


Prof. Sugunasiri is a US Fulbright and Canadian Buddhist Scholar, and author of the best-seller, You’re What you sense: The Buddha on Mindbody, Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, and now online:  Poet and critical essayist on Literature, his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (available at Vijita Yapa) has been hailed as an extraordinary first novel”.  He has also been a pioneer in Buddhism in Canada (see, Fifty Years…Part IV (Jan. 18)).

One Response to “Triune Mind in Buddhism”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Prof Sugunasiri : Interesting article for which we thank you.
    Please do write us another about Mental Discipline in Buddhism. Also how do we promote Vipassana Bhavana for children in Sri Lanka & adults too ? As children we were not taught this in school though I attended a Buddhist school in Colombo in the 1950s and early 60s.

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