This morning I was asked by Ayya Kāruṇikā about the relation between mano, dhamma, and manoviññāṇa, and I felt I didn’t give a very satisfactory answer. So thinking about it a bit more, here’s what I came up with.
The six senses are each analyzed in a threefold way, for example, eye, sights, and eye consciousness. For the physical senses this is fairly straightforward, but for mind consciousness it’s not entirely clear. The mind is, after all, quite different from the other senses, even though we treat it according to the same template.
So far as I know, the suttas don’t really explain this point in detail.
Let’s start with what is clear. For each of the senses, the second factor is that which the sense is aware of. The eye is aware of sights, the ear of sounds, and so on. So here, dhamma must refer to the things the mind is aware of. Let’s call these “thoughts”, while bearing in mind that it is broader than just verbal thinking.
The corresponding consciousness (MN 28: tajja viññāṇabhāga) is the awareness of the thing known. Eye consciousness is aware of sights, ear consciousness is aware of sounds, and so on. So “mind consciousness” must be the awareness of thoughts.
So far so good.
Mano is the tricky one. Normally, mano means “mind”, and it may be a synonym for citta or viññāṇa. But as I have discussed previously, it tends to be used of the more active dimension of the mind, where it comes close in meaning to “intention”. It’s not immediately obvious that either of these senses can apply here. If mano is merely a synonym for citta or viññāṇa, how come we also have manoviññāṇa? And if it means “intention”, it rather narrows the context down, because we are not always making intentional choices.
Because of this, some have proposed that the mano or manodhātu here is more directly parallel to the other senses, and refers to the physical organ of consciousness: the brain. This seems off, but at least it makes sense.
However, I’d like to propose another interpretation. Mano is the functional aspects of the mind that make consciousness possible, but which one is not directly aware of. For example, to make sense of any sense impression in the mind we need perception (saññā). Yet we are usually not aware of perception in operation. We are aware of the thought, not of the perception.
Of course, we may become aware of the perception, in which case it would be reckoned as the dhamma at that time. Can the inner sense organ and outer sense stimulus can be the same thing? Why not? Consider the body: it is both feeler and felt.
Thus mano would be similar in sense to the classical understanding of nāma (“name”) as including feeling, perception, intention, attention, and contact, all of which are functional properties of the mind. In later Abhidhamma, they are called cetasikā (“mental concommitants”). Given that mano in this case is not defined precisely, I’d be cautious about saying that all these things are identical, but I do think they are closely similar.
A technical definition of these three would then be something like:
- mano: the complex or organ of mental functions that make consciousness work
- dhamma: mental phenomena that are experienced by mental consciousness
- manoviññāṇa: mental consciousness that is aware of the mental phenomena