The Mind and Dhammā

Why are the objects of the mind called dhammā? It’s something I’ve never really thought deeply about before.

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In working towards an answer, it is perhaps worth reading carefully through Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductions to the MN and, particularly, the SN. See:

I think you are referring to expressions like this in MN115, SN14.1, etc:

manodhātu, dhammadhātu, manoviññāṇadhātu.
Sujato: the mind, thoughts, and mind consciousness.
Bodhi (MN): the mind element, the mind-object element, the mind-consciousness element.
Bodhi (SN): the mind element, mental-phenomena element, mind-consciousness element.

From Bhikkhu Bodhi’s SN introduction:

As a sense base and element, the dhammāyatana and dhammadhātu are the counterparts of the manāyatana, the mind base, and the manoviññāṇadhātu, the mind-consciousness element. The appropriate sense here would seem to be that of ideas and mental images, but the commentaries understand dhammas in these contexts to include not only the objects of consciousness but its concomitants as well. Thus I translate it “mental phenomena,” which is wide enough to encompass both these aspects of experience. As the fourth satipaṭṭhāna, objective base of mindfulness, dhammā is often translated “mind-objects.” So I rendered it in MLDB, but in retrospect this seems to me unsatisfactory. Of course, any existent can become an object of mind, and thus all dhammas in the fourth satipaṭṭhāna are necessarily mind-objects; but the latter term puts the focus in the wrong place. I now understand dhammas to be phenomena in general, but phenomena arranged in accordance with the categories of the Dhamma, the teaching, in such a way as to lead to a realization of the essential Dhamma embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

What is sometimes translated as mind objects appears in a compound, dhammadhātu. Perhaps trying to separate dhammā from the compound and asking: “Why are the objects of the mind called dhammā?” is not quite the right question.


In Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, Ven. Analayo writes:

"The Pãli term dhamma can assume a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it occurs. Most translators take the term dhammas in the Satipatthãna Sutta to mean “mental objects”, in the sense of whatever can become an object of the mind, in contradistinction to the objects of the other five senses. In regard to satipatthãna, however, this rendering appears strange. If the term dhammas were to refer to “objects of the mind”, then the other three satipatthãnas should also be included here, since they too can become objects of the mind. Moreover, one of the exercises listed under the fourth satipatthãna is contemplation of the six senses together with their respective objects, so this contemplation of dhammas is not confined to the objects of the mind as the sixth sense only. In fact, the dhammas listed in the fourth satipatthãna, such as the hindrances and the aggregates, etc., do not naturally evoke the classification “mental objects”.

What this satipatthãna is actually concerned with are specific mental qualities (such as the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors), and analyses of experience into specific categories (such as the five aggregates, the six sense-spheres, and the four noble truths). These mental factors and categories constitute central aspects of the Buddha’s way of teaching, the Dhamma. These classificatory schemes are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but constitute frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation. During actual practice one is to look at whatever is experienced in terms of these dhammas. Thus the dhammas mentioned in this satipatthãna are not “mental objects”, but are applied to whatever becomes an object of the mind or of any other sense door during contemplation."


This is only in play,

What came to my mind when the question was framed as above was the word ‘upadharana’.

That which the mind can take the measure of
That which can be received by mind

What Bikkhu Bodhi means here is there is an underlying law of the dhamma, and all conditioned phenomena or ‘dhammas’ point towards that if they are interpreted and treated in the correct way. This is why they are called dhammas, because they are teachings. The fourth satipatthana contains five sets of categories which cover all the possible ways of treating conditioned experience so as to arrive at the underlying law. Under the four noble truths, these fulfil the duties appropriate to each truth (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11).

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May be just like Pali uses the terms Sankhara, I guess.
Do you think there should be some special reason for it?