Why ‘thoughts’ are not part of the things we consider as self?

Understanding that the things we take as self are not self (by ‘seeing them as they really are with correct wisdom’) is one of the way to attains nibbāna (eg. SN22.45)

And the Buddha gives us a list summarizing what we consider as self: the five aggregates subject to clinging (eg. in SN22.44 “"And what, bhikkhus, is the way leading to the origination of identity? Here, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling . . . regards form as self . . . feeling as self . . . perception as self . . . volitional formations as self . . . consciousness as self . . . or self as in consciousness. […]”

But independently of this given list, I tried to identify what I considered as my self. The most obvious ones for me were my body, my feelings, my sense consciousness and definitely my thoughts or thinking mind.
So I was wondering why ‘thoughts’ is not one of the aggregate subject to clinging or part of one, even though it seems an obvious candidate…

One explanation I came up with recently is that for advanced meditators such as the wanderers of yore, the experience of the disappearance of thoughts in meditation (2nd jhāna and above) was quite common and therefore the meditator could notice that the self is NOT the thinking mind since he would experience a state without thoughts. On the contrary, experiencing the 5 aggregates subject to clinging as not self is not so easy and requires a special, higher, teaching and training such as the one dispensed by a Buddha.

But I am maybe completely off the mark on all this! I would appreciate your views on this question.

According to Abhidhamma the thought of an Arahants considered to be Kiriya Citta.
Which means the thoughts of Arahants do not have a Kammic effect.
Taking thoughts as I, me, and my self is the self-view.

  1. What does it mean
    by " thought " ?
    How do you define
    and describe it ?
  2. Subsiding of the so-called
    " thought " , Is not a state
    without thoughts .
    Would you called it
    " hibernation " in jhāna ?
  3. Perception supposed to include
    the thought if not mistaken .

Yes, so why is it not listed as an aggregate subject to clinging?

‘Thoughts’ as vitakka, vicara, samkappa I guess.

I don’t understand what you mean.

Do you remember the sutta mentioning this by any chance?

Citta or Vinnana is one of the five aggregates.

A pali word for the verb to think is cinteti, it is related to the noun citta and the noun related to it is cintā.

In a related topic, Bhante @Sujato offered an interesting approach to the term citta:

Citta is to be developed and thus pertains to the fourth noble truth.

At the same time, we have terms such as sankappa and vitakka which usually allude to things in English we would use the word thought to describe.

I believe this may be a good opportunity for him (and maybe Bhante @Brahmali) to share with us their understanding on the question:

To what extent we have in Pali language and find in EBTs an appropriate direct and perfect equivalent to what in English we understand as thought?


My suspicion is that in English, the term thought is itself a quite versatile word used for describing many and not necessarily similar things pertaining to the non-physical aspects and realm of experience: images, verbalization, memories, perceptions, etc.

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Friend @Yasoja you are very right in your observation and contemplation. :buddha: And not only thinking, but also memory; how is it ever possible to develop any sense of self without these?

However, in my humble view, in the context of pañcupadanakhandha, the sankhārakhandha include thought and thinking par excellence, as does saññakhandha of memory. In my humble view, this is what these terms predominantly refer to, in the context of pañcupadanakhandha.

Consciousness is defined in the sutta (eg. SN12.2) as:

There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This is called consciousness.”

I agree that thoughts (as grouping vitakka, vicara, samkappa) might belong to the mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa), it seems to make sense… I’m quite happy with this for now :slight_smile:

Regarding citta… still quite unclear to me to be honest.

Thanks for this, I will read it!

(Please note that I’m not trying to understand the whole thing only intellectually, I’m just trying to understand why the Buddha came up with this particular list of 5 by comparing it to my own experience of what I consider as self. I believe that some of the answers to these questions can only come from direct knowledge derived from meditation practice)

So now we have possibly 3 candidates where ‘my thoughts’ could belong to: perception, mental formation, and consciousness! :sweat_smile:

This is all good food for thoughts, thank you all :anjal:

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Friend @Yasoja … You are on the right track! Continue your independent practice of introspective observation and the nameless truth appears.

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It’s also good to keep in mind that the khandhas is sort of a stock formula grouping. You somehow can squeeze anything into it, and this is also its purpose. As used in the suttas it doesn’t a allow a precise navigation which phenomenon belongs exactly where.

On the other hand thoughts - be it words, memories or fantasies - are dealt with in many independent suttas, so we can be sure that they were seen as an obstacle to the meditator. A more elaborate roadmap for what-we-are-not is for example MN 1.

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My take is that thoughts can take the form of any khanda or anything belonging to a khanda. A dream is a form of thinking, and yet all five khandas are often experienced in the dream.

Thinking can refer to mental imagery, or sounds (having a song stuck on one’s brain is compulsive thinking), or speech, etc. Some people say that thoughts are immaterial, but they always have some sort of extension in mental space, even if they are not physically measurable.

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I think therefore I am -Descartes. There should be a good answer from the dhamma for this!

I think most of the answer is here:

“In-&-out breaths are bodily; these are things tied up with the body. That’s why in-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications. Having first directed one’s thoughts and made an evaluation, one then breaks out into speech. That’s why directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications. Perceptions & feelings are mental; these are things tied up with the mind. That’s why perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.” MN44

All of MN44 is relevent to this question, IMO.

with metta

If you are familiar with statistics you might think of the difference between ‘factor analysis’ and ‘cluster analysis’:
cluster analysis groups items: Europeans, Asians, men, women, etc. Every item belongs to one group.
factor analysis looks at the influence of aspects: in job promotion the most important aspect is diligence, then team-work, then intelligence, etc. So you can’t assign a specific item to an aspect.

The khandhas are like a factor analysis, they cover every phenomena, but are not supposed to answer “Was the nice memory of my holiday a sankhara, a rupa, sanna, or vedana?”

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Thank you for that, Gabriel,

I agree that the khandhas are a way to analyse experience, not building blocks.

I like Nyanatiloka’s apple simile here: https://what-buddha-said.net/library/Buddhist.Dictionary/dic3_k.htm#khandha

Some writers on Buddhism who have not understood that the five khandha are just classificatory groupings, have conceived them as compact entities ‘heaps’, ‘bundles’, while actually, as stated above, the groups never exist as such, i.e. they never occur in a simultaneous totality of all their constituents. Also those single constituents of a group which are present in any given body-and-mind process, are of an evanescent nature, and so also their varying combinations. Feeling, perception and mental constructions are only different aspects and functions of a single unit of consciousness. They are to consciousness what redness, softness, sweetness, etc. are to an apple and have as little separate existence as those qualities.

To understand the nature of Citta, it is advisable to read Abhidhamma.
Good starting point is here.

https://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh322.pdf

Yes; although remember that this is not meant as a general explanation of citta, which is used in a wide range of senses, but specifically where it occurs in main doctrinal contexts. This particularly applies in the context of the path: adhicitta, cittabhāvanā, cittasampadā, and so on.

However, even though generally speaking verb and noun forms of a word are used in the same meaning, cinteti doesn’t seem to be used in this sense. I’m not sure if that is significant.

Well, as you said:

And there are a number of terms that overlap with this: vitakka, vicāra, saṅkappa, dhamma, citta/cinteti, and others.

Note that in Pali, when “thought” is indicated in dialogue, it is usually done implicitly, using the idiom tassa evamassa “it occurred to him” or else “he thought”. The usage of this overlaps with “spoke”, as well, and it is not always clear which is meant. Often enough, in addition, such constructions are omitted entirely and must be inferred.

As to the main question, I am not sure. “Thought” is explicitly included in the closely related group, one that is derived from the Upanishads, referring to that which is “seen, heard, thought, known”. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason I can see why “thought” should be omitted from the aggregates.

I would, however, advise against forcing “thought” into the aggregates against their will. Poor old aggregates, they’ve had a hard time of it. Best leave them to say what they want to say, and not try to make them say what we want them to say.

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I think in English what we call thought is Vitaaka and Vicara.
For example, in English we do not identify perception and felling as thought.
But in Buddhism there are seven universals identify as Citta which include perception and feeling as per Abhidahmma.

When I think about how I understood Dhamma matters at the beginning of my practice, and how I understand those same matters now; I feel humbled. Our understanding continues to develop ceaselessly, so long we continue to be devoted to the path. But we must keep at it! We must keep thinking and pondering and contemplating the various aspects of Dhamma and Magga, so long we do so with humility and sincerity, and without dogma, obsession, pride, or conceit; keeping always the door open for the right kind and right measure of doubt or uncertainty concerning our own understanding, because we have already witnessed that very understanding of ours develop and grow and chang before; so still we aught not take it for granted now. But what is sure is that this uncertainty aught not dissuade us from making any contemplative effort at all. We always take some conceptual risks when we have to assert anything whatsoever to be “true”; yet I humbly do not believe that a practitioner advances much further ahead along the path by avoiding to take any conceptual risks at all! :slight_smile:

This existence is completely silent; it is only the mind that makes everything speak, sing, or scream! When the mind changes, meaning changes: what used to mean this begins to mean that; what used to mean that begins to mean this, and so on. We cannot renounce that mind without renouncing all meaning also! Perhaps that’s our ultimate goal; but the trick played upon us is so cruel in that we cannot reach the goal without the mind; we cannot renounce the mind without the mind! :slight_smile: :anjal:

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If Kahandhas are like factor analysis, what is the cluster?

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-factor-and-cluster-analyses