The Five Ever-Functioning and Five Ascertaining Mental Factors

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Yesterday we began our discussion of the types of appearances that the mind gives rise to. We saw that in order to understand this, we need to understand what we mean by “mind.” We saw that what it’s referring to is mental activity, which is the individual, subjective experiencing of things. What actually is happening in that mental activity can be described from two points of view: One is the giving rise to a mental hologram. The word for mental hologram is usually translated as an “aspect” of the object, but what it’s referring to is a mental hologram, as we explained. That same activity is what “to know something” means. The most general word is to “cognize” something, which is to know it in any way whatsoever. That means not only to see it or think it, but also includes paying attention to it, concentrating on it, liking or disliking it, feeling happy or unhappy about it, being attached to it, loving it, or being angry with it. Also, as we saw, mental activity entails primary consciousness, which is involved with just simply the act of seeing, hearing, or thinking. Congruent with primary consciousness – in other words, in the same package, doing the same thing with that – are all these mental factors, like attention and the emotions.

If something is mental activity, it must retain its “innate functional nature.” That means that no matter what we’re experiencing, it’s still mental activity. Further, individual continuums of mental activity have no beginning and no end. And there’s nothing that could replace mental activity, which is the exact opposite, mutually exclusive with it, that would still leave us as a person. Even Buddhas are persons, and all persons are imputations on individual continuums of mental activity.

What we want to look for in terms of the different types of mental activity and the things that are happening in that mental activity are the things that we could actually get a true stopping of; that we could remove forever and still be left with mental activity. The things that we could remove forever, that we could get a true stopping of, are the things that cause our suffering, our problems.

So, the basic issue that we need to examine is: what are the aspects of our experience that are not a problem and that could continue with no beginning and no end even when we become Buddhas, and what are those aspects that we could get rid of without damaging the other factors that will continue when we become Buddhas. If we can correctly differentiate these two groups, then we know what we need to work on in our Dharma practice, without getting rid of too much (over-refuting) and without getting rid of too little (under-refuting).

Mental activity has two aspects, what are traditionally called “clarity” and “awareness.” Both of them appear, or arise, in each moment of cognition, each moment of experience. “Appear” just means that it arises. So, on the one side we have the different ways of being aware of an object that arise. Then, we have what we normally call “appearances” – the objects of cognition that arise – these mental holograms, basically, which are not limited to those with a visual form. When we analyze types of appearances, then, we need to analyze both the ways of knowing something that appear in our mental activity as well as the cognitive objects that appear.

So, first we need to look at which types of ways of knowing things that arise are okay and which are the ones that are the troublemakers that we want to get rid of. This means that we need to become convinced that we can stop them forever so that they never arise again. Then, we need to look at the mental holograms that arise and differentiate which ones are confusing and have something wrong with them, and which ones are accurate and okay. Of course, these two aspects – ways of knowing and cognitive objects – are related to each other; they’re talking about two inseparable aspects of what arises and appears in a moment of mental activity. If there is a troublesome way of being aware of something, it gives rise to a troublesome hologram. Nevertheless, we can conceptually differentiate the two so that we can work on the causes of our problems and suffering from two different angles.

The Five Ever-Functioning Mental Factors

Among the mental factors, there are some that fit okay with mental activity all the time, so even Buddhas have them. Among those, there are some that are present and active in every moment, like feeling some level of happiness, and some that are present and active only sometimes, like love or patience. Then there are other mental factors that are troublemakers: one of them, unawareness, is present in every moment except when we are focused non-conceptually on voidness, and some are only present sometimes, like anger. We need to make these distinctions.

First of all, what are the okay mental factors that are present and active all the time, in every moment, and which we continue to have as a Buddha? We don’t need to get rid of these; in fact, we can’t get rid of them. They are called the “five ever-functioning mental factors.” Like their name, they are ever-functioning; they’re always present and active.

What are they? In each moment, we always have (1) a feeling of some level of happiness; otherwise, we don’t experience anything we cognize. We always have (2) distinguishing – we can’t deal with a given sense-field if we can’t distinguish some object in that sense-field from the background. Then there is always some type of (3) urge – that’s what causes our mental activity to face an object or to go in its direction. It’s easy to recognize: why do we turn our head to the side to look at something and then we see something else? Because there’s a mental urge to move our head. We feel like moving our head and looking at something else and so the mental urge arises that brings our mental activity there. Or there’s a mental urge that brings our mental activity to think something else.

Then there is (4) contacting awareness, which differentiates if the object of a cognition is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We’re not talking about the physical or mental act of contacting a cognitive object; that’s not what we’re talking about. Rather, when our mental activity contacts an object, is this contact experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? That, of course, is dependent on many factors, isn’t it? We see some food that we happen to like, so we see it as pleasant; but if we didn’t like it, seeing it would be unpleasant. If we see somebody we like, it’s pleasant to see them. If we see somebody we don’t like, it’s not very pleasant. This is contacting awareness.

Contacting awareness is the foundation for feeling happy, unhappy, or neutral. If we see somebody that’s pleasant to see, we feel happy. It might not be “Whoopee!” or joyous, but we feel happy, not unhappy.

The fifth ever-functioning mental factor is (5) paying attention, which literally means “taking something to mind.” It engages with a cognitive object in a certain way. There are many variables of how this mental factor can engage with an object. One variable is taking it to mind with a certain level of attention: either a lot of attention or very little attention. Another variable is taking it to mind by considering it in a certain way. We can consider it pretty, we can consider it ugly. We can consider it in many ways; it’s how we pay attention to it. We could pay attention to everybody as being equal, or we could pay attention to “this one is more important than the others.” So, taking something to mind can be accurate or inaccurate.

The Five Ever-Functioning Mental Factors Are Indispensable for Mental Activity to Occur

Okay, these are the five ever-functioning mental factors; they’re always present and active in each moment of mental activity. Although they’re not strictly part of the innate functional nature of mental activity, they don’t conflict with this nature. In fact, they’re indispensable for the mental activity to occur and help it to function. We can’t really have mental activity without them.

Asanga, a great Indian master, explained how they are indispensable. He said that we don’t actually experience an object unless we feel some level of happiness toward it. That’s the difference between mental activity and a computer. Computers give rise to representations of objects on their screen in the form of pixels and sounds, but computers certainly don’t feel any level of happiness toward these. Neither do robots. You can’t say that a computer or a robot actually experiences anything.

We don’t actually cognitively take something in a sense field as an object of cognition unless we distinguish some characteristic feature of it. Otherwise, we’re perceiving just a whole sense-field of pixels. Or think of being in a noisy restaurant: there’s a whole cacophony of sounds that we hear. We can’t listen to a specific conversation unless we can distinguish one set of sounds from another, can we?

Then, we don’t even face or go in the direction of an object of cognition unless we have a mental urge toward it. We’re not going to see what’s on the other side of the room unless there’s an urge to look there.

In addition, we don’t have any basis for experiencing an object with a feeling unless we have a contacting awareness to differentiate it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Otherwise, we have no basis for feeling happy or unhappy.

Also, we don’t actually engage with a specific object unless we pay attention to it, even if that level of attention is low. So, what we need to understand here is that these mental factors are functioning all the time, even if we’re a Buddha. However, the value of them will differ.

I have to explain what “the value of them” means. Each of these mental factors is a variable, which means their content, their strength and their level varies, depending on many factors. For instance, as an ordinary being, sometimes we feel unhappy. Sometimes we feel ordinary, mundane happiness – the type of happiness that doesn’t last, which doesn’t satisfy, etc. Each of these feelings spans a spectrum, from weak to intense. Their “value” refers to where on these spectrums they are.

The various levels of unhappiness and mundane happiness constitute the samsaric values of this variable of feeling some level of happiness. As a Buddha, we would still feel a level of happiness, but it will always be blissful. It’s still the same mental factor of feeling; so feeling can have a samsaric value or a nirvanic value.

We can distinguish only very little about things, or, as a Buddha, we can distinguish everything about everything simultaneously. As a regular samsaric being, our level of attention varies; it can be quite poor. As a Buddha, we would have perfect attention – 100% attention all the time.

So, this is what we need to understand: these five ever-functioning mental factors aren’t things that we would want to get rid of; in fact, we can’t get rid of them. They work harmoniously with the basic nature of mental activity and help it to function. Okay? You got that? Digest that for a moment. We don’t want to get rid of these things in order to become a Buddha. We want to, in a sense, purify them – get rid of their imperfections so that they operate perfectly.

[pause for reflection]

It would be an over-refutation, getting rid of too much, if we tried to get rid of all feelings, for example. It would be an over-refutation if we aimed to just feel nothing. To feel nothing is not liberation. Neither is not distinguishing anything, where everything just becomes “one.” In order to be able to help all beings, we have to be able to distinguish one from the other; they’re not all the same. To us, all penguins in Antarctica look alike, but they’re not. Like that, we shouldn’t think that to a Buddha, all humans look alike. A Buddha has equal regard for everyone, but also respects each person’s individuality.

The Five Ascertaining Mental Factors

Then we also have five ascertaining mental factors. They enable the mental activity to take its object decisively, and they too do not conflict with the innate functional nature of mental activity. The two abhidharma presentations that the Tibetans study present these five slightly differently from each other. Abhidharma is the literature that discusses all of this. Vasubandu explains the five ascertaining mental factors in a general way as being present in each moment of our mental activity. Asanga defines them only in the context of their accompanying constructive states of mind. Let’s look at Vasubandu’s explanation.

The first of these five ascertaining mental factors is (1) intention. It’s the motivation to attain any object, or to achieve any goal, or to do something with the object or goal once it’s achieved. As ordinary beings, we could sometimes have a nice intention to help somebody, or a not very nice intention to hurt them. However, as a Buddha, our intention would always be to help others, and to give them long-term help to attain enlightenment.

Then there’s (2) regard. “Regard” takes its object to have some level of some good qualities. Do we regard an object as being helpful? Do you regard it as being beautiful? Do we regard it as being not beautiful? How do we regard it? It’s regarding something to have good qualities on the spectrum from having no good qualities at all to all good qualities. So: from accurate to distorted.

(3) Mindfulness is the next one. It refers to a type of mental glue. It’s the mental factor of holding onto any cognized object without losing it as an object of focus. That’s why I describe it as “mental glue”: it’s “holding on,” “not letting go.” It includes actively recalling or remembering the object of focus; it’s the same word as “to remember.” Our mindfulness, of course, can vary in its strength.

(4) Mentally fixating is the next one. This is usually translated as “concentration,” but we can be a little bit more precise than that. It’s referring to keeping fixed on a cognitive object. All these factors are related to each other: we’re paying attention to some object and then this mental fixating is what keeps the attention there. Mindfulness is the not letting go of the object. So, they are all describing the same mental process.

We need to realize that all of these ten mental factors are functioning at the same time and networking with each other. It’s not that they’re functioning independently of each other in a disharmonious way. Remember, they are congruent with each other and so work together harmoniously, with only one value of each in any moment of cognition. Each of them is an individual mental factor; but it’s not that they’re unrelated with each other. They’re all working together in each moment. So, we’re paying attention to something, taking it to mind and regarding it in a certain way. 

Then, the fifth ascertaining mental factor is (5) discriminating awareness. This decisively discriminates if something is true or false, constructive or destructive, helpful or unhelpful. It adds some level of decisiveness to the distinguishing, even if that decisiveness is weak, and it could be either correct or incorrect. So, we distinguish a certain way of acting from among all other ways of acting, and with discriminating awareness we’re convinced that it is helpful, for instance. For example: drinking vodka all day long. We could be absolutely convinced that it will solve all our problems. So, here is an example of discriminating awareness that could be very strong, but completely incorrect.

You can see, then, that all ten work together, and as a Buddha we’d have them as well, it’s just that they would all be completely free of any faults. But as non-enlightened beings, we can correctly or incorrectly consider something. We can incorrectly consider something to be something else that it’s not. For example: considering getting drunk to be something that it’s not. That it’s helpful when it’s actually not. Or, we could consider this to be water that we’re adding to something that we’re cooking, whereas, in fact, it’s vodka.

Anyway, these are ten functional mental factors that are present and assist our mental activity in each moment of mental activity. That’s important to understand. What we’re working on when we talk about purifying them is purifying the value of them. Each functions over a spectrum of values and what we want to do is get them to work at their absolutely optimal level. We don’t want to achieve a true stopping of any of them, because in fact we can’t. By contrast, there are certain disturbing emotional factors that do not assist our mental activity to perform its innate functional nature and which cause our problems and suffering. These are the ones that we want to achieve a true stopping of.

Unawareness Is Not Indispensable for Mental Activity

Some disturbing mental factors, such as unawareness, or ignorance of how everything exists, also occur in every moment of our usual mental activity with no beginning. “Unawareness” means either that we don’t know how everything exists, or we know it in an incorrect way – in the exact opposite way of how things actually do exist. Unawareness has no beginning; just as mental activity has no beginning. It’s not that we were originally perfect and then we ate the apple off the tree of knowledge and became ignorant. It’s not like that. Of course, that’s a whole different topic of: what does it meant that things have no beginning? However, we won’t discuss that here. The important thing here is that beginningless unawareness can have an end. Because, although unawareness accompanies every moment of our usual mental activity, it’s not part of the innate functional nature of mental activity and doesn’t assist mental activity to function.

These first ten mental factors that we described – the five ever-functioning ones and the five ascertaining ones – we can’t have mental activity without them. They describe how mental activity functions, how it works. However, we can still have mental activity without unawareness, or ignorance. That’s the point. We could get rid of it and there would still be mental activity. But we can’t get rid of feeling some level of happiness and have it still be mental activity. We can’t get rid of intention and have it still be mental activity.

That’s what we really need to understand: what it means when we’re talking about fleeting stains that we can rid our mental activity of and things that are part of the functional nature of how mental activity work.

So, now the really hard point: Why can we get rid of unawareness forever; in other words, how is it possible to stop its appearance from ever arising again in our mental activity? That’s what we really need to work with. Can we achieve a true stopping of this unawareness such that it never appears again? We need to achieve such a true stopping because that unawareness is the cause of all our suffering; it’s the true cause.

Correct Discriminating Awareness Is Still Mental Activity

This is important because if we think that we can never get rid of our unawareness, our ignorance, then what are we trying to do with our spiritual practice? We can get rid of it because among the ascertaining mental factors that are present in each moment of mental activity is discriminating awareness. As we have seen, mental factors have varying values, so discriminating awareness can be either correct or incorrect. Correct discriminating awareness of how things actually exist is correct discriminating awareness of voidness. That’s mutually exclusive with incorrect discriminating awareness and with the unawareness with which we do not know that incorrect discriminating awareness is incorrect.

If we simplify the language, either we don’t know how things exist or we do know; either we know incorrectly how things exist or we know correctly. These alternatives are mutually exclusive with each other. When we have one, we can’t have the other. With our unawareness, we think that things exist in some impossible way, in the way that our incorrect discriminating awareness is decisive about. In other words, we are unaware that this discriminating awareness is wrong. “Voidness” means that an actual way of existing that corresponds to this impossible way of existing is totally absent: there’s no such thing. So, incorrect discriminating awareness of how things exist and discriminating awareness of voidness are mutually exclusive, aren’t they? Either we believe that there is such a thing as some impossible way of existing or we believe that there’s no such thing.

Because they are mutually exclusive, correct discriminating awareness can counter and displace incorrect discriminating awareness and unawareness, and in doing so, it would still leave mental activity as mental activity. It would not displace mental activity’s functional nature of merely giving rise to a mental hologram, which is what awareness of a cognitive object is. Do you get that? It’s a bit subtle.

We can’t get rid of feeling a level of mental happiness and still have it be mental activity, because feeling a level of happiness is essential for mental activity to experience the mental hologram it gives rise to. In other words, mental activity wouldn’t function as mental activity without being accompanied and assisted by feeling some level of happiness. However, we could get rid of unawareness and it would still be mental activity. If we replace being aware of things in an incorrect way with being aware of things in a correct way, our mental activity would still be mental activity. And when we replace the incorrect discriminating awareness that helps our mental activity to ascertain its object with correct discriminating awareness, it doesn’t stop our mental activity from functioning.

Correct Discriminating Awareness Can Eliminate Unawareness Forever

Why, then can correct discriminating awareness, this correct understanding, triumph over incorrect discriminating awareness and unawareness? Why is it stronger? After all, unawareness has no beginning and is present in every moment of our usual mental activity, whereas correct understanding is very rare and difficult to attain.

On a very general level, we could say that correct discriminating awareness is corroborated, or supported, by logic, by reasoning. By contrast, our incorrect discriminating awareness and unawareness, in other words, our incorrect beliefs about how things exist, are not logical; they’re not supported by reason. We can’t confirm or corroborate them. Also, remember, our aim is to rid ourselves of suffering. Incorrect understanding and unawareness that it’s incorrect brings more suffering and unhappiness; correct understanding and conviction that it is correct eliminates our suffering. But, that’s a very general explanation. We need to look more deeply.

Although correct discriminating awareness of voidness alone can function as an opponent to the unawareness of how everything exists, because they are mutually exclusive, it cannot function all by itself as an obliterating opponent to unawareness. An “obliterating opponent” is one that brings about a true stopping of what it opposes, such that it never recurs. “Obliterating” means that it blasts it away so that there’s nothing left.

This is the issue. When we have correct discriminating awareness, we can’t simultaneously have incorrect discriminating awareness. Having indecisive wavering between incorrect and correct understanding does not cognize both alternatives simultaneously. So, when we have decisive correct understanding, it functions as an opponent to incorrect understanding because, having the support of logic and reason, it is stronger than incorrect understanding.

Correct discriminating awareness and understanding arise through inferential cognition, which relies on a valid line of reasoning. As for incorrect discriminating awareness and understanding, if they rely on any line of reasoning, it would be on an incorrect line of reasoning. But this is only the case with doctrinally-based unawareness – unawareness based on our learning faulty lines of reasoning from a non-Buddhist tradition and incorrectly discriminating them as being correct. With unawareness, we don’t believe that they are incorrect, or we mistakenly think they are correct. But there is also automatically arising unawareness, which doesn’t rely on a line of reasoning. No one had to teach us that. Now the analysis gets much more complicated, especially since Buddhism teaches that we have both types of unawareness – doctrinally-based and automatically arising – with no beginning.

The real question, then, is: how can correct understanding based on correct discriminating awareness prevent both doctrinally-based and automatically arising incorrect understanding from ever arising again? A very simple answer would be: if we have correct understanding every moment of our existence, then we wouldn’t have incorrect understanding any more. However, that’s a rather superficial answer, because it leaves unanswered the question of how can we maintain correct understanding in every moment? After all, up until now, we’ve had incorrect understanding and unawareness in every moment with no beginning, and correct understanding only very rarely.

What has to be added to that correct understanding in order for it to become not just an opponent to unawareness, but an obliterating opponent? This is what we really need to analyze and try to figure out. We have to work with this. It’s easy and obvious to see that knowing correctly and not knowing correctly are opposites. If we know something correctly, then we don’t know it incorrectly. But, how can we get to the point where we would never know incorrectly again?

We would need something in addition to the correct understanding that comes with correct discriminating awareness of voidness. What we need to have is something that increased the strength of the mental activity that contains that correct discriminating awareness so that it becomes an obliterating opponent to unawareness. There need to be certain factors present that support that discriminating awareness so that the correct understanding has the strength to cause the unawareness never to arise again. This requires a great deal of analytical meditation to figure out: why is it that mental activity with correct discriminating awareness and all the other ascertaining and ever-functioning mental factors are not strong enough to bring about a true stopping of unawareness. What do they need in addition? That’s what we need to analyze next.


But first, what have we discussed so far? Can you remember? Let me give you a minute to see what you can remember.


We’ve discussed that there are ten mental factors that are always part of each moment of our mental activity. They describe how it functions. These aren’t things that we can get rid of. However, there is unawareness, or ignorance, that, like these ten other factors, has no beginning, but unlike them, can have an end. This is because it can be replaced by correct discriminating awareness of voidness. However, just because it can be replaced by that doesn’t mean that this discriminating awareness by itself can obliterate that unawareness so that it never arises again. We have to strengthen our mental activity so that it has more force – more power – so that our mental activity with this correct discriminating awareness can achieve a true stopping of this unawareness, or ignorance.


Do the five ever-functioning and the five ascertaining mental factors also accompany the subtlest level of mental activity, the clear light mind?

Yes, they do accompany clear light mental activity, even in the case of a Buddha who has exclusively this clear-light level. Otherwise, clear-light mental activity couldn’t actually cognitively take any object.

All of this is so complicated. Is progress on the Buddhist path possible if we just practice? Do we really need to study all of this, and then contemplate and analyze it and actualize it in our understanding? Wouldn’t progress come naturally if we just practice and do something?

Do what? As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, just praying by itself isn’t going to solve all our problems. Or, just doing ritual or just reciting mantras – they’re not going to solve all our problems either. We can’t say that all of these are useless, but we’re not going to make any progress unless we develop correct, decisive understanding.

Now, a few people might have built up a high level of understanding of the teachings in previous lives so that they can understand them very quickly and easily in this life. However, if we haven’t done that, we need to develop that understanding with effort now.

This is the point that we’ll discuss in our next session: what is it that we need in addition to correct understanding? It gets complex, because first we need to analyze: what are the factors that we need in order to even develop that understanding? Then, what has to accompany that understanding in order for it to be strong enough to obliterate our unawareness? This gets into the whole discussion of “positive force,” which is usually translated as “merit,” which is a very difficult concept to understand. We’ll discuss all of that next.