Theory of Mind

Four parts of our mind according to Buddha

By Harshvardhan in life thoughts

January 20, 2024

One day, a disciple complained to the Buddha about his restless mind, 2500 years ago. Buddha told him a parable of a tree and the monkey. In the story, a monkey climbs a tree and starts eating its fruits. Soon, he thinks another tree might have better fruits, and he jumps to it. This cycle continues, leaving the monkey never truly satisfied.

Buddha explained that the monkey is like our mind, constantly jumping from one thought or desire to another, in a restless search for satisfaction. A mind that hops from thought to thought, craving constant stimulation, rarely finding contentment.

How, then, do we find peace in this incessant activity? The answer lies in understanding the very fabric of our thoughts, for if you understand how the mind works, it will bow down to you.

Our mind (not brain per se) has four parts:

  1. Sangya
  2. Smriti
  3. Vedna
  4. Sanskar

Four parts of mind according to Buddha.

Sangya

The first one is Sangya. Sangya is the initial perception or recognition of an object. This is the part of the mind that identifies what an object is, based on the inputs from the sense objects. It functions on direct inputs from our sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.1

Imagine Sangya as the lens of a camera, capturing the world in snapshots. Just as a camera instantly recognizes and frames a scene, Sangya identifies and labels our sensory experiences, delineating a ‘tree’ from a ‘car’.

Smriti

The second one is Smriti. Smriti is based on the memory of our past experiences. This faculty of mind recalls all previous instances similar or related to the current input from sense objects. It is through Smriti that we remember our past associations, reactions and biases to the objects.

Consider Smriti as an extensive, meticulously organized library. Each book on the shelf represents a memory, a past experience. When a new sensory input arrives, Smriti swiftly flips through these volumes, retrieving relevant past associations and knowledge.

Vedna

The third one is Vedna. Vedna is the feeling or sensation that arises in response to the perception and the memory. Vedna can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They don’t just happen in our “brain”, but also happen in our body.2

Vedna is like a compass, guiding us through the landscapes of pleasure, pain, and equanimity. It’s not just an internal gauge; it resonates through our body, like the warmth of the sun on our skin or the chill of a breeze.

For example, meeting someone we don’t like can result in unpleasant sensations. Seeing butter chicken with garlic naan might generate a pleasant sensation. Recall how your mouth waters when hearing about a delicious food.3

Sanskar

The final one is Sanskar. These are mental formations developed in response to Vedna. If the feeling or sensation was pleasant, a craving (or an attachment) to those sensations arise. If the feeling or sensation was unpleasant, a aversion (or repulsion) arises. Over time, these Sanskars become deeply ingrained in our mind. Some of them are conscious. But most of them are subconscious or unconscious.

Think of Sanskar as a sculptor, tirelessly shaping our character and habits. Each experience leaves its mark, carving out patterns of likes, dislikes, and deep-seated tendencies within our mind.

These cravings and aversions leave our mind wanting all the time. We remain full of desires and never satisfied. A true seeker would train his mind to remain equanimous to pleasant and unpleasant sensations, avoiding creating new habit patterns of the mind.

How the four parts work together?

Sangya, our mind’s lens, captures the world in vivid detail, paving the way for Smriti to sift through the archives of our past, bringing forward memories and learned reactions. This recognition and recollection stirs Vedna, our inner compass, evoking a spectrum of positive, negative or neutral sensations that color our moment-to-moment experience.

These sensations, in turn, sculpt our Sanskar, the silent artist, etching habit patterns of behavior and reactions deep within us. Together, these four parts choreograph the dance of our thoughts and behaviors, each step influenced by the previous, shaping the next.4

Parallels with Modern Psychology

The conceptual framework of Sangya, Smriti, Vedna, and Sanskar remarkably mirrors modern psychological constructs.

  1. Sangya aligns with the concept of ‘perception’ in cognitive psychology, where sensory information is identified and interpreted.
  2. Smriti resonates with the ‘memory systems,’ particularly episodic and semantic memory, crucial for recalling past experiences and knowledge.
  3. Vedna reflects the ‘affective neuroscience’ perspective, emphasizing the integral role of emotions in our cognitive processes.
  4. Finally, Sanskar echoes the principles of ‘behavioral conditioning’ and ‘habit formation,’ highlighting how repeated experiences shape our tendencies and actions.

Being mindful as the way to command our mind

Observing the mind is indeed the easiest way to control it. One can achieve that state through a variety of methods, but being mindful of your sensations (what you’re feeling exactly now) at various times a day is possibly the simplest way to start.

A seeker can observe when they’re happy, how does the body define “happy”? Is it the lips wide stretched into a smile, eyes lighting up, perhaps a tingling sensation akin to ‘spidey senses’, hair standing on end? Or is it a warmth spreading through the chest, a lightness in the breath, a spring in the step?

Each sensation is a note in the song of mind, a unique expression in the body. By tuning into these sensations, we learn the language of our emotions, gaining insight and control over the inner workings of our minds.


  1. We are terrible at paying attention to our sensory inputs. We can hardly focus on one sense organ (watch/listen/smell/etc.) at a time. Meditation helps by increasing our power of our attention. Your mind will still just “do” one thing but can remain aware of everything else naturally. ↩︎

  2. I think one key observation of Buddha was that mental actions are as powerful and important as physical actions. Before we physically do an action, we have mentally committed it and sometimes even envisioned its end. ↩︎

  3. Sensations are different from emotions. Meeting someone unpleasant may result in restlessness and anxiety for example — those are the emotions. However, mind decides to feel restless or anxious based on physical sensations generated. Those sensations are sweaty palms or hastened breath. Observing such sensations objectively can help avoid blind emotional reaction and help our mind take the right decision. ↩︎

  4. Law of Karma: Each step is influenced by the previous, shaping the next. ↩︎