I think I get what qualia means, intuitively at least:

Feelings and experiences vary widely. For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives.

In Buddhism what is the word for this "introspectively accessible" aspect of "what it is like"?

Is the term just "phenomena" or is there some other more subtle translation, like "awareness"?

2 Answers 2


I don't think there is any single word that's cleanly equivalent to qualia, but there are some that approach the idea from different angles.

sabhāva-dhamma: Condition of nature; any phenomenon, event, property, or quality as experienced in and of itself.

sabhāva by itself means "own-being" or "own-becoming". It describes the intrinsic nature or essence of living beings.

dhamma: (1) Event; a phenomenon in and of itself; (2) mental quality; (3) doctrine, teaching; (4) nibbāna. Also, principles of behavior that human beings ought to follow so as to fit in with the right natural order of things; qualities of mind they should develop so as to realize the inherent quality of the mind in and of itself.

dhamma by itself can describe a kind of mental quality or quality of thought.

mūla: Literally, "root." The fundamental conditions in the mind that determine the moral quality — skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala) — of one's intentional actions (see kamma). The three unskillful roots are lobha (greed), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion); the skillful roots are their opposites. See kilesa (defilements).

mūla describes the root of our actions; the quality of our intention behind them.

sabhāva-dhamma and dhamma probably come closest, while mūla carries the same concept but applies it very specifically to the mental root of action.

  • 1
    good answer thanks. does the unconditioned have a quale ?
    – user2512
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 13:08
  • Good follow-up question. The unconditioned, in Buddhism, is the ultimate reality: nibbana, pure mind, the realization of Buddha-nature, etc. I'd like to imagine that this has a quale (perhaps indescribable), though I wonder if I'll ever get to answer with first-hand experience. :-)
    – newbold
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 13:14

The small "d" dharma, the technical term - is the word you're looking for. This is usually translated as "phenomena" or "objects of mind", but the idea is that these are like elementary atoms the subjective experience is made of. Some modern scholars explain Early Buddhism's theory of dharmas with a metaphor of the movie film - each frame being a dharma.

As any abstraction, the theory of experience made of dharmas can only go this far before it starts leaking, but it certainly is a useful approximation. IMO some folks back in the ancient times got carried away with analysis of dharmas-based experience, hence the Abhidharma. Once you expect dharmas to be well-delineated and precisely identified you start pushing the limits of the abstraction.

Although all dharma-s are "introspectively accessible", for convenience they can be classified in groups: what you see, how you feel, what you cognize, what you remember, etc (precise classification does not matter). The purpose of dharma/skandha theory is to switch one's context to phenomenological mode - at which point you can start mastering the practical side of the teaching, beyond mere intellectual understanding.

Just as Daniel Dennett argues that qualia do not really exist, the Prajna-Paramita movement famously proclaims that all dharmas are "empty" of svabhava (discrete existence).

  • 1
    thanks Andrei, i intend to take up zazen someday soon, hopefully before it's too late ;)
    – user2512
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 13:13
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    I remember this "intellectual understanding" label bothered me for quite a while. I attributed it to what I thought was my teachers' covert anti-intellectualism. But the point is simply to correlate the teaching with your own experience. You don't have to do formal zazen for that, just pay attention to your day-to-day experiences.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 13:38

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