From a source which I don't remember any more (some rather scientific book on Buddhist philosophy) I have made a note, that the psyche in Buddhism is seen or can be seen (by certain schools?) as material.

To clarify this point for me, I wonder what the general treatment of mind and matter in Buddhism is, whether they are generally seen as two distinct spheres, how they interact, etc.

  • I think this question is a reason for the Mahayana split - the belief in cittamatra - mind only. I'm not sure if you want to get into the debate, or would rather pick a school and ask based on the teachings of that school. Just a heads-up that, as it stands, you'll probably get diverse and conflicting answers, as well (hopefully) as answers that describe multiple Buddhist views on the subject. Jun 28, 2014 at 11:49
  • @yuttadhammo I would definitely want to know the traditional Theravada point of view. If I get more answers accordings to different traditions, even better: then maybe these answers already outline a historical development.
    – zwiebel
    Jun 28, 2014 at 16:17
  • Nowhere I have seen idea in Buddhism that psyche is material. Nama-rupa division is standard. @yuttadhammo Reason for 'Mahayana split' is just acceptance of Mahayana canon or not. There is no theoretical split, as most Mahayana schools just inherited theory (as vinayas) of early sects. And they are very different, there is no united Mahayana philosophy. Fundamental idea of Mahayana is acceptance of any and *all Buddha's teachings. That's why canon is bigger and diverse.
    – catpnosis
    Jun 28, 2014 at 16:47
  • The Nama-rupa division in itself does not establish an ontological status of nama. IWC the split, there IS a theoretical split. It has been shown that the Mahayana split was foreshadowed by the Mahasanghika split which was about doctrine and nothing else. And the reason for the Mahayana canon being inflated is an ongoing production of (pseudo-)suttas in the Mahayana at a time, when Theravada-canonification was long finalized.
    – zwiebel
    Jun 28, 2014 at 16:56
  • Nama-rupa is not just division, it have explanation and commentaries. Check Nina van Gorkom writings, or Visudhimagga. What you remarked about Mahayana & split is very biased, shallow, and incorrect. Actual story is much more complicated, have many interpretations and different views.
    – catpnosis
    Jun 28, 2014 at 17:25

3 Answers 3


The Buddha of Pali Canon held an evidently pragmatic position, never explicitly defining his view as idealistic or materialistic. He does speak of "this body" as "composed of the four properties, born of mother & father, fed on rice & porridge, subject to inconstancy". He also speaks of consciousness as "dependent on body" and therefore impermanent, something a non-returner has fully realized. At the same time, for what looks like soteriological purposes, Buddha takes a fully phenomenological stance, speaking about skandhas and dhammas as constituting all of the (phenomenal) world.

After Buddha's death, this phenomenological perspective was a subject of abuse (IMHO) by generations of Abhidharmists indulging their analytical instincts. Their unchecked tendency to reify dharmas (assigning them the status of substantially existing) has led to emergence of Prajna-Paramita movement, the main point of which was assertion of philosophical relativism as fundamental principle underlying cognition. From this perspective, primacy of mind or matter is a matter of choosing a point of reference and has nothing to do with ontological state of affairs, which by its very nature is ineffable and is not subject to assertions.

In general, it looks to me like most Buddhist schools deny substantial dualism and either assert primacy of mind (Yogacara) or philosophical relativism (most of the rest of Mahayana). Theravada is a special case, torn between pragmatism and idealism, because it historically sees itself as results-oriented and not metaphysics-oriented, and at the same time carries on the legacy of Abhidharmic phenomenology. Vajrayana, being ultra-pragmatic liberation methodology, does not concern itself with such mundane affairs as mind/matter interaction, but we can say its position remains an extension of general Mahayana nondualism.

On top of this sedimentary layer of orthodox doctrines, lies a huge ocean of skilfull means, folk beliefs, and anecdotes, most of them implying naive dualism of crude matter and some kind of soul/mind substance, a perspective sharply criticised by many prominent teachers. For one example of the latter, see Dogen's "Soku Shin Ze Butsu" (Mind Here and Now Is Buddha).

  • Actually, "idealistic or materialistic" views are 'two extremes' which Buddha explicitly denied. "Abuse by generations of Abhidharmists" such a disrespect...
    – catpnosis
    Jun 28, 2014 at 17:31
  • I think I agree with these statements ;)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 28, 2014 at 21:19
  • The Buddha was empirical, not idealistic or materialistic. Discover the truth for yourself through samatha and vipassana.
    – ruben2020
    Nov 12, 2015 at 12:55
  • @ruben2020 yes, I agree!
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 12, 2015 at 13:26

Any mind state and / or [metal factor][2] create some sensation or the other. These sensations can have some similarities exhibited by the 4 elements like pain (feels like Earth - gross solidified), vibrations, expansion contraction, etc.

What is experienced or felt is the mind. Hence there are times you feel the mind is turning to matter and matter into mind.


The Buddha described all of conditioned reality as nothing but the five skandhas, and subdivided those further (the experience of the body as earth element, fire element, wind.., water..). The khandhas are all of a type and are inconstant (always changing and not lasting forever), impersonal, and having the characteristic of dukkha (will cause suffering if clung to). These are the three marks of conditioned existence.

He also described the unconditioned, the unborn, the unmanifest, which cannot be perceived, conceived, or directly discussed or cognized. He was utterly a dualist. If you doubt this at all check out Buddhist scholar Ken Wheeler: https://youtu.be/FEnb2cFWKBs

That said, I would certainly not classify the dualism as mind/matter; one of the skandhas is consciousness. In my opinion, it is not rigorously, philosophically well defined as that was not his goal.

  • I marked this answer down because at least the Pali suttas say the unconditioned is perceived, cognized or known. Also, Ken Wheeler is a kook and is a non-Buddhist troll who I used to debate on a certain chatsite. Jul 19, 2021 at 13:51
  • Thats a translation problem, it is not “perceived” as the samjna skandha of perception. Which if you think about it should be clear; the unconditioned is not a skandha. It is apprehended directly but not through samnja (perception). It is in a sense “felt” but not like the feeling skandha. There is not a good word for how it is “sensed” or known. It is beyond experience.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 19, 2021 at 13:56
  • Sorry but your comment is unintelligible. If the unconditioned was not perceived by the Buddha, he could not have revealed it. The suttas literally say Nibbana is experienced. Please avoid posting unsubstantiated ideas. Thanks Jul 19, 2021 at 13:58
  • The unconditioned is not a skandha. Perception is a skandha. It was not perceived in that sense. QED
    – Al Brown
    Jul 19, 2021 at 13:59
  • 1
    Hi Al, welcome to the site. I thought I could mention, that you can address (reply to) comments if you find that helpful -- but that if you don't you can also ignore a comment, or flag it for moderators' attention.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 19, 2021 at 16:13

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