Triune Mind, Triune Brain

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Triune Mind, Triune Brain is a theoretical model developed by Canadian Buddhist scholar Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri. It follows upon his clarification of the three terms used by the Buddha for consciousness, namely, Mano, Citta and Viññāṇa as can be seen in his work on the Triune Mind. [1] Looking into the fields of Pali Buddhism, Neuroscience, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Embryology, among others, the overall thrust of this research moves toward a formalization and scientific refinement, done by assimilating functions of the mind as known in the Sutta and the Abhidamma with structures of the brain according to evolutionary biology. [2]



In this work, Sugunasiri primarily seeks to correlate Buddhist concepts with Paul MacLean’s theory of the Triune Brain - Reptilian, Paleomammalian, and Protomammalian. [3] He shows how the Buddha’s term sattā, [4] meaning ‘sentient being’, covers both humans and animals, each having the six senses, including the sixth mind-sense. Then he goes on to show how the concept can be helpful in reviving and understanding MacLean's theory, reinterpreting and rebranding the three brains as Protosentient-, Paleosentient-, and Neosentient. Through the use of Pali terminology, he shows how the Buddhist analysis serves us with a fuller understanding of the theory of mind.

MacLean's newly branded theory meets the Buddhian (his term, meaning ‘of the Buddha’ – cf. Einstein > Einsteinian) Triune Mind, its components, Citta, Mano, and Viññāṇa characterized in the following words: “The six senses would constitute Mano, the total working of the mindbody … Viññāṇa and the vacillations in relation to values-conditioned behaviour constituting Citta.”

Sugunasiri's reinterpretation

Interpreted on the basis of an Abhidhamma analysis as Receiving Mind, Judging Mind, and Executive Mind respectively, [2] they are shown to fit within Maclean's Triune Brain structure. Taking up the Protosentient (Reptilian) brain first, he compares the functions of the Basal Ganglia (and Medulla Oblongata) with those of Citta; the Paleosentient (Paleomammalian) brain in the Hypothalamus (and Thalamus) is compared to Viññāṇa; and finally the Neosentient (Neomammalian) brain in the Amygdala aligns with Mano.

SugunasiriMacLeanBuddhism (function)Brain Physiology
NeosentientNeomammalianMano (receiving)Amygdala
PaleosentientPaleomammalianViññāṇa (executive)Hypothalamus (Thalamus)
ProtosentientReptilianCitta (judging)Basal Ganglia (Medulla Oblongata)

Other critical points

While the parallelism is the central theme of the research, there are other critical points to his theory building. The Buddhian notion of ‘stream of consciousness’ ( viññāṇasota ), e.g., is explained in relation to neuronal behaviour and Citta as neuropeptides. An intriguing chapter looks at the mind in the context of embryonic development, looked at from both the Westernscientific as well as the Buddhist viewpoints. The Buddhian notion of Rebecoming is explored in relation to the evolution of the brain, and MacLean's puzzle about an evolutionary common thread to connect non-humans of the past with humans of the present is answered by reminding us how satta ‘sentient being’ is common to animals and humans alike.

With a quick review of the Four Noble Truths, we are further reminded that sentient beings are driven by the Triple Thirsts (Sense-thirst ( kāma taṇhā ), ‘Thirst to be’ ( bhava taõhà), ‘Thirst to be not’ (vibhava taṇhā) and the Triple Blemish Roots (Passion ( rāga ), Hatred ( dosa ), Delusion ( moha )). Sugunasiri relates the Triple Thirsts to self-preservation (as in Western Evolutionary theory) and the Triple Blemish Roots to the continuity of the species. Responding to MacLean's search for “Animal Mentations” and “Inherited Folklore”, Citta is shown to be the mind that serves as the medium through which they are carried across lifetimes, and life-lines where neuropeptides serve as the medium containing information relating to the stimulus, when the ‘message’ is carried through to the next neuron, jumping across the synapse, more descriptively, synaptic gap. Sugunairi writes, in what is perhaps the first attempt, in scientific terms, at explaining Rebecoming (i.e., life after life, but popularly ‘Rebirth’): “The Citta may carry the load of the Triple Thirsts and the Triple Blemish Roots through the synapse between life A and life B”. The two neurons on either side of the gap are used as paralleling two lifetimes, the first ending at death and the subsequent life beginning with conception, characterized as ‘Relinking Citta’ (paṭisandhi). [5] Mitochondrial DNA is argued to be the content of Citta the neuropeptides.


Prof. Sugunasiri ends his work with a bit of a twist. Although the triple functions of the mind as in Buddhian characterization has been ‘housed’ in MacLean's rebranded three brain structure, the brain is described as only the centralized home of Citta, Vinanna and Mano. He ends his book in a scientifically concise way, maintaining a non-dualistic approach to mind and body while unifying concepts of Pali Buddhism with Western Science leaving an enhanced new position in its wake.

Further reading

It may be worthwhile to note that the present work is the second comparative study. Prior to this was, Dhamma Aboard Evolution: A Canonical Study of Aggañña Sutta in relation to Science (2014). [6]

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Rebirth in Buddhism refers to the teaching that the actions of a person lead to a new existence after death, in an endless cycle called saṃsāra. This cycle is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful. The cycle stops only if moksha (liberation) is achieved by insight and the extinguishing of craving. Rebirth is one of the foundational doctrines of Buddhism, along with karma, Nirvana and moksha.

Manas-vijnana is the seventh of the eight consciousnesses as taught in Yogacara and Zen Buddhism, the higher consciousness or intuitive consciousness that on the one hand localizes experience through thinking and on the other hand universalizes experience through intuitive perception of the universal mind of alayavijnana. Manas-vijnana, also known as klista-manas-vijnana or simply manas, is not to be confused with manovijnana which is the sixth consciousness.

Āyatana is a Buddhist term that has been translated as "sense base", "sense-media" or "sense sphere". In Buddhism, there are six internal sense bases and six external sense bases.

In Buddhism, dhamma vicaya has been variously translated as the "analysis of qualities," "discrimination of dhammas," "discrimination of states," "investigation of doctrine," and "searching the Truth." This concept implies applying discernment to body-mind phenomena in order to apply right effort, giving way to entry into the first jhana.

Vijñāna (Sanskrit) or viññāa (Pāli) is translated as "consciousness," "life force," "mind," or "discernment."

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The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is a collection of canonical texts in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Together with the Vinaya Piṭaka and the Sutta Piṭaka it comprises the Tipiṭaka, the "Three Baskets" of canonical Theravada Buddhist texts.

Sati is mindfulness or awareness, a spiritual or psychological faculty (indriya) that forms an essential part of Buddhist practice. It is the first factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. "Correct" or "right" mindfulness is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path.

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Passaddhi is a Pali noun that has been translated as "calmness," "tranquillity," "repose" and "serenity." The associated verb is passambhati.

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Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri was a Canadian academic, educator, author, journalist and poet. He is a former education professor at the University of Ontario in Oshawa, Ontario, and the founder of the now-defunct Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (Canada) in Toronto.

The Triune Mind is a model of the mind of The Buddha's teaching, as conceptualized by Canadian Buddhist scholar Suwanda H. J. Sugunasiri. The theory was first published as "Triune Mind in Buddhism: A Textual Exploration", in the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies. Given the use of the term "triune", it is a model, which distinguishes the mind into three divisions: receiving, judging and executive.

Theravāda Abhidhamma

The Theravāda Abhidhamma is a scholastic systematization of the Theravāda school's understanding of the highest Buddhist teachings (Abhidhamma). These teachings are traditionally believed to have been taught by the Buddha, though modern scholars date the texts of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka to the 3rd century BCE. Theravāda traditionally sees itself as the vibhajjavāda, which reflects the analytical (vibhajjati) method used by the Buddha and early Buddhists to investigate the nature of the person and other phenomena.


  1. Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. J., “Triune Mind in Buddhism: A Textual Exploration”, The Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, No. 10, (2014)
  2. 1 2 Sugunasiri, Suwanda (1970-01-01). "TRIUNE MIND FINDS HOME IN TRIUNE BRAIN: An Exercise in Buddhianscience & Westernscience | Suwanda Sugunasiri". Retrieved 2016-09-09.
  3. MacLean, Paul, 1990, The Triune Brain in Evolution, Springer.
  4. "satta - Definition and Meaning - Pali Dictionary - Pāli to English, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Burmese Dictionary".
  5.ṭisandhi [ dead link ]
  6. j Sugunasiri, Suwanda H. (1999-02-22). Dhamma Aboard Evolution: a Canonical Study of Aggñña Sutta in relation to Science | TSpace Repository. ISBN   9780986719851 . Retrieved 2016-09-09.