In various Nyingma Buddhist groups in Nepal there is a local theory of mind that, most basically, holds that you can not ever know what another person is thinking. This is a phenomenon that I have come across in relation to both the Sherpa and Yolmo peoples, and there are likely others as well. For example, in Sherry Ortner's book High Religion she describes a usual situation:

“If one asks why somebody did something, one gets a shrug and a one-word answer…, or even a hostile response: “How should I know, we can’t see into other people’s heads?” (p. 216, footnote 17)

It can easily be said that many groups share such an understanding - but the thing that strikes me about the literature is the pervasiveness of this attitude and the way it influences people's attitudes towards interacting with each other.

I know there are some similar lines of thought in the Western philosophy tradition (such as David Chalmers's though experiments), and many other societies share this belief (see, for example the "Opacity of Mind" special edition of Anthropological Quarterly vol 81:2). I'm interested in whether this is an established component of Nyingma philosophy, or part of a wider philosophical belief in Buddhism?

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    You mean most other people think you -can- know what somebody else is thinking?
    – Mitch
    Jan 1, 2012 at 23:14
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    This is generally taken to be a truism in most schools of thought, both eastern and western. Do you have a reference to a particular Nyingma text, so we can see if there is a special nuance to the Nyingma presentation? Jan 2, 2012 at 15:04
  • @Mitch I think what Lauren is asking is, can you be reasonably confident of the thoughts/motivations someone must have used to justify some action? I don't believe Lauren meant to imply some people believe they can read minds.
    – chuckj
    Jan 5, 2012 at 8:12
  • I´m interested in this topic, can you give a list of what you have read to this topic or where to get information about this ? Thank you in advance!
    – aut_guy
    Jan 5, 2012 at 8:25
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    Just in passing, I should point out that this really strikes me as more about Buddhism than philosophy per se, and while I'm fine with it staying here for now, I think it's prudent to mention that a Buddhism.SE has been proposed on Area 51, and if you are interested in asking and answering questions about Buddhism I would definitely recommend putting your strong support behind the proposal.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 14, 2012 at 23:41

8 Answers 8


First of all: this is an excellent question, and deserves a better response than I can give it. I'm far from an expert in Nyingma Buddhism-- among Tibetan traditions, I'm much better read in Gelug texts-- but I'll give it a shot.

The theory of mind that you refer to, that one's thoughts are inaccessible to others, is a mainstay in Western philosophy. A classic explication can be found in Wittgenstein's Beetle Box experiment, and Jacques Derrida (following Levinas's reading of Husserl) has attempted to investigate the ethical implications of the fact that Tout autre est tout autre.

In early Buddhism, the primary soteriological project (and thus Buddhism's raison d'etre) consists largely of the deconstruction of the traditional notion of "self", and the theories of mind proposed are largely subsumed to that project. The "self" is viewed as a collection of five skandhas (heaps, aggregates): form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. The relationship between these (and the definition of each term) varies across a number of competing interpretations, but the key factor for our purposes is that each of the above is plural, and represents a flow of discrete events.

In Tibetan Buddhism, this is often conceptualized as a "mind-stream", which is made up of a series of discrete mental events, each of which is linked to the preceding (and succeeding) events (giving the illusion of continuity) by a process of dependent origination. (The fact that a mental event is necessarily caused by a preceding mental event is traditionally given as a proof of rebirth, at least in the Gelug school.) For our purposes, it is important to note that these mental events are necessarily internal: there is no way for someone else to perceive (through ordinary sense perception) these events.

I suppose I should underline that parenthetical qualification; the omniscience of Buddhas (while dwelling in meditative equipoise) is taken as given (and Śāntarakṣita argues this point at length; see Sara McClintock's book on the subject)-- but I assume we are excluding Buddhas here, on practical grounds, at least-- the next Buddha is not expected to arrive in this universe for several billion years, so we can safely table the issue, I think.

Anyway, to return to the matter at hand: the question referred specifically to the Nyingma school, and here we must add some nuance. We have discussed the fact that the "opacity of mind" is near-ubiquitous in both Western philosophy and the Buddhist tradition writ large-- but Nyingma Buddhism is characterized by its (unique) notion of Dzogchen, which is often translated as "radiant mind", and this practice (and the corresponding philosophical interpretations) is the matter of some debate. Nyingmapas (and some Gelugpas) argue that Dzogchen is fully compatible with the Madhyamaka notion of Śūnyatā (Emptiness), but some Gelugpas argue the contrary-- that Dzogchen represents a form of philosophical backsliding which (like some forms of Yogācāra, according to this interpretation) tends toward hypostatization of Mind which opens the way to a reintroduction of Ātman through the back door.

So, to summarize: the "opacity of mind" is not a specifically Nyingma position within Buddhism; in fact, the Nyingma school offers perhaps the best standpoint for an argument against it, if one wished to go down that road (which Buddhists generally don't.)

  • Dzogchen in Tibetan can't be translated to 'radiant mind', and the concept of radiant mind is not unique to Nyingma philosophy - its mentioned in all three vehicles in fact (see Brunnholzl 2008 "A brief history of luminous mind"). Dzogchen translates properly to great (chen) perfection (rdzogs).
    – adrianos
    Jan 14, 2012 at 10:03
  • @adrianos: You are correct about the literal translation, but Dzogchen is still commonly referred to as "radiant mind". Similarly, this notion is found in other schools, but is most closely associated with the Nyingma. Jan 14, 2012 at 12:29
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    Well to give some non-Nyingma references to luminous mind ('od gsal ba kyi sems), you could look at hinayana texts such as Anguttara Nikaya, Sariputrabhidharma, or mahayana texts such as Lalitavistarasutra, 8000 verse prajanaparamita sutra, 10 bhumis sutra, Samadhirajasutra, Uttaratantrashastra, Yogacarabhumi. It is mentioned by Kagyu masters Naropa, Milarepa, Gampopa, and in numerous tantras. For the citations see Brunnholzl, as mentioned above. This idea is really not at all particular to dzogchen.
    – adrianos
    Jan 14, 2012 at 13:23

The idea that you cannot know what another person is thinking (a form of the so-called 'problem of other minds') is certainly unusual in Nyingma philosophy and almost certainly a local idiosyncrasy among Nepalese Nyingmapas. The main Nyingma philosophical writers are Rongzom (1012–1088), Longchenpa (1308-1364), Jamgon Ju Mipham (1846–1912) and Shenga (1871-1927). These writers for the most part held to the traditional madhyamaka views as expounded in India (especially Shenga) where there is no major theme that there is some problem in knowing the minds of others. Rongzom's writings are mostly lost now but there is no evidence he held such a theory. This is basically true of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole, where the problem of 'knowing other minds' and the thoughts (rtog pa) and intentions (bsam pa) of others is barely discussed.

In many Buddhist texts, not unique to the Nyingma or Tibet, it is suggested that Buddhas know the thoughts of others. But the extent to which the minds of others are obscured to ordinary people is nowhere extensively discussed, and it is reasonable to assume minds are opaque just to the extent that, as is obvious, rational agents can hide their motivations or choose not to reveal their thoughts. But it is strange indeed to assume this is the norm, as Ortner seems to imply. In general, we have to assume we 'know' the reasons others have for acting all the time in order to make sense of their behaviour. It is only by doing so that we may consider them to be carrying out actions, whether verbal or physical, rather than behaving mechanically. e.g. See Davidson's 'Three Varieties of Knowledge' for a good discussion. If we did not get the motivations of others right most of the time, it is hard to see how we could have a coherent conception of a reason or motivation at all.

The idea that the reasons of others cannot be known is nowadays widely regarded as philosophically idle in the West, like the idea that we cannot know the external world. It sets the standard of knowledge impossibly high and opens up the doors of global skepticism and solipsism.


There is an extreme view that we can never know the thoughts of another. There is an equally extreme view that we can always know the thoughts of another. From a more balanced perspective we can say that sometimes we know the thoughts of another.

  • Is there any chance I might persuade you to unpack this a little bit?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 4, 2012 at 0:21
  • I understand there could be multiple manifestations of this problem. For these communities I would say they can understand each other quite easily, but when pushed don't like to comment on another's thoughts.I deliberately kept the question open-ended because I don't know whether relevant texts in the Nyingma tradition have exactly the same take on things, or just a similar one.
    – LaurenG
    Jan 4, 2012 at 21:20

I too am interested in this Budhist topic and offer a humble answer. Following the opening comments, I wish to say: Given the Zen tradition of expressing paradoxes of experience evolved the concept of satori, it stands to reason there are peoples and traditions who evolved resolved to express their paradoxes of human experience, spooky things such as literal 'mind reading', by flatly denying them. These traditions, dating back to the first millennium do not benefit by scientific method proving these beliefs are false. I should like to suggest literal 'mind reading' is a paradox of the human condition itself which forever strives to be expressed as true, false, and in Zen Buddhism as mu (I prefer the unasking to the other definitions).

[On a side note, I also believe the fact this religious/cultural concept has survived is because it must in some sense answer this paradox of human experience (at least for these peoples), therefore I would be surprised not to find it a popular subject--which is to say its the sort of topic that sells books. Therefore I would guess finding more examples would require first language knowledge with the best examples pushing through to English and Western study.

We moderns have our own tradition for spooky experiences we wish to express in words call science fiction! These fictions do inform peoples lives by giving expression to the inexpressible.]


Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle makes it impossible to know everthing, but i disagree with the notion that the mind is opaque; image reconstruction was proven in 1999.

Reading and writing of brain activity and even erasing specific memories is possible, and that's just the physical part of science.


Considering the opacity of mind idea as a more general Buddhist concept.

It's worth noting that there are counter examples in the earlier Buddhist texts. In the Satipatthana sutta, a foundational text in mindfulness training, the practicioner is explicitly encouraged to consider the mental states of other people which would seem to contradict the position on the opacity on mind.

From the section on feelings

[..] dwells contemplating feelings in the feelings that are his own by laying hold of the pleasant, painful or neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling. Or he dwells contemplating feelings in the feelings of others by laying hold of the pleasant, painful or neither-pleasant-nor-painful feelings.

From the section on mental Objects

In this way the bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects, by laying hold of the five hindrances amongst the mental objects of his own mind or amongst the mental objects in another's mind or at one time amongst the mental objects of his own mind, and at another time amongst the mental objects of another's mind.

The poistion is often translated as consideration of externally and internally, Analayo, in his excellent commentary to this sutta, contends that this is to be understood as have a deep understanding into the minds of others.

Also, I would contend that the practice of the Brahma vihara meditations, where the meditator considers others in terms of friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity, contradicts the opacity in mind position. Certainly the way that I have been taught these the mediator puts themselves in the position of others. Admittedly I think the argument is weaker on this point as you could have compassion for another without seeing into their minds.

I short, i wouldn't say that opacity of mind is a universal Buddhist doctrine by any stretch and there does seem to be a contradiction between that and the earlier texts. It seems more like a local variant, of which there are many.


The question reminded me of the intro to a book on Levinas

That is to say, there is something about the other person, a dimension of separateness, interiority, secrecy or what Levinas calls ‘alterity’ that escapes my comprehension. That which exceeds the bounds of my knowledge demands acknowledgement. Taking this a little further, one might say that it is the failure to acknowledge the other’s separateness from me that can be the source of tragedy. Let me take the Cavellian example of Shakespeare’s Othello. Most people would say that Othello murdered Desdemona because he believed that he knew that she had been unfaithful. Prompted by his own green-eyed monster and by the sly intrigues of Iago, Othello murders Desdemona. So, if the consequence of Othello’s alleged knowledge is tragic, then in what does the moral of this tragedy consist? One might say that it simply consists in the fact that we cannot ultimately know everything about the other person, even and perhaps especially when it comes to the people we love. I think this means that in our relation to other persons we have to learn to acknowledge what we cannot know and that the failure to do this was Othello’s tragic flaw. The end of certainty can be the beginning of trust.

As to Buddhism, various saints sages etc. in the tradition are said to be able to read minds, as part of a power from enlightenment


All I can do is offer my own EXPERIENCE. I have plenty of exposure to eastern literature, namely those of lao tzu and a number of western translaters, but that's nothing. Words are nothing. It sounds corny, but it's how I feel like I need to start here.

So, "The problem of other minds", as Wittgenstein called it, well, all I remember at this moment (12am on a thursday night) is that wittgenstein also discussed this issue, and that he is substantial.

I like to say I remembered the first work I ever knew (new).

"Kick". I knew "kick" before I knew the first word I was ever able to enunciate, which was "ball". Does this help you? It's not supposed to.

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