Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāna (Consciousness) Arises

Revised February 17, 2020

Necessary Background

1. It is a good idea to read the posts, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)” and “Viññāna – What It Really Means” first.

  • When one learns Abhidhamma, one can see why the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self” concepts. A “living being” is a momentarily changing entity. It is not possible to say “it does not exist,” because it does exist.  It is just that it continuously evolves ON ITS PATH determined by “gati” at each stage. There is a “dynamic self,” which has its own identity or personality or “gati” (which also evolves.)
Citta and Cetasika Arise Together

2. The name citta came from “chitra,” the name for a painting in Pāli or Sinhala. A pure citta has only seven mental factors (cetasika). Cetasika provide “colors for the picture,” so to speak.

  • But the seven cetasika that are in every citta (universal cetasika or “sabba citta sadharana cetasika”) may be considered “colorless.” A pure citta is like a blank sheet of paper on which these “snapshots” painted.
  • There are a set of 14 “bad cetasika” and a set of 25 “good cetasika.” For a rough visual, we may think of the “bad cetasika” as dark colors (black, brown, etc.), and the “good cetasika” as pleasant colors such as green or yellow. Then there are six other “occasionals” (i.e., appear only in some cittā) that are also “colorless,” and those can arise with either good or bad cetasika; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors).”
  • Cetasikā arise with a citta, decay with a citta, and take the same thought object (arammana) as the citta. But a given citta has either good OR bad cetasika; they do not mix.
  • And a citta is of very short duration; it lasts much less than a billionth of a second; see, “What is a Thought?” in the next post.
Sensory Experience Comes in “Snapshots”

3. A living being experiences the “world out there” in a series of very fast “snapshots”; it grasps the “world” in a snapshot called a citta (pronounced “chiththa”) that lasts much less than a billionth of a second. As soon as the mind sees that “snapshot,” it is gone. But the mind gives us an illusory sense of a “permanent world.” It does that by making that “snapshot” meaningful. That requires incorporating our memories as well as our hopes for the future. Let us see how this process is described in Abhidhamma.

4. Therefore, we can visualize each “moment of awareness” of the outside world captured by the mind like a snapshot. As soon as it comes, it is gone.

Then how does our mind see the outside world as “permanent”? Also, how does it decide a given situation as ‘good” or ‘bad”? Often, two people look at the same thing and perceive it differently (one may perceive it as “good” and the other as “bad.”)

  • Two of the universal cetasika (manasikara and cetana), are responsible for such variations.
  • As we discussed in other posts, a record of the “snapshot” that decays is permanently recorded in the mental plane, and these records are called nama gotta; see, “Difference Between Dhamma and Saṅkhāra (Sankata).
  • In the same way, our hopes and visions for the future are also in the mental plane. Of course, the past nama gotta are permanent while the imprints for the future keep changing. The manasikara cetasika brings in memories from the past and hopes for the future into the current citta, thus a “permanent like” view of the world is composed of the cetana cetasika, which is responsible for “putting together a citta“.
  • Furthermore, in one person, “good” cetasika may arise due to sensory input, but if the “gati” of the other person is opposite, a set of “bad” cetasika may arise in the other person. The cetana cetasika combines them to form a “good” or a “bad” awareness.
How Do We See?

5. It is basically the same kind of process happens when we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think. Let us explain the concept of vision.

  • The basic sequence of events in capturing any “input” via the five physical senses was described in “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction“.
  • If we keep looking at a picture on the wall, nothing changes because it is a static picture.
  • Now let us think about what happens when we look at a water fountain. The water fountain looks like a sort of a solid object. But in reality, there are trillions of water particles rising and falling each second. We do not “see” individual water particles but just the appearance of a “sort of solid object with a certain shape.”
  • In a “thought” (citta), the manasikara and cetana cetasika help the mind put together a “composite” of what is happening to give a more or less “solid appearance.”
  • Same thing happens in seeing a continuous “ring of fire” when one swirls a light in a circular motion. At a given moment, the light is at a fixed position, but if we move the light fast enough, only see a “composite picture” in the shape of a continuous ring of light.
The Movie Analogy

6. Another example is the motion picture. When making a movie, many many static pictures are taken and then played back at fast enough speed. If the playback speed is too slow, we can see individual pictures, but above a certain “projection rate”, it looks like real motion. Here is a video that illustrates this well:

Our Sensory Experience Is Very Similar to the “Movie Analogy”

7. When we see the outside world, what happens is very similar to the above. At the end of the video, it is stated that the “movie” we see is an illusion. As the Buddha explained, that holds for real life as well. In real life when we see someone coming towards us, what we actually see is a series of “static pictures” or citta projected at a very fast rate in our minds. That gives us the illusion of a “movie-like experience”.

  • In the above video, it is suggested that all the information from the “previous static frames” were put together by the brain. However, that is true only to a certain extent.
  • The brain does put together the individual frames. But it is the mind that incorporates past memories and IDENTIFIES who is in the picture.
  • We not only “see” the video, but we also RECOGNIZE what is seen. We identify a given actor, we can even remember previous movies with that actor, we KNOW all about the scenes in the background, etc. It is not possible for the brain to have access to all those memories. That is a point that needs a lot of thought.
  • What happens according to Abhidhamma is the following. The brain periodically sends packets of acquired data put together by the cortex in the brain to the hadaya vatthu, which is basically the seat of the mind. Citta vithi arise in accepting that information from the brain, and it is the mind that does all the compiling (with the help of the manasikara and cetana cetasika) and that is how we EXPERIENCE it.
  • I will go into more details later, but those are the key points.

8. We need to keep in mind that all animals have this capability too. A dog basically sees its environment just like we do and instantly recognizes the objects in the picture. Even an ant does too, even though its “world” is much more limited.

  • Think about how a tiny ant can process all that information that allows it to move in a reasonably fast pace in hunting for food. It knows its territory, certain smells, and also remembers how to get back to its nest. All that information is NOT in that tiny body of an ant. More things to think about!
Brain Is Very Fast Computer

9. In the above video, it is shown that the slowest projection rate where the brain seems to process data is about 20 frames per second; this corresponds to a data packet of about 50-millisecond duration. This is consistent with a recent finding from MIT that says the minimum time needed is about 20 milliseconds: Detecting Meaning in Rapid Pictures-Potter-2014.

  • This is consistent with the Abhidhammic picture of the brain capturing segments of visual data and transmitting that information to the hadaya vatthu, which is the “mind-door.” That takes place via the cakkhu pasāda that is located on the manōmaya kāya close to the hadaya vatthu.
  • Abhidhamma, of course, does not mention how long the brain captures visual data for a “seeing event” before sending it to the hadaya vatthu. But it does say that this information is now converted by the brain to a format suitable for transmission to the hadaya vatthu, and is sent there via a “ray system” (kirana.) I assume that this encoded information is sent at the speed of light. Thus the information gets to the hadaya vatthu almost instantaneously. Note that the hadaya vatthu is located on the manōmaya kāya, close to the heart.)
But The Mind Is Faster

10. Of course, we not only see things, but we also hear, smell, taste, touch, and think other thoughts all at the SAME TIME.

  • The mind processes the information sent by the brain in a billionth of a second, much faster than the brain can process. So, the mind is mostly idle, “waiting for data from the brain.”
  • Therefore, the “sensing rate” is limited by the relatively slow processing speed of the brain. According to current scientific studies mentioned above, brain processing happens at the millisecond time scale, a thousand-times slower than the mind.  However, it is still more than fast enough for us to experience simultaneity in all sensory inputs.
Science Helping to “Fill-in-the-Blanks”

11. The scientific studies on the “minimum duration of a detectable event” are still at the early stages (see #9 above.) We may be able to put together a more precise sequence of events in the future. Yet we have enough data to put together a qualitative picture of what happens.

  • This is an excellent example of how science can help us “fill in the blanks” of the overall picture that the Buddha provided. Of course, such a scientific background was not there 2500 years ago.
  • Once the Buddha was in a Simpāsa forest near Kosambi, and he took a few leaves into his hand and told the bhikkhus, “what I have taught you compared to what I know is like these few leaves compared to the leaves in this forest. But what I have taught you is more than enough for you to attain Nibbāna“.
  • Thus modern science can provide us with details about the “big picture” of the Buddha, and we should be grateful to all those scientists for that knowledge. However, we should use that knowledge wisely and should not get carried away in spending too much time on such details.

Next, “What is a Thought?“, ……………………

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