Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises

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 both “self” and “no-self” concepts were rejected by the Buddha. A “living being” is a momentarily changing entity. It is not possible to say “it does not exist”, because it obviously does exist; it is just that it continuously evolves ON ITS OWN PATH determined by “gathi” at each stage. Thus until parinibbana is attained, there is a “dynamic self” which has its own identity or personality or “gathi” which also evolve.

1. 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”, by combining that “snapshot” with our past memories as well as our hopes for the future. Let us see how this process is described in Abhidhamma.

  • The mind does this with the help of a cetasika (pronounced “chethasika”) in that citta called manasikara. We will discuss this later, but I am just trying to get across the basic idea.

2. The name citta came from “chitra”, the name for a painting in Pali or Sinhala. A pure citta has only 7 mental factors (cetasika). Cetasika provide “colors for the picture”, so to speak.

  • But the 7 cetasika that are in each and 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” are imprinted.
  • 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 cetsika” as dark colors (black, brown, etc), and the “good cetasika” as pleasant colors such as green or yellow. Then there are 6 other “occasionals” that are also “colorless” and those can arise with either good or bad cetasika; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.
  • Cetasika 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.

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

Then how does our mind see the outside world as “permanent”? and also a given situation as ‘good” or ‘bad”? When we look out we see mountains that have been there for thousands of years. People get old, but they are around for years and years. Also, two people could look at the same thing and perceive it differently (one as “good” and one “bad”).

  • This “trick” is done by two of the universal cetasika: manasikara and cetana.
  • 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 Sankhara (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 by the cetana cetasika, which is responsible for “putting together a citta“.
  • Furthermore, in one person, “good” cetasika may arise due to a sense input, but if the “gathi” 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.

3. It is basically the same kind of process happens when we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think; let us explain the concept for 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. Since there is wind and other disturbances, we can see some changes, but the water fountain looks like a sort of a solid object. But what we see is a composite of trillions of water particles rising and falling each second. We do not “see” that but just the appearance of a “sort of solid object with a certain shape” as formed by the water nozzles.  Here the manasikara and cetana cetasika help the mind put together a “composite” of what happened a few seconds ago and what is happening now 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 (a “data packet sent by the brain to the mind shows the light at one point on the circle), but if we move the light fast enough, the mind keep seeing the light moving to successive points on the circle and we see a “composite picture” in the shape of a continuous ring of light.

4. Another example is a motion picture. When making a movie, what is actually done is to take many many static pictures and then play them 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:

5. 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, and 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, giving us the illusion of a “movie like experience”.

  • Even though in the above video it is suggested that all the information from the “previous static frames” were put together by the brain, that is true only to a certain extent.
  • The brain does put together the individual frames, but without actual “memories” it is not possible to get the deep details about what is seen.
  • 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); to have all that information instantly available to the brain is not possible. This is a point that needs a lot of thought.
  • What happens according to Abhidhamma, is that 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. There 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.

6. 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 reasonable 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!

7. In the above video, it is shown that the slowest projection rate where the brain seems to processing data is about 20 frames per second; this correspond to a data packet of about 50 millisecond duration. This is consistent with a recent findings 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”, via the cakkhu pasada that is located on the manomaya kaya close to the hadaya vatthu.
  • Even though Abhidhamma does not mention how long the brain captures visual data for a “seeing event” before sending to the hadaya vatthu, 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”, which is extremely fast. I assume that this encoded information is sent at the speed of light and thus get to the hadaya vatthu (which is located on the manomaya kaya, but is close to the heart) almost instantaneously.

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

  • Even though the “sensing rate” is limited by the relatively slow processing speed of the brain (which appear to be in the millisecond time scale according to current scientific studies mentioned above), it is still more than fast enough for us to experience simultaneity in all sense inputs.

9. Since the scientific studies on the “minimum duration of a detectable event” are still at early stages (see #7 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 it was impossible for him to convey the magnitudes of these time scales 2500 years ago.
  • Once the Buddha was in a Simpasa 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 Nibbana“.
  • Thus even though 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, 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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