Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)

August 23, 2018; revised September 12, 2018; January 6, 2019


1. Even though only one word in the English language (“thought”) is used to describe “a unit of cognition” or “a thought”, the Buddha explained that such a “thought” arises as a citta, and goes through nine stages of “contamination” to become viññānakkhandha. What we actually experience is this viññānakkhandha.

  •  However, even after going through the 9 stages it is still called a citta for convenience even in the suttās. So, one needs to pay attention to determine what is meant depending on the context, i.e., where and how any of those 9 words is used.
  • Some of these terms in the 9 stages are used interchangeably to as “a thought” in many text books and internet sites on Buddhism (e.g., citta, mano, viññāna), and that is NOT correct.

2. I will make this a simple post because it is ESSENTIAL that everyone gets the basic idea of how a thought is “contaminated” within a split second.

  • It is not possible to stop the contamination of a citta within such a short time. I have seen even some well-known and respected Dhamma teachers say that one can keep a “pabhassara citta” (uncontaminated citta) from being contaminated by making an effort.
  • I hope this post will make it clear that such a thing is not possible. One’s cittā are contaminated depending on one’s gati and the sense input in question. The key to STOPPING cittā from being contaminated is to change one’s gati over time.
  • That is done by following the Noble Path, and specifically by practicing the correct Ānapana and Satipatthana bhavana. This will become clear by the end of the post.
Nine Stages of a Thought (Citta)

3. Those nine stages of contamination during the lifetime of the fundamental unit of cognition (within a billionth of a second) are: citta, manō, mānasan, hadayan, pandaran,  manō manāyatanam, mana indriyam (or manindriyam), viññāna, viññānakkhandha. A Tipitaka reference is given in the post, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“.

  • Amazingly, these 9 steps occur within a split second, and the Buddha said there are billions of citta arising within the blink of an eye. Each citta has three stages: uppada, thiti, bhanga, and these 9 steps occur before it comes to the bhanga or the termination stage.
  • This may be hard to believe, but we can prove this to be true with the following example.

4. Suppose three people A, B, C are sitting in a small coffee shop. They are all facing the door and person X walks in. Suppose that person X is a close friend of A, worst enemy of B, and that C does not know X at all. We will also assume that all are males.

  • So, let us see what happens within a split second. A recognizes X as his friend and a smile comes to his face. B recognizes X as his enemy and his face gets darkened.
  • On the other hand, C’s mind does not register anything about X and X is just another person to him. He immediately goes back to whatever he was doing.

5. This is an example of a “cakkhu viññāna“, a “seeing event”. It is over within a split second, just like taking a photo with a camera takes only a split second, where the image in captured on the screen instantaneously.

  • However, something very complex happens in a human mind when a “seeing event” happens.
  • It is critically important to go slow and analyze what happens so that we can see how complex this process is (for a human mind) to capture that “seeing event”. It is much more complex than just recording “a picture” in a camera.

6. Within that split second, A recognizes X as his good friend, and pleasant emotions arise in his mind and he becomes happy. B recognizes X as his worse enemy, and bad emotions arise in his mind and he becomes angry. on the other hand, C just recognizes X as a man or a woman and no emotions arise in him.

  • We don’t think twice about these observations normally. But if one carefully analyzes what happens, one can easily see that this is an amazingly complex process.
  • How does the SAME “seeing event” (seeing X) lead to all these very different changes in the minds of three different people?  (and the emotions even show up on their faces!)
  • No one but a Buddha can actually see this fast time evolution of a citta.
  • The Buddha has analyzed this process in minute detail. We will discuss only the key basic features here.
Nothing Faster in the World Than the Arising of a Citta

7.  Buddha said it is hard to find any phenomena in this world that changes faster than the mind: “Aṅguttara Nikāya (1.48)“.

The short sutta says: “Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ lahuparivattaṃ yathayidaṃ cittaṃ. Yāvañcidaṃ, bhikkhave, upamāpi na sukarā yāva lahuparivattaṃ cittan”ti.”

Translated: “I consider, bhikkhus, that there is no phenomenon that comes and goes so quickly as citta. It is not easy to find an analogy (a simile) to show how quickly citta can change.”

Three Features of a Seeing Event (Cakkhu Viññāna)

8. The “seeing event” has three basic features:

  • One definitely gets into an emotional state (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, which are called sukha, dukha, and upekkha in Pāli) and that is called vedanā.
  • One recognizes the object, and that is called saññā.
  • Based on those two one also generates other mental characteristics such as anger, joy; i.e., other mental factors (cetasika) will also in addition to vedanā and saññā. These are none other than sankhāra.
  • Of course, this holds for all six types of viññāna.

9. Viññāna can be called the overall sense experience encompassing all those three: vedanā, saññā, sankhāra.

  • But viññāna can be more than the sum of those three, and that requires another write up. It is not necessary for the current discussion.
  • We can safely say that viññāna (or more correctly viññānakkhandha) is the overall sense experience.

10. So, we can see that those three people A, B, and C will have three different “states of mind” upon that seeing event.

  • That “mindset” with a set of vedanā, saññā, and sankhāra is called a viññāna
  • Viññāna is the overall sense experience that includes all those. And that takes place within a split second.
  • There are six types of viññāna corresponding to the six sense faculties.

11. There are several key important basic features can be learned from this simple example.

  • There is no single entity called “viññāna“. When we hear something a “sōta viññāna” arises, when we taste something a jivhā viññāna arises, etc. All together there are six types viññāna that are associated with the six sense faculties we have: cakkhu (see), sōta (hear), ghāna (smell), jivhā (taste), kāya (touch), and manō (mind).
  • Any of those will lead to the following outcomes: sukha, dukha, or upekkha vedanā; recognition of what type of picture,sound, etc., it is (saññā); other types of cetasika arising (called sankhāra) depending on the sound heard AND the “nature” of the person (character/habits or gati).
  • This last one, the “nature” of a person is called that person’s gati (sometimes written as gathi). Each person has a unique (but changing) set of good and bad gati. I am not going to discuss this here, but there are many posts at the website on gati.
Dependence on the “Thought Object”

12. Let us take a different scenario:  Let us assume that X is B’s girl friend, who is not in good terms with A; and that C is a young male who has never seen X.

  • Now, we see that the moods of A and B are reversed. A will be instantaneously unhappy to see X, and B will be happy to X.
  • Regarding C, the situation could be different than before. If  X appears attractive to him, C may instantaneously form a lustful state of mind.

13. So, we see that the type of cakkhu viññāna formed depends on primarily two things: person experiencing it and the sense object in question (it is called an ārammana in Pāli).

  • In the above two cases, A and B experienced different types of viññāna. But their experiences reversed when the sense object changed.
  • Even when a person has had no prior contact with the sense object in question (C seeing an attractive woman), lustful viññāna arose in C, due to his “lustful” gati.
  • If C was an Arahant, C will only generate an upekkha viññāna when seeing the X. An Arahant has removed all gati; one needs to learn about gati to fully understand this point.

14. Now we see that for a given person, there is no permanently set good or bad viññāna. What kind of viññāna arises depends on the gati of the person and the sense object.

  • We normally call someone a “good person” based on his/her overall character, i.e., if that person displays more “good character” than “bad character” over time. But only an Arahant can be called a “definitely a moral person”, acting 100% morally all the time.
  • This is a complex subject, but the basic features are those. One really needs to analyze different situations in one’s mind to get these ideas firmly grasped. This is real vipassanā meditation!
  • One needs to understand how the mind works in order to make progress on the Path. The Buddha said that his Dhamma has never been known to the world, and it is BASED on the MIND.  The mind is the most complex entity in the world.
Simple Explanation of the Nine Steps

15. The first stage, citta, is just awareness that comes with the “uncontaminated” vedanā and saññā and five other universal mental factors (cetasika): phassa, cetanā, manasikara, ekaggatā, and jivitindriya. One is just aware that one is alive and is experiencing something.

  • At the “manō” stage, the mind has “measured” what the object is (මැනීම in Sinhala). For example, whether it is a tree or a human or a bird.
  • In the next “mānasan” stage, the mind is able to distinguish among different species: say whether it is just a woman or one’s own mother or whether it is a parrot or a humming bird. This is the “pure and complete awareness”: one sees the external world as it really is. An Arahant‘s mind will not be contaminated beyond this stage. This is also called the “pabhassara citta“; it will not lead to rebirth.

16. At the next “hadayan” (හාද වීම  in Sinhala) stage, the mind gets attached to the object (or repulsed by it) based on one’s prior experiences and gati.

  • This attachment gets stronger in the next several stages and by the time gets to the viññāna stage it can get fully “corrupted”.
  • Finally, it is incorporated to the aggregate of viññāna or the viññānakkhandha. With each thought, the viññānakkhandha grows.

17. One important observation is that C’s mind stopped at the “mānasan” stage in the first example above (this is only partially correct, but we don’t need to get to details here). However, in the second example, it got contaminated.

  • Of course, an Arahant‘s mind will never get contaminated beyond the “mānasan” stage for ANY sense object.
  • Specifically: no lobha, dosa, or moha will arise in an Arahant regardless of what the sense input is.

18. Hopefully, the above basic description will clarify how a citta gets contaminated automatically according to one’s personality (gati) and the sense object.

  • The key point is that we do not have control over those initial citta that arise automatically at the first exposure to the sense object.
  • However, when we become aware of this initial response, we CAN control our subsequent citta by being mindful. That is the key to Ānapāna and Satipatthāna meditations, and is a different topic. It is discussed in detail at the “Bhāvanā (Meditation)” and “Living Dhamma” and “Paticca Samuppada” sections.

19. Finally, another VERY important point is that the six types of viññāna that we just discussed are all VIPĀKA viññāna. Those arise due to past kamma, i.e., as kamma vipāka.

  • Then there are KAMMA viññāna that we create ourselves; see, “Kamma Viññāna – Link Between Mind and Matter“.
  • When the Buddha said that we need to stop defiled viññāna from arising, he was referring to the kamma viññāna. We have control over them. We do not have control over vipāka viññāna. They arise AUTOMATICALLY as we discussed above.
  • This is discussed in “Do I Have “A Mind” That Is Fixed and “Mine”?“: One’s state of mind at a given moment depends on one’s own gati (character and habits) AND the external sense object that is one is exposed to at that time.
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