Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)

August 23, 2018; revised January 6, 2019; September 22, 2021; July 5, 2024


1. Even though only one word in the English language (“thought”) describes “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 experience is this viññānakkhandha of the “aggregate of viññāna.” See “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).”

  •  However, even a contaminated citta is still called a citta for convenience, even in the suttās. So, one needs to determine the meaning depending on the context. One needs to have an idea of those nine stages.
  • Some of these terms in the nine stages are used interchangeably as “a thought” in many Buddhist textbooks and internet sites (e.g., citta, mano, viññāna.)That is NOT correct.

2. I will make this post simple because everyone must understand how a citta (incorrectly translated as “thought”) is “contaminated” within a split second. By the time we become aware of a “thought,” millions or billions of cittās may have arisen.

  • It is impossible to stop a citta‘s contamination within such a short time. I have even seen some well-known and respected Dhamma teachers say that one can willfully keep a “pabhassara citta” (uncontaminated citta) from being contaminated.
  • I hope this post will clarify that such a thing is impossible. One’s cittās are contaminated depending on one’s gati and the sensory input (ārammaṇa) in question. The key to preventing cittās from getting contaminated is changing one’s gati over time.
  • That is done by following the Noble Path, and specifically by practicing the correct Ānapāna and Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvana, not by the “fake breath meditation.” That 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, hadayaṃ, pandaran,  manō manāyatanam, mana indriyam (or manindriyam), viññāna, viññānakkhandha. A Tipiṭaka reference is given in the post, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga.”

  • Amazingly, these nine 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: uppāda, ṭhiti, and bhaṅga. Those nine steps occur before the bhaṅga or the termination stage.
  • It may be hard to believe, but we can prove this 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, the worst enemy of B, and that C does not know X. 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.
  • Such fast “recognition” is possible because of the “saññā” (a mental factor or a cetasika) that arises with every citta (loosely translated as a thought.) See “Saññā Gives Rise to Most of the Vedanā We Experience.”

5. That 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 is instantaneously captured on the screen.

  • However, something very complicated happens in the human mind when a “seeing event” occurs.
  • It is critically important to go slow and analyze what happens to see how complicated this process is (for a human mind) to capture that “seeing event.” It is far 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, making him happy. B recognizes X as his worst enemy, and destructive emotions arise in his mind, making him angry. On the other hand, C identifies X as a man or a woman, and no feelings occur.

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

7.  Buddha said it is hard to find any phenomenon 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 no phenomenon 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 essential features:

  • One gets into an emotional state (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, called sukha, dukha, and upekkha in Pāli), which is vedanā.
  • One recognizes the object, and that is called saññā.
  • Based on vedanā and saññā, one also generates other mental factors (cetasika), such as anger and joy. Those are none other than saṅkhāra.
  • Of course, this holds for all six types of vipāka viññāna.

9. Viññāna is the overall sense experience encompassing all those three: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra.

  • But viññāna can be more than the sum of those three. See “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
  • We can safely say that viññāna (or, more correctly, viññānakkhandha) is the overall sensory experience, INCLUDING one’s expectations based on that sensory experience. That is why one’s facial expressions may change, too, according to such expectations.

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

  • That “mindset” with a set of vedanā, saññā, and saṅkhāra is called a viññāna
  • Viññāna is the overall sensory experience that includes all those. And that takes place within a split second.
  • There are six types of vipāka viññāna corresponding to the six sense faculties. See “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
Importance of Character/Habits (Gati)

11. Several key, important basic features come out 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 occurs, etc. Altogether, six types of vipāka viññāna are associated with the six sense faculties we have. Those are 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 arise. One recognizes what type of picture, sound, etc., and that is (saññā). Then other types of cetasika occur (called saṅkhāra) depending on the ārammana (sound heard, etc.) AND the “nature” of the person (character/habits or gati).
  • Gati is sometimes written as gathi as is pronounced in conventional English. However, there is a “Tipiṭaka English convent” adopted in the 1800s to keep the words short; see, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.”
  • Each person has a unique (but changing) set of good and bad gati. I will not discuss this here, but there are many posts on the website on gati.
Dependence on the “Thought Object” (Ārammaṇa)

12. Let us take a different scenario.  Let us assume that X is B’s girlfriend — who is not on 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 will reverse. A will be instantaneously unhappy to see X, and B will be happy to see X.
  • The situation for C could be different. If  X appears attractive to him, C may instantaneously form a lustful state of mind.

13. Thus, we see that the type of cakkhu viññāna depends primarily on two things: the person experiencing it and the sense object in question (called a ārammaṇa in Pāli).

  • In the above two cases, A and B experienced different types of vipāka viññāna (seeing something “good” or “bad.”) But their experiences reversed when the sense object changed (situation in #4 versus that in #12).
  • In the case of C seeing an attractive woman, even though he had no prior contact with her, lustful viññāna arose in C due to his “lustful” gati.
  • If C were an Arahant, C would only generate a upekkha viññāna when seeing the X. An Arahant has removed all gati; one must learn about gati to understand this point.

14. Now, we see that for a given person, there is no permanent set of good or bad viññāna. What kind of viññāna arises depends on the gati of the person (at that time) and the sensory object.

  • We usually call someone a “good person” based on their 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.
  • Even though this is a complex subject, the basic features are those mentioned above. One needs to analyze different situations in one’s mind to get these ideas firmly grasped. That is actual vipassanā meditation!
  • To progress on the path, one needs to understand how the mind works. The Buddha said that the world had never known his Dhamma, and it has the mind at the forefront. Furthermore, 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), whether it is a tree, a human, or a bird.
  • In the following “mānasan” stage, the mind can distinguish among different species, such as whether it is just a woman or one’s mother or a parrot or a hummingbird. That is the “pure and complete awareness”: one sees the external world as it is. An Arahant‘s mind will not be contaminated beyond this stage.

16. At the next “hadayaṃ” (හාද වීම in Sinhala) phase, 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 following several stages, and by the time it reaches the viññāna stage, it can be fully “corrupted.”
  • Finally, that viññāna gets incorporated into the aggregate of viññāna or the viññānakkhandha. With each thought, the viññānakkhandha grows.

17. One crucial observation is that C’s mind stopped at the “mānasan” stage in the first example above. (that 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 the sensory input.

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 critical point is that we do not control those initial citta that arises automatically at the first exposure to the sense object.
  • However, when we become aware of this initial response, we can control our subsequent cittās by being mindful. That is the key to Ānapāna and Satipaṭṭhāna meditations and is a different topic. For details, see “Bhāvanā (Meditation)” and “Living Dhamma” and “Paṭicca Samuppāda” sections.

19. Finally, another critical point is that the six types of viññāna that we just discussed are all vipāka viññāna. These arise due to past kamma, i.e., as kamma vipāka. However, even this vipāka viññāna is contaminated at a low level; see “Purāna and Nava Kamma – Sequence of Kamma Generation.”

  • 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 kamma viññāna from arising, he was referring to the kamma viññāna. We have control over kamma viññāna. But we do not have control over vipāka viññāna, which is due to past kamma.
  • Details on kamma viññāna in the post “Do I Have “A Mind” That Is Fixed and “Mine”?“. At a given moment, one’s state of mind depends on one’s gati (character and habits) AND the external sense object.

20. This discussion continues in “The Amazing Mind—Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories),” which provides further details.

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