Bhava and Bhavaṅga – Simply Explained!

January 19, 2018; revised February 5, 2018; January 19, 2021; September 10, 2022

1. There is much confusion about the two key Pāli words, bhava and bhavaṅga. By clarifying what they mean, it would be much easier to comprehend many concepts in Buddha Dhamma, for example, how laws of kamma are enforced by nature via Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • Even in current Theravada texts, there is confusion about the difference between bhava and jāti. If you have not read the post, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein,” I recommend reading that first.
  • Please do not be discouraged by the Pāli terms. Some have no suitable English terms, and it is better to learn their meanings and use the Pāli terms. Read through first, even if you don’t get the whole meaning. It will become clear. I will make it simple in this post.
  • I will make one or two more posts on this subject to include references from the Tipiṭaka.

2. Bhava means “the potential for existence” in EITHER one of the 31 realms of possible existence (we can see just the human and animal realms) or some specific state of mind within the current life.

  • The first category includes human bhava, animal bhava, Tusita deva bhava, peta bhava, Ābhassara  Brahma bhava, etc., i.e., existence in one of the 31 possible realms. As we will see below, many such “potential bhava” exist for each living being. A new bhava will be grasped at the end of the current bhava based on the relative energies of various bhava (kamma bīja) cultivated in one’s past.
  • Even during this lifetime, we “live under different existences” based on significant life events. This is the second category. For example, a normally “good person” may become violent for a short time upon seeing his wife in bed with another man, or one will live in a “state of sorrow” for many days upon the death of a loved one.
  • Both are “bhava,” states of existence.

3. Bhavaṅga (“bhava” + “anga,” where anga means “part”) therefore means a “state of mind” that is inseparable from any existence.

  • When not disturbed by a strong external sense input (via the five physical senses or the mana indriya), a human mind is in its natural bhavaṅga state received at the beginning of this human bhava. Each person’s bhavaṅga state is different (based on the sense object taken in at the patisandhi moment) and feels “neutral” to each person. For example, when one is in deep sleep or “just staring out into space,” one’s mind will likely be in one’s natural bhavaṅga state, which we can denote by B.
  • On the other hand, when one’s mind is deeply affected by some event, like in the examples we mentioned above, then the mind goes into a “temporary bhavaṅga state” corresponding to that event (“state of rage” when angry or “state of sadness” upon the death of a loved one). We can denote this by BT.

4. This “state of mind” (B or BT) could be interrupted by a citta vithi triggered by an external sensory input coming through one of the five physical senses or the mana indriya.

  • For example, when another loved one comes to pay respects to the dead loved one (who is in a “sad BT“), one’s mind may become happy for a few minutes upon seeing that person. Then they may recall a past event about the dead person, and both may get sad again. That “sad temporary bhavaṅga state” (BT) may not go away for several days. And then the mind will gradually fall back to the natural bhavaṅga state, B.
  • That temporary state of mind may last only minutes or hours for less strong life events.
  • For example, if one sees an old friend on the street, one’s mind may become happy and talks excitedly. After the friend departs, that “happy” BT state may linger for a while. But then it would be suppressed when another thought process starts based on a different ārammana.

5. Therefore, within a given day, one’s mind could enter several BT states. But unless a BT state is triggered by a significant life event like losing a loved one, the mind would fall back to the natural B state when one wakes up the following day.

  • For the reasons discussed above, the natural bhavaṅga state, B, could be called the “uppatti bhavaṅga,” and those temporary bhavaṅga states, BT, could be called “pavutti bhavaṅga.”
  • However, such labels are not used in the suttās or Abhidhamma. I mention that to make the connection better.

6. Please reread the above discussion. That should help one get the basic ideas about what bhava and bhavaṅga are. It is important to note that bhavaṅga is a state of mind, not citta vithi (thoughts).

  • Another way to describe a bhavaṅga state is to say that while the mind is in that state, one has corresponding gati (gati). This is also an important aspect.
  • For example, when one gets into a BT state of anger, then one, of course, has predominantly “angry gati” during that time. Furthermore, one who generally has cultivated “angry gati” will likely quickly get into a BT state.
  • By the way, the Sinhala word for bhava is just “Bava” (බව). For example, when one sees an eye-catching thing and generates a “lōbha bhava” at that moment: ලෝභ බව ආවාම ලෝභයෙක් වෙනවා.

7. Another important aspect is that when one is in an “angry BT state,” it is easier to generate more angry thoughts. This is due to the “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya”: That “state of mind” is receptive to more angry thoughts. This is why it is important to try to get the mind away from the angry state to focus on something entirely different.

  • It is good to contemplate the above basic ideas with examples from one’s life. For example, when one is angry at someone, it is easier to recall such bad past experiences and suppress any past good experiences coming to mind.

8. When one has a calm state of mind when reading/listening to Dhamma, it is easier to generate compassionate thoughts about others. Therefore, it is important to “set the background” when starting an important task.

  • This is why people go to a temple, offer flowers, etc., and recite gāthā before sitting down to listen to a desana by a bhikkhu. The state of mind is critical. One cannot comprehend deep Dhamma if the mind is angry or even in an excited state (like thinking about a sick child at home, for example).
  • This is why it is a good idea to at least recite the qualities of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha) before starting a formal meditation session; see “Buddhist Chanting.”

9. Another important application of the “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya” relevant to this case is that while in human bhava, only kamma vipāka are “compatible” with the human bhava and human gati (and thus human body) can bring in vipāka.

  • Even if one has kamma bīja suitable to bring harsh vipāka experienced in the apāyā, they will not be able to bring vipāka as long as one is with a human body. Similarly, any highly pleasurable vipāka has to wait until one is born in a deva bhava with a fine body suitable to experience such good vipāka.
  • An animal always lives with fear for its life; that is part of bhavaṅga. Similarly, a tihetuka human has a natural, pleasant demeanor; an ahetuka human (disabled, etc.) has a weakened mindset. A dvihetuka is in between.

10. Yet another is the state of mind at the dying moment, when the grasping of new bhava is getting close (if bhava energy is to run out at death, i.e., if there are no more jāti left in the current bhava).

  • Here the kammic power will start bringing various thoughts to mind via the mana indriya compatible with the strongest kamma bīja. For example, one who is about to grasp a new life in hell (niraya) may start recalling some fear-generating events (even from previous lives), and one’s mind could be bent to a “fearful temporary bhavaṅga state (BT).” Then more and more such fearful events will start coming into the mind.
  • This is why some dying people’s fear can be seen in their eyes, even if their bodies have become non-responding.
  • Some people start to yell with fear when they see an especially unpleasant bhava coming their way. Flashes of the existence awaiting will come to their minds, such as burning in hell, being cut by sharp weapons, or just seeing others engulfed in flames.
  • On the good side, some people will remain calm with a pleasant look on their faces, even if their bodies are becoming non-responding. Some smile when they see the scenery of the happy environment they are going to.
  • This basic knowledge can explain many phenomena like that.

11. For those familiar with Abhidhamma, bhavaṅga citta are called “dvāramutta citta” or citta that arise without needing a sense door. Let me clarify this in simple terms.

  • When we hear something, that sound comes through our ears, and many citta vithi will be generated at the manodvara (mind-door) after that initial sotadvāra citta vithi. A seeing event may be started by a picture seen with eyes, etc.
  • This is a swift process. For example, we get sensory inputs to the ears and eyes when watching a movie. But citta vithi flow so fast that the mind will fall to a bhavaṅga state (B or BT) even between the rapidly incoming citta vithi.
  • Therefore, what we see, hear, taste, smell, or body touch are all due to citta vithi. Even our thoughts generated by the mind (coming through the mana indriya) are due to citta vithi.

12. In contrast, a bhavaṅga state (B or BT) DOES NOT come through any of the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body) or the mana indriya in the brain. That is why it is called “dvāramutta citta” or “citta that arises without the need for a sense door.”

  • Therefore, bhavaṅga is a “stationary state of mind” that falls back to when there are no running citta vithi.
  • Note that the mana indriya — where concepts and memories come to the mind — is unknown to scientists; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
  • Bhavaṅga (B or BT) is a state of mind with a corresponding gati. There are no associated citta vithi. But of course, some bhavaṅga citta can appear in a citta vithi; see “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs.”

13. It is also important to note that the series of cittā do not flow continuously. It is the kammic energy that runs without a break during Saṃsāra.

  • For example, when one is born in the asañña realm, no citta is generated for 500 mahā kappa. Remember that a mahā kappa is our solar system’s age, which lasts about 15 billion years!
  • During that whole time, the body of that being in the asañña realm is kept alive by the kammic energy for that bhava, and the bhavaṅga is active during that time. As we emphasized above, bhavaṅga is a state of mind.

14. Please keep in mind that it is unnecessary to learn the material in #11 and #12 above if one can grasp the basic idea of what is meant by bhava and bhavaṅga. That is enough to grasp important concepts at a bit deeper level.

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