Bhava and Bhavanga – Simply Explained!

January 19, 2018; revised February 5, 2018

1. There is much confusion about these two key Pāli words: bhava and bhavanga. By clarifying what is meant by them, it would be much easier to comprehend many concepts in Buddha Dhamma; for example, how laws of kamma are enforced by nature via Paticca 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. There are no suitable English terms for some of them, and it is better to learn them. Read through first even if you don’t get the full 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 Tipitaka.

2. Basically, 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 as some specific state of mind within the current life.

  • In the first category, there is human bhava, animal bhava, Tusita deva bhava, peta bhava, abhassara  brahma bhava, etc.: existence in one of the 31 possible realms. As we will see below, many such “potential bhava” exists for each living being, and at the end of the current bhava, a new one will grasped based on the relative energies for various bhava (kamma beeja) that one has 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 those are “bhava”, states of existence.

3. Bhavanga (“bhava” + “anga”, where anga means “part”) therefore means a “state of the mind” that is inseparable for a period of 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 bhavanga state received at the beginning of this human bhava. Each person’s bhavanga state is different (it is based on the sense object taken in at the patisandhi moment), and it feels kind of “neutral” to each person. For example, when one is in deep sleep or “just staring out into space”, one’s mind is likely to be in one’s natural bhavanga 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 bhavanga state” corresponding to that event (“state of rage” when really angry or “state of sadness” upon the death of a loved one). We can denote this by BT.

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

  • For example, when another loved comes to pay respects to the dead loved one (who is in a “sad BT“), one’s mind may become happy just 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 bhavanga state” (BT) may not go away for several days. And then the mind will gradually fall back to the natural bhavanga state, B.
  • For less strong life events, that temporary state mind may last only minutes or hours.
  • For example, if one sees an old friend on the street, one’s mind may become happy while they talk excitedly, and when the friend departs after talking for a while, that BT state may linger for a little while more, but then could be suppressed when another thought process based on remembering a task that one needed to get done urgently.

5. Therefore, within a given day, one’s mind could get into several BT states. But unless a BT state is triggered by a significant life event like the lost of a loved one, the mind would fall back to the natural B state by the time one wakes up next morning.

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

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

  • Another way to describe a bhavanga state is to say that while the mind is in that state, one has corresponding gati (gathi). 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” is also likely to get into BT state easily.
  • 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 the 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 the 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 a good idea to contemplate on the above basic ideas with examples from one’s own life. For example, when one is angry at someone, it is easier to recall more such bad past experiences with that person, and to suppress any past good experiences coming to the mind.

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

  • This is why in the old days people went to a temple and offered flowers, etc and chanted gåthå, before sitting down to listen to a desana by a bhikkhu. The state of mind is very important. One cannot comprehend deep Dhamma if the mind is in an angry state 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, Sangha) 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 a human bhava, only kamma vipāka that are “compatible” with the human bhava and human gati (and thus human body) can bring in vipāka.

  • Even if one has kamma beeja suitable to bring harsh vipāka experienced in the apāyas, they will not be able to bring vipāka as long as one is with a human body. In the same way, any highly pleasurable vipāka have 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 bhavanga. Similarly, a tihetuka human has a natural pleasant demeanor; an ahetuka human (handicapped, etc) has a weakened mindset. A dvihetuka is in between.

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

  • Here the kammic power will start bringing various thoughts to the mind via the mana indriya that are compatible with the strongest kamma beeja. For example, one who is about to grasp a new life in the hell (niraya) may start recalling some fear-generating events (even from previous lives), and one’s mind could be bent to a “fearful temporary bhavanga state (BT)”. Then more and more such fearful events will start coming in to 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, for example, burning in hell, or 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 face, even if the body is becoming non-responding. Some smile when they see a scenery of the happy environment that they are going to.
  • There are many things like that, which can be explained this basic knowledge.

11. For those who are familiar with Abhidhamma, bhavanga 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, what happens is that the sound comes through our ears, and many citta vithi will be generated at the manodvara (mind-door) after that initiating sotadvara citta vithi. Then a seeing event may be started by a picture seen with eyes, etc.
  • This is a very fast process. For example, when we watch a movie we get sense inputs to the ears and eyes very rapidly. But citta vithi flow so fast that the mind will fall to a bhavanga state (B or BT) even in between those rapidly incoming citta vithi.
  • Therefore, what we see, hear, taste, smell, or body touches 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 bhavanga state (B or BT) DOES NOT come though 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 arise without the need for a sense door”.

  • Therefore, bhavanga is sort of a “stationary state of the mind” that it 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“.
  • Bhavanga (B or BT) is just a state of the mind with a corresponding gati. There are no associated citta vithi. But of course, some bhavanga citta can appear in a citta vithi; see, “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs“.

13. It is also important to note that citta do not run without break. It is the kammic energy that runs without a break during samsara.

  • For example, when one is born in the asanna realm, there will be no citta generated for 500 maha kalpa. Remember that a maha kalpa is the age of our Solar system, which lasts about 15 billions years!
  • During that whole time, the body of that being in the asanna realm is kept alive by the kammic energy for that bhava, and the bhavanga is active during that time. As we emphasized above, bhavanga is a state of mind.

14. Please keep in mind that it is not necessary to learn the material in #11 and #12 above. If one can grasp the basic idea of what is meant by bhava and bhavanga that is enough to grasp important concepts at a bit deeper level.

  • We will continue this discussion in one or more upcoming posts.
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