Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs

Revised April 26, 2018; revised May 30, 2018

1. Thoughts (citta) do not arise as individual citta; see, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)“.

They arise in the mind due to sense inputs from the five physical senses (cakku, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya indriya corresponding  respectively to eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body) and also by the mana indriya (located in the brain; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“).

  • As we discussed in the post, “What is Mind? How do we Experience the Outside World?“, each of our sense inputs coming in though any one of the five physical senses is received and analyzed by the mind in a “citta vithi” (series of cittā) with 17 cittā. These are called pancadvāra citta vithi. Pancadvara (“panca” + “dvāra” where “panca” is five and “dvāra” is door) means five (physical) doors.
  • Vithi is pronounced “veethi”; in fact, the actual Pali (and Sinhala) term is veethi (meaning “road”), since like a road, the flow is continuous. But vithi has become the established English word, just like “piti” for the actual word “preethi“. And, citta is pronounced “chiththā”.
  • When we THINK ABOUT those external sense inputs, that is done via manōdvāra citta vithi, which involve only the brain and the mind (those are not the same). These citta vithi normally have 10-12 cittā in them.
  • Here we will describe both types of citta vithi.

2. According to citta niyama (or Law of Cittā), a  pancadvāra citta vithi proceeds in a standard way for an object with great intensity (atimahantārammana citta vithi). That means the object is of high interest and also the conditions for the object to be grasped are optimum; for example, if it is a visual object, that visual object is of high interest and also the light conditions for seeing that object are good.

The sequence of cittā in a  pancadvāra citta vithi is as follows:

Pancadvara Citta Vithi

# in the SeriesCitta TypeSymbol
1Atīta Bhavanga (Past Bhavanga)AB
2Bhavanga Calana (Vibrating Bhavanga)
BC
3Bhavanga Upaccheda (Arrest Bhavanga)
BU
4Pancadvaravajjana (Sense-door adverting consciousness)
PD
5Cakku Vinnana (eye-door perceiving consciousness) - for example
CV
6Sampaticchana (Receiving consciousness)
Sam
7Santīrana (Investigating consciousness)
San
8Vottapana (Determining consciousness)
V
9-15JavanaJ
16, 17Tadarammana (Registering consciousness)T

3. When the mind is not dealing with a pancadvāra citta vithi or a manōdvāra citta vithi, it is in a “dormant state” called the bhavanga. Bhavanga (“bhava” + “anga” where “anga” means “a part”), thus represents the particular “bhava” of the living being, in this case a “human bhava“. The conventional English term is “life continuum”, but we will use bhavanga.

..B B B B B B B B ………….

  • When the mind is in the bhavanga state, we do not “feel” anything. Just like an eye cannot see itself, the mind cannot “see” its own state. This is the “dormant state” in between sense inputs. When one is in deep sleep or unconscious, one is fully in the bhavanga state.
  • Conventionally, it is said that bhavanga citta flow unceasingly, until the mind is diverted to an object of interest, whether through one of the five physical senses (cakku, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, or kāya indriya) or an “active thought” that originates in the “mana indriya” in the brain.
  • As we will see later, the mind is in the bhavanga (B) state most of the time even if the mind feels like very active.  Even during watching a movie, the mind is mostly in the bhavanga state (in between various types of manōdvāra and pancadvāra citta vithi) , even though we feel like our brains are stressed to the limit with the sights and sounds from the movie.

4. We can represent the pancadvāra citta vithi in the above Table as follows:

B B B B B “AB BC BU PD CV Sam San V J J J J J J J T T” BT BBT BT…..

It must be noted that this is the strongest citta vithi. There are many variations WITHIN this citta vithi where some do not have T  or even J citta. Different types of pancadvāra citta vithi are discussed in detail in  “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000).

  • In the above case, the bhavanga is temporarily changed to Bdue to the strong sense input. For details, see, “State of Mind in the Absence of Citta Vithi – Bhavanga“.
  • In the above example, we took a “cakku viññāna” event, i.e., what happens when a picture is presented to the mind via the “eye indriya” and the mind investigating that picture.
  • First the “mind needs to be released from the “bhavanga state”, and that takes three thought moments of AB (atita bhavanga), BC (bhavanga calana), BU (bhavanga upacceda). Here “atita” (or “atheetha“) means “past”, “calana” (or “chalana“) means “move” or “vibrate”, and “upacceda” (or “upachchéda“) means “stopped”.
  • Then the mind looks at the “five physical senses or pancadvāra (PD)” and determines through which of the five sense inputs it is coming through, and then picks the relevant door, which in the present case we assumed to be cakku viññāna (CV).
  • Then it investigates what that “picture” is, with the Sampaticcana (Sam) citta, decides what type (like, dislike, etc) with the Santirana (San) citta,  and determines what actions to take with the Vottapana (V) citta.
  • The all important 7 javana citta arise based on that determination made with the Vottapana citta (V). This is where potent kamma are done by the mind.
  • In the last two Tadārammana (T) cittā, the mind takes in the “flavor” or the “essence” of the sense object, and then falls back to the bhavanga state at the termination of the pancadvāra citta vithi. Only the very strong (mahantārammana) citta vithi have them, and it is those strong impressions that are “recorded in memory”.

The Simile of Tasting a Mango

1. A pancadvāra citta vithi is the procedure by which the mind experiences an external object (sight, sound, taste, etc). In the commentaries to the Tipitaka, what happens in a pancadvāra citta vithi is compared to the case of a man who is sleeping under a mango tree, awakened by the falling of a mango, investigates it and decides to enjoy (experience) the taste of the mango.

2. Suppose a weary traveler is asleep at the foot of a mango tree. This state of being asleep is analogous to the bhavanga state. Now a ripe mango drops to the ground near the traveler. This event is similar to the striking of a visible object of very great intensity at the “eye door”.

3. The falling of the mango awakens the traveler and causes him to raise his head. This event is similar to the appearance of the visible object at the eye door causing the bhavanga to vibrate twice and become arrested; now he is not asleep anymore.

  • The traveler opens his eyes and looks around to enquire what the disturbance was. This is similar to the pancadvāravajjana (PD) citta adverting the mind towards the sense object.

4. The traveler sees the fallen mango. This is analogous to the eye-consciousness seeing the object (CV). Now the man picks up the mango, which is similar to the sampaticchana (Sam) citta receiving the cakku viññāna. By the way, sampaticcana comes from “san“+”paticca“; you can contemplate on this to get the basic idea; see, “What is “San”?”.

  • Then the man  inspects the mango to see whether it is suitable for eating. This is similar to the santirana citta (“san” + “tirana” or “theerana“, where “theerana” means “decide on whether the sense object is good or bad”) investigating the sense object.
  • Then the man decides that the mango is good and edible. This is similar to the votthapana (“votta” + “pana” meaning “deciding on what to do” or in Sinhala, “pana denava” or “energize”). Vottapana is pronounced “voththapana”. If it was a rotten mango, one would decide to throw it away.
  • Most Pali terms can be understood well if one understands Sinhala. As I have mentioned before, it is the Sinhala language that is close to Pali and not Sanskrit.

5. The man bites the mango seven times eating and enjoying the taste. This is similar to the occurrence of seven javana cittā enjoying the taste of the sense object. These are really the “actions corresponding to the decision made with the vottapana citta“; if the mango was bad, here the mind will generate appropriate javana citta to throw the mango. We will discuss such complex processes later.

  • Then the man gathers the remnants of the fruit and the juice sticking on the teeth with his tongue and swallows twice. This is similar to the two tadārammana (T) cittā following the javanas.
  • Task completed, the man falls back to sleep. This is similar to the resumption of the bhavanga state.

6. However, according to the Tipitaka, each pancadvāra citta vithi is immediately followed by three manōdvāra citta vithi. The javana cittā in those three citta vithi become increasingly strong, and it is javana cittā of the last  manōdvāra citta vithi that instructs the brain to get the body to act (and initiate speech).

  • We will discuss this in detail in the future posts. But the complete sequence of a thought process initiated by a pancadvāra citta vithi takes three more manōdvāra citta vithi to be completed. In fact, when one gets “absorbed” (for example, keeps looking at an attractive picture), one may be generating millions of such “one plus three processes” with the mind falling back to the bhavanga state repeatedly in between.
  • It will be easier to visualize this process by understanding what happens when we look at an object, for example, in scientific terms; see, “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises” (especially starting with #4 of that post).

Now let us look at a typical manōdvāra citta vithi. 

Manodvara Citta Vithi

# in the SeriesCitta TypeSymbol
1Bhavanga Calana (Vibrating Bhavanga)
BC
2Bhavanga Upaccheda (Arrest Bhavanga)
BU
3Manodvaravajjana (Mind-door adverting consciousness)
MD
4-10JavanaJ
11, 12Tadarammana (Registering consciousness)T

1. We can represent the manōdvāra citta vithi in the above Table as follows:

B B B B B “BC BU MD J J J J J J J T T” B B B B B…..

  • Here it takes only two thought moments to be released from the “bhavanga state”: BC (bhavanga calana), BU (bhavanga upacceda).
  • The mind already knows the ārammana (thought object).
  • The 7 javana citta arise, and then the citta vithi ends with the two Tadārammana (T) cittā.
  • Just like in the case of a pancadvāra citta vithi, here also we considered an object with high intensity as an example. We will discuss the variations when handling signals of lower intensities as the need arises. However, this discussion is sufficient to get an idea about how the two types of citta vithi function in the cognitive processes.

2. Now we can write the complete sequence of citta for a sense event initiated by a pancadvāra citta vithi as:

B B B B B “AB BC BU PD CV Sam San V J J J J J J J T T MD J J J J J J J T T MD J J J J J J J T T MD J J J J J J J T T ” B B B B B…..

  • As mentioned above the initial pancadvāra citta vithi is followed by three manōdvāra citta vithi.

3. On the other hand, manōdvāra citta vithi can arise just by themselves.

  • Furthermore, even though the length of a manōdvāra citta vithi  is normally 10-12 cittā for average people, a single  manōdvāra citta vithi can have many javana cittā while in a jhāna.
  • In a jhāna, such long  manōdvāra citta vithi are interrupted by pancadvāra citta vithi that arise in between. This is why one could hear external sounds while in a jhāna.

4. But in a jhāna samāpatti, a single manōdvāra citta vithi  goes on uninterrupted for long times, with javana citta arising unceasingly :

B B B B B “BC BU MD J J J J J J J J J J J ………..

  • Thus there is no way to get back to the bhavanga state, or for a pancadvāra citta vithi or another manōdvāra citta vithi to arise, and one becomes unaware of what happens in the outside world. Before getting into the samāpatti, one makes a determination on how long to stay in the samāpatti.
  • This is why the real power of javana citta can be truly displayed by people who can get into jhāna samāpatti.
  • This can be visualized crudely as follows: Suppose one is trying to light an oil lamp (oil-soaked wick) with the light of a matchstick. If one is not holding the lighted matchstick steady and the light moves in and out of the vicinity of the wick, it will not light. But if one can hold the light steady, it will light up quickly.
  • That is probably a too crude an analogy. A better one may be given for those who are familiar with lasers. One can drill holes in a metal plate using a laser beam. But if the laser beam is not held steady, it will not get the metal spot to heat up and evaporate. Being in a jhāna samāpatti is like holding a laser beam quite steady on one spot for long times.

It is important to realize that a citta vithi always starts with an external sense input due to a past kamma, i.e., due to a kamma vipaka; see, “Avyākata Paticca Samuppāda for Vipāka Viññāna“.

Citta Vithi for Attainment of Magga Phala

B B B “BC BU MD P U A G Pa Fr Fr” B B B

B B B “BC BU MD U A G Pa Fr Fr Fr” B B B

First is the magga phala citta vithi for a normal person; the second is for one with “higher wisdom”.

  • B, BC, BU, MD are as discussed above.
  • Then it goes through the Parikamma (P), Upacara (U), Anuloma (A), Gotrabu (G), Path (magga) (Pa), and Fruit (phala) (Fr).
  • As you can see, there is no connection to jhāna. In particular, the magga phala citta vithi does not go through a jhāna citta. Also, the Gotrabu (change of lineage) citta for magga phala is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than that in the case of a jhāna citta vithiChange of lineage here is to become an Ariya or a Noble Person.

Citta Vithi for Attainment of Jhāna

B B B “BC BU MD P U A G Jh” B B B

B B B “BC BU MD U A G Jh” B B B

First is the jhāna citta vithi for a normal person; the second is for one with “higher wisdom”.

  • B, BC, BU, MD, P, U, A, G are as discussed above.
  • Then it goes through a Jhāna (Jh) citta.
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