Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?

Revised October 29, 2015; updated April 5, 2016; revised August 18, 2019

1. In August/September 2015, I watched a popular Abhidhamma program (in Sinhala) from Sri Lanka on Youtube. It was right in many aspects, but it had two fundamental problems:

  • First, the incorrect interpretation of anicca and anatta as “impermanence” and “no-self.” I have many posts on this site explaining why those two interpretations are critically flawed.
  • The second main problem that I noticed was the repeated statement that “Anything in this world lasts only a brief moment. Any object is formed and destroyed within a short time of the order of a thought-moment. Then it is re-formed, and the process continues ceaselessly. What you see now is not the same thing that was there a thought moment before”.
  • Then that “creation/destruction” process was tied to the concept of “impermanence” mentioned above.

Here is a direct quote from another source, which is a popular book on Abhidhamma: “..a rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone”. Thus it is a widespread misconception.

2. I have explained in other posts what the correct interpretations of anicca and anatta. Let us focus on the second point, the claim that “any object lives only for 17 thought moments” in this post.

  • A sankata arises due to causes and lasts until those causes are there. It is a bit more complicated, and is discussed in the section, “Udayavaya Nana.”
  • The arising of a sankata is due to paticca samuppada; that is the “udaya” or “arise” part. Once formed, different sankata will have different lifetimes, and eventually decay; that is  “vaya.”
  • Udayavaya describes the formation and destruction of a sankata (“Udaya” means to arise, and “vaya” means destruction). But a sankata could last for a long time.

3. It seems to me that this misinterpretation comes from taking the lifetime of a “rupa” to be 17 thought moments. But as we discussed in “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction,” that is the lifetime of a hadaya rupa.

4. Different sankata have different lifetimes. A fly may live for a few days, a human about 100 years, a building may last hundreds of years, the Earth will last about 4-5 billion more years, etc.

  • An inert object, like a building, will start slowly decaying. If a building lasts 1000 years, then each day, it will “decay” by a little bit, though the decay can be expected to accelerate towards the end.
  • From the present time to the final destruction (or until death in the case of a living being), any given sankata will change. If we consider a baby born today, it will first grow to become a young person. Then it will gradually start weakening while becoming an older adult and eventually die one day. Therefore, the critical aspect is not destruction but change. While the baby is growing, the cells in the body will multiply; but in an older person’s body, more cells will be dying.

5. This constant change is not discernible to us on a real-time basis. A person does not age while we are watching him/her. But we can see the change over several years, especially if they are very young or over the middle age.

  • Mayflies have a lifetime of the order of a day (after the larval stage), and some live only several hours; here is a short video by the National Geographic channel:

  • Thus there is a HUGE difference in saying that a given material object CHANGES moment-to-moment versus saying that the object is “RECREATED” every 17 thought moments. During the presentation that I mentioned at the beginning, the presenter was showing a pen and said that the pen is “destroyed and recreated” EVERY 17 thought moments! By extending that logic, one could say that any entity (say, the Earth) is vanished and “recreated” within 17 thought moments! A complete misunderstanding of the udayavaya process of a sankata.

6. So, where does this incorrect statement come from? “.. rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone.

  • The confusion arises when one does not understand the concept of a hadaya rupa. A hadaya rupa is generated in the hadaya vatthu by a sense event through one of the five physical senses. The lifetime of a hadaya rupa is the time taken to experience that external sense event. That takes 17 thought moments (during which an impression of the external rupa is made in mind by a citta vithi). It is wrong to take this time to be the lifetime of the object in question; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction.”
  • The question is how we EXPERIENCE a given rupa or an object. We experience outside material things in our world through our five physical senses. We see with eyes, hear with ears, smell with the nose, taste with the tongue, and touch with our body.
  • However, our minds only catch a very brief (a thought moments worth) of the seeing, hearing, etc. experience at a time. It is not that the object lives a short time; it is just that we sense it only for a brief moment at a time! Let us discuss this in detail.

7. Each of these five senses events is accomplished via a thought, even though we may not perceive it that way. Details at “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises.” I highly recommend reading that post before proceeding further.

Here is a simple description:

  • When we see an object, our eyes send the image of the object to the brain via the neurons. The brain processes that image. Each image is of the order of 10 milliseconds (Buddha Dhamma does not provide these times; I am using the time that scientists have discovered).
  • But the brain does not feel anything; it is the mind that feels sensations.
  • The brain processes that information and transmits it to the location of the mind (called hadaya vatthu) which overlaps the heart, but not in it.
  • Now, it takes the mind 17 thought moments (or 17 citta) to process that information and identify the object and make decisions about it; this series of citta is called a “citta vithi.” There will be many such citta vithi before we “see it.”

8. Many things happen during that citta vithi: the mind recognizes the object, forms a like/dislike about it, decides on what to do, and lastly may do something about it. That is why there are 17 cittas in the series. Towards the end of the citta vithi, seven javana cittas carry out the actions or speech about the object based on the decisions made earlier part of the citta vithi. That is a very brief statement of what happens in that citta vithi.

  • Three more manodvara citta vithi run following each pancadvara citta vithi. Of course, it happens so fast that we are not aware of these details. Only a Buddha can see such fast processes.
  • When we are having a conversation with someone, we can see her and hear what she says “at the same time.” But it only appears that we are seeing and listening at the same time. The sights and sounds are received and processed by the brain in packets as we discussed above. But the mind processes each packet in less than a millionth of a second in a citta vithi!
  • If we are eating popcorn while watching TV, that taste also comes in packets. The tongue sends about 10 ms worth of “taste information” to the brain and brain processes that information and transmits to the mind. The same thing happens with sounds and body touches. As those “information packets” continuously come in, we PERCEIVE that we are experiencing such sensations continually. Only one “data packet” is processed at a time, so there is at least a 10 ms delay between adjacent packets.

9. Therefore, we can be using all five senses at the same time, and all that information processed in “10 ms packets”. Since there are 1000 milliseconds in a second, we can say that a maximum of about 100 such “information packets” are received by the mind each second.

  • However, that is fast enough for us to PERCEIVE that we are experiencing all these sense inputs continuously. Now, the only part I borrowed from science is the estimated 10 ms duration for each information packet. Those studies were published only recently.
  • Science, of course, is not aware of the role of the mind. As far as science is concerned, the brain does everything, and the brain is the mind. However, I believe that scientists will have to change that theory in the future.

10. In any case, what happens in mind is analogous to what happens when we watch a movie. We perceive that we are watching a continuous movie. But in reality, what happens is that the movie projector projects static pictures to the screen at a rate of about 30-60 frames a second. Here again, each static image is of 20-30 ms duration. But it is fast enough for us to perceive that we are watching a continuous movie.

  • In the same way, our minds perceive that we are watching, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching all at the same time. But each sensory event is brief lived. Even though each “information packet” sent by the brain is from a 10 ms “time slice,” the mind processes that information in a citta vithi lasting 17 cittas. And each citta lasts much less than a billionth of a second. Thus each “snapshot” processed by the mind takes an unimaginably short time.

11. Now if one thinks carefully, it is apparent that the mind is idle most the time waiting for input signals from the brain. In a given second, there are only about 100 such “data packets” coming to the mind as we discussed above. The mind spends only 100 citta vithi for processing that information, which takes less than a millionth of a second for the mind!

  • The rest of the time, the mind is at what is called the “bhavanga state.” Thus the mind is mostly in the “bhavanga state.”
  • We can see that the mind is engaged in “experiencing the world” for short times. Each perception event lasts only 17 thought moments, an unimaginably short time; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction.”

12. So, how does the mind perceive continuously, and take into account what happened in the past? It is done by several mental factors (cetasika) in each citta. In particular, the manasikara cetasika brings old memories, sanna cetasika recognizes, etc.

  • Therefore, we can see that our experience of external objects is very, very brief. A snapshot of a picture, sound, etc. comes to the mind and is gone. The perception of a solid image, sound, taste, etc. is put together by the mind with the help of a set of cetasika, especially seven cetasika that are in any citta.

13. Now it should be apparent where the misconception in the following statement comes from: “.. rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone”.

  • It is not that any rupa (or the object) is short-lived. It is just that the duration of experiencing that object is extremely short. We think we are seeing, hearing, tasting, etc. all the time; but we are not. Just like we are only watching a series of static pictures while watching a movie, our mind is only experiencing a series of “snapshots.”
  • The “ghana sanna” or the “perception of solid and continuous experience” is an illusion created by the mind. That is an important point. If it is not clear, re-read the above.
  • You are always welcome to point out inaccuracies or unclear instances. My goal is not to post essays but to make sure the content is understood. To comprehend Buddha Dhamma requires a lot of thought.

14. Therefore, objects around us do not necessarily change fast and not that fast. It is just that our experience of “seeing” lasts less than a millionth of a second at a time. If we look at an object for 60 seconds, the mind sees it in about 600 static frames (per #9 above). Out of those 60 seconds, the mind “sees” the object for less than a millionth of a second in total, but spread over the 60 seconds in “snapshots,” an unbelievably short time.

  • For example, a gold bar is virtually unchanged during 17 thought moments. A gold bar lasts millions of years, so the change in the gold bar in a thought-moment is insignificantly small. Even in a mayfly that lasts only a day, the change that happens within 17 cittas is unmeasurably little. Thus the statement, “.. rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone” is WRONG.
  • It is the “sensing event” or the hadaya rupa that lasts 17 thought moments; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction.”

15. Buddha Dhamma (i.e., the world) is complicated enough; we need to be careful not to make it any more complicated than necessary. Trying to imagine a person disappearing in a thought-moment and reforming back into full form is unrealistic. Trying to conceive the same for the Earth is mind-boggling, not to mention all those stars, galaxies, out there. Luckily that is not what happens.

  • That is not what was described by the Buddha when he said, “ditté ditta mantan bhavissati.” It means, “what is seen is seen only for a brief moment.” Mantan is “mätra” in Sinhala or Sanskrit or a “trace of something.”

16. Even though we think we see a person all the time while we are looking at him, we see only several “snapshots” of him.

  • What about hearing? We usually speak 100 to 160 words per minute, which means we listen to the same rates. Thus we hear about two words per second. A word typically has less than ten letters, and thus each letter is comprehended in about 50 ms. Therefore, our rough estimate seems to hold. We indeed hear only one letter at a time, but we think we hear whole words or phrases.

17. Other sense inputs work the same way: The Buddha also said, “suté suta mattan bhavissati”, “muté muta mattan bhavissati”, and “viññāté viññāta mattan bhavissati”, where “suta” means hearing, “muta” is a collective word for taste, smell, and touch, and “viññāta” is for viññāna. All our sensory inputs and our awareness are minuscule traces of sensations that flow, which the mind concocts as continuous and stable experiences. Think about the movie analogy again; a movie is a series of static “snapshots.” In the same way, our experiences are a series of “snapshots.”

  • In Brahma worlds, there is only a “manomaya kaya” and no solid body like ours. There, the sense experience more or less continuous. There are some “hungry ghosts” (petas) who also have only the fine “manomaya kaya” that imparts endless suffering.
  • Our physical body is there to give pain via various body ailments as well as “physical pleasures”; we will also discuss this critical point in the future. Nature has many varieties of “body structures” for imparting different types of suffering/enjoyment, according to kamma vipaka.
  • That will become even more clear when we further discuss how the “manomaya kaya controls the physical body,” see, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“.

18. There is a lot of information to be absorbed in this post. Our lives are just a series of very brief sense experiences. When the Buddha uttered those four phrases to the ascetic Bahiya Daruciriya, he contemplated on them right there and attained the Arahantship. He is considered to be the person who spent the least time reaching Arahantship.

More on the formation and destruction of a sankata in, “Nirödha and Vaya – Two Different Concepts.”

Next, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“, …….

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