3. Viññāṇa, Thoughts, and the Subconscious

Revised February 25, 2020

Cetasikā (Mental Factors) Determine the Nature of a Citta (Thought)

1. A thought (citta) arises based on a specific thought object (ārammana), say thinking about buying a car or going for a walk. There is only one citta at a time, but each lasts less than a billionth of a second. The word citta is pronounced “chiththa.” See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.”

  • Cittā (plural of citta) flow at a very fast rate. We do not experience individual citta, but the overall effect of billions of cittā that arise in a second.
  • Each citta has many cetasika (mental factors) in it, including the all-important saññā, phassa, manasikāra cetasika.
  • Then there are “good” and “bad” cetasika in a citta that describes the “quality” of the citta.
  • When someone is angry, most cittā at that time will have anger/hate (paṭigha and/or dōsa cetasika.) When the same person is feeding a hungry person his/her cittā at that time will have the benevolence and/or loving-kindness cetasikā.
  • The good and bad cetasikā do not mix, i.e., one either has a good thought or a bad thought. For discussion on cetasika, see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.
What Is Viññāṇa? – Role of Cetasikā

2. Even though we simply think about a “thought,” a thought is really a complex entity, that goes through nine stages within a billionth of a second. It ends as viññāṇa or viññāṇakkhandha. See, “Citta, Manō, Viññāna – Stages of a Thought.” Viññāṇa represents the overall experience of “thought” and is largely described by the cetasikā in those cittā.

  • Of course, no one experience a viññāṇa due to a single citta; rather what one experiences is the average of millions or billions of cittā. A bunch or a heap is called khandha in Pāli or Sinhala. Thus what we experience is a viññāṇakkhandha or the overall effect of a bunch or a heap of cittā.
  •  Viññāṇa is complex and multi-faceted. But they are primarily of two types: vipāka viññāna and  kamma viññāna See, “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
  • We can look at those two types in a simple way as follows.

3. The manasikāra and saññā cetasika are in each and every citta, and they can incorporate all past memories, habits (gati) and cravings (āsavā) to a given citta. It is the cetanā cetasika that “puts it all together.” Only the mind of a Buddha can “see” such amazing details. It all happens within a billionth of a second!

  • Our gati and āsavā (plural of āsava) may not be displayed in each citta. Rather, they lie dormant, waiting for a “trigger” to come up. For example, greedy thoughts arise only when a “pleasing thought object” is in play, as in seeing a tasty dish or an attractive person.
  • Therefore, the way we think (viññāṇa) depend on our gati (habits/character,) āsavā (cravings,) AND the particular “thought object” or ārammana.
  • Of course, we can get rid of certain gati/āsava and cultivate new ones.
  • The main goal of Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna meditations is to remove bad gati/āsava and to cultivate good gati. See, “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?” and “9. Key to Ānapānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati).”
Vipāka Viññāna and  Kamma Viññāna

4. The mind is directed to a new thought object (or ārammana) with a vipāka viññāna that may come through any of the six sensory inputs. For example, we may be walking down the street, but an attractive item in a shop window may catch our attention.  

  • Now, if we like that item, we may start thinking about buying it. That is a kamma viññāna. Now we have generated a new viññāna with a desire to buy that item. A kamma viññāna has an expectation. We may not buy it at that time. But if we go home and again start thinking about it (generating vaci saṅkhāra,) then we build up that viññāna via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” step in Paṭicca Samuppāda. Therefore, a kamma viññāna arises only in the mind. 
  • Without getting deep into the issue, we can just say that a kamma viññāna is an expectation. Once formed, a kamma viññāna will stay with us at least for a while. It will grow only if we keep thinking, speaking or doing things (with vaci and kāya saṅkhāra) related to that expectation.
Kamma Viññāna Come Back as Vipāka Viññāna

5. When we build such an expectation, the memory of that can come back as a vipāka viññāna at a later time. 

  • For example, the memory of that item in the shop window in #3 above may come back to the mind via one of the six senses later on. For example, we may hear about it on the radio, we may hear someone else talking about it, etc. It may even “pop into the mind” too.
  • That item in the shop window is a “thought object” or a ārammana.
  • Then if we keep thinking, speaking, doing things related to that ārammana, that associated viññāna will grow.
What is Subconscious?

6. Such vipāka viññāna are waiting in the background to bring their fruits. There may be many types hiding beneath the surface. This is what Sigmund Freud called the “sub-conscious”.

  • When I am paying for my groceries, my thoughts stay focused on that transaction. But there can be many types of viññāṇa lurking “in the background”. I may be building a house, studying for an exam, planning a trip, planning a birthday party for my child, etc. and all those “viññāṇa” are working in the background even though I am not thinking about any of them at the time I am paying for my groceries.
  • However, any of those, and even some things that I had not been thinking about for a long time, can be there in the “subconscious”. But there is no separate “subconscious” as such.
  • All these different types of viññāṇa can not be there in a single thought (citta), and there is only one citta at a time; see, “What is a Thought?”. Then how is it possible for many types of viññāṇa to be lurking in the background? That is what we discussed in #2, #3 above. Based on the particular ārammana, the cetanā cetasika “transforms” a pure citta to the “contaminated” viññāṇa stage in several steps.

7. The more one does something repeatedly, there starts a kamma viññāṇa for that particular event or behavior. For example, when one starts smoking, a viññāṇa starts building, and the more one smokes, the stronger the viññāṇa gets. This is called “feeding the viññāṇa” by doing it again and again. In other words, habits are formed via repeatedly feeding the viññāṇa for that habit.

  • When a certain viññāṇa is pleasing to the mind, that viññāṇa tries to get fed frequently. When someone has the habit of smoking the viññāṇa for that tries to deviate his/her attention to smoking at every possible opportunity. For example, if a smoker sees an advertisement for smoking, that “triggers” the liking or the viññāṇa for smoking that was in the subconscious.

8. But it works the same way for a viññāṇa that got established with a dislike also. For example, if someone did something really awful to you in the past, the hearing of his/her name will bring back that viññāṇa.

Viññāṇa Are Not Permanent

9. Not all viññāṇa keep accumulating in the background. Those weaker ones, especially if don’t get fed, diminish and disappear.

  • For example, suppose I had planned an overseas trip and had been making preparations for it. The more preparations I make and the more thoughts I have of the trip, those are “food for that viññāṇa”, and it grows. If I see a new article with that country’s name, I would immediately read the article. But suppose, a major war breaks out in that country before my trip; then I would cancel that trip right away. I will no longer be planning for the trip and my mind will “not be interested” in it anymore. Since that viññāṇa for “visiting that country” is not going to get fed anymore, it will be gone in a short time.
  • We don’t even need to actually physically do the activity to “feed the viññāṇa” or make a habit stronger. There are studies that show that one could improve the game of basketball, for example, by just visualize practicing, and getting the ball mentally. These are called “manō sañcetanā”. Focusing attention on a given task can be very powerful.
  • One’s associations strongly influence which of those different types of viññāṇa will grow by “getting fed” frequently. If one starts associating with people who drink regularly, one’s viññāṇa for “getting drunk” will grow as one keeps feeding that viññāṇa by drinking frequently.

12. A built-up viññāṇa can form a habit (gati.) As the habit or the gati gets stronger, it can be carried over to the next life, possibly in two ways.

  • If a human dies and has time left in the “human bhava” then when he/she is reborn as a human most of the previous gati will be there.
  • A really strong habit could lead to a “patisandhi viññāṇa” at the dying moment and can lead to a corresponding “bhava” based on that particular gati. For example, an extremely greedy person, may acquire a “peta bhava” at the dying moment and be born as a “peta” or a hungry ghost.

13. Thus viññāṇa is very complex. It is not just “awareness.” Viññāṇa also has one’s “hopes and dreams” as well as “likes, dislikes, and habits”. It also includes the “subconscious.” It is a complex combination of the 52 cetasikā.

  • Of course, not all cetasikā are involved in a given citta or in our thoughts. Sobhana (good) cetasikā do not arise with asobhana (bad) cetasikā in a given citta.
  • See, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)” for a discussion on cetasikā.
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