What is a Thought?

Revised January 24, 2019; December 26, 2023

Basic Abhidhamma

1. Abhidhamma has many confusing terms, like citta and manō, which have been interpreted differently in different books. I have written a few posts in the “Mind and Consciousness” section to clarify these concepts. Those who like to “dig deeper” need to read those posts.  I highly recommend reading those, and especially, “3. Viññāṇa, Thoughts, and the Subconscious“.

  • In Buddha Dhamma, a thought or a citta is the briefest moment of awareness experienced by a sentient being. Citta is pronounced “chiththa.” There can be well over a billion cittā (plural of citta) in the blink of an eye.
  • Let us keep in mind that a single citta takes much smaller than a billionth of a second. What we experience is the cumulative effect of millions of cittā.
Each Citta Has At least Seven Cetasika

2. A pure citta only has seven cētasika (phassa, saññā, védanā, cētanā, ekaggata, jivitindriya, and manasikāra) in it; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“. Thus, it is the purest form of a “thought,” but it is too brief for anyone to experience.

  • The first thing to note is that one will never be able to experience a single thought if we mean by a thought to be a citta, even though we say, “I just had a thought.” The briefest awareness that we actually experience is probably a fraction of a second; Scientists say it is about ten milliseconds. But that ten millisecond time is spent mainly by the brain in processing the sensory input; once that is done, a series of citta with 17 cittā flow in a very brief time (less than a billionth of a second), and that is what is registered in the mind. We will discuss this later in detail.
  • This series of citta with 17 cittā is called a citta vithi (pronounced “chiththa veethi”); see below.

3. Even a single citta has three phases, just like any sankhata: uppāda (rising), tithi (fully formed but but still changes), and bhanga (dissolution/destruction). Thus, a citta arises and fades away very fast.

  • Only a Buddha can see such details, as I pointed out in the Introduction. Even people with the highest abhiññā powers (attained via jhānās) cannot even come close to seeing such details.
  • Abhidhamma is a special section of Buddha Dhamma that needs to be taken “as is,” i.e., we must believe what the Buddha said. We cannot hope to verify these details by our own experience (for example, there are a certain number of citta in a citta vithi as discussed below). Yet, Abhidhamma is very valuable in clarifying any issue in detail.

4. A pure citta with seven cētasika does not last. Even though it starts as such a pure citta, within the duration of the citta itself (less than a billionth of a second), it gets contaminated by either a set of bad cētasika like lōbha (greed), issa (envy) or a set of good cētasika like saddha (faith) and sati (mindfulness).

  • Before it starts decaying, it goes through NINE STAGES to become viññānakkhandhō (this is NOT the aggregate as in the common usage of viññānakkhandha; rather, here the mind has coupled the information in the previous stages of this citta with past viññāna and future viññāna that are in the mind and has made a “composite”).
  • However, the convention is to call this whole process still a citta.
  • All this happens in less than a billionth of a second! This process keeps repeating in the citta to follow, and the process is cumulative, i.e., as more and more citta flow by, the awareness of the event gets stronger, and we actually begin to feel it.
  • It may be a good idea to read about citta vithi before proceeding: “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs.”
We Never Experience a Single Citta

5. Thus, we experience the cumulative effect of numerous citta vithis. That is why the Buddha talked about kandhas (which means “heaps” in Pāli or Sinhala) as in “heaps” of  feelings (vedanakkhandha), perceptions (sannakkhandha), volitions (saṅkhārakkhandha), and consciousness (viññānakkhandha); those are the “heaps” that we actually experience in a “thought”.

  • If cittās fly by that fast and capture six kinds of possible “inputs” (through the five physical senses and the mind itself), how do we “experience” seeing, hearing, etc. “at the same time” but still sort them out?
Mind Is the Fastest Entity in the World 

6. This is because the mind is the most powerful entity in this world. All five physical senses just provide traces of inputs ( “memory imprints”), and billions of them arise and perish each second. The mind keeps a record of all past events and MAKES A COMPOSITE SENSE EXPERIENCE moment-by-moment.

  • For example, when we hear someone say, “I bought some apples,” that was processed by several citta vithi. When the brain processes the word “apples,” it has processed the previous words and passed that information to the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind.) The mind can comprehend the meanings of those words and compare them with memories.
  • We speak (and can understand) about 150 words/minute. The minimum “packet of information” that the brain (not the mind) can process is estimated by scientists to be about a hundredth of a second (10 milliseconds). This comes about 1-2 letters in such a “packet.”
  • When it has captured the whole word “apple” (with several “packets,” each of which processed by a series of citta vithi), the mind automatically matches that with all the memories and instantly produces an awareness or a mental picture of an apple; memories, as well as hopes for future, are recalled by the manasikāra cētasika and the citta is “put together” by the cētanā cētasika.

7. The mind can do this because it can process billions of citta vithi per second!

  • But there is a “bottleneck” in the brain, which slows down the whole process. The brain takes a relatively long time to process a “packet” of information.
  • Therefore, the mind falls back to the bhavaṅga state in between comprehending information packets. For example, right after receiving the letter “a,” it falls to the bhavaṅga state and waits until the next packet with “p” comes.
Mind Can Process Multiple Sensory Inputs in Parallel

8. Furthermore, the mind can process multiple inputs (received via the five senses) that are coming in mixed up.

  • For example, after hearing the letter “a” that comes through the ears, the mind may get a “packet” with information about the smell of the apple. But the mind is capable of “sorting out” these different inputs.
  • It can also carry out its own mental processes (thinking and coming to conclusions about what is perceived through the five senses by comparing it with memories) at such a fast speed that it appears to be done in “real-time.”
  • There is nothing faster than the mind in this world; see “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).” Also, see the previous post, “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises.”

9. Now, the mind “knows” what that person was referring to and has a mental image of an apple with its smell also registered.

  • If someone hears the word “lemon,” one could even feel the sour taste of lemon; the mind recalls that “sour taste” from memories of previous experiences of tasting lemon.
  • Even if we see just the outline of a familiar person at a distance, the mind “fills in the blanks” and flashes an image of that person in your mind so you know who it is.
Processing of Citta Vithi

10. One sensory “event” does not happen in one citta. A sensory event from one of the five physical senses is captured by a single citta (say, cakkhudvāra citta for a seeing event), but that information is processed by a string of cittā with 17 cittā in it; this “string of cittā” is called a citta vithi (pronounced “chiththa veethi”). A citta vithi for ‘seeing” is referred to as a citta vithi at the “eye door” or the eye, one for “hearing” occurs at the “ear door” or the ear, etc.

  • When one cakkhudvāra citta vithi provides sensory input, that information is then processed by three citta vithis that involve only the mind; this citta vithi “at the mind-door” has 12 cittās.
  • Thus, there are two types of citta vithi involved in processing a sensory input: a long one with 17 cittās to CAPTURE an input from one of the five physical senses (pancadvāra)  AND three manōdvāra citta vithi (at the mind-door) with 12 cittās.
  • Both types are thus involved in cognition (awareness) processes; we will discuss other processes by the mind later.
  • Only one citta vithi runs at a given time; they do not overlap.
Example of a “Seeing Event”

11. Thus, it is mind-boggling if we try to imagine the frantic pace at which the mind works. It may be a good idea to look at an analogy to simplify things a bit.

  • A series of static pictures generates a movie. When a movie is projected on a screen, static pictures are projected at a rate of about 30 frames a second, and we see the movie as a continuous progression of events; if the projection rate is low, we can see it frame by frame or as “packets of information” separately. When we watch a movie, we do not perceive those static pictures or “packets of information,” but we perceive a continuous progression without gaps.
  • This was described in #4 of the previous post, “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises“.
  • Processing of a visual input is discussed in detail in “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy.”

12. In the same way, when we perceive that our mind is hearing a word, but in reality, that word is the result  of many citta vithi originating at the ear door, and the scene that appears simultaneous is the composite of many citta vithi coming through the eye door, and none of it happens “at the same time.”

  • Just like the movie projected at 30-50 frames a second, citta vithi are generated at many frames a second. (I had previously mentioned billions of cittās per second, which is incorrect; the flow of citta vithi is subsided by the processing time of about 10 milliseconds needed by the brain to process each sensory input). Thus, we feel that we are watching, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and thinking simultaneously.
  • To repeat for emphasis: Our minds process probably less than 100 citta vithi per second. However, each citta vithi has 17 cittās (for five physical sensory inputs) or 12 cittās (for mind inputs), and each of those citta vithi takes less than a billionth of a second. Even though it takes the brain about ten milliseconds to process a sense input, the mind grasps that information in less than a billionth of a second.
  • While the brain processes sensory input, the mind returns to the bhavaṅga state.

13. Just like a movie reel, there is actually a tape (not a physical one) that is recorded in the “mind plane”; this is the origin of the “nāma gotta” discussed in “Difference Between Dhamma and Saṅkhāra.”  That tape is there forever and allows one with abhiññā powers to look back to any time in the past; see “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”

  • Therefore, to verify rebirth or to look at memories from past lives, all one needs to do is develop abhiññā powers! And some people, including my teacher Thero, can do this today.
A Citta Evolves into Viññāna

14. A citta evolves into viññāna, and that is actually what we experience; see “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)” and “Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations.”

  • There is only one citta at a time. But there is a memory, as we just discussed. And that memory is normally hidden because the defilements cover up the mind; when one develops abhiññā powers, what one is really doing is cleaning up the mind so everything becomes clear.
  • One who develops abhiññā powers through anariya jhānās lets the gunk settle at the bottom and see just the upper layers, but one who has developed abhiññā powers through Ariya jhānās is doing that by “cleaning up” the gunk so a much more penetration to deeper past is possible; see, “Solution to a Wandering Mind – Abandon Everything?“.

15. Thus, sensory experiences are VERY BRIEF (the duration of a citta vithi). The mind puts everything together and presents us with a “movie-like” experience. 

  • The mind (specifically the viññāna kandha or the aggregate of consciousness) puts everything together and presents it as a smooth movie-like experience.
  • Here, diṭṭha, suta muta, and viññāta mean “seeing, hearing, enjoying (with smell, taste, and touch), and consciousness, respectively; “mattan” means “a mātra” in Sinhala or “a trace” in English. Thus “seeing” is just a trace of a visual event lasting only a billionth of a second. Then, it passes away, and a new one comes in. It is like taking a series of pictures with a camera. The mind makes everything appear solid, permanent, and stable. 

16. If all this appears too technical, do not worry about it. It took me a long time to figure this out. I got the final details recently by combining information from scientific studies. The Buddha could not use today’s technical terms, but what he said in summary form is entirely compatible with science. But science is still way behind in terms of the bigger picture.

Next, “What is in a Thought? Why Gati are so Important?“, ………….

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