What is in a Thought? Why Gathi are so Important?

There are many confusing terms in Abhidhamma like citta and mano which have been differently interpreted in different books. In order to clarify these concepts, I am writing a few posts in “Dhamma Concepts” section under “Mind and Consciousness” starting with:  “Thoughts (Citta), Consciousness (Vinnana), and Mind (Hadaya Vatthu) – Introduction“.

1. In the previous post we saw that a thought (citta; pronounced “chittha”) lasts much less than a billionth of a second. The more surprising part is that each citta has structure! Each citta “contains” multiple cetasika (mental factors); actually it is more accurate to say that each citta rises with a number of cetasika and they all perish together within a billionth of a second, only to be followed by another citta.

  • Of course, here we are only talking about a citta in a citta vithi that is involved in “sensing the outside world” via the six senses. Such a citta vithi has either 17 citta (for those sensing events involving the five physical senses) or about 10 citta in citta vithis that involve only the mind. In between those, the mind is at the “bhavanga” state, which is commonly described as “bhavanga citta“.
  • The citta (including those “bhavanga citta“) flow CONTINUOUSLY within a life and then start a new stream at the next life; there is no break in between the two lives.
  • The stream of thoughts we have, has been running non-stop since the beginning-less time; see, “What Reincarnates? – The Concept of a Lifestream”.
  • However, we do not “feel” all the citta. There are “gaps” in between citta vithi mainly with the mind in the Bhavanga state.

2. The cetasika (mental factors) provide different qualities to each citta. A citta is moral (kusala), immoral (akusala), or neutral (kiriya) depending on the what type cetasika rise with it.

A complete description of 52 cetasika are given in, “Cetasika (mental factors)”. A brief summary:

  • There are 7 universal cetasika that rise with ANY citta.
  • Six others CAN appear in any citta, i.e., only some of them may be in a given citta.
  • There are 14 asobhana cetasika (non-beautiful mental factors) that appear only in akusala citta.
  • There are 25 sobhana cetasika (beautiful mental factors), and 19 of them appear in each and every kusala citta, and thus are called beautiful universals.

3. Let us first discuss the 7 universal cetasika. These arise with ANY citta, and in fact a citta with just these is called a “pabhasvara citta”, because it is the “purest form” of a citta. It gets contaminated to become a “vinnana citta” as it develops in time within a billionth of a second! We would not get into those details for a while.

  • What we actually experience are “vinnana citta“, as vinnana khanda (aggregate of vinnana or a “heap of vinnana”).

The 7 universal cetasika that arise with any citta are:

  • Phassa (contact), sanna (perception), vedana (feeling), cetana (intention), ekaggata (one-pointedness), jivitindriya (life faculty), and manasikara (memory).

4. The phassa (contact) cetasika is what makes contact with the “object of the citta” whether it is sense input from one of the five physical senses or a concept that makes contact with the mind.

  • In paticca samuppada, this is the phassa in the step “salayatana paccaya phasso”. Of course salayatana are the six senses. Thus it is phassa that makes possible for the mind to make contacts with the world.
  • Sanna (perception) identifies the object by working with manasikara (memory), and vedana (feeling) arises.
  • Depending on the object, one will generate good, bad, or neutral feeling, and also different types of cetasika (greed, shame, compassion, etc) can arise; cetana (intention) puts it all together and “prepares” the citta. Based on the types of cetasika in the citta, it could be a good or bad thought. This is why cetana can be good or bad, and the Buddha said “cetana is kamma“.
  • Ekaggata is the ability to keep the mind on one object. Jivitindriya maintains life in the current life (keeps the body alive) until death. And manasikara is the all-important memory. Manasikara has ALL memories (or nama gotta) from the beginning-less time; see, “Difference between Dhamma and Sankhara” for a discussion on nama gotta.
  • This is why the present citta is the precursor to the next citta and that next citta is NOT totally different from the previous citta; manasikara, for example, just keeps building up on the past citta. “Cause and effect” is at work from citta to citta, maintaining the “personality” or “gathi” of the given lifestream.  This is why the Buddha rejected the notion of a “no-self”, as well as a “self”.
  • Yet it is important to realize that “gathi” can change even in a citta, for example one attains the Arahanthood with a single citta (of course with billions of citta vithi making gradual progress towards it).

5. So, we can see the basic working of a citta with these 7 universals; they carry out the most fundamental and vital functions of recognizing the object, matching it with old memories and figuring out what it is, and also sukha, dukha, or neutral feeling arise because of that recognition.

  • Yet all that does not happen in a single citta. When an “input” comes through one of the six senses, it is captured by a citta vithi containing 17 citta for a physical sense input and about 10 citta for a mind input as we discussed in the previous post. Then that “captured event” is discerned and analyzed by three follow-up “manodvara citta vithi”, i.e., by the mind.
  • Even then we actually experience only the “net result” of millions of such citta vithi, as we mentioned in the previous post. But due to the extreme rapidity of these processes, we feel like we are using all six in real time. We are not. The mind is always analyzing a set of events that have already gone by, thus “ditte ditta mantan, ………”. What we experience NOW is what has already transpired.

6. But invariably other cetasika (other than the 7 universal) arise as the citta develops in time, and the citta becomes kusala citta, akusala citta or a kiriya (neutral) citta depending on the cetasika that arise with the citta.

  • Sobhana cetasika arise with kusala citta and asobhana cetasika arise with akusala citta.
  • These cetasika types do not mix, i.e., no sobhana cetasika arise with an akusala citta etc.

7. Now the question arises: If citta arise and fall and go by so rapidly, how do we willfully stop akusala citta from arising? Especially when exposed to a tempting external object like a eye-catching figure.

And the answer lies in a very simple concept that I have discussed in many posts:

  • This is where one’s character qualities (gathi) and asava come into play. One automatically responds with the “set of values” one has.
  • By changing one’s habits one can change one’s character (gathi)and eventually change one’s deep-rooted cravings (asavas). Even though the answer is simple, it takes a long time to get rid of bad habits and cultivate good habits, at least initially.
  • The with time, as that gathi loses its power, one will be less and less tempted when subjected to the same sense input, say an attractive figure, or a hateful thought.
  1. The key to reduce such bad gathi is to forcefully suppress that bad thought as soon as you become aware of it. Even though a bad thought arises automatically, one becomes aware of it after a few seconds.
  • As soon as you become aware of a bad thought you should think about the bad consequences and forcefully stop that thought stream. Just start thinking about something good or start doing something that needs your full attention.
  • When you keep doing this for a while, that tendency will slowly reduce, i.e., that bad gathi will lose its power.
  • For example, if one needs to quit smoking, as soon as one starts lighting a cigarette one should think about the bad consequences of smoking and throw it away. Keep some mints handy and pop one in your mouth. Finding a “replacement activity” always helps to break a bad habit.
  • If it is hateful thought, one could stop it and start thinking about something good. A hateful thought may be replaced by recalling a picture of the Buddha, for example. Always have a “replacement” ready.
  • One needs to keep doing this faithfully in order to make the old habit weak.

9. When one gets rid of bad habits and cultivates good habits, the neural connections in one’s brain get rewired. The brain changes gradually and that is how the thoughts change. This is the easy answer using the modern science.

  • But there is a deeper analysis. Not only the physical brain changes, but also our manomaya kaya is transformed. Eventually that is what controls the brain; see, the couple of posts on manomaya kaya and also, “Neuroscience says there is no Free Will? – That is a Misinterpretation!” for details.
  • This idea of gradually changing one’s habits holds the KEY in making progress on the Path or even on achieving mundane goals, as I have discussed in other posts.

10. Therefore, initially one responds with one’s current set of values or gathiBut after a few moments, one CAN think about the consequences and make corrections to the initial automatic reaction.

  • This is further explained in terms of the instant reaction coming from the limbic system in the brain and the “reasoned out” corrective action coming from the neo-cortex  or “the thinking brain”; see, “Truine Brain – How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits“.
  • And that is how we slowly change our gathi, by willfully making corrections to the initial “auto-response”. This is what makes us different from animals. Animals do not have this ability, at least not to our level.
  • The more you “catch” such “inappropriate auto-responses” and stop them, the more effectively we can get rid of bad habits, cultivate good habits and change our gathi (character) in the right direction. This is “anapana sati”, i.e., one keeps good thoughts and gets rid of bad thoughts willfully; see, “What is Anapana?” in the Meditation section.

11. As mentioned above, cetasika present in a given citta determine the quality and/or the function of the citta.

  • An immoral (akusala) citta have one or more immoral roots; avijja (delusion cetasika) is in any immoral citta.
  • A moral (kusala) citta will always have non-greed and non-hate cetasika. Wisdom (panna) cetasika rises only in citta with all three roots (tihetuka citta).
  • We have come across many of the cetasika in the posts on various topics: the five hindrances are of course included in the 14 asobhana cetasika.
  • The four bases of mental power (satara iddhipada) are four of the sobhana cetasika, i.e., chanda, citta, viriya, vimansa. Here citta means “thinking about the goal” and thus is samma sankappa when fully cultivated. Vimansa is another name for panna and becomes samma ditthi when fully cultivated; see, “37 Factors of Enlightenment“.
  • Some of the factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are directly in the set of sobhana cetasika, for example, samma vaca, samma kammanta, and samma ajiva. Other cetasika like sati and panna, when cultivated become samma sati and samma ditthi.
  • Similarly, ekaggata in the universal cetasika set becomes samma samadhi, and viriya and vitakka in the set of particulars become samma vayama and samma sankappa when cultivated.

12.  As we noted, we can control a bad series of thoughts like planning a robbery or even making a quick plan to steal an item from a store. There is enough time to think about the consequences of such a bad action and deliberately stop such thoughts. But one needs to be in a fairly stable “state-of-mind” to be able to do that. When the mind is agitated, the mind cannot see “right from wrong”. The five hindrances are covering the mind.

  • Sometimes people commit horrendous crimes in the spur-of-the-moment. One can get into a rage and shoot someone with a gun that is close by. How do we stop such quick reactions? By being mindful to control that bad gathi, which is the tendency to get mad at the slightest provocation. See #10 above.
  • When one keeps reducing one’s “bad gathi“, those really dangerous gathi — which could lead to rebirth in the apayas — will be permanently eliminated when one becomes a Sotapanna. When that is achieved, that mindset is maintained even in future lives. As we saw, a patisandhi citta in the new life arise based on the cuti citta of the past life, so it has all the “gathi” from the past life. Changing to a “gathi” of a Sotapanna is called a change in lineage (gotrabhu); one becomes an Ariya or a Noble person forever.

Next, “Why Do People Enjoy Immoral Deeds? – Ditthi Is Key“, ……….


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