October 21, 2020; revised January 2, 2024
Response to a sensory stimulus is instantaneous, with emotions arising automatically. There is NO time lag. That automatic initial response depends on one’s gati (character/habits.) Gati, in turn, depends on one’s anusaya (hidden cravings/defilements.)
Response to a Sensory Stimulus Comes from the Mind
1. It is not the eyes that see nor the ears that hear. It is the mind that sees, hears, tastes, etc. We discussed that in “Mind and Matter – Buddhist Analysis” and “Gandhabba in a Human Body – an Analogy.” It is important to refresh memory on what we discussed in previous posts since we are getting into deeper aspects.
- Let us review that process with a “seeing event.” When the eyes capture the image of an object, the brain analyzes that signal and passes it over to cakkhu pasāda in the gandhabba. Then the cakkhu pasāda transfers it to the hadaya vatthu (seat of mind), and that is when we experience that particular “seeing event.” That sensory process starts with a rupa coming into contact with the mind. Phassa is the Pali word for that contact.
- Upon receiving that “signal,” a citta (loosely translated as a thought) arises with the “seeing sensation.” That is cakkhu viññāna.
- But cakkhu viññāna is much more than taking a picture with a camera. Simultaneously with seeing that image, a set of mental factors arise in the mind. The mind recognizes (saññā) the object and generates some initial “actions.” That involves recalling past experiences with the “manasikāra” cetasikā and incorporating various other cetasikā like joy (piti) or hate (dosa.)
- In a “hearing event,” one hears a sound when the ears capture a sadda rupa (a sound wave), and that signal makes contact with the mind similarly.
- The other three physical senses work the same way. They involve gandha rupa (fragrant molecules entering the nose), rasa rupa (food particles touching the tongue), and phoṭṭhabba rupa (solid objects touching the skin.)
The Sixth Sensory Stimulus Is Dhammā (Memories/Kamma Vipaka)
2. Besides the five physical sense inputs, there is a sixth sense input DIRECTLY to the mind. Suppose you are in a sound-proof and totally dark isolated room by yourself. Is the only sensation you have the touch of your feet with the floor? No. You can be thinking about anything that you wish. You can recall memories AND THEN think about them. Recalling memories is part of dhammā making contact with the mind (“manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjāti mano viññāṇaṃ.”)
- Dhammā rupa (memories/kamma vipāka) makes contact with the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind) without the help of a pasāda rupa.
- We discussed that process in the last several posts in “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.” In particular, we discussed that memory preservation and recall involve a transmitter and a receiver in the brain. See “Autobiographical Memory – Preserved in Nāma Loka,” and “Rupa and Rupakkhandha, Nāma and Nāmagotta.”
- Let us take an example to understand more details about the response to a sensory stimulus. Let us consider a visual input as an example.
Recognition (Saññā) of an object (Ārammana) happens fast
3. Suppose three people, A, B, and C, sit in a small coffee shop. They are all facing the door, and person X walks in. Suppose that person X is a close friend of A, the worst enemy of B, and that C does not know X at all. We will also assume that all are males.
- So, let us see what happens within a split second. A recognizes X as his friend, and a smile comes to his face. B recognizes X as his enemy, and his face gets darkened.
- On the other hand, C’s mind does not register anything about X, and X is just another person to him. He immediately goes back to whatever he was doing.
4. That is an example of a “cakkhu viññāna,” a “seeing event.” It is over within a split second, just like taking a photo with a camera takes only a split second, where the image is instantaneously captured on the screen.
- However, something very complicated happens in the human mind when a “seeing event” occurs. It is much more complicated than just recording “a picture” in a camera.
- It is critically important to go slow and analyze what happens to see how complicated this process is (for a human mind) to capture that “seeing event.”
Within That Split Second, a Complex Process Takes Place
5. Within that split second, A recognizes X as his good friend, and pleasant emotions arise in his mind, and he becomes happy. B recognizes X as his worst enemy; destructive emotions arise in his mind, and he becomes angry. On the other hand, C identifies X as a man or a woman, and no feelings register in his mind.
- We usually don’t think twice about these observations. But if one carefully analyzes what happens, one can easily see that this is an amazingly complex process.
- How does the SAME “seeing event” (seeing X) lead to all these very different changes in the minds of three different people? (and the emotions even show up on their faces!)
- No one but a Buddha can see this fast time evolution of a citta.
- The Buddha has analyzed the response to a sensory stimulus in minute detail. We will discuss only the critical basic features here.
Four Features of a Seeing Event (Cakkhu Viññāna)
6. The “seeing event” has four essential steps:
- First, the rupa in question (rupa rupa, sadda rupa, gandha rupa, rasa rupa, phoṭṭhabba rupa, or a dhamma rupa) comes into contact with the MIND. The initial contact of the external rupa with the mind involves the phassa cetasikā.
- The “event” registers in the mind, and one gets into an emotional state (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, which is called sukha, dukha, and upekkha in Pāli.) That is vedanā.
- One recognizes the object, and that is called saññā.
- Fourthly, based on vedanā and saññā, one MAY also generate other mental factors (cetasikā), such as anger and joy. It is the cetanā cetasikā that “incorporates” such mental attributes to the citta.
- A few more cetasikā play key roles in the above processes. Let us briefly address those.
Other Essential Cetasikā Contributing to the Above Process
7. First, the jivitindriya cetasika keeps the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) alive. Then there is ekaggatā cetasika that keeps the citta focused on ONE sensory input at a time. They are both essential cetasikā.
- The manasikāra cetasika plays an equally critical role. It can RECALL previous related experiences that “match” or are relevant to the current sensory experience. For example, A in the above example recognizes X as a friend only because A’s mind “scanned through past experiences” and recognized X as a friend. Thus, without the manasikāra cetasikā, the saññā cetasikā could not have identified X.
- Based on that recognition, more cetasikā like joy (piti) can arise, as did in A. On the other hand, paṭigha anusaya in B led to thoughts of anger in B. Of course, C would have different kinds of anusaya, too, but none was TRIGGERED by seeing X since X was a total stranger.
- Note: If A or B was an Arahant, they would also identify X, but no feeling of joy or anger would arise since an Arahant would not have any gati/anusaya left.
Manasikāra and Cetanā – Two Critical Cetasikā That Automatically Trigger Gati/Anusaya
8. The “cetanā” cetasikā carries out the complex process of incorporating other cetasikā and putting together that citta in response to a sensory stimulus.
- The generic name saṅkhāra represents any combination of such “extra cetasikā“.
- The net result of the sensing process is viññāna. In this example, it is a cakkhu viññāna.
- The four steps in #6 happen in that sequence, but no one but a Buddha can “see” such a fast process.
- All this happens within a billionth of a second DURING the arising of that cakkhu viññāna.
Importance of Recalling Past Experiences
9. To recognize X, one must first recall any possible past interactions with X. It turned out that A and B did have past experiences (interactions) with X, but C did not. The mansikara cetasikā does that in a billionth of a second!
- We discussed how certain areas in the brain (the “receiver”) get that information from the nama loka. See “Patient H.M. – Different Roles of Brain in Memory,” “Memory Recall for Gandhabba in a Human Body,” “Autobiographical Memory – Preserved in Nāma Loka,” and “Rupa and Rupakkhandha, Nāma and Nāmagotta.”
- It is necessary to understand the material in those posts to understand the critical points I am trying to make here. One’s gati/anusaya resides with one’s mental body or gandhabba. That gandhabba is trapped inside the physical body. Unless it can recall past events with the help of the brain, the gandhabba cannot recognize people. If one cannot identify someone as a friend or foe, feelings of love or anger cannot arise. That is the simplest way to put it.
- There are two special cases where the above point becomes clear. One is that a newborn baby appears to have no “defilements.” The other is a case where critical parts of the brain are damaged. Let us briefly discuss them.
Does a newborn baby Have no hidden defilements (Anusaya)?
10. It may appear that a newborn (or even a year-old) baby has no defilements. That is only because of the following two facts: (1) the baby’s brain has not developed yet, and (2) the baby has not formed that many relationships yet (other than with the parents.) It has no “sense of self” or “sakkāya.”
- At the beginning of the “Mahāmālukya Sutta (MN 64)“, the Buddha points out the fact that sakkāya diṭṭhi cannot arise in a new-born baby. That is precisely because of what we discussed above. There is no way to trigger the hidden anusaya in that baby.
- To quote the above translation: “For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view (sakkāya diṭṭhi) arise in him? “
Brain-Damaged People Still Have Anusaya/Gati – They Just Cannot be “Triggered”
11. A person with extensive brain damage is like a newborn baby. The brain is unable to recall memories in response to a sensory stimulus.
- The unfortunate saga of Clive Wearing illustrates the importance of the ability to recall memories. If you have forgotten, you may want to watch the video on Clive Wearing, who lost his memories due to brain damage. The video is at # 10 of “Rupa and Rupakkhandha, Nāma and Nāmagotta.”
- As we see there, Clive just “lives in the present moment.” He cannot think about the past or future (thinking about the future REQUIRES past experiences.) Every person is a total stranger to him (except his wife, but even then, he forgets about her too if she is not there with him.)
- Suppose Clive had an arch enemy, Z. Suppose that the enmity was so bad that before the brain damage, Clive would get mad even thinking about Z.
- But Z would be a total stranger to Clive after the brain damage. What happens if Clive goes to a restaurant and Z sits at an adjacent table? Since Clive cannot recognize Z (as his enemy), he will not become angry. Even if Z came to Clive’s table and said something nasty, Clive would not get angry. Instead, Clive will be puzzled about why Z is shouting at him.
- Does that mean Clive’s gati and anusaya have disappeared? Of course not. The gandhabba inside would still have the same gati and anusaya that Clive had before the brain damage. It is just that the gandhabba does not recognize Z as an enemy because it is UNABLE to “match” Z as his arch-enemy.
- Thus, understanding the concept of the gandhabba (and how it interacts with the external with the help of the brain) helps clarify many complex issues that otherwise cannot be explained.
- The following #12 through #14 are technical points.
Seven “Universal” Cetasikā
12. ANY citta will ALWAYS have seven cetasikā. A citta would not arise without them.
- Thus, we see that the seven “universal” cetasikā are phassa, vedanā, saññā, cetanā, manasikāra, jivitindriya, and ekaggatā. Those seven are “universal cetasikās” that arise in ANY citta.
- Other types of cetasikā MAY arise based on one’s gati/anusaya AND the ārammana.
Viññāna Is the Overall Sensory Experience in Response to a Sensory Stimulus
13. Viññāna is the overall sense experience encompassing all those seven cetasikā PLUS all other cetasikā (included in saṅkhāra.)
- But viññāna may also include “future expectations” IF one’s mind attaches to that ārammana. See “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
- We can safely say that viññāna is the overall sensory experience, INCLUDING one’s expectations based on that sensory experience. That is why one’s facial expressions may change too, according to such expectations.
Nothing Faster in the World Than the Arising of a Citta
14. Buddha said it is hard to find any phenomena in this world that change faster than the mind: “Aṅguttara Nikāya (1.48)“.
- The short sutta says: “Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ lahuparivattaṃ yathayidaṃ cittaṃ. Yāvañcidaṃ, bhikkhave, upamāpi na sukarā yāva lahuparivattaṃ cittan”ti.”
- Translated: “I consider, bhikkhus, that there is no phenomenon that comes and goes so quickly as citta. It is not easy to find an analogy (a simile) to show how quickly citta can change.”
15. It is essential to understand the concepts of gati and anusaya. The best way to find relevant information is to use the “Search” box on the top right. I put in “gati anusaya” in the search box, and it came up with the following related posts: “Search Results for gati anusaya.”
- All relevant posts in the current section at “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.”