Seeing Is a Series of “Snapshots”

Even though we perceive seeing as continuous, it results from a rapid series of discrete sensory events or “snapshots.” That is the real meaning of the verse, “diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṁ bhavissati.” The other sensory experiences work the same way.

April 4, 2022; revised April 6, 2022; January 13, 2023; August 4, 2023 (#11, #12)

Mind and Cittā

1. A mind is not active all the time. For example, in a deep sleep, we are unaware that we are alive. The mind becomes active when an ārammaṇa comes in via one of the six sense faculties. An ārammaṇa triggers cittā (plural of citta) to arise — and the mind to become active. That is why some consider the mind synonymous with cittā, but that is incorrect.

  • It takes numerous citta vithi for us to be aware of that ārammaṇa AND identify what that ārammaṇa is. For example, when we hear a glass falling and breaking, it only takes a split second for the mind to register that sound and for us to become aware of it. But numerous citta vithi run during that split second.
  • A citta can take only one ārammaṇa at a time. All cittā in a citta vithi take the same ārammaṇa. We CANNOT see and hear at the same time. When a new ārammaṇa comes in, a new citta vithi focused on that starts. But since the mind is so fast, it appears to us that we are seeing and hearing simultaneously.
  • Thus the mind can take in many ārammaṇa within a second BECAUSE it is so fast! That means the mind can jump from one ārammaṇa to another and back in a split second.

2. 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 no phenomenon comes and goes so quickly as citta. It is impossible to find an analogy (a simile) to show how quickly citta changes.”
  • Also, see the previous post, “Khandhā in Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Arammanā Come in via the Six Sense Faculties

3. To “experience an ārammaṇa,” the mind (more precisely, the seat of the mind or hadaya vatthu) must contact an external rupa. The phassa cetasika in a citta makes that “contact.”

  • There are five types of external rupa above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage (vaṇṇa, sadda, gandha, rasa, and phoṭṭhabba rupa.) When one such rupa contacts the corresponding pasāda rupa (cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, or kāya pasāda), that leads to contact (phassa) with the hadaya vatthu simultaneously.
  • Then there are rupā below the suddhāṭṭhaka level (i.e., dhammā), which directly make contact (phassa) with hadaya vatthu.
  • Those six types of ārammaṇa lead to cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, and mano viññāṇaThey are all vipāka viññāṇa.
We Can Experience Many Ārammaṇa in a Short Time

4. Our experiences are the cumulative effect of billions of “momentary experiences” coming to the mind via cittā (more precisely citta vithi) arising each second. It will be much easier to proceed once one understands that.

  • The mind is “at rest” in a bhavaṅga state when not focused on an ārammaṇa, i.e., when not exposed to sensory input. That is the case when we are sleeping. Even while awake, the mind could be in a bhavaṅga state if there is no active ārammaṇa. That happens, for example, when we feel drowsy. See “Bhava and Bhavaṅga – Simply Explained!” for details.
  • Furthermore, since the flow of citta vithi is so fast, the mind could be in a bhavaṅga state between citta vithi for a short time.
  • When a robust sensory input comes in, the mind comes off that bhavaṅga state and starts focusing on that ārammaṇa with citta vithi. However, the mind can switch back and forth among several ārammaṇa quickly. Let us take an example to illustrate that.

5. Suppose you are having a meal with a friend. Let us see how many ārammaṇa run through your mind within a few minutes.

  • Your friend is talking, and you are listening. That is an ārammaṇa coming through sotadvāra or the ears. You see the meal in front of you, and that ārammaṇa comes through cakkhudvāra (eyes). You take a bite and taste the food (jivhādvāra or tongue). You also see your friend (another cakkhudvāra ārammaṇa). If someone drops a glass at a nearby table, you will hear it breaking (sotadvāra.) Details at “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
  • As you can see, the mind can switch very fast among all such ārammaṇa coming in rapidly!
The Amazing Mind

6. It is even more impressive that the mind can recognize ALL those ārammaṇa without the slightest pause. That may sound trivial at first but think about it carefully.

  • Suppose your friend (X) is talking about a mutual friend, Y. As X talks, you can relate to everything about Y. The mind can recall your past experiences with Y and relate to your friend’s account.
  • While that is happening, you can see and identify all types of foods on your plate. You are chewing food and experiencing its taste.
  • You are looking at the friend, too, and can relate to his words and hand motions.
  • When you hear the glass breaking at a nearby table, you know what happened without even seeing someone dropping the glass.
  • How does the mind do ALL THAT in a split second? It is a real problem for scientists who believe that the mind IS the brain, as we discuss below.
Even Processing a Single Ārammaṇa Is a Complex Process

7. It gets even more complex. Even recognizing a single ārammaṇa involves many things taking place rapidly.

  • Let us think about recognizing the food on the plate. When the waiter brought in the food, you looked at the plate and immediately identified it; let’s say it is a pizza.
  • You may say that is trivial. But suppose your friend came from a remote village in a distant country and had never seen or tasted a pizza. He would not know what it was.
  • You knew it was a pizza because you had seen and tasted it many times. But how did the mind recall such past experiences and recognize the pizza in such a short time? Not only that, but you know how it will taste before you take a bite.
The “Binding Problem” in Neuroscience

8. Think about all the sensory experiences the mind could process within a few minutes in #5 and #6.

  • Modern science is grappling with the issue of just one sensory experience. Neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain identifies a given object, say, a car coming towards you on the road. When you see a vehicle, you recognize its color, shape, and rough distance from you to the vehicle. If you are crossing the road, you may run to avoid the car hitting you if you think it is coming too fast.
  • Neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain gets all that done in a split second. That is the “binding problem” in neuroscience. It is a sub-category in the general problem of the mind tackling several sensory inputs (like in #5 and #6 above), blending all that into a smooth sensory experience. See the Wikipedia article “Multisensory integration.”
  • They will never figure that out. It is not the brain but the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind in Buddha Dhamma) that recalls past events VERY FAST. However, the brain DOES play a crucial role in processing incoming sensory data. Then it passes that information to hadaya vatthu. I have discussed that in “Vision (Cakkhu Viññāṇa) is Not Just Seeing” and “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
Relation to  Perception of “I” or ‘Me”

9. This fantastic ability of the mind (more correctly hadaya vatthu) to process and identify multiple sensory inputs in a split second leads to the perception of a “person” experiencing all those sensory inputs.

  • But the Buddha explained that all sensory experiences result from an EXTREMELY FAST automatic progression of discrete events that runs through a mind ONE AT A TIME; see below.
  • Thus, there is no “person” experiencing ALL SIX sensory inputs at the same time. It is just a process taking place ONE sensory input at a time!
Seeing Is a Series of “Snapshots”

10. To get the basic idea, let us focus on a series of events involving just vision.

  • When making a movie, a video camera captures many static pictures (snapshots) of a scene. Then those snapshots are projected onto a screen at a specific rate. If the playback speed is too slow, we can see individual pictures, but above a particular “projection rate,” it looks like actual motion. Here is a video that illustrates this well:

Saccadic Eye Movements

11. A single “snapshot” taken by an eye does not give a complete picture of an object. Humans and many animals do not look at a scene in fixed steadiness. Instead, the eyes make random “saccadic movements,” taking “snapshots” of the object from different angles, each snapshot taking only about 20–30 ms. See the Wikipedia article “Saccade.” The mind receives only discrete snapshots of the object (at specific time intervals) from the brain. Therefore, we see only a “movie” put together by the mind based on a series of “snapshots.” 

  • What we call a “rupa” (in the case of a visual object) is a “composite impression of that external rupa made by the mind” using a series of “snapshots” sent to the mind. In addition, the mind incorporates its own views/perceptions about that object; if it is a mind-pleasing object, the mind will generate kāmaguṇa and attribute them to that “rupa” as well.
  • Thus, the mind-generated “rupa” is NOT the fundamental nature of that object! The mind (viññāṇa) presents its own version of the sight, sound, etc., based on the defilements (kāmaguṇa) that arise at that time. See “Kāma Guṇa – Origin of Attachment (Tanhā).”
  • The same holds for other sensory inputs: sadda (sounds), gandha (odors), rasa (tastes), and phottabba (touches.) That is why we like music, for example, even though there is nothing in music that can bring us “happiness.”  

12. That is what the Buddha explained to Bāhiya in the “Bāhiya Sutta (Ud 1.10)” with the verse, “diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṁ bhavissati, sute sutamattaṁ bhavissati,..” 

  • That verse is translated as “In the seen will be merely seen; in the heard will be merely heard..” What needs to be added is that our experience of “what is seen” is defiled with raga/dosa and moha that arise in the mind. The same holds for hearing, tasting, etc.
  • Seeing, hearing, etc., are mechanical processes, and our tendency to “attribute value to them” are mind-made; that is why the Buddha called viññāṇa a magician. See “Viññāṇa – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations.”
  • The Buddha explained that 2500 years ago! 
  • Understanding that will help get rid of sakkāya diṭṭhiSee “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi in Terms of Attā or ‘Self’ or ‘Ātma.’”

13. First thing is to understand that it is WRONG to translate citta as either a “thought” or “mind.” A “thought moment” may be better. A mind appears fast because numerous cittā run through the mind very fast.

  • A citta is the smallest unit of cognition. There could be billions of cittā arising in mind in a second. Only a Buddha can “see” or “experience” a citta! We only experience the cumulative effect of millions of cittā that run through the mind in a split second.
  • As we have discussed, a citta evolves to the viññāṇa stage. We experience the effect of “bundles” or “aggregates” of such viññāṇa. That is the reason for using “viññānakkhandha” instead of viññāṇa in many instances in Buddha Dhamma.

14. The “movie analogy” in #10-#12 above explains the basic idea of how the mind sees the external world “seemingly without any gaps” even though only a series of ‘snapshots” come into the mind.

  • The following post will discuss how the mind tackles several DIFFERENT sensory inputs (sights, sound, taste, etc.) that we discussed in #5 and #6 above.
  • All posts in this subsection at “Paṭicca Samuppāda During a Lifetime.”
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