Citta – Basis of Our Experience and Actions

What we conventionally call a “thought” is the cumulative effect of billions of citta. A citta is the fundamental unit of cognition in Buddhism.

September 22, 2019; revised November 14, 2019; November 30, 2022


1. We have been discussing the first few verses of the Chachakka Sutta (MN 148) in the series on “Buddhist Worldview – Introduction.” It is a good idea to take a break and look at what we have learned from a different point of view.

  • The Buddha called himself a “vibhajjavādi.” That means he explained things in great detail by diving into and subdividing a given entity or concept to examine it at more fundamental levels.
  • That is very much like what the scientists are doing today. They first explained the matter in terms of molecules and then atoms. Later, they found that an atom has a nucleus and electrons in orbitals around it. Then they probed the nucleus and discovered that more fundamental particles (with names like gluons and quarks) make up the nucleus.
  • By probing deeper, physicists also came up with Quantum Mechanics. Matter and energy are “quantized” on a small scale. That means they come in “packets” or “quantā” (the singular is “quantum.”)
  • More than 2500 years ago, the Buddha taught that matter and energy are quantized. The smallest “quantum” in Buddha Dhamma is a suddhāṭṭhaka. But that is not relevant to the present discussion.
Sensory Experience is Quantized – It comes in “Packets”

2. I am not going to discuss Quantum mechanics here. But I want to look at the “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)” from a different point of view. That will break the tradition of providing boring translations of suttā, and I hope will also provide better insights into the material in the sutta. This discussion would be beneficial before we move to the next section of the sutta.

  • As you will see below, scientists are just beginning to take mental phenomena seriously. They have made a bit of progress. But they are not even close to having a detailed analysis of mental phenomena that the Buddha did over 2500 years ago.
  • Mental energy is also quantized, even though we may feel like thoughts are continuous. The smallest unit in Buddha Dhamma is a “citta“. A citta lasts less than a billionth of a second. We cannot experience a single citta. Even though it is conventionally translated as “a thought,” that is incorrect.
  • What we usually think of as a “thought” consists of billions of cittā (The plural of citta is cittā, but sometimes I tend to write that as cittā just because that is easier for most people.) By the way, citta is pronounced: “chiththa.”
What is a Thought?

3. Let us first see the progress that science has made over the past 50 years. Science is still at a very early stage regarding the mind. But they have made some progress recently, and we will show them to be entirely consistent with Buddha Dhamma. Those findings help explain more profound concepts in Buddha Dhamma.

  • Only fifty years ago, scientists thought computers could “become conscious” by increasing processing speeds. Now some computers are much faster, but they do not have consciousness. We will discuss later why computers will never become conscious.
  • The following is a presentation entitled “What is a Thought?” by Henning Beck, a scientist studying brain phenomena.

A Computer Does Not Have Perception (Saññā)

4. At 4:00 minutes, we see a “face” made up of fruits and vegetables. Even though it is not a natural human face, it takes us just a second to realize that it represents a face.

  • But as Mr. Beck points out, a computer will never be able to recognize the representation of the human face depicted there.
  • At 9:20 minutes, he starts discussing the identification of a chair. Again, a computer has difficulty identifying “less obvious” structures that can serve as chairs.
  • In both these instances, what the computer is missing is saññā (loosely translated to English as “perception”). Even animals can recognize objects relevant to their survival. A dog, for example, can instantly recognize its owners and any other pets living in the house. It can recognize foods that it likes, etc. See “Saññā – What It Really Means.”
Vēdanā, Saññā, Joy, Sadness, etc. Cannot Arise in a Brain

5. Around 6:00 minutes, Mr. Beck starts talking about human thought. All he (and other scientists) know right now is that our thoughts rise very fast. But they do not explain how thoughts with feelings (vedana), perception (saññā), joy, etc., can arise from a brain made of inert atoms and molecules.

  • A brain is not that different from a computer because atoms and molecules are the building blocks of both. Both can process information. But a brain processes information in a very different way compared to a computer. It involves billions of neurons working as a team. Scientists are not even close to figuring out how the brain processes information.
  • In the future, scientists may be able able to figure out how those neurons can process information much faster than a computer with a thousand times higher processing speeds.
  • However, they will still NOT be able to figure out how a human or animal can recognize their surroundings AND generate emotions (happy, sad, etc.)
  • Around 11:00 minutes, he discusses the difference between learning and understanding. That is an excellent point.
Vēdanā, Saññā, Joy, Sadness, etc. Arise in the “Mental Body”

In a previous post, “Contact Between Āyatana Leads to Vipāka Viññāna,” I mentioned that plants and trees have a basic form of vēdanā and saññā (see #3,#4 there.) However, plants and trees CANNOT generate emotions like joy and sadness. A tree does not have a mind or a “mental body” created by kammic energy.

6. Similarly, a brain cannot generate a thought. How can feelings and emotions come from an entity made of inert atoms and molecules? The “mental body” of a living being is created by kammic energy.

  • There has to be a LIVING BEING to generate a citta, the basic unit of consciousness. For a human being, the essence of that LIVING ENTITY is not the physical body but the mental body.
  • That “mental body” is alternatively called a manōmaya kāya or gandhabba. It consists of a hadaya vatthu (seat of mind) and five pasāda rūpa located around it (for seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching.) The mental body is not like the “physical body.” It is more like an “energy body” that gives life to the inert and dense physical body.
  • A manōmaya kāya may be visualized as an “energy field” within the physical body, with the hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rūpa overlapping the region of the physical heart.

7. Our brains cannot identify objects. It cannot generate emotions like joy and sadness. As discussed in #4 above, animals without brains can identify things and generate feelings and emotions.

  • It is the mental body (manōmaya kāya or gandhabba) that generates emotions like joy and sadness as well as vedana, saññā.
  • More precisely, those mental phenomena arise in the hadaya vatthu (seat of mind) of the gandhabba.

8. The details are not critical, but the primary mechanism is essential to understand. A brain does not see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. The seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) experiences all those. A hadaya vatthu can be created ONLY by kammic energy.

  • That is why the human body is just a shell that supports the mental body (manōmaya kāya or the gandhabba). At the death of the physical body, that manōmaya kāya leaves the body instantly. When we touch a dead body, it is evident that there is no “life.”
  • A living body is like a “live wire” with an electric current flowing through. One will get an “electrical shock” by touching it. But if there is no electric current, it is just a metal wire.
  • In the same way, a manōmaya kāya gives “life” to an inert physical body.
The Manōmaya Kāya Changes from Existence to Existence

9. What happens to the manōmaya kāya at the end of existence? To clarify, let us take the case of a Brahma dying and getting a human existence. That transition from a Brahma to a human happens at the moment of death of that Brahma. It is called the cuti-paṭisandhi” moment (“cuti” means dying, and “paṭisandhi” means getting a new existence.)

  • That Brahma had a seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and two pasāda rūpa (for seeing and hearing). On the other hand, in the new existence, humans would have five pasāda rūpa (for seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching). Furthermore, the hadaya vatthu of the human would be different from that of a Brahma.
  • Therefore, the manōmaya kāya of the new human existence differs from that of the Brahma.
  • Suppose that at the end of that human existence, that human gets an animal existence. Then at that “cuti-paṭisandhi” moment, that new animal existence would have its own set of hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rūpa.

10. Those three existences are very different, even though it is the same “lifestream.” So, what can be taken as a “soul” or a “self”?

  • That is why the Buddha said there is no “soul ” or a “self” or a “ātma” going from one birth to another. In the above example, the same “lifestream” that started as a Brahma became a human and then an animal. What is the ESSENCE that defines a “soul” or a “self” or a “ātma“?
  • The details are in the post “Chachakka Sutta – No “Self” in Initial Sensory Experience.” First, let us look into the mechanism of citta generation.
A Citta Has Vēdanā, Saññā, and Many Other “Built-In” Mental Factors

11. A citta is the fundamental unit of cognition, which we do not feel by itself. It comes in bunches of 12 or more cittā. Those “bunches” or series of cittā are citta vithi. What we “feel” or “experience” is the cumulative effect of numerous such citta vithi.

  • Any citta vithi that arises due to sensory input from one of the five physical senses has 17 cittā. It is a pañcadvāra citta vithi.
  • On the other hand, a citta vithi arising directly in mind (due to dhammā) may have varying numbers of cittā, with a minimum of 12 cittā. That is a manōdvāra citta vithi.

12. What we usually call a “thought” is the cumulative effect of billions of such citta vithi that arise PER SECOND.

  • Each of those cittā has at least seven mental factors (cētasikā). Those universal cētasikā include vēdanā and saññā. Vēdanā cētasika makes one FEEL a sensory input. The saññā cētasika is the one that recognizes that sensory input.
  • Only a living being can generate that fundamental unit of cognition (citta) within a billionth of a second, with built-in seven or more cētasikā.
  • That is why a computer or a robot will NEVER become conscious. Only Kammic energy can create a manōmaya kāya with the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu). 
  • That is why there will NEVER be true Artificial Intelligence (AI)! There can only be sophisticated robots capable of, for example, autonomous driving.
Important Role of the Brain

13. Even though the brain cannot generate citta, it plays a critical role in getting the information about the sense object to the hadaya vatthu. More details at “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.” Let us briefly discuss the series of events following the capture of an image by our eyes.

  • The retinas at the back of the eyes send the captured image to the visual cortex in the brain through the optical nerve. That part of the brain then analyzes the signal to a form the mind can understand. That information is sent to the cakkhu pasada rupa in the manōmaya kāya. Then the cakkhu pasāda rūpa makes contact with hadaya vatthu, which vibrates 17 times due to that “impact.”
  • Those 17 vibrations of the hadaya vatthu correspond to the generation of a citta vithi with 17 cittā. That is the origin of a cakkhudvāra citta vithi. It is not necessary to learn those details. But those interested can find details at “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?.”
  • Sensory inputs coming through the other four physical senses (ears, nose, tongue, and the body) work the same way.

14. Remember that the sensory input comes to a pasāda rūpa in the mental body AFTER the brain processes the sensory signal. For example, when we see a tree, the image of the tree received by the eyes is processed by the brain first.

  • Then the brain transmits that processed signal to the cakkhu pasāda rūpa, which, in turn, transfers it to the hadaya vatthu.
  • It is the hadaya vatthu that “feels” or “experiences” that image and “sees” the tree.
  • But even a sensory experience that we “feel” arises from a series of “sensory packets.” For example, when we see a tree, that image does not come in continuously. It comes in “packets” or “snapshots.”
  • That is similar to how a video camera or a movie film works. We will discuss that in the post “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy.”

The complete set of posts at “Origin of Life.”

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