Citta, Manō, Viññāna – Nine Stages of a Thought

January 24, 2018; revised January 6, 2019; July 26, 2020; August 23, 2022

Citta, manō, viññāna – All Different

1. Citta, manō, and viññāna are common words used indiscriminately in many texts on Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma). They are all related yet different.

  • A citta becomes “contaminated” in eight steps to viññāna (and in another step to becoming part of the viññākkhanda.) That transformation happens in an unbelievably short time. The level of “contamination” depends on one’s gati (character/habits.)
  • I hope this post will clarify some fundamental concepts, which will be invaluable in understanding other concepts.
  • I cringe when I see some online comments even say viññāna is Nibbāna. It is precisely the opposite. One attains Nibbāna when one gets rid of viññāna or, more accurately, when one purifies one’s mind to the extent that a citta does not contaminate to the viññāna stage.
  • Viññāna discussed at “Viññāna Aggregate.”
Fundamentals of a Citta

2. The generic term in English, “thought,” cannot even begin to explain the complex process that happens within a fraction of a billionth of a second when a citta arises. A citta goes through three stages (uppāda, tithi, bhaṅga) within a billionth of a second.

  • When we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, seventeen cittā flow uninterrupted. Such a series of cittā is called a pancadvāra citta vithi. For example, it happens in “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ.”
  • Many such citta vithis flow before we consciously become aware of that “thought.”
  • If the thought object comes through the māna indriya (“manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ”), that citta vithi is called a manōdvara citta vithi, and it has 10-12 citta. Again, many such citta vithi flow before we consciously become aware of that “thought.”
A “Thought” May Have Billions of Citta

3. Another essential point to remember is that the word “citta” is used loosely, even in Buddha Dhamma. It often gives the same impression as the word “thought.” We just say, “a citta comes to the mind.”

  • The word “citta” has that “conventional” meaning, but it is the initial stage of a “thought” that is a citta. That citta has only the seven UNIVERSAL cetasika. That means those seven cetasika are in ANY citta, including that of a Buddha or an Arahant. That means it is a “pure citta” (pabhassara citta in Pāli.)
  • See “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
A Pure Citta Has Only Seven Universal Cetasika

4. A pure citta is analogous to a glass of purified water without any contaminant. It has only seven cetasika (mental factors): Phassa (contact);   vēdanā (feeling);  saññā (perception);  cētanā (volition); Ekaggata (One-pointedness) can become Sammā Samādhi;  jivitindriya (life faculty);  manasikāra (memory).

  • If we add a bit of sugar to that glass of water, the water becomes sweet. That is like adding “good” (sobhana) cetasika, like compassion, to a citta.
  • But if we add a bit of dirt to that pure water, it becomes dirty. That is like adding “bad” (asobhana) cetasika, like anger, to a citta.
  • Yet, we may still call either glass of water a “glass of water.”
  • In the same way, we commonly refer to any thought as a citta. However, technically, only the first stage can be called a citta, Thus, “any thought” is a viññāṇa (a contaminated citta.)
The Nine Stages of the Evolution of a Citta

5. The initial, pure stage of citta becomes contaminated within an unbelievable short time. It evolves through nine steps in the following sequence: citta, manō, mānasam, hadayaṃ, paṇḍaraṃ, manō manāyatanam, māna indriyam, viññāna, viññākkhandō.

  • By the time it gets to the viññāna stage, it is a contaminated citta. As we will discuss below, how contaminated it gets depends on the thought object and one’s gati.
  • What we experience is that last stage.

6. Before we proceed with the discussion, let me provide a reference to the above verse, which is in the “Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda­ Vibhaṅga,” in Section 2.5.1. Akusalacitta: “Tattha katamaṃ saṅ­khā­ra ­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ? Yaṃ cittaṃ mano mānasaṃ hadayaṃ paṇḍaraṃ mano manāyatanaṃ manindriyaṃ viññāṇaṃ viññā­ṇak­khan­dho tajjā­mano­viñ­ñā­ṇa­dhātu—idaṃ vuccati “saṅ­khā­ra­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ.”

  • Note that “saṅ­khā­ra ­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ” happens in different ways depending on whether it is a “good thought” or “bad thought.”
The “Nine Stages of Evolution” Can Only be Seen by a Buddha

7. That fast process can be seen only by a Buddha. It is perceptible (gōcara) only to the highest purified mind.

  • The Buddha explained that first to Ven. Sāriputta, when he first explained the key ideas of Abhidhamma to Ven. Sāriputta and it took several hundred years of effort by “the bhikkhus of the Sāriputta lineage” to do a systematic compilation of all mental phenomena.
  • That is why the Abhidhamma Piṭaka was finalized only at the third Sangāyanā (Buddhist Council.) See “Abhidhamma – Introduction.”

8. It is best to describe the actual process to understand these steps. Let us go back to the evolution of a single citta in nine steps.

  • It starts with the citta stage, the purest stage (it has only the seven universal cētasika or mental factors). One is aware that one is alive.
  • These deeper aspects are discussed in “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga.”

9. Now that we have stated that technical point (which is not critical for this discussion), we can proceed to the next stages.

  • At the first stage of citta, the mind just knows that the world exists. That there is a sense impression coming through either of the five physical senses (cakkhu,  sōta, jivhā, ghāna, or kāya indriya) or the māna indriya.
The Nine Stages of Evolution

10. Let us take a specific event: Suppose it is seeing a woman.

As we said above, at the first citta stage, one is only aware that a thought object came to the mind via the eyes (cakkhu indirya).

  • Then in the manō stage, the mind “measures” or “compares” (that is why it is called the “manō” stage) with past experiences to decide whether the object is a tree, a car, a man, a woman, etc. In this case, it determines that it is a woman.
  • The next “mānasam” stage is to decide a specific connection to him/herself. In this case, it turns out that it is a woman.

11. Now, those steps occur for any human, including an Arahant or even the Buddha. One cannot live without getting to this stage. The Buddha was able to differentiate between Ven. Ananda, Ven. Sāriputta, Visaka, or King Kosala, and addressed them accordingly.

  • In fact, in the Karaniyamatta Sutta, “mānasambhāva yē aparimānam..” means to cultivate “mānasam” to the optimum level. That way, one can quickly figure out how to deal with a given situation.

12. At the next step, an average human will generate “saññā about the person seen” and may make a definite identification of that woman and generate some affection. See “Saññā – What It Really Means.” That is called the “hadayaṃ” stage. Remember that all nine steps happen in a short time and do not involve conscious thinking.

  • For example, it might reach the “hadayaṃ” stage if it was a distant relative.

13. Proceeding to the next stage of “paṇḍaraṃ,” that feeling established at the “hadayaṃ” stage strengthens in the case of a close person like one’s mother. It is like allocating more “energy” to a closer person.

  • It is also important to note that it may go the opposite way for an arch-enemy. Here, one will have strong bad feelings about such a person.

14. Now comes the next stage of “manō manāyatanam.” Here one’s mind becomes an “āyatana” or “be receptive” (or hateful) to that person depending on the level of attachment (revulsion) formed at the hadayaṃ and paṇḍaraṃ stages.

  • That is strengthened (to a level based on the feelings generated in the previous steps) at the “mana indriyam stage.
  • Note that this “mana indriyam” stage is different from the mana indriya involved in “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ.

15. At the viññāna stage, one’s mind is removed from “ñāna” or wisdom or “the reality of nature.” As long as one has worldly desires (i.e., cravings), one has not stopped the viññāna stage (i.e., until one becomes an Arahant).

  • Then at the last stage of viññānakkhandha, the mind strengthens attachments cultivated in the past, evaluates the current situation, and makes new hopes and plans for the future. That is the last stage.
  • That last stage is what we experience. We do not experience one such “citta” or “viññāna.” Thousands of citta vithi may flow within a fraction of a second before we become aware of it.

16. However, in the case of an Arahant, the process stops at the mānasam stage and thus does not evolve further. The mind makes decisions based on recognizing a person, regardless of the connection between oneself and that person.

  • Even under the threat of being killed, feelings towards that person will be no different from feelings towards one’s mother. That is why I say that we cannot even imagine the mind of an Arahant.
The Initial Citta Stage is a Pabhassara Citta

17. Aṅguttara Nikāya 1; Accha­rā­saṅghā­ta­vagga; Sutta #51 is a very short sutta. Here is the complete sutta: Pabhassa­ra­midaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī”ti.

Translated:Bhikkhus, a (pure) citta has pabhassara nature. That citta is contaminated by defilements (keles or kilesa).  A normal human who has not heard my Dhamma (assutavā puthujjano) is unaware of this true nature. I do not recommend citta bhāvana to them”.

  • This sutta clearly states the importance of knowing that a pure citta becomes contaminated to the level of viññāna.

18. Once we have those basics, we can now build on that and try to make the picture clearer.

  • For example, when seeing an attractive object, the mind may become greedy by incorporating lōbha, issa, etc. (asōbhana cētasika) that bends the mind immorally.
  • Upon seeing a helpless person, one may generate compassionate thoughts by incorporating metta, karuna, etc. (some sōbhana cētasika).
Contamination of a Thought Depends on Gati and Ārammana

19. Therefore, we can now see why two factors play important roles in how the thought process would evolve. One is one’s gati, and the other is how strong the thought object (ārammana) is.

  • Someone with “lōbha gati” can be easily influenced by a slightly attractive object or ārammana. On the other hand, someone with less ‘lōbha gati” may not be perturbed by it. Possible situations are endless, depending on the sense object (ārammana) and one’s gati. That is a good vipassanā subject to contemplate.
Saṅkhāra Paccayā Viññāṇa

20. Another important thing is that when one repeatedly thinks about a given sense object, one’s viññāna (expectations) for that object will be cultivated. That, in turn, will cultivate one’s gati in that direction, thus becoming a self-feeding cyclic process. A good example is an innocent teenager who gets addicted to alcohol or drugs.

  • If we thought a bit more about the above case, we could see the involvement of “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” When one starts thinking consciously (generating vaci saṅkhāra) about drinking and then also do it frequently (kāya saṅkhāra), then one’s “drinking viññāna” will grow in strength.
  • That is why we must be careful about letting our thoughts “go wild” or daydreaming.” See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • One should think about one’s bad habits or “bad viññāṇa” that keep popping up in mind regularly. By being mindful, we can suppress such thoughts (by thinking about their adverse consequences or ādinava) and reduce such bad gati. Similarly, one can strengthen one’s “good gati” by engaging more in similar activities.
  • That is the basis of Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna.
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