Citta, Manō, Viññāna – Stages of a Thought

January 24, 2018; revised January 6, 2019

1. Citta, manō, viññāna are common words that have not been clarified in current texts on Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma). They are all related, yet different.

  • This may come as a surprise to many, but a citta is “contaminated” in eight steps to become  viññāna (and in another step to become part of the viññākkhanda. and that is completed in an unbelievably short time.
  • I hope this post will clarify some fundamental concepts and that will be invaluable in understanding other concepts.
  • I cringe when I see some online comments even say viññāna is Nibbāna. It is exactly the opposite: One attains Nibbāna when one gets rid of viññāna, or more precisely when one purifies one’s mind to the extent that a thought does not contaminate to the viññāna stage.
  • Viññāna is discussed at “Viññāna Aggregate“.

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, goes through three stages (uppada, tithi, bhnaga; I am giving this Pāli terms so that those who know them can make the connection), and is terminated.

  • When we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, 17 such citta flow uninterrupted; that is called a pancadvāra citta vithi (“cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“, and similarly for the other four). In fact, many such citta vithi flow even 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 even before we consciously become aware of that “thought”.

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

4. For example, when fill a glass with water from a tap in the kitchen, we call it water. But of course it is not pure water. If that water is analyzed in a laboratory, we will see that it has trace amounts of contaminants. So, that glass water does not have pure water. If we fill the glass from a river, we still call it water, but it will have even more contaminants. If we fill the glass from a stagnant pond, contamination could be visible. But we still call it water.

  • In the same way, even though technically it is the first stage that is really can be called a citta, we call what we consciously feel to be a citta too.

5. The initial stage of a citta is contaminated within an unbelievable short time. It evolves through nine stages in the following sequence: citta, manō, mānasam, hadayam, pandaram, manō manāyatanam, māna indriyam, viññāna, viññākkhandō.

  • By the time it gets to the viññāna stage, it is a totally contaminated citta. How contaminated it gets, depends on the thought object and one’s gati, as we will discuss below.
  • What we experience or what are aware 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”.

  • It should be noted that “ saṅ­khā­ra ­pac­cayā viññāṇaṃ” can be defined in different ways, and this way it clarifies how a citta is contaminated to the viññāṇa stage.

7. By the way, this process can be seen only by a Buddha. It is perceptible and discernible (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 mind phenomena.
  • That is why the Abhdhamma Pitaka was finished only at the third Sangāyanā (Buddhsit Council); see, “Abhidhamma – Introduction“.

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

  • It starts with the citta stage, which is the purest stage (it has only the seven universal cētasika, or mental factors). One is aware that one 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.

10. Let us take a specific event: Suppose it is a seeing one’s mother.

As we said above, at the first citta stage, one is just 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 decides that it is woman.
  • The next “mānasam” stage is to decide specific connection to him/herself, and in this case it is recognized that it is one’s mother.

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, what is emphasized by “mānasambhāva yē aparimānam..”, is to cultivate “mānasam” to the optimum level. That way, one can easily figure out how deal with a given situation.

12. At the next step, a normal human will generate the “saññā of one’s mother” and gets attached, i.e., forms loving feelings; see, “Saññā – What It Really Means“. This is called the “hadayam” stage. Remember that all nine steps happen in a very short time, and do not involve conscious thinking.

  • However, in the case of an Arahant, the process does not come to this stage, and thus not evolve any further. Decisions are made by the mind just based on recognizing a given person, regardless of the connection between oneself and that person. Even if it is someone who is trying to kill oneself, feelings towards that person will be no different from feelings towards one’s own mother. This is why I say that we cannot even imagine the mind of an Arahant.

13. Proceeding to the next stage of “pandaram”, that feeling established at the “hadayam” stage is strengthened in the case of an especially close person like one’s mother. It is like allocating more “energy” for a closer person. If it was a distant relative, for example, it may do little at the “pandaram” stage.

  • It is also important to note that it may go the totally opposite way for an arch enemy; here one will make very 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 hadayam and pandaram stages.

  • That is strengthened (to a level based on the feelings generated in the previous steps) at the “mana indriyam” stage.
  • It is also important to 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 totally 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 actually experience. In fact, we don’t even experience that last stage of a single citta as an entity on its own, or even the cumulative effect of 17 cittā in a citta vithi. Thousands  of citta vithi may flow within a fraction of second before we become aware of it.

16. 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 not aware 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.

17. Once we have those basics, now we can build on that and try to make the picture even more clear.

  • For example, when seeing an attractive object, the mind may become greedy by incorporating lōbha, issa, etc. (asōbhana cētasika) that bends the mind in an immoral way.
  • Upon seeing a helpless person, one may generate compassionate thoughts by incorporating metta, karuna, etc. (some sōbhana cētasika).

18. Therefore, we can now see why two factors are play important roles in which way the thought process would evolve. One is one’s gati, and the other is how strong the thought object is.

  • One with “lōbha gati” can be easily influenced even by a slightly attractive object. One with much less ‘lōbha gati” may not be perturbed by such an object, but could be attracted by a highly attractive object. Possible situations are endless, depending on the sense object and one’s gati. This is a good vipassana subject to contemplate on.

19. Another important thing is that when one repeatedly accesses a given thought object, then one’s viññāna for such objects will be cultivated. That in turn will cultivate one’s gati in that direction, and thus it becomes a self-feeding cyclic process in that direction. A good example is how an innocent teenager gets addicted to alcohol or drugs.

  • If we thought a bit more on the above case, we can 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.
  • One should really think about one’s own bad habits, or “bad viññāṇa” that keep popping up to the mind regularly. By being mindful, we can suppress such thoughts (by thinking about their bad consequences or ādinava), we can reduce such bad gati. Similarly, one can strengthen one’s “good gai” by engaging more in corresponding activities.
  • That is the basis of Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna.
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