Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?

Revised October 29, 2015; April 5, 2016; August 18, 2019; February 18, 2020; December 19, 2020; re-written January 10, 2021

Does Any Object Live Only For 17 Thought-Moments?

1. I have seen the following statement by many when discussing Abhidhamma: “Anything in this world lasts only a brief moment. Then it is re-formed, and the process continues ceaselessly.”

  • Here is a direct quote from a couple of sources, one of which is a popular book on Abhidhamma:..a rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone”. Thus it is a widespread misconception.
  • I Googled the following: “Abhidhamma ..a rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments.” Here is the search result: Abhidhamma ..a rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments – Google Search. As you can see, several links make that statement.
The origin of Confusion

2. “Anything in this world” has a common name in Buddha Dhamma: a saṅkhata.

  • A saṅkhata arises due to causes and lasts until those causes are there. Therefore, a saṅkhata has a finite lifetime. That lifetime can range from a split-second (for thought) to billions of years (for a star like our Sun.) Everything in this world is saṅkhata. 
  • The arising of a saṅkhata is due to Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is the “udaya” (or “arise”) part described in udayavaya ñāṇa.
  • A saṅkhata can be STOPPED from arising IF the causes and conditions are removed, i.e., by stopping the Paṭicca Samuppāda process. That is “vaya.” 
Stopping of Paṭicca Samuppāda with Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda

3. Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda is the “reverse” of the standard Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process. Which means it is the way to Nibbāna. See, “Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Nibbāna.”

  • In other words, the standard Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process leads to the continuation of the rebirth process. It is also known as the Anulōma Paṭicca Samuppāda. The opposite (or the stopping of the rebirth process via eliminating avijjā) is Patilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is the “destruction” or “vaya” of the process that leads to the arising of all saṅ­khtha (including our future births.)
  • Therefore, udayavaya ñāṇa is a deeper concept. It describes, in yet another way, how the rebirth process can be stopped. It is a bit more complicated and is discussed in the section “Udayavaya Ñāa.”
  • So, why do some people say that any rupa (saṅkhata) has a lifetime of only 17 thought-moments (lasting only a split-second)?

4. It seems that this misinterpretation comes from taking the life of a “hadaya rupa” and applying that to ANY rupa!

  • As we discussed in “Citta Vithi – Fundamental Sensory Unit,” the lifetime of “vibration” of the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind) is 17 thought moments. In Abhidhamma, that vibration is called a hadaya rupa. 
  • First, let us clarify that a saṅkhata (ANY rupa in the external world) may have a lifetime as long as billions of years!
Some Saṅkhata May Have Lifetimes of Billions of Years!

5. Different saṅkhata have different lifetimes. A fly may live for a few days, a human for about 100 years; a building may last hundreds of years, the Earth will last about 4-5 billion more years, etc. However, a saṅkhata will be decaying gradually over time.

  • An inert object, like a building, will start slowly decaying. If a building lasts 1000 years, then each day, it will “decay” by a little bit, though the decay will accelerate towards the end.
  • From the present time to the final destruction (or until death in the case of a living being), any given saṅkhata will change. If we consider a baby born today, it will first grow to become a young person. Then it will gradually start weakening while becoming an older adult and eventually die one day. Therefore, the critical aspect is not destruction but change. While the baby is growing, the cells in the body will multiply; but more cells will be dying in an older person’s body.
A Saṅkhata Keeps Changing – Not “Appear and Disappear”

6. This constant change is not discernible to us on a real-time basis. A person does not age while we are watching him/her. But we can see the change over several years, especially if they are very young or over the middle age.

  • Mayflies have a lifetime of the order of a day (after the larval stage), and some live only several hours; here is a short video by the National Geographic channel:

  • Thus there is a HUGE difference in saying that a given material object CHANGES moment-to-moment versus saying that the object is “RECREATED” every 17 thought moments.
  • During an Abhidhamma discourse that I listened to, the presenter showed a pen and said that the pen is “destroyed and recreated” EVERY 17 thought moments! By extending that logic, one could say that any entity (say, the Earth) is vanished and “recreated” within 17 thought moments! A complete misunderstanding of the Udayavaya process of a saṅkhata.
  • The 17 thought moments’ origin is explained in the post “Citta Vithi – Fundamental Sensory Unit.”
  • As explained there, those 17 thought moments (or 17 cittā) arise when the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) vibrates 17 times when one of the 5 pasāda rupa transfers a sensory input. Those 17 vibrations make up a “hadaya rupa” in the Abhidhamma language. Note that a “hadaya rupa” is different from “hadaya vatthu.” A hadaya rupa arises every time the hadaya vatthu gets hit by a pasāda rupa in the process of transferring a sensory signal. See “Citta Vithi – Fundamental Sensory Unit.”
A Hadaya Rupa Has a Life of 17 Thought-Moments

7. So, where does this incorrect statement come from? “.. rupa is very short-lived – it endures only for 17 conscious moments. Whatever object formed is almost instantly gone.”

  • The confusion arises when one does not understand the concept of a hadaya rupa. A hadaya rupa is generated in the hadaya vatthu by a sensory event through one of the five physical senses. The lifetime of a hadaya rupa is the time taken to experience that external sense event. That takes 17 thought moments (during which an impression of the external rupa is made in mind by a citta vithi).
  • It is WRONG to take this time to be the lifetime of an external object (a saṅkhata). 
Huge Difference Between a Rupa (a Saṅkhata) and a Hadaya Rupa

8. Therefore, It is critical to understand the difference between ANY rupa (saṅkhata) and a hadaya rupa that lasts only for a blink of an eye.

  • The lifetime of a hadaya rupa is just the time it takes for the mind to be AWARE of any saṅkhata. We experience outside material things (saṅkhata) in our world through our five physical senses. We see with eyes, hear with ears, smell with the nose, taste with the tongue, and touch with our body.
  • During the lifetime of a hadaya rupa, our minds only catch a very brief (a thought moments worth) of the seeing, hearing, etc., experience at a time. It is not that the object lives a short time; it is just that we sense it only for a brief moment at a time!
  • It is unnecessary to spend time on the concept of a hadaya rupa unless one is deep into Abhidhamma. However, it is good to know about it because one may come across it and may confuse it with a hadaya vatthu.
  • The main point is that any object in the world (conventionally called a rupa) is a saṅkhata. Some saṅkhata (like the Earth or a star) have lifetimes of billions of years. That is not to be confused with the hadaya rupa (or a citta vithi) that lasts only 17 thought-moments!
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