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THE MIND IN EARLY BUDDHISM:Citta Conceived Through Its Ordinary States

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

By Thich Minh Thanh, Ph.D.

This chapter and the next one will explore for their data into the Sutta Piṭaka as surveyed in the previous chapter. They are an attempt at depicting the concept of citta through the systematic presentation of the variant cittas that are used in combination with the respective distinct groups of modifying elements. The presentation would make it apparent that the core of the concept of citta as depicted in the Sutta Piṭaka however does not differ basically. When put into the textual circumstances it is subject to variation and suggestive of new shades of meaning. Therefore, examination of the concept of citta in isolation anyhow is impracticable.

The four subheadings in this chapter and five subheadings in the next one include in their contents the passages selected according to the subjects that the subheadings state. With the view to make a vivid presentation the descriptions of situational contexts are added which usually introduce the succinct story, letting it be known where, when and how the excerpted words occurred. Sometimes the doctrinal segments, closely related to the word under question, are given to make it clearer and more comprehensive. For facilitating any quick consultative inquiry into the very original source, the Pāli passages are usually recited in the footnote areas.

There are also added to the main text the careful elaboration on the meanings of the Pāli words which are used in combination with the term citta as its modifiers. This, of course, would help in grasping the connotations the original words may have but the renderings somehow may fail to suggest.

1. Citta as General State of Sentient Being.

(a) Sensational and Emotional Citta: The 'general state of sentient being' is usually suggestive of something substantial and static that has much to do with the basic or original personality free from any disturbance or stimuli, but that suggestion is not meant here because it tends to presuppose some kind of entity or substance which is considered as well nigh insignificant in the Early Buddhist system. Being freed from such a suggestion the main concern in this segment is the citta as general state of sentient being in terms of sensation and emotion. In this meaning citta is usually rendered as 'heart', and sometimes as 'thought'. The sense of citta in terms of sensation and emotion would have much to do with the six basic senses (indriyāni, or āyatana) in Buddhist system. They are: (1) Eye (cakkhāyatana), or visual organ for visible object; (2) Ear (sotāyatana), or auditory organ for sound, or audible object; (3) Nose (ghānāyatana), or olfactory organ for odour, or olfactory object; (4) Tongue (jivhāyatana), or gustatory organ for taste, or gustatory object; (5) Body (kāyāyatana), or tactile organ for body-impression, or tactile object; and (6) Mind-base (manāyatana) or consciousness for mind-object. The visual organ (cakkhāyatana) can be explained as the sensitive part of the eye (cakkhu-pasāda) built up of the four elements, responding to the visible stimuli. The remaining four physical sense organs should be explained in the same pattern. Mind-base (manāyatana) is the collective term for all consciousness whatever, and therefore should not be confounded with the mind-element (mano-dhātu) which performs only the functions of adverting to, and receiving, the sense object [1].

It is noticeable that in Buddhist system mano (usually rendered as mind) is ranged among the five psychophysical senses. This implicitly shows that mano almost shares the same footing with the remaining senses, and suggests the non-metaphysical position of Buddhist psychology. In which the concept of a healthy emotional heart does not come from any divine blessing but would be resulted from the control over the senses, and signaled by a steadfast and constrained citta which has undergone proper tameness.

(b) Citta as state of mind to be safeguarded: The idea of surveillance over the citta is vividly uttered in verse by the devas of the Pure Abodes, i.e. the supreme heaven of the Rūpa-loka, the Brahmā world being its lowest. The deva's verse runs[2]: The brethren have made straight their hearts (cittaṃ attano ujukaṃ akaṃsu), wrought up to concentration rapt. Wisely their faculties they guard (indriyāni rakkhanti paṇḍitā), as driver keeping grip on rein[3].

Here the citta as his general character is subject to the act of straightening which is the measure employed to keep at bay the surreptitious crookedness of citta. In another case the Buddha declares that he himself does not see any other dhamma that produces more benefit than the citta being tamed does. In the same pattern the Buddha replaces 'tamed' by the following words: controlled, guarded and restrained. The text can be abridged and presented as follows[4]: "Monks, I know not of any other single thing that brings such bliss as the mind that is cultivated, made much of (yaṃ evaṃ dantaṃ mahato anatthāya saṃvattati yathayidaṃ cittaṃ). Such a mind indeed brings great bliss. Monks, the mind that is tamed (dantaṃ), controlled (guttaṃ), guarded (rakkhitaṃ) and restrained (saṃvutaṃ) conduces to great profit[5].

Danta (p.p. of dāmyati) means tamed, controlled, restrained. Gutta (p.p. of gopeti): guarded, protected, watchful, and constrained. Rakkhita (p.p. of rakkhati): to protect, to shelter, to save, to preserve; to observe, to guard, to take care of, to control. Saṃvuta (p.p. of saṃvarati): closed, tied up, restrained, governed, self-control, guarded. All the four words share the same meaning of putting something including itself into some boundary. Their range of meaning may extent from one extreme of affectionateness with 'to protect' to the other extreme characterized by governance with 'to govern'.

That the citta, which can be roughly considered as one's character, is acted upon by these verbs would produce great gains is assured by the Buddha and is the main concern of the early Buddhist doctrine as reflected in the Pāli canon. In consideration of the chronology of the canonical texts we can make the remark: though the following passage in the Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta is among many other contexts to record the Buddha's words about the above idea, but the noteworthy difference in terms of textual authoritativeness is that this passage possibly belongs to the early stage, it is observed by G. C. Pande, in the process of composition and edition which the Pāli canon underwent[6]. It reads[7]: "In him, brethren, who dwells with the faculty of sight controlled, the heart is not corrupted by objects cognizable by the eye (cittaṃ na vyāsiñcati cakkhuviññeyyesu rūpesu). In him whose heart is not corrupted delight is born (tassa avyāsitta-cittassa pāmujjaṃ jāyati). In one delighted joy is born. When one is joyful the body is calmed. He whose body is calmed feels at ease. Composed is he heart of him who is at ease (sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati). When the heart is composed one's ideas are clear (samāhite citte dhammā pātubhavanti). Through having clear ideas one is reckoned as one who dwells earnest. And it is the same in regard to the faculty of taste and touch | Thus, brethren, is one a dweller in earnestness"[8].

Through the above passage it is apparent that the state of one's citta which can be regarded as one's general mood or feelings has close relation with the control over his sense-organs and sense-faculties (including mano in the forms of manindriya and manoviññāna, the sixth ones of the two geneva). The better the control is done, the more positive the general state is. This control at its accomplishment is resulted in the citta characterized by peace and tranquility.

(c) Citta as Mental State Subject to Downfall and Seizure: In Kassapa-Saṃyutta the Buddha reveals his idea about the social relation of his Saṁgha, admonishing the Bhikkhus to get to and fro among the families with cautious mind. In an artistic manner the Buddha employs the poetic figure of the moon which figuratively goes among the families with smooth and full dignity; its coming and going are free from mundane affection. The Saṃyutta Nikāya records: "Be ye comparable to the moon, brethren, when ye go among the families, drawing back in both heart and demeanour (apakasseva kāyam apakassa cittaṃ), ever as new-comers unobtrusive among the families, drawing back in both heart and demeanour, even so be ye among the families[9]"

The admonishment continues with thrilling scenes which give the impressive warning against the downfall, the seizure, or the manacle that the citta might undergo: With the circumspection as if they were at the cliff-hanging brim of a decayed well or a precipice or a river-swamp, the bhikkhus should accouter themselves with proper prudence when getting into among the families. Waving his hand in the air the Buddha vividly prescribed that the heart of a monk should be freed from any attachment to the families, saying[10]:"Just as this hand, brethren, does not sink down in space, nor is seized, nor bound (pāṇi na sajjati na gayhati na bajjhati), even so that brother, whose heart when he goes among the families does not sink down, or get seized or bound (cittaṃ na sajjati na gayhati na bajjhati)"[11].

Sajjati, gayhati, and bajjhati mean to cling to, to be seized, and to be bound, respectively. So citta can be committed by such the actions which the verbs express.

(d) Ethically Conducted Citta: The citta in general should be kept away from all kinds of evil actions and channeled in earnest into good direction. The first verse of the Pāpa Vagga in the Dhammapada says: Make ye good haste in lovely (deed); from evil (deed) repel the mind (pāpā cittaṃ nivāraye); for when a man slow does what's good, dallies his thought with what is bad (pāpasmiṁ ramati mano)[12].

Pāpa, evil, is that which defiles one's mind; puñña, merit is that which cleanses the mind, kusala is another term for puñña; abhittharetha: to hasten. Another passage from the Dhammapada explains the pleasant freedom from Māra of the man who checks his citta from evil: The mind far-going, lone faring, not of the body, of hidden lair whoso will keep under control from Māra's jail they'll be set free[13].

In some cases citta should be rendered as thought because it suggests the idea of thinking or the objects of thinking rather than feeling or liking. For example, in the imperative sentence: 'Māpāpakaṃ akusalaṃ cittaṃ cinteyyātha'[14], 'cittaṃ' as the direct object of the verb cinteti (to think), and cinteti is but a member of the family of derivatives from cit. Both 'cittaṃ' as the object of the verb and 'cinteti' as the very verb are cognate with each other because they are from the same root cit. Citta hereby means a thought in general which may be kusala or akusala, whatever accordingly.

(e) Citta as Normal/Abnormal State of mind: We go a little further to note the unhinged state of citta as mentioned in the Dhammapada[15]: He may have cruel suffering, loss (of wealth), injury of the body, heavy afflictions (gurukaṁ vāpi ābādhaṁ) or loss of mind (cittakkhepaṁ). Cittakkhepaṁ means loss of mind or perplexity. Citta free from khepa, on the other hand, connotes the normal distinctness in one's thought. Another case of unhinged state of citta is found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya whose Tatiyo Vaggo relates the story about the attack the three daughters of Māra imposed onto the Buddha with a view that the Exalted One would be badly affected in both the aspects: mental derangement and its disastrous aftermath on body. The text runs[16]: "For if we had approached after this fashion any recluse or brahmin who had not extirpated lust, either his heart would have cleft asunder, or hot blood had flowed from this mouth, or he had become crazy, or have lost his mental balance (cittavikkhepaṃ), as a green reed that has been reaped dries up and wilts away and wither"[17]. Vikkhepa [vi+khepa], when alone, means disturbance or derangement, perplexity or confusion. When used in combination with citta or cetaso, vikkhepa will denote 'upset of mind' or 'unbalanced mind' or 'mental derangement'. In all the above cases citta on its own is denoting the general state of the thought rather than that of the heart.

2. Citta as a Lustful Heart (a) Citta Subject to Kāma: The citta especially that of human beings and the devas in the kāma-loka is frequently prone to be colored by 'kāma' which is the most prominent of the genus on account of the frequency of its literary appearance throughout the canonical texts, and of being the basis, ethically speaking, of negative forces which may hinder one from the attainment of Nibbāna. The term kāma may denote subjective sensuality or objective sensuality. As subjective sensuality, it indicates (a) the enjoyment and pleasure on occasion of sense, and (b) sense-desire; as objective sensuality, the term indicates pleasantness, pleasure giving, and an object of sensual enjoyment. In cosmological parlance, Kāma - as sense-desire and enjoyment plus objects of enjoyment - is a collective name for all the very higher or refined conditions of sensual life: kāma-loka. The kāma-loka includes four or five modes of existence and part of the fifth or deva-loka. Kāma as sense desire is the adverting toward all five sense-objects, and is frequently in the following combinations and expressions: (1) Kāma-rāga (sensuous lust), one of the ten fetters (saṁyojana). (2) Kāma-vitakka (sensuous thought), one of the three wrong thoughts (micchā-sankappa). (3) Kāma-taṇhā (sensuous craving) is the first of the three cravings (taṇhā) which is said to be the chief root of sufferings and of the ever-continuing cycle of rebirths. (4) Kāma-cchanda (sensuous desire) is the first of the five hindrances or obstacles (nīvaraṇāni). (5) Kāma is on the top of many genera: it is the first of the four āsava or yogas (cankers or intoxicants of mind), of the four upādāna (clingings or attachments), of the three esanā (longings or seekings), and of the four oghas (floods of worldly turbulence). In the line, kāma stands first on the list of the six factors of existence: kāma, vedanā, saññā, āsavā, kamma and dukkha, whose origin, difference, consequences, destruction and remedy are discussed in the Mahā-Vagga of the Aṅguttara Nikāya[18].

In fine, in almost all the enumerations of obstacles that prevent perfection, or of general divisions and definitions of mental conditions, kāma occupies the leading position. The list of its synonyms can be given as this: (1) Chanda: impulse; (2) Rāga: excitement; (3) Nandī: enjoyment; (4) Taṇhā: thirst; (5) Sineha: love; (6) Pipāsā: thirst; (7) Parilāha: consuming passion; (8) Gedha: greed; (9) Mucchā: swoon; and, (10) Ajjhosāna: hanging on, or attachment.

In a sermon given to the new-ordained Bhikkhus, the Exalted One was warning them with the story about an aspirant of Bhikkhuhood whose goal was to get rid of all the sufferings caused by the five attached khandhas. He left his home and his wealth, going on searching the truth. But because his citta was stained by the kāma and other unwholesome states, he could neither achieve the holy goal perfectly, nor maintain the already possessed home and wealth. He is prone to lose both the worldly and supra-mundane desirables. The Bhikkhu should be always aware of such kind of the citta and its imminent sway. The text runs[19]: "Thus, brethren, a clansman leaves the world, and covetous is he in his desires, fierce in his longing, malevolent of heart, of mind corrupt, careless and unrestrained, not quieted, but scatter-brained, and thoughtless (abhijjālu kāmesu tibbasārāgo vyāpannacitto paduṭṭhamanasaṅkappo muṭṭhassati asampajāno asamāhito vibbhantacitto pākatindriyo). Just as, brethren, a torch from a funeral pyre, lit at both ends, and in the middle smeared with dung, kindled no fuel either in village or in forest, using such a figure do I describe unto you this man, for he has lost his home and wealth, nor yet does he fulfil the duties of a recluse"[20].

The citta featured by kāma should not be seen without shrewd sagaciousness. They could be arranged into the ascending order in terms of the objects of desire (kāma) that are longed for. The Sotāpatti-Saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya tells us a story about the Sakya Mahānāma who was requesting the Buddha how to advise a person in his deathbed. The Enlightened One presented a successive series of cases in the order from the lowest to the highest states of mental elevations which corresponding to the kinds of kāma which his citta had just been free from, and prescribed one each the proper admonition. Here only one of such the admonitions is singled out for illustration, that is[21]: 'Suppose the sick man say, "My thoughts are removed from human pleasures of sense (mānussakehi kāmehi cittaṃ vuṭṭhitaṃ) and fixed upon the Four Deva Kings," then let the other say: "More excellent than the Four Deva Kings and more choice are the Suite of the Thirty-three... so 'twere better for you to fix your thoughts on the Thirty-three devas (tāvatiṃsesu devesu cittamadhimocehī)"'[22]. There are other canonical passages in accordance with the citta under question: 'kāmā mathenti cittaṃ'[23] (citta disturbed by the cravings); 'nass uḷārānaṃ pañcannaṃ kāmaguṇānaṃ bhogāya cittaṃ namati'[24] (he inclines his heart to denying himself the excellent pleasures of his five-sense desires). 'Jhāya, bhikkhu, mā ca pamādo | mā te kāmaguṇe bhamassu cittaṃ'[25] (Meditate, O bhikkhu! Be not heedless. Do not let your mind whirl on sensual pleasures); 'kāmesu citta na pakkhandati na pasīdati na sanṭhati'[26] (my heart does not leap, sit or stand in cravings). (b) Citta Subject to Rāga: As we have already mentioned the family of terms in which kāma keeps the leading position on account of its frequency in combination with citta, colourizing the citta in bad direction. The second word just after kāma is rāga that is usually rendered as defilement. Rāga's aptness to harass the citta could be exemplified by the following incident which ever occurred to Thera Vaṅgīsa recorded in the Saṃyutta Nikāya: On having seen a big number of 'gaily adorned' women coming to temple Aggāḷava at Ālavi, Vaṅgīsa, the young Thera who stayed thereat felt a lack of self-composedness, his citta was harried (anuddhaṃseti). The text says, "Then a number of women, gaily adorned, came into the pleasance to see the Vihāra. And seeing those women, disaffection in consequence arose in the venerable Vaṅgīsa, and lust harassed his heart"[27]. Citta here is the object being harassed by rāga which is meant by lust. Citta can combine with sāratta and viratta to express the opposite states of heart (Sāratta means impassioned, enamoured; viratta: dispassionate, unattached to). The compounds would be sārattacitto[28] and virattacitta[29]. The first compound means the citta falling into love with someone or something; the second one means the citta being freed from passion or being displeased with, e.g. the phrases: 'rūpadhātuyā cittaṃ virattaṃ vimuttaṃ'[30]; 'chandarāga viratta'[31]. Chandarāga denotes exciting desire.

In the Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta, the Buddha admonishes his Bhikkhus in the relative manner, saying neither all the monks have to strive for the restraint in regard to six āyatanas, nor all the monks have not to. The exception implied in the first proposition is the Arahants, and that implied in the latter is strongly possible to be the lower ariyas or Noble Individuals. Both of the categories of ariyas can be classified differently, the most popular classification, however, is in the descending order of four levels[32]:

(1) Arahant or the Holy One; (2) Anāgāmī or the Non-Returner; (3) Sakakāgāmī or the Once-Returner; and (4) Sotāpanna or the Stream-Winner. The Buddha, in order to describe the serene mental state that is just the opposite of the citta characterized by the freedom from pariyādāya. The respective passage says[33], "Brethren, there are objects cognizable by the eye, objects delightful or repulsive. Though they touch the heart again and again, yet they cannot altogether lay hold of it and so persist (tyāssa phussaphussa cittaṃ na pariyādāya tiṭṭhanti). By their failure to lay hold of the heart comes strenuous energy unquailing. Mindfulness is set up untroubled. The body is calmed, not perturbed. The heart is collected, one-pointed. Seeing this fruit of earnestness, brethren, I declare that such brothers do need to strike earnestly in respect of the sixfold sphere of sense"[34].

Pariyādāya means grasping, it is derived from the verb pariyādāti which stands for to take up in an excessive degree. The sentence 'rūpā tyāssa phussaphussa cittaṃ na pariyādāya tiṭhanti' could be rendered 'the forms, though striking against the citta over and over again cannot sway over it', and it is inferable that otherwise the citta would be subject to 'pariyādāya', that is, taking hold of. The citta in such a submissive state is prone to be defiled by desire-and-lust in all and any spot along the flux of being: (1) in the eye; (2) in the material form; (3) in the eye-consciousness; (4) in the eye-contact; (5) in the feeling born of the eye contact; (ear, nose, tongue, body, and mano being dealt in the same way of 1-5); in the consciousness of visible shape, sound, scent, savor, tangibles and things; in the will concerning visible shape, sound, scent, savor, tangibles and things; by the desire-and-lust for visible shape, sound, scent, savor, tangibles and things; by desire-and-lust for the element of earth, water, heat, air, space and consciousness. The diligent efforts, which gets strong approval from the Buddha, to get the freedom from all the above-mentioned desire-and-lust would make it salubrious for the citta to be sophisticated. The Buddha says[35]: "That desire-and-lust, brethren, for visible shape, - that is a corruption of the heart (rūpasmiṃ chandarāgo cittasseso uppakileso). That desire-and-lust for the other factors of feeling and in consciousness, - that is a corruption of the heart (viññāṇasmiṃ chandarāgo cittasseso uppakkileso). But when, brethren, in a brother the heart's corruption in these six points is put away, and his heart is bent on renunciation, then, compassed about with renunciation, his heart is seen to be liable for the penetrating of those things that are to be realized"[36].

3. Citta as Evil Heart. (a) Paduṭṭha Citta: Micchā-diṭṭhi (wrong or evil views) are observed to be utterly rejectable for being a source of wrong and evil aspirations and conduct, and liable at times to lead man to the deepest abysses of depravity. It is said in the Aṅguttara Nikāya that "no other thing than evil views do I know, O monks, whereby to such an extent the unwholesome things not yet arisen arise, and the unwholesome things already arisen are brought to growth and fulness. No other thing than evil views do I know, whereby to such an extent the wholesome things not yet arisen are hindered in their arising, and the wholesome things already arisen disappeared. No other thing than evil views do I know, whereby to such an extent human beings at the dissolution of the body, at death are passing to a way of suffering, into a world of woe, into hell"[37].

In the time of the Buddha, as we know, there are 62 evil views which are classified and described in the Brahmājala Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya. The 62 false views comprise all conceivable wrong views and speculations about man and world. The Buddha's explanation recorded in the Dīgha Nikāya about how can a number of Samaṇas and Brahmās hold partly eternalism and partly nihilism throws light on the citta under question and gives support to the following convictions: It is the state of citta that supplies the background for the establishing of the above wrong views. The evil states of citta afflicts negatively on the whole individual. One's envy towards others would make his heart or mental state be evil in form of ill-disposition which in turn afflicts negatively on the physical body. And such afflictions culminate in rebirth in a lower sphere where the individual concerned is destined to.

The Dīgha Nikāya passage in line with the above conviction reads: "There are brethren, certain gods called 'the Debauched in Mind' (mano-padosikā nāma deva). They burn continually with envy one against another, and being thus irritated, their hearts become ill-disposed towards each other, and being debauched (paduṭṭha-cittā), their bodies become feeble, and their minds imbecile. And those gods fall from that state"[38]. Paduṭṭha (p.p. of padussati) means made bad, spoilt, corrupt, wicked; antonymous to appaduṭṭha. So that in this case paduṭṭha-cittā is rendered as the debauched mind. And ironically the devas in possession of such a mind is named after it: the 'Debauched in Mind' devas. In the foregoing passage the devas named 'Manopadosikā', by way of burning themselves, figuratively speaking, with envy and its attendant irritation, have got their citta ill-disposed and debauched. The citta in such mood in turn would impose wearisomeness on their body.

The issue of mind-body relation has a long history from the classical Greek up to the modern systematic psychology. Attempts have been made to throw light on the relationship between body and mind. Plato views dualistically that they are separate substances with no interaction between them; Descartes from the interactionistic viewpoint posites that mind and body, though separate, interact somehow; the psychophysical parallelists say anything that influences mind is reflected by a parallel influence in the body and vice versa. Isomorphism holds that there is point-for-point correspondence between conscious experience and the physical situation but not an identity. So what about the traditional Buddhist system?

The Dīgha Nikāya as being impregnated in all with a tendency toward analyzing ethics points out that the citta attributed with certain attitude has affection accordingly to that attitude on one's physical and mental states. For example, it is said as a rule that if the citta exerts ill-will, the mind and the body are tired. In consequence, it is likely to get to the corollary that if the former exerts beneficially, the latter will go healthy.

With such a paduṭṭha-cittaṃ one cannot discern properly what is beneficial, and, on the other hand what is pernicious, for himself, for others, or for both sides. The Buddha figuratively explains this point by comparing it with one disturbed pool of water: "Suppose, monks, a pool of water, turbid, stirred up and muddied. Then a man who has eyes to see stands upon the bank. He could not see the oysters and the shells, the pebbles and the gravel as they lie, or the shoals of fish that dart about. Why not? Because of the turbid state of the water"[39]. On the other hand, the pasanna cittaṃ is compared with the serene water: "But suppose, monks, a pool of water, pellucid, tranquil and unstirred. Then a man who has eyes to see, while standing on the bank, could see the oysters and the shells, the pebbles and the gravel as they lie, and the shoals of fish that dart about. Why so? Because of the untroubled nature of the water, monks"[40]. The following passage expresses that the paduṭṭha-cittaṃ begets heavy punishment of going into the debased realms after death[41]: "Now here, monks, with my own thought embracing his, I am aware of a monk whose mind is corrupt. If at this very time he were to make an end, he would be put into Purgatory according to his deserts. Why so? Because of his corrupt mind. In like manner, monks, it is owing to a corrupt mind that some beings in this world, when body breaks up, after death are reborn in the Waste, the Woefull Way, the Downfall, in Purgatory"[42].

It is regrettable to contemplate that at the beginning the citta is pure