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The Mind in Early Buddhism

Bhikkhu Thich Minh Thanh

New Delhi, 2001

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The research work in all makes the effect that citta has little to do with particularly distinctive quality in terms of its characteristic integral involvement in the whole field of mental states and activities in the broadest sense. The mental states under its range that come into the scope of our attention, however, have been molded into these: (1) General state of sentient being; (2) Lustful heart; (3) Evil heart; (4) Purposed heart; (5) Ready-for-truth citta; (6) Calm and passionless citta; (7) Composed citta; (8) Loving kindness citta; and (9) Emancipated citta.  

Attempts to sum up the comprehensive depictions of citta in the previous chapters may arrive at dry and isolated definitive notions about what citta is. This way of approaching to the knowledge of citta is reasonably warned against, but will help a quick review in terms of sharpness and briefness it appears after the removal of all that is elaborative and superfluous. In addition of nine mental states above mentioned, we can collect the several groups of meanings that the citta should be assumed to purport.

Citta, most generally, is the nonphysical, all mental activities or mental agencies. Citta in regard to the direction of mental activities is the heading and the subordinate to the heading as well.

Towards its emplacement, citta is advocated to be the core of one's personality; the center of understanding, of perceptual and cognitive activities; the possessor of knowledge of all types, ordinary or super-mundane. Citta is the center and focus of man's emotional nature; the conscious center of activity, purposiveness, continuity and emotionality. Citta is the ideological leadership in man's mind, his character and personality. It goes further to say that citta is a personal identity or surviving entity from existence to existence.

Citta in action is mental instrument and also the reactions to impressions. It is both the subjective and objective aspects of consciousness or thinking. It accepts and investigates object. Citta sometimes is simply an idea or a thought or a feeling. Citta is striving, desire, volition and purpose; intention, impulse and design; perception, memory, judgment and reasoning. Citta, expressively speaking, is 'inner speech'. In the form of mano, citta is one of the six psychological senses.

As a seat and organ of thought citta 'thinks' of its object by arranging itself in a thought process. Citta is both the cause of a variety of mental effects and the resultant thought. It is the store house of 'mental seeds' or the arsenal of dispositional properties.

Citta, in another parlance, is a flux of thought or a wide and complex nexus of mental states in flux or a series of events in an incessant process of mentation. Citta is that which comes to be and passes away. It is the experience in Nibbāna-release.

All the conceptual cuttings given above by no means exhaust the variety of definitions pertaining to citta. On the other hand, it should be warned with strong precaution that none of them can be exactly correct in regard to the meaning of citta per se; they are not totally wrong either. They are actually the conception molds whereas citta seems to be that which is not to be molded. The conceptual cuttings, nevertheless, should be but something helpful as a guide map particularly for clear-cut reference or consultation.


Although involved in multi-dimensional and multi-functional manifestations, citta depicted in Buddhist system, sometimes too general to have a delineated sketch, sometimes so specific as a idea or a thought, has basically nothing to do with metaphysics. The Buddhist citta does not suggest any idea about an entity or an eternal reality of the kind that Parmenides, a Greek philosopher (515 B.C) holds up. The multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, in his opinion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality. The Buddhist non-substantial position would not easy for those as Sāti and Parmenides to comprehend because in the depth of their mind there must be an inherent craving for continual existence.

The Buddhist light thrown upon the origination of citta also reflects the freedom from such a craving. Citta is but one phase in the circle of ever changing process of becoming and passing away. This phase conventionally clad in the term citta is preceded by other phases that can be named saṅkhāra, upādāna, āyatana, anusaya, nāma-rūpa, according to the specific canonical passages that we chance upon with the conclusion-orientated mind. Considering the preceding phases the cause or the origin of citta is similar to acting as the blind who touched a particular segment of, and began to boast his knowledge about, the elephant. All the references recorded in the Buddhist canonical literature about the origination of citta or any other phenomena do not break away from the principle of depending origination.

That citta, although a competent candidate for representing one's personality, is depending upon other factors for its coming into being disapproves of the speculations about the creator deity who has been credited with the creation of the world where we live.

The common knowledge about of the supreme creator deity can be briefed into the six characteristics: (1) He is all wise and all powerful. The world comes into being because of his wisdom, and he is able to actualize the world because of his power. (2) The deity exists alone prior to the creation of the world. No explanation can therefore be given of his existence, before which one confronts the ultimate mystery. (3) His creation a conscious and deliberate one with a definite plan in mind and is not based on a trial-and-error basis. This again is an aspect of the creator's wisdom and power. (4) The creation of the world is simultaneously an expression of the freedom and purpose of the deity. His relationship to the created order after the creation is again an aspect of his freedom. (5) The creator deity removes himself from the world after it has been created. After the creation the deity goes away and only appears again when a catastrophe threatens the created order. (6) The supreme creator deity is often a sky god, and the deity in this form is an instance of the religious valuation of the symbolism of the sky. All of the above mentioned six points and their possible corollaries are speculative and extrinsic to the Buddhist system.

On the other hand, the Buddhist citta does not involve in a sudden or casual creation that seems to need no material, like the trick of a magician who 'creates' a pigeon with the 'power' of his magical hat, mantras, and stick.


In Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism, sacred utterances (syllables, words, or verses) are considered to possess mystical or spiritual efficacy. Various mantras are either spoken aloud or merely sounded internally in one's thoughts, and they are either repeated continuously for some time or just sounded once. Most mantras are without any apparent verbal meaning, but they are thought to have a profound underlying significance and are in effect distillations of spiritual wisdom. Thus, repetition of or meditation on a particular mantra can induce a trance-like state in the participant and can lead him to a higher level of spiritual awareness.

Besides the mantras that are credited with inducing trance-like state and spiritual awareness, there are the mantras of another kind that are said to be for other psychic or spiritual purposes, such as protecting oneself from evil psychic powers. That the Dīgha Nikāya (sutta 32), which is usually considered to be among the earliest Buddhist texts, records the Ātānātiyā of this protective kind seems not to be consistent in the context of the early Buddhism.

Examination of the citta in the main trait of Buddhist system renders the effect that the Buddhists would consider language no more than a means that matters only on the basis of its functioning. The value of a word or a sound, though a certain number of specific words or utterances as above mentioned are usually credited with magical and sacred power especially in Vedic literature and some later Buddhist one, should be empirically reduced to the conveyance of ideas. In the same line, the earliest texts do not show much care about which word - citta, mana, or viññāṇa - must consistently stand for the aspects of human psyche in case they are asserted together. The scholastic selection of the word to be used seems to concede and give place to the instantaneous conveying of ideas. No matter which word was chosen in the primitive period of time, the spontaneous understanding of the Dhamma on the side of the audience who were consequently supposed to tend towards a positive perspective of life was all that had been first and foremost concerned for. Hence the three terms at the period of time seem to share a dearth of distinct usage and were interchangeable.

The ancient people in general seem to be with a lack of reason in their fetishism but the present day intellects whose sense of reason is highly advanced are still under the sway of the same fetishism of an 'advanced' kind which is in the guile of the very reason. Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols argues that we find ourselves in the midst of a rude fetishism when we call to mind the basis presuppositions of the metaphysics of language... only thus does it create the concept 'thing'... 'Reason' in language: oh what a deceitful old woman! [1]


In addition to a lack of sound educational discipline, the limited assess to a handful of partly and casually gathered data and a tinge of gung-ho attitude have brought about the belief that there are three positions regarding the so-called ego or citta or self and the Dhamma: (1) both are existences, (2) the former is nonexistence and the latter is existence, and (3) both are nonexistence. The first position is then imposed on the lay people; the next, on the Hīnayanist or the Buddhism expressed in the Nikāyas; and the last, to the Mahāyānists. This conviction would fade away in the light from the Nikāyas: The Dhamma is expressed in the form of language. Both the Dhamma and language are but a means that should be made use of to attain an desirable end; it then is to be left aside as a raft after the faring. Neither the Dhamma nor the ego (or citta or self) in the Buddhist system has much to do with the metaphysical speculation about existence or nonexistence.


While both the Buddhist citta and the Vedic one share together to some extent the common range of meaning, the latter diverges to another direction insomuch as its emotional aspect is concerned. The divergence towards emotional tone is reasonable on the sacrificial background of the Vedic sacred literature. They are hymns or verses composed around 1500-1200 BC in archaic Sanskrit and current among the Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered India from the Iranian regions. The hymns formed a liturgical body that in part grew up around the cult of the soma ritual and the sacrifice. They extolled the hereditary deities, who for the most part personified various natural and cosmic phenomena, such as fire, sun, dawn, storms, war and rain, honor, divine authority, and creation. The extolment is the main theme in their sacrificial rituals so as to glorify the god(s) in blessing and to appease in case of their wrath. In this direction the Vedic citta, therefore, is not one of mental processes and psychical events as that of Buddhism but a citta of emotion. The emotional citta is not only the agent, on the part of the sacrificers, that incites the god(s) to take pathetic actions as requested, but also the receptor, on the part of the god(s), of the incentives.


On the other hand the Upaniṣadic citta is different from the Buddhist one in its tending towards the metaphysical tone. The reason for this is suggestible on its ideological background: The old Upanishads may be part of the Brahmanas (commentaries) of their respective Vedas but are distinguished from them both by increased philosophical and mystical questioning and by their diminished concern with Vedic deities and sacrificial rites. Of fundamental importance to all Hindu thought is the equation in some of the Upanishads of atman (the self) with Brahman (ultimate reality). The nature of morality and of eternal life is discussed, so are such themes as the transmigration of souls and causality in creation.

The citta in the Buddhist literature is expressed in a morality-orientated setting and characterized by the absence of a supreme god competent for creation and tends towards the state freed from impurities and self-inflation of all kinds. The Upanishadic texts, otherwise, mention citta in the context of the philosophical concern with the nature of reality and of a development toward the concept of a single supreme being which the knowledge is directed toward reunion with.

The supreme being with characteristic power and wisdom have been said to be super-sensuous and credited with the creation of the world whereas Buddhism does not assigned the creation to any specified agent, more exactly, it does not build the concept of creation. There is creation means there is the starting point. Buddhism, however, consents that the world, by and large, has neither the beginning, nor the end. The reality is an ever ongoing process that escapes our capacity of fathoming. The identification of the world with dukkha, as sometimes referred to in the Buddhist canon, opens a new perspective of its ending. There is then an end of such a world, which is the extinguishment of all kinds of defilements and cravings. On the other hand, the Upanishadic citta that survives the dissipation or the end of the world is not traceable in the Buddhist literature.


It is remarkable that the citta in Buddhist system does not seem to be per se (to be by itself). The manifestations of citta as recorded are usually in association with more specified mental variables that decide the function or the character it is bearing. Some scholar goes further to say that it is nothing but the wholeness of all the attributing variables. So citta is not something like the tabula rasa. This helps in understanding why when putting it forth as a general state we are bond to associate it with some quality, whether sensational or emotional, safeguarded or subjected to downfall, and why, in the Abhidhamma literature, to define a single citta means to get in touch with many other factors relating to it. All this once again suggests the non-substantiality position of Buddhism regarding to the concept of citta and the phenomena of all other kinds as well.

Citta, expressively speaking, is visualized as a kitchen jar that is so flimsy and insubstantial that only the sugar or salt or some spicy contained in it matters and is counted. The jar somehow is not at all. Such an visualization reduces citta to nothing but a loose and false 'boundary' or concept that is made of human limited and defective mentation for keeping and expressing the more specifiable of mental activities and features. Hence some later interpretations in terms of absolute truth regard citta as the wholeness of all the mental properties that are present at the given point of time.


Conclusively, citta as a concept is bafflingly elusive and we have to grasp it indirectly by setting up a variety of its manifest facets gleaned from the Sutta Piṭaka and by representing its multilevel in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Investigation into the concept of citta has inspired the philosophical enquiries such as its origin and masterful position, its fraudulence and feasibility, its hindrance and liberation, and so on. Citta, moreover, proves to be among the most important psychological concepts in Buddhism therefore a full-fledged understanding of it would culminate in the mastery of the Buddhist psychology. The mastery, nonetheless, would by no means be complete in all contents and purposes until it incorporates a self-transformation towards the ultimate truth since the nature of the knowledge is - in correspondence with the nature of the knower - also transformed. Rather than being given it is discovered and found[2]. The self-transformation by nature, nonetheless, is self-transcendence for which the actual and painstaking taming of the citta is an inevitable process.


[1] PEW. Vol. 49, No. 3, July 1999: 245.

[2] JIP. Vol. 26, No. 5, October 1998: 384.


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Sincere thanks to Venerable Thich Minh-Thanh for giving the digital files (Binh Anson, 01-2004)

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