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The Abhidharma
Peter Della Santina, Ph.D.


Analysis of Thought-Processes

In this chapter we will begin to see, in a more specific and direct way, how the analysis of consciousness and the analysis of mental states can really contribute to the awakening of insight, and how such analysis can also be interpreted in our daily life to change our understanding of our situation.

Why analyze the processes of thought or the processes of perception? To answer this, we need to remind ourselves of the general purpose of the Abhidharma -- namely, to facilitate our understanding of the ultimate nature of things, which share the three universal characteristics of impermanence, suffering, and not-self. In the analysis of thought-processes, we can see impermanence and not-self clearly revealed, as two analogies from the discourses of the Buddha show.

The Buddha likened the life span of a living being to a single point on the wheel of a chariot. He said that, strictly speaking, a living being only endures for the time it takes one thought to arise and perish, just as the chariot wheel, whether rolling or at rest, makes contact with the ground at only a single point. In this context, the past moment existed but it does not exist now, nor will it exist in the future; the present moment exists now but did not exist in the past, nor will it exist in the future; and the future moment, although it will exist in the future, does not exist now, nor did it exist in the past.

The Buddha also referred to the case of a king who had never heard the sound of a lute. When he did hear one, the king asked his ministers what it was that was so enchanting and enthralling. His ministers replied that it was the sound of a lute. The king asked for the lute; when his ministers brought one, he asked them where the sound was. When the ministers explained that the sound was produced by a combination of diverse factors, the king said that the lute was a poor thing indeed, broke it up with his own hands, and had the pieces burned and their ashes scattered. What the ministers called the sound of a lute, the king said, was nowhere to be found. Similarly, nowhere among the physical and mental factors of experience -- among factors of form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness -- is there a self to be found. Thought-processes are, like the sound of a lute, also devoid of self.

The analysis of thought-processes also has a very specific application in the area of mental development, in the mastery and control of objects of the senses. You may recall that we spoke earlier about the sensitivity of the mind to the objects of the senses, and said that the mind is constantly subject to distractions that arise because of contact with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. The Buddha himself declared that one is either conquered by sense objects or conquers them: in other words, one is either controlled by and subject to sense stimuli or manages and dominates sense stimuli. This is why Nagarjuna once said that even an animal can be victorious in battle, whereas he who is able to conquer the momentary, ever-changing objects of the senses is the true hero.

When someone subdues, masters, and controls the objects of the senses, we call him heedful. Heedfulness is akin to mindfulness, which the Buddha said is the one way to freedom. Heedlessness is the source of death and of bondage in samsara, while heedfulness is the source of the deathless, or Nirvana. Those who were formerly heedless and later become heedful, like Nanda and Angulimala, are able to achieve the goal of freedom.

By analyzing and understanding how the objects of the senses are perceived and assimilated by consciousness, we can pave the way toward right understanding in terms of impermanence and not-self, and toward control over the momentary objects of the senses. Finally, we can achieve heedfulness, which is the key to changing our existence from one dominated by the afflictions to one that is purified and noble.

We can begin our analysis of thought-processes by examining their place in our experience. Take the comparison of life to a river, with a source and an outlet. Between birth and death, between the source of the river and its mouth, there is a continuum but not an identity. In Abhidharmic terms, birth or rebirth is the 'uniting' or 'connecting' factor (patisandhi), the life continuum is the 'subconscious' factor (bhavanga), and death is the 'falling away' factor (chuti). These three factors have one thing in common: their object is the last conscious factor of the preceding life. This object determines them as wholesome or unwholesome resultant factors of consciousness.

In this context, it is important to remember that bhavanga runs concurrent with the reproductive karma that gives a particular life its general characteristics and sustains it until it is either interrupted or exhausted. Thus the past, present, and future of an individual life are united not only consciously, by the continuum of patisandhi, bhavanga, and chuti, but also subconsciously, by bhavanga alone. This subconscious factor of life continuum preserves continuity and sustains life even in the absence of conscious thought-processes, as in dreamless sleep and moments of unconsciousness like coma. In between the various conscious thought-processes, bhavanga reasserts itself and preserves the continuity of life.

To summarize, our life begins with the uniting or connecting conscious factor (patisandhi) that joins the previous life to this life. It is sustained throughout the course of this life by the subconscious factor of life continuum (bhavanga), and it ends with the falling away (chuti) that again precedes union (in the form of patisandhi) with the subsequent life.

Consciousness, as opposed to subconsciousness (bhavanga), arises as a phenomenon of resistance and vibration. In other words, bhavanga remains subconscious until it is interrupted or obstructed by an object, as when we place a dam across a river and find that the course of the river is interrupted, or subject an electrical current to resistance and find that the phenomenon of light arises. This contact between bhavanga and an object results in resistance, and this resistance results in vibration, which in turn results in a conscious thought-process.

The thought-processes that arise as a result of this interruption are either (1) physical thought-processes that operate through the five sense doors (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body), or (2) mental thought-processes that operate through the mind, the sixth sense organ. Physical thought-processes are determined by the intensity, or impact, of the object that brings about the interruption of the stream of life continuum. In this sense, the largest obstruction will cause the longest thought-process, and the smallest obstruction will cause the shortest thought-process.

There are four types of physical thought-processes, from one that runs for seventeen thought-moments to one that fails even to reach the point of determination or identification of the object. There are two types of mental thought-processes: (1) one termed 'clear,' which runs through to retention, the final stage of thought-processes, and (2) one termed 'obscure,' which ends before the stage of retention. Depending on the intensity of the obstruction in the subconscious stream of life continuum, we have a more intensive and lengthier thought-process or a less intensive and briefer one.

Let us look at the seventeen thought-moments that make up the longest of any of the thought-processes, physical or mental. Remember that each of these thought-moments is said to last less than one billionth the time it takes to wink an eye. Thus when the Buddha said that a living being endures only as long as a single thought-moment, he was talking about an extremely brief period of time.

The first of these seventeen thought-moments is termed 'entry' and refers to an object impinging upon the stream of life continuum, or the placing of an object of obstruction in the river of life.

The second moment is termed 'vibrating' because the entry of the object into the stream of life continuum sets up a vibration.

The third is the 'arresting' moment because at this point the obstruction interrupts or arrests, the stream of life continuum.

Here we might ask how is it that the stream of life continuum (bhavanga), which has its own object that forms the basis of the factor of unification (patisandhi) and the factor of decay (chuti), comes to have a secondary object in the form of a material object of the senses. This is explained by means of an analogy. Buddhaghosa said that, just as tapping one grain of sugar among many scattered on the surface of a drum causes a vibration that affects a fly sitting on another grain of sugar on the drum, so material objects of the five physical senses impinge upon and set up vibrations that affect bhavanga.

Once these three moments -- entry, vibration, and interruption or arresting -- have taken place, the object enters the conscious sphere. It does this through the fourth thought-moment, which is the moment of the 'adverting consciousness.' In the case of the physical thought-processes, the adverting consciousness can be of five types--eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.

This is succeeded by the fifth moment, the 'perceiving consciousness,' which can be of the five types--eye consciousness, ear consciousness, and so forth.

This is followed by the sixth moment, the 'receiving consciousness'; the seventh moment, the 'investigating consciousness'; and the eighth moment, the 'determining consciousness.' It is the determining consciousness that identifies and recognizes the object of perception.

This determining consciousness is followed by seven moments of 'impulse consciousness' (javana), which have the function of running through the object, thereby assimilating the object wholly into consciousness.

These ninth through fifteenth thought-moments are followed by two moments of resultant, retentive consciousness, for seventeen thought-moments in all. The seven moments of impulse consciousness are karmically active and can be wholesome or unwholesome. The moments of resultant, retentive consciousness, too, are either wholesome or unwholesome.

For the purpose of practice of the path, it is important to know at which point in these seventeen thought-moments one is able to act freely, for better or for worse. The three moments of bhavanga are resultant. The adverting consciousness and the determining consciousness are functional. The perceiving consciousness is resultant. Thus the seven moments of impulse consciousness (javana) are the first karmically active thought-moments. The first of these seven moments determines the next six, so if it is wholesome, the rest are wholesome, and if it is unwholesome, the rest are unwholesome, too.

It is at the point when determining consciousness is followed by the seven impulse moments that resultant or functional states give way to active states. This is the all-important point in thought-processes, because one cannot alter the character of resultant or functional states but can alter the character of active states, which have a wholesome or unwholesome karmic potential. At the moment when the javana moments commence, the presence or absence of wise attention is therefore very important. If wise attention is present, the probability of wholesome impulses is greater; if absent, unwholesome impulses are more likely to predominate. The actual object of the seventeen thought-moments is of little importance here because the object in itself, no matter how desirable or undesirable, does not determine whether the seven impulse moments are wholesome or unwholesome. You may recall the case of the Elder Tissa. It happened that the daughter-in-law of a certain family, having quarreled with her husband, dressed in her best garments and jewelry and set out to return to her father's house. When she came upon the Elder Tissa, being of an irreverent nature, she let out a loud laugh. Seeing her teeth, Tissa reacted in terms of the perception of the foulness of the body, and by the strength of that perception won through to Arhatship on the spot. When the woman's husband came along and asked whether Tissa had seen a woman going that way, the Arhat replied that he was not aware whether it had been a man or woman but knew that he had seen a heap of bones walking along the road.

This story indicates that no matter what the nature of the determining consciousness, the seven moments of impulse consciousness can be an occasion for either winning through to the stage of Arhatship or for the further accumulation of moments of consciousness that have an unwholesome karmic value. To a man other than Tissa, the sight of the woman laughing might have given rise to impulses rooted in lust rather than ones leading to the realization of Arhatship. Since wise attention or the lack of it determines the karmic value of the impulse moments that follow, we need to apply wise attention to decrease the chances of unwholesome impulses arising and increase the chances of wholesome moments of impulse consciousness.

I would like to conclude by referring to a simile popularized by Buddhaghosa in his Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga ) to illustrate the seventeen moments of consciousness in a thought-process. Suppose a man has gone to sleep at the foot of a mango tree full of ripened fruit. A ripened mango is loosened from a branch and falls to the ground. The sound of the mango falling to the ground stimulates the ears of the sleeping man, who awakes, opens his eyes, and sees the fruit lying not far from where he is. He stretches out his arm and takes the mango in his hand. He squeezes the mango, smells it, and then eats it.

This whole process illustrates the seventeen moments of perceiving a physical object. The sound of the falling mango impinging upon the man's ears is analogous to the three moments of bhavanga--entry, vibration, and interruption. When the man uses his eyes and spots the mango, this is analogous to the moments of adverting and perception; when he stretches out his hand to take the fruit, to the moment of receiving; when he squeezes the mango, to the moment of investigating; when he smells it, to the moment of determining; when he eats it and enjoys it, to the seven moments of impulse consciousness; and (although apparently Buddhaghosa did not do this) one might add that when he digests it, this is analogous to the two resultant moments of retention.

If we analyze our thought-processes carefully, and if through heedfulness we master them, this can result in a deepened understanding of the ultimate nature of things as impermanent and not-self. This analysis can also lead to mastery over the objects of the senses, the result of which is dispassion, joy, and freedom. We should therefore apply the knowledge we gain about the momentary, conditioned, and transient nature of the processes of thought and perception to our daily experience, in order to seek out that understanding and wise attention which will enable us to multiply our moments of wholesome karmic potential and minimize our moments of unwholesome karmic potential. If we can do this, we will have taken a very important step in extending our study of the Abhidharma from the merely intellectual sphere to the practical and experiential sphere.


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Source: Chico Dharma Study Group - Web site: http://www.ecst.csuchico.edu/~dsantina/  

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