The Variegated Nature of Citta

Citta is variegated, vicitta, and it causes a great variety of effects. We read in the Atthasālinī (I, Book I, Part II, Ch I, 64):

“How is citta capable of producing a variety or great diversity of effects in action? There is no art in the world more variegated than the art of painting. In painting, the painter’s masterpiece is more artistic than the rest of his pictures. An artistic design occurs to the painters of masterpieces that such and such pictures should be drawn in such and such a way. Through this artistic design there arise operations of the mind (or artistic operations) accomplishing such things as sketching the outline, putting on the paint, touching up, and embellishing. Then in the picture known as the masterpiece is effected a certain (central) artistic figure. Then the remaining portion of the picture is completed by the work of planning in mind as, ‘Above this figure let this be; underneath, this; on both sides, this.’ Thus all classes of arts in the world, specific or generic, are achieved by citta. And owing to its capacity thus to produce a variety or diversity of effects in action, citta which achieves all these arts, is itself variegated like the arts themselves. Nay, it is even more variegated by nature than the art itself because the latter cannot execute every design perfectly. For that reason the Blessed One has said, ‘Bhikkhus, have you seen a masterpiece of painting?’ ‘Yes lord.’ ‘Bhikkhus, that masterpiece of art is designed by citta. Indeed, Bhikkhus, citta is even more variegated than that masterpiece.’ ”

The diversity in pictures that are painted is only a trivial matter, citta is more variegated than that. The great diversity of actions we perform in daily life make the variegated nature of citta evident. There is kamma performed through body, speech and mind. There is kusala kamma, which is dāna, sīla or bhāvanā. There are different kinds of akusala kamma, for example, killing or stealing. The variegated nature of citta appears from all the different kinds of actions that are performed.

We may be impressed by the great diversity of rūpas outside, which are not of living beings, when we reflect on the variety of vegetation, of trees, plants, flowers and leaves, or the variety in nature, such as mountains or rivers. All this variety in nature occurs because the Four Great Elements of earth, water, fire and wind arise in various combinations. Earth has the characteristic of hardness or softness, water has the characteristic of fluidity or cohesion, fire has the characteristic of heat or cold and wind has the characteristic of motion or pressure. There are different degrees of these characteristics of the Great Elements which arise together in different combinations, and that is why the rūpas outside have a great deal of variety. However, more variegated than all these combinations of rūpas outside is the variegated nature of citta that achieves such a variety of things.

Akusala kamma is variegated and, therefore, it is the condition for an immense diversity in the features of animals. There are animals with two legs, with four or more than four legs, or without legs. Some live in the water, some on land. Kusala kamma, which is variegated, causes human beings to be different as to sex, bodily appearance or facial features. Citta is variegated in its accomplishments to such an extent that a great diversity of terms in language is needed for the designation and naming of all these characteristics thatappear. The need of terms to describe the variegated nature of citta in its accomplishments will never end and will go on in the future.

No matter where we are, no matter what we see, no matter what the topic of our conversation is, the variegated nature of citta that accomplishes so many diverse things appears all the time.

The Buddha reminded us to consider the characteristic of citta at this moment, while we notice the diversity of effects due to the variegated nature of citta. The citta at this moment causes a variety of action, so that there are diverse effects in the future. We should not merely consider the different outward effects of citta. The Buddha reminded us to investigate the characteristic of citta arising at this moment, and this is “mindfulness of citta,” one of the four “applications of mindfulness.” In order to understand the characteristic of citta we should be aware of citta which sees at this moment, which hears, smells, tastes, experiences tangible object or thinks at this moment, thus, of the citta which is dependent on one of the six doors.

We all think of many different topics and stories. When the citta thinks of something, that subject is present only for the moment citta is thinking about it. Citta is the reality that thinks. If one does not consider citta while there is seeing now, or the experience of one of the other sense objects now, or thinking now, when will one ever be able to understand the characteristic of citta?

Citta thinks of many different things, citta is always travelling. Citta is travelling when there is seeing through the eyes, hearing through the ears, smelling through the nose, tasting through the tongue, the experience of tangible object through the bodysense and experiencing an object through the mind-door. We all like travelling, who wants to be always in the same place, being inactive, leading a monotonous life? We want to see, hear, smell, taste and experience tangible object. We wish to experience all the different sense objects, it never is enough. Citta arises and frequents the different objects that appear through the six doors, it never is inactive. If one realizes the characteristics of realities as they are, one can know that citta arises, experiences an object and then falls away. That is the true characteristic of citta.

We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (III, Khandhavagga, Kindred Sayings on Elements, Middle Fifty, Ch V, §99, The Leash, I) that the Buddha, while he was at Sāvatthī, said to the monks:

“Incalculable, monks, is this round of rebirth. No beginning is made known of beings wrapt in ignorance, fettered by craving, who run on, who fare on the round of rebirth...

Just as a dog, tied up by a leash to a strong stake or pillar, keeps running round and revolving round and round that stake or pillar, even so, monks, the untaught manyfolk, who discern not those who are ariyans...who are untrained in the worthy doctrine, regard body as the self, regard feeling, perception, the activities, regard consciousness as having a self, as being in the self or the self as being in and revolve round and round from body to body, from feeling to feeling, from perception to perception, from activities to activities, from consciousness to consciousness... they are not released therefrom, they are not released from rebirth, from old age and decay, from sorrow and grief, from woe, lamentation and despair...they are not released from dukkha, I declare.”

We then read that for the ariyan the opposite is the case, he is released from dukkha. In the following sutta, “The Leash” II (§100), we read that the Buddha used a simile of a dog which was tied up by a leash to a pillar and which would always stay close to the pillar, whatever posture he would take. Even so people stay close to the five khandhas, they take them for self. Further on we read that the Buddha said:

“Wherefore, monks, again and again must one regard one’s own citta thus: ‘For a long, long time this citta has been tainted by lust, by hatred, by illusion.’ By a tainted citta, monks, beings are tainted. By purity of citta beings are made pure.

Monks, have you ever seen a picture which they call a show-piece?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Well, monks, this so-called showpiece is thought out by citta. Wherefore, monks, citta is even more diverse than that showpiece.

Wherefore, monks, again and again must one regard one’s own citta thus: ‘For a long, long time this citta has been tainted by lust, by hatred, by illusion.’ By a tainted citta, monks, beings are tainted. By purity of citta beings are made pure.

Monks, I see not any single group so diverse as the creatures of the animal world. Those creatures of the animal world, monks, have their origin in citta. Wherefore, monks, citta is even more variegated than those creatures of the animal world.

Wherefore, monks, a monk must again and again thus regard his own citta: ‘For a long time this citta has been tainted by lust, by hatred, by ignorance.’ By a tainted citta, monks, beings are tainted. By purity of citta beings are made pure.

Just as if, monks, a dyer or a painter, if he has dye or lac or turmeric, indigo or madder, and a well-planed board, or wall or strip of cloth, can fashion the likeness of a woman or of a man complete in all its parts, even so, monks, the untaught many folk creates and recreates its body, feelings, perception, activities, consciousness.

As to that, what do you think, monks? Is body permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, lord.”

“And so it is with feelings, perceptions, the activities, consciousness. Wherefore, monks, so seeing... a monk knows: ‘For life in these conditions there is no hereafter.’ ”

A painter depends on paints of various colours so that different pictures can be made. At this moment the citta of each one of us is like a painter, it creates the khandhas of rūpa, feeling, perception, activities and consciousness that will arise in the future.

We all are different, we have different appearances and this is due to different kammas that have been performed a long time ago. The citta that performs varied actions is the condition for diverse effects in the future. There will be diverse effects by way of place of birth, sex, outward appearance, possessions, honour, well-being, pain, praise and blame. We should be aware of the characteristic of the citta that is appearing now, which is “painting” or creating all the realities that will arise in the future. If we are not aware of its characteristic we shall not understand the variegated nature of citta, which can cause so many different effects. Cittas arise and fall away now, succeeding one another very rapidly. There is citta that sees visible object through the eyes, citta that hears sound through the ears, and, even though we may be sitting still, there is citta that travels very far while we are thinking. We may think of where we shall go on a journey, or we may think of all the diverse things that we are going to achieve.

The painter takes his picture for something important, and evenso the citta of the ordinary person, who is not an ariyan, takes the sense objects which are only rūpas for beings, people or self; he takes them for a thing which exists, and he will continue to do so in each new life. So long as one does not yet know the characteristics of the five khandhas, realities that arise and fall away, as they are, one will take them for something, for self.

As we have seen in the sutta “The Leash” (II), the Buddha used the simile of a dog tied to a pole. When standing, he has to stand close to the pole, when sitting, he has to sit close to the pole, he cannot get away from it. Even so the ordinary person cannot get away from the five khandhas, he is inclined to take them for self.

We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (I, Sagāthā vagga, Ch IV, 2, Māra, §6, the Bowl):

“On one occasion, at Sāvatthī, the Exalted One was instructing, enlightening, inciting and inspiring the monks by a sermon on the five khandhas of grasping. And the monks with their whole mind applied, attentive and intent, listened with rapt hearing to the Dhamma...”

We then read that Māra wanted to distract the monks. He took the appearance of a bullock and went towards their bowls which were drying in the sun, whereupon the Buddha told the monks that it was not a bullock but Māra. The Buddha then said to Māra that the five khandhas are not self, and that the forces of Māra will never find the person who sees thus and has become detached, without defilements.

The commentary to this sutta, the Sāratthappakāsinī, gives an explanation of the words used in this sutta to describe the way the Buddha spoke to the monks while he was instructing them. He was inciting and inspiring them so that they would apply the Dhamma. In this connection, the Pāli term “samādana” is used, which means applying, undertaking what one considers worthwhile. The Buddha preached to the monks so that they would consider the Dhamma and have correct understanding of it. The Buddha explained the Dhamma for people’s benefit so that, when they had listened they could understand it and apply it. He explained the Dhamma in detail so that people would correctly understand kusala dhamma as kusala dhamma and akusala dhamma as akusala dhamma and not mistake akusala for kusala. Kusala dhamma and akusala dhamma have each their own characteristic and they should not be confused. The Buddha taught in all details about the five khandhas of grasping, which are citta, cetasika and rūpa. We cannot escape the five khandhas, no matter where we go or what we are doing. People should carefully study and consider the five khandhas so that they will not have wrong view about them, but understand them as they are.

The commentary explains that the Buddha incited the monks so that they would have energy (ussaha) and perseverance for the application of the Dhamma.

Right understanding of the Dhamma is not easy and it cannot be acquired rapidly, within a short time. The Buddha explained the Dhamma so that people would persevere in its application, have courage and take the effort to consider it carefully, in order to have right understanding of it. In this way sati could arise and be mindful of the characteristics of realities as they naturally appear in daily life, and paññā could realize their true nature. The Buddha did not teach what cannot be verified, he did not teach what does not appear right now. The Buddha taught about seeing, about visible object appearing through the eyes, about hearing, the reality which experiences sound, about sound appearing through the ears, he taught about all realities which are appearing at this moment, which can be verified. People who have listened to the Dhamma can be encouraged to persevere with its application, to study the Dhamma, to consider it and to be aware again and again of the characteristics of realities that appear, so that their true nature can be realized, just as the Buddha taught.

The commentary also states in connection with the Buddha’s preaching, that the monks were inspired, gladdened and purified because of the benefit they acquired from their understanding of the Dhamma.

Do we apply the Dhamma with perseverance and courage, and are we inspired and gladdened because of it? We can take courage and be inspired when kusala citta arises. Some people may be unhappy, they may worry about it that they are becoming older and that sati arises very seldom. When someone worries the citta is akusala. We should not worry, or have akusala cittas, because of the Dhamma. The Buddha taught the Dhamma so that people would be encouraged to apply it, to develop it with perseverance and gladness, and be inspired by it. All akusala arises because of conditions; there is no self who can prevent its arising. When akusala citta has already arisen, we should not be downhearted, but we can take courage. If there can be awareness of the characteristic of akusala that appears we can be inspired by the Dhamma. If we investigate the characteristic of akusala dhamma that appears at that moment, we shall know that it is not a being, not a person or self. We can clearly see that at the moment of awareness there is no akusala, that we are not downhearted. If one does not take akusala for self one will not be disturbed or discouraged because of it.

Akusala dhamma arises because of conditions, and when it has arisen, we should, instead of worry about it again and again, be aware of its characteristic, investigate it and understand it as not self. This is the only way to have less akusala and to eventually eradicate it.

When satipaṭṭhāna is developed people will come to know what it means to be inspired, gladdened and purified because of the benefit acquired from the realization of the Dhamma. They will experience that the truth of the Dhamma they realize is purifying and that it is to their benefit. We shall know this when the characteristics of realities can be known as they are.

The monks were inspired and gladdened because of the benefit they acquired from the teachings. The commentary adds, “We all can attain this benefit.” The development of satipaṭṭhāna should not discourage us. The realities that appear can be penetrated and realized as they are: they arise and fall away, they are not self, not a being or person. One should not worry about it that one cannot know today realities as they are. Sati can arise today and begin to be aware, and then the characteristics of realities will surely one day be wholly penetrated and clearly known as they are.

If people understand the great value of the Dhamma, if they see that the truth of the Dhamma is to their benefit and that they can attain it one day, although not today, they will not be discouraged. They will continue to listen and to study the realities the Buddha taught in detail, and then there will not be forgetfulness of realities, there will be conditions for the arising of sati.

The Buddha taught realities and these are as they are, they cannot be changed into something else. In the “Debates Commentary” (Ch XXI, 188), the “Pañcappakaraṇatthakathā”, commentary to the “Kathāvatthu” (“Points of Controversy”), one of the topics discussed is whether one can make the “sāsana,” the Buddha’s teachings, anew, change into something else; whether one can change satipaṭṭhāna into something else, or change akusala dhamma into kusala dhamma.

Everybody should investigate this point. We should consider whether kusala dhammas and akusala dhammas can be changed, whether akusala dhamma can be kusala dhamma. Can satipaṭṭhāna be changed into something else?

If we consider cause and effect in the right way, we can understand that the dhammas the Buddha taught cannot possibly be altered. He realized the truth of the Dhamma by his enlightenment and he taught the truth to others. Someone may have wrong understanding of realities, but the true characteristics of realities cannot be changed by anybody.

There are many aspects with regard to the variegated nature of citta. As we have seen, citta is classified in many different ways and this shows its variegated nature. We read in the Atthasālinī (I, Part II, Ch I, 64) that citta is also variegated because of the many different objects it can experience. Citta can experience any kind of object, no matter how varied and intricate it may be. Citta experiences paramattha dhammas as well as concepts and it knows words denoting concepts. It knows words used in different languages, it knows names and it thinks of many different stories. Thus, citta is variegated because of the objects that are variegated.

Citta cognizes, clearly knows its object, that is its specific characteristic (sabhāva lakkhaṇa). There are also general characteristics (samañña lakkhaṇa) of all conditioned realities, namely, the three characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anattā. Citta has these three general characteristics.

We read in the Atthasālinī (I, Book I, Part IV, Ch I, 112) about the specific characteristic, function, manifestation and proximate cause of citta.

Its characteristic is cognizing an object.

Its function is being a forerunner, precursor. It is like a town-guard, seated at a crossroads in the middle of town. He notes each townsman or visitor who comes, that is, the object. Thus it is the chief or leader in knowing an object.

It has connection as manifestation. We read, ”The citta which arises next does so immediately after the preceding citta, forming a connected series.” Cittas arise and fall away, succeeding one another.

The proximate cause of citta is nāma-dhammas and rūpa-dhammas. Citta is a conditioned dhamma, saṅkhāra dhamma. Conditioned dhammas cannot arise singly, and thus, citta does not arise without accompanying cetasikas. In the planes of existence where there are five khandhas, citta is dependent on nāma-dhammas as well as rūpa-dhammas as proximate cause for its arising. In the planes where there is only nāma, in the arūpa brahma planes, citta has as proximate cause for its arising only nāma-dhammas, cetasikas.


  1. What is the cause of the diversity of rūpa-dhammas that we notice in vegetation, plants, flowers, mountains and rivers, in equipment and other things we use?

  2. Can citta experience objects other than paramattha dhammas?