The Function of Bhavanga (Life-Continuum)
There are moments when there are no sense-impressions, when one does not think, when there are no akusala cittas or kusala cittas. Is there at those moments still citta? Even when there are no sense-impressions and no thinking there must be citta; otherwise there would be no life. The type of citta which arises and falls away at those moments is called bhavanga-citta. Bhavanga literally means “factor of life”; bhavanga is usually translated into English as “life-continuum”. The bhavanga-citta keeps the continuity in a lifespan, so that what we call a “being” goes on to live from moment to moment. That is the function of the bhavanga-citta.
One may wonder whether bhavanga-cittas often arise. There must be countless bhavanga-cittas arising at those moments when there are no sense-impressions, no thinking, no akusala cittas or kusala cittas. When we are asleep and dreaming akusala cittas and kusala cittas arise, but even when we are in a dreamless sleep there still has to be citta. There are bhavanga-cittas at such moments. Also when we are awake countless bhavanga-cittas arise; they arise in between the different processes of citta. It seems that hearing, for example, can arise very shortly after seeing, but in reality there are different processes of citta and in between these processes bhavanga-cittas arise.
The bhavanga-citta succeeds the first citta in life, the paṭisandhi-citta, rebirth-consciousness. When the rebirth-consciousness falls away it conditions the arising of the next citta, the second citta in that life and this is the first bhavanga-citta in life.
The bhavanga-citta is vipākacitta; it is the result of the same kamma which produced the paṭisandhi-citta. There is only one paṭisandhi-citta in a life, but there are countless bhavanga-cittas. Not only the first bhavanga-citta, but all bhavanga-cittas arising during a lifespan are the result of the kamma which produced the paṭisandhi-citta.
The bhavanga-citta is the same type of citta as the paṭisandhi-citta. There are nineteen types of paṭisandhi-citta and thus there are nineteen types of bhavanga-citta. If the paṭisandhi-citta is akusala vipāka, which is the case when there is birth in a woeful plane, all bhavanga-cittas of that life are akusala vipāka as well. If the paṭisandhi-citta is ahetuka kusala vipāka, in which case one is handicapped from the first moment of life, all bhavanga-cittas of that life are ahetuka kusala vipāka as well. If the paṭisandhi-citta is sahetuka (arising with sobhana hetus, beautiful roots), the bhavanga-citta is sahetuka as well. All bhavanga-cittas during a lifespan are of the same type as the paṭisandhi-citta of that life, they arise with the same hetus, they are accompanied by the same cetasikas, mental factors. If one is born with two hetus, with alobha (non-attachment) and adosa (non-aversion), but without wisdom, then all bhavanga-cittas have only two hetus. Such a person can cultivate wisdom, but he cannot become enlightened during that life. If one is born with three hetus, which means that one is born with alobha, adosa and paññā (wisdom), all bhavanga-cittas are accompanied by these three sobhana hetus as well. Thus that person is more inclined to cultivate wisdom and, if he develops the eightfold Path, he can attain enlightenment during that life. If one is born with somanassa, happy feeling, all bhavanga-cittas of that life are accompanied by somanassa.
Every citta must experience an object and thus the bhavanga-citta too experiences an object. Seeing has what is visible as object; hearing has sound as object. The bhavanga-citta does not arise within a process of cittas and thus it has an object which is different from the objects which present themselves time and again and are experienced through the sense-doors and through the mind-door. The bhavanga-citta which is of the same type of citta as the paṭisandhi-citta also experiences the same object as the paṭisandhi-citta.
As we have seen (in chapter 10), the paṭisandhi-citta experiences the same object as the akusala cittas or kusala cittas which arose shortly before the dying-consciousness, cuti-citta, of the previous life. If akusala kamma produces the rebirth of the next life there will be an unhappy rebirth. In that case akusala cittas arise shortly before the dying-consciousness and they experience an unpleasant object. The paṭisandhi-citta of the next life which succeeds the cuti-citta (the dying-consciousness), experiences that same unpleasant object. If kusala kamma produces the rebirth there will be a happy rebirth. In that case kusala cittas arise shortly before the cuti-citta and they experience a pleasant object. The paṭisandhi-citta of the next life experiences that same pleasant object. Whatever object is experienced by the last kusala cittas or akusala cittas of the previous life, the paṭisandhi-citta experiences that same object. The paṭisandhi-citta is succeeded by the first bhavanga-citta of that life and this citta experiences the same object as the paṭisandhi-citta. Moreover, all bhavanga-cittas of that life experience that same object.
The Visuddhimagga (XIV, 114) states with regard to the bhavanga-citta:
When the paṭisandhi-citta has ceased, then, following on whatever kind of rebirth-consciousness it may be, the same kinds, being the result of the same kamma whatever it may be, occur as bhavanga-citta with that same object; and again those same kinds. And as long as there is no other kind of arising of consciousness to interrupt the continuity, they also go on occurring endlessly in periods of dreamless sleep, etc., like the current of a river.
The bhavanga-cittas are like the current of a river and this current is interrupted when an object presents itself through one of the senses or through the mind-door. When the cittas of the sense-door process or the mind-door process have fallen away, the current of bhavanga-cittas is resumed.
When an object contacts one of the five senses the stream of bhavanga-cittas is interrupted and there is a sense-cognition. However, there cannot be a sense-cognition immediately. When sound, for example, impinges on the earsense, there is not immediately hearing. There are still some bhavanga-cittas arising and falling away before the pañca-dvārāvajjana-citta (five-door-adverting consciousness) adverts to the sound through the ear-door and hearing arises. The bhavanga-cittas do not perform the function of adverting to the sound which contacts the earsense, they do not experience the sound. They have their own function which is keeping the continuity in a lifespan, and they experience their own object which is the same as the object of the paṭisandhi-citta. Although the bhavanga-citta does not experience the sound which contacts the earsense, it can be affected, “disturbed” by it and then the stream of bhavanga-cittas will be interrupted and sound will be experienced by cittas which arise in the ear-door process. One may wonder how the bhavanga-citta which experiences its own object can still be “affected” by an object which impinges on one of the doorways. Each citta can experience only one object at a time but the bhavanga-citta can still be affected by an object which impinges on one of the doorways. A commentary to the Visuddhimagga, the Paramattha-Mañjūsa, (478; see Visuddhimagga XIV, 115, footnote 46) explains this by way of a simile:
...But how does there come to be disturbance (movement) of the bhavanga that has a different support? Because it is connected with it. And here the example is this: when grains of sugar are put on the surface of a drum and one of the grains of sugar is tapped, a fly sitting on another grain of sugar moves.
When a rūpa which is one of the sense objects contacts one of the senses, there is first one moment of bhavanga-citta arising and falling away which is denoted by the name atīta-bhavanga or “past bhavanga”. This citta is succeeded by the bhavanga-calana or “vibrating bhavanga”. It is called “vibrating bhavanga” because it is disturbed by the object, although it does not experience that object. The last bhavanga-citta which arises before the stream of bhavanga-cittas is interrupted and the pañca-dvārāvajjana-citta adverts to the object, is the bhavangupaccheda or “arrest-bhavanga”, so called because the stream of bhavanga-cittas is arrested after this citta.
The different names which denote these bhavanga-cittas do not represent different functions; bhavanga-cittas have as their only function to keep the continuity in the life of a being. The different names only indicate that these bhavanga-cittas are the last ones before the stream is interrupted and a new object which impinges on one of the doorways is experienced by a process of cittas. When the bhavangupaccheda, the arrest-bhavanga, has arisen and fallen away, a sense-door process of cittas which experience an object through one of the sense-doors can begin. When the sense-door process is over, the stream of bhavanga-cittas is resumed, so that the series of cittas succeeding one another in our life is not interrupted. The object which impinged on one of the senses is then experienced through the mind-door. In between the sense-door process and the mind-door process, however, there are bhavanga-cittas. When the cittas of the mind-door process have fallen away, the stream of bhavanga-cittas is resumed.
A sense object which is experienced through one of the five senses is rūpa. Rūpa arises and falls away, but it does not fall away as rapidly as nāma. One rūpa which impinges on one of the senses, can be experienced by several cittas succeeding one another in a process. When, for example, the rūpa which is sound impinges on the earsense, it can be experienced by cittas arising in the ear-door process. Before the process starts there are bhavanga-cittas. The last bhavanga-cittas which arise before the sound can be experienced by the cittas of the ear-door process are:
  • atīta-bhavanga (past bhavanga)
  • bhavanga-calana (vibrating bhavanga)
  • bhavangupaccheda (arrest-bhavanga)
When the stream of bhavanga-cittas has been arrested, the ear-door-adverting-consciousness (sota-dvārāvajjana-citta) adverts to the object through the ear-door. The following cittas in that process which each perform their own function can experience the sound before it falls away. The duration of one material unit, a rūpa, has been determined by the commentaries as seventeen moments of citta. The number seventeen should be seen as a comparative notion which is expressed here (44). The cittas in a complete sense-door process of cittas, including three bhavanga-cittas which arise before the impinging rūpa is experienced, are seventeen in number. Later on (in chapter 15) I will deal in more detail with all the cittas arising in a process. Within this process each citta performs its own function while they experience a rūpa which has not fallen away yet. Therefore, the duration of a rūpa has been counted as seventeen moments of citta which succeed one another in a process (45). We cannot count these moments, we cannot imagine the shortness of time of a process of cittas; one citta lasts shorter than a flash of lightning.
A process of cittas does not always run its full course. When a rūpa impinges on one of the senses, it may happen that more than one moment of bhavanga-citta passes before the bhavanga-calana, which precedes the bhavangupaccheda; in that case the rūpa which has impinged on one of the senses does not survive until the process is completed since it cannot last longer than seventeen moments of citta. A process can, after it has started, be interrupted, for example, after the votthapana-citta (determining-consciousness), and then there are no kusala cittas or akusala cittas in that process (46). It may also happen that the atīta-bhavanga is succeeded by the bhavanga-calana which is “disturbed” by the object, but that the rūpa then falls away. In that case there is no bhavangupaccheda (arrest-bhavanga); the stream of bhavanga-cittas is not interrupted and the sense-door process cannot start. Sound may, for example, impinge on the earsense and then the atīta-bhavanga is succeeded by the bhavanga-calana. However, the bhavangupaccheda does not arise and thus the current of bhavanga-cittas is not interrupted and the ear-door process cannot start. In that case the sound cannot be heard.
When a sense-door process of cittas begins, the rūpa which has impinged on that sense-door is experienced. When the sense-door process of cittas which experience a rūpa such as visible object or sound is over, that object has also fallen away. Cittas succeed one another extremely rapidly and very shortly after the sense-door process of cittas is over, a mind-door process of cittas begins. The cittas of the mind-door process which follows upon the sense-door process experience through the mind-door the rūpa which has just fallen away. Before the mind-door process begins, however, there are bhavanga-cittas. Bhavanga-cittas arise in between the different processes of cittas. The last two bhavanga-cittas arising before the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta, the mind-door-adverting consciousness, are the bhavanga-calana (vibrating bhavanga) and the bhavangupaccheda (arrest-bhavanga)(47). Then the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta adverts to the object through the mind-door and it is succeeded by seven kusala cittas or akusala cittas (in the case of non-arahats) (48).
Summarising these cittas, they are:
  1. 1.
    bhavanga-calana (vibrating bhavanga), bhavangupaccheda
    (arrest-bhavanga)
  2. 2.
    mano-dvārāvajjana-citta (mind-door-adverting-consciousness)
  3. 3.
    seven akusala or kusala cittas (or, for the arahat: kiriyacittas)
When the mind-door process is over, the stream of bhavanga-cittas is resumed until there is again a process of cittas experiencing an object through one of the sense-doors or through the mind-door. There are countless bhavanga-cittas arising throughout our life in between the processes of cittas experiencing an object through one of the sense-doors or through the mind-door.
What is the mind-door? It is different from the sense-doors. A “doorway” is the means through which citta experiences an object. The sense-doors are the following rūpas: eyesense, earsense, smellingsense, tastingsense and bodysense. Bodysense is all over the body. These rūpas are the means through which a sense object is experienced. The mind-door is not one of these rūpas. In order to understand what the mind-door is we should consider what the first citta of the mind-door process is. This citta which performs the function of adverting to the object is the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta, the mind-door-adverting-consciousness. It does not advert to the object through one of the five senses but through the mind-door. The mind-door must be nāma, it is a citta. The citta which precedes the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta is the mind-door, it is the means through which the cittas of the mind-door process, beginning with the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta, receive the object. The citta which precedes the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta is the bhavangupaccheda and this citta is the mind-door. It is the mind-door through which the mano-dvārāvajjana-citta adverts to the object and it is also the doorway for the succeeding cittas of that process.
The study of the different sense-door processes and mind-door processes which take their course according to conditions will help us to see realities as elements which are devoid of self, beyond control. We may, for example, be infatuated with a beautiful sound we hear. What we take for a long time of hearing are many different moments of citta which do not last. Even when we do not know yet the origin of the sound, what kind of sound it is, sound has already been experienced through the mind-door since cittas succeed one another extremely rapidly, arising and falling away. Sound does not stay either, it falls away.
We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Saḷāyatana-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Fourth Fifty, chapter V, paragraph 205, The Lute) that the Buddha said to the monks:
...Suppose, monks, the sound of a lute has never been heard by a rājah or royal minister. Then he hears the sound of a lute and says: “Good men, pray, what is that sound so entrancing, so delightful, so intoxicating, so ravishing, of such power to bind?”
Then they say to him: “That, lord, is the sound of what is called a lute, that sound so entrancing, so delightful, so intoxicating, so ravishing, of such power to bind.”
Then he says: “Go, my men. Fetch me that lute.”
So they fetch him that lute and say to him: “This, lord, is that lute, the sound of which is so entrancing ...of such power to bind.”
Then he says: “Enough of this lute, my men. Fetch me that sound.”
They say to him: “This lute so called, lord, consists of divers parts, a great number of parts. It speaks because it is compounded of divers parts, to wit, owing to the belly, owing to the parchment, the handle, the frame, the strings, owing to the bridge and proper effort of a player. Thus, lord, this lute, so called, consists of divers parts, of a great number of parts. It speaks because it is compounded of divers parts.”
Then that rājah breaks up that lute into ten or a hundred pieces. Having done so, he splinters and splinters it again. Having done so, he burns it in fire, then makes it a heap of ashes and winnows the heap of ashes in a strong wind or lets them be borne down by the swift stream of a river.
Then he says: “A poor thing is what you call a lute, my men, whatever a lute may be. Herein the world is exceeding careless and led astray.”
Even so, monks, a monk investigating body as far as there is scope for body, investigating feeling, perception, the activities (saṅkhārakkhandha), investigating consciousness, so far as there is scope for consciousness - in all of these investigations, whatever there be of “I” or “I am” or “Mine”, there is none of that for him.

Questions

  1. 1.
    At which moments do bhavanga-cittas arise?
  2. 2.
    When did the first bhavanga-citta in life arise?
  3. 3.
    Can bhavanga-citta be ahetuka?
  4. 4.
    Can bhavanga-citta be accompanied by wisdom?
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