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The First Citta in Life

Time and again there are cittas arising which experience different objects through the senses and through the mind-door. There are seeing or hearing, there are cittas with attachment to what is seen or heard. These cittas arise because of different conditions. Seeing and the citta with attachment to visible object do not arise at the same time, they are different and they perform different functions. We will understand more about cittas if we know in what order they arise and which function they perform. Each citta has its own function (in Pāli: kicca). There are fourteen functions of citta in all.
The citta arising at the first moment of life must also have a function. What is birth, and what is it actually that is born? We speak about the birth of a child, but in fact, there are only nāma and rūpa which are born. The word “birth” is a conventional term. We should consider what birth really is. Nāma and rūpa arise and fall away all the time and thus there is birth and death of nāma and rūpa all the time. In order to understand what causes birth we should know what conditions the nāma and rūpa which arise at the first moment of a new lifespan.
What arises first at the beginning of our life, nāma or rūpa? At any moment of our life there have to be both nāma and rūpa. In the planes of existence where there are five khandhas (four nāmakkhandhas and one rūpakkhandha), nāma cannot arise without rūpa; citta cannot arise without the body (37). What is true for any moment of our life is also true for the first moment of our life. At the first moment of our life nāma and rūpa have to arise at the same time. The citta which arises at that moment is called the rebirth-consciousness or paṭisandhi-citta (38). Since there isn’t any citta which arises without conditions, the paṭisandhi-citta must also have conditions. The paṭisandhi-citta is the first citta of a new life and thus its cause can only be in the past. One may have doubts about past lives, but how can people be so different if there were no past lives? We can see that people are born with different accumulations. Can we explain the character of a child only by the parents? What we mean by “character” is actually nāma. Could parents transfer to another being nāma which falls away as soon as it has arisen? There must be other factors which are the condition for a child’s character. Cittas which arise and fall away succeed one another and thus each citta conditions the next one. The last citta of the previous life (dying-consciousness) is succeeded by the first citta of this life. That is why tendencies one had in the past can continue by way of accumulation from one citta to the next one and from past lives to the present life. Since people accumulated different tendencies in past lives, they are born with different tendencies and inclinations.
We do not only see that people are born with different characters, we also see that they are born in different surroundings; some people are born in pleasant surroundings and some people are born in miserable surroundings. In order to understand this we should not cling to conventional terms such as “person” or “surroundings”. If we think in terms of paramattha dhammas we will see that being in pleasant or miserable surroundings is nothing else but the receiving of pleasant or unpleasant objects through eyes, ears, nose, tongue and bodysense. It is kusala vipāka or akusala vipāka. Vipāka (result) does not arise without conditions; it is caused by good or bad deeds, by kamma. Different people perform different kamma and each deed brings its own result. The fact that people are born in different surroundings must have a condition: it is conditioned by kamma performed in a previous life. Kamma causes one to be born. The paṭisandhi-citta is the result of kamma; it is vipāka.
In this world we see different births of people and of animals. When we compare the life of an animal with the life of a human being, we notice that being born an animal is sorrowful; it is akusala vipāka. Being born a human being is kusala vipāka, even if one is born poor or if one has to experience many unpleasant things during one’s life. The paṭisandhi-cittas of different people are of many different degrees of kusala vipāka because the kusala kammas which produced them were of different degrees.
At the first moment of our life kamma produces the paṭisandhi-citta and then rūpa has to arise at the same time. One may wonder what the cause is of the rūpa arising at the first moment of life. We see that people are born with different bodily features: some are strong, some are weak, some are handicapped from birth. This must have a cause. It is kamma which causes both nāma and rūpa to be born.
Could the rūpa we call “dead matter” and the rūpa we call “plant” be produced by kamma? A plant is not “born” because a plant cannot perform good and bad deeds; it has no kamma that could cause its birth. Temperature is the condition for the life of a plant. As regards human beings, kamma produces rūpa at the moment the paṭisandhi-citta arises. There couldn’t be life if kamma did not produce rūpa from the first moment of life. There are four factors which produce different rūpas of the body. As we have seen kamma is one factor. The other factors are: citta, temperature and nutrition. Kamma produces rūpa at the moment the paṭisandhi-citta arises and after that the other factors also start to produce rūpas. Temperature produces rūpa; if there were not the right temperature the new life could not develop. Temperature produces rūpa throughout our life. As soon as the paṭisandhi-citta has fallen away, at the moment the next citta arises, citta too starts to produce rūpa, and it produces rūpa throughout our life. Furthermore, nutrition produces rūpa so that the body can grow. It produces rūpa throughout our life. Thus we see that there are four factors which produce rūpas of the body.
As regards rūpas which are not of the body but rūpas outside, such as rūpas in dead matter or in plants, these are produced solely by temperature.
Kamma produces rūpa not only at the first moment of life but throughout our life. Kamma does not only produce the vipākacittas which experience pleasant and unpleasant objects through the sense-doors, it also produces throughout our life the rūpas which can function as the sense-doors through which these objects are received. Could we for instance create our own eyesense? It could not be produced by temperature, only by kamma. Transplantation of the eye cannot be successful unless kamma produces eyesense in the body of the receiver.
Birth by way of the mother’s womb is not the only way of birth. We learn from the teachings that there can be birth in four different ways: by way of the womb, by way of eggs, by way of moisture and by way of spontaneous birth.
People would like to know when life starts in the mother’s womb. We cannot determine the exact moment. Life starts at the moment the paṭisandhi-citta arises together with the rūpa which is at the same time produced by kamma. A lifespan ends when the last citta, the dying-consciousness (cuti-citta) falls away. So long as the dying-consciousness has not fallen away there is still life. One cannot know the moment the dying-consciousness of someone else arises and falls away unless one has cultivated the knowledge of the cittas of other people. A Buddha or someone else who has cultivated this special kind of knowledge could know the exact moment of someone’s death.
We may wonder which kamma in our life will produce the paṭisandhi-citta of the next life. Some people believe that by doing many good deeds in this life they can be assured of a happy rebirth. But the kamma which produces rebirth will not necessarily be from this life. We have in past lives as well as in this life performed both akusala kamma and kusala kamma and these kammas are of different degrees. Some kammas produce results in the same life in which they have been performed, some produce result in the form of rebirth-consciousness of a future life, or they produce result in the course of a future life. We have performed deeds in past lives which could produce rebirth but which have not yet come to fruition. We cannot know which kamma will produce our next rebirth.
If akusala kamma produces the rebirth of the next life there will be an unhappy rebirth. In that case the cittas which arise shortly before the dying-consciousness are akusala cittas 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.
People want to know whether they can ensure a happy rebirth for themselves by controlling the last cittas before the cuti-citta, by inducing them to be kusala. Some people invite monks to chant at the deathbed of a dying person in order to help him to have kusala cittas. However, nobody can be sure that his rebirth will be a happy one, unless he has attained one of the stages of enlightenment. One cannot have power over one’s cittas. Can we control our thoughts now, at this moment? Since we cannot do this, how could we control our thoughts at the time shortly before dying? There is no self who can decide about his rebirth in a next life. After the last akusala cittas or kusala cittas in life have fallen away, the cuti-citta arises. The cuti-citta is succeeded by the paṭisandhi-citta of the next life. When the paṭisandhi-citta arises a new lifespan starts. So long as there is kamma there will be future lives.
The paṭisandhi-citta performs the function of rebirth or relinking. It “links” the past to the present. Since only the first citta of a lifespan performs the function of rebirth there is only one paṭisandhi-citta in a life. There is no self who transmigrates from one life to the next life; there are only nāma and rūpa arising and falling away. The present life is different from the past life but there is continuity in so far as the present life is conditioned by the past. Since the paṭisandhi-citta succeeds the cuti-citta of the previous life, the accumulated tendencies of past lives go on to the paṭisandhi-citta. Thus, inclinations one has in the present life are conditioned by the past.
The paṭisandhi-citta is the result of a previous good deed or bad deed committed in the past. The object the paṭisandhi-citta experiences is, as we have seen, the same as the object experienced by the last akusala cittas or kusala cittas which arose before the cuti-citta of the previous life. The Visuddhimagga (XVII, 164-168) explains by way of similes that although the present is different from the past there is continuity. The being who is born is not the same as the being of the past life, but it is conditioned by the past. There is “neither absolute identity nor absolute otherness”, as the Visuddhimagga explains. We read with regard to the paṭisandhi-citta:
An echo, or its like, supplies
The figures here; connectedness
By continuity denies
Identity and otherness.
And here let the illustration of this consciousness be such things as an echo, a light, a seal impression, a looking glass image, for the fact of its not coming here from the previous becoming and for the fact that it arises owing to causes that are included in past becomings. For just as an echo, a light, a seal impression, and a shadow, have respectively sound, etc., as their cause and come into being without going elsewhere, so also this consciousness.
And with the stream of continuity there is neither identity nor otherness. For if there were absolute identity in a stream of continuity, there would be no forming of curd from milk. And yet if there were absolute otherness, the curd would not be derived from milk. And so too with all causally arisen things ...So neither absolute identity nor absolute otherness should be assumed here.
One is glad to be born if one does not realize that birth is the result of kamma and that one will go forth in the cycle of birth and death so long as there is kamma. Not seeing the dangers of birth is ignorance. At this moment we are in the human plane of existence but so long as we have not attained any stage of enlightenment we cannot be sure that there will not be rebirth in one of the woeful planes. We all have performed both akusala kamma and kusala kamma in different lives. Who knows which of those deeds will produce the paṭisandhi-citta of the next life, even if we continue doing good deeds? Some people think that birth in a heavenly plane is desirable, but they do not realize that life in a heavenly plane does not last and that, after a lifespan in heaven is over, an ill deed previously performed could produce a paṭisandhi-citta in a woeful plane.
We read in the “Discourse on Fools and the Wise” (Middle Length Sayings III, 129) that the Buddha, when he was staying in the Jeta Grove, in Anāthapiṇḍika monastery, spoke to the monks about the sufferings in hell and about the anguishes of animal birth. The Buddha said:
“In many a disquisition could I, monks, talk a talk about animal birth, but it is not easy to describe in full, monks, so many are the anguishes of animal birth.
Monks, it is like a man who might throw a yoke with one hole into the sea. An easterly wind might take it westwards, a westerly wind might take it eastwards, a northerly wind might take it southwards, a southerly wind might take it northwards. There might be a blind turtle there who came to the surface once in a hundred years. What do you think, monks? Could that blind turtle push his neck through that one hole in the yoke?”
“If at all, revered sir, then only once in a very long while.”
“Sooner or later, monks, could the blind turtle push his neck through the one hole in the yoke; more difficult than that, do I say, monks, is human status once again for the fool who has gone to the Downfall. What is the cause of that? Monks, there is no dhamma-faring there, no even-faring, no doing of what is skilled, no doing of what is good. Monks, there is devouring of one another there and feeding on the weak. Monks, if some time or other once in a very long while that fool came to human status (again), he would be born into those families that are low: a family of low caste or a family of hunters or a family of bamboo-plaiters or a family of cartwrights or a family of refuse-scavengers, in such a family as is needy, without enough to drink or to eat, where a covering for the back is with difficulty obtained. Moreover, he would be ill-favoured, ugly, dwarfish, sickly, blind or deformed or lame or paralysed; he would be unable to get food, drink, clothes, vehicles, garlands, scents and perfumes, bed, dwelling and lights; he would fare wrongly in body, wrongly in speech, wrongly in thought. Because he had fared wrongly in body, speech and thought, at the breaking up of the body after dying he would arise in the sorrowful ways, a bad bourn, the Downfall, Niraya Hell...
...This, monks, is the fool’s condition, completed in its entirety...”
The Buddha spoke about the dangers of birth in many different ways. He said that birth is dukkha (sorrow); it is followed by old age, sickness and death. He pointed out the foulness of the body and he reminded people that also at this very moment the body is dukkha, impermanent and non-self. If we continue taking mind and body for self there will be no end to the cycle of birth and death.
We read in the Kindred Sayings (II, Nidāna-vagga, chapter XV, Kindred Sayings on the Incalculable Beginning, paragraph 10, A Person) that the Buddha, when he was in Rājagaha, on Vulture’s Peak, said to the monks:
Incalculable is the beginning, monks, of this faring on. The earliest point is not revealed of the running on, faring on of beings, cloaked in ignorance, tied by craving...
The bones of one single person, monks, running on, faring on for an aeon would be a cairn, a pile, a heap as great as Mount Vepulla, were there a collector of those bones and the collection were not destroyed.
How is this? Incalculable is the beginning, monks, of this faring on. The earliest point is not revealed of the running on, faring on of beings, cloaked in ignorance, tied by craving...
Thus spoke the Exalted One. After the Wellfarer had said this, he spoke further:
The pile of bones (of all the bodies of) one man
Who has alone one aeon lived,
Were heaped a mountain high - so said the mighty seer -
Yes, reckoned high as Vipula
To north of Vulture's Peak, crag-fort of Magadha.
When he with perfect insight sees
The Ariyan Truths: - what dukkha is and how it comes
And how it may be overpassed,
The Ariyan Eightfold Path, the way all ill to abate -
Seven times at most reborn, a man
Yet running on, through breaking every fetter down,
Endmaker does become of dukkha.
It is fortunate to be born in the human plane where we can cultivate insight. When the first stage of enlightenment (the stage of the sotāpanna) has been attained, the four noble Truths have been directly understood. Then we will not be reborn more than seven times and we can be sure that there will eventually be an end to rebirth.


  1. 1.
    How many functions of citta are there in all?
  2. 2.
    The four classes, jātis, of citta are: akusala, kusala, vipāka and
    kiriya. Of which jāti is the paṭisandhi-citta?
  3. 3.
    Is birth as a human being always the result of kusala kamma?
  4. 4.
    When does human life start?
  5. 5.
    Why is birth sorrow (dukkha)?