Citta – The Mind’s Essential Knowing Nature by Ajahn Maha Boowa
The following comments about the nature of the citta have been excerpted from several discourses given by Ãcariya Mahã Boowa.
Of foremost importance is the citta, the mind’s essential knowing nature. It consists of pure and simple awareness: the citta simply knows. Awareness of good and evil, and the critical judgements that result, are merely activities of the citta. At times, these activities may manifest as mindfulness; at other times, wisdom. But the true citta does not exhibit any activities or manifest any conditions at all. It only knows. Those activities that arise in the citta, such as awareness of good and evil, or happiness and suffering, or praise and blame, are all conditions of the consciousness that flows out from the citta. Since it represents activities and conditions of the citta that are, by their very nature, constantly arising and ceasing, this sort of consciousness is always unstable and unreliable.
The conscious acknowledgement of phenomena as they arise and cease is called viññãõa. For instance, viññãõa acknowledges and registers the sense impressions that are produced when sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations contact the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body respectively. Each such contact between an external sense sphere and its corresponding internal base gives rise to a specific consciousness that registers the moment at which each interaction takes place, and then promptly ceases at the same moment that the contact passes. Viññãõa, therefore, is consciousness as a condition of the citta. Sankhãra, or thoughts and imagination, is also a condition of the citta. Once the citta has given expression to these conditions, they tend to proliferate without limit. On the other hand, when no conditions arise at all, only the citta’s inherent quality of knowing is apparent.
Still, the essential knowing of the average person’s mind is very different from the essential knowing of an Arahant. The average person’s knowing nature is contaminated from within. Arahants, being khïõãsava, are free of all contamination. Their knowing is a pure and simple awareness without any adulteration. Pure awareness, devoid of all contaminants, is supreme awareness: a truly amazing quality of knowing that bestows perfect happiness, as befits the Arahant’s state of absolute purity. This Supreme Happiness always remains constant. It never changes or varies like conditioned phenomena of the world, which are always burdened with anicca, dukkha, and anattã. Such mundane characteristics cannot possibly enter into the citta of someone who has cleansed it until it is absolutely pure.
The citta forms the very foundation of saÿsãra; it is the essence of being that wanders from birth to birth. It is the instigator of the cycle of existence and the prime mover in the round of repeated birth and death. Samsãra is said to be a cycle because death and rebirth recur regularly according to the immutable law of kamma. The citta is governed by kamma, so it is obliged to revolve perpetually in this cycle following kamma’s dictates. As long as the citta remains under the jurisdiction of kamma, this will always be the case. The citta of the Arahant is the sole exception, for his citta has completely transcended kamma’s domain. Since he has also transcended all conventional connections, not a single aspect of relative, conventional reality can possibly become involved with the Arahant’s citta. At the level of Arahant, the citta has absolutely no involvement with anything.
Once the citta is totally pure, it simply knows according to its own inherent nature. It is here that the citta reaches it culmination; it attains perfection at the level of absolute purity. Here the continuous migration from one birth to the next finally comes to an end. Here the perpetual journey from the higher realms of existence to the lower ones and back again, through the repetitive cycle of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, totally ceases. Why does it cease here? Because those hidden, defiling elements that normally permeate the citta and cause it to spin around have been completely eliminated. All that remains is the pure citta, which will never again experience birth and death.
Rebirth is inevitable, however, for the citta that has yet to reach that level of purity. One may be tempted to deny that rebirth follows death, or one may doggedly hold to the nihilistic viewpoint that rejects all possibility of life after death, but such convictions cannot alter the truth. One’s essential knowing nature is not governed by speculation; nor is it influenced by people’s views and opinions. Its preeminence within one’s own being, coupled with the supreme authority of kamma, completely override all speculative considerations.
As a consequence, all living beings are compelled to move from one life to the next, experiencing both gross incarnations, like the creatures of land, sea and air, and the more refined incarnations of ghosts, devas and brahmas. Although the later are so ethereal as to be invisible to the human eye, the citta has no difficulty taking birth in their realms. The appropriate kamma is all that is required. Kamma is the determining factor; it is the power that propels the citta on its ceaseless journey in samsãra.
The citta is something so extremely subtle that it is difficult to comprehend what actually constitutes the citta. It is only when the citta attains a state of meditative calm that its true nature becomes apparent. Even experienced meditators who are intent on understanding the citta are unable to know its true nature until they have attained the meditative calm of samãdhi.
Even though the citta resides within the body, we are nevertheless unable to detect it. That’s how very subtle it is. Because it is dispersed throughout the physical body, we cannot tell which part or which aspect is actually the true citta. It is so subtle that only the practice of meditation can detect its presence and differentiate it from all the other aspects associated with the body. Through the practice of meditation we can separate them out, seeing that the body is one thing and the citta is another. This is one level of separation, the level of the citta that is experienced in samãdhi, but its duration is limited to the time spent practicing samãdhi.
At the next level, the citta can totally separate itself from the physical body, but it cannot yet disengage from the mental components of personality: vedanã, saññã, sankhãra, and viññãõa. When the citta reaches this level, one can use wisdom to separate out the body and eventually become detached forever from the belief that one’s body is oneself, but one is still unable to separate the mental factors of feeling, memory, thoughts, and consciousness from the citta. By using wisdom to investigate further, these mental factors can also be detached from the citta. We then see clearly for ourselves – sandiååhiko – that all five khandhas are realities separate from the citta. This is the third level of separation.
At the final level, our attention turns to the original cause of all delusion, that extremely subtle pervasion of ignorance we call avijjã. We know avijjã’s name, but we fail to realize that it is concealed there within the citta. In fact, it permeates the citta like an insidious poison. We cannot see it yet, but it’s there. At this stage, we must rely on the superior strength of our mindfulness, wisdom, and perseverance to extract the poison. Eventually, by employing the full power of mindfulness and wisdom, even avijjã can be separated from the citta.
When everything permeating the citta has finally been removed, we have reached the ultimate stage. Separation at this level is a permanent and total disengagement that requires no further effort to maintain. This is true freedom for the citta. When the body suffers illness, we know clearly that only the physical elements are affected, so we are not concerned or upset by the symptoms. Ordinarily, bodily discomfort causes mental stress. But once the citta is truly free, one remains supremely happy even amid intense physical suffering. The body and the pain are known to be phenomena separate from the citta, so the citta does not participate in the distress. Having relinquished them unequivocally, body and feelings can never again intermix with the citta. This is the citta’s absolute freedom.
Being intrinsically bright and clear, the citta is always ready to make contact with everything of every nature. Although all conditioned phenomena without exception are governed by the three universal laws of anicca, dukkha, and anattã, the citta’s true nature is not subject to these laws. The citta is conditioned by anicca, dukkha, and anattã only because things that are subject to these laws come spinning in to become involved with the citta and so cause it to spin along with them. However, though it spins in unison with conditioned phenomena, the citta never disintegrates or falls apart. It spins following the influence of those forces which have the power to make it spin, but the true power of the citta’s own nature is that it knows and does not die. This deathlessness is a quality that lies beyond disintegration. Being beyond disintegration, it also lies beyond the range of anicca, dukkha, and anattã
and the universal laws of nature. But we remain unaware of this truth because the conventional realities that involve themselves with the citta have completely surrounded it, making the citta’s nature thoroughly conform to theirs.
Birth and death have always been conditions of the citta that is infected by kilesas. But, since kilesas themselves are the cause of our ignorance, we are unaware of this truth. Birth and death are problems arising from the kilesas. Our real problem, our one fundamental problem – which is also the citta’s fundamental problem – is that we lack the power needed to be our own true self. Instead, we have always taken counterfeit things to be the essence of who we really are, so that the citta’s behavior is never in harmony with its true nature. Rather, it expresses itself through the kilesas’ cunning deceits, which cause it to feel anxious and frightened of virtually everything. It dreads living, and dreads dying. Whatever happens – slight pain, severe pain – it becomes afraid. It’s perturbed by even the smallest disturbances. As a result, the citta is forever full of worries and fears. And although fear and worry are not intrinsic to the citta, they still manage to produce apprehension there.
When the citta has been cleansed so that it is absolutely pure and free of all involvement, only then will we see a citta devoid of all fear. Then, neither fear nor courage appear, only the citta’s true nature, existing naturally alone on its own, forever independent of time and space. Only that appears – nothing else. This is the genuine citta. The term “genuine citta” refers solely to the absolute purity, or the sa-upãdisesa-nibbãna, of the Arahant. Nothing else can wholeheartedly and without reservations be called the “genuine citta”. I myself would be embarrassed to use the term in any other way.
The term “original citta” means the original nature of the citta that spins endlessly through the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha indicated this when he said: “Monks, the original citta is intrinsically bright and clear, but it becomes defiled by the commingling of the kilesas that come passing through.”
In this sense, “original citta” refers to the origin of conventional reality (sammuti), not the origin of Absolute Purity (parisuddhi). When referring to the original citta, the Buddha stated: “Pabhassaramidam cittam bhikkhave.” Pabhassara means radiant, it does not mean pure. His reasoning is absolutely correct; it is impossible to argue against it. Had the Buddha equated the original citta with the pure citta, one could immediately object: “If the citta was originally pure, why then should it be born at all?” The Arahant, who has purified his citta, is one who never comes to birth again. If his citta were originally pure, why then would he need to purify it? This would be the obvious objection: What reason would there be to purify it? The radiant citta, on the other hand, can be purified because its radiance is nothing other than the essential, true nature of avijjã. Meditators will realize this truth clearly for themselves at the moment when the citta transcends this radiance to reach Absolute Freedom (vimutti). Then, the radiance will no longer appear in the citta. At this very point, one realizes the supreme truth about the citta.
Once the citta has become so well-cleansed that it is always bright and clear, then when we are in a quiet place, surrounded by complete silence – as in the still of the night – even though the citta has not ‘converged’ in samãdhi, the focal point of its awareness is so exceedingly delicate and refined as to be indescribable. This subtle awareness manifests as a radiance that extends forth in all directions around us. We are unconscious of sights, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile sensations, despite the fact that the citta has not entered samãdhi. Instead, it is actually experiencing its own firm foundation, the very basis of the citta that has been well-cleansed to the point where a mesmerizing, majestic quality
of knowing is its most prominent feature.
Seeming to exist independent of the physical body, this kind of extremely refined awareness stands out exclusively within the citta. Due to the subtle and pronounced nature of the citta at this stage, its knowing nature completely predominates. No images or visions appear there at all. It is an awareness that stands out exclusively on its own. This is one aspect of the citta.
Another aspect is seen when this well-cleansed citta enters meditative calm, not thinking or imagining anything. Ceasing all activity, all movement, it simply rests for awhile. All thought and imagination within the citta come to a complete halt. This is called “the citta entering a state of total calm.” Then, the citta’s essential knowing nature is all that remains. Except for this very refined awareness – an awareness that seems to blanket the entire cosmos – absolutely nothing else appears. For unlike a beam of light, whose range is limited, reaching either near or far depending on the strength of the light, the flow of the citta has no limits, no “near” or “far”. For instance, the brightness of an electric light depends on its wattage. If the wattage is high, it shines a long distance; if low, a short distance. But the flow of the citta is very different. Distance is not a factor. To be precise, the citta is beyond the conditions of time and space, which allows it to blanket everything. Far is like near, for concepts of space do not apply. All that appears is a very refined awareness suffusing everything throughout the entire universe. The whole world seems to be filled by this subtle quality of knowing, as though nothing else exists, though things still exist in the world as they always have. The all-encompassing flow of the citta that has been cleansed of the things that cloud and obscure it, this is the citta’s true power.
The citta that is absolutely pure is even more difficult to describe. Since it is something that defies definition, I don’t know how I could characterize it. It cannot be expressed in the same way that conventional things in general can be, simply because it is not a conventional phenomenon. It is the sole province of those who have transcended all aspects of conventional reality, and thus realize within themselves that non-conventional nature. For this reason, words cannot describe it.
Why do we speak of a “conventional” citta and an “absolutely pure” citta? Are they actually two different cittas? Not at all. It remains the same citta. When it is controlled by conventional realities, such as kilesas and ãsavas, that is one condition of the citta. But when the faculty of wisdom has scrubbed it clean until this condition has totally disintegrated, the true citta, the true Dhamma, the one that can stand the test, will not disintegrate and disappear along with it. Only the conditions of anicca, dukkha and anattã, which infiltrate the citta, actually disappear.
No matter how subtle the kilesas may be, they are still conditioned by anicca, dukkha, and anattã, and therefore, must be conventional phenomena. Once these things have completely disintegrated, the true citta, the one that has transcended conventional reality, becomes fully apparent. This is called the citta’s Absolute Freedom, or the citta’s Absolute Purity. All connections continuing from the citta’s previous condition have been severed forever. Now utterly pure, the citta’s essential knowing nature remains alone on its own.
We cannot say where in the body this essential knowing nature is centered. Previously, with the conventional citta, it formed a prominent point that we could clearly see and know. For example, in samãdhi we knew that it was centered in the middle of the chest because the knowing quality of our awareness stood out prominently there. The calm, the brightness, and the radiance appeared to emanate conspicuously from that point. We could see this for ourselves. All meditators whose level of calm has reached the very base of samãdhi realize that the center of “what knows” stands out prominently in the region of the heart. They will not argue that it is centered in the brain, as those who have no experience in the practice of samãdhi are always claiming.
But when the same citta has been cleansed until it is pure, that center then disappears. One can no longer say that the citta is located above or below, or that it is situated at any specific point in the body. It is now pure awareness, a knowing quality that is so subtle and refined that it transcends all conventional designations whatsoever. Still, in saying that it is “exceedingly refined”, we are obliged to use a conventional figure of speech that cannot possibly express the truth; for, of course, the notion of extreme refinement is itself a convention. Since this refined awareness does not have a point or a center, it is impossible to specifically locate its position. There is only that essential knowing, with absolutely nothing infiltrating it. Although it still exists amid the same khandhas with which it used to intermix, it no longer shares any common characteristics with them. It is a world apart. Only then do we know clearly that the body, the khandhas, and the citta are all distinct and separate realities.