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The Cognitive Process According to the Abhidhamma

The Cognitive Process According to the Abhidhamma

Words like citta (consciousness) or cetasika (mental factor) can be quite abstract (see also Ultimate Reality and Ethical Quality in the Abhidhamma). Your own experience is (I suppose) not a bunch of independent citta’s but the dynamic character of the cognitive process.

Citta and cetasika come more to life when you look at the process that takes place in our daily lives. Maybe you think you already know enough about the functioning of your consciousness, after all, you experience it on a daily basis.

Still, it is good to read the following explanation carefully and to think about it from time to time during the day. Right-View is not always intuitive.

This is because our point of view is conditioned by an enormous series of akusala (unwholesome) citta. Most of us will probably not experience kusala (wholesome) citta’s more than 0.01% of the time. We therefore base our view on the remaining 99.9% akusala citta’s.

The Abhidhamma can help to make cracks in this wrong view so that it can be replaced in the future by the liberating Right View.

Before we go to the cognitive process it is useful to clarify this point. This point emphasizes the usefulness of studying the Abhidhamma. I want to do this by means of three steps that can be taken in correcting a form of wrong view, namely the wrong view that there is an ‘I’.

Almost everyone has the wrong view that there is an ‘I’, a ‘self’ and a ‘mine’. This wrong view is deeply rooted in us. Three gradations of this wrong view can be distinguished before a correct view is reached.

The Wrong View “This Is Me”

Everybody thinks about the ‘why’ question of life or, by extension, about ‘who’ or ‘what’ you really are. Not everyone continues  with this until a precisely defined theory emerges, but you will have formed an idea about it.

This idea is the ‘philosophical’ framework on which you based the concept of ‘I’. You might think, for example, that you are nothing more than matter, after all, you are a lot of cells that die at some point. You might think that after death there is nothing more and that there was nothing before you were born.

With this opinion you have already devised a whole system to which you link your ‘self’. A frame of reference.

Some wil refer to theorists, philosophers or theologians. Others will say “that’s just the way it is” and then be done with it.

The intensity doesn’t make much difference to this story. What is more important is that this idea, this framework, is a point of view. A viewpoint that you’ve created/devised yourself. With the emphasis on ‘devised’.

It is nothing more than a concept, an idea, a theory, and has nothing to do with reality. After all, you don’t know for sure. If you experience reality from your own experience, you would know for sure.

Now, based on this made-up framework, you are convinced that there is an ‘I’. This deeply rooted, conceived belief is the first and worst gradation of the mistaken view that there is an ‘I’. You could call it the ‘this is me’ view, because you have an idea of what you are.

The Wrong View “I Am”

If you start engaging with Buddhism, you will notice that ‘non-self’ is often talked about.

It is also often said that your own perception is very subjective and that you have to be careful to not draw conclusions based on this too prematurely.

Even drawing conclusions based on deep meditative experience must be taken with a grain of salt. One can step into the trap by thinking that one has already acquired complete wisdom while taking only a small step.

That is why a teacher is so important. Without a teacher who has achieved the necessary experience, you can easily get sidetracked or get stuck somewhere because it is so nice to stay, while you have not yet reached the goal, the complete liberation.

What is possible, however, is that sufficient experience in meditation, for example the buddho-system, provides confidence. Trust in the Dhamma, the way of the Buddha.

You notice that meditation helps you in your daily life and step by step you notice that things you have read in Buddhist books also apply to you.

This can make you stop making theories about a ‘self’. Not that you immediately see that everything is nothing more than conditioned transient moments, but you accept on the basis of an incipient personal experience in meditation that your perception and thus your idea of an ‘I’ might be wrong.

If you stop making or adhering to a theory or philosophy about an ‘I’, you have left the worst form of mistaken perception of a self behind you. You’ve taken a step toward the right view, but you haven’t experienced the not-self yet.

This is the second degree of misconception that an ‘I’ exists. You could call it the ‘I am’ view, because you only accept that you are.

The Wrong View “I”.

By continuing to work with the meditation system with energy and perseverance, there will automatically come a moment when you get a first experience of non-self.

You see, for a few moments, that you are a collection of loose mental elements (citta and cetasika) and matter (rūpa) that appear and perish over and over again, based on conditions. In other words, you see the rise and fall of mental processes and matter, known in Pali as nāma-rūpa.

This destroys the idea of an “I” more than before, but you’re not there yet!

When you rise up from meditation and look into the wide world, you see with your eyes, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue. You know that based on your own experience there is no ‘I’, but in daily life it ‘feels’ as if an ‘I’ perceives things.

This is the third and most subtle form of misunderstanding. You could call it the ‘I’ view, because in the most subtle ways you still think that it perceives ‘self’, but no more than that.

The Final Step

Luckily you have a teacher who points out to you that even the ‘feeling’ of perception by a ‘self’ is an illusion.

And by striving further, there comes a moment when even this most subtle form of ego-thinking is destroyed and every form of longing and attachment to a self is given up.

That is the moment in which the Right-view of non-self has been achieved. This is part of Arahantship, the end goal of the Buddhist path.

Background Information for the Cognitive Process

If you’ve read this story up to here, you might be able to imagine how stubborn the notion is that there is an ‘I’.

When the essence, the deep meaning of the Abhidhamma really begins to penetrate, the first hairline cracks in the ‘self’ image can appear. The Abhidhamma teaches that all are conditioned transient moments. That there is no ‘me’, no ‘self’, no ‘mine’.

A beautiful addition and deepening of one’s own meditative experience!

This seems to me a nice moment to look at the cognitive process. Since the cognitive process consists of a sequence of citta’s, it is useful to repeat what we have learned about citta’s so far:

  1. A citta (moment of consciousness) is a Paramattha-dhamma (ultimate reality)
  2. Citta is one of the four categories in which the Abhidhamma divides the ultimate reality. The other three are cetasika (mental factors), rūpa (matter) and Nibbāna (Nirwana).
  3. A citta is:
    1. Mental
    2. Conditioned
    3. Impermenant
    4. Without Self
  4. Citta and cetasika:
    1. Rise together (appear simultaneously)
    2. Fall together (disappear at the same time)
    3. Have the same object
    4. Have the same base
  5. Citta knows the object, perceives the object. Cetasika‘s perform the functions in the observation process. Citta is like the king, cetasika‘s as his entourage that always accompanies him.
  6. Citta exists in three ethical variants:
    1. Wholesome
    2. Unwholesome
    3. Indefinite
  7. Citta can be mundane and supraworldly
  8. Citta appear and disappear with incredible speed. Billions of citta pass in the time of a lightning bolt or the blinking of the eyes

I think we have sufficiently defined the term citta to start looking at the cognitive process. However, I would like to make a comment in advance and clarify the expectations a bit.

Ahba has sometimes indicated that one should not concern oneself too much with the individual citta’s. He indicates that otherwise it remains too abstract. Perhaps it is better not to be too busy with things that are very far away from the world of experience, while there still is so much to learn about things that we do experience.

Exactly how many steps the mental process has and which citta performs which function and how they relate to each other is of secondary importance at this moment.

I am only going to try to express the essences or conclusions that you can draw from the explanations in the Abhidhamma about your mind. For more details I refer to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma or Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.

There are a few principles that are useful as background information. One cognitive process consists, according to the Commentaries, of 17 citta’s. Which 17 and what function they fulfil in the process is, as said, not important now. What is important, however, is that these 17 rise and fall one after the other. So the first citta rises and falls, then the second, then the third, and so on.

So a cognitive process consists of all separate moments of consciousness that follow each other in rapid succession.

What is also useful to know is that Buddhism always speaks about six senses. In addition to the regular five (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch) that we know in the West, ‘consciousness’ also finds its place here. The sense (mental) consciousness perceives mental objects just like the eyes perceive visible things as an object and the ears perceive sound as an object.

The Cognitive Process

There are roughly 2 types of processes. The first one is sensory. One of the five bodily senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue or touch) is brought into contact with a corresponding object and, if all conditions are met, a sensory-cognitive process based on that sense is automatically created.

Take eye consciousness as an example. If there is a working eye (i.e. eye-sensitivity), a visible object, light and attention, then all conditions are present for an eye-cognitive process. At that moment this process takes place anyway, completely automatically, purely on the basis of conditions and conditions, without an ‘I’ being involved.

Every sense has its own process in this way. We know that citta’s always rise and fall one after the other, it follows that only one kind of cognitive process can take place at a time.

This is the first essence of the consciousness process. Although we think we see, hear, smell, taste and feel at the same time, this is not so! It happens in rapid succession.

Whether you see, whether you hear, whether you smell, whether you taste or feel.

Just like a film actually consists of all separate images that are played at least 24 frames per second to give the illusion of a flowing movement, the citta’s, and in their extension the cognitive processes, present themselves as a continous flow.

Only through very high concentration can this process be analyzed down to the smallest parts via personal experience. This was a brief description of the first kind of process, the sensory-cognitive-process.

The alert reader has probably already noticed that the sixth sense, the (mental) consciousness, has not yet been mentioned. The mental-cognitive-process is the second kind of cognitive-process.

This process can be divided into two parts. First, the pure mental-cognitive process, which is used for example during abstract thinking about things.

This process, like the the sensory-cognitive-processes, is also activated by the presence of conditions. In this case it is the heart-base, the mental object, life continuum and attention. If these conditions are met, then the mental object is known.

Secondly, mental-cognitive processes (note the plural) also occur after a sensory-consciousness process.

After contact takes place between object and sense and all conditions are met, a sensory-cognitive-process starts. Like the above mentioned eye-cognitive process. This is known to the sensory object. In principle this is a very pure perception of the object to which no concepts have been added yet. Immediately after this sensory-cognitive process some mental-cognitive processes take place one after the other that will give meaning to what has been observed by the sense. However, a mental-cognitive process does not do this with the real ‘external’ phenomenon as an object, but with a mental copy! I will give an example.

If an eye-cognitive process has taken place because the conditions for this process have been met, the visible object has been observed. However, a visible object is just colour, not form, material, name, and so on.

Why not? Take shape as an example. You cannot see shape. You can feel shape. Think of all those nice visual illusions that can be made with pen and paper. Suddenly a two-dimensional sheet of paper seems to have depth when you look at it. But that is not true at all. If you feel the paper, you also know that this is not true. Shape is something you feel.

What you see is colour and contrast and based on previous experience, among other things, your consciousness links a certain form to this. Observing a shape on the basis of seeing with the eyes is a derivative.

That is why visual illusions go wrong. Your mental-cognitive process links something to the contrast and colour you see when there is none in reality!

The same goes for a name, of course. You don’t see an orange. What you see is orange. Your conciousness tells you it has the shape of a round sphere. Further analysis then gives the name ‘orange’. If you’ve never seen an orange before, you can’t give it that name, then the process stops at ‘an orange sphere’.

The bizarre thing about this whole thing is that only that first sensory-cognitive process actually perceives the object (e.g. the color orange). Then a mental copy is made of this object which is then used as a mental object for further analysis during the mental-cognitive-processes.

All (mental) analysis is therefore performed on a concept and not on the actual object.

For example, if you look at a beautiful rose then you do not experience the rose as beautiful, but the mental concept of ‘rose’. Because what you see is only color (maybe red). The shape ‘flower’ and the name ‘rose’ are concepts added to the mental copy (and not to the actual external object). So the word ‘beautiful’ applies to a concept, not to reality.

Why is this important? Because we are totally engrossed in it. Because we merrily run along with it.

Suddenly we have an opinion on everything. We think it’s a nice, good-looking, ripe-looking orange we’d really like to eat. Or we think it’s an ugly, fused, unripe-looking orange that we definitely don’t want to eat.

Desire arises. Wanting something is just as much a desire as not wanting something. As soon as desire is involved, problems arise.

If you don’t get the nice orange you are sad, if you have to eat the dirty orange you are sad. And the pleasure that you experience by satisfying your desires, by eating the orange, is transient and only of short duration and therefore actually sad.

Immediately after that pleasure of satisfying your desire, there are many other things you may or may not want.

Just like a small child in a toy store. The child wants one toy. That’s why it always whines. When the child gets the toy, he or she is playing happily for a few days or weeks, but before you know it, the toy is already forgotten somewhere in a corner and there is another ‘one toy’ that the child wants.

And this digressing, this absorbing, this desire is all purely based on concepts, mental copies. Not based on reality.

Only if your concentration is very high can you intervene quickly enough to prevent you from being unjustly absorbed in the illusions of your consciousness and prevent desire and thus problems from arising.

In this way you penetrate into the true nature of things.

‘How boring’ you might think. But that is nonsense. You will then have no more desire and therefore no more misery. Not misery, but pleasure instead. You can still eat the orange and still enjoy it, but if it were different, it wouldn’t matter.

As Ahba says:

“Desire is the problem. Suppose there’s something that you really want, that you really want to get as a present. But you don’t get it. Then you are sad or angry or disappointed. When you have concentration you no longer have desire. Maybe there’s still something you want. When you get it, you’re happy. But if you don’t, you’re happy too! It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not a problem anymore. Everything’s easy then.”

This is the second important essence of the cognitive process. That after the pure sensory-cognitive-process, a mental copy is made that we can get rid of. That all we think of things is nothing more than subjective mental additions. That because of this we desire to have something or not and that because of this we cause all problems in our lives all by ourselves.

You can read the previous paragraphs and take it for granted, but that would be a pity. It only makes sense if you think about it from time to time. What are the consequences of this? What does it mean? If I want something or not? If I find something? If I’m angry or sad? Or happy?

Knowledge about the cognitive process can contribute to the insight that everything is conditioned, transient and without self. And in this way we can make room for the previously mentioned hairline fractures in the wrong way of looking at things, allowing for room for the liberating Right View.

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Buddha, Dhp 276