04 February 2011

Action and Intention III

Newton's cradle REGULAR READERS WILL KNOW that I harp on about the Buddha's equation of intention and action - cetanā and kamma. More than one person has noted that this equation only occurs once in the Canon. This uniqueness makes us uneasy about putting so much weight on the phrase - surely if an idea was centrally important then it would be mentioned more frequently? I agree with this, and I have been on the look out for more references which discuss kamma and cetanā. I found an interesting passage in the Cetanā Sutta (SN 12.38, S ii.65-66). The first paragraph of the sutta translates as:
At Sāvatthī. What you think about (ceteti), monks, what you plan for (pakappeti), and what obsesses (anuseti) is the condition (ārammaṇa) of the persistence (ṭhiti) of cognition (viññāṇa). When there is a basis, there will be cognition. With persistence and growth of conscious there will future rebirth in a new existence. With future rebirth there will be future birth, old-age and death, grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble. Thus is the origin of the whole mass of disappointment.
The other paragraphs deal with a partial and complete cessation of disappointment, as simple negatives, so I'll just focus on this paragraph. Here the verb ceteti is the origin of the action noun cetanā. I said in my first post on ethics and intention:
Cetanā derives from the root √cit which also gives us the words citta 'mind' and cetas 'thought'... The root √cit is defined in the dictionary as "knowing; thought , intellect , spirit , soul", but also "to perceive , fix the mind upon , attend to , be attentive , observe , take notice of"; and "to aim at , intend , design; to be anxious about , care for; to resolve". So √cit concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion').
In Sanskrit the two roots √cit 'to perceive' and √cint 'to think' are different enough to be thought of as distinct, though Whitney does acknowledge that √cint appears to derive from √cit. PED draws out the difference by seeing √cint as an active voice (parasmaipāda) form with a nasal infix (like for example √muc 'to free' > muñcati 'he releases'); and √cit as a medial or reflexive form (ātmanepāda). Originally the reflexive form was for verbs affecting oneself, while the active form was for verbs affecting others - like, for instance the difference between 'I go' and 'he goes' (the word is the same but the form is different) - though this semantic distinction is largely lost in both Classical Sanskrit and Pāli even when the form persists.

Pāli citta is further confused with Sanskrit citra 'to shine'. So when the Buddha says Pabhassaramidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ (AN 1.51) what most people miss is the pun. Citta means both 'thought' and 'shine' and the phrase could equally be read - 'this thought is radiant', or 'this shiny-thing is radiant'. The context does incline towards reading 'mind', but the ambiguity and pun are obvious to a Pāli speaker.

cetanā is an abstract noun from active form (cinteti 'to think') and PED defines: 'the state of ceto [mind] in action, thinking as active thought'.

Now in the passage quoted above Bhikkhu Bodhi, very much the Buddhaghosa of our time, draws attention to the relationship of ceteti with cetanā by translating it as 'what one intends'. (Connected Discourses p.576). Bhikkhu Thanissaro (on Access to Insight) follows suit, and and Maurice Walsh opts for 'what one wills'. Why? First there is the title of the sutta - cetanāsuttaṃ - though, as I understand it, most of the titles in SN were added later. Secondly ceteti is paired with two other verbs pakappeti 'to plan' and anuseti 'to obsess over' and in Pāli these kinds of appositions are usually synonyms reinforcing each other. PED specifically mentions this group of three 'to intend, to start to perform, to carry out' (s.v. cinteti meaning b.)

Buddhaghosa's commentary glosses
Ettha ca 'cetetī'ti tebhūmakakusalākusalacetanā gahitā

And here ceteti refers to having grasped the good and evil intentions of the three levels of being (i.e. kāmaloka, rūpaloka, arūpaloka). [1]
I'm slightly wary here. My argument would be supported by simply agreeing with Buddhaghosa and the modern translators who have clearly followed him. But my understanding of the philology and the context makes me want to translate ceteti as 'thinks about', with the understanding that we are drawn to or away from objects as we find them pleasant or unpleasant only as an implication. I don't like 'intends' as a translation here, even though it would suit my rhetorical purposes better. There is a third possibility in PED which is that under some circumstances ceteti can mean 'to desire' though this requires the object of desire to be in the dative case. Our situation the object is abstract 'what' (yaṃ) but not in the dative.

In any case ceteti is one of three activities, three mental activities, which provide a basis (ārammaṇa) of the persistence (ṭhiti) of cognition (viññāṇa) and therefore for rebirth in the future (āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti). This is interesting because we're not talking about a condition for the arising of cognition here, but for its persistence. Once cognition is arisen it is sustained by what we think about, plan for, and obsess over - which is to say that once a cognition arises in our minds (through contact between our sense faculties and sense objects) it is we who sustain them through actively keeping them in mind. Seeing things this way I struggle to see how cognition generally can be said to arise from ignorance (avijjā) in a single step, and it makes those versions of the nidāna chain which leave out this connection (especially the Mahānidāna Sutta) even more attractive.

The connection with kamma is that the persistence of viññāṇa, through ceteti is what makes rebirth possible. For early Buddhism viññāṇa provides the continuity from life to life. Through our ceteti we ensure rebirth; so here ceteti is kamma, is the kind of action that results in rebirth. The confirmation is rather indirect, and not unambiguous, but it is there.


  1. For those interested in such things the analysis of this compound - tebhūmakakusalākusalacetanā - is interesting. Firstly I take kusalākusala as a dvandva compound - kusala-akusala 'good and bad'. Then I take kusalākusala to form a karmadhāraya compound with cetanā (i.e good and bad intentions). Bhūmaka is a tadhitha compound or secondary derivation from bhūma (=bhūmi) + -ka (an adjectival suffix); and tebhūmaka is a dvigu form of karmadhāraya compound - 'having three grounds or levels'. Then finally kusalākusalacetanā forms a tatpuruṣa compound with tebbhūmaka 'the good and evil intentions of the three levels'. One can see that compounds like this are a very succinct way of writing as they convey a lot of grammar implicitly, but you wouldn't expect them in an oral literature because it's more difficult to parse such long compounds orally. It also assumes that we know what 'the three levels' refers to.
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