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.
image: Clipart ETC


Ayya Sobhana said...

Hello Jayarava. I wonder why you translate viññāṇa as "cognition" instead of the more usual "consciousness." I am coming to understand that the English term consciousness implies a point of view, knowing experience with the subject at the center of one's world. This seems to get to the point, why one should see viññāṇa as in the realm of suffering, develop nibbidā, and let it go. Gethin uses "cognition" right? Many meditators, especially influenced by Thai forest tradition, have this idea of a pure citta, free from defilements. But I think the Buddha said that even an arahant would have nibbidā towards the 5 khandhas. There is a real danger of a meditator thinking there is a pure viññāṇa which is ok to hold on to. Metzinger is helping me clarify the problem about consciousness.
Also interesting to ponder whether right view is an antidote to the self-centered view we receive from nature. Viññāṇa has a point of view, but still knows not where it's going to.

Jayarava said...

Hi Sobhana,

A perceptive question! The honest answer is I don't know. Sometimes I just try things out to see what works. Words for 'mind' in Pāli are quite mixed up and I for one find it hard to know sometimes what is intended. So let's see what I can think of...

Is there 'a consciousness' like we say in the west? I've tended to understand that consciousness from the Buddhist perspective is always consciousness of something - there's always a sense object involved. In which case isn't this more like cognition (a process) than consciousness (a thing or state)?

Also, which is just occurring to me, if I see a word ending in -ness in English I would often associate that with the suffix -tā in Pāli. Funnily enough just 'conscious' (aware, knowing) would probably translate viññāna OK, but 'consciousness' seems to imply Pāli viññānatā to me.

On a purely linguistic grounds the cognate of 'conscious' (con- + scire) ought to be saññā: saṃ- + jñā 'with-knowledge'. Saññā is sometimes used this way in Pāli as a general term for mental processes. Actually it fits 'cognition' (con- + gnitio) better as well (scire and gnosis are Latin synonyms meaning 'to know'.)

In his recent anthology Gethin opts for 'consciousness'.

Our real problems start when we have to integrate viññāna as the link between lives. Not sure how that works. Here it is hard to get away from the idea you suggest as a danger - something to be held on to!

What interests me wrt to Metzinger is the first-person perspective as an experience, generated by the machinery of the brain (to use that metaphor). 'I', the sense of being a self, the sense of observing the play of mental content, is an just an experience: impermanent, disappointing, impersonal. This is very similar to the way that Sue Hamilton talks about the pañcakkhandhā. And yes the arahant is very much nibbidā (fed up!) with khandhas (the machinery of experience).

Ayya Sobhana said...

What was the pre-buddhist understanding of viññāṇa? And did the Buddha re-define it, from something like a soul connected to god and jumping between lives into an impersonal process arising from the six senses, moment to moment? I know philosophers have been struggling with the "problem of consciousness" for a long time. Have they also been struggling with the problem of cognition? No. At least in the same way. The problem of consciousness is about this mental faculty that knows "self."
I still don't know if cognition is the better translation. But think the teaching about viññāṇa answers the "problem of consciousness."

Last time I made a comment, on a Buddhist forum, I was attacked for being biased and idiosyncratic. Ouch. Oh! my little reputation.

Jayarava said...

Hi Sobhana

Well I can't complain about idiosyncrasies, can I? ;-) I think it's interesting to find someone who has taken on (even been involved in reviving) an ancient ordination lineage; and yet is interested in and engaging with cutting edge thinking. A conservative radical :-)

But I do notice that many Buddhists appear to feel threatened by new ideas and change - something deeply ironic in that. Also the two things - commenting on a forum and being attacked seem causally linked in all frames of reference! I no longer participate in any fora.

So, yes. I think in English, and in Western thought generally, there are distinctions between consciousness and cognition that one must acknowledge - one is a function of the other. The question is what is meant by viññāna, not what is meant by consciousness or cognition. Yes? I still need to think more about this.

Turning to pre-Buddhist vijñāna I will quote from my friend Dhīvan's 2009 M.Phil thesis - he is discussing the idea put forward by Joanna Jurewicz about the paṭicca-samuppāda as a parody of Vedic cosmogony:

"The appearance of vijñāna represents in Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad the manifestation of the ātman as the highest cognitive power in the individual human being [BU 2.4.5]. In the cosmogonic myths of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, Prajapati manifests himself (ātman vijñānamaya), wishes to create a second self that is made of mind, and transforms himself into the eater and the food. ...According to Jurewicz's thesis, then, the inclusion of viññāna in paṭiccasamuppāda represents the Buddha's parody of the manifestation of the creator as cognizing subject, a creator whose volitions or saṅkhāras have built up the possibility of cognition and hence dispelled the state of non-cognition or avijjā. The Buddhist viññāna is that element which is reborn again and again as long as the creator continues to want to manifest. Since from the Buddha's point of view there is in reality no ātman who undergoes such transformations, the cosmogony represented by avijjā > saṅkhāra > viññāna represents the absurd recycling process of a self which falsely postulates its own existence." [p.5]

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