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As the title indicates, I don't know how the mind "picks" which sensation to focus on. Considering the huge amount of sense-data being received by the mind each moment, which condition directs consciousness to alight in a specific range of the whole set of sense-data?

I've read that kamma influences where will the "seed" of consciousness grow. But what does this mean, exactly?

In some sources, I've read that "past" namarupa gives to consciousness the content to be known in the present, which allows contact to arise. If that's the case, can we say that where we've placed our attention (as a factor of nama in namarupa) in the past determines where will consciousness will alight in each moment?

EDIT: Some may argue that the intensity of an stimulus might be the main factor in determining where will condition alight. But what will happen when multiple sense-objects have a similar "strength", or when such "strength" is not objectively defined? For instance, what happens when someone is listening to some music? A singer attention might "fall" on the qualities of the singer's voice in the song; a bassist may auomatically pay attention to the bass and the technique behind the player; and a "casual" listener might just hear and pay attention to the overall song.

In sum, I'm asking about the processes that might "filter" the whole range of sense-data input to be processed in the mind, and that determine which portion of that amount of information might be felt as a vedana.

Thanks in advance for your time.

Kind regards!

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A general (simplified) response is: this is exactly what is determined by samskaras. Samskaras are factors or tendencies or patterns or imprints that combine together to determine all kinds of outcomes, such as directionality of attention, impulsion, and volition.

A more complete response would be to say, it's a mixture of very "remote" samskaras, "middling-proximity" samskaras, "nearby" samskaras, and "immediate" samskaras. Remote samskaras are innate ignorance and karma performed long time ago. Middling-proximity samskaras are qualities inherent in current configuration of relationships between things and people. Nearby samskaras are imprints of one's own mind such as emotions, memories of past experiences, latent desires, aversions etc. Immediate samskaras are one's state of mind right at that moment.

In general, when we speak about Ultimate Reality, we must recognize that events (such as a turn of attention) don't have anything like a single cause or single process creating them. Instead, identifying a cause of an event is an imputation performed by the interpreting mind, post-factum. Ultimate Reality is continuous, it does not have discrete "events" and "causes". In other words, when we perform analysis of an event, we can trace the causal chains preceding the event and identify some of them as important, but this analysis is up to us, it depends on our chosen perspective. If we limit our perspective to psychology, we can narrow down our focus and say "here are the psychological causes of this mind turning its attention to X". If we limit our perspective to sociology, we can say "here are the sociological causes of this mind turning its attention to X" - etc. But if we want to be truly all-encompassing then we can at best say that every event is always determined by a complex combination of factors, some more immediate and some remote and indirect. These factors are called "samskaras". (BTW, events inheriting subtle influence from very remote and indirect causes is exactly why karma has inertia, and both bad and good karma takes significant time to come to fruition.)

If you want to ignore old karma and analyse attention solely in terms of the five skandhas, then you can think of it as an association loop with feed-back. An external stimulus (rupa) triggers some memories (which are a subset of samskara group) which triggers recognition/classification (samjna), which triggers some memories (samskara) - and all these memories AND the external stimuli continuously feedback into the same process of lookup/recognition/associations. Taken altogether this is called "vijnana" (subjective experience). All of the external stimuli and all the associations they generate constantly "compete" for capacity of this cyclic process. Those stimuli and associations that are related to each other and therefore "help each other" will tend to "crowd out" other stimuli and associations that don't receive as much support from each other. So if for example you see something that triggers a lot of memories and emotions (vedana), whether negative or positive, those memories and emotions will serve as fuel (upadana) that feeds back into perception process and "reinforces" or sustains (upadana) the original stimuli, helping it get more attention compared to the other stimuli that do not trigger such a large amount of memories/emotions/impulses and therefore get outnumbered.

  • Thank you so much for your answer, Andrei! Insightful, as always. I have a question regarding the definition of vijñana you wrote: I read an autor which seems to propose that our concept of "subjective experience" is better linked to namarupa, and that vijñana is the mental function that gives information to namarupa and that allows contrasting/integration of the new information in relation to our past mental schemes and world-view. What do you think about this idea? Kind regards, and thanks again! – Brian Díaz Flores Jul 31 at 23:37
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    Your author and I agree about the overall scheme. We both say that new information is evaluated against accumulated information. In addition, I say that this process is a partial loop with back-feed. Where your author and I disagree is in our understanding of Buddhist terminology. I say, vijnana is the word for the miraculous effect of being in the world and experiencing everything as if were "from the inside". Some people call this "consciousness", I don't like that word because it implies something that sits and watches, I prefer to call it "subjective experience".... – Andrei Volkov Aug 1 at 15:44
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    But I am pretty convinced that in the Buddha's use, and in the use of Mahayana scholars over hundreds of years, Vijnana stands for the overall emergent experience, the moment by moment "movie unfolding in our heads", to put it simply. Whereas namarupa is a word for information functioning as building material Vijnana is made from. – Andrei Volkov Aug 1 at 15:47
  • Thank you so much! I really think this deserves to be an answer on its own. I really appreciate your words. Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Aug 1 at 15:54
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Here seems to be the answer, according to the following sutta:

SN 12,38 - Cetanā Sutta

At Savatthī. “Bhikkhus, what one intends, and what one plans, and whatever one has a tendency towards: this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis there is a support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is the production of future renewed existence. When there is the production of future renewed existence, future birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

“If, bhikkhus, one does not intend, and one does not plan, but one still has a tendency towards something, this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis, there is a support for the establishing of consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

“But, bhikkhus, when one does not intend, and one does not plan, and one does not have a tendency towards anything, no basis exists for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is no basis, there is no support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is unestablished and does not come to growth, there is no production of future renewed existence. When there is no production of future renewed existence, future birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

Also, in AN 3,77 - Dutiyabhava Sutta

"Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future."

Thanks to everyone for your answers so far. I'd appreciate any other answer!

Kind regards!

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I think there are three possibilities.

The first is based on the intensity of the stimulus. For example, a sudden loud sound will attract your attention. We can say this is related to your craving of becoming, because you perceive the loud sound as a possible threat. It's your aversive reaction towards an unpleasant sensation.

The second is based on intention. You purposely intend to focus on something. For e.g. you purposely look behind a cupboard for some missing item. If this item was precious to you, for example your wallet, we could say that this is based on an aversive reaction (fear of losing wallet) to an unpleasant sensation (the idea of losing the wallet).

The third is based on latent tendencies. If you have sensual craving towards good looking people, then such a sight may catch your attention. It's your lustful reaction towards a pleasant sensation.

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The question sounds like it might be about "attention" -- for example, "If a focus 'its' butt or breast is an example of 'unwise attention', then what determines whether a person's attention will be wise or unwise?" -- is that what you're asking?

I'm not sure what you're asking about 'specific process' though, and the 'alighting' of consciousness.

I guess some people are inhibited somehow, e.g. they might occasionally become aware that there is something reminiscent of a breast or butt -- which is nearly alighting -- but not "grasp the sign of it" (for which see e.g. this answer) -- and so, not alighting.

The reason or process for that is maybe threefold -- a.k.a. the "threefold training" -- i.e. ethics, concentration, AND wisdom.

  • Hi Chris! Thanks for your answer. I'm asking about the processes that might "filter" the whole range of sense-data input to be processed in the mind, and that determine which portion of that amount of information might be felt as a vedana. I don't know if that clarifies the question. It's hard for me to put this into words. Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Jul 30 at 10:04
  • I guess the most obvious filter is contact or not-contact, is it, hence a guarding the senses? 'Intensity' and duration (and repetition)? For example if you stare (gaze) at something, then there's more contact, if consciousness doesn't alight there -- if you don't grasp at it -- then contact and sense-consciousness are more fleeting (or more evanescent), maybe literally less "significant". And there's, like, sati -- if you tend to be "mindful" of something, isn't that mental contact. – ChrisW Jul 30 at 11:10
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  • in the absence of intent to focus on any particular object, intensity determines one's focus
  • one can use ones attention to direct the attention

The factors one can use to direct attention is vitakka-vicara.

  • Thanks again, kind sir. In the edited part of the question, I ask what happens when the intensity of the objects present at a certain moment is roughly the same for all of them. In those cases, and if there's no "voluntary" intention of seeking a particular kind of object, what happens then? Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Jul 30 at 10:36
  • @BrianDíazFlores I believe this was adressed in the second bullet point. Not having attained a proper degree of samadhi - or lacking voluntary intention - would be equal to being in the proverbial "monkey mind" state. – Erik Jul 30 at 11:44
  • @Erik Hi! Thanks for your answer. In your opinion, does that "monkey" follow any rule, pattern or condition to "pick" its next branch? Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Jul 30 at 11:46
  • @If anything, that would probably be the law of least resistance/immediate gratification. Our minds are hardwired for that, because it's helped us survive throughout the species evolution. – Erik Jul 30 at 11:57
  • @BrianDíazFlores Looking into it, i'd guess a buddhist would say that the rule/pattern/conditions would be anusaya. – Erik Jul 30 at 12:12
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Its a great question .I've been struggling to understand that myself.

I currently think that conditioning of the mind as well as held beliefs filter the raw information coming to you.There are multiple threads of information coming to you live right now from all your senses ,including the mind .Your consciousness alights due to certain parameters ,say you have food in your mouth and there is attention there ,thus taste consciousness arises.If any of these parameters is missing then it will not rise.Its expressed well here in the connected discourses SN 35:234

If you successfully direct your attention .It will watch a certain thread of information and consciousness of that thread arises .If you aren't directing attention to anything in particular ,then attention will be centered on the main thread where you can be conscious of multiple data.

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Consciousness will 'alight' on the strongest sense object.

For example, if a very loud explosion occurs, consciousness will alight there.

  • I edited the question to change the example. Thanks! – Brian Díaz Flores Jul 30 at 9:45
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As the title indicates, I don't know how the mind "picks" which sensation to focus on. Considering the huge amount of sense-data being received by the mind each moment, which condition directs consciousness to alight in a specific range of the whole set of sense-data?

What i make of it:

You seem to be asking for one specific factor, but from what i understand of buddhist teachings all five skandhas are considered coming into play in the process of sensing, being attentive to, and cognizing a specific stimulus.

I've read that kamma influences where will the "seed" of consciousness grow. But what does this mean, exactly?

Put simply, it means that our experiences/past actions shapes the way we perceive the present.

In some sources, I've read that "past" namarupa gives to consciousness the content to be known in the present, which allows contact to arise. If that's the case, can we say that where we've placed our attention (as a factor of nama in namarupa) in the past determines where will consciousness will alight in each moment?

Apologies for speculation, but i'm wondering if you are equating/mixing up attention and consciousness interchangeably? The way i understand it is that:

  • one needs to discern the skandhas on one hand, meaning that you need to look at attention (manasikara) as attention, and consciousness (vinnana) as consciousness (and the same for the remaining skandhas), as an alternative to identifying with the phenomenas.

(Edit: my bad, attention would be manasikara, a mental factor and an aspect of sankhara)

  • On the other hand one also needs to realize that the skandhas interplay in conjunction, as a basis for perceived phenomenas, and the emergent sense of self.

EDIT: Some may argue that the intensity of an stimulus might be the main factor in determining where will condition alight. But what will happen when multiple sense-objects have a similar "strength", or when such "strength" is not objectively defined? For instance, what happens when someone is listening to some music? A singer attention might "fall" on the qualities of the singer's voice in the song; a bassist may auomatically pay attention to the bass and the technique behind the player; and a "casual" listener might just hear and pay attention to the overall song.

In sum, I'm asking about the processes that might "filter" the whole range of sense-data input to be processed in the mind, and that determine which portion of that amount of information might be felt as a vedana.

We aren't blank slates, just as your examples implies. Again, past experiences, karma, the accumulated effect of the skandhas, and not least our dhamma training will affect how we perceive external stimuli.

In a broader perspective, the concept of skandhas and dependent origination, and well... the entire noble eightfold path details the relevant processes involved. I understand you are familiar with these, my point is that you are asking a huge question, and studying the finer details of dharma (vicara), may give you more than the more coarse general ideas dealt with here.

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