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Suppose you completely empty your mind of all thoughts. You go into complete emptiness of mind, where nothing is arising. Suppose that in that state you make a choice to arise a thought. If in that state a choice is made to arise a thought, "choice" is the arising of "this thought". "Choice" must be arisen before "this thought" is arisen. Is there something that must arise before "choice" in order for "choice" to arise?

What did the Buddha say is the first thing that arises that leads to the arising of thoughts?

Is the answer to this question in the twelve nidanas: "'mental fermentations/volitions' lead to the arising of thoughts"? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Nid%C4%81nas

As I see it, consciousness (vinnana) arises from 'mental fermentations/volitions' (sankhara). Then, from consciousness arise 'name and form' (namarupa), which is constituted of 'matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness' (skandhas). I see skandhas as thoughts. Thus, the first thing that arise is 'mental fermentations/volitions', which leads to the arising of thoughts. Is this correct?

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Suppose you completely empty your mind of all thoughts

This is what happens when you go into deep sleep. When you don't dream, the mind falls back to the Bhavanga process. This is called the passive state of the mind. It is what keeps you alive, when there's no other thought. This Bhavanga process is the result of your birth Karma.

Suppose that in that state you make a choice to arise a thought

No, you can't make any choices when you are in Bhavanga state. The Bhavanga process should first be interrupted by one of the sense doors. Volition comes much later in the process.

A complete thought process, occurring through the physical sense doors, is made up of seventeen thought moments (citta kha.na). These are:

  1. A bhava"nga that flows by in a passive state when one of the five physical sense organs comes in contact with its object (atiita bhava"nga).
  2. A bhava"nga that vibrates for one thought moment (bhava"nga calana).
  3. A bhava"nga that cuts off the flow (bhava"nga upaccheda).
  4. A citta that turns towards the object through the sense door that has been stimulated (pañcadvaara-vajjana).
  5. The appropriate sense consciousness; in the case of the eye, for example, eye consciousness (cakkhu viññaa.na).
  6. Next a thought moment — the sampa.ticchana citta — which has the function of receiving the object.
  7. When the object has been received another thought moment, called the santiirana citta, arises, performing the function of investigating the object.
  8. The act (kamma) itself, especially if it was a weighty one.

9 to 15. The object having been determined, the most important stage from an ethical standpoint follows. This stage, called javana, consists of seven consecutive thought moments all having an identical nature. It is at this stage that good or evil is done, depending on whether the cittas have wholesome or unwholesome roots. Therefore, these javana thought moments have roots and also produce new kamma.

16 and 17. Following the seventh javana the registering stage occurs, composed of two thought moments called tadaalambane. When the second registering citta has perished, the bhava"nga follows, flowing on until interrupted by another thought process.

As you can see, decision making starts at the 8th stage of the process.

Thus, the first thing that arise is 'mental fermentations/volitions', which leads to the arising of thoughts.

The first unit of Paticca Samuppada is given as ignorance. But that doesn't mean it started from ignorance. There's no real starting point. It's like asking the starting point of a circle. It's wherever you hold it first. The standard Paticca Samuppada teaching spans over 3 consecutive lives. The past, the present and the future.

  • Thanks. As I understand, before choice is made there arise different types of consciousness and cittas. What is a citta? Citta can have many meanings - thought, mind, intention, awareness, thinking,.. In the arising of a thought or a choice to make a thought, what does citta mean? – beginner Jul 2 '15 at 14:57
  • A citta is a thought. It is actually the mental part of a single experience, aside from rupa. A citta of a single experience can contain a maximum of 17 thought moments which are called the cittakhanas. Each cittakhana has it's task to perform. Even the cittakhana that is making a choice isn't an 'I' or a 'self'. It's just another cittakhana performing a function. The time a cittakhana lasts is said to be the smallest time unit in nature. There isn't an example to compare to it. To give some additional info, the smallest unit of Rupa(matter) lasts only 17 thought moments. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 2 '15 at 15:40
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"There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

"The Buddha-range of the Buddhas1 is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"The jhana-range of a person in jhana...[2]

"The [precise working out of the] results of kamma...

"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them."

Anguttara Nikaya 4.77- Unconjecturable Questions:

I'll go ahead and answer since you're probably on now, this question is one of the imponderable questions that will only serve to detract in your practice. Although the wording of your question in particular isn't exactly one of these four, your questions seems to lie both within the 3rd and 4th questions. I'm sure this question has been asked at least twice, though, so don't be surprised when Chris or whomever else comes along and closes it :)

  • I understand. I'm not asking what is not visible within our minds, as that would lead to speculation. I'm asking what is the first "thing" seen? What did the Buddha say he saw as the first "thing" arising? – beginner Jul 1 '15 at 12:19
  • This falls under : "Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world. And also, time in a Buddhist context is cyclical, so "first thing" is a misnomer. – Ryan Jul 1 '15 at 12:36
  • Can't this question be answered with the twelve nidanas? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Nid%C4%81nas As I see it, consciousness (vinnana) arises from 'mental fermentations/volitions' (sankhara). Then, from consciousness arise 'name and form' (namarupa), which is constituted of 'matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness' (skandhas). I see skandhas as thoughts. Thus, the first thing that arise is 'mental fermentations/volitions', which leads to the arising of thoughts. What do you think? – beginner Jul 1 '15 at 12:58
  • I understand what you're getting at. The twelve nidanas are meant to be understood experientially , as a means to understand the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Not as a means of tracing ones karmic lineage back across the aeons and seeing where/how this thing came about – Ryan Jul 1 '15 at 13:05
  • I agree. Probably my question was not clear enough, so I made some changes. Take a look. Is this the correct answer to my question: "'mental fermentations/volitions' lead to the arising of thoughts"? – beginner Jul 1 '15 at 13:19
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Great Question!

I think the answer to this question lies in the free will versus determinism debate. If you "you make a choice to arise a thought", then you are in favor of 'free will', however if you think that your "choice to arise a thought", is actually just determined by the universe and you actually made no choice at all, than you agree with determinism. Now a person that agrees with free will as the answer, will likely struggle to answer what's the first thing that arises from which everything else arises. This, however is not because the question is ignorant but because the essence of the question is so, that a free will individual cant answer it. Why? because a free will individual may also think that all their decisions are made by their own choosing and that outside factors don't have an influence.

A determinist however would argue that it is pointless asking this question because they have no say over their lives anyway so they may as well just accept these questions as if they weren't their own.

This would also be wrong, because otherwise all criminals would not be accountable for their sins. Everyone would just say, "its not his fault, because the universe 'determined' his fate.

To answer your question fully, I think a Buddha would likely answer this question by taking the 'middle way' of these extremes. Answering it by explaining, that you don't have to know "what's the first thing that arises from which everything else arises". The way out of suffering is not accomplished by knowing the answer to this question. Instead he would probably ask you to watch your thoughts of choice and your thoughts of emptying your mind too (because that is also just a thought). By doing this, your likely to realize that 'your' thoughts are actually shared amongst your family and friends. Where 'you' actually becomes a very hard question to answer. Watch your thoughts for this and also ask your family too if they have that burning question.

Hope this helps :)

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Well it is an an empty mind, not a stopped mind, so there's always something going on inside even if we can't know it.

It is said even the Buddha has not delved to the complete depths of the mind.

The mind is as illusory and empty as anything else - thus it leads a compounded existence, always reacting to inputs.

Normal meditative equanimity:

Internal factors: In intermediate states of meditation where the mind is resting in equanimity an increase or decrease in body temperature, a movement in the bowels, activity of various organs, circadian rhythm, change in visuddhinana cycles, change in concentration can all disturb the equanimity and cause thoughts to occur.

External factors: The mind is most reactive to noises, especially human voices, when in meditation, but also rain or an insect for example, may trigger thoughts. The connection may not be apparent, especially if the domino effect of unconscious thoughts takes a while to manifest as a visible thought.

Non-meditative equanimity or no-mind states:
With deep and continuous mindfulness practice one can abide in no-mind states with no apparent thoughts, and in these cases one may appear to make a conscious decision to cogitate - however even this is typically motivated by an external factor - someone asking a question of us, or a decision or plan to be made and so on.

Thus, if the mind appears to come alive it is a result of a change in its compounded condition.

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