cittasaṃtāna [alt. cittasaṃtata] (P. cittasantāna; T. sems rgyud སེམས་རྒྱུད་; C. xin xiangxu 心相續) refers to the uninterrupted sequence of mental events which flow throughout the life of a sentient being (sattva) and continue into the next life. This term is translated as "mental continuum," "mindstream," etc.
The "mental continuum" (citta-saṃtāna), or "mindstream," provides a continuity of the personality in the absence of a permanently abiding "self" (ātman). The mental continuum also provides a continuity from one life to the next, akin to the flame of a candle which may be passed from one candle to another.
In this context, the mental continuum (cittasaṃtāna) is the repository of karmic seeds produced by wholesome or unwholesome actions, and it is the experiencer of the karmic fruition of these actions.
The cycle of birth and death
Bhikkhu Bodhi states:
- But even death, the Buddha teaches, does not bring us to the end of dukkha, for the life process does not stop with death. When life ends in one place, with one body, the “mental continuum,” the individual stream of consciousness, springs up again elsewhere with a new body as its physical support. Thus the cycle goes on over and over—birth, aging, and death—driven by the thirst for more existence. The Buddha declares that this round of rebirths—called saṁsāra, “the wandering”—has been turning through beginningless time. It is without a first point, without temporal origin. No matter how far back in time we go we always find living beings—ourselves in previous lives—wandering from one state of existence to another. The Buddha describes various realms where rebirth can take place: realms of torment, the animal realm, the human realm, realms of celestial bliss. But none of these realms can offer a final refuge. Life in any plane must come to an end. It is impermanent and thus marked with that insecurity which is the deepest meaning of dukkha. For this reason one aspiring to the complete end of dukkha cannot rest content with any mundane achievement, with any status, but must win emancipation from the entire unstable whirl.
Effects of karma on the continuum
In the Buddhist view of karma, karmic actions are imprinted on the mental continuum (cittasaṃtāna), and these imprints, or seeds, will ripen at some future point when the appropriate conditions are assembled.
Bhikkhu Bodhi states:
- The most important feature of kamma is its capacity to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action... The [process] connecting actions with their fruits works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen in suffering, wholesome actions in happiness. The ripening need not come right away; it need not come in the present life at all. Kamma can operate across the succession of lifetimes; it can even remain dormant for aeons into the future. But whenever we perform a volitional action, the volition leaves its imprint on the mental continuum, where it remains as a stored up potency. When the stored up kamma meets with conditions favorable to its maturation, it awakens from its dormant state and triggers off some effect that brings due compensation for the original action. The ripening may take place in the present life, in the next life, or in some life subsequent to the next. A kamma may ripen by producing rebirth into the next existence, thus determining the basic form of life; or it may ripen in the course of a lifetime, issuing in our varied experiences of happiness and pain, success and failure, progress and decline. But whenever it ripens and in whatever way, the same principle invariably holds: wholesome actions yield favorable results, unwholesome actions yield unfavorable results.
Within Yogacara thought
According to Dan Lusthaus, within the Yogācāra school of thought, the term mind-stream (cittasaṃtāna) came to be preferred to the term "storehouse consciousness" (ālaya-vijñāna) by some scholars. Though both terms refer to the same concept.
- After Vasubandhu, Yogācāra developed into two distinct directions or wings:
- While the first wing focused on questions of epistemology and logic, the other wing refined and elaborated the Abhidharma analysis developed by Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. [...] Both identified the root of all human problems as cognitive errors that needed correction.
- Several Yogācāra notions basic to the Abhidharma wing came under severe attack by other Buddhists, especially the notion of ālaya-vijñāna, which was denounced as something akin to the Hindu notions of ātman (permanent, invariant self) and prakṛti (primordial substrative nature from which all mental, emotional and physical things evolve). Eventually the critiques became so entrenched that the Abhidharma wing atrophied. By the end of the eighth century it was eclipsed by the logico-epistemic tradition and by a hybrid school that combined basic Yogācāra doctrines with Tathāgatagarbha thought. The logico-epistemological wing in part side-stepped the critique by using the term citta-santāna, "mind-stream," instead of ālaya-vijñāna, for what amounted to roughly the same idea. It was easier to deny that a "stream" represented a reified self.
Dharmakīrti and Ratnakirti both explored the existence of the mind-streams of other beings. Dharmakīrti wrote Proof of the Existence of Other Streams of Consciousness (Saṃtãnãntarasiddhi), and Ratnakirti later wrote a response to this text.
The Sanskrit term cittasaṃtāna is a composite of two words:
- citta is a general term for the mind or mental processes in Buddhism
- saṃtāna refers to "an uninterrupted sequence of cause and effects, especially a sequence of mental moments." This term is translated as "continuum," "continuity," etc.
In Tibetan, citta-saṃtāna is rendered as sems rgyud or thugs-rgyud.
- sems and thugs are words for "mind"
- rgyud refers to a continuum
The Chinese term for citta-saṃtāna is xin xiangxu (心相續). According to the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, xīn xiāngxù means "continuance of the mental stream".
A related term is shì xiāngxù 識相續 (from vijñāna-saṃtāna), which can be translated as "stream of consciousness."
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