by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 5 - Volition In The Cycle Of Birth And Death

Cetana, volition, is a cetasika which arises with every citta, as we have seen. Seeing, hearing or thinking which arise now are accompanied by cetana. Every type of cetana perform the function of coordinating the different tasks of the accompanying dhammas, no matter whether the citta is kusala citta, akusala citta, vipaka citta or kiriya citta.

When cetana accompanies kusala ctta or akusala citta it performs besides the function of coordinating, another function: it "wills" kusala or akusala and it can motivate a wholesome or an unwholesome deed through body, speech or mind. Kusala cetana and akusala cetana, which are actually kusala kamma and akusala kamma are capable of producing the appropriate results of the deeds they motivated.

Kusala kamma and akusala kamma can produce results in the form of rebirth-consciousness in different planes of existence or in the form of vipakacittas which arise in the course of one's life such as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or the experience of tangibles through the body-sense. We experience pleasant objects and unpleasant objects through the senses and depend on kamma whether we have a pleasant experience or an unpleasant experience through these senses.

Cetana or kamma which motivates a good deed or a bad deed falls away immediately together with the citta, but since each citta is succeeded by the next one, kamma is accumulated and thus it can produce its result later on, even in a next life. How do we know whether there is a next life? We will understand more about the next life if we understand our life right now. By the term 'human life' in conventional language we mean the duration of time we are in this human plane of existence. However, in order to know the truth we should know realities, not merely conventional terms. In fact, our life consists of innumerable moments of citta which arise and fall away, succeeding one another.

There is birth and death of citta at each moment and thus life lasts as long as one moment of citta. When there is citta which sees, there is only that citta, there cannot be any other citta at the same time. At that moment our life is seeing. Seeing does not last, it falls away again. When there is citta which hears there is only that citta and our life is hearing. This citta also falls away and is succeeded by the next one. In this life we see and hear pleasant and unpleasant objects, we have pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling or indifferent feeling. We are full of attachment, aversion and ignorance. Sometimes we perform wholesome deeds: we are generous, we abstain from killing and we develop right understanding. Our life actually consists of one moment of citta which experiences an object. The citta of a moment ago has fallen away completely, but right now another dtta has arisen and this falls away again. When we understand that there are conditions for each citta to be succeeded by the next one, we will also understand that the last citta of this life, the dying-consciousness, will be succeeded by a next citta which is the rebirth-consciousness of the next life. So long as we are in the cycle of birth and death there are conditions for citta to arise and to be succeeded by a next one.

Rebirth-consciousness, the first citta of life, and its accompanying cetasikas are the mental result of kamma. In the planes where there are nama and rupa, kamma also produces rupas from the first moment of life. Also throughout life there are rupas produced by kamma such as eyesense, earsense and the other senses which are the means for vipakacittas to experience pleasant or unpleasant objects. The rupas produced by kamma are the physical results of kamma. The different rupas of our body are not only produced by kamma, but also by citta, by temperature and by nutrition. Thus, there are four factors which each produce different rupas of our body.

In this life we perform good deeds and bad deeds; we do not know which deed will produce the next rebirth-consciousness. AIso a deed which was performed in a past life is capable of producing the next rebirth-consciousness. Since we are now in the human plane of existence, it was kusala kamma which produced the first citta of our life; birth in the human plane is a happy rebirth. If the kamma which will produce the rebirth-consciousness of the next life is akusala kamma, there will be an unhappy rebirth, and if is kusala kamma there will be a happy rebirth. Nobody can choose his own rebirth, the rebirth-consciousness is a conditioned dhamma, it is sankhara dhamma. This life consists of citta, cetasika and ripa which are conditioned dhammas. Also in a next life there are bound to be citta, cetasika and rupa, canditioned dhammas. There will be kusala cittas, akusala cittas, vipakacittas and kiriyacittas. If we are not born in an unhappy plane there can be again the development of right understanding.

Since kusala kamma and akusala kamma are capable of producing rebirth-consciousness, they are a link in the the 'Dependant Origination' (paticcasamuppada, the conditional origination of phenomena). The doctrine of the 'Dependant Origination' explains the condition for the continuation of the cycle of birth and death by way of twelve links, starting from ignorance (avijja). Ignorance is mentioned as the first link. It is because of not knowing realities as they are, that we have to be born and that we have to suffer old age, sickness and death. The eradication of ignorance is the end of the cycle and thus the end of dukkha.

Ignorance, the first link, conditions sankhara, the second link. Sankhara are the kusala cetanas and akusala cetanas, the kammas, which are capable of producing vipaka. Sankhkara conditions vinnana (consciousness). Vinnana, the third link is vipakacitta which can be rebirth-consciousness or vipakacitta arising through out life such as seeing or hearing. The Dependant Origination represents the conditions for our present life and our life in the future, thus, the conditions for the continuation of the cycle of birth and death.

Sankhara, the second link in the Dependant Origination, is cetana in its function of kamma which produces vipaka, so that the cycle of birth and death continues.[1]

Under this aspect cetana is also called abhisankhara. The prefix 'abhi' is sometimes used in the sense of preponderance. Cetana which is kusala kamma or akusala kamma has preponderance in the conditioning of rebirth. Only cetana which accompanies kusaIa citta or akusala citta can be 'abhisankhara'. Cetana which accompanies vipakacitta and kiriya citta cannot be abhisankhara.[2]

AIl abhisankharas or "kamma-formations" are a link in the Dependent Origination, they are conditioned by ignorance. Kusala kamma is still conditioned by ignorance, although at the momment of kusala citta there is no ignorance accompanying the citta. So long as there is ignorance we perform kamma which can produce vipaka; we will be reborn and thus the cycle continues. we read in the Visuddhimagga (XVII, 119) that the ignorant man is like a blind person:

As one born blind, who gropes along
Without assistance from a guide,
Chooses a road that may be right
At one time, at another wrong,
So while this foolish man pursues
The round of births without a guide,
Now to do merit he may choose
And now demerit in such plight.

But when the Dhamma he comes to know
And penetrates the Truths beside,
Then ignorance is put to flight
At last, and he in peace may go.


While we study the different aspects of cetana we can see that cetana is different as it arises with different cittas. Cetana which accompanies kusala citta or akusala citta 'wills" kusala or akusala and it is capable of producing vipaka; it is, except in the case of cetana which accompanies magga-citta, abhisankhara or kamma-formation. The cetanas which accompany rupavacara citta and arupavacara citta can produce rebirth in higher planes of existence, in rupa-brahma planes and arupa-brahma planes, they are a link in the Dependant Origination. Cetana which accompanies vipakacitta is vipaka, it is produced by akusala kamma or kusala kamrna. This type of cetana has only the function of coordinating the other dhammas it accompanies. The centana which accompanies kiriyacitta is not kusala or akusala, nor is it vipaka; it is of the jati which is kiriya, inoperative. This type of cetana has only the function of coordinating.

Cetana which accompanies lokuttara citta is not a link in the Dependant Origination. The lokuttara citta which is 'magga-citta' (Path-consciousness) produces vipaka (the phala-citta or fruit-consciousness) immediately; the phala-citta succeeds the magga-citta. Since the magga-dtta eradicates defilements it will free one from the cycle of birth and death. The arahat is freed from rebirth, He does not perform kamma which can produce vipaka. The cetana which accompanies the kriyacittas of the arahat and the ahetuka kiriyacitta which is the hasituppada-citta (smile-producing consciousness) of the arahat, is not abhisankhara, it is not a link in the Dependant Origination.[3]

As we have seen, cetana which is kusala kamma or akusala kamma can produce vipaka. Time and again there are pleasant or unpleasant experiences through the senses and these are vipakacittas: we see, hear, smell, taste or experience through the bodysense pleasant or unpleasant objects. We may know in theory that vipakacittas are cittas which are results, different from kusala cittas and akusala cittas, but theoretical knowledge is not enough We should learn to distinguish different types of citta when they appear. Each situation in life consists of many different moment which arise because of different types of conditions. For example, when we hurt ourselves because of an accident, there is an unpleasant experience through the bodysense which is vipaka, but the moments of vipaka fall away immediately and very shortly afterwards aversion is bound to arise. It is difficult to distinguish the moment of vipaka from the moment of akusala citta; cittas succeed one another very rapidly. When we think: "This is vipaka" the moments of viphka have fallen away already, and the cittas which think are either kusala or akusala, There are different types of conditions for the cittas which arise. The akusala cittas and kusala cittas are conditioned by the accumulated tendencies to kusala and akusala, whereas the experience of a pleasant or unpleasant object through one of the senses such as seeing or hearing is vipaka, which is conditioned by kamma.

Cetana is sankhara dhamma, a conditioned dhamma. It is conditioned by the citta and the other cetasikas it accompanies. The word sakhara has different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. The word "sakhara" used in the context of the Dependant Origination, means "kamma-formtion, Cetana as a link in the Dependant Origination is kamma-forrmation, kamma which is capable of producing vipaka so that the cycle of birth and death continues.

At this moment we are in the cycle of birth and death and we cling to life, we want to go on living. We think that life is desirable because we do not know what life really is : only nama and rupa which do not stay. We cling to the self, we want to be liked and admired by others, we want to be successful in our work. However, we have many frustrations in life ; when we do not get what we, want we are disappointed. So long as there are defilements there is no end to the cycle of birth and death, but there can be an end to the cycle if we begin to know this moment of seeing, visitble object, hearing, sound or thinking as it is, as only conditioned realities which do not stay. We are forgetful of realities very often, but reminders to be aware are right at hand. We can be reminded to be aware when we notice our own as well as other people's clinging to all objects and the sorrow caused by clinging. ln the Kindred sayings (III, First Fifty, chapter 3, 23, Understanding) we read that the five khandhas, that is all conditioned realities which appear in our life, have to be understood as they are. We read that the Buddha, while he was at Savatthi, said to the monks :

Monks, I will show you things that are to be understood, likewise understanding. Do you listen to it.

And what, monks, are the things to be understood? Body, monks, is a thing to be understood; feeling is a thing to be understood; perception, the activities (sankharakhandha) and consciousness also. These, monks, are 'the things that are to be understood.' And what, monks, is 'understanding?' The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of illusion: that, monks, is called 'understanding'.

If there is awareness and understanding right now of seeing, hearing or any other reality which appears, there will eventually be an end to rebirth.


  1. How can we know that there is a next life?
  2. Which kinds of cetana are a link in the Dependant Originafion?
  3. Why is cetana which accompanies magga-citta not kamma-formation?
  4. Kusala kamma is capable of producing vipaka and thus it is a link in the Dependant Origination. Why does it still make sense to perform kusala kamma?
June 18, 2001

Footnotes and references:


sankhara is often translated as 'kamma-formation'.


For details See Visuddhimagga XVII, 177-182.


The arahat has no kusala cittas nor akusala cittas, cittas which are cause, which can motivate kamma which produces result. Instead he has kiriya citta, inoperative cittas, which do not produce result.

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