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Cetana ''volition'' or ''will''

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Cetana is generally translated as "volition" or "will". According to Psychology volition means "self-conscious activity towards a determined end, manifested primarily in decision and intention."

          Cetana is one of the seven Sabba-citta-sadhdrana-cetasikas (concomitants which are common to every act of consciousness). It has the characteristic of urging or causing to exert. Its function is to gather its associate concomitants and cause them to perform their respective functions simultaneously with it. It accomplishes its own and others' functions as a senior pupil or a general does. It is manifested as an instructive factor, e.g. do this; do that. Its proximate causes are its associate concomitants.

          A senior pupil prepares and studies his lessons and at the same time causes the junior pupils to prepare their lessons and study them.

          A general also fights the battle himself and causes his soldiers to fight simultaneously. So Cetana is compared to a senior pupil or a general.


           In his Ahara Dipani (Manual of Nutriment) the Venerable Maha thera Ledi Sayadaw elaborately expounded the immense power of cetana as follows: "The dhamma which incessantly urges or causes the mind and its associate concomitants to become restless and chase various kinds of objects is called cetana. Try to discern that mind is restless and ever fleeting. When one encounters an object of lobha (greed), it is cetana which drags that lobha out and invariably directs it towards the object of greed. It also urges or causes one to enjoy sensuous pleasures. Similar processes take place in the cases of dosa (hatred) and moha (delusion).

           "Worldlings naturally possess very little cetanain respect of saddha (faith). panna(wisdom), dana (almsgiving), sila (morality), and bhavana (mental concentration). As regards them it urges, drives or causes the mind in a dilatory manner and not very quickly. There has to be a lot of external means or support, such as reflecting on the dangers of arising in hells, and the advantages of performing wholesome volitional actions for cetana to urge or drive the mind towards them, because mind delights in evil.* When cetana has to cause a person to go to a place where he desires to go very much, it acts very quickly; but if it has to cause him to go to a place where he does not like to go, it acts very slowly.

           "There are fifty kinds of concomitants** in Sankharakkhandha (Group of mental formations), and the relation between cetana and the remaining forty-nine concomitants may be explained by the following example:

           "Suppose in a harbour there are forty-nine barges fully loaded with goods, and there is only one big steamer, which has to tow these forty-nine barges from one riverine port to another. Now the spectators on the bank of the river may say: 'This steamer has towed such and such a barge and gone to the mid-stream and will call at such and such a port.' Similarly, cetana sometimes drags lobha out and unfailingly drives it towards the object of greed. Sometimes it drags dosa out and unfailingly drives it towards the object of hatred. The cases of the remaining forty-nine concomitants of Sankharakkhandha may be considered likewise."

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          "Vedana and Sanna perform their functions in their respective fields, but they are not able to cause other concomitants to perform their respective functions simultaneously. Hence cetanais the predominating factor in every action."

          When any action of thought, word, or body, takes place, cetana marshals its concomitants to perform their respective functions. Thus all actions of beings are determined by this cetana. Therefore it is even called kamma.***

          In the Nibbedhika Sutta**** the Buddha declares: "By action, Bhikkhus, I mean volition. It is through volition or self- instigation or incitement that a man does something in the form of deed, speech or thought."

          Cetana arises in connection with rupa (matter), sadda (sound), gandha (smell), rasa (taste), photthabba (physical contact) and dhamma (ideas or mental objects) and incites (and conducts) actions with reference to them.

          Actions incited (and conducted) by cetana may be physical, verbal or mental; they may be good or bad; and they will produce good or bad results.

           In the first link of the Dependent Origination "Avijja paccaya sankhara (Through Ignorance, Kamma formations arise)", actions, which cetana incites (and conducts) are divided into—three classes according to their qualities—viz:.—


    Punnabhisakhara (kamma formations of' merit),
    Apunnabhisakhara (kamma formations of demerit),
    Anenjabhisankhara (kamma formations of the imperturbable).

           They are also divided into three other classes according to their bases—viz:—

    Kayasankhara (the bodily kamma formations);
    Vacisankhara(the verbal kamma formations), and
    ([[[Cittasankhara]])] (the mental kamma formations).

           Wholesome volitions in the Sensuous Sphere (Kamavacara) and the Form Sphere (Rupavacara) culminating in dana (almsgiving), sila (morality) and bhavana (mental concentration) are Punnabhisankhara.

           Unwholesome volitions are Apunnabhisankhara.


           Wholesome volitions in practising mental concentration in the Formless Sphere (Arupa vacara) are Aneiniabhisankhara.

           Volitions connected with physical action are called Kayasankhara.

           Volitions connected with speech are called Vacisankhara.

           Volitions that arise only in the mind (and not connected with the bodily and verbal functions) are called Cittasankhara.

           So in the Bhumija Sutta***** the Buddha declares: "Where there have been deeds, Ananda, happiness and ill arise in consequence of Kayasancetana (bodily volition). When there has been speech, happiness and ill arise in consequence of Vacisancetana (verbal volition). Where there has been mental action happiness and ill arise in consequence of Manosancetana (mental volition).


           This volitional act does not cease at the biological death of a being, but it acts as a condition to the arising of a new existence immediately after the death-proximity in the present life. It ceases only when the being eradicates all defilements and attains anupadisesa-nibbana (Nibbana without the constituent groups of existence remaining).

           In Dependent Origination, the second link is Sankhara paccaya vinnanam (Through Kamma formations, Consciousness arises).

           In this connection the Venerable Maha thera Ledi Sayadaw explained as follows:— "In the aforesaid statement— 'This volitional act does not cease at the biological death of a being,', that volition can cause the arising of a new existence only when it is accompanied by tanha (craving).^*

           For example, fill the barrel of a gun with some gun powder and also fill the remaining space of it with dust. Shoot the gun at the other side of the river so that the particles may reach there. But it will be seen that the particles instead of reaching the other bank get scattered in the air as soon as they leave the mouth of the barrel. Why? Because there is no cohesion among the dust particles. Again, moisten the dust and make the dough into strong pellets. Then put these pellets into the barrel and shoot the gun at the other bank. This time, the pellets will not only reach the other bank, but will also destroy all objects that they may hit. Why? Because there is cohesion among the dust particles.

           Similarly, volition of Arahats resembles the dust particles which are devoid of cohesion. Volition is present whenever there is bodily, verbal or mental action; but as that volition is not accompanied by tanha, at the end of each impulsive moment, it completely disappears without leaving any trace and without transforming it into kamma. As regards the volitions of worldlings and sekhas (Noble Learners), they resemble the pellets which possess cohesive power; volition produced by bodily, verbal and mental action, having binding power, does not disappear the end of each impulsive moment, but helps to form a new seed for the arising of a new becoming in the form of kamma. To endear oneself as "My self", "My mind" or "My volition" is naturally tanhawhich is invariably bound up with pleasure and lust. This shows how volition is accompanied by craving in causing a being to arise in a new existence.

          Non-causal or static consciousness is characteristic of the Buddha and His Arahats only. Their non-causal volition (kiriya citta) does not modify the character ethically one way or another, because it is now subject to good conditions—(hetus) - namely, alobha (detachment), adosa (amity), and amoha (absence of illusion), and is entirely free from the latent evil tendencies (anusayas).

           So in Putta-mamsa Sutta,^** the Buddha declares:

           "Manosan cetanaya bhikkhave ahare parinnate tisso tanha parinna honti: tisu tanhasu parinnatasu ariyasavakassa natthi kinci uttari karaniyanti vadami."

           (O Monks, I declare that manosanncetana ahara (mental volition as a relating factor) should be fully comprehended.^*** When that mental volition (as a paccayadhamma) is fully comprehended, the three cravings are fully comprehended. When these are well comprehended, I declare that there is nothing further that the Holy One has to do.)^****

           * Dhammapada, verse 116.

          ** Fifty-two concomitants except vedana and sanna.

           *** This is a Figure of Speech Called Metonymy.

           **** Anguttara Nikaya, Chakka Nipata, Mahavagga, Nibbedhika Sutta, p. 359, 6th Syn. Edn.

          ***** Samyutta Nikaya. Nidana-samyutta, Bhumija Sutta, p. 275, 6th Syn. Edn.

           ^*There are three kinds of tanha, They are:—

    Kamma-tanha(sensual craving),
    bhava-tanha (craving for existence), and
    vibhava-tanha (craving for self-annihilation).

          ^** Samyutta Nikaya, Mahavagga, Putta-mamsa Sutta, p. 324, 6th Syn. Edn.

          ^***There are three kinds of Parinna (Comprehension), namely,

    Nata-parinna(Comprehension of the nature of things);
    Tirana-parinna (Comprehension of their characteristics, such as anicca (impermanence), dukkha (Suffering), and anatta (Selfless-ness);
    Pahana-parinna(Comprehension culminating in their complete and final cessation).

          ^**** Because he becomes an Arahat through complete and final cessation of the three kinds of cravings.