Meaning of "citta" in Pali

I recently got out of a retreat where the brahmaviharas were handled in an unusual manner. Delving into this a little at a time, the emphasis was on the physical heart as the location of these. Aside from the appropriateness of the approach (which would constitute at least one thread in itself), the presenter made quite a point of saying that “citta” in Sanskrit meant “heart/mind” but this meaning had been “lost” from the Pali word so that it only meant “mind”, presumably as in the thinking mind that is in the brain. Although I do see the English word “mind” given as the translation in many cases, it’s not clear to me that the connotation of “brain” or “thinking” is always implied. Could any of the Pali experts that live here please comment on this?


Hi greenTara,

Perhaps it isn’t quite what you are looking for but these might help a little:

Citta, Mano, Viññana - Definitions and distinctions

Mano · Citta · Viññāṇa: how do they relate to each other?
And the pdf linked there:
“Citta, Mano, Vinnana—A Psychosemantic Investigation”
by Rune E. A. Johansson


Citta is a noun derived from the verbal rot cit “to think, to be aware”. It means “mind” in the Buddhist texts.

It doesn’t have any relation to the physical heart, although sometimes it can be rendered as “heart” in a psychological/emotional sense. It may have had a more organic basis at some point in history, but by the time of the suttas it is solely psychological.

The word for “heart” in Pali is hadaya, which is occasionally used as a poetic term for mind. So the language clearly sees a connection between the mind and heart, as we do, but the word citta has no special connection to this.

Bear in mind that most, perhaps all, psychological terms are ultimately derived from more physical terms that gradually adopt more refined meanings. In English, for example, “spirit” comes from “breath” (= “respiration”). So to suggest that a specific term had a more organic connection, and that gradually became lost, is not a sign of corruption or misunderstanding, it is simply an observation about the nature of language evolution, which moves by way of metaphor from the concrete to the abstract.

The question for a student is to see what stage of abstraction applies at that particular point in linguistic usage. And for the suttas, there is no suggestion of any inherent link between the citta and the heart. Such a link was, of course, posited in the later Buddhist traditions, but even there, for practical purposes citta remained a purely psychological term.

Also, by the way, there are few clear psychological passages in pre-Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. So to establish a distinct sense of citta there would require detailed and specialized scholarship. However, a quick check of the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary shows the primary meaning of “to perceive, fix the mind upon, attend to, be attentive, observe, take notice of”, i.e. purely psychological. These meanings are attested as far back as the Ṛg Veda, our oldest Sanskrit text.


Unfortunately the pre-Buddhist texts are not really helpful in this case - as much as it would be needed with such a complex term in the EBT.

The usual suspects are the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (BU) and the Chandogya Upanisad (CU). The BU doesn’t have citta at all. The CU has it in the key passage CU 7.5, but it’s not very clear what it means. Olivelle translates as ‘thought’, but there seem to be connotations of ‘reflection’, ‘consideration’, ‘attention’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘intelligence’ involved. Here it’s surely not a ‘passive’ or ‘radiating’ consciousness but an activity a person can employ.

The CU’s position is somewhat confirmed by the older Satapatha Brahmana. Here in citta is something that is done before/in accordance with speech. In it’s more ‘consideration’. In it seems to be more ‘will’.


I think there are some useful clues to the meaning of citta in the text of the third frame of satipatthana ( MN10 ).

See “3. Observing the Mind” here:

The character for citta, in Chinese, is literally a heart. That might be where the teachers in questions got their idea of the actual biological heart as being the “seat” of citta.


These references are very helpful. There is quite a bit to be digested. Clearly it is too simplistic to fix the meaning of these words to one narrow sense over all occurrences.

Thank you all for these responses. There is a lot here and it will take me some time to work through it all.

In Buddhist texts, citta covers any subjective experience that is not explicitly sensory or physical. Though is far from being a satisfactory definition by modern standards. Citta, thus, covers several categories that we usually think of as separate, especially “thoughts” and “emotions”. While there are different names and synonyms for emotions, they don’t form a separate category from thoughts. There is no word that corresponds precisely to either “thought” or “emotion”, only citta which covers both.

So there is no difference, in Pāḷi, between thinking and emoting (or between thought and motivation). Although one might argue that the paradigmatic cittas in Buddhism are desire and aversion, which in our way of thinking are emotions.

Thus I disagree that citta has the meaning your presenter suggested in Pāḷi. Sujato and I also seem to disagree on this. It does appear to be true that some modern Theravādins treat citta as applying only to the mind. This seems to be a projection of modern ideas back in time rather than reading the Pāḷi texts on their own terms.

The ancient world never thought of the brain or the head as the location of thought. This is a modern, Western discovery. Rather, subjectivity lay in the organ of the heart, both in Europe and in India. So no connection with the brain should ever be implied from a Pāḷi text. Nor is the head ever the metaphorical container for thoughts. The location of emotions is sometimes talked about as being (at least metaphorically) in the object of desire or aversion itself.

The irony here is that having separated thoughts and emotions into separate categories for centuries in Europe, neuroscientists have discovered that the distinction is much less clear. Physically, emotion is often just generic physiological arousal (stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system) accompanied by emotional thoughts that give the arousal a “flavour”. No blood test can distinguish fear from anger, for example.

Our legacy distinctions are breaking down as we realise that mental and physical are not ontologically different. The differences are down to epistemology, i.e. the channels by which we receive information about our world. What primarily determines how an electrical nerve impulse is interpreted is where in the brain it arrives and how often.

The categories we break experience up into and then reify (treat as real) are very much part of the problem as outlined in the Pāḷi texts. So all of this talk of categories ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Categories exist only in our minds, not in the objects of perception.


Make up your “mind”.

This is also true of a few other Asian languages I know of, Japanese “心” (in roman characters: shin) and Thai “ไจ” (in roman characters: djai). Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same story with Korean and the rest of SouthEast Asian langauges, at least…

Indeed, this is a kanji, adapted from the word “hanzi” or “Han ideogram”.

It is supposed to be a somewhat abstractified depiction of a heart, as in the organ, not the shape.

Would anyone be nice to translate SA 568; which is SN 46.1 parallel.

Particularly the passages on the definitions of kayasankhara, vacisankhara and cittasankhara.

We have already seen that in MN 44, the definition of cittasankhara is vedana (experience/feeling) and sanna (perception).
And that in its Chinese parallel (MA 210), it is intention (I suppose cetana), and perception.

In SN 46.1, the definition seems redundant with that of MN 44; namely, vedana and sanna.

However, in its parallel SA 568, there seems to be an interesting progression in the usual body, speech and “mind” (citta) sankharas.
The latter being the cittasankhara.
The meaning seems to be somewhat: “thinking (思) names (名) governs (為) the mental formations (意行)” .

Could anyone (frankk & Dr. Chu, Coëmgenu) help us acknowledge and develop that translation which has to do with kayasankhara, vacisankhara and cittasankhara?

Let one also remind him/herself, that the process of naming is crucial in Indian philosophy; particularly in Samkhya and Buddhism.

Thanks in advance.

I am wondering if the Abhidhamma is helpful in regard to the connection of “citta” and the heart. I have been reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s edition of Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, A - PDF eBook) and I see that the heart-base is considered the material support of some cittas. But I’m not sure if “citta” is used in the same sense in the Abhidhamma as in the Suttas.

(Is this what @sujato meant by “posited in later Buddhist traditions”?)

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Indeed it is. It is, as pointed out by Jayarava, widely believed in Asian traditions that the heart is the physical seat of the mind. So the heart and mind are related. However, this does not imply any particular philosophical conclusion about the nature of that relation. The suttas are entirely silent on this, and nowhere suggest that they either accept or reject such a theory.

Linguistically, the Indic terms do not show a close relation between heart and mind as suggested by the Thai and Chinese/Japanese examples above. As I noted earlier, hadaya is merely an occasional poetic term for the mind in Pali.

Monier-Williams cites some sources in the Rg Veda. But I haven’t been able to check them.

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“Origins of Indian Psychology” by N. Ross Reat might be helpful. He goes into a deep exploration of the psychological terms throughout the Vedas, Upanisads and Buddhist texts. I don’t remember citta (or any of the psychological terms for that matter) being in any way anchored to something physical. According to him, the minimal amount of attention paid to the psychological in the Vedas is thoroughly inconsistent in it’s terminology (attesting to the theory that these were a collection of separate family texts) and almost entirely concerned with the performance of ritual (the priest sending/projecting a mental image into the heavens).

This is one of the most valuable insights I have read in months, thanks for that :anjal:


That “Japanese” character is a direct carry-over from Chinese “xin”, which is clearly a pictograph / picture of the heart-organ, with tubes sticking out. Medically (classical Chinese medicine) it refers to the organ, but also s/t “heart-mind”, as it’s also used explicitly used in later literature – e.g. the Buddhist/Taoist text “The Secret of the Golden Flower”.

“A character like 心 ‘heart’ is pronounced xīn in Mandarin and sam in Cantonese, but was sim in Middle Chinese. Note that in Middle Chinese the relationship to Tibetan becomes more clear in this case. The corresponding Tibetan word is sems (pronounced sem) and a Proto-Sino-Tibetan root has been reconstructed as *siǝm. Tibetan sems, like Chinese 心 (below), is used to translate the Sanskrit word citta.”

From my blog The Heart Sutra in Middle Chinese


When I took refuge at a Zen Monastery, I was given the name “Mushin”. I wasn’t aware of this connection to “citta”. :rofl: