6. Citta: The Ultimate Reality

In this post, we discuss the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos. There are many terms for the Ultimate Reality, each describing the Ultimate Reality from different perspectives. A few, such as suchness and unconditioned, have been introduced. We start this post by introducing one more, Inconceivable. 

Inconceivable (Romanized Sanskrit=Acintya; Chinese=不可思議), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “a term to describe the ultimate reality that is beyond all conceptualization.”

Mohe Zhiguan (Chinese=摩訶止觀) is a “”voluminous” and “comprehensive Buddhist doctrinal summa which discusses meditation and various key Buddhist doctrines. ….. It is particularly important in the development of Buddhist meditation….”, and “a major focus of the Móhē zhǐguān is the practice of Samatha (止 zhǐ, calming or stabilizing meditation) and Vipassana (觀 guān, clear seeing or insight).””  Most importantly, Mohe Zhiguan “is founded firmly on scripture; every key assertion of the text is supported by sutra quotations.” 

Therefore, Mohe Zhiguan is highly authoritative, has impeccable credentials, and almost all its teachings are highly impactful. 

One doctrine that Mohe Zhiguan teaches is “The Ten Vessels for Insights into Principle (Chinese=十乘之理觀).” The ten vessels are metaphors representing ten levels of progressively higher meditative states, each with correspondingly deeper insights into the nature of reality and carrying its practitioners to higher states of enlightenment. As shall be discussed, “principle” is another term for mentality in Buddhism.

At the highest level of the meditative state, one gains “insight into the Inconceivable Realm (Chinese=觀不思議境).”

Before we expound on the details, please allow me to introduce the texts used by Dharma Master Jing Kong (Chinese=淨空法師) in this discussion. 

The lecture notes that he used are known as “The Chapter on the Ten Vessels of Insight into Reality in Tripitaka by Numbers, taken from Mohe Zhiguan (Chinese=三藏法數十乘條: [出摩訶止觀]).” 

Tripitaka (Chinese=三藏), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “three baskets,” one of the most common and best known of the organization schema of the Indian Buddhist canon. The three baskets were Sutrapitaka (Chinese=經藏) (basket of discourses), Vinayapitaka (Chinese=律藏) (basket of disciplinary texts), and Abhidharmapitaka (Chinese=論藏) ( [alt. “Sastrapitaka] (basket of “higher dharma” or “treaties.“)

Mohe Zhiguan belongs to the basket of Sutrapitaka. 

Tripitaka by Numbers (Chinese=三藏法數) is a well-known Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia that arranges Buddha’s teachings by numbers. For example, the doctrine, The Ten Vessels of Insight into Reality, would be categorized under ten.

So, what insight can one expect to realize when meditatively piercing into the Inconceivable Realm?

First, a rhetorical question is asked:

What insight can be had?” 

The answer:

“Nothing outside of Rupa and Citta.” 

“Rupa originated from Citta.” 

“All are ontologically Citta.” 

So, what are citta and rupa?

Citta (Chinese=心), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “mind,” “mentality,” or “thought.”  Furthermore, “Citta is contrasted with the physical body and materiality.” 

Rupa (Chinese=色), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “body,” “form,” or “materiality,” viz., that which has shape and is composed of matter. More generally, rupa refers to materiality, which serves as objects of the five sensory consciousnesses.” For example, the translation of rupa into the Chinese character 色, or color, suggests that one of those sensory consciousnesses is visual.   

“Objects of five sensory consciousnesses” refer to the phenomena of the world. 

So, in plain language, they translate as:

“What insight into reality can you have when perceiving the Inconceivable Realm?


“There is nothing but “phenomena of the world” and mentality.

“Phenomena of the world” originated from mentality.

Mentality is the nature of the existence of all “phenomena of the world.”

First, let’s understand the meaning of “inconceivable” in context. While defining the Ultimate Reality as inconceivable is correct, it is incomplete in this situation. Mohe Zhiguan mentions two entities, rupa and mentality, but only one can be the Ultimate Reality. 

The correct application of “inconceivable” should refer to the inconceivability of “Such is the Way of Dharma,” where two eternal realms have existed, one unconditioned and one conditioned. Obviously, they cannot co-exist in the same realm.  

So, one realm is the mentality that Buddha deems the Ultimate Reality, while the other is the realm of rupa, the nature of existence of which is also mental. 

Below, we discuss the mentality that Buddha deems the Ultimate Reality and will discuss the realm of rupa in a future post, following the discussion on Citta. In the meantime, we will capitalize C in Citta to indicate the mentality of the Ultimate Reality. For mentality that is not the Ultimate Reality, we simply use mentality. 

1) Ultimate Reality

Let’s first understand why Citta is the Ultimate Reality while the mentality of rupa is not. 

As an unconditioned phenomenon, the Ultimate is permanent and unchanging. Its permanency means that Citta can never change. In other words, Citta is quiescent and can never fluctuate. If Citta ever fluctuates, the “realness” of its mental state changes with every fluctuation. However, if its “realness” changes, Citta cannot be the Ultimate Reality. It is the definition of Ultimate Reality in Buddhism. To be the Ultimate Reality or Truth, the “realness” of the reality or “truthfulness” of the truth can never change. 

For this reason, while human consciousness is reality, it cannot be the Ultimate Reality in Buddha’s universe because human consciousness is always active. 

2) Originator, not Creator 

As Buddha stated clearly in Mohe Zhiguan, rupa, the “body,” “form,” or “materiality” of the universe, i.e., all the phenomena of the world, originated from mentality. 

Indeed, in Buddhism, the universe is not created as if something from nothing. Instead, when conditions were right, the universe naturally manifested from the pre-existing mentality that fluctuates in the conditioned realm of Such is the Way of Dharma. Furthermore, with mentality as their nature of existence, everything in Buddha’s universe is sentient. 

3) The thing-in-itself

“Thing-in-itself” is a philosophical concept proposed by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant

In Kant’s proposal, the “thing-in-itself” is defined as “the status of objects as they are, independent of representation and observation.” 

Citta fits Kant’s definition of “thing-in-itself” because the status of Citta is as mentality is. Furthermore, Citta, existing unconditionally, uncompounded, and inconceivably without an empirical form, is “independent of representation and observation.”

The difference between Kant’s and Buddha’s teachings is that while Buddha’s Ultimate Reality is verifiable, Kant’s Noumenon is only his personal philosophical opinion. This is why Buddhism and philosophy are essentially different. 

4) Spread Throughout the Universe

According to this article, in the Vajrasekhara Sutra (Chinese=金剛頂經), Buddha teaches that the Ultimate Reality is spread throughout the dharmadhatu. 

Dharmadhatu (Chinese=法界), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “dharma realm,” viz., “realm of reality,” or “dharma element:” a term that has two primary denotations.” 

  • In the Abhidharma tradition, dharmadhatu means an “element of dharma,” or the “reality of dharma.
  • In the Mahayana, dharmadhatu is used primarily to mean “sphere of dharma,” which denotes the infinite domain in which the activity of all dharmas takes place – i.e., the universe.”

5) Emptiness

Emptiness (Romanized Sanskrit=shunyata/sunyata; Chinese=空), according to The Dictionary Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, also known as “void,” is a “central notion of Buddhism….Shunyata is often equated with the absolute in the Mahayana since it is without duality and empirical forms.” 

Emptiness is important in Buddhism for at least two reasons:

  • It is the hallmark of the first significant level of enlightenment when the enlightened person experiences an “Emptiness” as the universe disappears from him. 
  • It is the enlightenment achieved by arhats, allowing them to be liberated from the samsara of determinative birth and death.

6) Divine Features

  • Citta, being spread throughout the universe, can be considered omnipresent.
  • Citta, being a mentality spread throughout the universe, can be considered omniscient.
  • Citta, being the originator of the universe, can be considered omnipotent.

In some religions, these three features are often associated with divinity. However, in Buddhism, they are associated with mentality, a verifiable natural phenomenon that gives all humans their consciousness. 

The discussion of Citta will continue in the next post.