Cognition Modes – Sañjānāti, Vijānāti, Pajānāti, Abhijānāti

Cognition takes place at four levels: sañjānāti, vijānāti, pajānāti, and abhijānāti.

September 9, 2023


1. The five aggregates are listed in the order they arise in sensing a sensory input (ārammaṇa): rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.

  • Here “rupa” includes both the “internal rupa” that helps with sensing (cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, mano) and the “mental imprints” of the external rupa (rupa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phottabba, dhammā) that arises in mind.
  • The contact of the internal rupa with the “mental imprint” of the external rupa gives rise to vedanā, registering that contact as a sukha, dukkha, or neutral (adukkhamasukha) vedanā.
  • Based on that vedanā (but simultaneously), “recognition or perception” of that object arises, which is saññā.
  • Based on both vedanā and saññā (but simultaneously), certain mental factors (cetasika) arise in the mind, for example, greed, joy, etc. Those are collectively called “saṅkhāra.”
  • The totality of all those mental impressions is viññāṇa, loosely translated as “consciousness.” However, viññāṇa is more than consciousness; it also includes “an understanding of the sensory input.” This understanding is wrong if based solely on saññā, which is sañjānāti. If an attempt is made to understand it better, an improved understanding could emerge (vijānāti.) The first level of a “better understanding” comes at the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage, which is pajānāti. The complete understanding, or abhijānāti, comes at the Arahant stage.
Sañjānāti, Vijānāti, Pajānāti, Abhijānāti

2. In the following, we will discuss those terms using mainly the Mahāvedalla Sutta. I will quote verses from different places in the sutta to provide insights as needed. Also, remember that numerous cittas arise based on an ārammaṇa, and they progressively get further contaminated within seconds. The “thoughts” have already been defiled by the time we realize it.

  • For example, we can consider a citta that arises when a visual object is seen; it is called cakkhu viññāṇa, arising within a billionth of a second. But it arises already contaminated to some extent. Within seconds, it can become further contaminated and lead to immoral deeds.  
  • Thus, that cakkhu viññāṇa evolves further in subsequent cittas as the mind gets a better idea about the object and decides how to respond to that visual input. 
  • The mind starts generating kamma later in the process, but “later” is relative. Committing kamma can happen within seconds or even hours after first encountering that ārammaṇa.
  • But let us start with what happens in the INITIAL sensory contact, i.e., when cakkhu viññāṇa arises upon seeing the object. The Mahāvedalla Sutta does not discuss the time sequence, so I will refer to verses from random places in the sutta as needed.
First Step: Vedana

3. The contact of the “mental imprint of the external object” (rupa) with the internal cakkhu pasāda rupa (cakkhu) leads to the arising of the vedanā cetasika.

  • That vedanā can be sukha (pleasant contact like when lying on a soft bed), dukkha (painful like in an injury), or adukkhamasukha (neutral like the feel of a slight wind). Those three types arise only with bodily contact, involving kāya and phottabba. All other sensory contacts only lead to neutral vedanā in the INITIAL CONTACT, for example, when cakkhu viññāṇa arises. 
  • The “Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43)” describes vedanā as follows: “Vedanā vedanā’ti, āvuso, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, vedanāti vuccatī”ti? “‘Vedeti vedetī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā vedanāti vuccati. Kiñca vedeti? Sukhampi vedeti, dukkhampi vedeti, adukkhamasukhampi vedeti.” OR “Venerable, why is it called ‘feeling’? ‘One feels’ – therefore, Venerable, it is called ‘feeling.’ And what does one feel? One feels pleasure, pain, and ‘neither pleasure nor pain.’ 
  • This sutta does not explicitly state that sukha and dukkha vedanā arise only due to bodily contact, but that is the case. All other sensory contacts (like vision or taste) only lead to neutral vedanā with ‘neither pleasure nor pain.’ 
Second Step: Saññā and Sañjānāti

4. Almost simultaneously, recognition of the object (in the case of a visual object, recognition of a person as attractive, for example) happens. 

The “Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43)” describes saññā as follows: “Saññā saññā’ti, āvuso, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, āvuso, saññāti vuccatī”ti? “‘Sañjānāti sañjānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā saññāti vuccati.Kiñca sañjānāti? Nīlakampi sañjānāti, pītakampi sañjānāti, lohitakampi sañjānāti, odātampi sañjānāti.‘Sañjānāti sañjānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā saññāti vuccatī”ti.” OR “Venerable, it is said ‘recognition/perception.’ Venerable, why is it called ‘recognition’?” “‘One recognizes – therefore, Venerable, it is called ‘recognition.’ And what does one recognize? One recognizes blue, yellow, red, and white. ‘One recognizes, one recognizes’ – therefore, Venerable, it is called ‘recognition.’”

  • Even though this sutta does not go into detail, this is a very critical step in cognition. Sañjānāti means much more than recognition. The mind generates certain qualities (like attractiveness, tastiness, pleasing sounds or smells, etc.) This automatic response is based on one’s “natural bhavaṅga state” and may make unwise decisions by attaching to those “mind-generated saññā” orsaññā vipallāsa.”  Thus, that attachment is based on “understanding (jānāti) with saññā or “sañjānāti” (and not wisdom, as we see below). 
  • We discussed that in “Contamination of the Human Mind Based on a Sensory Input” and “Contamination of a Human Mind – Detailed Analysis.” 
Third Step:  Mind Creates Its Version of the External Rupa Based on Saññā Vipallāsa

5. Within a split second, the “attached mind” starts creating its own version of the external rupa (rupāyatana) based on this “distorted saññā” or That happens with an expectation, and thus, the cakkhu pasāda becomes “cakkhu āyatana” or “cakkhāyatana.” 

  • However, kamma accumulation has not started yet. That will happen soon after the mind starts to attach to this “mind-made rupa” with kāma guṇa
  • We will discuss that step in the next post. Again, it is critical to note that all these events occur before we become aware that we are attached to the ārammaṇa. Such a detailed description (taking place in a split-second) can be seen only with the mind of a Buddha. 
Root Cause of Sañjānāti With “Distorted Saññā”

6. The “Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1)” (the first sutta in Majjhima Nikāya) highlights the root of this “distorted saññā” or “saññā vipallāsa” of a puthujjana (average human) would have for ANYTHING in this world.  As mentioned in #4 above and in the two posts referred to there, the sweetness of sugar or attractiveness of a person is NOT an inherent property of the corresponding sensory object (sugar or the person.) Instead, those are “mind-made distorted saññā” that arise automatically based on the “natural bhavaṅga state” that one is born with. That is why even an Arahant will see a person as attractive/unattractive or a meal as tasty/distasteful. 

  • To get attached to the ārammaṇa with that saññā is sañjānāti.
  • Even though the same saññā can arise in an Arahant, that will not lead to sañjānāti. Depending on the situation, that can happen to a puthujjana (or anyone below the Arahant stage).
  • The Mūlapariyāya Sutta explains the root cause for that attachment.  

The Buddha says:Idha, bhikkhave, assutavā puthujjano ariyānaṁ adassāvī ariyadhammassa akovido ariyadhamme avinīto, sappurisānaṁ adassāvī sappurisadhammassa akovido sappurisadhamme avinīto—pathaviṁ pathavito sañjānāti; pathaviṁ pathavito saññatvā pathaviṁ maññati, pathaviyā maññati, pathavito maññati, pathaviṁ meti maññati, pathaviṁ abhinandati. Taṁ kissa hetu? ‘Apariññātaṁ tassā’ti vadāmi

  • Translation: “Take an unlearned ordinary person who has not understood the teaching of the noble onesThey perceive (with saññā) pathavi  to be pathavi (meaning they perceive “solid objects made of pathavi dhatu to be solid as they appear to be.) Having perceived pathavi as solid (saññatvā,) one conceives things made of pathavi (such as one’s physical body) to be “valuable for me” and would consider to be “mine.” For what reason? Because they haven’t completely understood pathavi.” (This verse requires a long explanation, but that is the basic idea.)
Abhijānāti – The Opposite of Sañjānāti

7. Later in the “Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1)” the Buddha states: “Yopi so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu arahaṁ khīṇāsavo vusitavā katakaraṇīyo ohitabhāro anuppattasadattho parikkhīṇabhavasaṁyojano sammadaññāvimutto, sopi pathaviṁ pathavito abhijānāti; pathaviṁ pathavito abhiññāya pathaviṁ na maññati, pathaviyā na maññati, pathavito na maññati, pathaviṁ meti na maññati, pathaviṁ nābhinandati. Taṁ kissa hetu? ‘Pariññātaṁ tassā’ti vadāmi.” 

  • Translation: “An Arahant has completed the spiritual journey and knows the real nature of pathavi;  they do not conceive things made of pathavi (such as one’s physical body) to be “valuable for me” and would consider to be “mine.” For what reason? Because they have completely understood pathavi.” They can “see beyond the automatic recognition/perception” because they have understood the real nature of pathavi (and āpo, tejo, and vāyo.)

8. Then the Buddha goes through a long list of worldly things made of the four great elements of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo (mainly beings in all the realms in the world.) They have no “solid/permanent existence” because they have their origins in mind (i.e., created via javana cittās.) I have discussed the basics in the post “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka” and details in the series “Origin of Life.” The last post on that series is “Origin of Life – One Creates One’s Own Future Lives.”

  • I am starting another series of posts (an extension of the recent series “Recovering the Suffering-Free Pure Mind.”) This series will address some finer points not discussed in the “Origin of Life” series.
  • Let us briefly discuss the other two terms, vijānāti, and pajānāti, that are related to sañjānāti and abhijānāti (discussed above.) 
Vijānāti – Realated to Sañjānāti

9. Going back to the “Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43)” it addresses what happens after the arising of vedanā and saññā in the initial cakkhu viññāṇa (in our example taken in #2 above): “Yaṁ hāvuso, vedeti taṁ sañjānāti, yaṁ sañjānāti taṁ vijānāti” or “you recognize/perceive (with saññā, i.e., sañjānāti) what you feel (vedeti), and you cognize (with viññāṇa, i.e., vijānāti) what you recognize/perceive ( i.e., sañjānāti.)”

  • In other words, the time sequence (within a split-second) is vedeti, sañjānāti, vijānāti.
  • Here, vijānāti can be an improvement over sañjānāti. Let us discuss that briefly.

10. For most puthujjanās, vijānāti is essentially the same as sañjānāti. But someone actively learning Buddha Dhamma could be spending time thinking about the “real nature” of the world (i.e., cultivating the yathābhūta ñāna) made of the four great elements of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo. See “Bhūta and Yathābhūta – What Do They Really Mean.”

  • Thus, their mental status would be better, and thus, vijānāti could be an improvement on sañjānāti.
Transition from Vijānāti to Pajānāti (Understanding with Wisdom)

11. When someone starts comprehending the “real nature” vijānāti transitions to pajānāti (understanding with paññā; thus “pa jānāti.”) By the way, sañjānāti comes from “sañ jānāti” and vijānāti comes from (understanding with viññāna; thus “vi jānāti.”) Furthermore, abhijānāti (discussed above) is when pajānāti optimizes at the Arahant stage. This is an easy way to remember the terms.

The “Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43)” describes pajānāti as follows: “Neyyaṁ panāvuso, dhammaṁ kena pajānātī”ti? “Neyyaṁ kho, āvuso, dhammaṁ paññā cakkhunā pajānātī”ti. ORHow do you understand the term pajānātī? It means to “see with wisdom (paññā cakkhunā)”

Then: “Paññā panāvuso, kimatthiyā”ti? Paññā kho, āvuso, abhiññatthā pariññatthā pahānatthā”ti.”  OR “What is the purpose of wisdom? The purpose of wisdom is  complete understanding leading to ending the rebirth process (by giving up this world.)”

  • Sutta Central translation does not provide the correct ideas involved in the above verses because it is a word-by-word translation. But in the subsequent verses, the translation is good enough to get the idea (I made a couple of improvements): “How many conditions are there for the arising of right view with wisdom? There are two conditions for the arising of right view: learning from a Noble Person (“the words of another”) and yoniso manasikāra (“rational application of mind.”)
  • As we know, those two conditions are essential in the four conditions needed to attain the Sotapanna stage: “Four Conditions for Attaining Sōtapanna Magga/Phala.”
  • Thus, when a puthujjana becomes a Sotapanna Anugāmi, vijānāti turns to pajānāti. When that Sotapanna Anugāmi cultivates the Noble Path and becomes an Arahant, pajānāti turns into abhijānāti.


12. An average person (puthujjana) makes decisions based on sañjānāti or vijānāti.

  • The understanding of the fundamental nature of any ārammaṇa (or the world in general) elevates to the pajānātī level at the Sotapanna Anugāmi. That happens when a puthujjana learns Buddha Dhamma from a Noble Person.
  • The pajānātī level of understanding grows with higher stages of magga phala and becomes complete (abhijānāti) at the Arahant stage.
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