Saññā – All Our Thoughts Arise With “Distorted Saññā”

Saññā is a critical mental entity in Buddha Dhamma. All our thoughts arise with “distorted saññā,” and that helps hide the suffering-free “pure mind” or pabhassara citta.

November 4, 2023

Basic Definition of Saññā – To Identify/Recognize

1. The basic idea of “saññā” is in the following verse from the “Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43)“: “‘Sañjānāti sañjānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā saññāti vuccati. Kiñca sañjānāti? Nīlakampi sañjānāti, pītakampi sañjānāti, lohitakampi sañjānāti, odātampi sañjānāti,” which is translated there as “It’s called perception because it perceives. And what does it perceive? It perceives blue, yellow, red, and white.”

  • That is the basic definition of “saññā,” and the translation there is correct in that context.
  • That definition also includes not only color but also familiarity with an object to recognize the meanings of words such as a fire, house, or a person associated with a name like John. 
  • These basic ideas are discussed in “Saññā – What It Really Means.” It is a good idea to read this post.
  • Arahants have this type of “pure, uncontaminated saññā” when they are in Arahant-phala samādhi.
Deeper Meanings Appearing in Most Suttās

2. However, saññā of a living being below the Arahant stage may arise with “defiled saññā” due to “saññā vipallāsa rooted in anusaya/saṁyojana (or ingrained defilements.) Thus, many cittās (loosely translated as thoughts) arise with “defiled saññā.

  • Another way to say is: For anyone below the Arahant stage, ārammaṇa (sensory inputs) are comprehended with “sañjānāti“(“recognize with defiled saññā“) and corresponding vijānāti (“defiled consciousness”.) 
  • However, as one proceeds on the Noble path with magga phala, more and more ārammaṇa are grasped with “pajānāti or abhijānāti” (with refined awareness) instead of “sañjānāti and vijānāti.” That is because some of the anusaya/saṁyojana are either weakened or eliminated with magga phala.
  • Now, before we discuss such “defilements,” we need to address another critical aspect: the arising of a “distorted saññā due to being born in the kāma loka. This arises also in Arahants; it is not defiled but only distorted.
Distorted Saññā

3. Furthermore, a “distorted saññā arises automatically in all those who are born in kāma loka; thus, it arises in Arahants experiencing sensory inputs via the five sense faculties (i.e., unless they are in a samāpatti.)

  • All of us are born with an “uppatti bhavaṅga.” That the “mindset” grasped at the beginning of this human bhava. That never changes, even after Arahanthood.
  • If the mind is dormant (i.e., not actively pursuing an ārammaṇa, as while sleeping), it falls back to that “uppatti bhavaṅga.” When an ārammaṇa comes to mind, a series of cittās (citta vithi) arises based on that “uppatti bhavaṅga.”
  • That is the reason that the mind sees an ārammaṇa with a “distorted saññā automatically. 
  • I will discuss this further in upcoming posts, but it is good to review the post “Bhava and Bhavaṅga – Simply Explained!
Defiled Saññā

4. The problem is that as soon as we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think about something (upon getting a sensory input or an ārammaṇa), we may attach to it — instantaneously — if the mind recognizes it as “something of interest.”

  • That attachment is based on the “distorted saññā” that we discussed in #3 above. Even though Arahants also generate that “distorted saññā” their minds will not be attached to it since they have removed all anusaya/saṁyojana from their minds. Depending on the particular sensory input, for anyone below the Arahant stage, that “distorted saññā may automatically lead to “defiled saññā.
  • The verses we discussed recently in the posts “Etaṁ Mama, Esohamasmi, Eso Me Attā’ti – What Does It Mean?” and “Attato Samanupassati” – To View Something to be of Value” discuss why the mind attaches to worldly things instantaneously. The main reason is the ingrained wrong views and “distorted saññā that those things can be beneficial to us. Such view/saññā leads to giving priority to keeping engaged in the rebirth process, hoping to overcome suffering by seeking “things that provide enjoyment.” That is the origin of “rāga.”
Wrong Views and Defiled Saññā Lead to Rāga

5. Because of that idea ingrained in our minds (that worldly things can bring us happiness and overcome suffering), our minds generate “chandarāga” (“chanda” means “liking”) or simply “rāga,” which can be of three main types: kāma rāga, rupa rāga, arupa rāga. Other words can also be used to describe such attachments. See “Lōbha, Rāga and Kāmacchanda, Kāmarāga.”

  • As pointed out in #3 of that post, the correct “pada nirutti” (etymology) of “rāga” comes from “” + “agga” where “” means to “travel (in the saṁsaric journey)” and “agga” is to “give priority.” Thus, “rāga” means to “willingly engage (in the saṁsaric journey.) That is why the Buddha divided the world into kāma loka, rupa loka, and arupa loka, where kāma rāga, rupa rāga, and arupa rāga dominate respectively.
  • All three types of rāga can lead to “Saññā Vipallāsa – Distorted Perception.” 

6. “Saññā Sutta (SN 27.6)” states, “Yo, bhikkhave, rūpasaññāya chandarāgo, cittasseso upakkileso” or “desire and greed for perception of rupa is a defilement that arises in a citta.” 

  • Such chandarāga can also arise for sounds, smells, tastes, touch (phoṭṭhabba), or dhammā (that comes directly to mind.)
  • Based on such attachments (via chandarāga), “defiled cetanā” (sañcetanā) arises in the mind as stated in the “Sañcetanā Sutta (SN 26.7).” The English translation there translates “Yo kho, bhikkhave, rūpasañcetanāya uppādo” as “Mendicants, the arising of intentions regarding sights.” This is another example of mecahnically inserting a mundane meaning everywhere. 
  • That short verse should be translated as “bhikkhus, the arising of defiled intentions regarding sights.”
  • There, rūpasañcetanā (rūpa sañ cetanā) does not merely indicate cetanā but “sañ cetanā or “defiled cetanā.” As we know, “sañindicates defilements; see “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra).”
“Sañ” Maybe Spelled Differently

7. It is to be noted that the Pali word sañ may be written with the Latin alphabet as “san” or “saṅ” in various word combinations. 

  • In the “Bhikkhaka Sutta (SN 7.20),” the phrase “Saṅkhāya loke carati” means “(a bhikkhu) lives in the world engaged in wearing out defilements.” Here, “saṅ khāyameans to “wear our defilements.” The English translation in the link incorrectly translates that verse as “and wanders having appraised the world.” Also, it is disrespectful to translate “bhikkhu” as a “mendicant” because “mendicant” usually means “a beggar.” The actual meaning is explained in this sutta! It is true that “bhikkhati” can mean “to beg,” but the sutta explains why a bhikkhu should not be called a beggar even though he gets food from others. These are examples of instances where inappropriate meaning could lead to confusion.
  • Khaya” may mean “to end or to wear out,” as can be seen in the last part of the opening verse “.. āsavānaṁ khayaṁ pāpenti” in the “Dutiyakāla Sutta (AN 4.147).” That verse is correctly translated there as “..they gradually lead to the ending of defilements.; there, “pāpenti” means “lead to.”
  • Therefore, “saṅ khāyameans to “wear our defilements.”
Ārammaṇa – Start of a Sensory Event

8. To examine in detail the critical role of saññā in a sensory event, we must start at the beginning of the process. It all starts when the mind attaches to a sensory input (ārammaṇa) via one of the six sense doors.

Response to an Ārammaṇa – Arahant, Sekha, and a Puthujjana

9. There is a HUGE difference between what happens in the mind of an Arahant versus an average human (puthujjana) when a sensory input (ārammaṇa) comes to mind. We will discuss this in detail in upcoming posts, but the following sutta provides the basic idea.

  • The “Upavāṇasandiṭṭhika Sutta (SN 35.70)” states, “Idha pana, upavāṇa, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṁ disvā rūpappaṭisaṁvedī ca hoti rūparāgappaṭisaṁvedī ca” OR “Upavāna, take the case when a bhikkhu sees a sight with their eyes and also generates the desire for the sight.”
  • Here, the Buddha refers to the case of a bhikkhu (who is above the Sotapanna stage but not an Arahant, i.e., a Sekha) and is attached to a specific sensory input. That bhikkhu knows that he saw the sight, but he also KNOWS that he has attached to it (generated rāga.) The subsequent verse states: “Santañca ajjhattaṁ rūpesu rāgaṁ ‘atthi me ajjhattaṁ rūpesu rāgo’ti pajānāti” OR “They realize that desire for that sight has arisen in them (“‘atthi me ajjhattaṁ rūpesu rāgo’ti pajānāti“). Here, “atthi me ajjhattaṁ” means “has (arisen) in me.” 

10. A puthujjana will not even know that there is a difference; they will only experience rūparāgappaṭisaṁvedī, i.e., when they see the sight, they are already attached (if it is something of interest.)

  • In the verse “rūpappaṭisaṁvedī” means “rupa paṭisaṁvedī” and “rūparāgappaṭisaṁvedī” means “rupa rāga paṭisaṁvedī.”  Just seeing (without attachment) happens with “rupa paṭisaṁvedī,” and the attachment happens with “rupa rāga paṭisaṁvedī.”
  • Thus, an Arahant will only go through the rupa paṭisaṁvedī” but NOT the “rūpa rāga ppaṭisaṁvedī” step.
  • Depending on what types of anusaya/saṁyojana left in a Sekha (a Noble Person below the Arahant stage,) they may go through the rūpa rāga paṭisaṁvedī” step, but they would know afterward that they did. By being mindful, they try to stop it from happening again.
Rāga Paṭisaṁvedī – Happens Automatically

11. The critical point here is that when the “second step” of rāga paṭisaṁvedī takes place, it happens within a split-second after the first step of paṭisaṁvedī. That second step is dictated by one’s “defiled gati” evident at that moment (NOT anusaya or saṁyojana).

  • Let us try to understand that with the following example. Take the case of a puthujjana (X) who is in a “calm state of mind.” Suppose X accidentally does something that aggravates another person Y, and Y yells at X. Hearing the angry words from Y does not cause anger in X since he was in a calm state of mind; he tries to explain that it was an accident. However, Y (who was in a bad mood anyway) keeps verbally abusing X and then pushes X.
  • During that time, X’s mindset changed. His “state of mind” gradually gets worse, and at some point, he gets to the “rāga paṭisaṁvedī” step. In this particular case, it is not “rāga” but “dosa” or “patigha.”
  • However, if X were an Arahant, his mindset would not change no matter how much Y yells, pushes, or even hits him.
  • If it is a Sekha, the response would be somewhere between the response of X and the Arahant.

12. I have discussed this sequence of events in the subsection “Sensory Experience – Basis of Buddhā’s Worldview” (especially the posts numbers two to four there) but not discussed the initial steps (“Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso.”) in finer detail.

  • Essentially, “Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ” is the rupa paṭisaṁvedīstep and “tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso” is the “rūpa rāga paṭisaṁvedī” step. See “Difference between Phassa and Samphassa.”
  • To fully understand how “saññā vipallāsa” arises, we need to examine even the first rupa paṭisaṁvedī” step in detail in the upcoming few posts. We have never discussed that before.
  • It will be good to review the sections and posts mentioned above to keep up with the upcoming posts. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the forum since it is critically important to grasp that background material. No question is a wrong question!
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