Saññā Vipallāsa – Distorted Perception

Saññā vipallāsa means “distorted perception.” Our perceptions about this world are distorted and wrong. Modern science has come to the same conclusion 2600 years after the Buddha.

October 27, 2023

Our Bodies Are Not “Solid” – Wrong Perception (Saññā)

1. We perceive worldly things as made of “solid, concrete matter.” Our physical bodies appear to be “solid,” and the houses and cars we value, as well as mountains, trees, etc., appear to be “solid.” 

  • One of the startling discoveries science has made is the following: What we perceive with our senses (saññā) can be astonishingly deceiving. Even though our bodies seem to be “solid,” in reality, they are mostly “empty space,” as illustrated in the above video. Diamond is the hardest known substance on Earth, and diamond atoms are virtually empty, too.
  • Initially, in the 1800s, scientists came to the conclusion that matter is made of atoms. But then, in the early 1900s, they found that atoms are “mostly empty” (with a tiny nucleus in the middle with most of the mass and an “electron cloud” surrounding it. The astonishing fact is that if the nucleus is compared to a peanut, the whole atom would be the size of a stadium, as pointed out in the above video. Try to make that picture in your mind. It is mind-boggling!
  • However, that was just the beginning. More progress was made with the advent of quantum physics in the 1920s. 

2.  In the middle of the 1900s, scientists found that even the nucleus is not “solid”; it is made of a variety of “fundamental particles.” They had to build enormous particle accelerators trying to understand the nature of those elementary particles.

  • The astonishing conclusion was that the “ultimate particle” that keeps everything together (“Higgs boson”) is not really a “particle” but more like a “packet of energy” (confirmed within the past ten years.) The following video, “The Surprising Truth About the Higgs Boson “Discovery” at CERN,” explains that.

  • That leads to two conclusions: (i) our perceptions based on the data from the five physical senses can be misleading (i.e., they lead to distorted perceptions or saññā vipallāsa), and (ii) at the very fundamental level, there is nothing that can be called “solid matter;” everything is just “energy.”
  • The Buddha taught all that 2600 Years Ago! He called such distorted perceptions about the world (e.g., “solidity” of matter) “sañjānāti” or “saññā vipallāsa.”  
Science Has Embraced Several of Buddha’s Worldviews

3. While quantum physics led to the above understanding of the microscopic nature, astronomical studies over the past five centuries also verified Buddha’s views about the large-scale universe.

  • Western science (as well as religions) believed in a “geo-centric world” for thousands of years until the time of Galileo. Even a few hundred years ago, most people believed our Earth was at the center of the universe: “Geocentric model.” 
  • However, the Buddha taught 2600 years ago that our solar system is just one of an uncountable number of such systems in the universe. The universe consists of an uncountable number of star/planetary systems (cakkavāla) like our solar system. See, for example, “Cūḷanikā Sutta (AN 3.80.)
  • Buddha’s view was confirmed by science using powerful telescopes to look at the sky (following the initial reports by Galileo). That approach of “extending the capabilities of our crude sensory faculties” revealed that, indeed, there are an uncountable number of “star systems” (just like our Solar system) in the universe. The following is a high-resolution picture of just our Milky Way galaxy. There are uncountable galaxies in the universe! See “Dhamma and Science – Introduction” for details.

4. Therefore, the “wrong perception” (or “sañjānāti” or “saññā vipallāsa”  in Buddha’s terminology) about the Earth being at the center of the universe was another wrong conclusion humans came to based on our crude sensory faculties. 

  • The scientific investigations using telescopes vastly extended the capabilities of our sense faculties, and we were able to get a much better picture of what is really in the skies above us.  The Buddha called such”mundane logic/investigation” or “vijānāti.” ; these terms are discussed in #7 and #8 below.
  • (However, there is more to be discovered by science. The current scientific theory is that the universe came into being only about 15 billion years ago and that there was “nothing” before that. This “Big Bang Theory” will be proven wrong, too. The Buddha described a different scenario where only a cluster of “star systems” (cakkavāla) get destroyed at a time but will be re-formed over time. The universe has existed “forever,” and there is no “discernible beginning” to life. See “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27).”)
Elusive Nature of Matter 

5. The Buddha taught that our bodies, as well as anything else in this world, are made of bhuta that are hard to pinpoint. As scientists probed smaller and smaller particles, they noticed that it is not possible to measure the speed of a particle if its location is pinned down; if they tried to pinpoint the speed, they found that its location becomes unspecified. It is not possible to “pin down” or “specify everything” about a microscopic particle. That is called the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” 

  • Because of that, the Buddha used the word bhuta (ghost) to describe the elusive nature of matter at the microscopic scale, a “ghost” in the sense that it is “hard to pin down.” 
  • Furthermore, such “elementary particles” arise out of “mental energy” (created in javana citta). Understanding that requires a good knowledge of Abhidhamma.
  • However, a basic explanation is in “Bhūta and Yathābhūta – What Do They Really Mean.” Yathābhūta means the true nature of matter (or the true nature of bhūta,) which arises via the MIND.

6. To summarize: Everything in this world is made of pure energy at the fundamental level. The perception of “solidity” is an elusion, i.e., the fundamental nature of “matter” is elusive.  Note that I did not use the word “illusive,” which would mean it is an illusion or unreal. Even though the real nature is hidden, the existence of “things in this world” (as well as suffering) is authentic, i.e., not an illusion. 

  • However, this wrong perception of “solidity” (distorted saññā or “saññā vipallāsa“) is one reason that we tend to place “value” on worldly things, i.e., “rūpaṁ attato samanupassati, rūpavantaṁ vā attānaṁ; attani vā rūpaṁ, rūpasmiṁ vā attānaṁ” or “rupās are of value.” That distorted perception also leads to placing value (atta/attā) on mental entities arising when thinking about some of those rupas: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. See “Attato Samanupassati” – To View Something to be of Value.”
  • These are deep insights built into Buddha Dhamma. However, just getting the basic idea is enough. There is no need to study particle physics.
Mundane Approaches versus Buddha’s Approach – Exactly Opposite

7. According to the Buddha, there are two mundane ways of understanding the world, i.e., those based on (i) human perception or “saññā” and (ii) logical mundane investigations (vitakka and vicara).

  • The Budha called the way of coming to conclusions based solely on perception, i.e., “sañjānāti.” This is how people have come to conclusions about the external world solely based on our crude five physical senses (based on essentially a “hunch.”)
  • On the other hand, scientists used investigations using scientific instruments and logical reasoning, which the Buddha called “vijānāti.” 
  • Both are based solely on materialism, assuming we can understand the world by looking at its material properties.

8. However, Buddha’s teachings are based on an entirely different approach. It is entirely a mind-based approach to discovering the truth about nature; he did not have to do any “experiments” with fancy instruments or billion-dollar particle accelerators. Furthermore, his investigations revealed that it is the mind that leads to the existence of matter (in a much “subtle form” than anyone had ever imagined until the discoveries discussed in the two videos above.)

  • He taught that one cannot understand the fundamental nature of this world by either trying to perceive with our five senses or by using scientific instruments to study the composition/interactions of material entities that make up the “visible world.”
  • The problem is two-fold: (i) We cannot “see” (with eyes or even scientific instruments) everything in the external world (that is why science does not realize the existence of the other 29 realms; their instruments cannot probe the “suddhāṭṭhaka” stage of matter), and (ii) everything in the external world arises due to collective “mind power” or “javana power” that can arise only in minds. One starts understanding the Buddha’s worldview at the pajānāti stage as a Sotapanna, and that understanding becomes complete (abhijānāti or parijānāti) at the Arahant stage.
  • I briefly discussed the terms sañjānāti, vijānāti, pajānāti, and abhijānāti in “Cognition Modes – Sañjānāti, Vijānāti, Pajānāti, Abhijānāti.”
Buddha Dhamma Is All About the Mind

9. The Buddha taught there is no point in investigating external objects in the world. Such investigations can never lead to the “ultimate truth” about life. He said one must focus only on one’s own mind. All the terms in Paṭicca samuppāda (the basis of Buddha Dhamma) are mental entities. 

  • All the terms in Paṭicca samuppāda are “mental entities,” and NONE refers to anything material and visible in the outside world. For example, “āyatana” (in salāyatana) does not refer to physical sensory faculties (like the eyes or ears) but to the use of such sensory faculties to “collect more information” once attached. An Arahant does not have āyatana but can see or hear; they would not use their eyes and ears to enjoy sensory pleasures.  
  • Several terms in Paṭicca samuppāda (viññāṇa, nāmarupa, bhava, and jāti) have “energy” associated with them. Only “jāti” has anything that can be called “subtle matter” (invisible) because it leads to the arising of a subtle “manomaya kāya” with a few suddhāṭṭhaka (the “elementary particle” in Buddha Dhamma.) People usually think about the birth of a baby as “jāti,” but that is not correct. In Paṭicca samuppāda, the “bhava paccayā jāti” step leads to the “birth of a human gandhabba.” Then, that human gandhabba can be reborn many times with a physical human body during its existence for many thousands of years; see “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”
  • That is why ALL the terms in Paṭicca samuppāda cease to arise once the Arahant stage of Nibbāna is reached. The Paṭicca samuppāda process does not operate for a living Arahant.

10. We have discussed the true meaning of atta/attā/anatta (concerning anicca and dukkha) in the subsection “Does “Anatta” Refer to a “Self”?

  • Those posts are based on a series of earlier posts (as outlined in the above link) on the “hidden pure mind” or “pabhassara citta.” One needs to make sure to understand those fundamental concepts.
  • This discussion continues in “Sensory Experience – A Deeper Analysis.”
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