Saññā is normally translated as “perception”, but it has a much deeper meaning. Learning about anicca is the first step, but cultivating anicca saññā is critical.
Revised November 26, 2017; June 29, 2022
Saññā – What Is It?
1. Saññā is normally translated as “perception”, but it has a much deeper meaning; see, “Saññā – What It Really Means.“ Anicca saññā has many different aspects, and in this and the next post, we will discuss some of these deeper aspects; see the link at the end of this post.
- When reading about it, it may make sense that anicca means, “that we cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction”. And from the examples given, one can see the truth of that statement. But that is just the start. One just has just been informed of what anicca is. Now one has to “see it with wisdom”, in order to get to the Sōtapanna stage. This is what is called “dassanena pahātabba” or “start seeing things as they are” or “Yathābhūta Ñāṇa.”
- One needs to develop the “anicca saññā“; the mind needs to grasp the essence of the correct perception of what anicca implies. Book knowledge is one thing, and “grasping it with the mind” is much deeper.
- Getting rid of both distorted views (diṭṭhi) and distorted saññā is required to get to the Sotapanna stage; see, “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”
- This is the second of two posts on that issue. In the previous post, we determined that it is not possible to keep to our satisfaction what we think of as ours, our bodies, and our thoughts. See, “How to Cultivate the Anicca Saññā“.
Knowing About Something – Different Levels
2. When contemplating external objects, there are many “levels of saññā“: the more one KNOWS about a given object, one tends to cultivate a “better saññā” about it.
- Let us take an example to illustrate this important difference. Suppose a person from a remote region in the Amazon forest, who has never seen an apple, is shown an apple. He would not know what it is. If we give him the apple to hold and teach him the word “apple”, now he knows what an apple is, but only in the sense that if he is shown an apple again, he will say “that is an apple”. But he would still not know how it tastes. He will have to eat some apples to get an idea of their flavor. He may still not know how to identify a “ripened apple” that will taste better, etc. All that comes when he gets to experience apples at various stages of “ripeness” and even different varieties.
- All those different aspects of an apple need to be experienced in order to really get the saññā about an apple. Only then that one can picture an apple, know what it feels like to hold it, how it tastes, etc. At the mention of the word “apple” all that instantly comes to that person’s mind.
3. In another example, if we see someone at work regularly at a distance, we can recognize him as X if we meet him at the market. But we would not know much ABOUT him. However, if we get to associate with him and start doing things together, pretty soon we will know much more about him.
- At that point, when we even catch a glimpse of him, everything about him comes to our mind. If we wanted, we can recall how many kids he has, where he went to school, etc.
- Thus “saññā” can be at different levels. The more one gets to associate with someone or something, then our “saññā” on that person or concept will grow.
- However, it is possible that our “saññā” about person X may not be really correct. One day, police find video evidence that X is a child molester, and it becomes clear that there is no doubt about it. At that moment, our “saññā” or perception of X is altered permanently. We will no longer let him even come close to our children.
Viparīta Saññā – Distorted Perception of This World
4. The Buddha said our “saññā” about “this world” — that it can provide happiness — is a “viparīta saññā” (pronounced “vipareetha”), i.e., it is a distorted or wrong perception. If one carefully examines the rebirth process in the 31 realms, that wrong perception has provided us with the most suffering in the long run.
- When we realize the “anicca nature” of this world to some extent, our wrong perception will change. That is when one really sees “Sammā Diṭṭhi” or “correct vision” about this world. One becomes a Sōtapanna.
- Just like a fish does not see the “hidden hook” and that it will undergo unbearable suffering by biting the tasty worm, we normally do not “see” the suffering hidden in the “tasty materialistic things”. A fish will never be able to figure that out, and as normal human beings we cannot figure it out ON OUR OWN either. Only a Buddha can figure it out, and a Buddha can TEACH us, and we can figure it out by spending some time contemplating it.
5. Therefore, one should not be discouraged if one does not even realize “what the big deal is” about anicca. Like everything else, understanding comes with repeated application and thinking about it. If one can see that “it makes sense” to say, “anicca describes the inability for us to maintain anything to our satisfaction in the long term” that is a good start. Then one should start checking the validity of that concept at every opportunity in real life.
- Also, anicca is not merely, “the inability for us to maintain anything to our satisfaction in the long term”. There are many other implications that arise because of this characteristic of anicca. Another way the Buddha described anicca was to use the term aṭṭiyati (“aṭṭeeyathi“); i.e., “it is like a dog chewing on a meatless bone”. The dog thinks very highly of the bone and values its “taste”. But there is not even any real taste in that bone. It is a taste that is made up by the mind, but sometimes, its gums start bleeding and it may taste its own blood.
- Various aspects of anicca are discussed in: “Anicca – True Meaning“.
6. Just like a dog will spend hours and hours chewing its “highly valued” bone, we also give much value to sense pleasures that are fleeting in nature. We do get brief instances of real pleasure, but we do not realize the effort and suffering that we go through to get that brief sense of pleasure. Most of the time, the pleasure is a “pleasure of anticipation”. We trudge through hard work with the mind cheering on showing the “possible pleasures to be had”.
- The Buddha likened this to oxen (in the old days) who drags a heavy bullock cart with eagerness to get to the pile of straw being held in front of it by a pole. It does not realize the futility of its efforts because it is only thinking about the “prize” being held in front of its eyes. It does not even feel the burden of the heavy load, or even if feeling it, just disregards that pain in anticipation of the “reward that is only a few steps away.” The average human’s mindset is not that different.
- Most of our pleasures are short-lived and arise just out of putting down the “fires” or distresses. The water tastes best when we are thirsty. Think about how you felt when you were very thirsty; the first sip of water was heavenly. But as the thirst went down with drinking more water, the “sense of pleasure” went down as well. After at most two glasses, the “feeling of pleasure” turns to discomfort.
Unseen Drawbacks of Sensory Pleasures
7. The same thing applies to any of the sense pleasures. We are constantly under pressure from the mind to “provide relief to one or another sense faculty”; this is “dukkha dukkha” that we discussed elsewhere. If we have not eaten anything for a while, we get the urge to eat something tasty. If we have not listened to some good music for a while, that urge kicks in. If you think about any sensory pleasure, this is true.
- Many people value sex very highly. But how long can one keep that pleasure going? Most of the sexual pleasure is gained by just thinking about it; it is mostly mind-made. One needs to think about this carefully. How much time does one spend “fantasizing” versus “actually having sex”?
- Even if we eat the most delicious food in the whole world, it will not taste good after the stomach gets full. But we keep thinking about that “great experience” of eating that meal many times afterward. Then we form an urge to do it again.
- This “feeling of unsatisfactoriness” or even feeling of “something is missing” is “aṭṭiyati“. The dog may get tired of chewing the bone and may leave it alone, but after a while, the urge comes back and he is at it again.
8. Even if we are fully content and lying on a comfortable couch, we may get a “feeling of unfulfillment”, that something is “missing”. We then get the idea, “to go and watch a movie” or to “drop by a friend’s place to chat”. Then we have to get in the car and drive there. We do not even feel the burden associated with getting dressed and driving because our minds are focused on the pleasure of “watching the movie” or “having a good time with a friend”. And after that session, we have to drive back and if it was a bad movie we might even get a bit depressed.
- This is “aṭṭiyati“. Just like a dog that incessantly is chewing on a dry bone to get mental satisfaction and eventually gets tired doing it, this is what we have been doing life after life (if born in the human realm). Many people eventually realize this at old age, but then it could be too late to do anything about it.
- As one gets old, the ability to derive pleasure from such activities goes down. If you have friends, relatives, parents, or grandparents who had enjoyed life at a younger age, but now are in distressful situations it is easy to see what happened to them over the years. Now they do not have the energy to try to do all those activities and even if they do to some extent, their sense faculties have degraded to the point of not providing much sensory pleasure.
- But most people still keep thinking back about the pleasures they had when they were young. This may even prompt them to seek ways to “somehow get those experiences back”. And when that fails depression sets in.
Yathābhūta Ñāṇa – Removal of Viparīta Saññā
9. As the mind realizes the burdens of the “incessant distress”, and that one has endured all that for no real benefit, it will gladly give up those burdens and the mind will start losing those cravings automatically. This is the key to “giving up unnecessary attachments”; see, “The Incessant Distress (“Pīḷana”) – Key to Dukkha Sacca“.
- That post discusses how we encounter suffering when anicca inevitably leads to unexpected “changes” in things we value; this is viparināma dukkha. We encounter more suffering by trying to overcome the effects due to viparināma dukkha by doing more saṅkhāra, and that is saṅkhāra dukkha. And if we do “bad types of saṅkhāra” or apunnābhi saṅkhāra, they lead to rebirths in realms where direct suffering or “dukkha dukkha” is unbearable. Thus all types of suffering eventually arise due to anicca.
10. Those are key concepts to meditate on (or contemplate). This is real vipassanā bhāvanā.
- However, it is important to make sure one starts abstaining from at the least the conventional five precepts and possibly the “BIG EIGHT” discussed in the “2. The Basics in Meditation“. Otherwise, the mind will not be calm enough to grasp these concepts. The difference between “book knowledge” and “developing anicca saññā” will become slowly clear as one proceeds.
- That is why reading, listening and contemplating Dhamma concepts are so crucial. This is one component of the Saptha Bojjhaṅga (dhamma vicaya) and one of the Satara Iddhipāda called vīmaṁsā). When concepts become clear, one will automatically develop anicca saññā.
- And with time, one will be able to grasp it better. One will “start feeling” things in one’s own body; see, “11. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjhaṅga“.
- This is a process that goes all the way to Arahanthood. It is said that one truly understands anicca only at the Arahant stage. But our goal here is to at least get to the Sōtapanna stage. And that CAN BE DONE in this very life, as I discussed in my own experience in the above post.
Not Just Impermanence – Anicca Is Much Deeper
11. Finally, if anyone has spent long times — may be years — meditating on “impermanence” without results, it would be worthwhile to spend some time meditating on the “anicca” nature. I know by experience that will make a big difference if one does it right.
- I spent 4-5 years contemplating on wrong anicca, dukkha, and anatta (and a few other things like the wrong ānāpānasati bhāvanā). I really believe that the very first dēsanā that exposed me to the correct interpretation of anicca, dukkha, and anatta changed my progress instantaneously. It was a profound effect.
- It is also important to realize that what ultimately matters is not just a “good feeling” or even getting to jhānās, but whether one has removed “gati” suitable to be born in the apāyā. Thus one should be able to look back at one’s life and see significant improvements in getting rid of greed, hate, and ignorance; see, “Transition to Noble Eightfold Path“.