December 25, 2018; revised August 23, 2019; April 9, 2020; July 8, 2022
1. The Pāli words citta, vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are mistranslated in most current literature as thought, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, respectively.
- The last four (vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa) are critical concepts in Buddha Dhamma. They represent the four mental aggregates.
2. The word saṅkhāra is generally translated as “mental formations.” It does not convey the meaning at all. Viññāṇa translated as just “consciousness,” and that is simply wrong.
- Sankhāra is associated with “emotions,” so we need to make the connection to emotions. In particular, we get attached to some things and are repulsed by others. In both cases, we generate a wide variety of emotions that lead to three types of saṅkhāra in our minds.
- They are puññābhisaṅkhāra (puñña abhisaṅkhāra,) apuññābhisaṅkhāra (apuñña abhisaṅkhāra,) and āneñjābhisaṅkhāra (āneñja abhisaṅkhāra.) In simple terms, that means moral thoughts/deeds, immoral thoughts/deeds, and the cultivation of arūpāvacara jhāna. For details, see, “Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra – What Is “Intention”?“
Pāli to English Translations – Conventional Meanings
3. The following are the descriptions or definitions that I found online, which seem to be closest to the Pāli words.
Thought (for citta): “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in mind.”
Feelings (for vēdanā): Normally used together with emotion. For example, a “feeling of joy.”
Perception (for saññā): recognition. For example, a flower is a “rose” and its color is “red.”
Emotions (for saṅkhāra): Some define emotions as: “joy-sadness, anger-compassion, greed-benevolence, etc., etc.”.
Consciousness (for viññāṇa): “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.” However, this will be true only for “vipāka viññāṇa” as discussed in #14 below.
4. That is all modern psychology says, and there are many overlaps there too. There are no universally accepted definitions for those words yet.
- On the other hand, the Buddha has provided detailed analyses of the Pāli words citta, saññā, vēdanā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
- Sankhāra arises due to emotions. These emotions are called cētasika, typically translated as “mental factors.”
- Therefore, citta, saññā, vēdanā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa SEEM TO correspond to the English words thought, perception, feeling, actions based on emotions, and consciousness. But that can lead to many misinterpretations, as we will discuss below.
We Need to Use Pāli Words Like Citta, Saññā, Vēdanā, Saṅkhāra, Viññāṇa
5. That is why it is almost impossible to translate those Pāli words into a single English word. The Sinhala language uses the same words; there are no separate Sinhala words for most of the terms in the Paṭicca Samuppāda including vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
- It is much better to learn the meaning of each Pāli word and use that word itself.
- I will briefly discuss some key features to get a basic idea. Other aspects discussed in: “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
Citta and Thought – Not Even Close
6. Cittās arise as a series; a single citta never arises by itself.
- In a sensing event that involves the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body), a citta vīthi (or a series of citta) arises with 17 cittā. Note that citta is pronounced, “chiththa” and cittā is the plural of citta. See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.”
- In the case of cittā arising directly in the mind, the basic citta vīthi has 12-14 citta. But in some exceptional cases, there is no limit to the number of citta that can occur (like in jhāna samāpatti).
- There can be billions of citta vīthi running within “the blink of an eye” according to Abhidhamma. The Buddha said that there is nothing in this universe faster than a citta.
- After reading this post, you may want to read the previous post, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).” That could make things clearer.
Citta and Cetasika
7. So you can see that what we call a “thought” is NOT a single citta. What we experience as a “thought” is the overall effect of a large number of citta vīthi.
- Each citta arises with at least seven cētasika (mental factors). Vēdanā and saññā are two of those psychological factors. Once a “good citta” occurs, many of those arise without changing to “bad citta” in the middle. That is why a “given sensory experience” is just called a citta, even though it may have billions of individual citta.
- There are 52 mental factors (cetasika) that could arise in a citta (“thought”). Thus, a “thought” can be quite complex.
- If it is a “moral citta,” then it would have some combination of “good mental factors” such as compassion or “fear of wrongdoing” (hiri). There are 25 of them, and only several of them arise at a given time.
- If it is an “immoral citta,” it would have “bad mental factors” such as greed and hate. There are 14 of them.
- Those good and bad mental factors (cētasika) never arise together. See, “Cetasika (Mental Factors).”
Vēdanā and Saññā – In Every Citta
8. Vēdanā and saññā are two specialized types of cētasika. That is why they are treated separately from other cētasika.
- Both of those arise with every citta.
- Vēdanā basically “feels” that a sense event is happening. There is a sukha vēdanā, dukkha vēdanā, or a neutral vēdanā (more accurately adukkhamasukha vēdanā) associated with EACH sensory event. Therefore, joy is not a vēdanā; see #2 above. There are only three types of vēdanā.
- Saññā is responsible for recognizing what the sense object is, based on one’s prior experience with that object. So, one perceives a rose and that it has the color red, for example.
- Those are, of course, fundamental descriptions.
9. There are 52 cētasika, including vēdanā and saññā. Out of the other 50 cētasika, some are included in “saṅkhāra“; which particular cētasika will be involved will depend on the specific situation. They define whether a citta is good or bad.
- As we mentioned before, vēdanā and saññā arise with all citta, good and bad.
- When one does an immoral deed, some of those “bad cētasika” (called asōbhana cētasika) arise with citta.
- When one does a moral deed, some “good cētasika” (called sōbhana cētasika) arise.
Sankhāra Are Our Actions Done With Emotions
10. Cētasika represents the English word “emotions.”
- When we experience those emotions, they are called “manō saṅkhāra.” They arise automatically, according to our gati.
- When we start thinking consciously about them, they become vacī saṅkhāra; we also speak with vacī saṅkhāra. Here, vacī pronounced “vachee.”
- If we do bodily actions with such emotions, then those are done with kāya saṅkhāra.
- So, we can see that “saṅkhāra” are more than emotions. Saṅkhāra is what we think and do with such sentiments.
- It is essential to realize that we have control over vacī saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra, but manō saṅkhāra arise automatically based on our gati.
11. To summarize what we have discussed so far:
- What we experience (and call a thought), is the overall effect of millions of citta vīthi.
- Current scientific research says a human can only register sensory events lasting at least a hundredth of a second (about ten milliseconds). During that time, millions of citta vīthi would have arisen.
- The sense object is recognized with the saññā cētasika, and accordingly, a sukha, dukkha, or neutral vēdanā arises.
- Based on that recognition (but simultaneously) a set of good or bad cētasika arise.
- Based on those good or bad sets of cētasika, the mind generates good, and bad saṅkhāra with which we think, speak and do things.
Emotions Arise Based on One’s Gati and the Sensory Input
12. Thus manō saṅkhāra arises automatically based on our gati (or gati) and the particular sensory input. If one likes a specific sensory input (based on one’s gati), then one will start thinking about it.
- So, we consciously think and speak with vacī saṅkhāra based on those emotions (manō saṅkhāra) that initially arise. If our emotions get high enough, we may take bodily actions based on kāya saṅkhāra.
- All three types of saṅkhāra arise in mind.
13. I need to emphasize the fact that occurring of a set of good or bad cētasika DOES NOT happen arbitrarily. Nothing happens without a cause.
- Two key factors determine what kind of cētasika arises for a given sense event: (1) One’s gati (pronounced “gathi”), roughly meaning character/habits, and, (2) the particular sensory object.
- Pali words are written differently than normal English words. See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1” and “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”
- Gati explained in many posts: “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas),” “How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View,” “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control,” are just a few.
Viññāṇa Is the Overall Experience – Plus Future Expectations
14. Finally, viññāṇa represents one’s overall sensory experience (including vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra). That is only one type of viññāṇa: “vipāka viññāṇa.”
- Viññāṇa has something in addition to those. One may form a future expectation based on that sensory input. That type is “kamma viññāṇa.”
- If one gets attracted to a given sensory experience, one may keep thinking about it and initiate an expectation to enjoy it further. “Kamma viññāṇa” is that expectation. That creates a kamma bīja that can bring vipāka in the future.
- More information at: “Viññāṇa – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations” and “Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.“
- Thus, it is wrong to translate viññāṇa as just consciousness (or awareness). Specifically, “kamma viññāṇa” is much more than just consciousness.
Expectations Are Only in Manō Viññāṇa
15. Viññāṇa can be categorized in another way into six types.
- We become aware of something in our physical world via cakkhu viññāṇa (seeing), sōta viññāṇa (hearing), ghāna viññāṇa (smelling), jivhā viññāṇa (tasting), and kāya viññāṇa (touching).
- Then manō viññāṇa takes over, and will decide to act on it — and if needed — to make “future expectations” or “plans.” (three manōdvāra citta vīthi follow each pancadvāra citta vīthi per Abhidhamma.)
- Therefore, it is the manō viññāṇa that builds expectations for the future, i.e., “kamma viññāṇa” are ALWAYS manō viññāṇa.
- To emphasize: Kamma bīja that can bring future vipāka are generated only in manō viññāṇa. The other five types of viññāṇa only bring in the external sensory input, i.e., they are “vipāka viññāṇa.”
Viññāṇa and Saṅkhāra Feed on Each Other
16. For example, cakkhu viññāṇa is like a camera taking a picture (but is still contaminated by gati.) It is manō viññāṇa (in the kamma viññāṇa mode) that takes actions (generates saṅkhāra) based on that sensory input.
- If the sensory input is attractive, it will try to get “more of such sensory inputs,” i.e., it will initiate a kamma viññāṇa to “achieve that expectation” via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” For example, let us assume that person X sees a new car and “falls in love with it” and makes a viññāṇa (an expectation, which is mental energy) for it.
- That kamma viññāṇa to “buy that car Y” will be in the subconscious of X. It will be in his subconscious until either he buys the car or it turns out that there is absolutely no way for him to afford it.
17. Days later, he is driving to work and sees a similar car on the road (that is, of course, a cakkhu viññāṇa).
- Now that kamma viññāṇa to “buy that car Y” will come back to his mind (triggered by that cakkhu viññāṇa. Then, of course, his manō viññāṇa will take over, and his interest in the car will come to his mind.
- Then we will start generating vacī saṅkhāra (conscious thoughts) about buying that car and how nice it would drive to work in it, etc.). That is the backward step of “viññāṇa paccayā saṅkhāra.” The Paṭicca Samuppāda step “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa” runs backward too; see, “Āsēvana and Aññamañña Paccayā.”
- That, in turn, will provide “more food” for that viññāṇa via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.”
- Therefore, saṅkhāra and (kamma)viññāṇa “feed on each other.”
One should contemplate these ideas and apply them to other “real-life situations.” That is real “insight meditation” or “vipassanā bhāvanā.” It may take time to get used to the real meanings of these keywords.
18. A reasonably good idea of the structure of Abhidhamma can be gained by reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.”
- “Abhidhamma-Mehn Tin Mon,“ by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon is also a good FREE publication.
- But both of those authors also translate viññāṇa as consciousness. Furthermore, they have translated citta also as consciousness. There are other translation problems too.
- However, by reviewing those two resources one can see how in-depth and detailed the mind processes are analyzed in Abhidhamma,
- The “Abhidhamma” section, together with the “Tables and Summaries” section also provides more information on Abhidhamma. Other resource posts are “Pāli Glossary – (A-K)” and “Pāli Glossary – (L-Z).”