Introduction to Citta, Vēdanā, Saññā, Sankhāra, and Viññāna

December 25, 2018; revised August 23, 2019

Pali to English Translations – Introduction

1. The Pali words citta, vēdanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna are mistranslated in most current literature as thought, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, respectively.

  • The last four (vēdanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna) are critical concepts in Buddha Dhamma; they represent the four mental aggregates.

2. The word sankhāra generally translated as “mental formations.” It does not convey the meaning at all. Viññāna translated as just “consciousness,” and that is simply wrong.

  • Sankhāra associated with “emotions,” so we need to make the connection to emotions. In particular, we get attached to somethings and get repulsed by others. In both cases, we generate a wide variety of emotions that lead to three types of sankhāra in our minds.

The following are the descriptions or definitions that I found online, which seem to be closest to the Pali words: citta, vēdanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna, respectively.

Thought: “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in mind.”

Feelings: Normally used together with emotion. For example, a “feeling of joy.”

Perception: recognition

Emotions: Some define emotions as: “joy-sadness, anger-compassion, greed-benevolence, etc. etc.”.

Consciousness: “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.”

3. 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 a very detailed analysis of the Pali words citta, saññā, vēdanā, sankhāra, viññāna.
  • Sankhāra arises due to emotions. These emotions are called cētasika, typically translated as “mental factors.”
  • Therefore, citta, saññā, vēdanā, sankhāra, viññāna 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.

4. That is why it is almost impossible to translate those Pali words to a single English word. The closest is probably perception for saññā, even though saññā also means something more profound.

  • It is much better to learn the meaning of each Pali word and use that word itself.
  • I will briefly discuss some key features to get a basic idea. Other aspects discussed at: “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
Citta and Thought – Not Even Close

5. Cittas 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) arise with 17 citta in that series.
  • In the case of citta arising in mind, the basic citta vīthi has 12-14 citta. But in some exceptional cases, there is no limit to the number 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 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 more clear.

6. 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 sense experience” is just called a citta, even though it may have billions of individual citta.
  • 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.
Vēdanā and Saññā – In Every Citta

7. 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 sense 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 a color of red, for example.
  • Those are, of course, fundamental descriptions.

8. There are 52 cētasika, including vēdanā and saññā. Out of the other 50 cētasika, some included in “sankhāra“; 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 of “good cētasika” (called sōbhana cētasika) arise.
Sankhāra Are Our Actions Done With Emotions

9. Cētasika represents the English word “emotions.”

  • When we experience those emotions, they are called “manō sankhāra.
  • When we start thinking consciously about them, they become vacī sankhāra; we also speak with vacī sankhāra. Here, vacī pronounced “vachee.”
  • If we do bodily actions with such emotions, then those are done with kāya sankhāra.
  • So, we can see that “sankhāra” are more than emotions. Sankhāra are what we think and do with such sentiments.
  • It is essential to realize that we have control over vacī sankhāra and kāya sankhāra, but manō sankhāra arise automatically based on our gati.

10. 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 sense 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 recognized with the saññā cētasika, and accordingly, a sukha, dukkha or neutral vēdanā arise.
  • Based on that recognition (but simultaneously) a set of good or bad cētasika arise.
  • Based on those good or bad set of cētasika, the mind generates good, bad sankhāra with which we think, speak, and do things.
Emotions Arise Based on One’s Gati and the Sense Input

11. Thus manō sankhāra arise automatically based on our gati (or gathi) and the particular sensory input. If one likes a specific sense input (based on one’s gati), then one will start thinking about it.

  • So, we consciously think and speak with vacī sankhāra based on those emotions (manō sankhāra) that initially arise. If our emotions get high enough, we may take bodily actions based on kāya sankhāra.
  • All three types of sankhāra arise in mind.

12. 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.

Viññāna Is the Overall Experience – Plus Future Expectations

13. Finally, viññāna represents one’s overall sense experience (including vēdanā, saññā, sankhāra).

  • Viññāna has something in addition to those. One may form a future expectation based on that sensory input.
  • If one gets attracted to given sense experience, one may keep thinking about it and initiate an expectation to enjoy it further. Viññāna is that expectation. That creates a kamma beeja that can bring vipāka in the future.
  • More information at: “Viññāna – What It Really Means” and “Viññāna (Defiled Consciousness).”

14. So, we see that viññāna is much more than just consciousness. It is wrong to translate viññāna as just consciousness (or awareness).

  • That is only a basic description of viññāna. Deeper aspects of viññāna in the subsection: “Viññāna Aggregate.”
Expectations Are Only in Manō Viññāna (Normally Called Viññāna)

15. There are six types of viññāna.

  • We become aware of something in our physical world via cakkhu viññāna (seeing), sōta viññāna (hearing), ghāna viññāna (smelling), jivhā viññāna (tasting), and kāya viññāna (touching).
  • Then manō viññāna 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 viññāna that builds expectations for the future.
  • To emphasize: Kamma beeja that can bring future vipāka are generated only in manō viññāna. The other five types of viññāna only bring in the external sensory input.
  • Therefore, when suttas refer to viññāna without a distinction, the reference is to manō viññāna.
  • The other five types of viññāna “bring the sense signal to mind.”
Manō Viññāna and Sankhāra Feed on Each Other

16. For example, cakkhu viññāna is like a camera taking a picture. It is the manō viññāna that takes actions (generates sankhāra) based on that sensory input.

  • If the sense input is attractive, it will try to get “more of such sense inputs,” i.e., it will initiate a viññāna to “achieve that expectation” via “sankhāra paccayā viññāna.” For example, let us assume that person X sees a new car and “falls in love with it” and makes a viññāna (an expectation, which is mental energy) for it.
  • That viññāna 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 viññāna).

  • Now that viññāna to “buy that car Y” will come back to his mind (triggered by that cakkhu viññāna. Then, of course, his manō viññāna will take over, and his interest in the car will come to his mind.
  • Then we will start generating vacī sankhāra (conscious thoughts) about buying that car and how nice it would drive to work in it, etc.). That is the backward step of “viññāna paccayā sankhāra.” The Paticca Samuppāda step “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” runs backward too; see, “Āsēvana and Aññamañña Paccayā.”
  • That, in turn, will provide “more food” for that viññāna via “sankhāra paccayā viññāna.”
  • Therefore, sankhāra and viññāna “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.”


18. A reasonably good idea of the structure in Abhidhamma can be gained by reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.”

  • Buddha Abhidhamma – Ultimate Science,“ by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon is also a good FREE publication.
  • But both of those authors also translate viññāna 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.
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