Saññā – What It Really Means

December 31, 2017; revised August 22, 2019

1. Saññā is usually translated to English as “perception” and sometimes as “recognition”; it is both and more! Saññā has a much deeper meaning and at the same time, a more straightforward definition.

  • Saññā is pronounced “sangnā” and gives an encoded meaning in Pali and Sinhala with that pronunciation (click to play the audio):

  • It means “sign” or even closer, “the embedded message.” That latter expresses it well since it is how one “instantaneously gets the idea of what is meant by an external signal.”

2. When we understand what is meant by Saññā, we can clarify many things, including how humans can communicate with beings in other realms via Saññā.

  • Saññā is the “universal language.” To give an analogy: if there is a sign that reads, “winding road ahead,” only those who know English can understand what that sign says.
  • But those universal signs — showing a picture of a winding road — provide the “saññā” that the road ahead is going to be curvy.

  • A second example (on the right above) shows a sign with a hand. That conveys the “saññā” to stop.

3. At the fundamental level, Saññā means “recognition” of an object or a person or a concept; getting “full comprehension” of what it is AND what it means.

  • Whether one says fire in English or “ginna” in Sinhala, or “fue” in French, if a person knows how to associate any of those words with “fire”, that is the saññā that comes to one’s mind when one hears either the word “fire”, “ginna”, or “fue”.
  • If a person does not speak those three languages, those words do not mean anything to that person. However, with the following picture, anyone will have the idea that it is about a fire or a flame:

4. Therefore, Saññā is the “full picture that comes to the mind instantaneously.” 

  • When we think about a fire, that “sense of what a fire is,” arises automatically. The mind can visualize a fire.
  • Therefore, regardless of the language, one speaks in, everyone who has seen a fire generates the same feeling about a fire in one’s mind. That is a crucial point to contemplate on, and will be valuable in comprehending the “anicca saññā.”

5. Our mental body (gandhabba) can register only pure saññā. When two gandhabbas are communicating, they cannot use words OR pictures. So, the process is much simpler. What one gandhabba X thinks about what to say to gandhabba Y, that message or saññā is automatically transmitted to Y, if Y is pointing attention to X.

  • When gandhabba X wants to see what is happening at a given location, it just needs to point to that direction and can see that location. We will not discuss the details here, but the essential point is that a gandhabba does not “see” things using light as we do.
  • In the same way, a gandhabba does not hear using an ear. Sound waves propagating through the air are not needed.
  • That is how most beings — who don’t have physical bodies like us — communicate and interact with the external world, as emphasized briefly in the previous post, “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba.”
  • When someone gets to the fourth jhana and attains abhinna powers, he/she will be able to see and hear without eys and ears. These capabilities are dibba cakkhu or “divine eye” and dibba sota or “divine ear.” One will be using one’s own mental body (gandhabba). Then seeing and hearing is not limited to short distances.

6. However, when a gandhabba is trapped inside a physical body, one does not have those capabilities (in a normal human). Then one needs to rely on the sense faculties located in the physical body (eyes, ear, etc.) to capture information that comes via pictures, sounds, etc. The brain converts those signals to “saññā” and to transmit them to the gandhabba inside.

  • If you are not clear on this point, please re-read the previous post, “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba.”
  • In that post, we compared how a gandhabba trapped in a physical body to a human operator enclosed in a military tank. That is a good analogy.

7. At conception, the gandhabba takes hold of a single cell called a zygote formed by the union of a mother and a father. That single cell grows to a baby inside the womb, and a grown adult after birth. See, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”

  • In an average human, the physical body shields the gandhabba. Thus, it cannot receive direct Saññā. Pictures and sounds come through the eyes and ears not as saññā but as video and audio signals. Those signals need to be converted to saññā that can be grasped by the gandhabba.
  • When a baby grows, the eyes and ears (as well as nose, tongue, and body) need to develop to capture those sense inputs. The brain also needs to build circuitry for converting that information to a “saññā” that can be transferred to the gandhabba so that it can grasp what object, person, or concept it is.
  • Once those capabilities develop, the signal transmission goes from the brain to the hadaya vatthu located close to the heart via “kirana” or in the language of modern science electromagnetic waves. That was discussed briefly in the post, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction.”

8. When a baby is growing up, it learns to associate words and pictures with each object, person, concept that it experiences. That requires many parts of the brain. That is why it takes a newborn baby several years to become fully functional in the world.

  • So, when a person hears someone yelling “fire,” the brain matches that with a visual of fire, converts it to the correct “Saññā” of a fire, and transmits that signal to the gandhabba.  
  • The association of a word with its meaning happens in the brain (which is acting like a computer). Then only the meaning is conveyed to the gandhabba, where our thoughts are generated.
  • As I have discussed in the posts on the gandhabba, a human gandhabba is born at a cuti-patisandhi moment. It could live to thousands of years in age, and during that time could be born many times as a human (of course with different bodies). See, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”

9. If the relevant parts of the brain are damaged later in one’s life, one may not be able to recognize one’s surroundings. That is what happens to people with Alzheimer’s disease.

  • When a person gets old, the brain starts degrading, and then again, one’s ability to interact with the external world could become limited.
  • When that person dies, the gandhabba comes out of the dead body if there is leftover kammic energy for the human bhava. When a suitable womb becomes available, it can start another human body. This is how there can be several births during a given human bhava.

10. Now we move to the next level of saññā where it is more than just recognition. For example, when two people hear the name of a person X, they will have the picture of that person (or “saññā“) coming to their mind automatically. But not only that, they would register some qualities that they had attached to that person through their interactions with X. One may say. “It is my Dad. I love him so much”. Another would say, “Oh, he is a crook.”

  • Then based on that saññā, each will generate different feelings (vedana) about X. That could lead to creating good or bad thoughts (mano sankhara) automatically. If one keeps thinking about X some more, then one will be consciously generating more thoughts about X, and may even speak out (vaci sankhara). If the feelings get strong, one may generate kaya sankhara (thoughts leading to actions).
  • Therefore, based on the same thought object, different people can get different Saññā and thus can respond differently.

11. In general, how we make decisions about interacting with others or respond to external stimuli depends on our “world views.” That is what is called “ditthi” in Buddha Dhamma.

  • When one has wrong world views or ditthis, one could make the wrong decisions based on “distorted  Saññā.”
  • When one’s mind is free of greed, hate, and ignorance, it is easier to sort out wrong ditthis. The meanings of greed and hatred are apparent. Ignorance here is the ignorance about the message of the Buddha. That message, of course, can be grasped only in stages.
  • First, it is crucial to realize that one MUST live a moral life and follow that mundane Eightfold Path by abstaining from dasa akusala as much as possible.
  • Then it will become easier to cultivate the “anicca Saññā,” start grasping the Tilakkhana and become a Sōtapanna. We will discuss the anicca Saññā in upcoming posts.
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