Fooled by Distorted Saññā (Sañjānāti) – Origin of Attachment (Taṇhā)

“Distorted saññā” arising automatically with sensory inputs falsely presents a world full of “sensory pleasures,” which the Buddha called a “mirage.” That is the origin of attachment (taṇhā.)

December 12, 2023

Key Points from the Mūlapariyāya Sutta

1. The key points from the Mūlapariyāya Sutta (which we discussed in “Mūlapariyāya Sutta – The Root of All Things“) can be summarized in plain English as follows.

  • Any “perception/feeling of pleasure” is not absolute and is mind-made. The detailed explanation is a bit involved since it involves a good background of other concepts like saññā, vedanā, gati, and bhavaṇga.
  • This situation can be compared to enjoying a magic show. We understand that a magic show is based on an illusion. However, since we get enjoyment from it, we pay money to watch a “good” magic show; here, a magic show is “good” if we cannot easily figure out the “trick” involved. The thrill will fade if we can see how the magician tricks us.

2. The Buddha explained that our lives are based on such an illusion on a grand scale. Even though we know that a magic show is based on an illusion, we would NEVER think of “pleasures in life” to arise from a “magic act”; the illusion is that good. It takes the efforts of a Bodhisatta through an incredible number of lives to figure that out.

  • This “grand magician” is nature (or how the world operates based on our defiled minds), and only a Buddha can figure out the “trick.” He explained that “trick” in several ways, and in my opinion, the best way to “see the trick” is to comprehend the Mūlapariyāya Sutta, i.e., how our “built-in” distorted perceptions fool our minds. Our minds automatically attach (taṇhā) to that distorted perception, and it turns into a defiled perception. This combined process issaññā vipallāsa.” 
  • It is not easy to uncover that “trick,” i.e., how the mind gets that distorted perception in the first place. Understanding it may take an effort, but it is worth the effort. The background material needed is in the first post of “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā).” I will include at the end of this post.
The “Grand Magician”

3. The trick is the following: When we see an external object, the mind generates its version of that rupa based on the mindset associated with the specific realm we are in; that mindset is called uppatti bhavaṇga, but don’t worry about not fully understanding what that means. 

  • Therefore, living beings in different realms see and perceive the same object differently. For example, when a human sees a pile of feces (excrement or poop), it is a distasteful sight; however, to a pig, it is an attractive sight because that is food for it. In the same way, even though humans perceive the smell of poop as repulsive, it is an attractive, mind-pleasing smell for a pig.
  • Therefore, the pile of poop does not have a built-in “repulsiveness” or “attractiveness.” The respective perceptions (saññā) originated in the minds of a human and a pig!
  • Believing those “made-up” perceptions are REAL, a mind automatically generates expectations for repeatedly enjoying such sensory inputs, i.e., generates “defiled viññāṇa,” which the Buddha called a “magician.”

4. That is the crucial point embedded in the  Mūlapariyāya Sutta. Please take the time to contemplate that; one can consider various examples from life experiences. While humans will not eat grass, a cow spends the whole day happily eating grass.

  • Even among humans, such variations can be seen to a lesser extent. Some like classical music, whereas for others, it is too dull, and they may prefer heavy-metal music. Such preferences are not embedded in the music itself but in particular minds. 
  • Based on such “mirages” made up by our minds (based on gati we are born with), we automatically attach to external sights, sounds, tastes, etc., either with cravings or repulsiveness. Thus, it is this “distorted saññā” (which the Buddha called a “mirage”) that leads to the viññāṇa “making up” such external stimuli into categories of attractive, repulsive, or neutral.
  • In reality, no external sensory input has intrinsic (built-in) attractive or repulsive properties. Again, if fully sunk into the mind, this simple fact can make a massive difference in grasping Buddha’s teachings.
Difference Between “Watching a Magic Show” and “Living Based on Distorted Sanna”

5. If the “trick” in a particular magic show is revealed, we can no longer get pleasure (assāda) from watching it. We can see that it is a fruitless/meaningless waste of time to watch. 

  • In the same way, if we can fully comprehend the “trick” involved in conjuring up non-existent pleasurable sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, we will no longer crave them. The only things that are at least “partially real” are the sukha and dukha vedanā associated with our physical bodies (where the dukha vedanā dominates in the long run.) We can overcome that, too, by avoiding rebirths in realms with “dense physical bodies.” Those sukha and dukha vedanā are absent in realms above the human realm.
  • The other critical issue is that this is not just about “mindlessly enjoying made-up pleasures.”
  • Most people would not mind “made-up sensory pleasures” if that is the only outcome (that is why they watch magic shows and movies.) 
Distorted Saññā Makes Us Do Imooral Deeds 

6. The problem is that “distorted saññā” leads to unfathomable suffering. That suffering is visible to us even in the human realm; we can also see the higher level of animal suffering. It is much higher in the other three apāyās than we cannot see. How is that suffering related to “distorted saññā“?

  • Based on the “distorted saññā,” we tend to engage in immoral deeds to either get more of a “pleasing sensory experience” or to get rid of a “depressing sensory experience.” 
  • For example, to enjoy sensory experiences, people steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, and even kill. The problem is that all those actions (kamma) are going to have their consequences (kamma vipāka.) It may take only a second to shoot and kill another human, but that may lead to rebirth as an animal or even in “hell or niraya.” 
  • Therefore, the problem is that “distorted saññā” automatically leads to “defiled saññā” and makes us engage in immoral deeds. That leads to suffering in this life and future lives (by being reborn in the apāyās.)
  • Thus, understanding the role of the “distorted saññā” makes it easier to understand the “anicca nature,” i.e., such actions can only lead to more suffering. 

7. Most living beings are trapped in the lowest realm of “niraya,” where no “pleasures” can be found. It is all about dukha vedanā felt by a physical body. We will not last a minute if we are subjected to that type of suffering. However, their bodies can bear it for millions and even billions of years. I am not saying that to scare anyone; that is what the Buddha saw for himself and recorded in the suttās

  • We can also engage in “moral deeds” that lead to rebirth in the “good realms.” However, that never leads to the “breaking the ten samsāric bonds or saṁyojana.” However, until at least three saṁyojanās are broken, rebirth in the apāyās is possible because temptations for some sensory pleasures will be unavoidable; see below.
  • Even though we cannot confirm the existence of such realms as niraya, Deva, and Brahma, we can see that it makes sense within the broader worldview of the Buddha, i.e., once we understand how Paṭicca Samuppāda explains rebirths in all those realms.
Saññā (Our Perceptions About the World) Is a Mirage

8. Those are the key ideas expressed in the Mūlapariyāya Sutta. The Buddha directly called saññā a mirage in the “Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95),” and we discussed that in the post, “Sotapanna Stage and Distorted/Defiled Saññā.”

  • But bad translations of key suttās like the Mūlapariyāya Sutta have hidden that key point for centuries. Once you start seeing that “hidden gem” (i.e., that saññā is a mirage), you see it in other suttās; however, those highly condensed suttās need to be explained in detail, at least initially. 
  • Now, we need to understand why merely engaging in “moral deeds” (puñña abhisaṅkhāra) cannot lead to a “suffering-free mind” even though those MUST be undertaken too. Cultivating puñña abhisaṅkhāra (cultivation of the mundane eightfold path) avoids rebirths in the apāyās and also readies a mind to comprehend deeper concepts like saññā vipallāsa” and to start on the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • See “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna)” and “Rebirths Take Place According to Abhisaṅkhāra.”
Connection to the “Hidden Pure Mind” 

9. Let us also review the other critical concept that is related. We all have a “suffering-free pure mind” (let us call it the “pabhassara mind”; see “Recovering the Suffering-Free Pure Mind“) hidden underneath our defiled minds. Here, note that “pabhassara cittas” or “suffering-free, uncontaminated cittas” arise in a “pabhassara mind” free of defilements.

  • The mind of a puthujjana (average human) is covered with ten layers of defilements, i.e., ten saṁyojana. Those are also the “mental bonds” that bind the mind of a puthujjana to suffering and the rebirth process: “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process.”
  • The Buddha taught that it is impossible to figure out how the minds of all beings initially became contaminated with those ten layers of defilement. The Buddha, upon his Enlightenment, kept looking back and could not discern a “beginning” when all those minds got “defiled” in the first place. (This issue of an “untraceable beginning” is built into the Principle of Causality. See the Summary at the end of the post, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm” and “The Infinity Problem in Buddhism.”) However, if someone can uncover that “pabhassara mind,” it will NEVER be defiled again because a “pabhassara mind,” by its nature, cannot be defiled. That, again, is compatible with the presumption that there was “no beginning” to the rebirth process.
  • Therefore, it is pointless to spend the time on that issue. We have a limited time (left in this life) to uncover that “suffering-free mind.” Nibbāna is not an abstract thing. It can be attained in this life, which is why it is “sandiṭṭhika Dhamma.” “Sandiṭṭhika” means “being able to see (or figure) out how the accumulation of “san” leads only one way, i.e., further defiling a mind. Let us briefly discuss that.
Rupaṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi

10. In the “Khandha Sutta (SN 25.10),” the Buddha stated, “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi.” The English translation in the link translates that as “Mendicants, form is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.”

  • That translation explains why Buddha’s teachings have been hidden for centuries. It is a prime example of a completely wrong “mundane, word-by-word translation”!
  • Here, “rupa” refers to the “mental reproduction of an external rupa” (with “distorted saññā“); “anicca” does not mean “impermanence;” “vipariṇāmi” does not mean “decay,” and “aññathābhāvi” does not mean “perishing.” The translator did not even come close to explaining the meaning of that critical verse.
  • A critical problem at the root is the following. By the words “rupa” or “rūpaṁ,” the Buddha almost always referred to a “mental reconstruction of an external rupa” and NOT an external rupa. With his wrong understanding, the translator focuses on an EXTERNAL rupa‘s impermanence, decay, and perishing. An external rupa indeed does all that. But any average human can tell you those characteristics about an external rupa. There is no need for a Buddha to teach that.

11. The Buddha was trying to explain that the misguided mind makes an “incorrect version of the external rupa based on the mindset it was born with (uppatti bhavaṇga.)

  • Based on that “incorrect version of the external rupa” (created based on the “distorted saññā,”) a mind then attaches to it and starts engaging in immoral (or at least unfruitful) actions that move it AWAY from the pabhassara mind. 
  • Thus, engaging in such unfruitful actions is of an “anicca nature,” i.e., one’s “icca” (pronounced “ichcha”) or “expectation” is more pleasure, but the eventual outcome is the opposite.
  • Pariṇāmi” is to proceed in the right direction with better results. However, with that “distorted saññā,” one moves in the wrong direction with unpleasant and dangerous outcomes; that is, “vipariṇāmi.”
  • Finally, “aññatha” means “deviate for the worse” (moving away from the “pabhassara mind”) and is the opposite of “ittha” or the “stable state of Nibbāna.” 
  • A detailed explanation in: “Aniccaṁ Vipariṇāmi Aññathābhāvi – A Critical Verse.” Please feel free to ask questions in the forum. These are critical issues to be understood.
Previously Unheard Teachings

12. I hope the above explanation makes it clear why the Buddha himself called his teachings “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṁ udapādi, ñāṇaṁ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi.” It means “the vision, knowledge, wisdom, the truth, and how to disengage from this suffering-filled world (āloko) arose in me, and this has not been known to the world.”

  • The above verse appears in 15 places in the Tipiṭaka: “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu.”
  • Until a Buddha discovers it, no human, Deva, or Brahma can figure out the above-discussed truth: Any “pleasurable experience available in any realm” arises because the saññā arise with any sensory input acts like a mirage: It gives the impression that certain things in this world have inherent “attractive or mind-pleasing” properties. It is like a mirage of a water-filled lake seen ahead in a hot desert, but anyone running toward it will never get any water and will die of thirst!
Required Background 

13. This post is the third in a series of posts in the new section, “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā),” linked below. It will help a puthujjana get to the Sotapanna stage. Furthermore, this material is ESSENTIAL for a Sotapanna to attain the higher stages of Nibbāna. Anyone wishing to learn the required background or to “brush up” on those required concepts, the following are the steps:

  1. For an introduction to saññā, see “Saññā – What It Really Means.”
  2. The concept of the “hidden pure mind” (pabhassara citta) is explained in the “Recovering the Suffering-Free Pure Mind” series of posts.
  3. Then I realized that the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature could be explained differently based on that approach. See “Does “Anatta” Refer to a “Self”?
  4. The current post is a follow-up to the two posts in the “Sensory Experience – A Deeper Analysis” section.
  5. The current section has two previous and future posts: “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā).”
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