Sotapanna Stage and Distorted/Defiled Saññā

Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna can be approached in different ways. This section describes a new approach to understanding the concept of saññā (perception.) Upon receiving a sensory input, an average human’s mind is triggered with “distorted saññā” and then immediately to the “defiled saññā” stage. An Arahant‘s mind will also be triggered by “distorted saññā” but will not get to the “defiled saññā” stage.

November 17, 2023; moved previous # 11 to #1 on December 5, 2023

Required Background 

1. This post is the first in a series of posts in the new section “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā).” 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. That will become clear in the upcoming posts. The following material is essential to keep up with this series of posts.

“Distorted Saññā” Makes Us Attach to Specific Sensory Inputs 

2. The Buddha taught that the root cause of all suffering (whether in this life or future lives) is our tendency to attach to worldly things. Why do we have instinctive “feelings of joy” (somanassa vedanā) when we think about “mind-pleasing things” like tasty food or attractive sights? Are there things in that food or sight (that are “intrinsically worthwhile”) to make us happy? If so, it should be universal, i.e., any living being should get the same “sense of joy” upon tasting the same food or seeing the same object. As we see below, that is not the case.

  • Such “feelings of joy” (somanassa vedanā) that arise in us are based on a particular saññā (loosely translated as perception) associated with the human world or realm. That saññā is not absolute but is made up by our minds attached to the physical human body. Since a living Arahant also lives in the human realm, they also get the same saññā. For example, an Arahant would taste a good meal as “tasty” or observe an attractive woman as such, i.e., similar saññā arise as with any other human. 
  • However, since they have fully understood the origin of that distorted saññā, Arahants‘ minds do not generate “feelings of joy” (somanassa vedanā) upon experiencing that distorted saññā. Thus, the mind will not attach to it.
  • Yet, minor variations of saññā can be there among humans. To give a simple example of how the saññā (here, the taste) can be different even among humans, consider the following. We know that different people prefer different types of food. Some people develop allergies if certain foods are eaten, while others prefer that food. These are due to minor variations of gati, as discussed below.
  • The Pāli word “saññā” is normally translated as “perception.” It usually is used in a sentence like, “Your perception of her is not correct.” But the word saññā conveys much more than that.
Saññā Is More Than “Perception” 

3. Saññā is a special word that is quite significant in characterizing the mental state of a living being. Any living being (from a Brahma down to the microscopic animal or a hell-being) generates vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa upon “taking in” a sensory input. Those five entities describe the mental state that arises based on that sensory input; they are pañcakkhandha (five aggregates,) which automatically turn to pañcupādānakkhandha based on the “distorted saññā” associated with the human realm.

  • In this series of posts, we will focus on saññā to illustrate how pañcakkhandha automatically turn to pañcupādānakkhandha based on the “distorted saññā” even if one may not pursue that particular sensory input. Humans always have a “distorted saññā which can turn into “defiled saññā” based on the particular sensory input (nimitta turning to ārammaṇa.)
  • The following video shows that even we can simulate a “saññā” of getting a haircut. Thus, “saññā” can be manipulated, and that is why the Buddha called it a “mirage,” as we will discuss below.

  • The following is another “simulated haircut.” Click on “Watch on YouTube” to watch it. It can’t be played on this page.

  • The point here is that a “saññā” can be made up by our minds.
Each Bhava Starts at the Dhātu Stage with Its Own Saññā

4. Upon receiving sensory input, the mind first “falls” on the corresponding dhātu stage before getting into the corresponding bhava.

  • For example, upon hearing a sound, a human mind will start at the “kāma dhātu” with the corresponding “kāma saññā.” A rupāvacara Brahma‘s mind starts at the “rupa dhātu” (here, “rupa” refers to “rupa loka“) with a “rupa saññā.”
  • There, the “kāma saññā” incorporates previous experiences with all six senses. The “rupa saññā” for the rupāvacara Brahma incorporates previous experiences with only three senses (cakkhu, sota, and mind.) For example, suppose the sound is a woman’s attractive voice. That could automatically trigger “kāma raga” in a human. However, rupāvacara Brahmās do not have two sexes, male and female. Thus, “kāma raga” based on “kāma saññācannot arise in a rupāvacara Brahma.
  • The above is a critical point to understand. 
  • Once in the “kāma dhātu” stage, a mind must engage in an automatic abhisaṅkhāra generation (based on anusaya/saṁyojana/gati) to get to “kāma bhava.” That is why an Arahant‘s mind will not get to “kāma bhava.” That was explained in #4 of “Upaya and Upādāna – Two Stages of Attachment.”
Anyone Below the Arahant Stage Has “Defiled Saññā” to Some Extent

5. The Buddhist saññā has a variety of meanings. At the basic level, it is the “recognition” of a particular object of a specific color, large/small, sound from a particular source, different tastes, different shapes, etc. Then, it attributes beauty/uglyness, tastefulness/distastefulness, etc., to them. Therefore, the “recognition” embed (includes) likes/dislikes for such sensory experiences. That is a deeper aspect of “saññā.

  • First, those in rupāvacara Brahma (i.e., rupa loka) realms don’t generate “saññā” for tastes/smells/touches. As we have discussed, they do not have sensory faculties corresponding to our tongues/noses/dense physical bodies. Their subtle bodies don’t have the corresponding pasāda rupa (jivhā/ghāna/kāya) either. Therefore, they cannot generate rasa saññā (taste), gandha saññā (smell), or phottabba saññā
  • The arupāvacara Brahmās (in arupa loka) cannot generate rupa saññā (sight) and sadda saññā (sound) either. They only have the mind and can only think. Since they have no concept of sights, sounds, etc., their thinking is also limited. That is why they feel much less stress, too! Their minds are mostly focused on ākāsa (space) and viññāṇa. But they also have a “defiled Saññā” about ākāsa and viññāṇa.
  • Now, let us look at the 11 realms in the kāma loka. They all have all six senses. However, Devās in the six Deva realms have subtle (less dense) bodies, and thus, their tastes, smells, and touches are subtle; in particular, their physical bodies are not dense (olarika) enough to experience physical suffering due to injuries, cancers, etc. (as well as body touches or sex in the way humans experience.) In the human realm, those are olarika or “dense.” 
Hina, Majjhima, Panita Dhātu Associated with Kama, Rupa, and Arupa Loka

6. Kama loka (based on kāma dhātu) can experience all six types of sensory inputs. Thus, the possibility of generating more defilements is higher. That is why it is called “hīna or inferior dhātu.” Those in the arupa dhātu (and arupa loka) experience only the mind, and it is called the “paṇīta or higher dhātu.” The rupa dhātu (and rupa loka) is in the middle and is thus “majjhima or middle dhātu.” 

  • The three types of dhātu (hīnāya dhātuyā, majjhimāya dhātuyā, paṇītāya dhātuyā) are discussed in the “Paṭhamabhava Sutta (AN 3.76).”
  • Nibbāna is free of all three types of loka and is thus the “best dhātu.” It is called “asaṅkhata dhātu because it is reached not by “building up something with saṅkhāra” but, rather, by stopping all types of saṅkhāra and stopping the formation of any bhava or loka. Nibbāna is reached by the removal of raga, dosa, and moha by not attaching to any saññā generated via sensory inputs: “Asaṅkhata Sutta (SN 43.12).” 
Saññā – Connection to Gati

7. There are five primary categories of gati, as stated in the “Gati Sutta (AN 9.68)”Nirayo, tiracchānayoni, pettivisayo, manussā, devā.

  • As we can see, those in the apāyās have nirayo, tiracchāna, or peta gati. Humans have manussa gati. These four primary gati cover only the lowest five realms.
  • All beings in the higher 26 realms (including the six Deva realms in kāma loka) have Deva gati. Even the Devās in kāma loka do not generate anger/hate. They have only “good and moral gati.” 
  • Those in the apāyās are born there due to their “immoral gati.” 
  • The human realm is in between those two categories. Humans can have both moral and immoral gati.
  • For discussions on gati, see “Saṃsāric Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsava)” and links therein.

8. Within those five major categories, there can be subcategories. In particular, the human and animal realms are vastly different with different gati, and within each of those two realms, there can be an uncountable number of gati. For example, various animal species have different gati, and their habits and cravings depend on those specific gati.

  • Some animals don’t eat meat (deer, cows, etc.), and others depend on meat (lions, tigers, etc.) 
  • Thus, while eating grass makes a cow happy, a lion would not be interested! They generate very different saññā upon seeing a patch of green grass.
Kāma Dhātu (With “Distorted Saññā”) Tied to One’s Uppatti Bhavaṅga

9. The “kāma dhātu” automatically generates a “distorted saññā” based on one’s uppatti bhavaṅga. Therefore, an Arahant or a puthujjana (average human) will have that initial “distorted saññā.” Don’t worry if you don’t understand uppatti bhavaṅga. Remember that a “made-up” saññā arises even in an Arahant if that Arahant was born in the human realm.

  • The Buddha described saññā” as a mirage and the viññāṇa as a magician in the “Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95).” To quote the English translation there (correct): “Suppose that in the last month of summer, at noon, a shimmering mirage appears. And a person with clear eyes would see and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a mirage?”
  • Thus, even if that person is thirsty, he would not run toward the mirage hoping to find water.
  • On the other hand, an animal is incapable of realizing that it is a mirage and, thus, will chase it and die of thirst due to exhaustion.
Only a Buddha Can Discover the “Distorted Saññā

10. In the same way, until a Buddha comes to this world and explains the real nature of saññā, we humans are unable to figure out that our perception of certain foods being tasty, certain sights appearing attractive, certain smells are enticing, etc., we will chase those things too!

  • Unless explained by a Buddha, we would never think in a million years that “mind-pleasing things” in this world are “not real” and are “made up” by our own minds!
  • It is critically important to understand that ALL sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches in this world are devoid of any attractive or repulsive nature. Our physical bodies arise to provide a certain set of saññā according to our gati. Since humans have “manussa gati,” we have a common set of saññā. However, there can be minor variations due to the gati we were born with.
  • On the other hand, animals generate distinctively different saññā compared to humans and even among different animals. Even though we are repulsed by the sight/smell of rotten meat or feces, a pig gets a very different saññā upon seeing/smelling the same. Thus, while a human would generate repulsive thoughts, a pig will become joyful and be attracted to such things. 
  • Such variations can also be seen among animals. Cows eat grass, lions eat meat, and some insects eat wood. They not only generate the appropriate saññā for them but their bodies are formed by kammic energy to provide nutrition to them! This is a fascinating subject to contemplate.
Why Would an Arahant Have “Distorted Saññā“?

11. That is a consequence of still living with a “vipāka physical body” that the Arahant was born with. Until the death of that physical body, the Arahant must live among other humans.

  • That physical body arose due to a kamma vipāka. It will receive not only the “distorted saññā” corresponding to the human realm but also any kamma vipāka that the physical body was destined to receive. While some minor vipāka may be avoided, any strong vipāka can manifest in the physical body. Thus, living Arahants have to endure injuries, sicknesses, etc. 
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