Buddhist philosophy and psychology · indica lingua

♦ What object, what name… a brief note on saññā

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In classical Sanskrit, among the several meanings of saṃjñā we find also «name». By virtue of its derivation from saṃ√jñā (litt. «to know together with», i.e., «to agree»), this term signifies also «agreement»: to have an agreement with someone necessitates, of course, the employment of the same way of communication, of the same way of naming things.

Although in those Pāli canonical texts where normal, non meditative perception is implicitly or explicitly treated, saññā has mainly the meaning of «recognition» (for instance of colours, forms, etc.), and the verb sañjānāti of «(s)he recognizes», nonetheless the use of saññā and sañjānāti in some particular passages suggests to us that these terms refer to recognitions in which a naming activity is involved. Consider, for instance, the following four examples:

(I) Majjhima-Nikāya I, 271: samaṇāti vo bhikkhave jano sañjānāti («People recognize you, o bhikkhus, as “samaṇas”»);1

(II) Dīgha-Nikāya I, 93: manussā pisāce disvā pisācāti sañjānanti («Men, having seen pisacas, recognize [them] as “pisacas”») and, because the pisacas are here said to be black, the same text continues: tena samayena manussā pisāce kaṇhāti sañjānanti («Man, at that time, [having seen] pisacas, recognize [them] as “black ones”»);

(III) Majjhima-Nikāya III, 234-235: idha, bhikkhave, tad ev’ekaccesu janapadesu pātīti sañjānanti, pattan ti sañjānanti, vitthan ti sañjānanti, sarāvan ti sañjānanti, dhāropan ti sañjānanti, poṇan ti sañjānanti, pisīlan ti sañjānanti («Here, o bhikkhus, exactly this [same thing, i.e., a bowl], in different provinces they recognize [by different names,] as “pāti”, as “patta”, as “vittha”, as “sarāva”, as “dhāropa”, as “poṇa” or as “pisīla”»);

(IV) to conclude, consider the explicit Aṅguttara-Nikāya V, 198: ānandoti kho me āvuso nāmaṃ […] sace hi mayaṃ sañjāneyyāma āyasmā ānandoti […] («[Ānanda:] “Indeed ‘Ānanda’ is my name, o friend” […] [Kokanuda:] “Indeed, if I had recognized ‘[this is] the venerable Ānanda’ […]”»).

Here, it is the presence of the particle iti that corroborates the idea of a name-giving activity performed by saññā: indeed, iti conveys the sense of a direct naming, both spoken and thought. One recognizes Ānanda by his name “Ānanda”, a bhikkhu by naming him “samaṇa”, an evil spirit by the name “pisāca”, a particular colour by the name “black” or “yellow”, and so on. All this, in the Pāli Canon, has been expressed in its general form as follows (Aṅguttara-Nikāya III, 413): katamo ca bhikkhave saññāṇam vipāko? vohāravepakkhāhaṃ bhikkhave saññā vadāni; yathā yathā naṃ sañjānāti, tathā tathā voharati evam saññī ahosin ti («And what is, o bhikkhus, the maturation of recognitions? I say, o bhikkhus, that the recognitions result in worldly discourses; the one who recognizes in a certain way, that one asserts: “Thus I recognized”»).2

Moreover, we have also to consider passages like Majjhima-Nikāya I, 1-2: paṭhaviṃ paṭhavito sañjānāti […] āpaṃ āpato sañjānāti […] tejaṃ tejato sañjānāti […] vāyaṃ vāyato sañjānāti […] bhūte bhūtato sañjānāti […] deve devato sañjānāti, etc. What this text is saying is that one sañjānāti the earth (paṭhaviṃ), etc., from having perceived the earth (paṭhavito), etc., that is, one recognizes the earth as earth, the water as water, and so on. Here we have to underline the absence of iti. This prompts us to suggest that saññā can recognize something also without giving a name to it. But this suggestion has to be correctly understood, that is, saññā firstly recognizes a sense datum and only in a second time it “select” a name. Obviously we cannot say – and we cannot desume it from the Sutta-piṭaka – if these two tasks of saññā are to be considered as actually consecutive (in a first moment saññā recognizes and in a second moment it gives a name) or as a merely logical exposition of the different (contemporaneous?) functions of a same factor (thus, recognition and neming will take place in the same moment).

To sum up, in the Sutta-piṭaka, a double function of saññā is detectable: (a) the pre-iti recognition of the sense datum, and (b) the iti-nominalization of it.


(1) Same passage in Majjhima-Nikāya I, 281. In quoting from the Pāli Canon Roman number refers to the volume of the Pāli Text Society edition, Arabic number to the page.

(2) Compare, for instance, with Milinda-Pañha 61: sañjānanalakkhaṇā mahārāja saññā […]. opammaṃ karohīti. yathā mahārāja rañño bhaṇḍāgāriko bhaṇḍāgāraṃ pavisitvā nīlapītalohitodātamañjeṭṭhāni rājabhogāni rūpāni passitvā sañjānāti, evam eva kho mahārāja sañjānanalakkhaṇā saññā ti («“The act of recognizing, o great king, is the characteristic of saññā […]” – “Make an example” – “O great king, it is like a royal treasurer who, having entered the storehouse and having seen the colours of the king’s possessions, [which are] dark-blue, yellow, red, white, crimson, recognizes [them as such]. Indeed, exactly thus, o great king, the act of recognizing is the characteristic of saññā»).

References 1 (texts):

– Aṅguttara Nikāya (5 vols.), Morris, R., Hardy, E., Warder, A.K. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1979-1995.

– Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭāka 4.0, Vipassana Research Institute, Dhammagiri. On-line downloadable edition: http://www.tipitaka.org/cst/cst4-2008-04-20-beta15.exe

– Dīgha Nikāya (3 vols.), Rhys Davids, T.W., Carpenter, J.E. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1992-1995.

– Majjhima Nikāya (3 vols.), Treckner, V., Chalmers, R. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1993-1994.

– Milindapañha with Milindaṭīkā, Treckner, V., Jaini, P.S. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1986.

References 2 (studies):

– Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (1986), Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy rep.

– Boisvert, M. (1995), The Five Aggregates. Understanding Theravāda Psychology and Soteriology, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo (Ontario).

– de Silva, P. (1979), An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, Macmillan, London.

– Vetter, T. (2000), The Khandha Passages’ in the Vinayapiṭaka and the FourMain Nikayas, Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien.

– Wayman, A. (1976), “Regarding the Translation of the Buddhist Terms Saññā/Saṃjñā, Viññāṇa/Vijñāna”; in: Malalasekera Commemoration Volume, de Wijesekera, C. H. O. (ed. by), Malalasekera Commemoration Volume Editorial Committee, Colombo, pp. 325-335.

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