According to the well-known Buddhist doctrine of conditional co-production (paṭicca-samuppāda), vedanā depends on contact (phassa) between senses and sense-objects, which stimulates the sensorial faculties. Now, we find that the Pāli Canon points out that also saññā, and not only vedanā, is conditioned, in its manifestation, by phassa. In Saṃyutta-Nikāya III, 59-60, indeed, we can read: phassasamudayā saññāsamudayo phassanirodhā saññānirodho («From the origin of contact there is the origin of saññā, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of saññā»). This text prompts us to wonder what the fundamental difference between sensation and saññā is, on account of their relation with phassa. For a clear understanding of this point, we have of course to take into consideration the whole passage Saṃyutta-Nikāya III, 59-60. It runs as follows:
katamā ca bhikkhave vedanā. chayime bhikkhave vedanākāyā: cakkhusamphassajā vedanā, sotasamphassajā vedanā, ghānasamphassajā vedanā, jivhāsamphassajā vedanā, kāyasamphassajā vedanā, manosamphassajā vedanā. ayam vuccati bhikkhave vedanā. phassasamudayā vedanāsamudayo phassanirodhā vedanānirodho.[…]
katamā ca bhikkhave saññā. chayime bhikkhave saññākāyā: rūpasaññā saddasaññā gandhasaññā rasasaññā phoṭṭhabbasaññā dhammasaññā ayam vuccati saññā. phassasamudayā saññāsamudayo phassanirodhā saññānirodho.
«What, o bhikkhus, is sensation? These six, o bhikkhus, are the groups of sensations: sensation born from eye-contact, sensation born from ear-contact, sensation born from nose-contact, sensation born from tongue-contact, sensation born from body-contact, sensation born from mind-contact. This, o bhikkhus, is called sensation. From the origin of contact there is the origin of sensation, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of sensation. […]
And in which way, o bhikkhus, saññā is? These six, o bhikkhus, are the groups of saññā: saññā of form/colour, saññā of sound, saññā of smell, saññā of taste, saññā of touch, saññā of dhammā; this is called saññā. From the origin of contact there is the origin of saññā, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of sañña».1
This text makes explicit that, whereas the sensation is the direct result of the contact between an object and a sense-organ (we have, indeed, a sensation born from the eye, from the ear, etc.), saññā is rather the result of what, carried by contact, is then collected as perceptive information (indeed, we do not have sañña born from the eye or from the ear, but saññā of form, of sound, etc.). This consideration is supported by textual evidences: as far as vedanā is concerned, the passage makes use of the adjective dependent tappurisa compound samphassajā, constituted by samphassa and –ja – in this case in its feminine ending –jā –, derived from the verbal root √jan. It is well-known that samphassa is itself a compound of phassa (literally «touch») preceded by the prefix sam– («with»), and has clearly the sense of «con-tact», i.e., of «being in touch with…», that takes place at least between two elements, and conveys the idea of “touching directly”, without intermediaries; moreover, althought samphassa is usually employed in Pāli as euphonical form for phasso at the end of compounds, nonetheless the prefix sam– suggests implicitly the idea of «union» (saṅgati) of object, sense organ and primary sense-awareness, needed for the actual occurrence of a contact, as Majjhima-Nikāya I, 111-112 points out: cakkhuñ c’āvuso paṭicca rūpe ca upajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso («And conditioned by eye and forms, o friend, originates the visual awareness, the union of the three is the contact»). The ending –jā means «born in/from/out of» and, referred to vedanā, clearly underlines – once again – the immediacy of its “coming to be” in direct dependence on phassa (or sam–phassa), representing an immediate and direct relation between senses and the characteristics of objects collectable by senses: eye/form, ear/sound, etc. As far as saññā is concerned, the passage lists a succession of “fields” in and on which this faculty applies: the term rūpasaññā (another tappurisa compound), for example, can be properly translated as «saññā concerning form(s)/colour(s)», but in no cases as «saññā born from form(s)/colour(s)». The same with saddasaññā: correct is «saññā concerning sound(s)», and not «saññā born from sound(s)», and so on.2 Thus, we may infer that, although both saññā and sensation arise from contact (phassa), nonetheless the latter depends directly on sense organs and on the characteristics of objects, but it has nothing to do with the effect(s) of this very contact, whereas saññā becomes active only in a second time, applying itself to the bare contact (and thus, also to vedanā), by transforming it in an actual sensorial “information”, i.e., in a consciously collectable datum – where this datum is the effect of the contact-experience. Indeed, at least according to the Pāli Canon, we cannot have actual sensation (vedanā) of, for instance, forms or tastes because forms and tastes could be known as such (that is to say, as this form, this taste, etc.) only once the contact has already happened: they are subjective modalities by which one manages the data coming from outside. It is possible, at the most, to experience gustative sensations (i.e. born from the contact of the tongue and that particular characteristic of a food) or visual sensations (born from the contact of the eye and that particular characteristic of an object) in general, but the classification of these sensations as, for example, good, bad, hard, soft, red triangle, yellow square, black pisāca, and so on (see What object, what name… a brief note on saññā), is peculiar to saññā. So we conclude that vedanā develops, so to say, in a more or less mechanical activity, whereas saññā involves different classifications and selections (Aṅguttara-Nikāya III, 413): aññā bhikkhave saññā rūpesu aññā saññā saddesu aññā saññā gandhesu aññā saññā rasesu aññā saññā phoṭṭhabbesu aññā saññā dhammesu («One, o bhikkhus, is the recognition concerning forms, another one is the recognition concerning sounds, another the recognition concerning smells, another the recognition concerning tastes, another the recognition concerning touch, another the recognition concerning dhammas»).
(1) See also Saṃyutta-Nikāya II, 3; Aṅguttara-Nikāya III, 413; IV, 147; Dīgha-Nikāya II, 58; III, 244. 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 with Dīgha-Nikāya II, 308-309, III, 244-245, etc., in which the same compounds are used: cakkhusamphassajā, etc., for vedanā, and rūpasaññā, etc., for 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.
– 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.