The activity of saññā can be distinguished according to two acceptations, that is, in a “normal” state of consciousness and, in a state of meditation.1 Generally, compounds like anicca-saññā, «saññā concerning to what is impermanent»,2 anatta-saññā, «saññā concerning not-self»,3 etc. are used in passages in which the meditative aspect of saññā is involved but, of course, one can recognize the impermanence of things also without having developed this awareness by means of a particular mental training. Thus, it arises the question about the functioning of saññā in normal recognitions of what is impermanent and not-self.
In the Pāli Nikāyas it is clearly stated that the mind (manas) – as one of the six sense-organs – can grasp not only its particular object (the dhamma), as well as all other sense organs do with their peculiar objects, but it also has the capacity to collect and coordinate the impressions carried by the other five senses.4 This collection performed by manas as coordinating function can result in an arrangement of a mental image (a dhamma), which can be, in its turn, grasped by manas as sense organ. Thus, the following hypothesis can be suggested: in a complex perceptive act saññā (a) operates directly on the “bare” impressions coming from all the five material organs, furthermore, (b) when these very impressions have been coordinated by manas in a mental image, an image which is in turn grasped by manas itself, saññā can apply to the result of such a grasping. We can suppose – but this is just a supposition – that (a) reflects the pre-iti activity of saññā, whereas (b) its iti-nominalization (see What object, what name… a brief note onsaññā).
From these last considerations we can suggest, at least in two ways, an explanation of the “normal” – i.e. non-meditative – interpretation of saññā applied to the impermanent (anicca) and to the not-self (anattā):5
(A) We can consider impermanence and not-self as attributes (lakkhaṇas) of every perceived object. It follows that they must be perceived according to the same modalities by which all the other attributes are perceived. Nonetheless, according to our experience, impermanence and not-self are not collected by the “ordinary” sense-organs, so, exactly because they are recognized by saññā, and because saññā operates on the data carried by vedanā (see How to recognize a feeling? reflections on “being in touch”), we have to conclude that they must be dhammas felt by manas: thus, if the eye sees the red of an apple, and saññā recognizes that red as red, and if the tongue tastes a disgusting food, and saññā recognizes that disgusting food as disgusting, and so on, in the same way the mind should grasp the impermanence and the not-self of that apple, and saññā should recognize (should, because saññā could fail!) those impermanence and not-self as impermanence and not-self (the same with death, danger, etc.). The subsequent step is to carry those recognitions to viññāṇa. In this case saññā operates only one recognition: the object with its attributes.
(B) We can also consider impermanence and not-self not as attributes, rather as mental images arranged by manas in consequence of several co-ordinations of impressions received by the other senses. In this case the function of memory is implied and saññā develops two recognitions: one concerning the object and one concerning the memorized mental image «impermanence», or «not-self», after the activation of manas. This is an interesting suggestion because, if impermanence and not-self are interpreted not as attributes of objects, rather as mental images, it follows that they can be recognized even without the support of a material object: they can be recognized merely by means of a mental memorized impression (and probably it is also for this reason that saññā plays such a central role in meditation).6
(1) Consider, for instance, the particular role played by saññā in the so-called four immaterial jhānas (Gunaratana 1980:133-135, 138-140). Moreover, compare AN II, 167 (in which hāna-bhāgiyā saññā, ṭhiti-bhāgiyā saññā, visesa-bhāgiyā saññā and nibbedha-bhāgiyā saññā are mentioned) with DN III, 277 (in which mention is made of four kinds of concentration: hāna-bhāgiyo samādhi, ṭhiti-bhāgiyo samādhi, visesa-bhāgiyo samādhi and nibbedha-bhāgiyo samādhi). Consider also AN IV, 302-306; V, 63. For instance, the sentences obhāsañceva sañjānāma dassanañca rūpānaṃ («We recognize the radiance and the appearance of [their, i.e., of devas,] figures»: MN III, 157), tepi tenobhāsena aññamaññaṃ sañjānanti («And those [beings] recognize one another by means of this radiance»: MN III, 120; III, 124; DN II, 12; II, 15; AN II, 130-131; etc.), bhagavato sāsane uḷāraṃ pubbenāparaṃ visesaṃ sañjānanti («They recognize what is excellent in the instruction of the Bhagavant [and also] the following attainment [in meditation] by means of the previous one»: MN II, 121; II, 124; SN V, 154; V, 156; etc.), and so on, refer to some deep state of self-awareness. Not to speak of Sn 874ab: na saññasaññi na visaññasaññi | nopi asaññi na vibhūtasaññi | («He is neither a recognizer of recognitions, nor a recognizer of non-recognitions, neither a non-recognizer nor one whose recognitions are disappeared»).
(2) See: AN III, 443; IV, 353; SN III, 155; V, 132; MN I, 138; etc.
(3) See: AN I, 41; III, 444; SN V, 133; etc. See Boisvert (1995:85 and notes 40-43).
(4) See MN I, 295 and SN V, 218 (imesaṃ kho brāhmaṇa pañcannam indriyānam nānāvisayānaṃ nānāgocarānaṃ na aññamaññassa gocaravisayam paccanubhontānam mano paṭisaraṇam mano ca nesaṃ gocaravisayam paccanubhoti). See Johansson (1965:183-184).
(5) See above, notes (2) and (3).
(6) The intervention of manas’ faculty of memory during the activity of saññā can be inferred, for instance, from Canonical passages, such as: ajjhattaṃ rūpa-saññī eko bahiddhā-rūpāni passati («one who internally recognizes a form/colour sees external forms/colours»). Whereas the loss of such an intervention is so described: ajjhattaṃ arūpa-saññī eko bahiddhā-rūpāni passati («one who internally does not recognize a form/colour sees external forms/colours»). See DN II, 110; III, 260-261; MN II, 13-14; AN I, 40-41; etc.
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.
– Saṃyutta Nikāya (5 vols.), Feer, L. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1975-1999 (vols. 2-5); Somaratne, G.A., (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1998 (vol. 1).
– Suttanipāta, Andersen, D., Smith, H. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1990.
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).
– Gunaratana, H. (1980), A Critical Analysis of the Jhānas in Theravāda Buddhist Meditation, The American University Library, Washinngton D.C.
– Johansson, R.E.A. (1965), Citta, Mano, Viññāṇa. A Psychosemantic Investigation, «University of Ceylon Review» 23, pp. 165-215.