Cittasaṅkhāra as "emotions" in Ānāpānassati Sutta MN118

Dear Bhante @sujato ,
dear all,

I greatly appreciate the new translation of the Nikāyas. Often these new translations speak with great clarity to me, but sometimes not. I’m a bit helpless, with the rendering of cittasaṇkhāra as “emotions” in MN118.

They practice breathing in experiencing rapture. They practice breathing out experiencing rapture. They practice breathing in experiencing bliss. They practice breathing out experiencing bliss. They practice breathing in experiencing these emotions. They practice breathing out experiencing these emotions. They practice breathing in stilling these emotions. They practice breathing out stilling these emotions. (MN118)

What is meant by “emotions”? (Yes, I know there is Wikipedia :face_with_monocle:.)
I understand vedanā as “how it feels”: painful, pleasant or neither.
As I currently see it, the 16 items of ānāpānassati introduce a new perspective or angle with each item. But with pīti and sukha beeing emotions, the subsequent item (item 3 of tetrad 2) merely reiterates the former two.
But maybe, there is something that escapes me?
(Please remember, I am not a native speaker.)
In MN44 cittasaṅkhāra is translated as “mental process”, what is the reason to use “emotions” in MN118?


Unfortunately Pāḷi does not make any categorical distinction between thoughts, emotions, or feelings. They are all just one category citta.

And unfortunately modern translators don’t seem to have an easy way of conveying this because thoughts, emotions, and feelings are always distinguished in everyday English (with a certain amount of vagueness around feelings).

Sujato’s translation here is simply misleading, because cittasaṅkhāra applies equally to thoughts, emotions, and feelings (in the ordinary sense). Bliss is more of a feeling in my view, but the point is moot.

We know from modern neuroscience that “emotions” are physiological arousal (via the sympathetic nervous system) accompanied by emotional thoughts. Not really a separate category of experience anyway. But this only complicates the matter since again it is not how we use language.

Sujato may be accurately reflecting the way he does this practice, but he is not accurately reflecting the Pāḷi. And in a way doing a better job is difficult because of the huge differences in how Pāli conceives of experience and how we conceive of it.

We recently had a long discussion about vedanā. My contribution was to point out that there is no English word that corresponds to the idea of dukkhaṃ sukhaṃ adukkhamasukhaṃ. But nor is there a Pāḷi word which naturally means this. Vedanā is more literally “an announcement”.

The decision that it means precisely dukkhaṃ sukhaṃ adukkhamasukhaṃ is entirely arbitrary. And we can see this in the need in Pali suttas to explain, even to other bhikkhus, what is meant by vedanā. “Feeling” is an OK translation as long as we specify that it has no relation to the normal way we use the word in English. Instead in this context it means precisely (and only) the agreeable, disagreeable, and neutral feelings that we have in response to sense contact. Nothing to do with feelings such as rapture or bliss as we normally talk about them.

“Mental process” is equally misleading in its own way, because emotions and feelings like pīti and sukha, are as much bodily processes as mental. Emotions are felt in the body as much as they are cognised in the mind.


How about “psycho-physical events” or “psycho-somatic processes” ?

Its unwieldy but it captures the idea.

Cittasaṅkhāra means different things in different contexts. In this context, it refers back to the rapture and bliss that have already been mentioned at the start of the passage, and which are the subject of this section of the sutta. This is defined in MN 44:

Saññā ca vedanā ca cetasikā ete dhammā cittappaṭibaddhā, tasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro
Perception and feeling are mental. These things are connected with the mind, that’s why perception and feeling are cittasaṅkhāra.

The “perception and feeling” referred to here are obviously none other than the rapture and bliss experienced at this stage of meditation. This becomes a translation question as to how best render this passage. I found that any attempt at literal rendering ended up obscuring the sense.

Sorry Jayarava, cittasaṅkhāra certainly doesn’t mean “thoughts”, and indeed I can’t recall anywhere in the Pali that it has that sense. In some contexts it can mean “mental intention”, but that obviously doesn’t apply here. The translation was intended to make it explicit that this term is simply referring back to the previous, not to impute any particular psychological sense to the word “emotion”.


Keeping in mind that the MN 44 Chinese & Tibetan parallels, have perception and intention as the two components of cittasankhara, instead of feeling and perception; the following extracts (and [oldy but still quite goody] notes, might be of some help to grasp a better meaning of citta and its “feeling” component.



Bhante, you translate MN 44 as:

Perception and feeling are mental. They’re tied up with the mind, that’s why perception and feeling are mental processes.” Saññā ca vedanā ca cetasikā ete dhammā cittappaṭibaddhā, tasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.

I feel it’s much better to stay consistent in MN 118 with your choice in MN 44 “mental processes” rather than “emotions” (in MN 118) for citta sankhara.

MN 44 retains generality, for example one can do 4 elements concurrently with 16 APS (anapana) as MN 62 describes explicitly. “emotions” loses the “perception” aggregate aspect of that, as well as the other types of vedana (dukkha and adukkham-a-sukham) which one could experience in 4th jhana and before first jhana.

I’m also puzzled by your assertion that emotions is only referring back to piti and sukha, the previous 2 steps in 16 APS. At least that sounds like that’s what you’re asserting. Citta Sankhara of steps 7 and 8 certainly includes piti and sukha, but includes much more than those 2.


citation for the chinese please?
I looked through your link and only saw pali snippets.

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Fair enough. It’s a close call, but I think I’ll keep it as is for now.


I like e-motions consistency with the first tetrad’s body motions.

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The Chinese parallel to MN44 is MĀ210.
I can not provide the original Chinese text, but here is a snippet from a compilation of papers by Ven. Anālayo:

[…] perception and intention are reckoned as mental formation. […] Perception and intention are factors arisen from the mind, go along with the mind, depend on the mind, are related to the mind, depending on the mind they completely enter its [domain] […]. Madhyama-āgama Studies, Ven. Anālayo, 2012, pp. 46-47


Different translation hopefully provide different angles to the original text and may contribute to deeper understanding - therefore I really appreciate the various translations and contributions here in this forum.

I agree - it took me quite awhile to get rid of the notion of feeling as emotion etc.

I think, it is impossible to have whatever mental process apart from bodily processes, but it may be useful to distinguish them for the sake of giving/receiving instructions or informations.

„Process“ might be OK because it conveys the idea of something changing, being processed into something else.
Likewise, I found „formation“ or „preparation“ very puzzling, but now really like the flexibility of both terms, because it can mean something formed or prepared or that this is forming or preparing something else.

Back to the ānāpānassati-protocol:
With „mental formations“ I had the impression of shifting the training/observation from a feeling (pīti) to a process that makes citta or a process that involves feeling and citta. In the next step, this is to be tranquilised.
With „emotion“ I still have problems. This term is so laden to me. And fuzzier than the above mentioned peculiar terms.
But as SCMatt pointed out:

I recognised this too, I thought it could be some kind of pun? Still, I have a hard time with „emotion“.

Am I right in thinking that piti is a bodily feeling, while sukha is a mental feeling?

In any case, I wonder whether “feeling” might be better than “emotion” here.

Actually my point was that citta encompasses thoughts, emotions, and feelings. And that there is no distinction made between them in the Pali world view. There is no category word that corresponds to emotions and when emotions such as anger are mentioned, they are clearly part of citta. If you are claiming to see a distinction in Pali, I would say that the burden of proof is on you.

That said, since saññā quite clearly is a kind of thought (a kind of jñā), I wonder how you think "cittasaṅkhāra certainly doesn’t mean “thoughts” Clearly in the passage it does encompass thoughts. You can’t recall anywhere it has that meaning, but it has that meaning exactly in the pasage you cite.

The word “emotion” carries meaning without you necessarily intending to impute anything. Presumable you are intending to categorise pīti and sukha as emotions. As I say, this is not a category that can apply in Pali because it doesn’t exist. You are those imposing a modern category onto the text. This is a problem we all have, I’m just highlighting it because most people seem to ignore it.

But more, my experience of pīti and sukha doesn’t suggest to me anything that belongs in the modern category of “emotion”. Both seem to me to be feelings rather than emotions, precisely because emotions have cognitive aspects, whereas pīti and sukha are almost entirely felt in the body.


When the mind ( mano ) is uplifted by delight, the body becomes tranquil.
One tranquil in body experiences pleasure.
The mind (citta) of one who is pleasurable becomes concentrated.
Pīti manassa kāyo passambhati.
Passaddhakāyo sukhaṃ vedayati
Sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati.
SN 47.10

The mind being joyful, the body becomes pliant and calm.
The body being pliant and calm, the body feels bliss.
The body feeling bliss, the mind becomes concentrated.
SA 615

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Sorry to revive a sleeping thread, but I stumbled onto this same issue and was confused by a comparison of the Bodhi and Sujato versions of mn118 :


‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;


He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the mental formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the mental formation. ’


They practice breathing in experiencing these emotions. They practice breathing out experiencing these emotions.

On translating cittasaṅkhāraṃ

Personally I prefer “Mental formations” as in the Bodhi version as the strongest translation of cittasaṅkhāraṃ.

While “formations” is indeed unweildy, and requires some domain knowledge to fully grok, IMHO that complexity is inherent to the concept. The relationship between cittasaṅkhāraṃ, the more general saṅkhāra (any type of formation, as in DHP verse 1) and the aggregate saṅkhāra (which is explicitly not a vedana) seems important, especially given the nuance of the subtle difference between this verse and the previous two.

Experiencing the “emotions” (IMHO avoiding that word entirely would be best for clarity’s sake) of piti and sukha themselves is exactly what we were doing in the previous verses. This new command should be something different, and in this case, it seems to be to investigate a new mental aspect of these feelings, the mental formations/ideas/thoughts of them, rather than the body-based direct vedana from the previous verses.

I hope that makes sense! Investigating this confusion has been an interesting experience so I’m glad the translations didn’t match!

On referring to the previous verses

Originally, based on the Bodhi version (and another version that was read aloud to me during a retreat) I thought that cittasaṅkhāraṃ in this context was more general, and referred to any mental objects that may be present, rather than specifically those associated with the piti and sukha developed in the previous verse.

Assuming you have the right sense of it (I was going to debate it, but I’m won over by comparing it to the 4 foundations section later in the sutta) it’s very good that your translation clarifies this explicitly. The Bodhi version, regardless of me liking “mental formations” better, was leading me astray by being too ambiguous.

Really, it almost feels like the most meaningful translation would need a more words to convey the whole meaning that I’m getting from your previous posts, i.e. something like:

They practice breathing in experiencing the mental formations associated with these states. They practice breathing out experiencing the mental formations associated with these states.

Not that I’m asking you to change it to that necessarily, but I’m curious if this comes across to anyone as conceptually accurate, or if I’m still missing the point. To me this really seems like a fresh instruction that fits logically in the flow of the other verses.

Update: Found this interesting StackExchange thread on the subject

It lead me to the Cūḷavedallasutta that I’d read before but only in English:

Perception and feeling are mental. They’re tied up with the mind, that’s why perception and feeling are mental processes.”
Saññā ca vedanā ca cetasikā ete dhammā cittappaṭibaddhā, tasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.

So there’s clearly at least one place where the Buddha defines cittasaṅkhāro as including vedana , and thus my statement above that they should be mutually-exclusive isn’t very well founded.

Still, it really is repetitive if the verse isn’t asking us to investigate something other than the piti and sukha :woman_shrugging:t2:

Hi, thanks for your input. But no! This isn’t what’s going on. The series of steps is not strictly linear, and there is much overlap. In this context, cittasaṅkhārā is just the sukha and pīti. In the MN 44 passage you mention, they are included in vedanā; which is, of course, the overall context in this portion of anapana = satipatthana.

It is common in the suttas for the teaching to move towards synthesis. Two separate items are mentioned, then a third that synthesizes them. This is exactly the pattern found throughout the Satipatthana Sutta with “internal”, “external”, “internal/external”. Another example is the treatment of namarupa in DN 15. And that is what is happening here. The two feelings of pīti and sukha, originally distinct, move towards unity as the mind is becoming more unified. With unity, the diversity and complexity of the mind is settling, and the outcome is deeper tranquillity, i.e. the next stage.

Nothing in this stage of the meditation has anything to do with examining saṅkhārās in the sense of “thoughts”, “mental activities”, or even “causal process”. In fact, this meditation is not about “investigation” at all: it is about “sustained observation” (anupassanā), i.e. continually watching the same thing for a long time.


And this is what 99% of people teaching “buddhist meditation” simply miss…


Thank you Bhante! This lesson you’ve given me is priceless. I will keep in mind the synthesis pattern for the future.

Both writing the original comment and processing your answer have led me down a really interesting rabbit-hole of finally digging into the details of the five aggregates and how they interrelate with the senses. I’m realizing I had a lot of false impressions from oversimplified descriptions I had read, and even just going back to the Wikipedia articles a few months later, my understanding of what’s there has grown a lot.

Metta to you and thank you again for taking the time to reply. I hope these discussions can help someone else with my same errors (which are clearly shared with some teachers out there, so at least I’m not alone) some day :pray:


Emotions are feelings. If we want to get specific, let’s use the neuroscientific term ‘emotional affects’. Now, they most certainly can be experienced without a cognitive aspect. Dogs for example will be living in a largely emotional world, with far less cognitive experience than us.

Emotions can be experienced with accompanying thought. Indeed without thought, emotions usually arise and subside fairly quickly, which is why when you learn to let go of thoughts, you won’t stay angry for very long when you get upset!

But I would think many Buddhists will be familiar with the experience of having anger, and then deciding to be quiet, and just observe that emotion, without any thoughts. Right there is your proof that emotion need not have the cognitive side carrying on.

Similarly, when you generate the emotion of love, in mettā practice, if you do it the old way (from what I understand), you do it without any object, just generating that emotional affect without any thoughts or images, and meditate on that.

My work is psychotherapy and I actually use awareness of the body a lot in helping people become aware of their emotions. People who are dissociated. We experience emotoins largely through our bodies, and many people are not aware of this. But people who are in touch with their emotions can usually feel how their bodies change with emotions, and how bodily the experience of an emotion really is. Though sometimes we don’t notice it until we draw our attention to it.

I’m glad to see this thread because I’m fairly convinced that from the perspective of affectice neuroscience, pīti and sukha would be considered emotional affects. I would love to see any evidence regarding exactly which emotional pathways are activated during these states.

By the way there are so far 7 known hard-wired emotions present in all mammalian brains. ‘CARE’ is the one that concerns the emotion of love from a mother to its young, for example. I feel fairly sure that mettā is primarily (if not wholly?) the deliberate activation of this pathway. Some states may be various combinations of pathways, just as complex emotions can be built up from the lower level elements. But I wonder if some of these states might be about making things simpler rather than more complex…


Thanks, that’s a nice reflection.

We can’t make too much of a problem about the specific psychological details. None of the words we use for the five khandhas exactly correlates with how they are used today. But “emotions” is idiomatic, and it seems to me, no less inaccurate than alternatives.