Interpreting a very difficult passage involving perception

In the following passage the Buddha is asked what conditions bring about the disappearance of forms and we get what looks like an answer that doesn’t do the job.

I originally interpreted this as

The problem IMHO is that you can recognize a person or object even with distortion of the senses so the following does not seem to bring about formlessness.

I now interpret the passage as

If you cannot recognize sense objects or discern forms then there are no forms. This would be a formless state.

My question is is this a reasonable interpretation of the Pali?

Maybe if we can read the whole of Snp 4.11, not just a portion as you quoted, then we can understand the context.

The one who questioned the Buddha had an idea that the formless is the highest achievement, however the Buddha has answered that there is something else even higher. The Buddha has approached from the name-form linkage that leads to contact.

So I would interpret “distorted perception” here as something similar to “wrong view”. Just my interpretation though, I am not too attached to this interpretation.


I would like to keep this thread to the topic of whether or not my interpretation of the verse is reasonably given the Pali in that particular verse. That said, I think the last verse, which I believe you are referring to, is tricky and its interpretation should be a separate thread. I will start that thread soon. We can tackle any connections between the two verses then.

Actually, I had a another idea. I looked up “vi” in the Online Pali English Dictionary and they have

Vi Vi (indecl.) [prefix, resting on Idg. *ṷi “two,” as connotation of duality or separation

so perhaps it should be interpreted as

This would seem to result in nonduality though with a form of sorts. It would just be form not in relation to self.

I know this sound weird. Is there any usage of form where this would make sense? Maybe no depth perception?

Perhaps, it could mean

Is this a reasonable interpretation of the Pali? A lack of depth perception would be a distortion or abnormality. Maybe normal form is three dimensional form, not flat form.

It would also be without a visceral sense of self as in the state described to Bahiya in Ud 1.10

This would also be consistent with the need to fully comprehend perception in Snp 4.2.

I this this last one is what works best. The key is could visannasanni mean depth perception?

Ok, so I’ll leave aside my own interpretation of the passage, and just focus on the question:

Na saññasaññī
Without recognition of sense objects

It’s generally best to avoid using the abhidhammic notion of sense “objects” when dealing with the suttas. Also, I’m not sure if you’re trying to say “without 5 external sense objects”? Because if so, I don’t think that’s justifiable, as saññā very much applies to mental consciousness as well.

The most literal translation would be, “not being one who perceives perception”.

na visaññasaññī

You give a number of possibilities. Since vi- is an extremely adaptive prefix, and since visañña is not a defined technical term, there are a number of possibilities, linguistically speaking.

Not really. If Pali wanted to say a “duality”, this is a strong concept and it would state it more clearly (something like advayasaññī). Vi- is too weak to carry this sense. If the sense of “two” is meant here, it would be something like “divided perception”.

Vi- can have a sense of clarity and penetration, cf. vipassanā. It couldn’t mean “depth perception” as in 3D vision. There is no concept of visual dimensions in Pali.

But it could mean something like “clear perception”. So the first line would be “Not one who perceives perception or super-perception”, i.e. not normal perception and not the clarified perception of meditation.

Nopi asaññī
not lacking discernment of change

This isn’t correct, it means “not being one who does not perceive”.

na vibhūtasaññī
nor aware of what has disappeared

Yes, this is correct, literally, “not being one who perceives what has disappeared”.


I was thinking of something like “perception of separation” and that reminded me of depth perception. Is that anymore likely?

Thanks for commenting.

Not unless there is some textual support for it. But thanks for prompting me to take a second look, I always learn something.

visaññī occurs a few times in the Pali canon.

an4.49:3.5 (in the context of the four vippallasa, perversions of perception:)

Micchādiṭṭhihatā sattā, khittacittā visaññino
sentient beings are ruined by wrong view, out of their mind, deranged.


Puttasokenahaṁ aṭṭā, khittacittā visaññinī
When I lost my child I was taken over by grief; I lost my mind, becoming deranged.

pli-tv-bu-vb-pc51:1.40 (Of the drunk monk Sāgata, who BTW was awake, not unconscious)

Api nu kho, bhikkhave, taṁ pātabbaṁ yaṁ pivitvā visaññī assā”ti?
So, monks, should one drink that which makes one deranged?

In later texts:


lomasakassapo isi saha dassanena candavatiyā rājakaññāya visaññī ahosi khittacitto ratto
As soon as he saw Princess Candavati, the hermit Lomakassapa became deranged, out of his mind, besotted.


Mucchito visavegena, visaññī samapajjatha.
Faint with the shaft’s poison, he lay unconscious

ja81:1.3 (on alcohol)

Visaññikaraṇiṁ pitvā
Having drunk that which makes you deranged.

For most of these, the sense is “deranged”, i.e. vi- has the sense of “distorted, wrong, twisted”.

The exception is ja540:33.3, where it clearly means “unconscious” (the king thinks he is dead). Here the vi- has a privative sense, “without”. Given that in the original context there is an unambiguous term for “without perception” (asaññī), this sense cannot apply.

Thus we are left with strong contextual support for the sense of visaññī as “deranged perception”. This reading enjoys the support of the Niddesa, the commentary, the dictionaries, as well (so far as I know) of all the experienced translators.

The sense of “deranged” is meaningful in our passage, because it is easy for a meditator to appear as if mad; meditators themselves wonder this quite often.

King Context rules language with an iron first. All must bow before him!


This, I feel, is what more Pāli students should learn. So many translators, including monastics, seem to treat each word in its etymological anatomy as if it were a doctrinal organ of the body of Buddhist philosophy, and so often it is just a word with clear contextual uses that reign supreme over theoretical understandings of it. I know you have been a pioneer in translating this contextual way and shedding light on this tendency to overload words with meaning, and I am very grateful for it! Thank you! It has been helpful in my own understanding as well :slight_smile:

As K.R. Norman suggested, I think if more Pāli translators were equipped with a mindset that is (a) of a living language steeped in contextual webs of meaning, and (b) philologically minded in the sense of knowing the prior context of words (Vedic/Brahmanical antecedents, the use of the word in other Indic texts, its development in later Pāli, etc.), rather than using dictionaries and teacher’s philosophical explanations of words to inform their translations, then we would be making leaps and bounds towards more accurate, informed, and understandable translation perhaps. I hope to keep much of this and your own advice I have seen you write about in mind as I work through Pāli.

EDIT: by using dictionaries I mean filling in definitions 1:1 rather than steeping oneself in the language

Still waiting on that course!


I have started a new topic to explore the Bapat Chinese translation of the passages. There are some interesting features there that might help shed light, but I want our Chinese scholars to look at it and provide some feedback on them. My support at this time is purely personal experience while meditating with my eyes open. I do not expect that to be persuasive to others, but it motivates me to explore it.

Snp 4.11 does not mention visanni. I mentions visannasanni. Could they be different words with different meanings? Visannasanni only seems to appear in Snp 4.11, at least that is what my search showed.

One other thing I thought of is that Ud 1.10 says that

In other words, you won’t be separate from it. That would seem to imply there is an experience of being separate from the world.

No. Visaññā is the noun form “deranged perception”. Visaññi is the personal form, “one who has deranged perception”. Visaññasaññi means literally “one who has perception of deranged perception”. It’s merely a more complex form reducing to the same thing.