Is Khajjanīyasutta (SN22.79) a reliable resource for understanding the five aggregates?

I have come across the three most recent articles by @jayarava on the topic of the grasping aggregates - link here

I am impressed to see he argues for the Khajjanīyasutta (SN22.79) not being a reliable resource for understanding of these things.

Does anyone have a bit more info about what would make this EBT not a good reference for studying and understanding the five grasping aggregates?



Wow, there’s a lot going on here.

  1. This sutta is squarely within the system of the EBTs. Every section of the sutta has parallels in other discourses, so the general claim that this is a one-off, weird sutta is simply wrong.

  2. Some of his contention with the other scholars is correct, in that Early Buddhism is more concerned with phenomenological than noumenal philosophy and so, while a bit overblown, he is correct to nitpick e.g. the use of the word “existence” here, which they are (erroneously) reading in to the Pāli.

  3. I’m also sympathetic to his digression about the colors. The past is a strange place and we know that the ancient ideas about e.g. colors were different than ours. But he doesn’t provide an alternative reading, and I’m extremely sceptical of his contention that “conceptualisation is transparent to the person and would not have been obvious to early Buddhists.” The very same early Buddhists that were routinely attaining high jhanas? They would be less aware of the workings of their subconscious mind than us “enlightened” moderns?! Yeah. Right. :roll_eyes:


SN22.79 corresponds very well with SA46 also. So attested in multiple transmissions.


Somewhat related, an interesting talk by David Graeber and David Wengrow called "The Myth of the Stupid Savage: Rousseau’s Ghost and the Future of Political Anthropology. "

They basically challenge the idea that ancient peoples were politically naive, and the idea of a linear progression from simple to complex political systems over time (hunter gatherer -> agricultural societies -> modern states).

I think the same principle applies to psychology / philosophy of the mind regarding the EBTs.

E.g. in my PhD research I am above averagely interested in what is called causal inference, and my opinion is that the EBTs treatment of causality is higher in quality than much of the published research I read.

The four noble truths is a much stronger theory in scientific terms than say the big five personality traits.

Edit: My point being that I don’t see any evidence of the EBTs lacking sophistication.


The basic structure is the same, though a couple definitions of the skandhas differ. Form is defined as being obstructive and divisible, and the definition of perception doesn’t involve colors but rather numbers and extent (few, many, measureless, nothingness). When I read it, I see some Abhidharma influences taking place, especially with the standard Sarvâstivāda definition of form as “obstructive” (i.e., occupying space) and divisible. Overall, I’d say it lends a bit of support to his argument about colors leading modern people to different interpretations. Recognizing things as few or many is more abstract than the direct perception of colors.


So maybe it is the case that SN22.79 is then a quasi-abhidhamma text, not necessarily pure buddha-vacana?

And hence relying on it to form one’s understanding of the five aggregates would be biased, partial?


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True, the specific definitions are slightly different for perception.

In the whole sweep of SN vs. SA comparison, this is I think one of the more closely parallel sutta / sutra. In terms of definitions for example, this SN22.79/SA46 is quite a bit closer than say SN12.2/SA298 on the definitions of different terms of dependent origination.

For the five aggregates, I think the most authoritative analysis is probably SN 22.57/SA42, though as with most “analysis” suttas, it does give a feeling of abhidhamma.

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I think the treatment of causality is still a weak point in modern philosophy - they probably can learn much from the Indian traditional, as Karl Potter has argued more than half a century ago.


I think it’s an alternative point of view that’s been preserved, and it’s probably pretty old, originally. As @pamirs points out, SA 46 is very close to the Pali, with just a few key definition words that are different. So, I’d read it with the other sutras that define the five skandhas and see how it looks letting them overlap. It seems like early Buddhists tried to not get stuck with just one definition of things to avoid too much dogmatism. At least, that’s how it feels to me when I read at these types of alternative definitions.


Is there any treatment of causality in EBTs? I mean they talk a lot about when causality happens (in the context of dependent arising) but I have yet to come across any Buddhist text that discusses causality per se. How causality happens seems to only become a topic for ābhidharmikas.

Lovely to see Graeber and Wengrow being cited. Their book the Dawn of Everything changed my life.


To me, causality seems so ingrained into our cognition that there’s no viewpoint from outside causality from which it can be explained. Pearl’s argument that we basically get causality from imagination makes sense to me; we just have the capability of imagining how things could have been different.

Like, if I miss the bus to work, I am just able to imagine that if I had not missed the bus, I would probably have been on time today.

This just seems like such a basic notion to me, I’m inclined to just accept it as a primitive of human reasoning.

It’s a great book! Totally changed my perception of people “from the past”. They actually thought about stuff and were just as capable of critical thought as we are! They had ideas about how society should be, revolutions, failed and successful social experiments, etc. :slight_smile:

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Āvuso, it’s better if you provide the context of the quote. For example, quote the whole sentence at least, but in this case one either side as well helps the reader:

When one says of an object that it is blue, one is not having an idea, one is putting a name to a quality. Perhaps this does involve conceptualisation, but that conceptualisation is transparent to the person and would not have been obvious to early Buddhists. I see no evidence that the authors of the Pāli text generally had any insight into this abstract way of thinking about perception.

And the conclusion of the digression:

All the authors I’m considering in this essay seem to be projecting modern ideas backwards and making an anachronism out of saññā (another example of the anachronistic fallacy).

Saying “I’m extremely sceptical” about anything without any elaboration is a special case the logical fallacy of appeal to authority (where you are appealing to your own authority).

Also when you say that I don’t “provide an alternative reading”, I’m at a loss, since I clearly do provide an alternative. My final para:

We seem to come back to recognition as the principle idea associated with the word and the most likely application in this context also. The problem is that this is the conclusion of none of my informants. This feels a little awkward. The influence of the Khajjanīya Sutta on modern discussions of the khandhas continues to be problematic. Why was it not read critically by scholars? It seems that in the absence of a precise and coherent explanation this text was adopted as the next best thing. But it cannot carry this weight.

To be fair @Khemarato.bhikkhu does in fact elaborate with:

@Jayarava in the blog post eventually gives;

“We seem to come back to recognition as the principle idea associated with the word”

In favour of “perception”, which is my prefered translation too,

But this seems to me to spend an awful lot of verbage to choose one synonym over another.

c. 1300, perceiven, “become aware of, gain knowledge of,” especially “to come to know by direct experience,” via Anglo-French parceif, Old North French *perceivre (Old French perçoivre) “perceive, notice, see; recognize, understand,” from Latin percipere “obtain, gather, seize entirely, take possession of,” also, figuratively, “to grasp with the mind, learn, comprehend,” literally “to take entirely,” from per “thoroughly”

What exactly is the distinction being made from;

early 15c., recognisen, “resume possession of land,” a back-formation from recognizance, or else from Old French reconoiss-, present-participle stem of reconoistre “to know again, identify, recognize,” from Latin recognoscere “acknowledge, recall to mind, know again; examine; certify,” from re- “again”

Percieving something and recognising something are more or less synonyms in plain english, and distinctions between the terms shade of either into special sciences like psychology or pedantic nonsense that seems to me to be very unlikely to bear much on the EBT context.

I think @Jayarava is a wonderful scholar of Buddhism but I am really not at all clear what all this amounts to, maybe i just don’t perceive/recognise/see/grok the issue.

I think there is no good reason to think this sutta is not authentic. But to interpret it properly, it is good to keep in mind that, as @cdpatton pointed out, “early Buddhists tried to not get stuck with just one definition of things to avoid too much dogmatism.” In other words, don’t read this passage as strict definitions. Let me explain.

(Sorry, @Jayarava, for talking about you in the third person below. It felt easier to phrase things this way, being a response to external essays, not posts on this forum. I hope you don’t mind. Also, I hope you can take some criticism. :wink: )

While the word rūpa in its most general usage does not refer just to the body, it does certainly include it. Rūpa is detailed as the four elements, and in MN28 the internal four elements are exactly the parts of the body: “head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, …”, “bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, …” and so forth. When the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN22.79) says rūpa is ‘harmed’ or ‘hurt’ (ruppati) by cold, heat, hunger, thirst, and so forth, surely it refers to these “internal elements”. So in this text rūpa does refer to the body. (Though Jayarava is right that this doesn’t mean that rūpa therefore always means the body.)

Rūpa and ruppati are not etymologically related, but this isn’t problematic, because there is clearly a pun here, as Venerable Bodhi notes. This does not make the sutta inauthentic or otherwise untrustworthy. It just means we shouldn’t take this as a literal definition. That’s not something unique: word plays are all over the canon. As Jayarava acknowledges, Buddhism isn’t metaphysics, and this means the Buddha wasn’t that concerned about giving exact definitions. His first and foremost desire was to teach things that are practical, and sometimes he did so by being very non-literal. I would suggest that when he says rūpa gets hurt (ruppati), he is primarily reminding us of the suffering of the body.

I think the explanations of some of the other khandhas in the Khajjanīya Sutta are also not meant as literal definitions, including vedanā and particularly saṅkhāra, which elsewhere is more standardly defined as cetana ‘intention’ (SN22.56). The questions such as “why do you call it form?” are not how definitions are phrased elsewhere, suggesting that something different is going on here. The questions seem aimed more towards answering “why do we use this word?” rather than “what does this word exactly mean?”

Jayarava, expecting literalism, demands that in order for the “definition” of rūpa to make sense it must use a denominative verb rūpayati/rūpeti instead of ruppati, but at the same time he also acknowledges that such a verb doesn’t occur in the Nikāyas. It is very plausible there simply was no such verb in use at the Buddha’s time, which would explain why he chose to creatively use ruppati instead. You can’t expect someone to use a verb if that verb didn’t exist in the ordinary language. That would be akin to demanding someone to use the word ‘wood’ or ‘money’ as a verb.

So all in all it is a very weak basis for questioning this sutta, which @Khemarato.bhikkhu already pointed out contains no significant other indications of being inauthentic. I feel the puns actually make this sutta more likely to be authentic (or this section at least) because later additions trend towards systematic standardization and classification, not creative use of words such as this. That ruppati also isn’t simply a scribal mistake for rupeti is clear from the way the sutta explains it. “Rūpa is harmed by hunger/mosquitos” makes no sense if read as “rūpa ‘appears’ by hunger/mosquitos”. Yet the essay basically suggests the latter reading and blames others for misreading.

The word rūpa indeed has lots of connotations, one of which is indeed ‘appearance’. Shapes or colors you see with the eyes come under rūpa, for example. It also includes appearances which are perceived with the mind. MN28 for instance says that mind-contact can lead to rūpa, and DN33 says that there is rūpa that is visible and “resistant” (i.e. tangible matter) but also rūpa that is invisible [to the eye] and intangible. This might seem strange to us, but that’s because of our modern worldview which separates the mind from matter. Many ancients didn’t think like that. For example, some of the Greek stoics who lived around the time of the Buddha thought the soul lived on in the fire element. The four elements are not just external things but also their properties, and these properties extend into the mental realm as well. And therefore so too does rūpa.

But more generally rūpa definitely includes physical things as well, such as the water in the ocean or the air in the sky (MN28) or indeed the body. Because included within things that have an appearance are our bodies. To illustrate, in SN22.100 a painter draws the form (rūpa) of a person. And when you draw a person, you draw their body, not their mind or other internal aspects of their experience. The Bhrdaranyaka Upanishad has the line: “He is so-and-so by name [nāma] and has such-and-such an appearance [rūpa].” Here rūpa also effectively refers to the person’s body. In DN15 nāmarūpa is said to take shape in the mother’s womb, forming the embryo, where again rūpa refers (primarily) to the body.

To conclude, the term rūpa is impossible to strictly define, because it is used in different ways, and because concepts of “matter” were different back then. Many suttas have broader uses of rūpa, but in some the physical aspects are emphasized. Rūpa is not exactly identical to the body, but in certain contexts the connection with the body is so strong that to translate it as ‘body’ would not be completely unwarranted. This is also the case for the aggregate of rūpa in various suttas, although you couldn’t get away with that in the canon as a whole, which is why most translators stick to ‘form’.

The essay on vedanā has me baffled, particularly its attempted derivation of vedayati/vedeti. The verb is not a causative derivation. It’s simply a seventh conjugation from the root vid. So it just means ‘to experience/feel’, not ‘to cause to experience/feel’. Therefore the noun vedanā is also not derived from a causative.

Ved- is also not a “causative form of the root”. It’s a vuddhi (lengthening) of the root, which by itself does not make for a causative. The causative is determined by the suffixes added to the root. The Sanskritic form vediyati has no such suffixes and therefore has nothing to do with the causative. Vetter is right in noting that it is just a variant of vedayati. It is an alternative manuscript spelling not just in this sutta but throughout the canon.

I don’t know how these mistakes happened. Any serious Pali student should know what constitutes a causative, and should definitely know about the 7th conjugation. It’s in lesson three of Warder’s Introduction to Pali, for example. And Warder even specifically lists a vedeti as a 7th conjugation, as does Duroiselle. That these things are missed, plus other grammatical mistakes later on, strongly puts into question the credibility of this essay.

Now, probably what confused Jayarava is that the causative conjugation can sometimes result in the same stem as the 7th conjugation, when the causative suffix is -e. In such cases we have to consider the contexts the verb is used in order to tell whether it is a causative or not. And if we do, we’ll see that vedeti is (generally) not used as a causative in the Pali Canon. The PTS Pali-English Dictionary says it knows of “only one caus[ative]” application of vedeti. (emphasis in the original) It’s the aorist avedi in Jataka 444, where it has the same meaning as pavedeti ‘to inform’, which is semantically unrelated to vedanā. There may be some other instances which the dictionary missed, but they certainly would be outliers. In any of the common uses, those that relate directly to aggregate of vedanā, vedeti is not a causative.

The comparison of the five verbs in the Khajjanīya Sutta’s questionnaire on the khandhas also seems a strange way to determine meaning to me, and I don’t understand the conclusion at all. It translates a second person verb as a third person and a supposed denominative seemingly as a causative. It’s all rather senseless to me, so I agree, although for other reasons, that “all this etymological work […] is ultimately futile”. Regardless, if we do allow this strange route of argumentation, none of the other four verbs are a causative, so that would tell us that vedayati is not a causative either. (By the way, the reason only abhisaṅkharonti is plural and not the other four verbs, is simply that saṅkhāra is the only aggregate that is set in the plural.)

Vedanā is not the “positive (sukha), negative (dukkha), or neutral (asukham-adukkha) feelings that we have in response to sense experience”. It is the intrinsic pleasantness or unpleasantness of those experiences themselves. For example, sick people are said to have dukkha vedanā on account of their sickness, even if they were enlightened, as was the case for Maha Kassapa in SN46.14. The Buddha also had painful bodily feelings when he cut his foot in SN1.38.

So the critiques raised in these essays are unfounded. They’re based at least in part on bad understanding of Pali and on a failure to appreciate the non-technical use of language that’s quite common in the suttas. It blames Vetter and Hamiton of fixating on a single sutta, and that may be a rightful observation (I haven’t read those works) but itself overly fixates on etymology, which is even more problematic, especially if this etymology is incorrect.

I hope I didn’t word any of that too strongly. I do appreciate the inquiries Jayarava made. He does raise some very good points as well, especially some in the essay on saññā.

Hi Joseph,

In your analysis you assume you know what the word saññā means. I suppose this is because you’ve been exposed to a lot of Buddhist discourse in the past.

I assume that I don’t know what it means and try to reason it out based on usage, and based on my critical examination of two books on the subject: Tim Vetter (2000) and Sue Hamilton (2000).

Moreover, I think the idea that saññā straightforwardly means “perceive” is simply wrong in this context, like most of the other translations for khandas.

Your methodology of giving the etymology of a word in English doesn’t even work well in English since as Wittgenstein (almost) said meaning is use. We are discussing the use of a word in Pāli. You cannot understand Pāli by analysing English translations or by citing English etymology, nor yet by using modern ideas of perception (anything post Freud is going to be anachronistic and anything European is likely to be off).

Moreover you cannot understand Buddhist terminology solely in terms of Indic etymologies, let alone English. Try it with vedanā for example, where the use is unconnected to the etymology.

I also take into account that our modern ways of thinking about perception are anachronistic when projected back in time by 2500 years. In various essays, I’ve tried hard to make the point that we can easily misinterpret Pāli ideas by assuming that the authors thought about the world in much the same way that we do. I drew attention, for example, to the problem of basic colour terms. I’ve also noted that there is no word that corresponds to “a memory” qua quasi-autonomous entity lurking in our minds. I’ve noted that there is no word for “an emotion” either. The authors of the Pāli texts carved the world up rather differently to us. And it behooves us to see the world through their eyes when commenting on their texts. This doesn’t preclude critical thinking, but one has to first be clear what one is critiquing.

In the case of saññā, IMO it doesn’t refer to naming the object of perception. It refers to identifying the experience. Naming the object of experience, which I think you are saying is the same as the act of perception, is called viññāṇa in the khanda ontology.


The very same early Buddhists that were routinely attaining high jhanas? They would be less aware of the workings of their subconscious mind than us “enlightened” moderns?!

Of course they would less aware of an idea that dates from about 1800 and was introduced by Freud. There is no word for this putative entity in Pāli. If the authors were aware of “their subconscious”, they never said anything about it. And as we know the whole point of the āyatanas is that mental activity is drastically curtailed. One imagines that if those who pursued the āyatanas did encounter a Freudian subconscious their response would have been to figure out how to make it stop. Since this is what pursuit of the āyatanas is all about, right? Cessation > Emptiness.

Apart from completely misrepresenting my ideas, sure it’s fine.

And obviously not at all related to me rejecting your approach trying to get me to collaborate with you yesterday.

BTW the term “grammar nazi” is extremely offensive: members of my family were killed by the Nazis. I’m quite shocked to see it being used with respect to me. You might want to rethink that. People who study and talk about grammar are called grammarians. I’m not really a grammarian, since I mainly study ideological history, but if we are talking about what words mean, then yes, I do talk about aspects of grammar (especially morphology). As does everyone else on this forum, constantly. Not sure how the term “grammar nazi” has any place in this discussion.

In reality, my approach to language, unlike most people here, is far more influenced by Wittgenstein and the American pragmatists, notably John Searle, and by German approaches to grammar as opposed to the British approach that most people here take. Semantics is a bit like reductionism. OK as far as it goes, but not the whole picture. Linguistic pragmatism strongly informed my article on vedanā for example. And it strongly informs my comments here.

If we don’t understand what texts say, we can’t understand what they were intended to do.


Oh, what did I misrepresent then? If you don’t want to discuss it, that’s fine. I may simply have been mislead by some of the incorrect grammar.

(No it has nothing to do with that. :confused: What, you think I spend I don’t know how long to write all this just out of spite? :smiley: Come on. I have no such feelings at all. That I asked you to do some proofreading on something you suggested me to publish, should actually show that I respect you. But apparently I did word things too strongly, despite me taking care. Oh well, it’s the nature of communicating on the internet, apparently, that my intentions get misunderstood. :slight_smile: I hope you at least understood my technical points. You’re not the first to get my intentions wrong so it must be me, sorry. :thinking: I just thought it good to correct some mistakes for the sake of others.)

This is an interesting thread. I think it is an exercise in futility to try to get into the head of people who lived in such a different time and place. I think it is hard enough to do it with members of my own family now. Throw in Pali words that are translated to English words that are ambiguous and vague and I am ready to throw up my hands and quit sometimes. That said, I do not think that liberation requires a lot of this.

I find myself drawn to statements about liberation that even if I don’t get them completely now, I will when I get there. There is one in particular that is the North Star that I try to navigate by

I may not know what this state of mind feels like exactly beforehand, but I don’t think I will be wondering if I am in it if I get there. Liberation here is visceral, not intellectual. I don’t doubt there will be a profound flash of insight when attained, but I believe this state is attained through jhana mediation more so than anything else. We have a whole thread here somewhere about the Satipatthana sutta being secondary.

The canon has so many different conflicting strata of tradition heaped one on top of another, that, like quantum mechanics, if you think you understand it, you don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I try, but it is primarily for the purpose of understanding enough to practice which I don’t think is that much.

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Hi @Jayarava , no, sorry, my expression is poor, I am actually agreeing with you that recognition is a better gloss than perception, my main point is not about Pali, its about English, where, outside of the special sciences or the ranks of pedants there is really almost no difference between perception, recognition and consciousness in most non-technical contexts.

“I percieved the candle flame”
“I recognised a candle flame”
“I was conscious of a candle flame”

Even “I sensed the candle flame” overlaps to quite an extent.

All mean roughly the same thing in common english.

Any slicing up of these terms into parts that stress different aspects of an overall process of cognition immediatly imply a theoretical frame that gives a “special sciences” flavour to the discussion.

This is true in the Pali too, although I suspect it is a regrettable defect of a growing scholasticism that more or less ossifies Buddhism by the time the aggregates come into favour (in my opinion SN is a text intermediate between earlier narrative based suttas where the agreggates are absent or interpolated and later abhidhamma where buddhism devolves into a rather silly and complex mechanical metaphysics)

MN43 gives a nice explination of the impossibility of the five aggregates being analysable into seperate and distinct cognative units;

“Feeling, perception, and consciousness—
“Yā cāvuso, vedanā yā ca saññā yañca viññāṇaṁ—
these things are mixed, not separate.
ime dhammā saṁsaṭṭhā, no visaṁsaṭṭhā.
And you can never completely dissect them so as to describe the difference between them.
Na ca labbhā imesaṁ dhammānaṁ vinibbhujitvā vinibbhujitvā nānākaraṇaṁ paññāpetuṁ.
For you perceive what you feel, and you cognize what you perceive.
Yaṁ hāvuso, vedeti taṁ sañjānāti, yaṁ sañjānāti taṁ vijānāti.

Apologies for the grammer nazi comment, i will remove it.

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