Mā nimittaggāhino ahuvattha, mānubyañjanaggāhino SN35.127 and elsewhere

“mā nimittaggāhino ahuvattha, mānubyañjanaggāhino.”
Bhante Sujato translates this: “don’t get caught up in the features and details.” Search found 26 citations in Sutta Central, from AN 10.99 to SN 35.240. There is a more useful translation by Dr. Ari Ubeysekara in bharadvaja sutta: discourse of pindola bharadvaja – drarisworld He translates “do not grasp its general appearance or its details”. This expresses more clearly the meaning as explained at Vism 36,24-27: The grasp of the sign is the composite grasping, the grasp of the features occurs by separation. The grasp of the sign grasps everything at once, like a crocodile; the grasp of the features takes up the individual aspects like the hands and feet separately, like a leech. These two grasps are found even in a single javana process, not to speak of different javana processes. [Vism quote borrowed from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s note 170 at p. 1422 of the Wisdom version.] Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation “grasps the sign and features”, is not understandable without technical knowledge. Dr. Ubeysekera’s translation really is more clear and lines up with the Vism explanation.

1 Like

Thanks for this post, Ayya.

In terms of the senses, it seems that any unwholesome venture into the “signs and features” is a move away from being on guard (SN 1.24), with the context of restraint losing its prominence (since the mind is allowed to move out into the content of experience (the cows in MN 19)). This is not necessarily a disruption of mindfulness proper, but if restraint is the priority, a move into the finer details of the experience can easily be a move away from that recollected mode of remembering to remain on guard. When done properly, it is nothing other than not leaving that guarded position. In other words, there is no need to get rid of what appears or to deny the signs and features: just don’t go in a direction would abandon that guarded dwelling. (Ajahn Nyanamoli describes this as “not leaving the gateway”.)

Here we are talking about the first great endeavour of right effort, sense restraint. “General appearance” can be misleading as it’s necessary to briefly identify objects below the verbal level as a matter of survival, without allowing the papanca process to start up.

Bikkhu Bodhi’s description from 14.46 where he first explains that after control of the gross actions (sila) have been established, this is the first step in mental training:

Should we be trying to agree with Vsm interpretation in this case though? I am aware of it, and I deliberately avoided reading it into this passage, as I don’t believe it’s justified from the suttas. But maybe I’m wrong. Is there really a basis for this distinction in the EBTs? If the text is ambiguous, it’s better to retain that ambiguity.

Thank you, Bhante, for understanding the question I tried to raise. The distinction between grasping an entire situation vs. grasping details was helpful to me personally … two unique pathways to dukkha! I understand that finding something helpful does not make it into a better translation. In your translation “features and details,” it’s not clear to me what the difference is … between a feature and a detail.

Having mentally cognized a sense-object through a sense-organ, “don’t either mentally crave/covet/hanker-for the whole (the immediate/primary cause of the cognition), nor mentally crave/covet/hanker-for its parts”.

It seems vyañjana is an even more diversified expansion of what is initially available through nimitta. This apparent redundancy implies a twofold move away from restraint, which doubles as twofold opportunity to pick up on the fact that the context of restraint is fading. In other words, if a coarse indication (nimitta) is taken up, an even more diverse, less restrained direction becomes available. Seems to follow the connotations surrounding papañca as a tendency to spread and grow. The availability of “more” is implicit in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and thoughts, and that stock description of restraint describes an unwise direction into what is provocative of unwholesome states: “Since, if you leave the [such and such] faculty unguarded, evil unwholesome states of covetousness and displeasure might invade you.”

I have edited my post with a video by Bikkhu Bodhi where this subject is explained in detail.

The general appearance is the overall shape, any object can be recognized by its silhouette. The features are the prominent points, details the less so.

Indeed, because it’s not clear in the Pali. As we all know, often the Pali just gives synonyms, without intending to read any significance into the difference. I believe that is the case here, although I may well be wrong.

In this case, nimitta and anubyañjana would be a pleonastic doublet. This type of usage is very common with English pleonastic doublets where one word derives from Latin and another from Germanic roots. They can be mocked as “formulaic-pleonastic-legalistic-doublets

If this is true. then Dr. Ubeysekara and the Vism would be wrong. I do find some of the distinctions in the Vism to be rather pointless. Mostly though, when there is more understanding, it’s as if a clear narrative has emerged from a jumble of near synonyms. In this case, it seems better to take nimitta and anubyañjana as two different phenomena. One could say, as “major and secondary characteristics.” Cone’s Dictionary of Pali has plenty of evidence for anuvyañjana referring to secondary or minor characterists, or to letters in a text.

Excellent, I have learned a new word!

Indeed, and that’s why I don’t dismiss the commentarial interpretation. I’m currently agnostic, and waiting for more evidence to roll in. It’d be interesting to see if Asanga has a comment on this, he often covers the same ground as the Vsm from a slightly different perspective.

1 Like