On “conceiving” in MN 1

MN 1 Mūlapariyāyasutta revolves around an enigmatic sentence which depicts the process of conceptualization using a series of grammatical forms. The exact interpretation is not easy and has been construed in different ways by various translators. The sentence concerns how a person “conceives” (maññati) a series of elements, starting with “earth” (which I use as the example in this essay).

Up until now I have used “identify” for the sake of clarity for maññati, but I am reconsidering that. The verb maññati while obviously associated with the process of identification, means rather “conceive”, “imagine”, “think”, “suppose”. Here it has the sense of the active construction via creative thought (Comm: kappeti vikappeti).

The Buddhist usage draws upon such passages as Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.3.20, where due to ignorance, a person “imagines” in a dream the fearful things they saw when awake, or at the highest level, “imagines I am this all” (ahamevedaṁ sarvo’smīti manyate). Here we clearly see the idea that a confused or partial understanding based on past experience is built up into something new in the present, which is driven by or associated with the concept of the self.

Let’s sort some of the basics out. Here is the first phrase.

pathaviṁ pathavito sañjānāti;
pathaviṁ pathavito saññatvā
pathaviṁ maññati,
pathaviyā maññati,
pathavito maññati,
pathaviṁ meti maññati,
pathaviṁ abhinandati.

Most translators render the first line, “they perceive earth as earth”. Now, the grammar here is somewhat nuanced. Normally in Pali a subject may be implicit in the verb, as it is here. The direct object of the verb is expressed by the accusative case (pathaviṁ), while the locative (pathaviyā) and ablative (pathavito) cases are used in an oblique sense. The genitive of the personal pronound then expresses ownership, distanced by the close -ti (pathaviṁ meti) which should be rendered with “that”, i.e. “conceives that earth is mine”.

Now, the literal sense of the ablative case is “from”. This would imply that one perceives earth “from” earth. In other words, having “seen” a visual percept of earth, one “perceives” it, with the percept being a mental representation of earth based on recognition and memory.

Typically, however, such idioms are read according to the so-called “ablative of viewpoint”, which is typically expressed in English with “as” or “in terms of”.


While this is technically simply one of the spectrum of uses of the ablative case, it has a number of peculiar features.

  • It is strongly employed in doctrinal cases, for example anattato “as not-self”.
  • In such cases, it is strongly associated with verbs of cognition, “one sees form as not-self”.
  • It always uses the special ablative ending -to rather than the regular forms.

These characteristics all apply in the Mūlapariyāyasutta, so we should read the ablative in this sense. So far this is uncontroversial.

Where it gets tricky is in dealing with the second phrase. There we find a series of five clauses, one of which uses exactly the same ablative form. Despite this, many translators, following the commentary, render the second ablative “from” rather than “as”.

Bodhi: perceives earth as earth … he conceives himself apart from earth
Suddhaso: perceives earth as earth … conceives from (a basis of) earth
Thanissaro: perceives earth as earth … he supposes (things) coming out of earth

Horner is an exception, she renders both with “as”:

recognises extension as extension … he thinks (of self as) extension

Nyanamoli on the other hand renders both with “from”:

From earth he has a percept of earth … he conceives [that to be apart] from earth

As you can see, translators have struggled to express the passage, as the structure and meaning is closely embedded in the Pali grammar.

Now, given the above considerations and the fact that the grammatical forms are identical, I think it is clear that:

  • we should interpret both cases the same way
  • in both cases should use “as”

A second level of ambiguity revolves around the object of the conceiving. We can see from above that Ven Bodhi and Horner takes that as “oneself”. Thanissaro has, rather, “things”. Suddhaso’s translation avoids specifying an object.

Nyanamoli, on the other hand, takes the “percept” as the object. And I believe this is required by the flow of the sentence. The second sentence opens by re-iterating that one has “perceived earth as earth”. Nyanamoli tries to clarify that what the means is that one has created a mental image (“percept”) that is an idea of the sense stimulus. This oversteps the Pali, which treats “perceives” solely as a verb.

Nonetheless, I think he is clearly correct in taking the percept as the object throughout the sentence. It is simply incoherent otherwise; in leaving the object implicit, the sentence must be assuming what has come before.

Note that, while from a doctrinal point of view the passage is clearly about the formation of the subjective sense of self, there is no mention of the word “self” here or indeed anywhere in the sutta: it comes from the commentary. So it is unlikely to be the implicit object, and best to leave it out of a translation.

Returning to Wijesekera’s Syntax of the Cases in the Pali Nikayas as linked above, he quotes from this passage as an example of the “ablative of viewpoint”:

paṭhavito na maññati
“does not regard (it) as earth”

Wijesekera inserts the implicit object “it”, which must refer back to previously in the sentence, i.e. the percept “earth” (rather than the “self”).

Thus we should translate:

They perceive earth as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, they conceive it to be earth, they conceive it in earth, they conceive it as earth, they conceive that ‘earth is mine’, they take pleasure in earth.

Each phrase has a distinct sense:

  • accusative is identification: to conceive “it to be earth” creates an identification between what is perceived and what is imagined as earth: they are one and the same.
  • locative is inherence: to be “in earth” suggests that what is perceived is a part of the conceived earth, or is understood in relation to it, but is not fully identical.
  • ablative is perspective: to be “as earth” is conceive in terms of or in light of the idea of earth. There is a subtle distancing here, as the idea is distinct from the thing. Consider the sentence, “She recognized the car as a Corolla”. The abstract idea of “Corolla” is understood as related to but distinct from the sight of the car.
  • genitive is appropriation: earth is something that belongs to oneself. The process of separation and objectification is complete.

The oblique cases of the locative and the ablative are similar is sense, both conceiving in some kind of relation. But the locative has a closer, more intimate sense, whereas the ablative stands back. These are subtle nuances. In such cases, where the Pali itself is deliberately expressed in a subtle way requiring careful consideration, a translation should try to reflect that.


Sounds like it’s talking about assigning essentialism, or substance and substantial existing, to earth etc. The tendency to reify.


Ven. Nanavira in MAMA [a] makes a funny analogy between this structure of appropriation (in his interpretation) and, well, pregnancy:

The Mūlapariyāyasutta is as follows. (i) The puthujjana ‘perceives X as X; perceiving X as X, he conceives X, he conceives In X, he conceives From X, he conceives “X is mine”; he delights in X…’. (ii) The sekha ‘recognizes X as X; recognizing X as X, he should not conceive X, he should not conceive In X, he should not conceive From X, he should not conceive “X is mine”; he should not delight in X…’. (iii) The arahat ‘recognizes X as X; recognizing X as X, he does not conceive X, he does not conceive In X, he does not conceive From X, he does not conceive “X is mine”; he does not delight in X…’.

This tetrad of maññanā , of ‘conceivings’, represents four progressive levels of explicitness in the basic structure of appropriation. The first, ‘he conceives X’, is so subtle that the appropriation is simply implicit in the verb. Taking advantage of an extension of meaning (not, however, found in the Pali maññati ), we can re-state ‘he conceives X’ as ‘X conceives’, and then understand this as ‘X is pregnant’—pregnant, that is to say, with subjectivity . And, just as when a woman first conceives she has nothing to show for it, so at this most implicit level we can still only say ‘X’; but as the pregnancy advances, and it begins to be noticeable, we are obliged to say ‘In X’; then the third stage of the pregnancy, when we begin to suspect that a separation is eventually going to take place, can be described as ‘From X’; and the fourth stage, when the infant’s head makes a public appearance and the separation is on the point of becoming definite, is the explicit ‘X is mine (me , not mama )’. This separation is first actually realized in asmimāna , where I, as subject, am opposed to X, as object; and when the subject eventually grows up he becomes the ‘self’ of attavāda , face to face with the ‘world’ in which he exists.


Ven Bodhi alluded to this quote, and I wanted to read it, so thanks! The analogy is indeed funny, he plays on the two meanings of the word “conceive” in a manner reminiscent of the commentarial propensity for punning.

It’s a strange argument TBH. Why can we only say “X”? Why can’t we say “she is with child”? Or she “has fallen pregnant”? Or “she’s gotten herself knocked up”? Or any one of dozens of other expressions? And why does it change to “in X” as her pregnancy advances?

I mean, I know he’s speaking directly about conceiving, not about pregnancy, I’m just not seeing any particular parallels in the analogies he’s making.

Noting that Ñāṇavīra makes the same mistake as many others, rendering the two ablatives as “as” and “from” whereas they should both be “as”. Ironically, given his virulent anti-commentarial stance, he is relying on the commentary for the reading “from”.

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Perhaps I’m not fully ‘grasping’ Ven Nanavira’s argument, but he’s speaking about the different levels of ‘appropriation’?

So, for the pregnant woman when there is no physical signs of a baby, at first there is just the subtle idea of a child as part of her. “They are one and the same.”

As the baby becomes physically apparent, (locative) the mother thinks the baby is “in relation…but not fully identical. “

With the 3rd stage, (ablative), there is a further imminent separation.

Then finally at birth the child emerges out of the mother and there is the idea of ‘mine’ (genitive).
“The process of separation and objectification is complete. “

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The point he seems to be making is that an appearance is conceived as having the capacity for appropriation. In other words, an aspect of the seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or thought is assumed to be that which sees, smells, tastes, touches and thinks. This body appears. Thoughts appear. Experience is imagery. For the ordinary person, aspects of appearance are, by default - as Ven. Nanavira would say - in subjugation, while others are assumed to that which subjugates. This is not a result of some cognitive error, but on account of broad distortions maintained by greed, hate and delusion. They arise with that bend already in place…ignorance is beginningless. This seems to be found in the insight described in Ud 1.10: “… then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not 'with that, ’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not 'in that, ’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering." Again, it is not a mere cognitive correction that undoes it - the lifestyle has to be in line with renunciation from behavior and thinking that are nutriments for self-view and conceit. Without the lifestyle, the insight has nowhere to rightly apply.

With that, I think it is misleading to read MN 1 as some sort of progressive consideration of the ordinary person - it just seems to be describing the layout of conceiving and what that implies. Whether people want to accept what Ven. Nv describes specifically is not really important here. He’s describing appropriation. The suttas describe appropriation. The task of the eightfold path is to deepen a lifestyle that emphasizes how and why this is the case, with each individual responsible for picking it up directly through effort.

All in all, what MN 1 seems to be describing is that ordinary person has the full burden of being unable to think their way of this conceiving, since all of experience, for them, hovers around wrong view and is shaped in a disordered manner. This is evident in the key differences between how the ordinary person understands experience as compared to the arahant: the ordinary person relies on perception for understanding whereas the arahant on direct knowledge:

From earth he has direct-knowledge of earth; having had from earth direct-knowledge of earth, he does not conceive (that to be) earth, he does not conceive (that to be) in earth, he does not conceive (that to be apart) from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘Mine’, he does not relish earth. Why is that? He has fully diagnosed it, I say. -MN 1


But surely, with the different degrees of appropriation repeated over and over again, with their subtle but distinct differences, the Buddha is asking the listener to become aware of these distinctions, to discern the differences?

Sure, but not on account of reasoning alone. It has to be done through a complete change in lifestyle.

For sure one needs to alter their conditioning in order to think of things differently than an ‘uninstructed worldling.’ But one needs a basic idea of the project to start.

How does is work with everyday objects? I don’t really get it. Suppose one sees / perceives a house. Regardless if it’s ‘my house’, there is always a conception of “I am seeing a house/ there is a house over there for me.’ (‘In subjection’).

But how do the other stages work here?

What’s “in subjugation” is the assumption that appropriation is given, so it does not make much sense to look at it from the point of view of everyday objects. No matter what the ordinary person does, that assumption cannot be perceived directly. Don’t get me wrong, the right idea can be considered, but the “experience of consideration” is already within that framework of conceiving. Without virtue and restraint, and the eventual gain of the right view, the contemplation goes no further than that.

The point I’m trying to make here is that lifestyle must emulate renunciation to a sufficient degree, because sensuality and ill will, for instance, partake in the assumption that “I am” is separate from other things, and behavior that acknowledges separation to appease craving is an affirmation of the assumption. An experience that has this arrangement means that any appearance (any idea), even if it represents what is RIGHT, is wrong on account of view. In other words, the right view appropriated when the lifestyle is in line with a valuing of sensuality, ill will, etc. This is precisely how the ordinary person conceives nibbana.

No doubt, the outset must be this way, but the only way a right idea (an appearance) can apply to the level of view is through discernment, not perception, which is to say, that experience - on the level of what appears - must resemble the principle being sought for discernment, otherwise “the idea” won’t have a place to apply.

That means that if a person doesn’t value renunciation, doesn’t have a wholesome lifestyle, even the most right idea won’t sink in. It will just remain out there with everything else that they either accept or reject on account desire and craving.

Right yes, that makes more sense, thanks.


(I will try to speculate on the meaning of what is written, to the best of my understanding of his writings.)

The first, ‘he conceives X’, is so subtle that the appropriation is simply implicit in the verb.

At that level there is no ability to define ‘X’ more or less clearly as ‘X’, but only to attend to something as ‘mine’ or ‘not mine’ without an explicit ‘I’. The conceiving here is in treating one part of the experience as a whole as something of a different nature and origin from the other part of the same experience.

What is being appropriated here is not ‘X’, but that which is perceiving, and the appropriation is implicit in the ignorant attitude of ‘my’ towards the perceptions themselves, which is at the same time the conceiving of ‘X’ and the implicit appropriation of the aggregates as ‘me’.

…but as the pregnancy advances, and it begins to be noticeable, we are obliged to say ‘In X.

Here the conceiving becomes more advanced, and some sorts of very vague ideas about ‘X’ (‘the external’) as opposed to the implicit ‘the perceiver’ (‘the internal’) begin to take shape.

…when we begin to suspect that a separation is eventually going to take place, can be described as ‘From X’;

At this level of conceiving ‘X’ there is not only ‘the external’, but also that ‘X’ is seen as the origin of the perceived things.

and the fourth stage, when the infant’s head makes a public appearance and the separation is on the point of becoming definite, is the explicit ‘X is mine (me , not mama )’.

And here at last we have not only some explicit views about ‘X’, but also about the self - the vague and implicit ‘I’ is now clearly defined at the level of personal views. Subjectivity was born in all its ignorant and very reasonable glory!

In this interpretation the tetrad is an illustration of the progressive levels of self-view: from the very basic level of an almost instinctive primitive attitude to some perceptions as “my” or “not my”, without any need or even ability to define anything at the more developed conceptual level, to the full-fledged views of the self as “I am” and “the world” and “my things in this world that I delight in”. - The appropriation is not on the side of what is conceived, but on conceiving side. This appropriation and conceiving is not a matter of choice, but a matter of the presence of ignorance: if there is ignorance, then there is at least the conceiving of ‘X’ through the attitude of “my” towards one part of perceptions with implicit appropriation of the other part of the perceptions as a perceiver, implicit “me”.

The imperative ‘Should not conceive’ in relation to the sekha is not an instruction to stop a direct action of conceiving, but a reminder of the need to eliminate ignorance in relation to the whole situation at hand.

There could be many reasons for this. For example, like most of us, he started with the traditional interpretation, and its roots could not help but be extremely deep and dense - it is difficult to find and uproot everything at once, the main thing is to deal with the main ones first.


Why make it more complicated? Wouldn’t be the simplest way to translate an accusative “they conceive earth”? Otherwise there is not really a difference in meaning between the accusative and the ablative form; “conceive it to be earth” and “conceive it as earth” to my understanding seems to amount to the same thing.

Taking the Corolla example, the difference would be:

  • she recognized the Corolla car (accusative)
  • she recognized the car as a Corolla (ablative)

So the entire phrase would be:

They perceive earth as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, they conceive earth, they conceive it in earth, they conceive it as earth, they conceive that ‘earth is mine’, they take pleasure in earth.

Does that make sense?

If you’d see pathaviṁ maññati without all that context, how would you translate it? Would you say “they conceive it to be earth”, or would you just say “they conceive earth”?

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An interesting point, but does “they conceive earth” make sense as an English sentence?
If you saw it on its own (or ‘He conceives earth’) what would that mean?

I think the pathaviṁ pathavito phrase at the beginning contains a spelling mistake, the pathavito should be pathavīti.

Then it becomes straightforward:
He (aśrutavān pṛthagjanaḥ) conceptually objectifies pṛthvi i.e. land, as land. Having objectively understood it as land, he associates himself with it (considering the land as his, its produce as his, its use as his, etc and he takes it as something for his enjoyment).

The sutta, therefore in my understanding, is talking about the common human tendency to objectify almost everything with an intention to view them as potential objects of one’s own sense-gratification - the realized ones don’t do that. The realization which one gets through that non-objectifying insight, is the basis/root of all dharma (sarva-dharma-mūlam).

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The listeners of MN 1 did not delight when it concluded, so it seems it did not make sense to them either. Even if the language is clear, there may be no meaning without basic knowledge about where a description applies in the experience.

MN 1 is mostly about delight, but specifically delight in what conceived as being separate from myself:

Because he has understood that delight is the root of suffering, and that with being as condition there is birth, and that for whatever has come to be there is ageing and death. Therefore, bhikkhus, through the complete destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up, and relinquishing of cravings, the Tathāgata has awakened to supreme full enlightenment, I say. -MN 1

So, even if there is conceiving, not delighting is the key to making the effort to understand, which is precisely what the sekha knows:

Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is in higher training, whose mind has not yet reached the goal, and who is still aspiring to the supreme security from bondage, directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he should not conceive himself as earth, he should not conceive himself in earth, he should not conceive himself apart from earth, he should not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he should not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he must fully understand it, I say.

So, even the sekha has not made complete sense of what remains as a result of not conceiving. I don’t think this is an issue of lack of clarity in the description as much as it is one of unclear reference points. Seems to be precisely what the sutta is meant to convey.

Part of the opacity, it seems to me, comes from the unusual usage of common words. What does ‘conceiving’ mean here? You are using it in a specific philosophical way, but it’s not really how it normally used, no?

Would the Buddha have used language like this, or did he speak more plainly?

Maybe “objectively understood” or “associates himself” is clearer for maññati, but I’m still not quite sure what that means.

Whenever a non-arahat perceives the earth, this perception is not just a perception of the earth, but at very least ‘his’ or ‘her’ or ‘its’ perception of the earth - it is the conceiving of the earth by drawing the boundary between the earth and the undefined, illusory, yet inevitably implicitly present ‘me’, present as fact.

This may be possible, but I don’t understand how a translation would differ between your reading and this special “ablative of viewpoint” (Wijisekera) sense, of which there are many instances.

Are you saying that if a reader sees the English sentence “He conceives earth. “ this is what should be understood?

I’m speaking about English language usage and syntax, you seem to be overlaying a complicated philosophical idea.
-which may be correct, but I can’t see how that sentence would convey that. It doesn’t read to me as even grammatically correct.