Saññā - perception or noun

While reading suttas

ākiñcaññāyatanaṁ nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṁ
neither perception and nor non-perception

always puzzled me what does that mean, which leads to finding meanings of words mentioned in EBT

As a student in school we were taught sanskrit and hindi (barely remember all these teachings now)
Though one teahing was for sure well established which is noun - identification of something as person, place or thing by characteristics, nature, knowing, sign etc is the meaning,

saññā - संज्ञा (saṅgyā) (hindi) - सम्- (sam-, “with”) +‎ ज्ञा (jñā, “to know”) +‎ -आ (-ā)संज्ञा

  • agreement, mutual understanding, harmony
  • consciousness, clear knowledge, understanding, notion, conception
  • a sign, token, signal, gesture
  • a track, footstep
  • a name, appellation, title, technical term
  • (grammar) the name of anything thought of as standing by itself, any noun having a special meaning

This page alao has this meaning

  • (Buddhism) perception (one of the 5 skandhas)

Wonder who coined perception in buddhism here when noun and identification makes total sense.

It also explains

ākiñcaññāyatanaṁ nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṁ

Coud it be> Neither aware of signs or identification, nor unware.
In short when you see something being fully aware which cant be described as noun.

In comprehensive manual of abidhamma (by Bodhi) sanna as mental factor is described as:

The characteristics of perception is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. its function is to make a sign as oa condition for perceiving again that ‘this is the same’ or its function is recognizing what has been previously percieved. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object (abhinivesa) by way of the features that had been apprehended. Its proximate cause is the object as it appears. Its procedure is compared to a carpenter’s recognition of certain kind of woods by the mark he has made on each.

Some extra info from the same book: this mental factor is called a universal while it is common to all consciousness. There are 7 universals and they perform the most rudimentary and essential cognitive functions , without which consciousness of an object would be utterly impossibe.

So thats exactly same as definitions of noun, provided above, its recognition

Apple for e.g. is recognized by its color, flavor, shape, smell, chemical properties etc which creates a noun. And this is how someone recognize apple.

Now perception of what best apple is or tastes like is totally different topic and personal opinion which goes beyond the noun, where someone has conditionend experience of specific taste, color etc, but this can be onlg for best or worst apple someone has seen

I think you are on the right track. That said,
I think we have some clues to work with to figure out what neither perception nor non-perception and sanna meant in this context. First, consider what jhanic states occur before neither perception nor non-perception. They are infinite space and infinite consciousness.

For argument sake, consider the possibility that infinite space involves seeing objects in three dimensional space and proprioception, the sense of the body’s location in three dimensional space with a sense of spatial distance between body parts such as between your finger and your nose . The sense of spatial relationships between body parts is how you can touch your nose with your finger with your eyes closed. There is a sense of depth/separation between objects and you, the observer both through visual perception and propriaception.

Consider the possibility Infinite consciousness involves the collapse of visual three dimensional space into two dimensions while retaining a sense of separation with the body/you.

Neither perception nor non-perception is described in Snp 4.11 below (my prefered translation)

I believe that the above describes neither perception nor non perception by listing the jhanic states that it is not. Its not Infinite space/normal perception with a three dimensional visual field. It’s not infinite consciousness without a three dimensional visual field, yet still retaining a sense of separation between a vague tactile sense of body and a flat two dimensional visual field.

The next level would be a two dimensional visual field with no sense of body separate from it. This is “in the seen will be only the seen” and “there is no you in that” from Ud 1.10, also referring to neither perception and non perception. This unlike the first two is experienced as a non duality. The other have a sense of separation between you and the world.

In the four nikayas, the cessation of perception and feeling follows. However, in Snp 4.11 it is perception of nothing and no perception at all. The last being unconsciousness or lack of memories such as you would have experiencing highway hypnosis.

Snp 4.11 and the Atthakavagga in general have no knowledge of the aggregates. The Parayanavagga, Snp 5.x, on the other hand advocates the cessation of vinnana/unconsciousness or lack of memories of it as in Snp 5.1 and perception of nothing as in Snp 5.7. Note: the Parayanavagga does not exhibit any evidence of the aggregates either.

I think the most important feature of neither perception nor non perception is the absence of depth perception and proprioception. I think this is consistent with what you are saying.

Interesting… thanks for sharing. Some of these words are still confusing " the dimension of" from one point of view they appear to be super mundane achievements claimed by many teachers. While from other point of view they seem to appear every moment not visible unelss someone zooms in.

Dhamma is reality here and now, sometimes I think these words, discicussions point to somewhere, which we are totally missing and get tangled in the words and discussions

Does someone need to be a scholar and learned in teachings, language, vocabulary to realize dhamma? 7 year olds and illetrate wont be enlightened if this were so.

I think meditation instructions by their nature have to have mundane steps that lead to profound results. The profundity of reaching the state where “there is no you in that” is no less profound because it was brought on by the successful execution of mundane steps. Following a recipe is usually easy enough, but no amount of words or theories will tell you what the cake tastes like. That has to be experienced.

What surprises me is that so many people seem to think their perception will remain ordinary. I get the feeling they think memorizing lists and doctrine will get them there. The cessation of sanna is a radically altered state which is ultimately experienced. I do not think theories are needed, meditation does the heavy lifting. The Atthakavagga discourages formulated views. I think in the end it is more important to meditate than to learn philosophy. So, yes, a child could do it if they have the right instructions.


Coming back to original topic it looks English language lacks connection of two words here, we perceive a noun, which could have same meaning as sanskrit though Leaving it open ended like “perception of pain” won’t correspond to a single noun.

This is very similar to what Ajahn Brahm gives example of asking audience what is a bottle of water he is holding on to.

Google’s oxford dictionary


  1. a word (other than a pronoun) used to identify any of a class of people, places, or things (common noun), or to name a particular one of these (proper noun).


  1. the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses
    “the normal limits to human perception”
  • the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses.
    “the perception of pain” perceptions could be different though nouns are common grounds

Now this is very interesting, going through this dhamma talk, Ajahn Amaro is showing the bridge between the connection mentioned above

That perception is the one which leads to saṅkhara which is a creation or noun or a thing. So it appears the meaning of saññā in sanskrit and hindi is compunded and buddhas teachings from perception to noun is more refined and right way to understand. It does also bridge words in English and explain neither perception nor non-perception

From what I have seen while translating, sañña usually refers to concepts, notions, or mental images. But not as an abstract thing. The actual concepts and images that occur to us as we become aware of things. So, we have a concept of a mango and use it to see a fruit and realize, “That’s a mango” if we think about it. As a result, sañña overlaps with experiencing or knowing things.

In Sanskrit, it can simply mean being awake and aware of one’s surroundings. It’s directly involved with vijnana, so the two words can stand for each other as parts of the same process of recognizing and then being aware of things.

I personally think the standard English translation used by Pali translators of “perception” makes appear more specific than it is. And it also makes it sound more tangible, like seeing and hearing rather than thinking and knowing.

When it comes to nevasaññānāsaññāyatana, my understanding is that it was considered a kind of very subtle, blank awareness. Ancient commentators like Kumarajiva say that meditators sometimes mistook it for Nirvana. But the mind is still present in a passive way. The gods born in that heaven have no bodies or physical senses and live a thoughtless kind of existence that lasts for 84,000 eons (almost forever, but not quite).

Agreed …though if we look more deeply Nama the process and output involves all of this seeing, hearing, knowing, perceiving and thinking which results in something tangible like a sankhara (as noun) as a thought, speech and action

Enligtend ones see it differently and understand convetion rather then perception as I read from teachings rather than sankhara (as noun)

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Right. That’s what makes it difficult to translate with a single word in English to me. So, I gave up and started using two or three depending on context. Sometimes, perceptions, sometimes words like idea, notion, concept, image.

It seems as though there was a time in Indian thought in general when sanna and vijnana became important concepts, and then Buddhists began developing their own system that focused on them more. Early on, they seemed focused more on defeating desire and afflictions, then they turned toward more philosophical models of mind. It became quite sophisticated in Sarvastivada Abhidharma.

From the comprehensive manual of abhidhamma i understandig that sanna refers to that function of the mind that can recognise qualities of an object.

For example, as very young children we live in a world in which sounds have still no meaning for us (or it must be nonverbal). The sound ‘A’ is not yet understood as the letter A, and combinations of sounds not yet as combination of letters. Sound combinations are not yet understood as meaningful words, and a combinations of sounds and moment of silence not as meaningful sentences. We all have to learn this. A great part of our early education we are all doing this.

As a understand it, sanna is that mental aspect of the mind that can distinguish (for example) different sounds because it can recognise the unique qualities of that unique sound. In this rudimentary function it is not perse about meaning yet, it refers to judicial decision aspect of the mind (i doubt if this is the right English word, in Dutch we say onderscheidingsvermogen). The ability to tell apart, the ability to discern, even when there is no meaning yet. A little child is able to hear the difference between the sound ‘A’ and the sound ‘B’ (sanna operates) but those sounds have no meaning yet before this is learned.

From the manual i understand that sanna also refers to the ability to make a sign or meaning of what is distinguished. so, after some learning at school the sound ‘A’ becomes the letter A. Now it has a meaning. The combinations of sounds ‘J’, ‘O’, ‘Y’ get a meaning. Sounds become meaningful
This is a more advanced or developed kind of sanna.

At a certain moment in time we are not even able anymore to not hear meaningful words come from someones mouth (in our own language). We are unable to hear sounds coming from someones mouth while we all started that way as children.
We even call this hearing. While there is much more going on then hearing ofcourse.

For me it is sure that ear-vinnana (for example) is just hearing. It provides the sound as it were.
Like a child who hears sounds but not yet meaningful letters and words. It is not that meaning is intrinsic to being aware, or intrinsic to ear-vinnana or whatever vinnana. Not at all. A great part of our lives we can see this. It is not that sign or meaning and awareness are the same. I feel there is also the opening to the end of suffering.

Maybe when we have become adults it looks like we live in an intrinsic meaningful world, all has meaning for us, and this meaning seems fixed, just how things are, but that is not true. Almost all meaning is learned, attributed, adventitious, result of conditioning, and not something intrinsic to what is senses, heard, seen etc

I feel the Buddha also saw that even meaning like me and mine are attributed and are not some ultimate reality.

Ofcourse suffering and the end of suffering is very closely related to what meaning something has for us.

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That I think this aspect deserves to be viññāṇa referred to usually as consciousness

And what does that consciousness know?
It knows ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ and ‘neutral’.
Pleasant feeling arises dependent on a contact to be experienced as pleasant.
When they feel a pleasant feeling, they know: ‘I feel a pleasant feeling.’

Although for viññāṇa, I personally do not like the translation consciousness, it sounds alien, like something supernatural which we really can’t talk or comprehend about. The better meaning what comes from root word in Sanskrit is below, and with this context we can say meaning is

viññāṇa - Differentiated knowledge, broken down in smaller segments and discerned, its introspected knowledge.

विज्ञान - Wiktionary, the free dictionary
From वि- (vi-, “diverse”) +‎ ज्ञान (jñāna, “knowledge”).
Where वि- (vi-) is Prefix to verbs or nouns and other parts of speech derived from verbs, to express division, distinction, distribution, arrangement, order, opposition, or deliberation.

Very well said, this deserves further investigation, the words and things are just convention, considering as described by Ajahn Amaro here

saṅkhara - that which is compounded and put together (a thing, a noun)

Reflecting on this, all we create most of time is either a noun or a pronoun (implies noun). When we create this we also create a duality, there is me and something else, even if creation is like identification of apple as word you are the perceiver of apple (there is duality) apple is there and I am here.

Sometimes when we create verbs or something else, then it is non-dual and can lead to non-duality although in this world of senses without nouns or pronouns we can’t talk or express sometimes event think. I do interpret realized ones understand this very well, that these nouns are convention and don’t fall into creation and this duality.

Therefore most often in commentaries the answers where there is no flag wins, while 2 people are debating on whether flag is moving due to wind or its moving by itself creating wind.

Yes, i also believe that Realised Ones are very aware of what is true in a conventional sense and an ultimate sense. What is true in a conventional sense refers to the perspective of a mind who operates in a defiled way. It has wrong view. This is always momentary arisen, i believe.

This defiled mind attributes instinctively all kinds of meanings to what is sensed. Its moha is that it is unaware that this happens. It is unaware that, for example, the meaning ‘Me’ or 'mine is habitually attributed to whatever is sensed. That defiled mind cannot really differentiate how original or pure mind operates and how defiled mind operates.

In other words, it does not know the Noble Path. It does not know purity, it does not recognise the original state of mind which is just a mere and pure knowing.
The usual mind believes that it is just the way it really is that mind is always with me and mine making and sense of a possessor.
It has no understanding of what is original and pure knowing, and what is defiled knowing.
This is also, i believe the very important message of AN1.51

It is very clear from experience, right?, that the meaning habitually given to what is sensed, is critical in the cause of suffering and the cessation of it.
What the Buddha also says, i feel, we must not see it this way that a self, an ego, attributes meaning to what is sensed.