Sanna v. Vinnana

Have a look at the way sanna and vinnana are described in SN 22.79. Sanna recognises colour, while vinnana “cognises” flavours. But both functions appear to involve distinguishing sense-objects, so what’s the real difference between sanna and vinnana?
Elsewhere in the suttas, vinnana looks like basic awareness, with sanna doing the distinguishing and recognising.


It’s probably a good idea to define this English word.

By flavours I mean tastes sensed by the tongue - spicy, salty, etc.

To ask the question another way, why are colours used as the example for sanna, and flavours used as the example for vinnana? I’m struggling to see the difference, and both examples look more like perception than consciousness.

What’s the difference between recognising “spicy” and recognising “blue”? And what’s the difference between distinguishing between “spicy” and “salty” (tongue), and distinguishing between “blue” and “green” (eye)?

And if there’s no difference, then how is vinnana different from sanna?


My interpretation is that, for whatever reason, the connotations of colors reflects the universal aspect of reality, hence the use of colors is metaphoric, similar to the notion of “the opening of the dhamma eye”. Why its not the opening of “dhamma tongue”?

Another example is that we usually describe the realization of knowledge as “insight”, probably because “sight” and “color” are often associated with vividness in the human psyche. On the other hand, perception for the unenlightened is reality, or whatever constitutes a comprehensible reality in the conditioned realm has to go through perception.

Tasting must have been thought of as a more involved process of sensation than vision, or to paraphrase the post above mine, tasting might have been seen as moreso involving qualia and vision less so. Of course, we now know that colour is also qualia, but maybe people thought differently back then. It does seem like curious examples to choose.

Well, placing one’s tongue over the entire cosmos
to cover it all is a famous Buddhist miracle that turns up in tons of texts in different places, Mahāyānika, ETB, etc.

It is (oddly) literally interpreted by some but IMO is obviously a metaphor for the Buddha’s Dharma (spoken by means of tongue) spreading to “cover” the far corners of the world.

Perhaps the experience of taste is more fundamental/basic than the experience of color. One immediately knows that something is salty, spicy, bitter, etc by the very tasting of it. Colors are a more learned, derived quality. For example, different human cultures can perceive and label colors in a variety of ways - see this Wikipedia article. But I’d bet the taste of salt is going to be the same no matter where you’re from.

So perhaps consciousness is more fundamental than perception. I don’t think we can say much more beyond that. And I think the only way to really know more is to calm and concentrate the mind and use that mind to directly see how these processes work.


Thanks for your thoughts. I was trying to work out whether there is qualitative difference between tasting and seeing. Tasting does feel like a cruder ( more direct?) process than seeing, since with seeing there is not just an awareness of colour, but also of shape and movement.
So there is more “raw data” to process with seeing.

On the other hand, I don’t see much difference between knowing “salty” and knowing “blue”, since both are learned names or labels. And I imagine there is as much individual variation with taste receptors as with colour receptors, so there will be variations in the way people experience both “blue” and “salty”.

So perhaps vinnana is more basic than sanna. But I’m still not clear about the functional difference between them, since both involve discrimination, the knowing of differences

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I think only mind consciousness (out o the six types of consciousness) involves discrimination (re-cognition), the others only cognize.

But it’s not clear how “cognise” is being used here, it’s a tautology. What do you think “cognise” means here, practically speaking?

And isn’t the tongue knowing the difference between “spicy” and “salty” a type of discrimination, distinguishing one quality from another?

I think in the context of the sutta you provided, the point is to justify deconstruction through presenting different functionalities, and which can be the basis to justify further deconstructions.

For example, using cognition as the main function of consciousnesses would help us make sense of further deconstruction of consciousness into six. Through the via negativa approach, mind consciousness discriminates between the five senses. The I that hears is the same I that sees. Why? because the absence of one does not negate the ability to recognize the other.

Could we go back a step? You still haven’t explained what you mean by “cognition” here.
Do you just mean being aware of something?
If so, the difficulty is that in this sutta vinnana seems to go further than basic awareness, it’s also discriminating between things (eg between “spicy” and “salty”). And that looks more like the function of sanna, recognising that one thing is different to another.

If you use time, cognition is what we call the present moment, and recognition is the past and the future. To put it differently, cognition is knowing something for the first time while recognition is knowing (or not knowing) in relation to the past. and which can be carried forward into the future (the sense of self continuity).

Both mind consciousness and perception are functions of the mind (as opposite to form or matter). The defining line depends on the context. In general, i think of the deconstruction of the self as a skillful mean to demonstrate the not-self nature of conditioned phenomena. I don’t think there is an ultimate defining line between the aggregates.

With that definition, cognition would really only apply to childhood, which is when we’re experiencing things for the first time.
But I’m still not clear what you actually mean by “cognition” here. Awareness of something? Knowing something?
And are you saying that cognition = vinnana, while recognition = sanna? Or something else?

What i am saying is that we can think of every moment (not only childhood) as new/separate/fresh/different from the previous ones from the perspective of the five senses, and we can think of every moment as connected/extension of the ones preceding it from the perspective of mind consciousness.

Perception is context which influences our conscious experience or how knowledge arises.

OK, but we still have the problem that vinnana and sanna look very similar in the OP sutta.
I’d usually think about it as the difference between knowing (vinnana) and recognising (sanna). Knowing that there is something there, or being aware of something. Then recognising that something as a particular thing, and giving it a name (usually unconsciously).

But here it seems like the “knowing” is of a particular thing, distinguishing it from other particular things, rather than just the basic knowing of something there.

I think the interdependence between cognition (consciousness of the five senses) and recognition (consciousness of the intellect) gives rise to the perception “mind” or “self” or “blue”. Conversely, the perception of “mind” or “self” or “blue” is necessary for distinguishing cognition from recognition.

When consciousness is perceived as such, then it is defined. Whatever is defined is categorized. What makes a member of a group what it is is the paradox of being both similar and different (particular and universal). If it were not similar (having a universal aspect), it would have nothing in common with other particulars in the group and would not belong to this particular group, and if it were not different, then it would not be recognizable as a member of the group.

Personally i try to avoid the tendency of seeking a fixed meaning and focus on the dependent nature of meaning.

The Chinese parallel (SA 46) doesn’t have these definitions for perception or consciousness. They look more standard.

Perception is defined like this:

Perceptions are the clinging aggregate of perception. What is perceived by it? The perception of few, the perception of many, and the perception of measureless. When there’s nothing at all, there’s the perception of nothingness. Therefore, it’s called the clinging aggregate of perception.

For consciousness, the definition is to be conscious of all the sensory objects:

The signs of discernment are the clinging aggregate of consciousness. What is it conscious of? It’s conscious of form and conscious of sound, odor, flavor, touch, and mental objects. Therefore, it’s called the clinging aggregate of consciousness.


Oh it’s very easy actually

See the colours doesn’t mean anything, like blue, but when you cognise blue sky, blue fungus it has become an interpretation, a meaning, connect to feeling

That’s why the sutta use “sour, bitter , salty”, - already has an interpretation, a meaning, connect to a feeling

In sanna it would be : flavours
In vinnana it turn into : sour , bitter ,…

In sanna it would be : blue, yellow
In vinnana it turn into : sweet blue, dirt yellow

The process of the world brought into us… you are the world and the world is you afterall


None of English words really fit the reality of them.

The so called ‘five aggregates’ are five constituents of process of perception that one can distinguish while at 4th jhana. Its like seeing how perception works under the hood and five parts of that process can be discerned there. The unfortunate reality of why there is so much uncertainty is because practically nobody reaches 4th jhana these days so they just try to understand the reality of these things by reasoning about them however they can. Comparing the Chinese-English translations is not going to help you much more because for these things they just take the word and ideas that are already used in the Pali-English translations and put it in the Chinese-English translation without paying much attention what the actual Chinese characters mean.

You can also try researching this sutta, but look at the Pali words, not the translation, investigate the functional aspect

SuttaCentral Mahāvedallasutta

“‘Vijānāti vijānātī’ti kho, āvuso, tasmā viññāṇanti vuccati.

SuttaCentral Vijānāti

Keep in mind that also the dictionaries are not infallible and the same limitations apply - English language does not have real words for these things, for example, how ‘perception’ is defined and understood by common people comes from how they have used it never once having been aware of the reality the Buddha points at when he says viññāṇa. In the same way the people who made the Pali-English dictionaries and translated these texts also have not been aware of it, its only an attempt to understand the reality of it and translating the word without actually experiencing and discerning ‘this is viññāṇa, this is how it comes about, this is how it falls apart’ first hand.

So get in the 4th jhana friend, then you will be dead certain! :smiley: Its a quest on itself as the instructions how to get to that state are ambiguous for the same reasons, but if you try really hard digging into it you might understand. I suggest researching what Bhante Punnaji has left us, in that way you might need to seriously research the topic only for a couple of years, not multiple decades :wink:

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