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Consciousness, Perception & Feeling

Perception (sañña) refers to the quality of a percept or to the percept itself. The percepts are sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea (mental image). The qualities of a sight would be shape and color; a sound has qualities of pitch, timbre and loudness; a taste can be salty, sweet, acidic, bitter, etc. and so on with the others. We also see that the quality of a percept is independent of the perceiver; it is imposed on the perceiver, not entirely determined by his volition. When there is the sight of a tree, a shape is seen; but this shape is independent of the perceiver. Similarly the pitch of a sound is independent of both the sound being heard and the hearer.

And what, monks, is perception (saññā)? It is these six bodies-of-perception: sight-perception, sound-perception, smell-perception, taste-perception, touch-perception and idea-perception (dhammasaññā). This is called perception.” — Upādānaparipavatta Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.56)

The Visuddhimagga tends to confuse perception (saññā) with consciousness (viññāṇa). In Chapter XIV it tends to understand consciousness as a more elaborate version of perception, thus approximating to knowledge (ñāṇa). This is incorrect. While there is always consciousness where there is perception, there is not always knowledge. As we pointed out in the chapter on Experience, perception always precedes knowledge. Consequently, perception is structurally simpler than knowledge. Perception and knowledge differ in kind, not just in degree.

In the Suttas, however, we occasionally find viññāṇa being used in two senses: in the sense of consciousness in the primitive context of the aggregates (khanda), and in the sense of knowing—but never in the sense of perception. And when it is used in the sense of knowing, it refers to the complex consciousness of reflexion: the presence of a known phenomenon. The following is a Sutta passage where viññāṇa is used in both senses:

Here, friend, an uninstructed puthujjana, unseeing of the nobles, undisciplined in the good men’s teaching, regards matter, feeling, perception, determinations, regards consciousness as self, regards matter, feeling, perception, determinations, regards consciousness as self, or self endowed with consciousness, or consciousness as belonging to self, or self as in consciousness. That consciousness of his changes and becomes otherwise; as that consciousness (viññāṇa) changes and becomes otherwise, so his knowing (viññāṇa) follows around (keeps track of) that change of consciousness…” — Uddesavibhaṅga Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 138)

Feeling (vedanā) is broadly of two kinds—bodily (kāyika) and mental (cetasika). This distinction is not difficult to see in experience. For example, the painful feeling from a bodily wound would be classified as a bodily painful feeling; so would a headache. Sorrow and joy, on the other hand, would be classified as painful mental feelings; so would fear and worry.

We will use adjectives like ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’ and ‘painful’ to describe either bodily or mental feelings. Thus, a pleasant feeling can be either a pleasant bodily feeling or a pleasant mental feeling. But the adjectives ‘pleasurable’ and ‘displeasurable’ refer to some kind of consideration; they will be used only for mental feelings. Thus a ‘pleasurable feeling’ will refer to a pleasant mental feeling, and a ‘displeasurable feeling’ will refer to an unpleasant mental feeling. Similarly, ‘pleasure’ and ‘displeasure’ will be used only in reference to mental feelings, as will ‘pleasurableness’ and ‘displeasurableness’.

According to quality, any bodily or mental feeling can be of three types: pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha) or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant (adukkhamasukha). A headache is an unpleasant bodily feeling (kāyikā dukkhā vedanā). Joy is a pleasant mental feeling (cetasikā sukhā vedanā). As for neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling, it is said: “Neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling is pleasant when known and unpleasant when not known.” This requires some clarification. A neutral feeling (neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant) such as indifference is known to be neutral, it is perceived or reckoned as pleasurable; likewise when there is a neutral feeling, but it is not known to be neutral, it is perceived or reckoned as displeasurable.

Here is the classification of feeling given so far:


Now let us clarify the distinction between feeling and perception. Though it is not a difficult distinction, sometimes it is not seen clearly enough. When I experience a taste in my tongue, that is just perceiving a taste (which may be bitter, sweet, etc.). But simultaneously I can experience a feeling in the tongue, because the tongue is a bodily phenomenon.

Note: In this context the term ‘bodily’ (kāyika) includes the entire body; but when we speak of the six sense-bases, the body is said to be one of them. Then we do not include the parts of the body such as the eye, ear, nose, tongue and brain (mind) in the sense-base referred to as the body. The Suttas follow this system; therefore it is necessary to note it to avoid confusion.

Thus, when I drink a cup of very hot tea I experience a pleasant sweet taste along with an unpleasant burning feeling in my tongue. This unpleasant feeling is a bodily feeling, because the tongue is a bodily phenomenon. Likewise, when I experience a touch on my arm, that is just perceiving a touch with the sense-base body; but along with it I can have a pleasant feeling in that part of the body, and this pleasant feeling is a bodily feeling, again because the arm is a bodily phenomenon. With the sense-base mind the relation would be as follows: when I think of eating a tasty dish there is a mental image-perception; but along with it there is also feeling happy about it, and this feeling happy is a pleasurable mental feeling, because happiness is a mental phenomenon. Of course, mental feeling is not limited to mental image-perception. We have mental feelings when we experience the other percepts and bodily feelings as well.

One should always remember that the Buddha’s Teaching is designed to lead us on to the utter cessation of the feelings classified as mentally unpleasant (cetasikā dukkhā vedanā) such as anxiety, worry, fear, despair, agitation, sorrow, doubt etc. These unpleasant mental feelings as a whole can be called displeasure. In the Suttas this displeasure is called dukkha. It is one of the three contexts where the word dukkha is used. In the second context, dukkha is used as an adjective to describe feeling: dukkhā vedanā; and dukkha here means merely unpleasant or painful, so it can refer to either bodily or mental feeling. In the third context, dukkha is used in the Four Noble Truths: dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the ceasing of dukkha and the path to the ceasing of dukkha. It is to understand dukkha in this context that all our effort is necessary. Provisionally, we have rendered dukkha in this third context as suffering or displeasure. We will deal with this point fully later on. When the Suttas refer to feeling without making the distinction between bodily and mental, they usually refer to mental feeling, for two reasons: the Buddha’s Teaching aims at completely destroying the possibility of displeasurable mental feeling, and when the subject identifies with feeling, it is usually not so much with bodily feeling as with mental feeling.

Feeling can be classified in other ways, depending on the point of view. A very important classification is one based on the ways in which feeling arises. This is given as follows:

And what, monks, is feeling? It is these six bodies-of-feeling: feeling sprung from contact with the eye, feeling sprung from contact with the ear, feeling sprung from contact with the nose, feeling sprung from contact with the tongue, feeling sprung from contact with the body, feeling sprung from contact with the mind. This, monks, is called feeling.” — Upādānaparipavatta Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.56)

The above refers to a phenomenon called contact (phassa). Contact is important because without it, there can be no experience. Further, contact helps us distinguish between feeling and perception. Contact is defined in the Suttas as follows:

In dependence on eye and sights springs up eye-consciousness. The coming together of the three is called contact. In dependence on ear and sounds… In dependence on nose and smells… In dependence on tongue and tastes… In dependence on the body and touches… In dependence on the mind and mental images (ideas) springs up mind-consciousness. The coming together of the three is called contact.” — Dukkha Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.43)

The six sense organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind—mentioned in this definition are called the internal bases (ajjhattikāni āyatanāni). The percepts corresponding to those sense bases—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and ideas—are called the external bases (bāhirāni āyatanāni). These are things external to the individual: whatever is not one’s six-based body. Therefore, things that are perceived as their qualities (shape, color, smell etc.) are not entirely dependent on the individual perceiving them.

If we consider only one sense organ, then the corresponding external base would be whatever is not that sense organ; therefore the corresponding perceptions are not entirely dependent on that sense organ. It doesn’t matter even if an individual is color-blind or partially deaf. Whatever color or sound he perceives, the thing which is the external condition for whatever color or sound he does perceive is external to his eye and ear. The percepts or sense objects are called external bases because those external things (things other than the six-based body) involved in contact, get involved in the existential structure only in terms of the percepts. Thus, not only are there an eye and eye-consciousness, there are also sights and things cognized by eye-consciousness (things seen); the same holds true for the other five sense bases.

Contact is thus the coming together of the sense organ, the kind of consciousness involved with that particular sense organ, and an external object which is not that sense organ. The experience ‘seeing a tree’ involves the coming together of the eye, eye-consciousness, and that particular thing which is not the eye. The union of these three is called contact. And both feeling and perception (in this case, the neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant bodily feeling, the pleasant mental feeling of joy, the particular shape, the green color, the fragrance, sound etc.) of the tree arise owing to the contact.

Monks, it is like the heat born, the fire produced from putting together and rubbing two sticks; when those two sticks are separated that heat so founded ceases, is allayed. Even so, monks, these three feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant) are born of contact, rooted in contact; owing to such-&-such contact, such-&-such feelings are born; owing to such-&-such contact ceasing, such-&-such feelings cease.” — Phassamūlaka Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 36.10)

The same apples to perception; and therefore both feeling and perception are dependent on contact.

Contact is the cause, contact is the condition for the manifestation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact is the condition for the manifestation of the aggregate of perception.” — Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 109)

Primarily, contact is the contact between the individual and external things; this contact gives rise to feelings and perception. In the reflexive experience of the puthujjana, it would always be a contact between the subject ‘I’and things. In other words, in the puthujjana, the contact is with holding or clinging (sa-upādāna).

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