09 March 2012

Types of Knowledge

IT'S BEEN A WHILE since I drew directly on the Pāli texts so I thought I would share some observations from my recent Pāli studies. The Mahā-Vedalla Sutta is from the Majjhima Nikāya and features a series of questions put to Sāriputta by Elder Mahākoṭṭhika, and the answers.

The title of the sutta includes the word vedalla which is unusual (there is also a Cūḷa-Vedalla Sutta). PED thinks that it might be similar in form to mahalla 'old, venerable' which seems to be a (dialectical?) mutation from mahā-ariya via mahā-ayya. Veda-ariya doesn't really work as a compound. Another possibility raised by PED is that it derives from vedaṅga. This would give us the sense of 'types of knowledge' which does describe the content of the sutta, especially the paragraphs below. Since this seems the most sensible option I have adopted it.

What follows is a condensed translation of the first seven of Sāriputta's answers and some commentary.
The Great Discourse on Types of Knowledge - condensed translation.
Mahā-Vedalla Sutta (MN 43; M i.292ff.)

Ignorance (dupañña ) is not-understanding (nappajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Intelligence (paññavā ) is understanding (pajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Discrimination (viññāṇa) is discriminating (vijānāti ) between pleasure (sukha) and pain (dukkha) and neither (adukkhasukkha).

Understanding and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What one understands, one discriminates; what one discriminates, one understands. The difference is that understanding should be cultivated (bhāvetabba), and discrimination should be fully understood (pariññeyya).

‘Knowns’ (vedanā) are called ‘knowns’ because they cause [things] to be known, they produce knowledge (vedeti ) They cause pleasure to be known; they cause pain to be known; and they cause neither-pleasure-nor-pain to be known.

Perception (saññā) is called ‘perception’ because of recognition (sañjānāti) of blue/green, yellow, red, and white and so on.

Knowns, perceptions, and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What is made known, is recognised; what is recognised, is discriminated.

One of the first things we notice is that the text contains a lot of words deriving from the root √jñā'to know, to understand', including nouns paññā, viññāṇa, and saññā;" >; adjectives dupañña and paññavant; and verbs pajānāti, vijānāti, parijānāti, & sañjānāti; in addition to words from the root √vid 'to know', vedanā & vedeti. And what the text is doing is defining these terms in relation to each other. Understanding Pāli terms pertaining to mental processes can be difficult since the definitions appear to change over time and according to context. So this text is one version of how the terms can be distinguished. As such its quite handy.

In this text, following Indian grammatical practices, nouns and adjectives are defined in terms of verbs.

paññā pajānāti
viññāṇa vijānāti
saññā sañjānāti
vedanā vedeti

So the noun paññā 'understanding' is defined in terms of the verb pajānāti 'to understand'. The paragraphs form two groups: the first defines paññā and viññāṇa and describes the relationship between them; the second defines vedanā and saññā and their relationship to each other and to viññāṇa. Viññāṇa is a conceptual link between the two groups, which as I will try to show represent two different routes to viññāṇa.

In the first group we find the adjective dupañña 'badly understanding, foolish' (here the spelling is pañña not paññā) which is defined as nappajānāti 'not understanding'. This is contrasted with another adjective paññavant 'possessing understanding, intelligent' which is defined as pajānāti 'understanding'. The subject which we either understand or don't, which makes us dupaññā or paññavant is the Four Truths of the Nobles: the fact that 'this' (i.e. our immediate experience) is disappointing; and that disappointment has a beginning and and end, and a way to bring about the end. If we understand this we are intelligent, and if not we are foolish.

Also in the first group viññāṇa is defined as 'knowing' pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain (sukha, dukkha, adukkhasukha). Here the literal meaning of vijānāti is intended: vi- 'division' and jānāti 'knowing' - i.e. understanding the difference between. My reading is that 'consciousness' would be the wrong translation here, and that discrimination (or something along these lines) would be more appropriate.

Now the relationship between paññā and viññāṇa is that they are inseparably connected, that one involves the other. However there is a difference in how we approach each. Paññā is to be cultivated (bhāvetabba), while viññāṇa is to be fully understood (pariññāṇa). The word for cultivated is related to the word bhāvanā in mettābhāvanā 'the development of loving kindness'.

Now to the second group. Here vedanā, usually translated as 'sensations' or 'feelings' (with much discussion of which of these two alternatives is a best fit), is defined in terms of vedeti. The relationship to the verb vedeti shows that neither 'sensations' nor 'feelings' really convey what vedanā is. Vedeti is from the root √vid 'to know' and comes from a PIE root *√weid which means to see; and draws on the metaphor that to see is to know. English cognates include: via German wise, wit; via Greek idea, eidetic; and via Latin video, vision. Vedeti in particular is the causative form which means 'to make known, to bring about understanding'. Vedanā is based on the past-participle vedana 'made known, brought to understanding'. Hence I have translated vedanā as 'a known'. And what is being made known to us is the pleasure and pain of experience. I'm not sure that this is all that we know, but pleasure and pain are what are salient to the Buddha's program.

The next term to be defined is saññā. The definition is here is not entirely helpful but we can infer more about it from what follows. Saññā is primarily defines in terms of sañjānāti recognition and the examples used of what is recognised are the names of colours. The implication here is that saññā is recognition expressed in terms of naming the objects of perception, i.e. apperception.

Finally we see that the relationship between vedanā, saññā and viññāṇa is described as sequential: what is made known, is recognised and named; and what is recognised is discriminated. This further implies that saññā is applied to vedanā; so naming the colours must be seen as a very limited example of the kind of operation involved.

We can diagram the statements above like this:

Anticipating some future posts on papañca I have added it branching off from saññā. What this model suggests is that discrimination has two input streams. One of them is experiential in the sense of being based on processing sense experience (vedanā → saññā → viññāṇa). Vedanā is the point at which we become aware of contact (phassa) which itself rests on the coming together of sense object, sense faculty, and sense-discrimination (also confusingly referred to as viññāṇa). And note that vedeti is the process which causes pleasure or pain to be known, sañjānāti recognises and names the experience, and vijānātidistinguishes between them. In this sense paññā); and it comes from cultivating understanding of the truths of the nobles (ariyasacca). What is implied in the latter is reflection on the truth of the truths. In both cases the senses and their data are secondary. The result of discriminating on the basis of greater and greater understanding is complete understanding (pariññā) which we can take as a synonym for bodhi. My reading leads me away from reading paññā as 'wisdom' in this case - though it may well be appropriate in other cases. I think rather that it refers to intellect, and that someone who possesses paññā is 'intelligent'. [1] Unlike latter Buddhist schools of thought it is viññāṇa which must be perfected in this model, not paññā (Skt. prajñā).

At least one of my regular readers is interested in the khandhas, and I this sutta may shed some light on them. As far as I know the khandhas themselves are not presented as a sequence in the suttas (this seems to be Sue Hamilton's conclusion too). But here we have three of the five khandhas presented as a logical sequence. Since saññā is defined in terms of colours, we could invoke the idea seen in many other suttas that the object of the eye (cakkhu) is form (rūpa). We could then state that here rūpa is implied as the generic object of the senses which combines with a generic sense faculty to produce contact (phassa). This is indeed how most people interpret rūpa in this context. One problem however is that contact rests on a tripod of object, faculty and sense-consciousness (cakkhuviññāṇa, sotaviññāṇa... manoviññāṇa). We would have to suppose that viññāṇa was being used in two different denotations here, which is fine, although somewhat confusing. Another problem is saṅkhārā which is left out, and this is a term that is difficult to understand (I wrote about in Saṅkhāra qua Construct, but that meaning does not seem to apply here). What saṅkhārā means in the khandhas, and why it takes the place it does in the order (if it is an order) are unsolved problems. Perhaps saṅkhārā or in verbal form saṅkharoti (from Skt. saṃskaroti < saṃ-s-√kṛ 'to compose, arrange') may well have its literal meaning here of 'put together, arranged'. [2]

In any case we could see here a kind of prototype from which a model of khandhas might have emerged with some tinkering. Perhaps these slightly incompatible models emerged amongst discreet groups of practitioners and were only brought together in the Canon. My theory, for what it is worth, is that the Canon as we know it was not compiled until the time of Asoka and probably under his direct influence. There is, in the Canon, clear evidence of multiple oral traditions preserving stories with slight variations (which I've noted in the past). Asoka's empire represents the first point in history when widely spread groups might have had a chance to come together, especially as the preceding centuries were full of war and social unrest.

Even if my translation choices and interpretations do not convince (or appeal to) the reader, I think they will agree that this sutta offers some useful insights into technical terms for kinds of knowing.


  1. Intelligence comes from the Latin intelligentem, which is a present-participle of intelligere 'to understand, comprehend'. The etymology is inter- 'between' + legere 'to chose, pick out, read'. The earliest sense of the word was the "faculty of understanding". So the word 'intelligent' is probably more closely related in sense to vijānāti 'discriminating, distinguishing'.
  2. The gerund of the word is used at S ii.269 where akaddamaṃ saṅkharitvā means 'having made clean' (i.e. mud free). In fact 3 of the four occurrences of the word relate to preparing food before one eats it.
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