05 March 2021

An Alternative Wikipedia Entry for the Heart Sutra

Although there have been some recent improvements on the Wikipedia Heart Sutra article (which now mentions my work thanks to an anonymous contribution - not me I hasten to add), I would still like to rewrite it from scratch because it is written by a certain type of religious person for other people of that same type. It's not a proper "neutral point of view" encyclopedia article and it relegates modern research to obscurity while promoting conservative Japanese religious scholars who attack dissent from the tradition.

Before diving in I want to make a point about the title of the text. Heart Sutra is an English translation of the abbreviated Chinese title, Xīnjīng 心經. The standard Sanskrit title is Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, or Heart of Perfected Paragnosis. Note that Prajñāpāramitā texts routinely leave the word sūtra out of their titles. Some editors insist on treating the word sūtra as Sanskrit, i.e. Heart Sūtra. This means that we are translating xīn 心 into English and 經 jīng into Sanskrit. Since "sutra" is an Anglicised word that occurs in all the major British and American English dictionaries, there is no need to translate it into Sanskrit. The English translation of Xīnjīng 心經 is Heart Sutra.

Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra (Chinese Xīn jīng 心經; Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya) is a Chinese Buddhist text composed mainly of excerpts from the much larger Móhēbānrěbōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» or Large Perfection of Paragnosis Sutra (aka Large Sutra). There are also Sanskrit and Tibetan versions. The Heart Sutra is perhaps the most widely known and popular text in Mahāyāna Buddhism and is revered as an object of religious significance and magical power, and is considered to contain a summary of the Buddhist teachings on the perfection of paragnosis (Skt. prajñāpāramitā). There are more than 60 published translations into English.


The principle version is prose consisting of 266 characters, most of which are copied from the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, translated by Kumārajīva (404 CE) as Móhēbānrěbōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T 223), with a few modifications introduced by Xuanzang (602-664). Note that the title varies across the manuscript tradition and has varied over time, the common feature being the word heart (Chinese xīn 心; Sanskrit hṛdaya).

The main text is followed by a short spell or dhāraṇī (usually, though mistakenly, referred to as a mantra) that appears to have been copied from Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀罗尼集經» (T 901) a translation of the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya completed in 654 CE by Atikūṭa (a Buddhist monk from India). As with the text as a whole, the dhāraṇī is associated with magical powers of protection but it is also considered by some to be a kind of mnemonic reflecting the internal structure of the text.

The Heart Sutra has long been associated with Xuánzàng 玄奘 (602-664), the Chinese Buddhist monk remembered primarily as a pilgrim and translator. The Biography of Xuánzàng (T 2053), composed in 688 CE by Yàncóng 彥悰 (possibly on the basis of earlier work by Huìlì 慧立) provides some clearly apocryphal back-story for the Heart Sutra. Details included in the Biography became the foundation of the received origin myth of the text. These include Xuánzàng being gifted the Heart Sutra before leaving China and using it as magical protection while crossing the Gobi Desert. A later source suggests he translated the text in 649 CE but this conflicts with other stories and historians have cast doubt on this part of the story.

However, the Biography also provides the first reliable literary mention of the Heart Sutra when it reprints a letter dated 656 CE in which Xuánzàng presented a scroll to Emperor Gāozōng 高宗 (r. 649–683 CE) and his consort Wǔ Zhào 武曌 (624–705 CE, later Empress Wǔ Zétiān 武則天). The same letter is preserved in another document making this plausible (Kotyk 2019).

The earliest physical evidence of the Heart Sutra is a votive stele from Fangshan: the standard text is engraved on a stone slab, with a colophon naming the donor and his family and dated 13 March 661 CE (Attwood 2019). The earliest extant commentaries on the Heart Sutra are attributed to Xuanzang's student, Kuījī 窺基 (632–682), and his colleague, Woncheuk 圓測 (613–696). Although undated they must have been composed before the end of the 7th Century. Both acknowledge that the text is not a sutra and treat the work as an epitome of Yogācāra Buddhism.

The Heart Sutra belongs in a distinctively Chinese genre of texts known as "digest texts" (chāo jīng 抄經). A digest text is a collection of copied passages, originally designed to provide an abstract or summary of a larger text. Many hundreds of digest texts were composed in China and circulated independently. By the Tang dynasty (beginning in 618 CE), compilers of catalogues of Buddhist texts were hostile to these indigenous texts and they began to be purged from the Chinese Canon. However, a number of them, including the Heart Sutra, were not recognised as indigenous texts and were retained. In the case of the Heart Sutra, the Sanskrit "original" played a major role in disguising the true origins of the text.

The standard text was translated into Sanskrit before the end of the 7th Century. Long considered to reflect a Sanskrit original, the Sanskrit translation incorporates some Chinese idioms, conventions, and calques which betray its origins in China. Jan Nattier's 1992 study demonstrated this but it took some time to be accepted. Further work by Matthew Orsborn (aka Huifeng) and Jayarava Attwood have helped to validate Nattier's methods and confirm her conclusions. However, Japanese scholars, beginning with FUKUI Fumimasa have resisted Nattier's conclusion.

Probably in the early eighth century, the standard text was expanded twice, creating two extended Heart Sutra texts: one in Chinese (T 252) and a second in Sanskrit. Recension two was translated into Tibetan and is popular with Tibetan Buddhists; it has also been translated back into Chinese three times (T 253, T 254, T 257). The Chinese canon also preserves a translations into Chinese from Tibetan (T 255) and transliteration of an early Sanskrit version using Chinese characters (T 256).

There is also a version of the standard text apocryphally attributed to Kumarajīva (T 250) but now thought to have been composed in the 8th Century. This attribution was first challenged in 1932 by MATSUMOTO, but was cemented in 1991 with an article by WATANABE Shōgo calling T 250 a "fake text" (Japanese: gikyō 偽経).

The Dunhuang cache of Buddhist texts included almost 200 Heart Sutra texts in Chinese and Tibetan. There is no published study of the Dunhuang Heart Sutra texts, but some preliminary work has been presented at a conference by Ben Nourse. There is no standard text translation found in the Tibetan Kanjur, however several were found at Dunhuang. The cache includes a some variant texts including hybrids of the standard and extended versions.

Although there is no evidence of the Heart Sutra from India, the Kanjur preserved a total of eight commentaries which purport to be Tibetan translations of commentaries composed by India pandits who travelled to Tibet during the Pala Dynasty (9th - 12th Century CE). Most of these are heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. It's possible that the Heart Sutra was unknown in India and went directly from China to Tibet, probably via Dunhuang (which was controlled by Tibet during the 8th-9th centuries). This would account for the complete lack of physical or literary evidence for it amongst surviving Buddhist documents in India. Not only is it not found in manuscripts, it is not even quoted in anthologies and not mentioned in any Indian commentarial literature.


The Heart Sutra is used by Buddhists in several different ways: for its magical powers of protection, as a liturgical text, as a focus for studying prajñāpāramitā, and decoratively. There is some crossover between these categories. Sometimes the dhāraṇī is chanted separately, in which case it is thought to invoke the soteriological and protective power of the text and the corpus of prajñāpārmaitā as a whole (when Prajñāpāramitā is represented as a female bodhisatva, she has her own mantras).

As apotropaic magic the text is chanted by believers for its prophylactic effect of warding off evil. The text may also be chanted to mitigate the effects of karma. As a liturgical text, the Heart Sutra is chanted as an invocation of the soteriological powers thought to reside in prajñāpāramitā texts. Copying the text is also seen as an effective soteriological practice in line with injunctions contained in the early Prajñāpāramitā texts. Tantric practitioners have made ritual practices focussed on the text as deity. In this situation the text is sometimes also associated with Mañjuśrī bodhisatva.

Both chanting and copying the text may crossover with the decorative uses which see calligraphy of the Heart Sutra printed on many different objects and items of clothing. Religious study of the Heart Sutra focuses on the apparently paradoxical nature of the contents.

Many Buddhists report having felt a sense of mystical connection with the Heart Sutra, even (or perhaps especially) when it is heard for the first time in an unfamiliar language).

The Heart Sutra crops up in some pop culture references. It is chanted during the film The Little Buddha and seen in the 2003 Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. Schopenhauer mentions Prajñāpāramitā briefly at the end of book IV of his The World as Will and Representation, although his take on Buddhism is pessimistic and nihilistic.


The Heart Sutra is an epitome of the philosophy of the perfection of paragnosis or prajñā-pāramitā. In this context we can take this to refer to the knowledge gained by bringing sensory experience to a halt (nirodha) and dwelling in the subsequent contentless awareness (śūnyatā). Hence, it is knowledge beyond ordinary sensory experience (paragnosis).

The message of the Heart Sutra is often reduced to a series of negations, partly because of readings of another prajñāpāramitā sūtra, the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. Based on essays by D. T. Suzuki in 1935 and Conze in 1946, the essence of Prajñāpāramitā is presented as contradiction (entailing a repudiation of Aristotle's law of non-contradiction). In Conze's formulation, the contradiction—A is not-A—is an expression of the Absolute. The term Absolute is not found in Buddhism per se, and Conze uses it rather vaguely, but it appears to bear a resemblance to the One of Neoplatonism, the absolute found in the Theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky, and absolute being as found in German Idealists such as Fichte and Schelling. Schopenhauer may also have been an influence. However, this appeal to contradiction has some antiquity as we see evidence of scribes adding extra negations to their copies of the text as early as the 8th Century. Conze's Absolute is ineffable and beyond intellectual understanding and can only be expressed as contradiction or paradox. Conze and Suzuki leverage the confusion caused by asserting the truth of contradictions to undermine opposition while reinforcing their own position of authority. One cannot argue with someone who refuses to acknowledge that logic applies and is convinced that they have an understanding that others can never attain.

A major breakthrough came in 2014 with the publication of an article by Matt Orsborn (then writing as Shi Huifeng). He pointed out that an expression from the Large Sutra which originally meant "through the yoga of nonapprehension" (anupalambhayogena) had been mistranslated when the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was made. Kumārajīva translated it as yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 in Chinese. However, it was translated back into Sanskrit as aprāptitvād "because of being in state of nonattainment". (See also Attwood 2020a). And this mistaken meaning was then read back into the Chinese text cementing the error.

In pointing out the mistake, Orsborn also pointed out some implications of repairing the error. Reading yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 as "through the yoga of nonapprehension" makes it seem to be qualifying the negations that precede it (an impression reinforced by how the term is used in the Large Sutra). Indeed, the negations are qualified twice, first by "in emptiness" and second by "through the yoga of nonapprehension". The yoga of nonapprehension appears to relate to a practice of withdrawing attention (Pāli: amanasikāra) from sense experience resulting in an altered state known as "dwelling in emptiness" (suññatāvihāra). Compare, for example, the Pāli Cūḷasuññata Sutta MN 121). Here we think that suññatā (Skt śūnyatā) in fact refers to the absence of sensory experience in this altered state. And this enables us to see the negations as phenomenological statements, i.e. in the absence of sensory experience, brought about through the withdrawal of attention, there are no skandhas because the skandhas are what generate sensory experience, there are no internal sensory spheres (aka sense faculties; indriya) or external sensory spheres (aka sense objects; ālambhana). And so on.

When the Heart Sutra says "there is no form", it is not a metaphysical statement about reality. It is not saying that form per se does not exist. Rather it is a tautology: in the state characterised by the absence of sensory experience, there is no sensory experience. Importantly, the meditator remains conscious in this state, but they are without any intentional stance, or content of awareness. Thus, they can remember being in that state (tatha-gata).

Subsequently, it was discovered that the famous lines that equate form and emptiness had been changed when the Smaller (or 8000 line) Sutra was expanded to the Larger (or 25000 line) Sutra (Attwood 2017). The original Sanskrit pericope has rūpaṃ māyā "form is an illusion". This as a metaphor based on a much older simile from early Buddhism which likens sensory experience to various hollow, ephemeral, and fleeting phenomena such as foam on a river, a dream, a lightning bolt, and a māyā or "illusion". When the word māyā was changed to śūnyatā the sentence made considerably less sense, but we can understand it to convey the same sentiment, i.e. that sensory experience is hollow, because we can bring it to a halt in meditation without loss of consciousness.

In other words, the whole drift of this text, and likely of the other prajñāpāramitā literature points to the phenomenological and epistemic conclusions that emerge from the absence of sensory experience while conscious. The text has metaphysical implications, but it is not a metaphysical treatise, i.e. it is not concerned with the nature of reality, but rather with the nature of sensory experience. This line of reasoning has a parallel in Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāli suttas, especially in the context of the khandhas.


A basic genealogical diagram of the Heart Sutra shows the development of the standard text in Chinese:

Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā

Móhē-bānrěbōluómì jīng (T 223)

Bānrěbōluómì xīn jīng (T251)


The standard version in Chinese and Sanskrit were both further developed giving us the diversity of texts mentioned above.

Nattier, Orsborn, and Attwood have individually proposed a number of corrections to the existing editions in both Sanskrit and Chinese. At one level we can simply correct the mistakes in Conze's Sanskrit edition and note the Chinese idioms as part of the received tradition. And we can correct the misreading of the Chinese text that the Sanskrit caused. This would give us fully parsible and translatable texts. While most of the necessary changes have been published, they have yet to be incorporated into the editions.

Moreover at present no translation or study of the text that incorporates the new information has been forthcoming.



Móhē bānrěbōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經» = Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidya-sūtra. T 250, attrib. Kumarajīva ca 400. [date and authorship are apocryphal].

Bānrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng «般若波羅蜜多心經» = Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra. T 251, attrib. Xuanzang, 649. [date and authorship are apocryphal]

Dà Táng dà Cí'ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù «大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序» A biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty (T 2053). Translated into English by Li Rongxi (1995).

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra."Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13,52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). ‘Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.’ Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32: 1–30. http://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3201_Attwood(1-30).pdf

Attwood, Jayarava. (2020). “The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest.” Pacific World. Series 4, no.1: 155-182. https://pwj.shin-ibs.edu/2020/6934

Attwood, Jayarava. (2021).”Losing Ourselves in the Heart Sutra: A new reading of the ancient scripture surfaces a forgotten Buddhist practice.” Tricycle Magazine (Spring): 83-4, 104-6. https://tricycle.org/magazine/heart-sutra-history/

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Huifeng, Shi. (2014). “Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: Non-attainment, Apprehension, and Mental Hanging in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). ‘Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳’. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

19 February 2021

Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Saṅkhāra

This is the fourth installment in my series of essays on two modern interpretations of the skandhas. Tilmann Vetter's The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas and Sue Hamilton's Early Buddhism: A New Approach were both published in the year 2000. After the rūpa essay was published I found Rupert Gethin's article: “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma” (1986) which is a valuable document for being a succinct description of what the Sutta-Piṭaka and Abhidhamma say without much extra exegesis or interpretation. 

When I embarked on this task I was optimistic and I thought it might help clarify some things that had long been unclear for me. Sadly, this has not been the case. I am no longer optimistic; very little has been clarified, the methods used by the two main authors leave much to be desired. This realisation comes just as Vetter is hitting his stride and his attempt to explain saṅkhārā and his translation, "impulses", takes up more than half of his entire summary of the khandhas (36 pages!).

In any case, we now come to the khandha of saṅkhārā (The only khandha that is routinely plural). The problem we have with saṅkhārā is that everyone agrees how the word is used, but no one can make sense of why this word is used this way. As Gethin (37) says, the saṅkhārā are "primarily defined in terms of will or volition (cetanā)" and we can relate this to the famous phrase "cetanā is what I call kamma" (AN 6.63). Thus the saṅkhārā are somehow connected to karma (I will say something about this below). However, Gethin also points out that the Nikāyas "describe [saṅkhārā] as putting together (abhisaṃkharonti) each of the khandhas in turn into something that is put-together (saṃkhata) (37). The latter is a reference to the Khajjanīya Sutta that I will also address below. 

Bodhi (2000: 45) tells us that the word saṅkhārā can be analysed as a verb karoti "make" (√kṛ) with a prefix saṃ- that usually means "together" or "complete". In Latin, "to make" is facere and the cognate prefix is con-, so saṅkhāra is very like our word confection. Given the difference between the etymological meaning and the usage in Buddhism, especially in the khandhas, we ought to be alert for our old friend the etymological fallacy (which has been a feature of these essays). Bodhi points to five different contexts in which the word is used. As a khandha, Bodhi translates saṅkhārā as "volitional formations". Another common translation is "karmic formations". Translators who use these phrases as translation are trying to link the two different meanings of the word—volition and confection—in one phrase. The result is rather awkward.

A quick digression on the kha in saṅkhara. If we switch to Sanskrit, the skandha is saṃskārāḥ and through abhisaṃskaronti we get things that are saṃskṛta. But the verb is karoti (√kṛ). The extra s in saṃ-skāra and saṃ-skṛta is there because in Indo-European the root is *sker. The s is largely dropped in Vedic and Sanskrit but reappears when some suffixes are added. Sanskrit /sk/ becomes /kh/ in Pāli, so saṃskārāḥ becomes saṇkhārā but /k/ is unchanged so a Sanskrit word like sūtrakāra "the author of the sutra" (where -kāra is also from √kṛ) becomes suttakāra in Pāli. 



Vetter's method is now settled. He begins by consulting the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79). And this is vexing because, as I have now repeatedly shown, this text is not a reliable source. It is fool's gold, shiny but not valuable. For the first time, Vetter moves deeper into the Khajjanīya Sutta and considers another  passage. Vetter declares there is no good translation into English and instead gives a German translation that he doesn't bother to translate into English. Fortunately, in that very same year, 2000, Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya came out:

Kiñca, bhikkhave, saṅkhāre vadetha? Saṅ­kha­ta­mabhi­saṅ­kha­ron­tīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati. Kiñca saṅ­kha­ta­mabhi­saṅ­kha­ronti? Rūpaṃ rūpattāya saṅ­kha­ta­mabhi­saṅ­kha­ronti, .... (SN III.87). 
“And why, bhikkhus, do you call them volitional formations? ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called volitional formations. And what is the conditioned that they construct? They construct conditioned form as form...” (Bodhi 2000: 915)

Note that what is explained here is not the volitional part, only the formations part. Gethin points to a few other suttas that have this formula. But it's a pericope—the same passage repeated—rather than more on the theme. Vetter's explanation looks post hoc to me. The heart of it is: 

saṅ­kha­ta­m abhi­saṅ­kha­ron­tī ti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati. 

They construct (abhisaṁkharonti) the constructed (saṅkhata) therefore (tasmā) they are called (vuccati) the constructs (saṅkhāra). 

It doesn't take much thought to see that this is completely unrelated to karma. Vetter says this is difficult to translate. The first part is not. What is difficult is the repeated formula that comes next. In Bodhi's translation: "They construct conditioned form as form" (rūpaṃ rūpattāya saṅ­kha­ta­m abhi­saṅ­kha­ronti). 

We know the agent must be saṅkhārā since the verb is in the 3rd person plural, which makes rūpaṃ the patient and saṅkhatam an adjective or predicate. So the basic sense is that the "volitions construct appearance" ([saṅkhārā] rūpaṃ abhisaṅkharonti). But this is nonsense, even in Buddhism. We have volitions in response to sense experience, especially in response to the positive and negative hedonic qualities of experience. This is saying the opposite, i.e. that volition is what makes form. To repeat, this is nonsense. 

Worse we still have yet to explain rūpattāya. One of the difficulties is that rūpattā is an abstract noun, which I am at a loss to translate directly into English: "form-ness"? We tend to treat rūpa as abstraction in the first place, both as the traditional translation "form" and in my preferred translation "appearance". We know this partly because when we use form in this sense we don't include articles. It is not "a form" or "the form" but just "form". My grammar checker doesn't deal with abstract nouns very well and pings me on this every time. And I think this might explain why Bodhi's translation does not distinguish between rūpa and rūpattā. Effectively they mean the same thing in Buddhist English. I have my doubts that they mean the same thing in Pāli, but I don't understand what the distinction is. 

Unfortunately, rūpattāya is a degenerate case ending that could be instrumental, dative, ablative, or genitive. Not all of which can fit, though, so we have some options: the saṅkhārās construct form through form-ness (ins), for form-ness (dat), from formness (abl), or saṅkhārās construct form that is formness (indirect object). The latter is apparently how Bodhi reads it, but as I say he translates both rūpa and rūpattā as "form". His explanation follows the commentary (2000: 1071-2 n.113), i.e. the passage means that form "becomes conditioned form in accordance with its nature". This doesn't seem remotely connected to the khandhas or their functions. Nor does it link saṅkhārā to karma. Form is conditioned when considered as the object of the eye, but we are talking khandhas. In what sense does the rūpakhandha become a conditioned thing? It is conditioned.

Once again the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) is tempting because it appears to offer an explanation of the khandhas that is lacking elsewhere, but once again the explanation turns out to be impenetrable or nonsensical. My view is that the suttakāra did not know why the word saṅkhārā was used in this context and tried to make something up based on the obvious etymology. But this does not shed any light on how the word saṅkhārā is used in Pāli. But it did start an long running attempt to shoehorn the literal meaning of saṅkhārā into explanations of the khandhas

Vetter carries on for 36 pages of learned discourse, looking at literally all the ways in which the word is used, with examples. But he never manages a convincing explanation. Working through all of this has become intensely irritating because it appears to be wilfully ignorant of the manifold textual and linguistic problems. Bodhi can be forgiven because he is a senior Theravādin monk with responsibilities and is thus naturally an apologist for the tradition. Vetter has no such excuse for failing to read this material critically. 

So I'm just going to move on. And yet this brings me no joy.


As Hamilton says, "The order of the khandhas is never explained, but they are almost invariably (the single exception being to accommodate the metre of a verse) in the order given above; that is, body, sensations, apperception, volitional activities, consciousness." (72). We are slightly surprised, then, when in the succeeding pages she describes her understanding of body, sensations, apperception, and consciousness, and then introduces "The fifth khanda of volitional activities" (78). Because it is not the fifth khandha, it is the fourth khandha

Hamilton describes saṅkhārā as "one's affective response to what one is experiencing" (78). She rightly notes the centrality of karma in Buddhist soteriology and of volitions to karma: "The aim of the path of Buddhism is to arrive at a point when the fuel of continuity is blown out, and it is volitions that are that fuel." (78). 

But affect is not equivalent to volition: affect is a very much broader category. Whether used in a technical or lay sense, affect is a general way of talking about emotional or felt responses to sensory experience (the word literally means "to have an effect"). Volition is related in the sense that emotions usually lie behind actions. The problem is that Pāli doesn't really have this EMOTIONS ARE AGENTS metaphor.  In fact, as I have noted elsewhere, Pāli doesn't consider emotions separately from what we would call cognitive activity. Pāli makes a distinction between physical (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) events, but does not distinguish emotions as a distinct category. 

Hamilton then draws attention to none other than the passage from the Khajjanīya Sutta just discussed. In her account, abhisamkharonti means "to volitionally construct". Except that this is not what the word means or how it is used. Here volitionally is an adverb that Hamilton has tacked onto the verb, in a way that looks tendentious - it suits her argument to translate it this way. 

This is not the only problem we encounter in the details of Hamilton's account of saṅkhārā. In her view: 

"the khandhas that are described as being volitionally constructed need to be interpreted in the sense that together they represent the entire human being. So it is one's volitional activities that determine one's future coming-to-be in its entirety. (80). 

And yet two pages earlier:

Understanding them as the individual physical and mental 'parts' of which a human being is comprised misses two crucial points. First, that it is collectively that they operate, and second, perhaps even more importantly, that what they represent is one's cognitive system: the apparatus by means of which we have all our experiences. The point is not to offer an analysis of all that we are... Rather, they are what one needs to understand about oneself in one is to achieve liberation from the cycle of lives as the Buddha did. (78) 

These two passages seem to contradict each other. And the main drift of Hamilton's argument is in favor of the second reading. The khandhas do not represent the entire human being, they represent what we need to understand in the pursuit of liberation. Specifically they tie the perceptual/cognitive process to karma. 

But of course, Hamilton has the same problem as Vetter in using this passage, i.e. that it is deceptive because the khandhas are not "volitionally constructed". Neither rūpa nor vedanā are volitional. Except, while dwelling in emptiness (suññatā-vihāra), we are bound to experience both without having any say in the matter. We have free won't over rūpa and vedanā if we practice meditation, but we don't have free will.

And at this point I feel like I'm getting nowhere. So again, I'm going to move on. 

How Does Saṅkhārā Relate to Karma?

As we saw above we can make the link between saṅkhārā and karma via cetanā. This is because saṅkhārā are often described in Pāli in terms of the six kinds of cetanā. For example, in the Upādānaparipavatta Sutta (SN 22.56):

katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā? chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā – rūpasañcetanā, saddasañcetanā, gandhasañcetanā, rasasañcetanā, phoṭṭhabbasañcetanā, dhammasañcetanā. (SN III.60)

And what, monks, is volition? Monks, there are six kinds of intention: intention towards appearance, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental events. 

The text switches from cetanā to sañcetanā but there is no discernible change in meaning. But there is no logic here. No one, as far as I can see, can explain why a word the denotes confection can connote volition. Where is the link? The connection between cetanā and karma is much easier. Which brings us back to the Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63):

cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi. cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā. (A III.409)

Monks intention is what I call karma. Having intended one acts, with body, voice, or mind. 

Hence, volition is karma. As Vetter notes, this is only one way of talking about karma and not the most common. The equation cetanāhaṃ kammaṃ vadāmi occurs only once in the Nikāyas though it is clearly important as it is picked up by later writers, especially Nāgārjuna (in his MMK chapter on karma). 

But how are saṅkhārā equated with volition? 

I think there is a more direct link between saṅkhārā and karma, and this draws inspiration from work by Joanna Jurewicz (2005) on how Pāli might have borrowed terms from Vedic religion. This is made easier if we move the discussion into Sanskrit again, in which case saṅkhārā becomes saṁskārāḥ.

Saṃskāra is a word familiar to anyone who knows about Vedic culture, where it means a rite of passage. In this context saṃskāra means something like occasion or consecration. It is a feature of words from √kṛ that their meaning is highly context dependent. The prefix saṃ- does not just mean "together" it also means "complete" and from this we get the sense of "perfected". So saṃskāra can mean "finishing, refining, perfecting" and it is used in many figurative ways such as "purification, cleansing, preparing, or rearing of animals". 

 There are typically sixteen rites of passage (saṃskārāḥ) for a twice-born Hindu (for an overview see for example, Klostermaier 1994: 183-92). In fact, different texts prescribe different numbers of sacraments, but sixteen is the most common number. The saṁskāra are rituals conducted at certain points in the life of orthodox Hindus, including birth, naming, first haircut, marriage, and death. The rite of passage puts the finishing touch on the stage of life. It helps to refine the recipient's life and helps them attain the purity required for mokṣa

As Klostermaier says, "It is through the performance of saṃskāras that all Hindus practice the karma-mārga, the Path of Works" (1994: 192). The karmamārga  was previously introduced by Klostermaier in two chapters (9 and 10) and is contrasted with the jñānamārga (path of knowledge). The karmamārga is prescribed for people (men) who follow the householder's life of that Zorba the Greek called the "full catastrophe": wife, children, house, property, business. The jñānamārga is for those who renounce the household life and seek mokṣa or liberation from rebirth. 

Thus a saṃskāra is an occasion on which karma is performed by those pursuing the karmamārga as prescribed by the Dharmaśāstra texts outlining the dharma or religious duties of someone who follows some form of Vedic religion. Buddhists borrowed this idea and incorporated it with little change into their own doctrines. It has been changed mainly by the emphasis on the internalisation and ethicisation of religion; i.e. the focus for Buddhists was not the external performance of ritual actions aimed at manipulating the world, but was instead internal—volitional—and aimed at the world of experience. If one makes no effort at purifying one's intentions, one performs karma that leads to rebirth, i.e. one follows the karma-mārga. Buddhism holds out the possibility that by purifying one's intentions one does not perform karma, and one eventually brings rebirth to a halt. Not being reborn, one is free from suffering, since suffering is associated with embodiment.

The attempts—ancient and modern—to fit the semantic meaning of "confections" or "formations" to saṅkhārākhandha seem to me to be a red herring based on the etymological fallacy (the idea that the meaning of a word can only be obtained by examining the morphology, the past use, and the meaning of the parts of the word. Because the word is not defined this way in this case, such attempts are at best confusing and unconvincing. At worst they are nonsensical.

In this context saṅkhārā seems to straight-forwardly mean volitions (cetanā), i.e. contributions to karma that fuel rebirth. And since understanding how we create karma is central to Buddhist soteriology, this makes sense.



Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom.

Gethin, Rupert. 1986. “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 14(1): 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue. 1996. Identity and experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jurewicz, Joanna. (2005) "Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought." In Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. I, edited by Paul Williams. Psychology Press. Originally published 2000 Journal of the Pali Text Society 26 pp. 77-103.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. 1994. A Survey of Hinduism. 2nd Ed. State University of New York Press.

Vetter, Tilmann. 2000. The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas. Wien Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

15 January 2021

Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Saññā

Continuing my series exploring the Pāli khandhas in the early Buddhist texts as they are interpreted in two books published in 2000: Tilmann Vetter's The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas and Sue Hamilton's Early Buddhism: A New Approach. In addition to these main sources I have also started consulting Rupert Gethin's article: “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma” (1986).

So far I have covered rūpa and vedanā. My verdict on each was that both authors' accounts of these terms are problematic. This is partly because of the inordinate weight put, quite uncritically, on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79). Because there is a dearth of explanation of the khandhas in Pāli, this one sutta that appears to explain them is given privilege. The definitions in the Khajjanīya Sutta turn out to be untrustworthy, but this has not stopped them being given pride of place by modern commentators. However, explanations of the khandhas do not reflect the general usage in Pāli. If anything, a picture that was vague to begin with becomes more deeply obscure.

I suspect that some of us cannot shake the tendency to think of ancient Indian Buddhists as akin to the Greek philosophers. I think we imagine sitting around trying to reason about the world or just discussing it and coming up with grand narratives explaining life, the universe, and everything. We do have accounts of group discussions so they probably did happen, but Indian religieux also pursued a religious lifestyle and this included the religious exercises peculiar to India that we now refer to with the misnomer meditation. A lot of what we read about in Pāli suttas is an idealised account of this lifestyle: men and women leaving behind all social responsibilities and domestic life to pursue the deathless.

It's a mistake to think of the khandhas as the result of metaphysical speculation. The idea that early Buddhists were even interested in existence is on the wrong track. It's clear that Buddhism (and Indian religion in general) is underpinned by altered states of consciousness experienced in meditation, especially by the complete cessation of sense experience while remaining conscious. If Buddhists were speculating about anything, it was about the significance of cessation, the absence of sense experience, and as a corollary, the nature of sense experience. There is no talk of "reality" in early Buddhism (at least in Pāli) so far as I can see. There is a lot of talk about experience.

Rupert Gethin points out that in these sources: upādānakkhandhā = dukkha = loka = satta = ajjhattika-āyatana = sakkāya

"All these expressions apparently represent different ways of characterising the given data of experience or conditioned existence, and are also seen as drawing attention to the structure and the sustaining forces behind it all" (1986: 42).

The caveat is that there is no term that means "conditioned existence". We can say, categorically, that saṅkhāta is compounded with only one word in the Pāli suttas, saṅkhāta-dhamma: there are conditioned dhammas (saṅkhāta-dhammā) but no Pāḷi term that means conditioned existence. Moreover, dhammas are the object of the manas or mind-sense. As I have argued elsewhere, conditioned dhammas refer to sensory experience and the singular unconditioned dhamma (asaṅkhāta-dhamma) is the state of absence of sense experience in which all the conditions for experience are absent (suñña), i.e. nibbāna. This is the broader context in which we have to think about khandhas. In other words we should be in the overlapping domains of phenomenology and epistemology: accounts of the phenomena and knowledge about phenomena, as opposed to accounts of noumena or existence. And this goes double for terms that clearly refer to some mental capacity or function, such as the next khandha, saññā.

By "conditioned existence" Gethin might have meant saṃsāra the rounds of rebirth. But in early Buddhism this is governed by a different, incompatible process, i.e. karma. Dependent arising asserts that there can be no delayed consequences (something Nāgārajuna picks up on centuries later) and karma is all about delayed consequences. Of course, some tried to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but providing the necessary continuity for karma was always a problem because it always contravened the limits imposed by dependent arising.

In any case, let us now consider saññā.


In defining saññā, Vetter continues to draw on the problematic Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) by asserting that "saññā is derived from sañjānāti" (24). It might be better to say that, in this rather odd and unrepresentative sutta, the word saññā is explained by the verb sañjānāti and that the two words are derived from the same affix-verbal root combination: saṃ√jñā. The verb sañjānāti typically refers to the act of recognition and putting a name to something. The Khajjanīya Sutta elaborates on this theme of recognition by naming four colours. And in the light of psychology this invokes the more involved idea of perception (rather than naming) or in Hamilton's case apperception, i.e. "perception in the cognitive rather than in (just) the visual sense" (76). Gethin, too, references the colours as part of the definition.

Note that the colours named are the four "basic" colour terms in Pāḷi: nīla "dark/black", pītaka "yellow", lohita "red/brown", and odata "light/white". And this deserves a digression. Here "basic" is a jargon term with a very specific, if somewhat contested, meaning, the definition of which takes up a whole chapter in C. P. Biggam's The Semantics of Colour: A Historical Approach (2012). Since Biggam identifies nineteen potential headings under which to discuss the concept of basicness we could easily get bogged down. I will give a simple definition and suggest readers consult Biggam for a more comprehensive discussion of this fascinating idea. For our purposes:

A basic colour term is an adjective that is solely used to describe colours, it is at the top level of the taxonomy of colour terms (there is no broader category other than "colour" into which the basic term fits), it is not a recent loan word, it is not a compound word and does not rely on affixes to convey meaning, and in a language-using community basic terms are understood and used by everyone for the same purpose.

With respect to the basic colours in Pāli, note that nīla does not mean "blue" until considerably later, here it means "dark" and this takes in black, blue, green, brown, grey, etc. Thus, while a blue object would be labelled nīla, not all nīla-coloured objects would be blue. The Sanskrit of this period also has just four basic colour terms, as does Homeric Greek. See also my essay Seeing Blue (6 Mar 2015). Colour terms evolve in predictable ways, so that if a language has four basic colour terms one of the expected lines of development is to first split off red from light-coloured and then to distinguish red and yellow. And we confidently predict that the next colour to be added will be blue or green. And so on. So the colours named in the sutta are not arbitrary or random. We have eleven basic colour terms in English: black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, grey, pink, orange. I suspect that, like some other languages, English begins to distinguish blue from cyan at a basic level.

Vetter assumes that he has a reliable definition and then leaps to the conclusion that the definition derived from the Khajjanīya Sutta "seems to presuppose some knowledge of a description of a kasina." (24). This is based on the appearance of the four basic colour terms (sans any insights into colour terminology) and of the verb sañjānāti,which occurs over 100 times in the suttas, often in the sense of "he recognises X as X" (cf. Mūlapariyāya Sutta MN I.1). Vetter leaps ahead, yet again, to suggest that this means "he imagines X as X". And I frankly do not follow the reasoning for this second leap. Nor do I follow his reasoning when he leaves behind the context of the khandhas and discusses saññā in a completely different context without making any distinction. We already know that the meanings of these words are sensitive to context. Vetter's citations of the Suttanipāta (25) are for example in the context of a person abandoning views. E.g. 793: "He becomes dissociated from all dhammas that are seen, heard, or thought (mutaṃ)." (which also seems like a description of the absence of sense experience, doesn't it?). If we are discussing the khandhas then we ought to stick to texts that deal with the khandhas, unless the case is being made that the use with respect to the khandhas is just the ordinary usage. Vetter does not make this case.

Saññā is yet another term that changes its meaning depending on context and over time. Like words such as manas, citta, and viññāna, saññā can just be a general word for mind or mental activity. Vetter suggests that Johansson has it right when he summarises the relevant mental activities as "ideation" (25) and Gethin supports Alex Wayman's suggestion that it means "idea" (1986: 36). Again, this seems to be based on the word in a different context. Moreover, even Gethin is too reliant on the Khajjanīya Sutta and on the modern psychological interpretation of the significance of the colour terms when it comes to saññā. When one says of an object that it is blue, one is not having an idea, one is putting a name to a quality. Perhaps this does involve conceptualisation, but that conceptualisation is transparent to the person and would not have been obvious to early Buddhists. I see no evidence that the authors of the Pāli text generally had any insight into this abstract way of thinking about perception. We have to remember the the terms developed in Iron Age India long before sophisticated psychology and theories of consciousness emerged. All the authors I'm considering in this essay seem to be projecting modern ideas backwards and making an anachronism out of saññā (another example of the anachronistic fallacy).

A deeper sense of incoherence emerges when we see an alternative set of three khandhas in the Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43) where they are also matched to verbs from the same root: viññāṇa/vijānāti, vedanā/vedeti, and saññā/sanjānāti. The sutta tells us that viññāna cognises (vijānāti) pleasant, painful, and neutral; Vedanā experiences (vedeti) pleasant, painful, and neutral, while saññā recognises (sañjānāti) dark, yellow, red, and white (Note the first three colours are given in the form nīlaka, pītaka, lohitaka, where -ka can be adjectival with a possessive sense or diminutive). Here, the three factors are in a different order than we are used to meeting them. The text tells us, however, that they are conjoined and inseparable (ime dhammā saṃsaṭṭhā, no visaṃsaṭṭhā. MN I 293) and this is because "What one feels, that one recognises; and what one recognises, that one cognises." (yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vijānāti). And this is the order we meet in the khandha passages.

But this is strange, because what one feels is sukha/dukkha/asukhamadukkha, what one recognises is colour, and one what cognises is again sukha/dukkha/asukhamadukkha. Two of these form a related set and one is completely unrelated, unless the colours are somehow a code for combinations of sukha/dukkha. If saññā really is the recognition of colours then the khandhas are incoherent at this point. This is reinforced when we think of saṅkhāra as karmic actions (obviously, I'm jumping the gun here a little), because karmic actions involve grasping the pleasant (sukha) and shunning the unpleasant (dukkha). The khandhas appear to narrowly miss out on having sukha/dukkha as a unifying idea: the appearance, feeling of, recognition, reaction to, and discrimination based on, the pleasantness and unpleasantness of sensory experience.

Hamilton, as noted, translates saññā as "apperception" and associates with the action of "identifying" (76). "What one is doing in this process, according to the texts, is making manifold and naming what one is experiencing." (76). Unfortunately, with the terminology of "making manifold" Hamilton is at her least clear and her usual practice of referring to which texts she is referring breaks down. Hamilton appears to insist on a metaphysical interpretation of dependent arising against her own stated view that dependent arising describes experience (which is an epistemic or phenomenological interpretation). She appears to believe that dependent arising entails an undifferentiated world in which nothing is distinguished, and that identifying individual objects in this undifferentiated mass is "making manifold", Hamilton's translation of papañca. Papañca is in fact another tricky and under-defined concept that I have studied in some depth in two essays from 2012: Translating Papañca and Understanding Prapañca.

What Hamilton does not say is that the texts that use the word papañca are confused. There are four distinct ways of talking about papañca:

  • papañca as the sum total of the perceptual process: e.g. in M 18, S 35.94 A 3.294, Sn 4.11, Sn 3.6
  • papañca as metaphysical speculation: e.g. in A 4.173
  • papañca in relation to 'I am': e.g. in S 35.248, Sn 4.14
  • papañca = kilesas e.g. S 35.248, SA 2.381 (commenting on S 35.94). UdA (commenting on Ud 7.7)

Moreover, when it comes to the process, the term refers to three distinct sequences of terms that appear to describe a process and they all disagree on the order in which the process happens. That is:

  • Sn 4.11: papañca = saññā → nāma & rūpa → phassa → sāta & asāta → canda → piya → macchara etc.
  • M 18: rūpa + cakkhu + cakkhu-viññāna → phassa → vedanā/vedeti → sañjānāti → vitakka → papañca.
  • D 21: papañcasaññāsaṅkhā → vitakka → chanda → piyāppiya → issā-macchariya → verā etc.

No one can say definitively that papañca is one thing or the other. There is no overarching definition that fits every mention of it and Hamilton has simply chosen the definition which best fits her theory. As much as I find her theory useful, I don't find this aspect of it at all convincing. As I said in 2012: "What my study seems to say is that the ambiguity of papañca allows it to be co-opted to suit the agenda of the commentator.". Back then I was still puzzled by the lack of coherence in a Buddhist doctrine. Since then I have realised that incoherence is the norm.

Given Hamilton's emphasis on experience and the lurch into metaphysics at this point (undifferentiated reality vs objectified experience) her work here becomes practically useless. I retain enough naivete to find this quite disappointing.


I think colours associated with saññā in the context of the khandhas are a red herring. The colour words trigger particular associations in a modern reader that seem unrelated to how people in Iron Age India conceived of their world. We can be sure that they did not think in terms of psychology. We know that they didn't think of the mind at all like we do, as I show in my essay The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor.

There is a distinction between inventing a way of reading texts (a hermeneutic) that makes sense on our terms and seeking to understand how the authors understood the texts. The former ignores the meaning of the text qua text and opts for something that fits modern preconceptions. This is the approach of all the modern Buddhists that I know. Stepping outside this modernist insider approach to really read the texts and to unearth the mode of thought of the authors is difficult and perhaps ultimately impossible. However, the textual scholar is bound to try to do this and to highlight how they go about it.

Sanskrit dictionaries tell us that saṃjñā means "agreement, mutual understanding; consciousness, understanding; sign, token, signal; name, appellation"; while the verb means "to agree, to be of the same opinion; to appoint, assign, to acknowledge, to recognise; to claim, take possession". So the etymology offers a rich semantic field from which to choose, but "ideation" and "idea" don't really come up. At the outside edge of this we could imagine "perception" but really only if we employ psychology anachronistically. Of course, we have to avoid the etymological fallacy and keep in mind that the use may be unrelated to the etymology. Still, the usage still has to make some kind of sense.

We seem to come back to recognition as the principle idea associated with the word and the most likely application in this context also. The problem is that this is the conclusion of none of my informants. This feels a little awkward. The influence of the Khajjanīya Sutta on modern discussions of the khandhas continues to be problematic. Why was it not read critically by scholars? It seems that in the absence of a precise and coherent explanation this text was adopted as the next best thing. But it cannot carry this weight.



Biggam, C. P. 2012. The Semantics of Colour: A Historical Approach. Cambridge University Press.

Gethin, Rupert. 1986. “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 14(1): 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue. 1996. Identity and experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Vetter, Tilmann. 2000. The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas. Wien Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

08 January 2021

Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Vedanā

In the first installment of this exploration of the khandas I introduced the subject and outlined the project I'm working on. I have two books published in 2000 that purport to provide an overview of the khandhas based on a comprehensive survey of the Theravāda Nikāyas and in one also the Theravāda Vinaya preserved in Pāli (though such mentions are few). Since the khandhas play an important role in Prajñāpāramitā literature and the Heart Sutra I wanted a working definition, but I have long been dissatisfied with the received explanations and drawn to Sue Hamilton's recasting of the khandhas as the "apparatus of experience". The opportunity to contrast this view with another comprehensive survey published in the same year seemed fortuitous. So I began to read them side by side and make notes. 

Since writing the first installment I found Rupert Gethin's excellent article “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma” (1986). This provides a third summary of the Pāli treatment of the five khandhas. Gethin's article is extremely useful because he resists turning the descriptive task into an exercise in exegesis. That is, he tells us what the literature says without adding an interpretative veneer aimed at making sense of the ideas found there. Anyone looking for a straightforward description of what the khandhas are according to the Pāli texts will find what they are looking for in this article. Importantly, Gethin makes explicit in 1986 something that Hamilton concludes in 2000 without acknowledging Gethin (though she has clearly read and cites his article), i.e. that dukkha, khandha, and loka are synonyms for "experience" in this context (along with some other words). 

Having covered rūpa in the first installment we now move onto vedanā. 


The word vedanā is problematic for reasons already hinted at. We can see the problem in microcosm in the opening statements of our two authors on vedanā:

Hamilton: "...the khandha of sensation. It is also sometimes called the khandha of feeling (I have so called it myself in the past), but this is or can be misleading because it is not feeling in the affective sense of emotion that is meant here. (76)
Vetter: "Thus vedanā is pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral 'feeling'. The translation 'sensation', though possible is not chosen because it is needed, with another shade of meaning, for translating [viññāṇa]." (22)

So is it "sensation" or is it "feeling"? My treatment of vedanā will be influenced by an article I published in 2018. I was invited to contribute to a special issue of Contemporary Buddhism on the subject of vedanā, which contained a dozen articles all focussed on this elusive concept and various attempts to explain how to translate and understand it. Since someone had already done an extensive review of the etymology, I was forced to consider other approaches. It dawned on me that the reason we have trouble translating this and other jargon terms is that they are not used according to their etymologies. Rather, the words are used quite arbitrarily to convey a jargon concept that was particular to Buddhism. And this opened the door to reconsidering the definitions of many words in the Buddhist lexicon. There is a summary of the article on my blog: Through the Looking Glass: How we define and translate Buddhist technical terms.

Vedanā comes from a root √vid "to know" and is a concrete noun (a name for a thing) formed from an action noun. The action noun is derived from the causative, so it names the action of "making known" or "bringing about knowledge". In a word, vedanā means something like "an announcement" or refers to the thing that informs you. But this is not how it is used. Vedanā is used to mean the positive or negative hedonic qualities of experience: sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā asukhamadukkhaṃ vā paṭisamvedeti. No one disputes this definition which is found throughout the suttas, but they do tie themselves in knots making a translation mean that. Gethin adds:

"The significance of the three kinds of vedanā seems to lie in their being seen as three basic reactions to experience which possess a certain potential to influence and govern an individual's subsequent responses in either skilful or unskilful ways" (1986: 36).

Vetter treats vedanā as "derived from" vedayati based (again) on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) which I discussed at some length in the first installment. I noted that the Khajjanīya Sutta had a wrong definition of rūpa relating to ruppati "to harm" (Skt rupyati) rather than the denominative ruppeti "to appear" (Skt rūpayati). The Khajjanīya Sutta is not a reliable source for a definition or rūpa but Vetter ploughs on. With respect to vedanā the text says:

‘vedayatī’ti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘vedanā’ti vuccati.
[It does the action of] vedayati, monks, therefore, it is called vedanā.

Note that a final short vowel is long when followed by iti. But how to translate the verb vedayati, given that we already acknowledge that the noun is not used as we might expect from the etymology? Note also that the verb is being used intransitively, but this may be a quirk of this particular syntax - when referring to the action itself in the abstract the object might be left off and still make sense as in "they experience [sense stimulation] therefore we call it experience". In this case we don't need to specify what is experienced, even though in normal speech we would have to.

Worse, we discover that Vetter uses the PTS edition which has vediyati and notes "v.l. vedayati": where v.l. = vario lectio "a variant word" . My text comes from the Sixth Council Edition which is fairly reliable and much more accessible. The trouble is that they are not simple variants. See PTSD s.v. vindati (625) and vedeti (648).

Vediyati could be derived in two ways. It most resembles a passive (affix -iya-) built on the causative form of the root (ved-) "it is made known", but could also be a present indicative form "he experiences" from ved-ya, with a euphonic infix -i- because dy is not allowed in Pāli phonology giving the stem vediya- .

Vedayati could be a denominative from veda "knowledge, experience" (as rūpayati is from rūpa); or it could be an archaic (or borrowed) causative. The expected Pāli causative third person singular is vedeti but the -e affix is a condensation of the Sanskrit affix -aya-, and the Sanskrit causative is vedayati. We will meet vedeti below. 

If we turn to the context, it provides us with a strong predictor of what to expect. If we look again at the pattern from the passage in question, i.e. SN III.86-7, we see five verbs:

  • ruppati = denominative; present indicative third person singular (active voice)
  • vedayati/vediyati = ?
  • sañjānāti = present indicative, third person singular (active voice)
  • abhisaṅkharonti = present indicative, third person plural (active voice)
  • vijānāti = present indicative, third person singular (active voice)
So we are expecting to see a verb in the active voice, indicative mood, present tense, third person, and probably in the singular (though possibly plural). The particular syntax of quoting the bare word followed by iti and then a definition also makes us expect to see the third person singular (in Latin and English we expect the infinite when defining verbs, e.g. "to know").

So if vediyati is correct then is must be the present indicative "they experience" and if vedayati is correct then it is a denominative "they are informed". And either possibility is equally likely as far as I can see. The two words are virtually interchangeable in Pāli (especially when we consider the commentaries).

What the text says is that vedanā—the positive or negative hedonic quality of experience—is supposedly the result of an action denoted by vedayati or vediyati. But given the very specific, ad hoc, definition of the word (Humpty Dumpty style) all this etymological work (a couple of hours!) is ultimately futile. We cannot simply rely on the assumed meaning as derived from etymology because etymology plays little or no part in the definition of vedanā as a Buddhist technical term. And here is the most crucial criticism of relying on the Khajjanīya Sutta as an authoritative source. The author of the Khajjanīya Sutta has fallen for the etymological fallacy and taken Vetter down with him.

We can say that vedanā means "feeling" but we still have to consciously redefine "feeling" to mean "the positive and negative hedonic quality of experience". And this is not obvious to any outsider until we tell them. They may well complain that we can't just redefine words willy-nilly, in which case we can give Humpty Dumpty's retort, “The question is, which is to be master–that’s all”. And we are the masters of our own jargon.

There is another statement in Vetter (2000: 23) that needs some attention, viz "In a formula thirteen times employed in the Brahmajāla-sutta, vedanā obviously refers to a sublime state of bliss" (e.g. as DN I.17). But Vetter himself goes on to show that this is incorrect. There is no doubt that the Buddha is said to attain nibbuti which Bodhi and Maurice Walsh both translate as "perfect peace" but which can be understood as "bliss".

In arguing that nibbuti can mean "a state of bliss" Vetter references a discussion of nibbuti in "Norman 1993, 59" but he does not include a work by Norman with this date in his bibliography. Is the date wrong or was the reference omitted? In any case, the argument is not hard to find elsewhere. The PED derives the word from Sanskrit nirvṛti "bliss, pleasure, delight" but points out that it is used synonymously with nibbāṇa. Maurice Walsh and Bodhi both follow this usage when they translate nibbuti in this context as "perfect peace". Edgerton points out that nirvṛti probably derives from nir-var ([i.e. nir√vṛ] 203 s.v. nirvṛta, nirvṛti), "but even in Sanskrit used in ways that suggest a secondary association with nir-vā- 'extinguished'." Here again, use trumps etymology and Vetter's insistence on translating nibbuti as "a state of bliss" is another example of the etymological fallacy. Buddhists simply don't use the word that way.

Worse, here vedanā is not related to nibbuti at all. Rather, as part of the process of liberation, the Tathāgata in this description first attains peace, then "having understood as they are, the arising and passing away of feelings, the enjoyment of, disadvantage of, and release from them... (vedanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṃ viditvā). It is not true that "vedanā obviously refers to a sublime state of bliss" rather it is obvious that knowledge of the arising and passing away of vedanā is referred to in the context of achieving liberation.

Conclusions on Vedanā

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that scholars explicating vedanā are often struggling with the etymological fallacy. We in fact have a precise definition of what vedanā means in Pāli. It means the positive (sukha), negative (dukkha), or neutral (asukham-adukkha) feelings that we have in response to sense experience. Another place we come unstuck is a variety of anachronistic fallacy, i.e. trying to present this Iron Age religious concept in terms of some form of modern understanding of the mind and/or perception. For example, insisting that it means "feelings" and then using a psychoanalytic explanation of "feeling" as though it is universally applicable across times and cultures. One might also say that this is Anglo- or Euro-centric. 

Hamilton and Gethin both treat the khandhas as a "sequence". Vetter appears not to take this approach. For Hamilton, it means that vedanā occurs prior to, e.g. recognition (which is a function of saññā). The idea of the khandhas as a diachronic sequence rather than a synchronic list is not defended. I've only ever come across one text in which some of the khandhas appear to form a sequence, and even then it's not a complete list of khandhas, i.e. in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)

Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M I.111)
With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one is made to feel, one comes to know. What one knows, one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...

Note here that the verb associated with vedanā is vedeti, the causative,  "it makes known" or "it causes [one] to experience" (c.f. above). Note also that this passage appears to combine elements from at least three doctrinal lists, but does so in a way that is quite intuitive (which should make us suspicious). Thus I am not convinced by the idea of the sequence. (cf. Hamilton's comments on the order of the list; 72-73).

In my view, then, Tilmann Vetter is off to a very inauspicious start with his characterisation of the khandhas. I don't believe him. Sue Hamilton is doing better but her approach has a Procrustean element to it that was not apparent to me previously. Rupert Gethin's summary had a very different purpose and provides a good contrast to both. 



Attwood, J. 2018. “Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass.” Contemporary Buddhism, 18 no. 3, 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959

Gethin, Rupert. 1986. “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 14(1): 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue. 1996. Identity and experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Vetter, Tilmann. 2000. The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas. Wien Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
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