Concepts (II)

The “Atthasālinī” (II, Part II, 400) explains about being unguarded as to the “controlling faculties,” the indriyas. Here, the indriyas of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind are referred to. We read:

“Grasps the general appearance, i.e., grasps by way of lusting, desire a sign such as is of the male, or female, pleasant, etc., and which is the basis of corruption.”

When we cling to the general appearance of male or female, it shows that the object is not a paramattha dhamma. When we know that we see a man or woman, we don’t just know the reality that appears through the eyes, but we have an image (nimitta), a concept on account of what appears through the eyes. The image of the general appearance of a man or woman is the foundation of defilements. Through the power of desire (chanda raga) we take that image for something attractive. When we like a concept such as a belt, it shows that the belt is an attractive image. One is attached to it, one is ruled by desire. If the belt is not beautiful, if it is not an attractive image (nimitta), one does not like it. On account of colours that appear through the eyes, there can be different “nimittas”, attractive or unattractive.

We read further on in the “Atthāsalinī”:

“Grasps the details (anuvyañjana), i.e., takes the various modes of hands and feet, of smiling, laughing, speaking, looking straight ahead, looking askance, which have earned the name of ‘details’ from the manifesting, the revealing of the lower nature.”

The “details” are the condition that causes defilements to appear. When someone likes a belt, he likes the general appearance, the image, and the details. If all belts were the same, if there were no variety of them, the details would not be different. However, there are many kinds of belts and they are different as to the details. The details condition the arising of different kinds of defilements.

Questioner: If we don’t cling to concepts, I fear that we will not know that this is a pen.

Sujin: That is not so. We should know realities in accordance with the truth. What appears through the eyes falls away, and then there are mind-door process cittas, which arise afterwards and know a concept. Paññā (wisdom) should know realities as they are. It should know what is visible object, which appears through the eye-door. It should know that the experience of visible object is different from the moment that citta knows a concept. Thus we can become detached from the idea that visible object that appears are beings, people, or things; we can become detached from that which is the foundation of clinging. We should understand that when it is known that there is a man, a woman, beings, or different people, the object is an image or concept known through the mind-door. When we develop satipaṭṭhāna, we should know the characteristics of the realities just as they naturally appear, in order to be able to realize the arising and falling away of nāma and rūpa. It should be known that paramattha dhammas are not concepts. One should continue to develop paññā when realities appear through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense, and mind-door.

Questioner: Did you say that a concept is a kind of dhammārammaṇa (mind-door object)?

Sujin: A concept is dhammārammaṇa. It is an object that can only be known through the mind-door.

Questioner: Are there also paramattha dhammas (ultimate realities) which are dhammārammaṇa?

Sujin: There are six classes of dhammārammaṇa. Five classes are paramattha dhammas and one class is not paramattha dhamma. We should know when an object is a concept. When an object is not a paramattha dhamma, the object is a concept.

When we think of concepts in daily life, the characteristics of the paramattha dhammas, which are experienced through the six doors, are hidden. Thus, realities are not known as they are. One does not know that what appears through the eyes is not a being, person or self. It is only colour that appears when it impinges on the eyesense. When will paññā become keener so that it will know the truth when there is seeing?

When the truth is known, we will let go of the idea that there is a self, that there are beings or people. One will be able to distinguish between the object which is a paramattha dhamma and the object which is a concept and one will have right understanding of the realities which appear through the six doors.

Questioner: Which object is experienced while we are dreaming?

Sujin: Everyone, except an arahat, is sure to dream. When we wake up, we say that in our dream we saw a relative who passed away. While we were dreaming, did we see a concept or a paramattha dhamma? If we do not consider this, we will not know the truth. It seems as if we can really see in our dreams. However, if we ask someone what he sees in his dreams, he will answer that he sees people, relatives and friends, that he sees different beings. Thus, when we dream, we “see” concepts. At such moments, the eye-door process cittas do not arise because we are asleep. However, cittas arising in the mind-door process are thinking, they “see” beings and people. When we are dreaming we think of concepts that are conceived on account of what we formerly saw, heard or experienced through the other senses.

Also, when we read about different subjects in the newspaper and see pictures, we only think of concepts; we don’t know the characteristics of paramattha dhammas (ultimate realities) that appear. We don’t know the difference between concepts and paramattha dhammas. When we read or perform our tasks in daily life, there is seeing of what appears through the eyes, but we pay attention only to concepts and keep on thinking of them.

Concepts are conceived on account of what was heard. A small child often hears sounds but it does not yet know words; it does not understand conventional language. It sees, hears, smells, tastes, experiences tangible object, it experiences pain, it is angry, it has likes and dislikes, and it cries. However, it does not know words with which it can explain its feelings, it cannot speak yet until it has become older. Can anybody remember all that has happened from the moment he was born? Seeing, hearing, and other sense-cognitions arose but we could not use words to express ourselves since we did not yet understand the meaning of the different sounds used in speech. That is why the memory of the events of early childhood fades away. When we grow up we know the meaning of the different sounds which form up words in current speech, which are used to express ourselves. We take in more and more impressions through eyes and ears and combine these experiences, and thus many kinds of events of our lives can be remembered. The world of conventional truth expands and there is no end to its development.

When one reads a story one also wants to see a moving picture of it and hear the corresponding sounds. We should realize to what extent the world of conventional truth hides realities, paramattha dhammas. We should consider what are concepts, not paramattha dhammas, when we, for example, watch television, when we watch a play and look at people talking. It seems that the people who play in a film on television are real people, but the story and the people who play in it are only concepts. The paramattha dhammas that appear fall away very rapidly and then they are succeeded by other realities. When we know that there is a particular person, the object of the citta is a concept.

The characteristics of paramattha dhammas are hidden because of ignorance, avijjā, which does not know the difference between paramattha dhammas and concepts, paññattis. Therefore, one is not able to realize that the realities appearing through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind-door are not beings, a person, or self. If we study citta, cetasika (mental factors), and rūpa in more and more detail, the intellectual understanding of the Dhamma will develop. This understanding is accumulated and thus conditions are developed for the arising of sati (mindfulness) which can be directly aware of the characteristics of paramattha dhammas. Thus, there can be more detachment from the outward appearance (nimitta) and the details (anuvyañjana) which are forms of paññatti.

Questioner: Can a concept be an object of satipaṭṭhāna?

Sujin: It cannot.

Questioner: From what I heard just a moment ago, it seems that a concept can be the object of satipaṭṭhāna.

Sujin: Only paramattha dhammas can be the object of satipaṭṭhāna. When flavour impinges on the rūpa that is tasting-sense, there are conditions for the arising of cittas that experience flavour through the tongue-door. First, there is the five-sense-door adverting-consciousness and then there are tasting-consciousness, receiving-consciousness, investigating-consciousness, determi-ning-consciousness, the javana-cittas and the tadālambana-cittas (registering or retention). Then the flavour falls away and, thus, there is no grape in the absolute sense. However, when one joins different realities together into a whole, such as a grape, then the object is a concept.

Satipaṭṭhāna is developed when there is awareness of the characteristics of paramattha dhammas and they are realized as not a being, a person or self. When sati does not arise, the characteristics of paramattha dhammas cannot be discerned, only concepts are known. Then, there will be ideas of beings, people and self all the time.

Questioner: You said that concepts could be known through the mind-door. Therefore, I am inclined to think that if there is awareness through the mind-door, concepts can be the object of satipaṭṭhāna.

Sujin: In order to have more understanding of satipaṭṭhāna, we should begin with this very moment. Is there a concept while you hear sound now? Sound is a paramattha dhamma. When citta knows the meaning of the sound it knows a concept and it knows this through the mind-door. Citta thinks about different words. Sati can follow and be aware of that citta, so that it can be realized as just a type of citta that thinks of words.

Questioner: Thus, satipaṭṭhāna can know the reality that is thinking, but it cannot know concepts. As far as I understand, each of the sense-door processes has to be followed by a mind-door process, it cannot be otherwise. When there is seeing there is an eye-door process, and after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, there is a mind-door process of cittas which experience visible object. Is that right?

Sujin: The vīthi-cittas of the mind-door process, which follow vīthi-cittas of a sense-door process, have to experience the same rūpa. If the javana-cittas of the sense-door process are lobha-mūla-cittas (cittas rooted in attachment), the javana-cittas of the first mind-door process after that sense-door process have to be the same types of lobha-mūla-citta. The mind-door process follows extremely rapidly upon the sense-door process. With respect to this, there is a simile of a bird perching on a branch. As soon as the bird perches on the branch, its shadow appears on the ground. Even so, when the object has been experienced through the sense-door and there have been many bhavanga-cittas in between, arising and falling away very rapidly, it is immediately afterwards experienced through the mind-door. Since cittas succeed one another so rapidly, one does not know that visible object which is experienced through the eyes is only a paramattha dhamma that can appear because it has impinged on the eye-sense.

Questioner: When there is seeing through the eyes and we know that it is a pen, it shows that we know the word pen through the mind-door. Is that right?

Sujin: Before we can think of the word pen, we already know a concept. A paññatti is not merely sadda paññatti, a concept of sound, a word or name.

Questioner: After seeing I remember what was seen. Is the object then already a concept?

Sujin: The Pāli term paññatti means: it makes something known (derived from paññāpeti).

Questioner: Must each of the sense-door processes be followed by a mind-door process?

Sujin: The five sense objects, which are visible object, sound, odour, flavour, and tangible object, appear through two doorways. Thus, visible object appears through the eye-door and then, after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, it appears through the mind-door. In the same way, sound, odour, flavour, and tangible object appear through the corresponding sense-doors and then through the mind-door.

Questioner: When we taste a sour flavour and we notice that it is sour, do we experience a concept?

Sujin: What is sour?

Questioner: For example, a sour orange we eat.

Sujin: The flavour is a paramattha dhamma, and when we think of a sour orange, the object is a concept. The words sour oranges are “sadda paññatti” (“sadda” meaning sound or word). When we name something, the object is nāma paññatti, a concept that is a name. If there were no sounds, there would be no words, and we would not think of the meaning of things; we would not pay much attention to objects. When sound is the object of cittas of the ear-door process, and then of cittas of the mind-door process, saññā (remembrance), which remembers the meaning of the different sounds, conditions thinking about words and names.

Everything can be called by a name, such as a pen, a pencil, a table or a chair; these are all names. There is no dhamma that cannot be called by a name. Since dhammas have distinctive characteristics, names are needed to make these known. Thus, dhammas are the cause of name giving. The “Atthasālinī” (Book II, Part II, Ch. II, 391) describes the process of name giving. We read:

“There is no being, no thing that may not be called by a name. Also, the trees in the forest, the mountains are the business of the country folk. For they, on being asked, ‘What tree is this?’ say the name they know, as ‘Cutch,’ ‘Mango tree.’ Even of the tree, the name of which they know not, they say, ‘It is the nameless tree.’ And that also stands as the established name of that tree...”

If there were no names, it would be most difficult for people to understand one another. Even paramattha dhammas need to be named. The Buddha used concepts to classify dhammas according to their characteristics, such as the following names:

  • The five khandhas,

  • The twelve āyatanas,

  • The eighteen elements,

  • The four noble Truths,

  • The twenty two indriyas,

  • The different groups of people (puggala).

Thus, the Dhamma the Buddha taught needs different terms and names in order to be understood.

The “Atthasālinī” uses different synonyms for nāma paññatti, concepts that are names. It is an interpretation, an expression that renders the meaning of something in language (nirutti). A name is a distinctive sign that shows the meaning of something (vyañcana). There are sounds which people utter, sounds combined as words which express the meaning of something (abhilāpa, meaning, phrasing or expression). These synonyms explain the meaning of nāma paññatti, a name or term. A term makes the meaning of something known. The idea or notion that is made known can also be called a concept. Thus, there are, generally speaking, two kinds of paññatti:

  1. That which is made known (paññāpiyattā or atthapaññatti).

  2. That which makes known (paññāpanato), the name or term (sadda

    paññatti or nāma paññatti) which makes known the meaning of things.

If we remember these two classes of concepts, it will be easier to understand what a concept is. There are many kinds of concepts and they can be classified in different ways. One way of classifying them is the following (see also “Abhidhammattha Sangaha” Ch. VIII, section 4, on paññattis):

  1. concept of continuity: (saṇṭhāna paññatti), corresponding to the

    continuity of things, such as land, mountain or tree, which concept

    is based on the rapid succession of the elements.

  2. collective concept: (samūha paññatti), corresponding to modes of

    construction of materials, to a collection of things, such as a

    vehicle or a chariot.

  3. conventional concept: (sammutti paññatti), such as person or

    individual, which is derived from the five khandhas.

  4. local concept: (disā paññatti), a notion or idea derived from the

    revolving of the moon, such as the directions of east or west.

  5. concept of time: (kāla paññatti), such as morning, evening.

  6. concept of season: (māsa paññatti), notions corresponding to

    seasons and months. The months are designated by names, such as


  7. concept of space: (akāsa), such as a well or a cave. It is

    derived from space that is not contacted by the four Great


  8. nimitta paññatti: the mental image which is acquired through

    the development of samatha, such as the nimitta of a kasiṇa.

We read in the “Abhidhammattha Sangaha”:

“All such different things, although they do not exist in the ultimate sense, become objects of thought in the form of shadows of (ultimate) things. They are called paññatti because they are thought of, reckoned, understood, expressed, and made known on account of, in consideration of, and with respect to, this or that mode. This paññatti is so called because it is made known. As it makes known, it is called ‘paññatti’. It is described as ‘name’, ‘name-made’, etc.”

Lobha-mūla-citta (consciousness with attachment) arises time and again through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind-door. Even when lobha-mūla-citta is without wrong view (diṭṭhigata vippayutta), it is not merely attached to paramattha dhammas (realities) which appear through the six doors, but it is also attached to concepts. It is attached to the general appearance of things and to the details; it is attached to names and to subjects of thought.

We should ask ourselves, at this moment, what kinds of objects we usually experience in our daily life? The objects are mostly concepts and thus the characteristics of paramattha dhammas are hidden, they are not known as they are.

Questioner: When we touch grapes or a picture of grapes, softness and hardness are paramattha dhammas, the flavour of grapes is a paramattha dhamma. Many realities that are joined together constitute a real grape and this we call a concept. Thus, I am inclined to think that a concept is real.

Sujin: The rūpa of flavour arises and then falls away; it can only last as long as seventeen moments of citta. The rūpa that is the colour of grapes arises and then falls away very rapidly since it only lasts as long as seventeen moments of citta. Can we then say that grapes exist?

Questioner: They exist in our memory.

Sujin: There is a concept, a notion that there are grapes, but in reality there is only flavour which arises and then falls away, or hardness which arises and then falls away.

Questioner: A concept is formed because many paramattha dhammas are joined together into a mass or a whole.

Sujin: When one does not realize the arising and falling away of one reality at a time, one takes what appears to be a whole, for a thing which exists.

Questioner: Is a concept not real? A concept is constituted of many kinds of paramattha dhammas (realities): softness, hardness, heat, colour, odour or flavour. They are joined together; they are a whole, a thing that has such and such colour, this or that shape. There is a concept of this or that person with such and such outward appearance. Thus, a concept is made up of paramattha dhammas.

Sujin: One will know that concepts are not paramattha dhammas if one learns to discern the characteristics of the different paramattha dhammas that arise together. One should be aware of one characteristic at a time as it appears through one doorway at a time. In order to know the truth we should realize the arising and falling away of rūpa, which appears through one doorway at a time.

Each rūpa lasts only as long as seventeen moments of citta and then it falls away. Therefore, rūpa that arises has no time to stand, walk, or do anything. During the time one lifts one’s hand, already more than seventeen moments of citta have passed. One sees people walking or lifting their hands, but in reality the rūpas that arise fall away immediately and are succeeded by other rūpas. The rūpa which is visible object appears to cittas of the eye-door process and then, after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, there are many mind-door processes of cittas. That is why one can see people walking or lifting their hands. Seventeen moments of citta pass away extremely rapidly. Thus, we should consider what happens in reality.

It should be known that the rūpa appearing at this moment through the eyes only lasts seventeen moments of citta and that it must fall away before sound can be experienced through ears. It seems that there can be hearing and seeing at the same time, but in between the moment of hearing and the moment of seeing there is an interval of more than seventeen moments of citta. The visible object, which appears through the eyes, and lasts seventeen moments of citta, must have fallen away before the citta that hears arises.

It seems that there can be hearing and seeing at the same time, but these are different moments of citta experiencing different objects. Rūpas arise and fall away and succeed one another. Visible object appears through the eye-door and after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, it appears through the mind-door. Then, there are many mind-door processes of cittas that think of concepts. That is why people who walk, lift their hands or move, can appear. When we see people lifting their hands or walking, there are countless nāma dhammas and rūpa dhammas arising and falling away all the time. So long as we don’t realize the arising and falling away of nāma and rūpa, we cling to the idea that what appears are people, women, men, this or that thing. We cling to the concept of somebody or something.

When one studies paramattha dhammas, one should remember that they are real, that they are not beings, people or self; that they are not women, men, or different things. The dhammas that are true can be verified. One may have often heard the words that paramattha dhammas are real, that they are not beings, people or self, and one may have repeated these words oneself. However, paññā should be developed to the stage that the truth can be directly understood. Flavour and hardness are realities that appear and then, on account of these realities, there is a concept of grapes. The rūpas that arise and then fall away are real but there are, in the absolute sense, no grapes, no beings, or people. There are only rūpa dhammas and nāma dhammas that arise and fall away, succeeding one another very rapidly. Paramattha dhammas are real; they are not concepts.

From the beginning, the practice of the Dhamma should correspond to the theoretical knowledge acquired through listening and through study. The practice should be in accordance with the true characteristics of realities. We have, for example, learned that paramattha dhammas are anattā (not self), and thus we should try to understand the meaning of this, even on the theoretical level. We should consider it and develop paññā so that we can realize the truth in accordance with what we have learned before.

Questioner: Someone asked before whether concepts are real. There is, as you said, absolute truth (paramattha sacca) and conventional truth (sammutti sacca). Could one not say that concepts are real in the conventional sense?

Sujin: One can, but one should remember that concepts are not paramattha dhammas. The idea of grape has no flavour at all. Flavour is a reality and when it has appeared, we have a concept on account of it. We have a concept of flavour of grapes and we call it the flavour of grapes.