Paññā – From Psychology to Hermeneutics

by Ven. Akiñcano

catasso imā, bhikkhave, obhāsā. katame cattāro? candobhāso, sūriyobhāso, aggobhāso, paññobhāso — ime kho, bhikkhave, cattāro obhāsā. etadaggaṃ, bhikkhave, imesaṃ catunnaṃ obhāsānaṃ yadidaṃ paññobhāso”ti.
Bhikkhus, there are these four radiances. Which four? The radiance of the moon, the radiance of the sun, the radiance of fire, the radiance of understanding. These, bhikkhus, are the four radiances. This is foremost of these four radiances, that is: the radiance of understanding.

AN 4:144

Dasein is an entity which, in its very being, comports itself understandingly towards that being.

Heidegger 1962: 78 [SZ: 53]1

1. From psychology…
Observe sensations”, says the meditation teacher. Sensations, he says, are everything that is “felt” in the body—all of those various bodily experiences that are taking place right now: heat, pressure, tingling, itching, throbbing, pain. If one develops the capacity to keep one’s attention on these sensations, he tells us, if one learns to “see them as they really are”, without reacting to them, without any prejudice or preference towards them, then, by practising in this way, “wisdom” (or what he calls paññā) will arise. And so, having been taught in this way, people all over the world sit down cross-legged, close their eyes, and bring their attention to the sensations of the body, believing that they are practising in accordance with the teaching of the Buddha, waiting for insight, for paññā, to arrive.
But let us take a closer look at this. What exactly are these sensations that the Buddha was supposed to have considered to be so important? Perhaps their importance lies in the fact that they have the intriguing feature of appearing on both sides of the traditional division between the subjective and the objective: not only do I feel them, they are also out there in the real objective world. This is illustrated by the first two definitions of the word “sensation” provided by an online dictionary2:


  1. a:  a mental process (as seeing, hearing, or smelling) resulting from the immediate external stimulation of a sense organ often as distinguished from a conscious awareness of the sensory process — compare perception

b:  awareness (as of heat or pain) due to stimulation of a sense organ

c:  a state of consciousness due to internal bodily changes <a sensation of hunger>

d:  an indefinite bodily feeling <a sensation of buoyancy>

  1. something (as a physical stimulus, sense-datum, or afterimage) that causes or is the object of sensation

The first definition refers to something subjective, some kind of “mental process”. However, there appears to be some confusion as to whether a sensation is an awareness (1b), whether it should be distinguished from awareness (1a), whether it is a state of consciousness (1c), or a feeling (1d). Even if we overlook the fact that (1a) and (1b) contradict each other, are we supposed to think of awareness, consciousness and feeling as different words describing one single phenomenon? The second definition is markedly different and no longer refers to anything mental. Rather, it refers to some kind of material substance which causes (or is the object of) the mental process of feeling (or being aware of, or being conscious of) a sensation. It is presumably some kind of physical, electro-chemical impulse which moves through our bodies (through the nerves?) which causes us to “feel” something. It is something out there in the natural world that scientists can actually measure and yet it provides a bridge to (and therefore an explanation for) the domain of our subjective personal experience. It is no surprise that modern meditators have so readily adopted this idea, given that most people these days take the whole discourse of psychology for granted, so caught up in the scientific worldview that they do not see any other means by which they can begin to try to make sense of the Buddha’s teaching. The sensation provides them with a nice objective thing out there in the objective world which they can focus their attention on if they wish to investigate the subjective world of their own personal experience.
When confronted with a teacher who says this, an intelligent puthujjana must ask himself whether this teaching and this notion of the sensation is actually what the Buddha taught or whether it is a pernicious doctrine that should be discarded. If he is authentic enough, he will acknowledge his status as a puthujjana, recognising that he does not actually have the requisite criteria to properly distinguish between right view and wrong view.3 However, this is not to say that he does not have any criteria at his disposal which might, at least to some extent, prove helpful. Blind faith, wishful thinking or trial-&-error are not his only options. He can apply his intelligence in order to judge whether this particular doctrine might actually be something that the Buddha taught, or whether there is a good enough reason to believe that it is probably something which the Buddha did not teach. For instance, he might ask himself the following three questions:

  1. Is this doctrine based upon a contradiction?
  2. Does this doctrine contradict the teachings we find in the Suttas?
  3. Does this doctrine accurately describe the phenomena it purports to describe? In other words, is it good phenomenology?

Leaving aside the first question for the moment, one observes that the second question looks remarkably similar to something we find the Buddha saying in the Suttas.

idha pana, bhikkhave, bhikkhu evaṃ vadeyya — ‘asukasmiṃ nāma āvāse eko thero bhikkhu viharati bahussuto āgatāgamo dhammadharo vinayadharo mātikādharo. tassa me therassa sammukhā sutaṃ sammukhā paṭiggahitaṃ — ayaṃ dhammo, ayaṃ vinayo, idaṃ satthusāsanan’ti. tassa, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno bhāsitaṃ neva abhinanditabbaṃ nappaṭikkositabbaṃ. anabhinanditvā appaṭikkositvā tāni padabyañjanāni sādhukaṃ uggahetvā sutte otāretabbāni, vinaye sandassetabbāni. tāni ce sutte otāriyamānāni vinaye sandassiyamānāni na ceva sutte otaranti na vinaye sandissanti, niṭṭhamettha gantabbaṃ — ‘addhā, idaṃ na ceva tassa bhagavato vacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa; tassa ca therassa duggahitan’ti. iti hetaṃ, bhikkhave, chaḍḍeyyātha.
And here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu might say thus: “In such and such a residence, an elder bhikkhu is dwelling, who is very learned, one to whom the scriptures have been handed down, one who remembers the Dhamma, one who remembers the Vinaya, one who remembers the summaries. In the presence of this elder I heard this, in his presence I learned this: ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s teaching’”. Bhikkhus, that bhikkhu’s statement should neither be approved nor rejected. Having not approved, having not rejected, and having learnt the words and phrases well, they should be checked for in the Suttas, they should be compared with the Vinaya. If when you check for them in the Suttas, when you compare them with the Vinaya, they do not come down from the Suttas, they do not agree with the Vinaya, you should come to this conclusion: “This is certainly not the words of the Blessed One, the Arahat, the perfectly awakened one, and it has been grasped wrongly by this elder.” Thus, bhikkhus, you should discard it.

AN 4:1804

The question of whether or not the doctine of sensations is to be found in the Suttas can be addressed rather easily. For example, SN 36:22 shows that there is absolutely no prima facie evidence to warrant the identification of the sensation with any of the ways that the Buddha spoke about vedanā. That which the Buddha called vedanā is clearly something quite different from the experience of a tingling scalp or a throbbing knee.
The third question is perhaps a more difficult one to answer, particularly if one does not know what constitutes “good phenomenology”. This is the same problem we were confronted with earlier in a different guise: only one who is good at phenomenology is capable of judging what good phenomenology is and what bad phenomenology is. However, perhaps here it might be sensible to consider what famous phenomenological philosophers have written about sensations. Here is what Jean-Paul Sartre had to say on the subject.

… Such is the notion of sensation. We can see its absurdity. First of all, it is a pure fiction. It does not correspond to anything which I experience in myself or with regard to the Other … Sensation, a hybrid notion between the subjective and the objective, conceived from the standpoint of the object applied subsequently to the subject, a bastard existence concerning which we can not say whether it exists in fact or in theory: sensation is a pure daydream of a psychologist. It must be deliberately rejected by any serious theory concerning the relations between consciousness and the world.

Sartre 2003: 338

Maurice Merleau-Ponty reached the same conclusion. The problem, he saw, is deep-rooted. Any philosophy that begins with the metaphysical assumption of an autonomous subject amidst a world of objects faces the epistemological problem of how the subject comes to know about this world of objects. The traditional way of dealing with this problem involves the idea that within the subject there is some kind of depiction or representation of the objects it encounters. But if the subject is cut off from from the world of objects, how is this possible? What makes it possible for there to be an inner representation of an outer reality? This is where the sensation comes in: a “hybrid notion” that provides the bridge between the objective and the subjective domains. It is that objective entity that somehow makes the leap over to subjectivity. But how this happens is far from self-evident. If our experience begins with meaningless units and our meaningful experience of objects in the world somehow emerges, or is somehow constructed, out of these units, then we still need some kind of story to explain how this happens. How do we get from the meaningless to the meaningful? In the opening chapters of Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty describes the various attempts to answer this question which have generally taken one of two approaches: empiricism and rationalism.5 Empiricists, such as Hume and Locke, have tried to provide a causal account of how these meaningless sensations become associated according to some laws of association which then give us the meaningful experience of objects. Rationalists, such as Spinoza, Leibniz and, more recently, cognitive scientists, think of man as playing a more active role and are interested in the mental or psychological contribution which accounts for how we get from the given (i.e sensation) to the objects we perceive. They argue that you cannot explain the experience of objects by causal laws, but that it is the mind that provides our experience with its meaning. By making use of the idea of judgement, one can subsume sensations under mental categories in order to look for their rule-like relations. Instead of a causal account, rationalists provide a rule-based account involving symbolic representation.
Although the empiricists and the rationalists have thrived on the refutation of each other’s position, what both camps share is their reliance on the concept of sensation, without acknowledging the aporia that comes with this.6 It is here that we find the answer to our first question. The concept of the sensation designates some self-enclosed entity which can be accurately identified in abstraction from the outside world. On the other hand, the sensation is something which points towards and represents things in that outside world. These two features—namely, its substantiality and its intentionality—are incommensurable. The doctrine of sensations is based upon a contradiction.
If this contradictory idea arises in our attempt to find some meeting ground between subject and object then perhaps we need an alternative to the subject-object model, since this seems to be where our problems begin. Instead of taking the subject for granted and then trying to account for how this subject comes to have any knowledge of a world of objects, perhaps the question we should be asking is how it is that there is this subject-object complex in the first place. What are the conditions of possibility of experience in general? Of course, this foundation on the basis of which there can be any experience must be something which does not itself derive from experience. It is, we might say, transcendental. It was Immanuel Kant who first made this transcendental move in western philosophy, paving the way for twentieth century philosophers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to be able to offer an alternative approach in an attempt to overcome the subject-object model. This new approach involves acknowledging what we might call “the primacy of experience”—the fact that we are always already in a meaningful situation, perceiving meaningful objects and acting concretely towards them. Any notion of a meaningless unit which forms the basis of this experience is merely an abstraction which is only possible because, first of all, there is this particular meaningful situation in which I find myself thinking abstractly. The idea of a sensation, the idea of a unitary, meaningless physiological entity, is a reductionist notion based on the assumption that this rich meaningful experience that I find myself in right now can be reduced to meaningless units. But where are these “[p]ure sensations” which are supposed to result in “the experience of an undifferentiated, instantaneous, dot-like impact” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 3; translation modified)? Even though the scientist may like the idea of a fully determinate and measurable sensation, this phenomenon is nowhere to be found in our own direct perceptual experience.

If we now turn back, as is done here, towards perceptual experience, we notice that science succeeds in constructing only a semblance of subjectivity: it introduces sensations which are things, just where experience shows that there are meaningful patterns; it forces the phenomenal universe into categories which make sense only in the universe of science… The theory of sensation, which builds up all knowledge out of determinate qualities, offers us objects purged of all ambiguity, pure and absolute, the ideal rather than the real themes of knowledge…

Merleau-Ponty 2002: 12-3

Science deals with the unambiguous and the determinate, and yet experience offers us ambiguity and indeterminacy. Take, for example, this book sitting on my desk which I am now looking at. It presents only one side to me and yet even though I do not see the whole thing, I do not take it to be a two-dimensional façade which merely looks like a book and which leads me to deduce that it might be a book. Rather, the book is directly perceived and this perception includes the fact that there is another side, which I am currently unable to see, temporarily hidden behind the side on view. Although now I do not see this hidden side, it is still somehow there. I know (or at least, I presume) that if I were to pick the book up and move it around in my hands, then the hidden side would be revealed, as the side that I had been looking at now becomes concealed. If this were not to happen, I would be most surprised! The hidden side is there, an essential moment of this experience of looking at this book, and yet it takes the form of a kind of possibility, something which is yet to be filled in, something which is temporarily out of my grasp but which I can move towards in order to get a better hold of it. This indeterminate aspect of experience—an indispensable part of this meaningful situation I find myself in—has no place in the scientists’ descriptions of the world.7
By starting with experience, then, it becomes clear that there are no atomic units which act as the building blocks for the meaningful experience of being in a world. This is to approach things in the wrong order. The sensation is redundant—the answer to a misguided question stemming from incorrect premises. As Merleau-Ponty concludes: “[o]nce introduced, the notion of sensation distorts any analysis of perception” (2002: 15). The world is not an aggregate of uninterpreted things outside of our minds and we do not grasp this world via some kind of mental representation of it. Rather, we are directly immersed in the world in which we live and what is encountered in lived experience is always already meaningful. We directly understand what we encounter as having something to tell us, as providing us with good or bad news, as something which concerns us, as irrelevant, as amusing, as challenging, as strange, etc. We are always in some kind of situation, and we always have some kind of understanding of the situation that we are in. To be in a situation is to have an understanding of that situation. Or, to be even more concise: to be is to understand. Understanding, therefore, is the originary mode of human existence.
Of course, the traditional understanding of what “understanding” means cannot account for this. Traditionally, one thinks of understanding as some kind of cognitive capacity whereby one’s internal representation of a particular state of affairs accurately reflects how that state of affairs actually is. It is a kind of insight or wisdom—both of which I have referred to already in this essay as English translations of the Pali term paññā—and it involves a cognitive representation of the external world. What is required is a new way of thinking about understanding and, therefore, a new way of thinking about what the Buddha called paññā.
2. … to Hermeneutics
The PTS dictionary defines paññā as: “intelligence, comprising of all higher faculties of cognition, “intellect as conversant with general truths” …, reason, wisdom, insight, knowledge, recognition.” This clearly illustrates the Cartesian bias which affects the traditional way of interpreting the Pali texts. Not only do we see paññā being used to refer to the “wisdom” or “insight” which we are aiming for, which will arise in the future as long as we keep practising correctly, but also we see that it is primarily associated with some form of cognition. It is “intellect”, “intelligence”, “reason”, “cognition”—in other words, it is understood in terms of the Cartesian cogito.
The Cartesian paradigm is still deeply entrenched in modern thought. Even Wilhelm Dilthey, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, took great strides in developing the hermeneutics of the German Romanticists, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, and historians such as Droysen and Ranke, did not succeed in breaking free from this cognitive version of understanding. He famously distinguished between explanation (Erklären), which he saw as the mode of cognition appropriate to the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and understanding (Verstehen), the key to approaching the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). Dilthey saw understanding as the method for learning about humanity, about what it is to be human, and yet for him understanding was just another method, just another human activity like knowledge or language. Understanding was just another form of cognition, albeit a different one from explanation.
It was in Heidegger’s analytic of human existence—or, as he called it, “Dasein” (which literally means “there-being”)—where western philosophy first found a radically new, existential, way of thinking about understanding: what he referred to as “that primary understanding which is one of the constituents of the being of the “there” in general” (Heidegger 1962: 182 [SZ:143]). For Heidegger, understanding is not a type of cognition but a precondition for all cognitive processes. It is the ground from which thought, conceptualisation, explanation, etc. derive. This paradigm shift, this radical break from the traditional Cartesian picture which is still maintained by scientists and psychologists, of an isolated consciousness standing over against a separate self-sufficient object, is replaced by a different story, characterised by a more primordial starting point for philosophy, prior to the subject-object duality, in which human existence and the world are coterminous in understanding. This move meant that Heidegger’s philosophy was ontological, phenomenological and hermeneutical all at once. The question for Heidegger in Being and Time was the question of being, and so his work is a work of ontology. But in order to carry out this fundamental ontology (as he called it) he pursues the question of being phenomenologically, since for him the proper method of philosophy is phenomenology. However, if the task is to understand being, and being, at least for humans, is an understanding of being, then his phenomenology is essentially hermeneutical. For Heidegger, ontology, phenomenology and hermeneutics are inextricably related.
The consequences of this insight have been profound and have resulted in a general movement in philosophy which has been labelled the “hermeneutic turn”.8 Traditional hermeneutics is the study of how we read. It attempts to find the principles that govern the interpretation of texts—particularly important texts handed down from the tradition, such as classical, religious and legal texts. Thanks to Heidegger, however, hermeneutics took on a distinctly philosophical character such that it became the way to study not just texts, but human beings themselves. As a result, the range of hermeneutics was considerably widened as the activity of interpreting meaningful texts became a model for understanding what it is to be human. And as hermeneutics became philosophical, so too philosophy itself came to be seen as hermeneutical, in ways developed by later philosophers such as Gadamer, Ricœur and Derrida. Instead of understanding ourselves as being primarily rational animals, a hermeneutical philosophy begins with the crucial insight that rationality is only possible because, more importantly, we are that particular entity which understands itself and the world it is in in some way or other. To exist as a human being is to understand the world and, at the same time, to understand our place in this world. We understand the world in terms of our own projects, our own needs, our own intentions; and yet we understand ourselves in terms of the world we find ourselves in. This means that understanding is a way of being-in-the-world. It is not a mental representation or some kind of knowledge about the world. Rather, one might think of it as a kind of know-how, a capacity to get things done or to know one’s way around. Understanding in this sense seems almost like an activity. Dreyfus calls this precognitive kind of understanding ”absorbed” or “skillful coping” (Dreyfus 2014): an attunement with the world in which we allow the situation itself to solicit a response and to draw us to act in an appropriate way, leading us to get a better grip on something (and, therefore, a looser grip on something else). And yet even this know-how is possible only on the basis of an antecedent familiarity with the world as a whole. Heidegger’s account of understanding touches upon various different forms of understanding: understanding a theory, understanding how to use tools, understanding social norms, understanding a world, etc. According to a pragmatist reading of Heidegger such as Dreyfus’s, some forms of understanding are more primordial than others, providing the ground on the basis of which other forms of understanding become possible. In particular, Dreyfus (1991) takes the position that conceptual understanding of theories is made possible by our ability to skillfully cope with our environment. However, as Wrathall (2013) has insightfully pointed out, while skillful coping is a type of activity, for Heidegger, “understanding” is not an activity but the structure which makes any kind of activity possible. “As understanding, Dasein projects its being upon possibilities” (Heidegger 1962: 188 [SZ: 148]) and it is this basic structure of a projection onto possibilities which forms the basis of all action. Whether one is performing a mathematical calculation, having a conversation with a friend, playing a game of tennis or drinking a cup of tea, all action is only possible because one exists understandingly and discloses a world as a setting for meaningful action.
This means that understanding, at least in one sense, is not something that we can talk or even think about, since it is the structure that makes talking and thinking possible. However, it is possible to make our understanding explicit. This is what we mean when we talk about “interpretation”, the very theme of hermeneutics.

The projecting of the understanding has its own possibility—that of developing itself. This development of the understanding we call “interpretation”. In it the understanding appropriates understandingly that which is understood by it. In interpretation, understanding does not become something different. It becomes itself. Such interpretation is grounded existentially in understanding; the latter does not arise from the former.

Heidegger 1962: 188 [SZ: 148]

In traditional hermeneutics, prior to Heidegger, the famous “hermeneutic circle” was known in terms of the mereological character of the activity of interpreting a text: we can only understand the parts of a text once we have a general idea of the text as a whole, and yet we can only acquire this understanding of the whole by understanding its parts. We have already seen an existential manifestation of this circle when we said that we understand ourselves in terms of the world we find ourselves in, and yet this world can only be understood in terms of our own projects. Heidegger, however, does not describe the circle in these terms, but insists that is to be thought of in terms of the relationship between understanding and interpretation. Interpretation is the development, the making explicit, the opening out, the unfolding9 of the understanding which we are always already in. At first sight, this may seem like a vicious circle—if interpretation is always guided by what we already understand, how can it find out anything new? But this is to misunderstand “understanding” and “interpretation”, grasping them in their traditional sense. We always already understand the situation we are in and interpretation is the working out of possibilities projected in this existential understanding. This means that there is no such thing as a presuppositionless interpretation. There is no interpretation without an understanding that anticipates it. The aim of any hermeneutic enquiry, then, is not to try to escape this circle, since the idea of escaping the circle is inconceivable. As Heidegger says, our aim should not be “to get out of the circle but to come into it in the right way” (1962: 195 [SZ: 153]). What we must do is acknowledge that there are anticipations, or as Gadamer (2004) calls them, “prejudices”, in every understanding; that these can be worked out or developed through a self-understanding of understanding (i.e. interpretation); and that we can carry out a critical review of the tradition we find ourselves in—what Heidegger calls “destruction” (1999: 81)—so that mistaken anticipations which we have unthinkingly appropriated and which distort our understanding can be abandoned. The hermeneutic circle describes a fundamental feature of human existence and one cannot “get out of” existence. What one can do, however, is stop deceiving oneself in regard to it.
But whilst Heidegger’s destruction of the tradition was certainly impressive, he was incapable of bringing about the destruction of ignorance that the Buddha described. Let us now bring this discussion back to the Pali. As we have seen, there is a sense in which we can think about that which the Buddha referred to as paññā as something which is neither optional nor a kind of cognition, thought or intellectual knowledge. It is the significance of the situation which we find ourselves in, a significance which is always already given, an essential moment of our existence, and which manifests itself in and through our actions. There are two observations that one finds in the Suttas which support this reading. First, there are many expressions that the Buddha used which indicate that paññā is not only present for an ariyasāvaka. For instance, he talks about adhipaññā (higher understanding)10, sammappaññā (right understanding)11, ariyapaññā (noble understanding)12 and paññāpāripūriṃ (the fullfilment of understanding)13. Clearly, what is being spoken about here is some kind of distinction between the paññā of the puthujjana and the paññā of the ariyasāvaka. The sekha can be described in terms of adhipaññā, sammappaññā and ariyapaññā whilst only the arahat can be said to have attained paññāpāripūriṃ. This suggests that even though the following words do not appear in the Pali texts, it seems that one may describe the understanding of the puthujjana as anadhipaññā (not-higher understanding), micchappaññā (wrong understanding) and anariyapaññā (ignoble understanding). Even though his understanding may be wrong, ignoble, inferior to the understanding of the ariyasāvaka, it is still a kind of understanding.
The second piece of evidence can be found in DN 33:

tisso paññā — sekhā paññā, asekhā paññā, nevasekhānāsekhā paññā.
There of three kinds of understanding: the understanding of one in training, the understanding of one beyond training, the understanding of one neither in traning nor beyond traning.
aparāpi tisso paññā — cintāmayā paññā, sutamayā paññā, bhāvanāmayā paññā.
And there are three other kinds of understanding: understanding produced by mind, understanding produced by what is heard, understanding produced by development.

DN 33

The traditional way in which the second of these triads is interpreted begins with the idea that first of all one hears a teaching, one listens to a teacher, one hears the words of Dhamma. Perhaps one even memorises these words. Then one thinks about this teaching, reflects on it, considers whether it makes sense, whether it is practical or reasonable. Finally, one develops or internalises this wisdom and brings it into one’s own life so that it becomes a kind of experiential wisdom rather than a mere intellectual wisdom. This interpretation is problematic for several reasons. First of all, one notices that the order of the items has been altered. In the Suttaand in the Visuddhimagga (Vism: p.434-5) where Buddhaghosa provides a commentary of this doctrine—the triad quite clearly begins with cintāmayā paññā and not sutamayā paññā. Second, the traditional interpretation seems to consist of only two types of understanding rather than three. Sutamayā paññā is normally thought of as hearing something but not yet understanding it. What seems to be designated here is not so much a type of paññā, but a lack of paññā. Third, according to this view, it is by reflecting wisely that one starts to understand the teaching one has heard and yet at first this understanding is ‘only intellectual’. The problem with this is that the very idea of an intellectual kind of understanding is derived from the Cartesian metaphysics described above. The idea that one can intellectually know something but still live in a world in which that knowledge does not have any significant impact on one’s normal everyday experience leads one to create a distinction between two types of understanding: intellectual and experiential. And yet this distinction is only possible if one begins with the assumption that there is such a thing as intellectual understanding, an understanding which is merely a mental representation but which is somehow deficient, abstract and does not inform one’s capacity to cope with the situation one finds oneself in.
A hermeneutical approach offers an alternative to this flawed interpretation. A puthujjana (or a nevasekhānāsekha) always has an understanding of his situation. This understanding is the significance which he attributes to where he is, what is going on, who he is, what he is doing, etc. This significance is made possible by citta, and that is why it is called cintāmaya. There is, however, a radically different way of understanding things which is not to be found within this citta, and which can only be arrived at by coming into contact with the Buddha’s teaching. This new kind of understanding still involves the significance of things and yet it is free from one particularly important significance: namely, that things are “mine”. Only the sekha has access to this understanding, to an understanding of things about which he can say “not this is mine, not this I am, not this is my self”. The important thing to realise is that, except in the case of a Buddha, it is not possible to find this sutamayā paññā for oneself. It can only arise if one encounters (and attends properly to) parato ghosa, the voice from beyond, from outside of cintāmayā paññā.14 Venerable Ñāṇavīra describes the predicament as follows:

In order to put an end to avijjā, which is a matter of seeing avijjā as avijjā, it is necessary to accept on trust from the Buddha a Teaching that contradicts the direct evidence of the puthujjana’s reflexion. This is why the Dhamma is patisotagāmī (Majjhima iii, 6 (M.i,168)), or ‘going against the stream’. The Dhamma gives the puthujjana the outside view of avijjā, which is inherently unobtainable for him by unaided reflexion (in the ariyasāvaka this view has, as it were, ‘taken’ like a graft, and is perpetually available).

Ñāṇavīra 2010: 30

This is why the Buddha repeatedly encouraged puthujjanas to find a kalyāṇamitta. A kalyāṇamitta is not just a good friend, someone that you have known for a long time, someone you are close to, someone who is supportive and kind to you. A kalyāṇamitta is someone who either shows you the path, if you have not already found it, or helps you to develop that path, if you have. This means that, strictly speaking, only an ariyasāvaka can be a kalyāṇamitta.

nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi, yena anuppanno vā ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo uppajjati, uppanno vā ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo bhāvanāpāripūriṃ gacchati, yathayidaṃ, bhikkhave, kalyāṇamittatā. kalyāṇamittassetaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pāṭikaṅkhaṃ — ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bhāvessati, ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bahulīkarissati. kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kalyāṇamitto ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bhāveti, ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bahulīkaroti? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sammādiṭṭhiṃ bhāveti rāgavinayapariyosānaṃ dosavinayapariyosānaṃ mohavinayapariyosānaṃ … pe … sammāsamādhiṃ bhāveti rāgavinayapariyosānaṃ dosavinayapariyosānaṃ mohavinayapariyosānaṃ. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kalyāṇamitto ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bhāveti, ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bahulīkarotī”ti.
Bhikkhus, I do not see even one thing by which the unarisen noble eightfold path arises or the arisen noble eightfold path goes to fulfilment by development as this: a good friend. For a bhikkhu who has a good friend it is to be expected that he will develop the noble eightfold path and cultivate the noble eightfold path. And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu who has a good friend develop the noble eightfold path, cultivate the noble eightfold path? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu develops right view, which has as its final goal the removal of passion, the removal of ill-will, the removal of delusion…he develops right concentration, which has as its final goal the removal of passion, the removal of ill-will, the removal of delusion. In this way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who has a good friend develops the noble eightfold path and cultivates the noble eightfold path.

SN 45:84

The sotāpanna, then, is distinguished from the puthujjana by the presence of sutamayā paññā. Perhaps we can note here that the Pali word sota can be used to mean both “stream” and “ear”—two ideas that are not entirely unrelated. Even in English we can observe a semantic similarity in these terms when we talk about sound “streaming”, “flowing” music, the ear “canal”, ear “plugs”, and so on. This polysemy has been noted by Masefield (1986: 134), who goes on to suggest that we might think of a sotāpanna as “one who has come into contact with (or undergone) the hearing” and that one who is dhammasotaṃ samāpanno might be described as “one who has attained the Dhamma-ear”.

ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako diṭṭhisampanno itipi, dassanasampanno itipi, āgato imaṃ saddhammaṃ itipi, passati imaṃ saddhammaṃ itipi, sekkhena ñāṇena samannāgato itipi, sekkhāya vijjāya samannāgato itipi, dhammasotaṃ samāpanno itipi, ariyo nibbedhikapañño itipi, amatadvāraṃ āhacca tiṭṭhati itipī”ti.
This, bhikkhus, is called a noble disciple who is accomplished in view, accomplished in seeing, who has arrived at this good Dhamma, who sees this good Dhamma, who is endowed with the knowledge of one in training, who is endowed with the wisdom of one in training, who has attained the ear of Dhamma, a noble one with penetrative understanding, one who stands touching the door to the Deathless.

SN 12:27

Once there is sutamayā paññā, once one has found the noble eightfold path, one now knows that this paññā needs to be developed until it is fully established. This is his task, the practice leading to the end of suffering. The understanding that is developed in this way, by fulfilling sutamayā paññā, is the understanding of the asekha, the arahat. This is bhāvanāmayā paññā—understanding accomplished by development.
If we adopt this hermeneutical approach, not only do we find a new way of thinking about understanding, but we also have a new way of thinking about interpretation. What we call mindfulness or awareness is an interpretation. Even when one acts without awareness, one’s actions are guided by one’s understanding. Immediate or pre-reflexive experience always already involves an understanding of the situation and this understanding is a condition for the possibility of interpretation, but this interpretation requires a reflexive step back in order to make that understanding explicit. Mindfulness, then, is essentially hermeneutical. It is an unfolding of the understanding that I already have of this concrete situation that I find myself in. And whilst the understanding of the sekha can be distinguished from the understanding of the puthujjana, perhaps there is one more move that we can now make. By appropriating and transforming the meaning of two terms originally coined by Paul Ricœur, it may be possible to highlight an important difference between mindfulness in the case of the puthujjana and in the case of the sekha.
The phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion” was first used in an attempt to describe the spirit that pervades the writings of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Ricœur felt that despite their obvious differences, all three of these thinkers were “masters” of the “school of suspicion” (Ricœur 1970: 32). Each of them, in their own way, assumed the job of unmasking “the lies and illusions of consciousness” (ibid, 356) and each one developed a method of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to uncover less visible and less flattering truths. Freud, for example, operated under the assumption that the meaning of the dream which his client recounts is not the simple surface meaning. He assumed that the symbols that are given are disguised or are distorted pointers to another layer of meaning that his client is reluctant to acknowledge. This hermeneutics of suspicion stands in polar opposition to another hermeneutic style that Ricœur exemplified in the phenomenology of religionthe “hermeneutics of faith”. This is illustrated by Husserl’s famous description of the method of phenomenology as requiring us to go “back to the things themselves” (Husserl 2001: 168). The phenomenologist listens carefully and has a confidence, a belief, that things can speak for themselves, reveal their essence, so that he can accurately describe (rather than attempt to explain) phenomena in their rich complexity. We see this hermeneutics of faith when Gadamer (2004) compares the hermeneutic encounter with Buber’s (2000) “I-Thou” encounter. It is important, Gadamer says, that the Thou be experienced truly as a Thou and to really allow him to say something new to us. For it is by acknowledging the fact that things have something to say to us that one listens, and anyone who listens is fundamentally open to the truth of the other in that encounter. Ricœur describes the hermeneutics of faith as involving a hearing, a recognition, a recollection and a restoration of meaning. The general field of hermeneutics, then, is essentially at variance with itself, being constituted by two incompatible motivations: the willingness to listen and the willingness to suspect. The goal of any interpretation is to somehow find a way of reconciling these two tasks that are fundamentally in conflict with each other.
Ricœur’s terminology here may help to highlight an important, and often overlooked, distinction between the mindfulness of the puthujjana and the mindfulness of the sekha. What must be recognized is that the understanding in which the puthujjana finds himself is thoroughly infected with avijjā. Therefore, whatever way in which he interprets his understanding, that interpretation will involve notions of self.

…‘attanāva attānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘attanāva anattānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘anattanāva attānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati…
…the view ‘With self I perceive self ’ arises for him as true and actual; or the view ‘With self I perceive not-self’ arises for him as true and actual; or the view ‘With not-self I perceive self’ arises for him as true and actual…

MN 2

The view ‘With not-self I perceive not-self’ simply does not occur to him. It does not arise as a possibility. This means that for a puthujjana to cease being a puthujjana, not only does he need to be mindful, in order to make explicit the understanding of the situation he finds himself thrown into, he must also be suspicious of that understanding. He must regard mindfulness as a hermeneutics of suspicion. He must take on the attitude that his understanding is inadequate, that the meaning of his situation that presents itself is somehow distorted, preventing him from seeing things clearly. He requires some external help in order to find an alternative way of interpreting his situation. But even this is not enough. Even if he hears the Buddha’s teaching, the understanding which guides his interpretation of this teaching is still the understanding of a puthujjana. What he must do is learn how to make use of this teaching, this alien view, and even though it directly contradicts the evidence from his own reflexion, he must allow it to change him at the very core—at the level of understanding. At first, this will involve artificially superimposing this strange new view over his own understanding of the situation he is in. Fortunately, though, because the Buddha’s teaching does actually correspond with the nature of things, if he keeps pressing it to the extent necessary, then it is possible for his understanding to change in order to align itself with that external view. If this happens, he will find that the view is no longer external. He will find that his understanding, which has undergone a radical alteration, now corresponds with the view he had previously been adopting artificially but which now no longer seems artificial. His interpretation of things is now anticipated by sammappaññā. He now has direct access to the Buddha’s teaching and is aparapaccaya—not dependent on others.15
The aim of the Buddha’s teaching is to develop one’s understanding of phenomena until these phenomena are fully understood. However, this is not possible for one who is unable to discern the phenomena which the Buddha was referring to. The sekha, on the other hand, now has direct access to the things themselves. He has recognised the phenomena which the Buddha speaks of and sees what it is that needs to be developed. It is for this reason that we describe him thus: buddhe… dhamme… saṅghe aveccappasādena samannāgato hoti—”he is endowed with certain clarity in the Buddha… the Dhamma… the Sangha”.16 Although one usually hears aveccappasāda translated as “confirmed”, “verified” or “unwavering confidence”, the more literal translation of “certain clarity” indicates someone who has now recognised what a Buddha is, what his teaching is, and what it is to be one of the bhagavato sāvakasaṅgha, having entered upon the path, knowing how to practise properly (sāmīcippaṭipanna). It is for this reason that the ariyasāvaka is described as having saddhindriya (the faculty of faith).
And so the sekha, being mindful, is able to discern the phenomena. He has seen things as they are with right understanding (yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya disvā)17 and is able to engage in a hermeneutics of faith, knowing that that which he sees is seen with right view. Now this mindfulness, and this understanding on the basis of which this mindfulness is possible, must be sustained until it can no longer fall away.
References from Pali Canon
AN Aṅguttara Nikāya
DN Dīgha Nikāya
MN Majjhima Nikāya
SN Saṃyutta Nikāya
Other abbreviations
Vism Visuddhimagga (references from Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s translation, The Path of Purification)
Other references
Buber, M. (2000) I and Thou (trans. R. G. Smith). New York: Scribner Classics.
Dreyfus, H. L. (1991) Being-in-the-World: A commentary on Heidegger’s “Being and Time, Division I” Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Dreyfus, H. L. (2014) Skillful Coping: Essays on the phenomenology of everyday perception and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Farin, I. (2015) Heidegger: Transformation of Hermeneutics. In J. Malpas & H.-H. Gander (Eds.) The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. Oxon: Routledge. pp.107-126.
Gadamer, H.-G. (2004) Truth and Method. 3rd ed. London: Continuum Publishing Group.
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time (trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Heidegger, M. (1991) Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity (trans. J. v. Buren). Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.
Hoy, D. C. (1993) Heidegger and the hermeneutic turn. In C. Guignon (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 177-201.
Husserl, E. (2001) Logical Investigations. 2nd ed. (ed. D. Moran). London: Routledge.
Lafont, C. (2005) Hermeneutics. In H. L. Dreyfus & M. A. Wrathall (Eds.) A Companion to Heidegger. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publilshing. pp. 265-284.
Masefield, P. (1986) Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Oxon: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002) Phenomenology of Perception (trans. C. Smith). Oxon: Routledge Classics.
Ñāṇavīra (2010) Clearing the Path. Path Press Publications.
Ricœur, P. (1970) Freud and Philosophy: An essay on interpretation (trans. D. Savage). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sartre, J.-P. (2003) Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology (trans. H. Barnes). Oxon: Routledge Classics.
Wrathall, M. A. (2013) Heidegger on Human Understanding. In M. A. Wrathall (Eds.) A Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 177-200.


1 The first page number refers to the English (Macquarrie & Robinson) translation; the page number in square brackets refers to the original German edition of Sein und Zeit.

2 Available (in January 2017) at

3 cf. MN117:

tatra, bhikkhave, sammādiṭṭhi pubbaṅgamā hoti. kathañca, bhikkhave, sammādiṭṭhi pubbaṅgamā hoti? micchādiṭṭhiṃ ‘micchādiṭṭhī’ti pajānāti, sammādiṭṭhiṃ ‘sammādiṭṭhī’ti pajānāti — sāssa hoti sammādiṭṭhi.

There, bhikkhus, right view comes first. And how, bhikkhus, does right view come first? One understands wrong view as ‘wrong view’, one understands right view as ‘right view’—this is one’s right view.

4 Interestingly, the Chinese version of this sutta, at DĀ 2, at T I 17b29-18a22, takes a step further and recommends that the speaker be castigated. Here is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

… you should not disbelieve what you hear from him, nor should you reject it, but through the suttas determine whether it is true or false; based on the Vinaya, based on the Dhamma, probe it fully. If what he says is not in the Sutta, not the Vinaya, not the Dhamma, then you should say to him: ‘The Buddha did not say this. What you have received is mistaken! [Or: You have received it erroneously!] For what reason? Because based on the Suttas, based on the Vinaya, based on the Dhamma, we [find] that what you said deviates from the Dhamma. Venerable one, you should not uphold this, you should not report it to people, you should discard it.’”

Of course, this should not be taken as a free license to reprimand every teacher who teaches something which cannot be supported by the Suttas. The specific context—of a bhikkhu talking to another bhikkhu—should be borne in mind.

5 What Merleau-Ponty refers to as intellectualism is now more commonly referred to as rationalism.


“The affinity between intellectualism and empiricism is… much more deeply rooted than is commonly thought. It arises not only from the anthropological definition of sensation used equally by both, but from the fact that both persist in the natural or dogmatic attitude…”

(Merleau-Ponty 2002: 45)


“Intellectualism and empiricism do not give us any account of human experience of the world; they tell us what God might think of it.”

(ibid, 298)

8 For those who would like to read more about Heidegger’s hermeneutic turn, Hoy (1993), Lafont (2005) and Farin (2015) provide good overviews of this topic.

9 The Latin term explicare is derived from the word to ply or fold (plicare), and literally means to fold out, unfold.

10 e.g. AN 5:79.

11 e.g. MN 8.

12 It 4.8.

13 DN 9.

14 cf. AN 2:126.

15 cf. SN 12:15.

16 e.g. MN 7.

17 MN 28.

3 thoughts on “Paññā – From Psychology to Hermeneutics

  1. Hi Bhante,
    I have little doubt as to why there has been no questions asked about this latest essay: everything has been so clearly stated, that while it may take some time to penetrate the full meaning, you have covered all directions so we know precisely where to look as we work. Just a fantastic piece of writing.
    With warmest regards,

  2. Dear Bhante Ariyavaṃsa! 

„ […] Even if he hears the Buddha’s teaching, the understanding which guides his interpretation of this teaching is still the understanding of a puthujjana. What he must do is learn how to make use of this teaching, this alien view, and even though it directly contradicts the evidence from his own reflexion, he must allow it to change him at the very core—at the level of understanding. At first, this will involve artificially superimposing this strange new view over his own understanding of the situation he is in. Fortunately, though, because the Buddha’s teaching does actually correspond with the nature of things, if he keeps pressing it to the extent necessary, then it is possible for his understanding to change in order to align itself with that external view. […]“
    A more direct unfolding (explication) of the four sotāpattyaṅgāni (c.f. SN 55.50) could hardly be wished for. I got an association with a sutta in the fourths of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya (4.94) , where definitions of samatha and vipassanā are given. The part referring to adhipaññā-dhammavipassanā, the ‚insight into phenomena [for] higher understanding‘, which reads as evaṃ kho, āvuso, saṅkhārā daṭṭhabbā, evaṃ saṅkhārā sammasitabbā, evaṃ saṅkhārā vipassitabbā, ‚Thus should formations be seen, thus should formations be grasped, thus should formations be seen through‘, can be read as to be suggestive of a certain way of regarding things, an emulation of a certain perspective, so to say. Interestingly, the Latin word perspicere is an equivalent to Pāli vipassati. Could one hence describe vipassanā as an emulation of the perspective of the Buddha’s teaching?
    Kind regards,

    1. Thank you both for your feedback.
      Yes, Simon: I think you can think of vipassanā in these terms. Samatha involves the capacity to discern phenomena (as I tried to show in the essay “Citta”), while vipassanā involves the capacity to adopt a particular way of regarding phenomena; or, as you say, “an emulation of a certain perspective” on phenomena.
      I expect you have already given this some thought, but perhaps I can add a few reflections. Given this interpretation of samatha and vipassanā, one might expect them to occur hand in hand: i.e. in order for there to be vipassanā, one first needs to have phenomena in view (i.e. there must already be samatha), and in order for samatha to be developed, the understanding of phenomena must be accurate (i.e. there must already be vipassanā). And yet AN 4:94 shows that it is possible to develop samatha to some extent without having developed vipassanā, just as it is possible to develop vipassanā to some extent without having developed samatha. Also, one can distinguish between the ubhatobhāgavimutto and the paññāvimutto (e.g. MN 70). However, despite these distinctions, MN 149 indicates that for one who develops the noble eightfold path to fulfilment, he will find that samatha and vipassanā are inextricably connected:
      tassime dve dhammā yuganaddhā vattanti — samatho ca vipassanā ca.
      For him these two phenomena occur yoked together: samatha and vipassanā.
      See also AN 2:31:
      “dve me, bhikkhave, dhammā vijjābhāgiyā. katame dve? samatho ca vipassanā ca. samatho, bhikkhave, bhāvito kamatthamanubhoti? cittaṃ bhāvīyati. cittaṃ bhāvitaṃ kamatthamanubhoti? yo rāgo so pahīyati. vipassanā, bhikkhave, bhāvitā kamatthamanubhoti? paññā bhāvīyati. paññā bhāvitā kamatthamanubhoti? yā avijjā sā pahīyati. rāgupakkiliṭṭhaṃ vā, bhikkhave, cittaṃ na vimuccati, avijjupakkiliṭṭhā vā paññā bhāvīyati. iti kho, bhikkhave, rāgavirāgā cetovimutti, avijjāvirāgā paññāvimuttī”ti.
      “Bhikkhus, two phenomena are connected with wisdom. Which two? Samatha and vipassanā. When samatha is developed, bhikkhus, what benefit does one experience? Mind is developed. When mind is developed, what benefit does one experience? Passion is abandoned. When vipassanā is developed, bhikkhus, what benefit does one experience? Understanding is developed. When understanding is developed, what benefit does one experience? Ignorance is abandoned. Bhikkhus, mind defiled by passion is not liberated or understanding defiled by ignorance is not developed. Thus, bhikkhus, it is by the fading away of passion that there is liberation of mind, it is by the fading away of ignorance that there is liberation by understanding.”

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