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How do I describe this?

It is the formulation of a conception of an idea about a particular object of experience.

What I am wondering is what the difference is between the above and:

It is the formulation of an idea about a particular object of experience.

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    Where does this quote come from? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 13 '18 at 13:04
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Buddhism teaches there are five aggregates. Consciousness (vinnana) is one aggregate; feeling (vedana) is another aggregate; perception (sanna) is another aggregate; and mental formations (sankhara) are another aggregrate. A 'conception' is a 'sankhara' ('mental formation') and is not a perception.

'Perception' is distinguishing differences in conscious sense impressions (such as different shades of color) and is inseparable from consciousness; as follows:

Perception, perception': Thus is it said. To what extent, friend, is it said to be 'perception'?" 'It perceives, it perceives': Thus, friend, it is said to be 'perception.' And what does it perceive? It perceives blue. It perceives yellow. It perceives red. It perceives white. 'It perceives, it perceives': Thus it is said to be 'perception.'

Feeling, perception & consciousness are conjoined, friend, not disjoined. It is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them. For what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one cognizes.

MN 43

Where as a 'conception' is a subjective idea or thinking that is added onto a conscious perception, as follows:

Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about.

MN 18


He perceives fire as fire. Having perceived fire as fire, he conceives himself as fire, he conceives himself in fire, he conceives himself apart from fire, he conceives fire to be ‘mine,’ he delights in fire. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.

MN 1

The difference between 'perception' and 'conception' is (when conscious sense experience occurs) perception is unavoidable; where as 'conception' is avoidable.

Right now, my mind cannot avoid perceiving the 'shapes' & 'colours' that make up my computer. However, my mind can choose to not make 'conceptions' about those 'shapes' & 'colours'. In other words, those shapes & colours can be observed without the conception of the thought or word "computer".

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It's hard to talk about words, because some people assume a word has one precise meaning but then you realize that in the actual usage one word may often refer to several different things.

"Perception" is one of such words. According to Google's dictionary,

  • the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.
  • the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses.
  • a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.

As you can see, it is defined as becoming aware of something through the senses. It's not clear, however, what exactly that means. Some people may think that "awareness of something" refers to raw sensory input, while other people assume raw input is not enough to be aware of something, there has to be some kind of interpretation or evaluation going on -- as shown in the third definition.

In Mahayana Buddhism, perception is one possible translation for samjna or sanjna (Pali saññā), with other translations like "conceptualization", "distinguishing", and "recognition". Samjna is a process of capturing a "sign" (the key identifying feature) of an object, and using it to identify or to label the object.

For example, you see something black on the beach -- that's an object of experience. If you close your eyes, you can remember exactly the way it looks -- that's an idea about an object of experience. The shape has something on top of it that looks exactly like a keel -- that's an example of a "sign".

Once you see the keel, you realize it's a boat turned upside down. That notion of "boat" is a conception of an idea about an object of experience.

It may take you some effort to notice that keel and figure out that what you see is the upside-down boat half buried in sand. That process of figuring out is formulation of conception. In my understanding, this is what is called perception in your quote -- a process that takes raw sensory input and turns that into objects.

P.S. some quotes from external sources:

"The characteristic of perception [saññā] is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that "this is the same," or its function is recognizing what has been previously perceived. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object...by way of the features that had been apprehended. Its proximate cause is the object as it appears. Its procedure is compared to a carpenter's recognition of certain kinds of wood by the mark he has made on each" ~ Bhikkhu Bodhi

"[saññā] has the characteristic of noting and the function of recognizing what has been previously noted. There is no such thing as perception ... without the characteristic of noting. All perceptions have the characteristic of noting. ... Its manifestation is the action of interpreting by means of the sign as apprehended." ~ Buddhaghosa

"Perception consists of the grasping of distinguishing features." ~ Mipham Rinpoche

"What is the absolutely specific characteristic of saṃjñā? It is to know by association. It is to see, hear, specify, and to know by way of taking up the defining characteristics and distinguishing them." ~ Abhidharma-samuccaya

  • Agree with you about words and meaning and the fuzziness of it all. Disagree that 'perception' in Mahayana Buddhism is conventionally used as such. I'd say 'perception' occurs in first step of 'something black on the beach' ie., that first contact of 'knowing' something else without any kind of conception of what it is. But again, you are welcome to use the word however you like :) – Yeshe Tenley Aug 13 '18 at 13:13
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    Perception is a pretty common translation of saṃjñā in Mahayana texts, and saṃjñā most definitely refers to "it has keel therefore it's a boat" stage, not to "something black" stage. – Andrei Volkov Aug 13 '18 at 14:53
  • No doubt you are right about that word. I accept your definitions of that word. I'm just noting that 'perception' is used elsewhere in Mahayana - I think - for "something black" stage. Note, that even at this stage we have distinguished or known something. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 13 '18 at 15:17
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I agree with what Dhammadatu writes.

Perception is simply perceiving of a sense input/impression. Conception is basically everything that follows that.

Seeing colour and form is perception. Seeing a man and/or a woman is conception. I know of an arahant who no longer sees man or woman; he just perceives colour and form.

Seeing colour and form in a mirror is perception. Having the sense and/or idea that you see yourself in the mirror is conception. It's the I-making and My-making Dhammadatu points to.

At a certain point the sense of seeing yourself in the mirror for instance falls away (with meditation). That shows that the sense and the idea of I or My is just that: a concept.

I think it's the most simple to remember that everything after perceiving the sense input is conception. Or, also simple to remember, as Buddha said to Bahiya: Let seeing just be seeing.

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If I can just talk about the English-language words ...

"Perceive" comes from a Latin root which means:

  • "per" -- wholly, thoroughly, entirely
  • "capere" -- to take, to grasp

So "perceive" means "take entirely" or "grasp all there is of it".

In English it's used metaphorically (i.e. you perceive something mentally), in French it's usually used literally (e.g. you would perceive the money for the rent when you receive it, when it's given to you).

The "con" in "conceive" comes from a root meaning something like "with" or "and" or "in parallel to" or "as a result of" -- it's used in the word "consequence" for example, i.e. it's something which exists "with" something else in a sequence.

So I think that (in English), to "perceive" is to grasp everything about (the totality) of something; and "conceive" is something separate or additional which happens in parallel.

For example if I hit something solid, if I walk into a table accidentally because I'm walking without paying attention, then there's a perception of a physical sensation (the sense of touch).

I may conceive of other things beyond that, e.g. "I am hurt, I am angry, something attacked me, I should attack in return, that table attacked me" but those are consequent to the initial perception of sensation.

I guess (not based on scripture) that "formulation" maybe includes all use-of-words. So for example, seeing green and saying "I am seeing grass" is a conception. I think that even "I am seeing green" is a conception, "I" is a conception and even the word "green" is a conception (and whatever color you're actually seeing might not be an ideal green but might instead be a bit blue or brown or etc.). Anyway maybe seeing what you see is perception, and describing it after that is formulation and conception.

The two sentenes quoted in the question seem to me the same -- I think that "formulation" and "idea" and "conception" are all more-or-less the same, all "conception" (except I don't know what the distinction is between "conception" and "sixth type of sense-object" i.e. "sense-object of the mind").


However reading The Five Aggregates -- A Study Guide that the way it's used in the canon isn't exactly as I described it above.

One thing it says (which agrees with what I said above) is that perception isn't the same as feeling. Now "feeling" is ambiguous in English (e.g. it can mean "I feel the table" to refer to the sense of touch), but when it's used as a translation of vedanā it means something like, "I have feelings about the table" e.g. "This feels pleasant" or "This feels painful". This kind of feeling isn't (or is distinguished from) perception.

But (unlike what I said above) perception does include:

  • Labeling (assigning a name to)
  • Recognising (e.g. shape and function of a physical object, what it's used for)
  • Abstract concepts, e.g. one is able to "perceive impermanence".

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