Meditation on Perception

1. What Is Perception?

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FOR THE BUDDHA, perception is pure and simple. When the eyes see a visual object, they do so without embellishment. As the Buddha explained to his monks in the Connected Discourses:

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it perception? It perceives, bhikkhus; therefore, it is called perception. And what does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. It perceives, bhikkhus; therefore, it is called perception. (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The type of perception that conveys information such as the color of an object is called eye-perception. As the Buddha explained it, the process of eye-perception works like this: When an eye that is open meets any form or visual object, such as a flower, consciousness arises in the mind. The meeting of the three—the eye, the flower, and consciousness—is called contact. Depending on contact, feeling arises. Feeling is one of the five factors that make up mentality: contact, feeling, perception, thought, and attention. What we feel, we perceive. Then we think of what is perceived. Thinking begins the process of judgment that leads to mental proliferation.

Imagine, for instance, that there is a flower in front of our eyes. Our eyes encounter the flower as soon as they are opened. Visual consciousness immediately arises. In dependence on these three—the eye, 12the flower, and visual consciousness—visual contact occurs. Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling arises depending on this visual contact. Now the mind has perceived or cognized the flower. Thoughts such as “I like this color,” or “I don’t like this color,” appear in the mind depending on its color, such as blue, yellow, red, or white. Depending on the colors of flowers that we have seen in the past, or colors of flowers that we would see in future, our minds begin to proliferate more and more thoughts. The proliferation of thought can move in many different directions according to the flower’s shape, size, significance, chemical composition, usages, where it grows, how it grows, and so on. In the same way, mental proliferation goes on with sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts. So visual perception is actually the combination of the eye, form, consciousness, contact, attention, and feeling.

Consciousness, of course, refers to the mind and its activities. It is the base for other mental factors to function. Contact arises only when the senses, sensory objects, and consciousness are present. Attention is a mental factor that purposefully engages consciousness to focus on a particular object. Feeling is followed by perception. Then we think about what is perceived. Thinking is any intentional mind state and includes both thoughts and emotional responses. If consciousness is not present, feeling, perceiving, thinking, and paying attention to anything do not arise.

The same mental processes occur with regard to all of our senses. In Buddhist thought, there are six sense organs: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. So, for instance, the combination of the ear, sound, consciousness, contact, and feeling arouses perception of sound. Similarly, the meeting of the nose and smell, the tongue and taste, the body and touch, and the mind and mental objects, such as ideas, thoughts, mental pictures, or emotions, arouses consciousness, contact, feeling, attention, and thus, perception.


The function of perception is cognizing or, to use a more familiar word, recognizing an object. Because the process of cognition happens so quickly, we may not realize that each act of perception involves a series of internal mental steps that help us to understand something. Perception actually takes place in the mind. On the simplest level, meditation on perception gives us the opportunity to become aware of the role the mind and its activities play in determining our perceptions, and more important, in determining what we say and do in response to our perceptions.

Perception is so influential because in addition to determining the apparent characteristics of objects or mental pictures of objects, such as their color, shape, size, or hardness, the thought that follows perception also judges whether the things we perceive are pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. The Buddha taught that desire or craving arise naturally in an untrained mind when it encounters what it takes to be pleasant, beautiful, or attractive. Dislike or aversion arise when the mind encounters what it takes to be unpleasant, ugly, or repulsive. We generally ignore or pay little attention to what we perceive to be neither pleasant nor unpleasant. As we discover, sensory objects in themselves are not marked with beauty or ugliness, pleasantness or unpleasantness, attractiveness or unattractiveness. It is the thinking about what is perceived that judges or categorizes them and thus guides our responses.

When we examine the perception process with careful mindfulness, we become aware that perception operates on the basis of previous information that has been stored in the mind. Memories and past experiences prompt the mind to generate reasons that explain why we believe that something we perceive is beautiful or ugly. Today there is a whole system of education—art and music appreciation classes, for instance, and even cooking shows on television—that teaches us to 14categorize and judge various sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and ideas. However, any judgments we form about the things we perceive are our own mental constructs. Though we believe that the characteristics we ascribe to objects and experiences are part of the objects themselves—large or small, delicious or distasteful, harmonious or discordant—closer examination reveals that these attributions are artificial and personal. Mindful attention that aims to purify perception is attention without such personal additions, and without craving, aversion, and other delusions.

We can prove to ourselves that perception is artificial and personal by remembering how often people disagree about the beauty or ugliness, deliciousness or distastefulness, pleasantness or unpleasantness, of a particular work of art, architectural style, item of clothing, type of food, or musical composition. Moreover, opinions often vary over time and space, from decade to decade, from country to country, and from earlier points in our life to later ones. For instance, we might have disliked classical music when we were younger, but now it is our favorite. Our perceptions also change according to circumstances. Yellow roses might look very beautiful when we see them in a summer garden, but seem unpleasant and even cause us pain when we see them at the funeral of a friend. In the same way, when we are ill, foods that we enjoyed on many occasions might seem disgusting or repulsive.

So, we might be wondering, what is true and reliable about our perceptions? According to the Buddha, the only natural characteristics of any object or experience are that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless. Impermanence points to the truth that over time, everything changes, breaks down, or dies. No person is exempt; no one lives forever, not even the Buddha. No thing is exempt; no matter how solid and enduring our senses perceive a mountain to be, every second it is 15wearing down. Because everything alters or disappears, nothing that exists can give us lasting satisfaction. The more attached we are to something or someone, the more unhappy we are when it is gone. We lose a favorite piece of jewelry. A family member passes away. Because everything is impermanent, everything is unsatisfactory.

For the same reason, because everything is always changing, the Buddha also said that things are selfless. As we noted, nothing that we perceive is beautiful or ugly, desirable or detestable, as a natural characteristic. Things and people, including you and me, are always in process, always in flux. What rises in our estimation eventually falls; whatever we love eventually we lose; what makes us happy eventually causes us suffering. Precisely because their identity is not fixed and their qualities are not solid and enduring, we say that everything that exists lacks self or soul.

The conclusion that follows from this understanding points to the path we must follow if we wish to free ourselves from suffering. Training in mindfulness meditation and using the insights it provides to perceive the impermanence of people and objects protects us from experiencing the desire to hang on to them. Gradually, we come to see that suffering is a mental state. It arises in us, not in the objects we perceive. For this reason, the Buddha has said, desire and craving—specifically desire and craving for impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless things—is the cause of suffering. Meditation on perception helps us to reach this profound realization.

Perception and the Aggregates

As we mentioned, perception is one of the five basic constituents of the body and mind described by the Buddha—form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness. These constituents, generally called the 16“five aggregates,” include every possible aspect of reality. Form refers to every material thing that our senses can perceive, including the various parts of our own body.

The four other aggregates include all experiences of the mind. Feeling, as we have seen, can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Thoughts, memories, imaginative wandering, and dreams can arise depending on which of these feelings we feel. When we have a delicious dinner we remember it and may think about it. When we have unpleasant feelings, our thoughts and memories about them also tend to be unpleasant. As we said, feeling arises in the mind because of contact between the senses, an object or mental picture, and consciousness. As we have also said, the aggregate of perception arises in the mind as a result of the combination of the senses, an exterior or interior object, contact, consciousness, attention, and feeling.

The aggregate thought includes every kind of mental activity, including ideas, fantasies, fears, and emotional responses. It is easiest to understand this aggregate if we consider that thoughts are simply “mental objects” that we perceive internally. It’s also important to recognize that some thoughts are positive and helpful, such as loving-friendliness and faith in the Buddha and his teachings, and others are unwholesome and hurtful, such as anger and skeptical doubt that the Buddha’s teachings can make a difference in our lives.

The fifth aggregate, consciousness, is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. Consciousness is basic awareness or knowing. Sometimes we use the word “mind” to describe this function. According to the Buddha, consciousness or mind is luminous, which means that it shines light on things, including our perceptions. In fact, there is no such thing as mere mind or mere consciousness. We infer the existence of mind or consciousness based solely on its contents. Thus we can 17say that consciousness is always associated with a perception, thought, emotion, or some other mental object.

Meditation on Perception and the Aggregates

One of the best ways to experience the five aggregates is to be mindful of them while practicing meditation on the breath as explained in the introduction. Mindfulness meditation on perception of the five aggregates is based on the Buddha’s instructions to his bhikkhus. As the Buddha instructed in the Dhammapada, his teachings—the true Dhamma—should be perceived in one’s own body:

           One does not uphold the Dhamma

           Only because one speaks a lot.

           Having heard even a little,

           If one perceives the Dhamma with one’s own body,

           And is never negligent of the Dhamma,

           Then one is indeed an upholder of the Dhamma.

           (tr. Gil Fronsdal)

Here is how we might practice this type of meditation:

       ImageImage   As we focus on our regular cycle of inhalation and exhalation, we gently direct our attention to perceiving each of the five aggregates.

       ImageImage   We become mindful that the breath itself is the aggregate of form. Our senses perceive the flow of air entering and leaving the body, both at the rim of the nostrils and as the abdomen rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation. We also may experience the 18body as form because of pain in our back or knee as we sit.

       ImageImage   We become mindful of the aggregate of feeling by perceiving the slight discomfort or anxiety we experience when our lungs are empty and the slight pleasure we feel when we inhale again.

       ImageImage   We become mindful of the aggregate of perception by perceiving the physical sensations of the breath and the pleasant and unpleasant feelings arising from the breath.

       ImageImage   We become mindful of the aggregate of thought by noticing any thoughts, such as faith or doubt, and emotions, such as loving-friendliness or impatience, that arise while we are breathing.

       ImageImage   We become mindful of the aggregate of consciousness by perceiving alterations in the other four aggregates as we breathe—changing sensations in the body, feelings of pleasure and discomfort, perception of external and internal objects, and the arising and passing away of thoughts and emotions. We see that consciousness itself is changing moment to moment. In fact, all five aggregates are always changing in gross and subtle ways.

       ImageImage   Our goal is to perceive whatever arises and passes away with an impartial attitude, neither clinging to experiences of pleasure nor pushing away experiences of discomfort. This neutral attitude is the key to mindfulness. As we discover, it is impossible for us to focus the mind on any meditation object unless we perceive it impartially. When we allow feelings of pleasure and discomfort to color our perceptions, the perceptions themselves rise to the forefront of consciousness, and our awareness of the breath goes on the backburner.

       ImageImage   The most important aspect of this meditation is becoming mindful of each fleeting moment of perception marked by impermanence. As our meditation practice deepens, we gain experience in 19maintaining focus on the breath, perceiving physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, and emotions as impermanent, while at the same time remaining mindful of impartial perceptions.

Why Impartial Perception Is Important

Cultivating impartial perception during meditation is so important because the desire that arises in the mind for any of the five aggregates blocks our ability to liberate ourselves from suffering. As one of the Buddha’s monks, the Venerable Mahakaccana, explained to Haliddakani, a householder or layperson, perception is a “home of consciousness,” as are the other aggregates. Craving and other colorations are like chains that bind us to the aggregates, and thus to life after life characterized by impermanence and dissatisfaction. As the Buddha said in the Haliddakani Sutta:

The form element, householder, is the home of consciousness; one whose consciousness is shackled by lust for the form element is called one who roams about in a home. The feeling element is the home of consciousness. . .The perception element is the home of consciousness. . .The volitional formations [thought] element is the home of consciousness; one whose consciousness is shackled by lust for the volitional formations element is called one who roams about in a home. It is in such a way that one roams about in a home. (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

As our mindfulness becomes more stable, we discover that the entire Dhamma is inscribed in our body and mind. If we focus our minds only on the perception of external things, we don’t see the Dhamma 20that we carry around with us all our lives. We are like a blind person walking around with a bag full of diamonds, unaware of how valuable this heavy bag is. When we focus instead on perception of our own body and mind, we discover that we carry a treasure. Discovering these inner riches, we find nothing less than the path to liberation, permanent freedom from suffering.

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