Thursday, December 7, 2017

Theory of Perception: a comparative study between Helmholtz idea and Buddhist viewpoint

Helmholtz proposed perceptions are inferred from sensations

If sensation then perception”. This idea of Helmholtz is totally tally with the Buddhist viewpoint. Buddhism defines about the arising of perception as a condition of sensation. In a way this whole idea of Helmholtz is available in Madupindika sutta (Honey ball sutta). Apart from this sutta, all places talking about dependent origination (Paticcasamuppada), and Five aggregates illustrate what the Helmholtz pointed out.

“Yaŋ vedeti, taŋ sañjhānāti”
What one feels (sensations), one perceives (labels in the mind)

Helmholtz proposed the same idea as “perceptions are inferred from sensations”
In order to get a clear idea about the Buddhist perspective about this, it is good to study about the core teaching in the Madupindika sutta. Here it is very clear that although Helmholtz talks about the perception and sensation related to eye, Buddhism teaches sensations and perceptions of all six sensual faculties 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 (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about it. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye.

In the same manner ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind also follow the same formula. In this respect, Buddhist interpretation becomes more advanced. In fact, Buddhist teaching formulates the arising of suffering (Dukkha) and this formula describes interdependent existence or causal relation of factors of it. On the other hand, Buddhist teaching does not accept anything independence but interdependence.

A mind is a basic requisite in Buddhist philosophy. If the mind is not available whole process stops and it does not continue. Mind also does not arise without conditions or causes, and causes of arising mental factors of the mind are; internal faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and external objects (forms, sounds, smell, taste, tactile, mental factors). When internal faculties and external objects meet together, mind activates. On account of this activation of consciousness contact (eye contact, ear contact, nose contact, tongue contact, body contact, and mind contact) comes into existence.

With contact as the condition feelings or sensations come into being. Then what one feels one perceives. This is the point Helmholtz is talking about.

When one contacts a form with the eye, sensations arise, and Buddhism names it as “Cakkhusampassaja vedana” which means “sensations of contacting forms with eye”. One perceives signs and manners of the thing he felt through sensations.

According to the idea of Helmholtz, we assume (unconsciously) all sensations are effects of external causes. Yes, scientifically this is true, however, according to Buddhism, one effect comes for many causes. Among these many causes, there is the main cause and that is known as “Hetu” which means “main cause” and other causes are known as “Paccaya” which mean “supporting conditions”. However Buddhist idea about sensations is; all sensations are effects of related internal and external causes (eye + form + eye consciousness + contact = sensations). 

On the other hand, according to Helmholtz idea, whenever sensory activities arise (in the “2-D map”), we postulate or infer an idea of an external object as “cause” of these activities, and put it somewhere in our consciousness (“3-D map”). Yes, this idea is parallel with Buddhist idea.

According to sensory activities ideas about external object come onto being and mind of the normal person puts that idea in somewhere in the mind. That is an outcome of grasping the object he saw. But the mind of the Buddha and Arahanths do not put these ideas in anywhere in the mind. Liberated mind of the Buddha and arahanths is just like a mirror. Mirror reflects the light, and in the same way liberated mind does not absorb ideas into the mind.

“Ditte Ditta Mattan Bhavissathi - Suthe Sutha Mattam Bhavissathi,
Muthe Mutha Mattam Bhavissathi - Vinnate Vinnatha mattam Bhavissathi”

In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized
However, Helmholtz could have emphasized about the way of perceiving things with the eye of the normal person. In that sense, his idea is true. 
At the same time, according to Helmholtz analysis perception is dependent on three general conditions: physical form, innate capacity (nature), and past experience (nurture). Yes, Buddhist perspective will accept these as right conditions.

Physical form = Form (rūpa)
Innate capacity = mental formations or fabrications (saŋkhāra)
Past experience = nature of one’s clinging (upādāna) and (āsava)

Buddhism accepts form is a necessary part of the process of perceiving something. At the same time, innate capacity is also mentioned under fabrications because fabrications can be affected for deciding the nature of the person’s way of perceiving things. For example: Buddhist Jataka tales mention a certain person disgusted his beautiful wife for his less merits. And another time a princess has tried to kill her beloved prince to love an ugly man. Thus, inborn nature sometimes leads to perceive something good as bad, and bad as good.

Past experience is also a cause of perceiving things. For example: according to Buddhist teaching everyone who wishes to liberate must get used to practice perfections (Pāramitā). The objective of these perfections is to change the wrong perception and attitude of outside world. Those who have past experience about these perfections do not grasp but see the impermanence of things. Those who do not have past experience about these perfections, grasp and addict to impermanent things and fight for them because the way they perceived things is different. Although Helmholtz proposes three causes for perception, but Buddhism proposes 24 causes in Abhidhamma. However his idea does not exceed the Buddhist viewpoint.

Another point of Helmholtz is that conscious perceptual ideas (in “3-D map”) are just inferred causes of subconscious sensations (in “2-D map”). This is the inter-relation between sensations, perception, and ideas. Further he says; “Perception begins with sensations and ends with an idea”. In fact, these concepts are inseparable and interconnected. Whenever sensory activities arise (in the “2-D map”), we postulate or infer an idea of an external object as “cause” of these activities, and put it somewhere in our consciousness.

Buddhism introduces this relation with contact (Phassa), the sensations (Vedana), and perception (Saññā). According to Madupindika sutta explaination;“With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling (sensations). What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind = perception)”

Phassapaccayā vedanā. Ya vedeti, ta sañjānāti[4].
Sensory activities+ infer an idea
Vedanā (Sensations)
Saññā (Perception)
Perceptual Ideas (perception)

Interconnection between sensation and perception

“If sensation then perception”

When sensation is available then perception comes into being. This idea totally agrees with Buddhist teaching. Buddhism says the same idea as “Yaŋ vedeti, taŋ sañjhānāti” which means What one feels (sensations), one perceives (labels in the mind)

When one perceives something pleasant, he feels happy and reacts with desire. When he perceives something disgusting, he feels unhappy and reacts with anger. These two statuses arise in the same mind as results of sensation. When sensation is pleasant perception also becomes pleasant while unpleasant sensations bring unpleasant perceptions. In fact, sensation and perception become different from person to person.

Eg:- the smell of Durian fruit is pleasant to someone while another person disgusts that smell of it.

We don’t have a specific answer to the question, whether Durian fruit has a good smell or bad smell. In fact, this is an error arises in the mind and it is not an error with the smell of the Durian fruit (outside world). This is the common nature of everything we perceive in the world. What we perceive or feel in the day to day life is not the true representation of the real world. Since our ignorance, we perceive unreal things as real.

Nete kamayani citrani loke - sankappa rago purisassa kamo
Tithanti citrani tatheva loke - athettha dhira vinayanti chandam

What is beautiful in the world is not inherently sensual - the lustful bent is man’s sensuality. Beauty remains as it is in the world. The wise restrain excitement towards them
Saṅkappa-rāgo purisassa kāmo,
Nete kāmā yāni citrāni loke;
Saṅkappa-rāgo purisassa kāmo,
Tiṭṭhanti citrāni tatheva loke;
Athettha dhīrā vinayanti chanda’nti[7].
The passion for his resolves is a man's sensuality,
Not the beautiful sensual pleasures found in the world.
The passion for his resolves is a man's sensuality.
The beauties remain as they are in the world,
While the wise, in this regard, subdue their desire. 

These statements mention that person’s perception decides the beauty of outside world. Beauty does not exist in forms or in outside world; it is a miracle arises in the mind. The person perceives forms as good, as long as the form is pleasant to him. When the form is unpleasant to him, he disgusts it. As a matter of fact, this behaviour is everywhere with everyone. No one can see the beauty of something forever since form, sensation, and perception are impermanent. Hence, Buddhism encourages its followers not to see form or sensation or perception, but to see the impermanence of all these things.

On the other hand, Buddhism defines “contact” as the cause for both sensation and perception.

Phasso, bhikkhave, vedanāna nidāna-sambhavoPhasso, bhikkhave, saññāna nidāna-sambhavo.

Contact is the cause by which feeling comes into playContact is the cause by which perception comes into play.

Perception is not the true representation

We contact outside world with our sensual faculties. When we have pleasant sensations, we attach to it, try to own it, and fight to protect it. This is the arisen of the wrong perception. We have an idea to see suffering from pleasure just like firefly jumps to the fire flame thinking it is pleasant for its wrong perception. In fact, this is an outcome of delusion. So, Buddhist training is to overcome this delusion of ideas and perceptions as “true representations of an outside world”

A certain monk named Vakkali ordained with an intention to see the Buddha’s body for a long time since Vakkali bhikkhu had the idea of the permanence of the Buddha’s body. It is a delusion. Then the Buddha addressed venerable Vakkali and said, “ Vakkali, what is the use of seeing this impure body for a long time?

In fact, this is the nature of the delusion. A person does not see the reality of things as they are when delusion is dominating the mind.

Another occasion a certain monk saw a beautiful prostitute called Sirima on his way to alms round. He came back to the monastery and lay down on the bed and said; “until I get that beautiful lady, I do not eat or do any other thing. I will die here for her”

After few days the Buddha addressed monks and asked them to come with the monk who wishes to get Sirima to see her. But the Buddha went to the cemetery and pointed a dead body which full of warms and said to the monk; “monk that is Sirima, you were ready to die for her, if you need, you can get her now”. The monk was very upset and shamed about his wrong perception of impermanent things in the world. He understood the illusion perception of this world. 

It is true that the ordinary mind conceives ideas and perceptions as “true representations of an outside world” and the most important point of the view of Helmholtz also mentions, Perception was the result of mind acts and not a true representation of an outside world

This idea of Helmholtz says the same thing that Buddhism says about the perception. Not only about perception but about other aggregates also described in Buddhist teaching. Then what we see with our eyes is not the truth. Truth is hidden and it is to be seen with the wise, concentrated mind.

Pheapiṇḍūpama rūpa - vedanā bubbuupamā
Maricikupamā saññā - sakhārā kadalūpamā,

Māyūpamañca viññāa - dīpitādiccabandhunā. 

Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble;
perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree;
consciousness, a magic trick.

A glob of form near flowing water does not have a permanent existence or shape, it is always renewing. In the same manner forms, we see with eye do not have a permanent existence, it is also renewing moment by moment. When one craves for forms has a wrong perception that shows the form as a permanent thing. Actually, it is an illusion, those who go after this illusion suffer a lot when the form shows its reality. Those who understood this illusion of perception do not crave for forms and as a result, they do not have any chance to cry or worry.

Water bubble does not exist a long time, it appears and at the same time, it disappears in flash of a second. After we feel a feeling, it is no more. Therefore, people search for pleasurable feelings continuously. There is nothing in this world which has permanent pleasure. All beings follow after pleasurable feelings to have an eternal pleasure and them never get it since there is nothing called permanent pleasure of sensuality.  

Mirage is not a real phenomenon, it is an illusion. In the same manner, what we perceive as forms, sounds, smell and so on are not true representations of outside world. What we see through sense faculties is not the truth, what we realize by wisdom is true. Mirage is not a true representation and all perceptions we perceive are not true representations. They are illusions.

A person who seeks for a core of a tree cuts down thousands of banana trees. He cannot find a core from banana trees. In the same manner, there is nothing in this world permanent. Everything whatever mind or matter is coreless.

A magician performs magic which is not real. In other words, he is cheating the ordinance performing unreal as real. In the same manner, our consciousness cheats us and misleads us by giving the wrong perception of conceptions in outside the world. It gives the permanent perception to the impermanent things, pleasure perception to suffering, and self-perception to the non-self. This is the magic of consciousness.

Another time the Buddha explains that outside world has consisted of five aggregates and these five are not true representations.

  Yatha hi anga sambhara - Hoti saddo ratho iti
  Evam khandhesu santesu - Hoti sattoti sammuti.

When the parts are rightly set, then there is a name of the vehicle. In the same way, when there are aggregates rightly set, there is a convention called the “Being”.
This is the best example which emphasizes the true representation of the word. When five aggregates get together there is a convention named Being, and when these aggregates are separated the convention is no more.

According to Buddhism, there are two truths namely “Sammuti” which means “conventional truth” and “Paramatta” which means “Absolute truth”. Among these two truths, conventional truth is not the true representation of the outside world. Absolute truth is the true representation of the world.

Clinging to outside world means, clinging to conventions. But the convention is not the true representation, but it has temporary pleasure. The impermanence of convention cannot be perceived when the person has ignorance. When ignorance or delusion is dominating the person’s mind, he attaches to the outside world and this is the arising of desire for outside world. On the other hand, he competes for outside objects and this is the point of arising conceit. In another way, he fights with others for outer objects, and this is the point of arising anger. All these happening for delusion or wrong perception about the outside world.

Helmholtz’s paper is also to help his contemporaries overcome this delusion with regard to these perceptions.


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Madupindika sutta. MN 18, PTS: M i 108
Madupindika sutta. MN 18, PTS: M i 108
Bahiya sutta. Ud 1.10 PTS: Ud 6
Madupindika sutta. [PTS Page 112]
Madupindika sutta. MN 18, PTS: M i 108
Samyutta Nikaya.i.22.
Nibbhedika sutta. AN 6.63 (A iii 410)
Nibbedhika sutta. AN 6.63 (A iii 410)
SN 22.95, PTS: S iii 140
Vajira sutta, SN

Ven. Sumiththa T.
Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre - Hong Kong 
3F, 27 Sheung Heung Road, To Kwa Wan, 
Kowloon, Hong Kong

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