Distorted Perception I

Meditation on Perception (pp. 21-26)

 Pure Perception

The Buddha defined pure perception as what the senses sense without embellishment.

Perception is pure and clean in its original state. It can become distorted by what Bhante G. calls “the virus of concepts.” This is the mental proliferation of the fourth aggregate, thought (mental formations) which colors subsequent perceptions.

As an example, when we look at a features of someone’s face such as their nose, eyes, ears and mouth, a feelings arise as pleasant (beautiful), unpleasant (ugly) or neutral (neither pleasant or unpleasant). Our thoughts in the form of concepts from the past (memories) influences our feelings and subsequently our perceptions. Then more thoughts can take place (mental proliferation). As the result of the visual contact with this person’s face, we can have a reaction based on a perception that has become distorted by our concepts. We do not see what is really there (a face) but rather a concept of pleasant (e.g. beautiful), unpleasant (e.g. ugly) or neither pleasant not unpleasant.


Distorted Perception

The process that causes distorted perception leads to unhappiness (suffering) because we became attached to the concept rather than seeing what is.

Another way to understand the process of distorted perception is to know that it reflects the opposite of the true characteristics of all experience (impermanence, dissatisfaction, selfless nature).   Perception is always changing (impermanence), unreliable (dissatisfaction) and not our self (selfless nature). Distorted perception causes us to perceive objects as permanent, reliable (satisfactory) and under our control (self).

There is a story about distorted perception concerning a devotee of the Buddha, Nakulapita, who came to the Buddha because he was afflicted and suffering. The Buddha teaching was:

“So it is, householder, so it is! This body of yours is afflicted, weighed down, encumbered. If anyone carrying around this body were to claim to be healthy even for a moment, what is that due to other than foolishness? Therefore, householder, you should train yourself thus: “Even though I am afflicted in body, my mind will be unafflicted.’ Thus should you train yourself.”

One of the Buddha’s close disciples, explained this to Nakulapita further:

“A person who is unfamiliar with the teaching of the Buddha regards the five aggregates as his self. With the change and decay of these aggregates, theee arises in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair. This he is afflicted both in body and in mind.”

Regarding perception, there is a tendency to regard our perception as self or that we possess perception. For example, if we perceive something as beautiful, we believe that this is the truth that is a part of our “self.” In truth, self is only a concept and always stands in relationship to an object. It cannot exist outside of an object.

Perception is impermanent. If it were permanent, our perception would not change over time. Something that we regarded as beautiful would always be that way.

As Bhante G. notes in Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  “Thus the more you focus on mind itself, the less solid it seems.  Like everything else that exists, it is always changing.  Moreover, you discover, there is no permanent entity; no one is running the movie projector. All is flux, all is flow, all is process.  In reality, who you are is simply this constant flow of changing moments of mind.  Since you cannot control this process, you have no choice but to let go. In letting go, you experience joy and you taste for an instant the freedom and happiness that is the goal of the Buddha’s path.  Then you know that this mind can be used to gain wisdom.”  Page 216

This is true for all of aggregates:

  • The body is not the self.
  • Feeling is not the self.
  • Perception is not the self.
  • Thoughts (mental formations) are not the self.
  • Consciousness is not the self.


Reflect on this talk daily. As perceptions arise, look for the distortions. Can you experience perceptions changing because of their impermanent nature?


Continue your meditation practice and observe the perceptions arising from the contact of consciousness with the internal and external sense bases.

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