I will put an excerpt from a book "Essentials of Insight Meditation Practice" which is free and can be found here: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/essentials.pdf
"WHAT IS A CONCEPT?
As I have said, a concept is what is thought out, imagined or created
by the mind. One form which is very obvious is when we think and
plan things which has not yet happened, or when we imagine and
“build castles in the air.” All these are mere concepts, they are not
real, and they are created with our minds. There are other types of
concepts, which are subtler, and we have to recognise them. These
come not actively but passively. They come with the processes of the
mind. One type is what we call sound concepts, eg, words and
melodies. These are not real because they are created by the mind.
For instance, the word “selfish” does not really exist in the ultimate
sense. It is made up of consonants and vowels, which are only sounds.
The word has two syllables, “self” and “fish.” At one moment of time,
you cannot hear the whole word “selfish.” What you hear are different
sounds passing away. It is only the sequence of sounds, which gives
the mind the idea. Actually, there is only vibration of sounds following
each other. Another type of sound concept is the melody, “do-re-me…
do, a deer, a female deer…” At no one moment does the melody exist.
There are only musical notes arising one after another. The mind gets
a mental imprint and so a melody arises. These are sound concepts.
Another form of concept is that which involves form. A form
involves distance, direction, and size. All this is ultimately not real.
For example, if I say that this is my right and this is my left, from
your perspective, which is really my right and which is really my left?
Right and left are concepts dependent on the relationship of one
object and another, which way you are facing and so on. Similarly,
things like distance and time. Even the idea of form and shape are
concepts. We seem to see whole things at once but in the thought
processes, we know it does not occur like that. Pictures on television
are an example. They occur rapidly one after another but we see the
forms and shapes created as simultaneous. Form and shapes are
concepts. In the case of form, we experience only the colour and the
light, which comes and goes very rapidly. Time is also a concept—
dependent on the functions of many things—which come and go."
"It is important that the meditator understands the difference between
“concept” and “ultimate realities,” because it is the direction which
he will have to lead his mind—from concepts to realities.
Concepts are those things or ideas thought out and conceived
by the mind. They are built upon the ultimate realities. Concepts are
only conventionally and subjectively true.
Ultimate realities, on the other hand, are those phenomena which
can be directly perceived (thus ultimate) without going through the
process of conceptual thinking, reasoning or imagination. These are
truths not depending on conventional definitions. Ultimate realities,
however, do not necessarily only mean the Absolute Reality which
refers only to the unchanging, unconditioned state—“Nibbana.”
Though conventional or conceptual realities are still a reality and
we cannot really do away with them altogether, we will have to put
them aside for periods of time during our meditation to allow us to
really see and realise things as they really are.
Conceptualisation can occur in two ways:
i Active Thinking
Active thinking can occur as philosophising, scheming,
planning or fantasising. It is obvious that when one does it
with lots of assumptions, preconceptions, ideas or hallucinations,
then one cannot be, at the same time, experiencing
nature directly. One has to put away all these before any
insight can arise.
ii ‘Unconscious’ Thinking
The second type of conceptualising is more subtle in that one is
not actively “thinking” or at least one is not conscious of it.
These concepts are formed so habitually and are deeply
embedded in the mind. These can also be part and parcel of
the mental processes influenced by kamma and the results
of kamma. Although one cannot abandon these altogether,
it is still necessary to transcend these for periods of time (by
means of highly concentrated bare mindfulness) to allow
insight to arise.
Examples of concepts relevant to the meditator are:
1 Word Concepts (Sadda Paññatti)
Words are made up of many syllables or sounds that arise
and pass away consecutively.
At one instant of time, the word does not exist, only the
arising and passing away of sound, a vibrating form;
materiality in nature.
Similarly a musical piece is made up of many “notes” of
sound. These are words based upon the play of sound when
we try to communicate our ideas and experiences with
another. Now it is also visual as it has been put into writing.
Sound concepts (words) may be real if they refer directly
to real phenomena that can be directly experienced. Unreal
concepts are those that cannot refer directly to realities. They
refer to other concepts and ideas which by themselves do not
As words combine with words, further concepts build up
and can be the combination of real and unreal concepts.
Example: The word “mind” is a real concept as it refers to
mental phenomena that can be directly experienced without
The word “man” is an unreal concept because it refers to
something that cannot be directly experienced without
conceptualisation. Some words may have both—eg patient who
may refer to a sick person (unreal) or a tolerant mental state
In meditation we use them (real concepts) as labels to help
us recognise realities. Words and labels should not be grasped
at in meditation. One should instead try to understand what
is meant to be experienced.
2 Form, shape and distance
These concepts make up the two-dimensional and threedimensional
If you study the television screen, the picture is made up
of electron lights shooting at a great speed from the tube within.
They arise and pass too fast for one to really know what is
actually happening. What the mind grasps (too slowly) is a
general play of colours which form shapes and so give us ideas.
They occur so fast that they seem to occur at the same time.
3 Directional Concepts (Disa Paññatti)
These are concepts corresponding to directions, relationship
of one thing to another eg east, west, right, left, above, below,
inwards, outwards, sideways, upwards, and downwards.
4 Time Concepts (Kala Paññatti)
The Time concept is built upon ideas concerning the recurrent
and consecutive occurrence of material and mental phenomena.
Materially, they involve light and darkness (as in day or
night), physical state of body (as in old and young) and so on.
Mentally, they involve mental activities and functions such
as sleeping time, working time, and so on.
Although we should have a general timetable or routine
to guide our practice, we need not follow it blindly.
Adjustments can be made if it is unsuitable. In groups,
sometimes one’s own welfare has to be sacrificed if benefit is
meant for the welfare of the group.
Collective Concepts (Samuha Paññatti)
These correspond to groups or collections of things, eg a
class, a race, a car, a city, group interviews, group meditation
6 Space Concepts (Akasa Paññatti)
Space concepts are those that refer to open spaces—such as
well, cave, hole and window.
7 Sight Concepts (Nimitta Paññatti)
These are visualised images such as the learner’s sign and
mirror image of tranquillity meditation. Many hallucinations
and imageries also come under this category.
8 Beings, Ego (Satta Paññatti)
What people normally regard as “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,”
“person,” “dog” or “deva” are actually sets of ever-changing
mental and material processes. These concepts of being,
should be used as convenience in communication but when
grasped upon as real, ultimate and absolute, one cannot help
but fall into conflict and sooner or later fall to ruin.
The abandoning of this concept is of utmost importance
to Vipassana meditation but upon the realisation that “All
dhammas are not-self,” one ought not to think “I” am walking
but just be mindful eg the process of walking. Some may
philosophise as they watch. This will, on the other hand, fall
into another set of concepts.
There are still many more concepts such as of happiness, suffering,
life and so on but we will not be dealing with them at the present.
In order to have a better picture of the process of conceptualisation,
it would be helpful to explain the thought processes.
A thought process can be defined as a series of consciousness
arising in an order that makes up what we “see,” “hear” and “think.”
These thought processes arise from the life continuum, a flow of
consciousness in a deep sleep state following stimuli from an internal
or external object.