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Belief in Personality

The puthujjana, implicitly or explicitly clings to belief in self. This is termed in Pāli atta-vādupādāna: clinging to (upādāna) belief (vāda) in self (attā). He cannot cling to a self because there is no self to be found; he can only cling to a belief in a self. And what is the belief he clings to? It is the belief that what appears as a self is actually a self; in other words, that ‘self’ is actually self. And clinging to the belief in self is simply attachment to the belief, or the consideration that the belief is ‘for me’. Since the puthujjana believes ‘self’ to be actually self, we can interpret attāvādupādāna either as clinging to ‘self’ or clinging to belief in self.

This is the fundamental belief at the root of all views concerning self, such as ‘there is self for me’, ‘there is no self for me’, etc. These views concerning self are called attānudiṭṭhi in the Suttas, while belief in the self is called attavāda. The view ‘this is my self’ (eso me attā) is the rationalization of this belief to which the puthujjana is attached. The relationship of the view ‘this is my self’ to belief in self is the same as the relationship of the view ‘this am I’ to the conceit ‘(I) am’. Whenever there is belief in self, the entire edifice of the root-structure of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience lies behind it. Thus, belief in self requires the conceit ‘(I) am’ (and the rest) though as we shall see later on, the conceit ‘I am’ can exist without belief in self. Belief in self is a coarse and deliberate reflexive layer that stands over the more subtle conceit ‘(I) am’. And in this context, belief refers to a deliberate reflexion. We will discuss this further on. Finally, belief in self involves belief in ‘I’ and ‘mine’ as well.

The consideration of something as self is also a clinging (upādāna). ‘Self’ indicates something clung to; and the rationalization or conceptual elaboration ‘this is my self’ is a greater degree of clinging than indicated by ‘this am I’ and ‘this is mine’. The consideration of something as ‘eternal pleasurable I’ is a harder and more deliberate clinging than the consideration of something as merely ‘I’, wherein the perceptions of permanence and pleasurableness are relatively implicit. Thus we get the triad ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self’ (etaṃ mama, eso ahaṃ asmi, eso me attā) which indicates three increasing degrees of clinging. ‘This is mine’ is the rationalization of the situation described in the root-structure (maññanā); ‘this am I’ is the rationalization of the conceit ‘(I) am’ (asmimāna); and ‘this is my self’ is the rationalization of the belief in self (attavāda).


The foregoing discussion leads us to two very important phenomena referred to in the Suttas as sakkāya and sakkāyadiṭṭhi. It is very important that one’s understanding of these concepts is very clear. We will use the simile of the chariot given in the Suttas for explaining the meaning of these terms.

There is a pile of parts (wheels, linch-pins, floorboards, etc.) that are to be assembled in just a certain way. This assemblage, when perceived, is recognizable as ‘something I can travel in’. Accordingly, I give it the designation ‘chariot’. If the question of traveling did not come in at all, I would not call it a ‘chariot’; maybe it would be called ‘a pile of parts’. But as long as the pile of parts assembled in a certain way signifies or points to ‘something I can travel in’, there is a chariot. For there to be a ‘chariot’ present, the parts must be assembled in a particular fashion and the assemblage, when perceived, must signify traveling. If any of these conditions are not present, there is no chariot.

In the same way, there are five clinging-aggregates and these are assembled in a certain way. Any assemblage of the five clinging-aggregates in any way other than the way it is, is inconceivable. This assemblage, when perceived, is recognizable as ‘self’, and accordingly it is viewed as ‘self’. And when this assemblage of the five clinging-aggregates (pañcupādānakkhandhā) is viewed as ‘self’, it is given the designation ‘person’ or ‘somebody’. It can be referred to in the abstract as ‘personality’ (sakkāya). Thus, ‘person’ or ‘personality’ (sakkāya) means the five clinging-aggregates viewed as a ‘self’.

Here is a simple example of the experience of the basic meaning of being a ‘person’—of the individual being essentially the same subject: A and B are two puthujjanas. Some time ago, A harmed B. At that time B was in no position to retaliate. B meets A today under circumstances wherein B can retaliate. B now thinks (as he always does) that he is essentially the same subject who was in the past. So he now retaliates and takes revenge on A. A, on the other hand, thinks that B has taken revenge on him, who is now essentially the same subject who was in the past. However, if B does not consider himself now essentially the same subject who was in the past, thoughts of retaliation would immediately subside.

Now, for ‘person’ or ‘personality’ to be present it is not necessary for the whole assemblage of the five clinging-aggregates to be viewed as ‘self’. Even if one of the five clinging-aggregates is viewed as self, there is a ‘person’. This situation holds good simply because any one of the five clinging-aggregates is inseparably bound to the others; viewing one particular clinging-aggregate as ‘self’ has the same effect as so viewing the entire assemblage. In fact the puthujjana, reflecting upon himself, more often than not views only some part of the five clinging-aggregates as self. For example, Descartes views only his thinking as ‘self’. Of course, he does not provide us with a precise definition of the phenomenon he refers to as ‘I think’ (cogito) in terms of the aggregates. But it is clear that he does not include the aggregate of matter in it. Most likely he includes the other four aggregates—feeling, perception, determination and consciousness—to some extent.

But there are other ways to by which there is a ‘person’. The way described above is only by way of considering the five clinging-aggregates or a part of them as ‘self’ (attato). There can also be the consideration of the five clinging-aggregates (or a part) as being in ‘self’; or there can be the consideration of ‘self’ as being in the five clinging-aggregates (or in a part); or there can be the consideration of ‘self’ as having (being possessed of) the five clinging-aggregates (or a part). It doesn’t matter in what way ‘self’ is identified with with experience, as long as there is an identification in some way or other, there is a ‘person’ or a ‘personality’.

This brings us to the other phenomenon, personality (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). Sakkāya means ‘person’ and diṭṭhi means ‘view’. Therefore we can render sakkāyadiṭṭhi as ‘person’-view or ‘personality’-view or even ‘self’-identification. Naturally, there are as many kinds of ‘person’-view as there are ways of being a ‘person’.

But, noble lady, how does self-identification (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) come about?”

“There is the case, friend Visakha, where an uninstructed puthujjana—who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma—assumes form (the body) to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form.

“He assumes feeling to be the self… he assumes perception to be the self… he assumes (mental) fabrications to be the self… he assumes consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as being in the self, or the self as being in consciousness. This is how self-identification comes about.” — Culavedalla Sutta (Majjhima-nikāya 44)

This passage indicates that there can be twenty different kinds of ‘person’-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and that is only by considering an aggregate as a whole. But though the Sutta doesn’t specifically say so, it is obvious thateven if the individual regards just a part of one aggregate—for example, mind-consciousness—as self, or as belonging to self, or as containing self, or as contained in self, he still has ‘person’-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and still remains a ‘person’ (sakkāya).

This indicates something important: the puthujjana’s experience is ‘personal’. It is the experience of one who identifies himself, in one way or another, with ‘self’. The puthujjana may think he is being ‘impersonal’ but he is certainly not so in fact. His experience is always ‘personal’ to some degree, simply because all his reflexive experience is involved implicitly or explicitly with ‘self’. It would be a fatal mistake to confuse sakkāyadiṭṭhi (’person’-view) with ‘belief in a self or soul’ or as ‘the view that there is a self in the five clinging-aggregates’. These facile but common misinterpretations should be guarded against.

It is also important not to mix up clinging to belief in ‘self’ (attavādupādāna) with regarding things as ‘self’ in some way or another—’person’-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). The distinction is important because ‘person’-view is dependent upon clinging to a belief in self; sakkāyadiṭṭhi depends on attavādupādāna. If there is no clinging to belief in self, then the question of regarding anything as self cannot arise. All mystifications like ‘pure consciousness’, ‘essential self’, ‘Self’ (with a capital S) etc., said to be beyond the five aggregates are determined by clinging to the belief in ‘self’; they are the outcome of attavādupādāna.

If there is a ‘person’ there must be a ‘person’-view as a necessary part of its structure. For example, if there is a ‘chariot’ there must be the view that the assemblage of parts as something to travel in is a ‘chariot’. In Pāli terms, if there is sakkāya there must be sakkāyadiṭṭhi, at least in latent form, as a necessary part of the structure of sakkāya. In fact the Buddha refers to the five clinging-aggregates as the ‘person’, and the five clinging-aggregates are what is considered as the ‘self’ in one way or another. In Pāli terms, the sakkāya is the pañcupādānakkhanda.

And what, monks, is the ‘person’? The five clinging-aggregates are so called.” — Sakkāya-sutta 

In the example of the chariot, it is the assemblage of parts that is viewed as something to travel in. Further, since it is the nature of the five clinging-aggregates to press for recognition as ‘self’, they are pregnant with being regarded as ‘self’. It also follows that though we refer to the five clinging-aggregates considered as ‘I’ and ‘mine’, it is also correct to refer to them as being considered as ‘self’.

It is very important to note, however, that only if the conceptions indicated in the root-structure—the maññanā of the Mūlapariyāya—are present, that considerations of self can be present. If the considerations of self are manifest, then the whole edifice of the root-structure lies beneath; and even if considerations of self are not manifest, this edifice is still pregnant with considerations of self. In the case of the puthujjana, he has no option but to let these considerations become manifest, and he quite naturally lets it happen. He is helpless to curb them or tone them down.

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