“Self” and “no-self”: A Simple Analysis – Do We Always Act with Avijja?

October 23, 2015
I like to address two comments that I recently received. Questions such as these bring out very important issues that help clarify fundamental concepts.
First comment (by Mr. Alexander Ausweger):

(1) The number of rebirths of a single sentient being before now is infinite.

(2) The probability to become an arahant in one life-phase (from birth to death) is very small but greater than 0. (The possible probability-values range from 0 to 1 as usual in probability theory).

Conclusion: In an infinite number of rebirths the probability to reach arahantship would be 1 which means that everyone would already has left samsara.

Conclusion: Since we are still here, one of the premises must be wrong.


Second comment (by Mr. Chamila Wickramasinghe):

“….in akusala-mula paticca samuppada, since “avijja anusaya” is still remaining for a person below the Arahant stage, is there not a single “chitta-kshana” (or citta) that arises without avijja? ..”


Embedded in both above comments, there is connotation of a “self”, i.e., there is “a well-defined sentient being” that goes through a cycle of rebirths. Since we use names to label a person, that automatically gives the impression of a non-changing “self”. Thus it is a bit hard to remove this “sense of a self” from our minds.
  • The other side of this issue is the common misconception that “anatta” means “no-self”. We can resolve many issues if we can understand that neither view is correct.
  • The Buddha said it is wrong to believe that there is a “self” and it is also wrong to believe that “there is no-self”. This is a bit difficult to comprehend first; that is why the Buddha said, “My Dhamma has never been known to the world…”. So we will discuss some examples to clarify why both these views are not correct.
Let us first discuss the First comment. The answer to the second comment will become clear during that discussion.
1. The key issue brought out by the first comment is the first premise itself: By assuming that “there is a single sentient being…” we are distorting the actual reality. This is basically saying that there is a “soul” or “self”. To give an absolute identity to an entity (a life form), there must be something unchanging in it.
  • Now, let us discuss HOW the Buddha explained that the above premise is not correct.
  • At the time of the Buddha, there were many who believed in an “äthma” or a “soul” or a “self”. When asked what is a “person” is unique to give that absolute identity, some said it was one’s body (rupa), others said either one’s feelings (vedana), one’s perceptions (sanna), one’s actions (sankhara), one’s thoughts (vinnana), or some combinations of the above five. However, we are not talking about pancakkhandha here, i.e., not rupakkhandha etc. I will write a series of posts later to clarify the difference.
  • There is nothing else that can be assigned as “one’s own”.
2. So, the Buddha explained in detail why none of the above remains the same in a “given person”. Let us take a simple example to understand the basic idea. Let us consider person A when entering the high school and when leaving the high school.
  • Did any of the five categories (rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana) remain the same at those two instances of time, several years apart? Person A would have grown and will not have the same body. At the time of his leaving high school, most his primary thoughts (vinnana) may be focused on getting a job or entering a university, and thus would be very different from the time he entered high school.
3. Now we can reduce the time interval to the end of his first year at the high school. All of the above arguments still hold. “He” would have changed in all five of the above characteristics that define “him”.
  • We can keep reducing the time interval. When we think about this carefully, we can see that even his physical body would have changed some by the time he got to the school from home. Of course all his “metal properties” keep changing moment-to moment.
  • In order to see a “significant change” over a long period of time we don’t even have to think too much about, we need to look at time intervals several months apart, but when we keep narrowing down the time interval, we can see that all five characteristics about him keep changing.
  • Even when a person enters a room walks to the other side and leaves the room through a back door, is it the “same person” who left? Which of the above five characteristics would have remained the same?
  • Once we start contemplating on it, it is easy to see that all four of our metal characteristics keep changing moment-to-moment. It is a bit harder to “see” that our bodies change moment-to-moment, but the above argument logically extends to smaller and smaller time intervals. This is why it is called “seeing with wisdom”.
  • Furthermore, modern science indeed show how fast our bodies change. Most of the cells in our bodies are REPLACED every few months. We essentially have a “new body” every year.
  • Still this is NOT the same as saying EVERY SINGLE SUDDHASHTAKA (smallest material unit) in a body is re-made moment-to-moment; see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“. What is correct is that at least SOME OF THE CELLS in a body of trillions of cells will change even moment-to-moment. Please re-read and understand the huge difference.
  • This way of “seeing” with wisdom (instead of going by what is just seen with the eyes) is what the Buddha called “cakkhun udapädi..” or “seeing with dhamma eye..”. Unless we do this, when we look at a person we automatically get the perception (sanna) of a “non-changing self”, say John Smith.

4. Thus even though we assign a name to a person and talks about a “John Smith” whether it is a new born baby, a young grown person, or an old man on his deathbed, we can clearly see that there was nothing at all common about John Smith at various points in his life.

  • However, we also should not go to the other extreme and say that “there is no such person called John Smith”. How can we say that either? We can talk to John Smith, we can see him actively engaging in various activities, etc. This is the other extreme of “no-soul” or “no-self”.
  • This is why the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self” as the reality.
  • We need to use the terminology of a person named John Smith, to be able to communicate. Even the Buddha talked about “his previous lives”. But we must keep in mind that there is nothing to be called an “unchanging person”.
  • Yet, a “person” can acquire a “new identity” within moments. We have talked about several people who attained Arahanthood within a few minutes. Even these days, we have heard about people who have made drastic changes in their character within few months. Of course we can gain or lose significant weight in a month and change our appearance.
5. The absolute truth (paramatta) is that all our mental phenomena CAN change moment-to-moment. Some of these mental activity arise due to avijja and can lead to significant changes even in real time; see, “Idappaccayatā Paticca Samuppāda“.
  • While using conventional terminology (vohara), we need to keep in mind that the absolute reality (paramatta) is that the “state of existence” changes moment-to-moment.
  • Our physical bodies (and any material form or a sankata) change according to their lifetimes; some change fast (a fruit fly lives a few days; thus its body goes from birth to ripe age to being dead in a few days), but others change slower (a tortoise lives about 200 years).
6. Thus “a person”, in absolute reality, CAN change for better or worse even moment-to-moment, according to paticca samuppada.
  • A kusala paticca samuppada cycle starts with “kusala-mula paccaya sankhara“; see, “Kusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“.
  • An akusala-mula paticca samuppada cycle starts with “avijja paccaya sankhara“; see, “Akusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada” and “Idappaccayatā Paticca Samuppāda“.
  • But most of the time, we do things that are neither kusala or akusala.
  • Thus avijja is not there ALL THE TIME, even for a normal human being. Avijja is triggered when one is tempted by a desirable/undesirable sense input.

7. Now we can address the second comment. Yes. the avijja anusaya is there with anyone who has not attained the Arahant stage of Nibbana. But not all thoughts (citta) arise due to avijja, and there are many levels of avijja when it arises.

  • Anusaya basically means our cravings and habits (that we have acquired through avijja) that lie underneath the surface waiting for a trigger to surface.
  • Thus avijja itself is not something that is there all the time. A normal human being acts without avijja most of the time. Only when one does something with a greed, dislike, or without fully understanding of the situation, one acts with avijja.
  • Avijja is triggered by a sense input that is either pleasing or displeasing to our mind, and whether a given “trigger” will set off avijja will depend on one’s gathi and anusaya; see, “Gathi (Character), Anusaya (Temptations), and Asava (Cravings)“, “Sansaric Habits, Character (Gathi), and Cravings (Asava)“, and “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control“.
  • Thus it is not correct say that a normal human is an entity with avijja. There is no such “fixed living being”, i.e., one with “self”. The only things that can be associated with “a person” are his/her gathi and anusaya; these keep changing too.

8. Even when avijja arises, it can arise at many different levels ranging from moha (totally covered mind) to just not knowing the Four Noble Truths. In that latter case, one may do moral acts (punnabhi sankhara) but expecting meritorious results. Here also the akusala-mula PS cycle operates, but will lead to meritorious results within the 31 realms.

  • Only when one does meritorious acts without any expectations (because one has realized that it is unfruitful to strive for anything in this world), one does not act with avijja, and the kusala-mula PS cycle operates. Of course this is possible only for an Ariya. An Ariya below the Arahant stage may act with avijja at lower levels (i.e., would not act with moha).
  • But in most cases, we just disregard what was seen. heard, etc. and avijja does not arise.
  • Thus avijja is something that is not there all the time for any person. The avijja anusaya CAN BE triggered by a sense input.
9. Getting back to the first comment, instead of saying either “a person exists” or “a person does not exist”, the Buddha said a living being exists moment-to-moment. We cannot deny that people exist; but there is nothing absolute about “a person”. Rather, “a person” continually changes.
  • Another way to say the same thing is to say that “a living being” exists in a given state until the cause (and conditions) that give rise to that existence exist. Once the cause is depleted that existence changes over to a new existence IF THERE IS A CAUSE FOR THAT NEW EXISTENCE.
10. We can get more insight on both comments by considering what happens when one attains the Arahanthood.
  • One attains the Arahanthood when one loses avijja anusaya; see the links in #7. When that happens, avijja is not triggered by ANY sense input. There is no “upadana” for any type of likes/dislikes. Thus at death, there in no “sama uppada” (birth of similar characteristics) corresponding to “paticca” (whatever one willingly attach to).
  • But the kammic energy that fueled the present life is still there. So, just a rock thrown by someone will stay up until the energy given to it is exhausted, the Arahant will live until the kammic energy for his/her life is exhausted. Still he/she will not be tempted by any sense input, since there is no asava/anusaya left.
  • An Arahant will experience all sense inputs just like any other human being, but will not generate any likes/dislikes. And since he/she is likely to have many kamma vipaka left, he/she could also experience pains and aches or even worse. We need to remember that the Buddha himself suffered from some ailments, and Ven. Moggalana was beaten to death.
  • It is the FUTURE SUFFERING that is removed completely at the Arahant stage. Since there is no rebirth, there is no future suffering. The mind is forever released from the material body that CAN AND WILL impart suffering to those who remain in the sansara, the cycle of rebirths.
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