February 4, 2021; revised February 5, 2021 (added #9 and #10)
Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is the wrong view of an unchanging essence associated with a human. Materialists — who don’t believe in rebirth — believe the essence is one’s body. The other extreme is the belief that there is an unchanging “mental component” that survives the death of the physical body.
Definition of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi
1. In several suttas, sakkāya diṭṭhi is described as follows (Ref. 1): “.. uninformed ordinary persons who have not been exposed to the teaching of the Noble persons have one of the following views. One group has the wrong vision about rūpa (material form) in 4 ways: to regard rūpa as “mine”, or “I” as rūpa, or rūpa to be “in me”, or “I” to be “in rūpa.” Then there is the other group who regard one or more of the mental factors vedanā (feeling) … saññā (perception) … saṅkhāra ( ways of thinking) … viññāṇa (consciousness) as “mine”, or “I” as those, or them to be “in me”, or “I’ to be “in them”.”
- Materialists represent the first group today. They don’t believe in rebirth and thus just take one’s own body to be “me.” They have uccheda diṭṭhi. Let us call this view “materialism.”
- Those who belong to major religions today believe that the mind survives the death of the physical body and can be merged with the Creator leading to a permanent existence. The Buddha pointed out that the mind can be separated out into four components (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. Each of those could be viewed as “mine” in 4 ways like for the rupa. Thus, they could have one or more of those 16 wrong views. Those have sassata diṭṭhi. For brevity, let us call this “soul-view.”
- Therefore, most people today can have one or more of the 20 types of wrong views about existence: vīsativatthukā sakkāya diṭṭhi.
Getting Rid of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi Is the First Step to Nibbāna
2. To understand why those are wrong views (per Buddha Dhamma,) first we need to clarify what kind of suffering that the Buddha said can be stopped.
- When an average human thinks about suffering, he/she would think about the FEELING of suffering. That could be physical suffering (injuries. sicknesses) or mental suffering like depression.
- But the Buddha taught that those kinds of sufferings can only be “managed” but cannot be stopped. They can be managed by eating well, exercising, etc., and by following medical advice for injuries/sicknesses. Mental sufferings can also be managed by living a simple, moral life.
3. However, the Buddha said we need to pay more attention to possible suffering in future lives. Those lives are yet to arise, and we have the ability to stop ALL suffering associated with future births. He taught that the death of the physical body does not end any type of suffering that we have experienced. One will be reborn either as human again or in one of 31 realms that include the animal realm.
- He said that most births in this process (called saṃsāra) are in the lowest four realms (apāyās) and that the animal realm is one of those four. Even though we cannot see those beings in the other realms, we can see the suffering of the animals, which is much harsher than for humans.
- The key point is that such future suffering can be stopped. That is Nibbāna.
- When one understands the futility of seeking happiness in this world, one gets rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi and becomes a Sotapanna. Then one follows the Noble Eightfold Path and becomes an Arahant and thereby attains Nibbāna.
The Worst Wrong View Is Uccheda Diṭṭhi (Materialism)
4. From the above discussion, it is quite obvious that Buddha Dhamma’s main benefit is to help people attain Nibbāna and thus to be free of future suffering in the rebirth process (saṃsāra.) The current body that we have is a “result” and vedanā that arise in that physical body cannot be totally stopped. That is why Ven. Moggalana was beaten to death. However, ALL suffering for Ven. Moggalana ended after his death (Parinibbāna.) For all others, there will be more future suffering after death.
- Thus it should be quite obvious that the worst wrong view is to assume that one’s life ends at death. If that is the case, there is not much benefit in studying Buddha Dhamma at a deeper level. One could be a “secular Buddhist” and just try to live a moral life. However, the term “secular Buddhist” is an oxymoron just like the term “alone in a crowd” or “walking dead.”
- Having the sassata diṭṭhi (believing in a permanent soul) is also bad and is the other extreme. They may be reluctant (or afraid) to engage in immoral deeds for the fear of being sent to hell permanently, but do not see any drawbacks in engaging in “legitimate sense pleasures.”
- I say that those with the uccheda diṭṭhi may be worse because they DO NOT NEED to have AN INTRINSIC moral compass. Even though most materialists DO live perfectly moral lives, they could be more susceptible to commit offenses on impulse (when temptations become strong enough.)
If There is No Soul, “What” Is Reborn?
5. The two views of materialism and soul-view are easy to understand.
Materialism means one just lives this life and when one dies that is the end of it. Those with the soul-view do their best to live a moral life and hope to be born in Heaven (Abrahamic religions) or in a Brahma realm which is supposed to be permanent (Hinduism.)
- Most people have difficulty in understanding the Buddha’s view. Since it involves rebirth, the difficulty is to see how it is different from the soul-view.
- One quick way to see the difference is to compare Buddha’s view with that of Hinduism. In Abrahamic religions, one will be born either in heaven or hell, i.e., there are not many rebirths. But in both Buddha Dhamma and Hinduism, there can be numerous rebirths. In Buddhism, that process ends when one attains Nibbāna (as an Arahant). In Hinduism, it ends when one is born in the realm of Mahā Brahma.
- The other key difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is the following. In Hinduism, future lives are “reincarnations” of the same ātman (similar to a soul in Abrahamic religions.) Reincarnation implies it is the same “essence” (as a soul) that just moves from one life to another.
- In Buddha Dhamma, there is no such soul or ātman that goes from life-to-life. Instead of “REINCARNATION”, it is REBIRTH. This is THE crucial difference.
How Is Rebirth Different From Reincarnation?
6. Reincarnation implies that there is SOMETHING unique AND unchanging in a human that is carried to the next life. The body can take different forms, but there is a “unique life force” (my characterization of “ātman“) that remains unchanged from life-to-life.
- In “Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 22” this is explained as, “As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.”
- Thus, one may be born with a “different body” (outer garments) but the essence (personal identity or “ātman“) remains.
- The mechanism is very different in Buddha Dhamma. The process is intrinsically dictated by Paṭicca Samuppāda. “Personality” can undergo drastic changes from one existence (bhava) to another. I have tried to explain it in the post “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream.”
Concept of a Bhava – No Personality Involved
7. In Buddha Dhamma, a key idea that needs to be grasped is the concept of a “bhava.” A “lifestream” makes transitions from bhava to bhava based SOLELY on kammic energy. There is NO “personality” that remains FIXED.
Different types of unwise thinking, speech, and actions (dictated by different types of saṅkhāra) lead to different types of bhava and jāti.
- However, in adjacent lives, there will be similarities in character/habits represented by the term “gati.” In fact, one’s gati will greatly influence the next bhava. For example, if one lived an immoral life suitable for an animal, it is likely that he/she WOULD BE born an animal.
- That is explained by Paṭicca Samuppāda. Saṅkhāra (one’s thoughts, speech, and actions) that arise due to avijjā is at the beginning of the Paṭicca Samuppāda process. Then towards the end, it leads to a certain type of bhava (existence), and birth (jāti) in that existence.
- For example, if a human cultivates arupāvacara jhāna (with āneñjābhisaṅkhāra), that will lead to existence as an arupāvacara Brahma. See #5 of “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means” for an explanation of how different types of bhava arise due to three broad categories of abhisaṅkhāra.
All Bhava Lead to Suffering
8. The akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process describes how any and all (abhi)saṅkhāra done with avijjā LEAD to various bhava and jāti. This is the first step in the akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” Towards the end, it leads to bhava.
- Those bhava lead to births (jāti) among the 31 realms. Without exception, any jāti ends up in suffering. That is the last step in the akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process: “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti.”
- In upcoming posts, we will go through the steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda to further clarify how the wrong view of sakkāya diṭṭhi sustains this process that keeps one bound to saṃsāra, the rebirth process. That is not the reincarnation of a “soul.”
- Until one understands that process, one has avijjā, i.e., one is ignorant about the Four Noble Truths.
- There is one more aspect that needs to be understood. Let us discuss that now.
Difference Between Wrong Views and Wrong Perceptions
9. Most texts describe sakkāya diṭṭhi as “self-illusion” or “personality belief,” i.e., “belief that a self or I exist” (you can Google “sakkāya diṭṭhi” and see). Here it is essential to understand that there is a difference between “wrong view” and “wrong perception.” A Sōtapanna would have removed the wrong view (diṭṭhi), but not the false perception (saññā.)
- But this perception (saññā) of a “self” (or a “soul” which is also called “ātma“) is NOT sakkāya diṭṭhi per Tipiṭaka as we discuss below. That is a saññā (perception) that we have carried from life-to-life. For a discussion on saññā, see, “What is Sanna (Perception)?“.
- The deeply-embedded idea of a “self” or an innate sense of “me” is rooted in the māna cetasika.
- If one gets offended if treated with disrespect, that means one still has māna left. Even an Anāgāmi could be somewhat perturbed if he/she perceives to be treated badly. A component of māna — called asmi māna — is still left at the Anāgāmi stage. Māna is removed not at the Sōtapanna stage, but the Arahant stage.
A Sōtapanna Removes Only Wrong Views About an “Unchanging Self”
10. What is removed at the Sōtapanna stage is the wrong view (diṭṭhi) that there is something unchanging and permanent like a “soul” is associated with oneself. That goes with the belief that lasting happiness can be achieved by just living a moral life (even though that is essential.)
- When one can see that there is no “real essence” (like a “soul” or a “ātma“) associated with a living being, this wrong view of sakkāya diṭṭhi goes away. A lifestream evolves, according to Paṭicca Samuppāda; see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma.”
- Therefore, it is incorrect to believe that the perception of a “self” will go away at the Sōtapanna stage. It is also dangerous because one is trying to do something that is not possible to do at that stage. It is like a child in primary school trying to get a Ph.D.
1. The following verse appears in many suttas, for example in the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44) “: “assutavā puthujjano, ariyānaṃ adassāvī ariyadhammassa akovido ariyadhamme avinīto, sappurisānaṃ adassāvī sappurisadhammassa akovido sappurisadhamme avinīto, rūpaṃ attato samanupassati, rūpavantaṃ vā attānaṃ, attani vā rūpaṃ, rūpasmiṃ vā attānaṃ. Vedanaṃ … pe … saññāṃ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṃ attato samanupassati, viññāṇavantaṃ vā attānaṃ, attani vā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇasmiṃ vā attānaṃ. Evaṃ kho, āvuso visākha, sakkāya diṭṭhi hotī.”