February 4, 2021; revised February 5, 2021 (added #9 and #10); major revision June 19, 2022
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 physical body. The other extreme is the belief that there is a “soul-like” entity that survives the death of the physical body.
Definition of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi
1. Average humans who have not been exposed to the true teachings of the Buddha have sakkāya diṭṭhi. Several suttas describe sakkāya diṭṭhi with the verse of Ref. 1. In the following, I will discuss the meaning of that verse.
- One group has the wrong view of ucchēda diṭṭhi. They regard the physical body to be equivalent to “me.” They believe that all mental phenomena arise in the body and are thus totally associated with the body. Materialists of the present day belong to this category. They believe that mental phenomena (thoughts) arise in the brain, and thus, they also stop with the death of the body.
- Therefore, those with ucchēda diṭṭhi also believe that vedanā,saññā,saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are equivalent to “me.”When the physical body dies, that is the end of all five entities, i.e. the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha.
- Thus, those with ucchēda diṭṭhi have those 5 types of wrong views about an existence that is limited to just one life.
2. The other group has the view that something unique to me (“essence of me that will never change and cannot be destroyed) must be moving from life to life. They don’t know what it is but the concept is the same as that of a “soul” in many other religions. As we know, in those religions, a soul will live forever either in the heaven or the hell.
- They have one of the following three views regarding their physical body: it represents me, it is “in me”, or “me” is in the body temporarily. Again, that “me” is a “soul-like entity.”
- They will also have the same views about the mental factors (vedanā,saññā,saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa) as well. For example, regarding vedanā they have one of the following views: it represents me, it is “in me”, or “me” is in vedanā temporarily.
- People belonging to most major religions today have these 15 types of wrong views of an “unchanging soul” and that is sassata diṭṭhi.
Those are the 20 types of wrong views about existence: vīsativatthukā sakkāya diṭṭhi. I have done a deeper analysis with Tipiṭaka references in “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – Getting Rid of Deeper Wrong Views.”
Getting Rid of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi Is the First Step to Nibbāna
3. To understand why those are wrong views (per Buddha Dhamma,) first, we need to clarify what kind of suffering the Buddha said can be stopped.
- When an average human thinks about suffering, they would think about the FEELING of pain or suffering. That could be physical suffering (injuries. sicknesses) or mental anguish like depression.
- But the Buddha taught that those kinds of suffering could only be “managed” but cannot be stopped. They can be managed by eating well, exercising, and following medical advice for injuries/sicknesses. One can control mental suffering partially by living a simple, moral life.
4. However, the Buddha said we must pay more attention to possible suffering in future lives. Those lives are yet to arise, and we can stop ALL suffering associated with future births. He taught that the death of the physical body does not end our suffering. One will be reborn either as human again or in one of 31 realms, including 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 critical point is that we can stop such future suffering by attaining 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, thereby attainining Nibbāna.
The Worst Wrong View Is Uccheda Diṭṭhi (Materialism)
5. From the above discussion, it is obvious that Buddha Dhamma’s main benefit is to help people attain Nibbāna and thus be free of future suffering in the rebirth process (saṃsāra.) The current body is a “result,” and vedanā that arises in that physical body cannot be stopped. WE note that Ven. Moggalana died a horrible death after being beaten; that was due to a residue of an ānantariya kamma from a previous life.. 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 evident 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 wrong and is the other extreme. They may be reluctant (or afraid) to engage in immoral deeds for 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?
6. The two views of materialism and soul-view are easy to understand.
Materialism means one lives this life, and when one dies, that is the end. 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 understanding the Buddha’s view. Since Buddha’s view involves rebirth, it is difficult for them to see how it differs from the soul-view. The question that is frequently asked is: “What is reborn, if there is no soul?” Paṭicca Samuppāda explains that.
- One quick way to see the difference is to compare Buddha’s view with Hinduism’s. 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 the same “essence” (as a soul) that 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. That is THE crucial difference.
How Is Rebirth Different From Reincarnation?
7. Reincarnation implies that there is SOMETHING unique AND unchanging in a human gets 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.
- “Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 22” explains that 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. Paṭicca Samuppāda dictates the process. “Personality” can change drastically 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
8. In Buddha Dhamma, a critical idea 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 kinds of bhava and jāti.
- However, in adjacent lives, there will be similarities in character/habits represented by the term “gati.” One’s gati will significantly influence the next bhava. For example, if one lived an immoral life suitable for an animal, it is likely that they WOULD BE born an animal.
- Paṭicca Samuppāda explains that. 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 particular 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
9. The akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process describes how (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 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., 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
10. 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 annoyed if they perceives being mistreated. A component of māna — called asmi māna — is still left at the Anāgāmi stage. Māna is removed not at the Sōtapanna stage but at the Arahant stage.
A Sōtapanna Removes Only Wrong Views About an “Unchanging Self”
11. At the Sōtapanna stage, the wrong view (diṭṭhi) that there is something unchanging and permanent, like a “soul” is associated with oneself, goes away. Simultaneously, the wrong view that one can remove future suffering by just living a moral life (sīlabbata parāmāsa)will go away too. (However, living a moral life is necessary too.) Furthermore, any doubts about the teachings of the Buddha (vicikicchā) will also disappear simultaneously.
- 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.”
- However, it is incorrect to believe that the perception of a “me” will go away at the Sōtapanna stage. That perception completely goes away only at the Arahant stage. See “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”
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.”