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

October 23, 2015; revised August 14, 2019; July 30, 2022
I like to address two comments that I recently received. Questions such as these bring out significant 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 of becoming an Arahant in one life-phase (from birth to death) is minuscule but not zero. (The possible probability-values range from 0 to 1 as usual in probability theory).

Conclusion: In an infinite number of rebirths, the probability of reaching Arahantship would be one, which means that everyone would already have left samsara.

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


Second comment (by Mr. Chamila Wickramasinghe):

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


There is a perception of a well-defined “self” embedded in both the above comments. That 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.” That is correct in a strict sense. However, there is a sense of a “self” until one attains Arahanthood. The other meaning of “anatta” is “being helpless” and “subject to suffering” as long as one has the perception of a “self.”
  • That is why the Buddha said it is wrong to believe that there is a “self,” It is also incorrect to think that “there is no self.” That is a bit difficult to comprehend at first;  that is why the Buddha said, “My Dhamma has never known to the world…”. So we will discuss some examples to clarify why both these views are incorrect.
Let us first discuss the First comment. The answer to the second comment will become apparent during that discussion.
1. The critical issue brought out by the first comment is the first premise: By assuming that “there is a single sentient being…” we are distorting the actual reality. That says there is a “soul” or “self.” To assign an absolute identity, there must be something unchanging in it.
  • Now, let us discuss HOW the Buddha explained that the above premise is incorrect.
  • At the time of the Buddha, many believed in a “ātma” 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 (rūpa). Others said either one’s feelings (vēdana), one’s perceptions (saññā), one’s actions (saṅkhāra), one’s thoughts (viññāṇa), 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 called “one’s own.”
2. 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 and leaving high school.
  • Did any of the five categories (rūpa, vēdana, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) 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 of his primary thoughts (vēdana, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) are on getting a job or entering a university. Those 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 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 for that person. When we think about this carefully, we can see that even his physical body would have changed a little by the time he got to school from home. Of course, all his “metal properties” keep changing moment-to-moment.
  • To see a “significant change” over a long period, 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 of that person keep changing even moment-to-moment.
  • When a person enters a room, walks to the other side, and leaves the room through the back door, is it the “same person” who left? Which of the above five characteristics would have remained the same?
  • Once we start contemplating it, it is easy to see that all four of our mental 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. That is why it is called “seeing with wisdom.”
  • Furthermore, modern science indeed shows how fast our bodies change. Every few months, most cells in our bodies get completely REPLACED. We have a “new body” every year!
  • Still, this is NOT the same as saying EVERY SINGLE suddhāṭṭhaka (smallest material unit) in a body is re-made moment-to-moment. See, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“. However, 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 enormous difference. Also, see “Human Life – A Mental Base (Gandhabba) and a Material Base (Cell).”
  • This way of “seeing” with wisdom (instead of “seeing” with the eyes) is what the Buddha called “cakkhuṃ udapādi..” or “seeing with dhamma eye..”. Unless we do this, when we look at a person, we automatically get the perception (saññā) of a “non-changing self,” say John Smith.

4. We assign a name to a person and talk about, say, a “John Smith.” But we can see there was nothing common about John Smith at various points in his life. A newborn baby looks different when grown to be a young person; with more time, the older adult will appear very different.

  • 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 and see him actively engaging in various activities, etc. That is the other extreme of “no-soul” or “no-self.”
  • That is why the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self” as 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 remember that there is nothing to be called an “unchanging person.”
  • 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 drastically changed their character within a few months. Of course, we can gain or lose significant weight in a month and change our appearance.
5. The absolute truth (paramattha) is that all our mental phenomena CAN change moment-to-moment. Some of this mental activity arise due to avijjā and can lead to significant changes even in real-time; see “Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  •  While using conventional terminology (vohāra), we need to keep in mind that the absolute reality (paramattha) is that the “state of existence” changes moment-to-moment.
  • Our physical bodies (and any material form or a saṅkhata) change with time. Some change fast (a fruit fly lives a few days; thus, it 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 Paṭicca Samuppāda.  
  • A kusala Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle starts with “kusala-mula paccayā saṅkhāra“; see, “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda“.
  • An akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle starts with  “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“; see, “Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda” and “Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda“.
  • But most of the time, we do things that are neither kusala nor akusala.
  • Thus avijjā is not there ALL THE TIME, even for a normal human being. Avijjā is triggered when a desirable/undesirable sense input tempts one.

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

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

8. Even when avijjā arises, it can occur at many levels ranging from moha (totally covered mind) to not knowing the Four Noble Truths. In that latter case, one may do moral acts (punnābhi saṅkhāra) but expect meritorious results. Here also, the akusala-mula PS cycle operates but will lead to good births within the 31 realms.

  • The kusala-mula PS cycle operates only when one acts meritoriously without any future expectations in return, i.e., without avijjā. That happens when one becomes an Ariya or a Noble Person. Ariya knows that it is unfruitful to strive for anything in this world. An Ariya below the Arahant stage may act with avijjā at lower levels (i.e., would not have moha).
  • But in most cases, we disregard what we see, hear, etc. Unless one becomes interested in something, avijjā does not arise.
  • Thus avijjā is something that is not there all the time for any person. The avijjā anusaya gets triggered by sensory input.
9. Getting back to the first comment, instead of saying either “a person exists” or “a person does not exist,” the Buddha said that a living being exists moment-to-moment. We cannot deny that a person exists, but there is nothing absolute about “a person.” Instead, “a person” continually changes; we conventionally call a person “John Smith,” etc.
  • 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 root causes are changed, that existence will change to a new one. For example, if a human starts doing things that animals usually do, then that person will likely get an animal birth after death.
10. We can get more insight into both comments by considering what happens when one attains Arahanthood.
  • One attains the Arahanthood when one loses avijjā anusaya; see the links in #7. When that happens, avijjā will not get triggered by ANY sense input. There is no “upādāna” for any likes/dislikes. Thus at death, there in no “sama uppada” (birth of similar characteristics) corresponding to “Paṭicca” (whatever one willingly attaches 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, and the Arahant will live until the kammic energy for his/her life is exhausted. Still, he/she will not be tempted by any sensory 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 vipāka left, he/she could also experience pains and aches or even worse. The Buddha himself suffered from some ailments, and Ven. Moggalana was beaten to death.
  • It is the FUTURE SUFFERING that is removed 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 saṃsāra, the cycle of rebirths.
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