March 10, 2017; revised January 20, 2018
In this post we will discuss why interpretations of two key concepts — sakkāya ditthi and samyōjana — in many current English publications (including supposedly Theravada texts) are incorrect.
1. Most texts describe sakkāya ditthi as “self-illusion” or “personality belief”, i.e., “belief that a self or a me exists” (you can Google “sakkāya ditthi” and see).
- But this perception of a “self” or a “permanent soul” which is also called “āthma” is NOT sakkāya ditthi per Tipitaka as we discuss below. This is really 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 (conceit or “high-mindedness”).
- If one gets offended if treated with disrespect, that means one still has māna left. Even an Anagami could be somewhat perturbed if he/she perceives to be treated badly; a component of māna — called asmi māna — is still left at the Anagami stage. māna is removed not at the Sōtapanna stage, but at the Arahant stage.
- What is removed at the Sōtapanna stage is the tendency to value one’s physical body so highly, and the view that a permanent happiness can be achieved by living in a certain way, or doing certain (good) things.
- Therefore, the idea that the perception of a “self” can be removed at the Sōtapanna stage is not only incorrect but also is dangerous, because one is trying to do something that is not possible to do at that stage. It is like a child in the primary school trying to get a Ph.D.
2. In the post, “Four Conditions for Attaining Sōtapanna Magga/Phala“, we discussed the four conditions that need to satisfied to attain the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.
- When those conditions are fulfilled, one will break through three samyōjana (mental bonds) and be be permanently released from rebirths in the apāyas (four lowest realms). The Pāli word samyōjana (or sanyōjana or sanyōga) is normally translated as “fetters”. See, for example, the Wikipedia article: “Fetter (Buddhism)“.
- But as in many English publications (books, internet posts), the above Wikipedia article explains samyōjana incorrectly.
3. We are bound to the 31 realms in this world by ten “mental tethers” or samyōjana. It can be visualized as someone bound to a post by a rope, except that there is no one else that forcibly bind us to the 31 realms.
- Sanyōjana or sanyōga (“san” + “yōga” where “yōga” means to bind) means bound via “san”; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
- We voluntarily bind ourselves to this world with our minds, because we believe that somewhere in these 31 realms we can find permanent happiness.
- In fact, most people think they can find happiness in this life itself! They don’t even pause to contemplate what happens when one gets old and helpless. If one takes time to contemplate, there are many examples around where famous, wealthy, and powerful, became helpless at old age and died a miserable death.
4. A Sōtapanna breaks through 3 of those 10 sanyōjana — or “bonds” or “tethers” — and gets permanently released from the four lowest realms (apāyas). He/she does this by comprehending the true nature of this world, i.e., attaining sammā ditthi.
The key word “sammā” comes from “san” + “mā“, which means “to become free of san“. For example:
- “mā hōti jāti, jāti“, means “may I be free of repeated birth”.
- “mā mē bāla samāgamō” means “may I be free of association with those who are ignorant of Dhamma”.
- Thus sammā ditthi is to be free of wrong views. One gets some level of sammā ditthi at the Sōtapanna stage and completes at the Arahant stage.
5. One has to break those bonds in one’s own mind. One gains sammā ditthi — right view to become free of ‘san‘ — by comprehending the true nature of this world of 31 realms.
Anicca – that nothing in this world can bring a permanent happiness in the long run.
Dukkha – despite our struggles, we will be subjected to much more suffering than pleasures if we remain in the rebirth process.
Anatta – therefore, one is truly helpless in this struggle to attain “something of essence in this world”. That is just an illusion.
6. It is important to realize that there are two Eightfold Paths with two types of sammā ditthi: “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and “Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“.
- One first needs to reach a “moral mindset” by staying away from immoral acts embedded in the five precepts. This is attaining “mundane sammā ditthi“.
- Then one’s mind is cleansed enough to comprehend the Three Characteristics of this world: anicca, dukkha, anatta.
- When one gains this “lōkōttara sammā ditthi“ to some extent, one will truly start on the Noble Eightfold Path; see, “How to Cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path starting with Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.
- This distinction is hard to perceive for many people. I encourage them to read the first few subsections of the “Living Dhamma” section.
7. Now let us discuss how gaining lōkōttara sammā ditthi leads to the removal of three of the ten mental tethers (or fetters) that bind us to the rebirth process and gain release from the worst types of suffering in the apāyas.
- Those three samyōjana are sakkāya ditthi (also called sathkaya ditthi), vicikiccā, and silabbata parāmāsa.
8. The Buddha discussed 62 types of ditthi that were present during that time in the Brahmajāla Sutta. We don’t need to discuss all of them today, because there are only two of those wrong views that are prevalent today.
- Religious people (Creator-based religions), believe that there is a “permanent soul”, and one will be born in heaven or hell forever after this life. This idea of an “āthma” or a “self” was the sässata ditthi.
- Science today believes that our thoughts arise in our brains, i.e., our mental body is the same as the physical body (“I am my body”). So, when we die, that is the end of the story because the physical body becomes dust; so they say “enjoy life while it lasts”. This was the “uccēda ditthi” (pronounced “uchchēda”) that the Buddha also rejected: “Life terminating with the death of the physical body”.
- Thus the Buddha rejected both wrong views that “a self exists” and “a self does not exist”. Things can exist due to causes and when the causes are removed they cease to exist. This is the principle of cause and effect explained in Paticca Samuppāda. Beings exist due to avijjā and tanhā, and cease to exist when those cease to exist and reach permanent happiness (i.e., attain Nibbāna).
9. Even those religious people may subconsciously have that part of the ucceda ditthi of “I am my physical body”.
- Our increasingly materialistic societies constantly feed this narrative — that it is so important to look beautiful and strong because my body is what I am — via television and movies.
- In other words, sakkāya ditthi in the present day is rooted in the view of “I am my physical body” and “I can achieve happiness by providing a lot of pleasurable sense inputs to my body”.
10. “Sath” or “sak” both mean “good” or “fruitful”.
- And kāya can mean either one’s actions or one’s body, as we discussed in Kāyānupassanā; see, “Kāyānupassanā – Section on Postures (Iriyapathapabba)“.
- Sakkāya ditthi encompasses mainly two views: (i) “I am my body” and I need to keep it beautiful above all, and (ii) I can achieve happiness by diligently pursuing (good) things in this world.
11. Therefore, getting rid of sakkāya ditthi in the present day requires one to realize that this physical body is “just a shell” that we have possession of only for about 100 years.
- This is why it is important to realize the role played by our mental body, gandhabba, which could live for thousands of years. But that also will cease to exist when we grasp a new existence (bhava) at the cuti-patisandhi moment when the gandhabba itself dies.
- Our next existence depends not on how well keep our physical bodies (of course we need to be healthy), but how well we “improve” our mental body by learning Dhamma and living according to that Dhamma.
- I have given a simpler explanation of gandhabba at the “Living Dhamma” section: “Mental Body – Gandhabba“, and there is a separate section in the Abhidhamma section that goes into more details.
12. The second view associated with sakkāya ditthi in #10 above, i.e., that one can achieve happiness by diligently pursuing things in this world, can only be removed by comprehending the “anicca nature”.
- See, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.
- When one comprehends anicca, one realizes that no matter what we do, staying in the rebirth process leads to net suffering: Even though there are bouts of happiness to be had, those will be insignificant to suffering in the long run, especially when one is (inevitably) born in the apāyas.
13. It should be noted that a full explanation of sakkāya ditthi is given in the Culavedalla Sutta (Majjima Nikaya 44) where Ven. Dhammadinna Thero explains it to her former husband Visakha:
“..Kathaṃ panāyye, sakkāyadiṭṭhi hotī”ti? “Idhāvuso visākha, 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 … saññaṃ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṃ attato samanupassati, viññāṇavantaṃ vā attānaṃ, attani vā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇasmiṃ vā attānaṃ. Evaṃ kho, āvuso visākha, sakkāyadiṭṭhi hotī”ti.
- First, it is important to realize that “atta” in the above verse used in the conventional sense, to denote “I”.
- What we have discussed regarding “I am my body” is stated in the bold text above that can be translated as: “I am my body, my body is me, my body is in me, I am in my body”. Here “rūpa” is one’s body and “atta” is “self” in the conventional sense (just like when the Buddha said “I was given niyata vivarana by Buddha Deepankara”). The idea expressed by sakkāya ditthi is to take one’s body to be oneself.
- In the same way, some people could take one’s own vedana, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna to be oneself in four ways as above. All these mental components give rise to the idea that “I remember this and that happened to me a long time ago; so there must be a continuation of me until the body dies”.
- The French Philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am”; he proposed that those thoughts arise in the pineal gland in the brain. So, all these are part of uccēda ditthi.
14. When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, one one just “sees with wisdom” (becomes “dassanēna sampannō“) that it does not make sense to take the stand “I am my body”, etc as above.
- However, “just seeing” that it makes sense, and actually verifying and experiencing that to be true, are two different things. One finally verifies that to be true and thereby gets rid of the perception of “me” (called “asmi māna“) only at the Arahant stage.
- This issue was recently discussed at the discussion forum at length, and I recommend reading it, since it is not possible to put it in a short post like this; see, “Wrong English translations of Aniccha, Anatta, Sakkaya ditthi“.
15. The confusion in conventional translations of sakkāya ditthi seems to arise when they try to connect “atta” in the above verse (“rupam attāto“) as opposite of “anatta” in Tilakkhana. Atta has two meanings: one meaning is “I” or “myself” as in “attā hi attanō nathō” (“only I can be of salvation to myself”), and that is the meaning implied in the above verse.
- The other meaning of “atta” is “in control” or “has essence”, and the opposite of that is the anatta in Tilakkkhana: “one is helpless in this rebirth process”.
- Those two meanings are explained in “Atta Hi Attano Natho” and in detail in, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
- This is why Pāli dictionaries need to be used with caution. One cannot define and fix the meaning of a Pāli word. One HAS TO KNOW the context in which the word is used; see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
16. The second sanyōjana removed at the Sōtapanna stage is vicikiccā, which is conventionally translated as doubts about the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. But it is informative to see how such doubts are related to the Tilakkhana.
- Vicikiccā comes from vi+chi+ki+iccā. Our actions (“ki” or “kriya“) are based on our likings (“iccā”) for worldly things based of our distorted view, i.e, ditthi that those things can lead to happiness. “cha” means citta or the way we think, here based on such ditthi. And to dissociate (“vi“) from such thoughts is vicikiccā.
- One dissociates from such wrong views by comprehending “anicca nature”. When one becomes a Sōtapanna, one automatically sees the “fruitlessness” in many immoral or inappropriate actions. One truly knows deep down that most of our actions in pursuing sense pleasures are in vain. However, until one becomes an Anagami, one is still attached to sense pleasures.
- For example, a Sōtapanna may still engage in sex, but will not engage in immoral sexual activities outside marriage. While the first can still lead to one’s rebirth in the human and deva realms, the latter can lead to births in the apāyas. A Sōtapanna is released only from the apāyas.
- In other words, if one has vicikiccā, one MAY do immoral apāyagāmi actions under tempting conditions. But a Sōtapanna is INCAPABLE of doing such actions under ANY circumstance. A Sōtapanna will not have any doubts about which actions are really immoral.
17. The third sanyōjana, silabbata parāmāsa, is the wrong view that Nibbāna can be attained by following specific precepts/rituals like following five or eight precepts (or just by doing good things).
- Attaining Nibbāna REQUIRES lōkōttara sammā ditthi. To attain lōkōttara sammā ditthi one needs to grasp the Tilakkhana: anicca, dukkha, anatta as discussed in #5 and #6 above.
- When one comprehends anicca, one stays away from immoral actions not because one is firmly adhering to a set of precepts or rituals, but one knows deep inside that such actions are fruitless and dangerous in the long run.
- However, following precepts (i.e., staying away from immoral deeds) is necessary to get to mundane sammā ditthi and to make one’s mind cleansed enough to be able to comprehend Tilakkhana.
18. Finally, a Sōtapanna needs to break two more samyōjana or bonds — kāma raga and patigha — to become free of the kāma lōka (lowest 11 realms, including human and 6 deva realms) to become an Anagami and be free of rebirth anywhere in the kāma lōka.
- The last five samyōjana (including the perception of a “self” or māna) will be removed only at the Arahant stage; see, “The Cooling Down Process (Nibbāna) – How Root Causes are Removed“.