March 10, 2017; revised January 20, 2018; June 1, 2019; October 3, 2019; July 24, 2020
In this post, we will discuss why interpretations of two key concepts — sakkāya diṭṭhi and saṃyojana — in many current English publications (including supposedly Theravada texts) are incorrect.
Difference Between Wrong Views and Wrong Perceptions
1. 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”
2. 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 the primary school trying to get a Ph.D.
Sōtapanna Stage – Four Conditions
3. 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.
- With fulfilling those conditions, one will break through three saṃyojana (mental bonds) and be permanently released from rebirths in the apāyā (four lowest realms). The Pāli word saṃyojana (or saṃyojana or saṃyoga or sanyoga) is usually translated as “fetters.” See, for example, the Wikipedia article: “Fetter (Buddhism).”
- But as in many English publications (books, internet posts), the above Wikipedia article misdescribes saṃyojana.
4. We are bound to the 31 realms in this world by ten “mental tethers” or saṃyojana. It can be visualized as someone attached to a post by a rope, except that there is no one else that forcibly bind us to the 31 realms.
- Sanyōjana or sanyoga (“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.
- 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 observe, there are many examples around: famous, wealthy, and powerful, became disabled at old age, and died a miserable death.
Three Samyōjana Removed
5. A Sōtapanna breaks through 3 of those ten saṃyojana — or “bonds” or “tethers” — and gets permanently released from the four lowest realms (apāyā). He/she does this by comprehending the true nature of this world, i.e., attaining sammā diṭṭhi.
The keyword “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 diṭṭhi is to be free of wrong views. One gets some level of sammā diṭṭhi at the Sōtapanna stage and completes it at the Arahant stage.
Importance of Comprehending the Unfruitful/Dangerous Nature of This World (Tilakkhana)
6. One has to break those bonds in one’s mind. One gains sammā diṭṭhi — right view to becoming free of ‘san‘ — by comprehending the true nature of this world of 31 realms.
Anicca – that nothing in this world can bring 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 the essence in this world.” That is just an illusion.
Two Eightfold Paths
7. It is essential to realize that there are two Eightfold Paths with two types of sammā diṭṭhi. See, “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. That is attaining “mundane sammā diṭṭhi.”
- Then one’s mind is cleansed enough to comprehend the Three Characteristics of this world: anicca, dukkha, anatta.
- When one gains this “lōkuttara sammā diṭṭhi“ to some extent, one will indeed 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.
8. Now let us discuss how gaining lōkuttara sammā diṭṭhi leads to the removal of three of the ten mental tethers (or fetters) that bind us to the rebirth process. In particular, to be released from the worst types of suffering in the apāyā.
- Those three saṃyojana are sakkāya diṭṭhi (also called sathkāya diṭṭhi), vicikiccā, and silabbata parāmāsa.
Two Prevailing Major Wrong Views
9. The Buddha discussed 62 types of diṭṭhi that were present during that time in the Brahmajāla Sutta. We don’t need to address 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 a “āthma” or a “self” was the sassata diṭṭhi.
- 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.” That was the “uccēda diṭṭhi” (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 if those causes do not exist, they cease to exist. That is the principle of cause and effect explained in Paṭicca Samuppāda. Beings exist due to avijjā and taṇhā, and they cease to exist when those cease to exist and reach permanent happiness (i.e., attain Nibbāna).
10. Even those religious people may subconsciously have that part of the ucceda diṭṭhi of “I am my physical body.”
- Our increasingly materialistic societies always feed this narrative — that it is so important to look beautiful and robust because my body is what I am — via television and movies.
- In other words, sakkāya diṭṭhi in the present day is rooted in the view of “I am my physical body.” That leads to the perception, “I can achieve happiness by providing a lot of pleasurable sense inputs to my body.”
Meaning of Sakkāya or Sathkāya
11. “Sath” means “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 diṭṭhi encompasses mainly two views: (i) “I am my body,” and I need to keep it beautiful above all. (ii) I can achieve happiness by diligently pursuing (good) things in this world.
- This view is of course related to the perception of nicca. That it is possible to maintain things to our liking or icca (or icchā.) See, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – “Me and Mine” View“
Getting Rid of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi
12. Therefore, getting rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi 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.
- That is why it is essential 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 we keep our physical bodies (they need to be healthy), but how well we “improve” our mental body. Learning Dhamma and living according to that Dhamma helps with the latter.
- I have given a more straightforward 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 detail.
13. The second view associated with sakkāya diṭṭhi in #10 above. That one can achieve happiness by diligently pursuing things in this world. Sakkāya diṭṭhi 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 apāyā.
Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44)
14. It should be noted that a full explanation of sakkāya diṭṭhi is given in the Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44) where Ven. Dhammadinna 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 essential 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”; see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma“. Thus one may see one’s rupakkhandha as one’s “attā” in four ways.
- In the same way, some people could take one’s vedana, saññā, saṅkhāra, 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.” Therefore, this wrong view encompasses 20 types of (“visativatthuka“) sakkāya diṭṭhi.”
- 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. That is a part of uccēda diṭṭhi.
Two Meanings of Atta
15. When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, one “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 verifying and experiencing that to be accurate, are two different things. One finally confirms that to be accurate and thereby gets rid of the perception of “me” (called “asmi māna“) only at the Arahant stage.
- There was a lengthy discussion on this issue at the discussion forum. 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 diṭṭhi.”
16. The confusion in conventional translations of sakkāya diṭṭhi seems to arise when they try to connect “atta” in the above verse (“rupam attāto“) as the 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 an 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?“.
- That is why one needs to be cautious when using Pāli dictionaries. One cannot define and fix the meaning of a Pāli word. One HAS TO KNOW the context; see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
What is Vicikiccā?
17. The second saṃyojana removed at the Sōtapanna stage is vicikiccā. Does it mean doubts about the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, as explained in many translations? It is informative to see how such doubts are related to Tilakkhana.
- Vicikiccā comes from vi+chi+ki+iccā. Our distorted views (diṭṭhi) that worldly things can lead to happiness lead to our liking (“iccā”) for them. We then take actions (“ki” or “kriya“) based on our cravings. And, “cha” sound means citta or the way we think, here based on such diṭṭhi. In this case, “vi” means “distorted” (විකුර්තී in Sinhala.) Therefore, to engage in actions (and thoughts) based on the wrong view that it is possible to maintain things to our liking is vicikiccā. See, #11 above.
- Therefore, vicikiccā goes away simultaneously with the loss of sakkāya diṭṭhi.
- 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 efforts in pursuing sense pleasures are in vain. However, until one becomes an Anāgāmi, one is still attached to sense desires.
- For example, a Sōtapanna may still engage in sex, but will not engage in immoral sexual activities outside marriage. While the first can lead to one’s rebirth in the human and deva realms, the latter can lead to births in the apāyā. A Sōtapanna is released only from the apāyā.
- 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 activities are immoral.
What is Silabbata Parāmāsa?
18. The third saṃyojana, silabbata parāmāsa, is the wrong view that Nibbāna can be attained by following specific precepts/rituals. They include five or eight precepts (or just by doing good things).
- Attaining Nibbāna REQUIRES lōkuttara sammā diṭṭhi. To achieve lōkuttara sammā diṭṭhi, one needs to grasp the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta.) See, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”
- When one comprehends anicca, one stays away from immoral actions. That happens not because one is firmly adhering to a set of precepts or rituals. Now one knows deep inside that such activities 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 diṭṭhi. That enables one’s mind cleansed enough to be able to comprehend Tilakkhana.
Kāma Rāga NOT Removed at Sōtapanna Stage
19. Finally, a Sōtapanna needs to break two more saṃyojana or bonds — kāma rāga and paṭigha — to become free of the kāma lōka. Only an Anāgami is free of rebirth anywhere in the kāma lōka, which includes human and six deva realms.
- The last five saṃyojana (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.”