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The Connection Between Atta and Dukkha
Buddhist Analysis of Human Experience and the Ways to Transcend Unsatisfactoriness

Bhikkhuni Dhammanandā
(Ven. Pham. T. Minh Hoa)

Colombo, Sri Lanka 2007

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Chapter I - Introduction

Students of Buddhism often feel confused by the two seemingly contradictory concepts that are anatta or not-self orientation, and kamma and rebirth in samsāra. If there is no-self, as the Buddha postulated, who or what takes rebirth? If there is no person in reality, then who is responsible for what has done by ‘nobody’? We all know that the Four Noble Truths constitute the central philosophy of Buddhism. The first Noble Truth is the fact of unsatisfactoriness, the second truth refers to the cause of unsatisfactoriness, the third to the liberation from unsatisfactoriness, and the fourth to the way leading to that liberation. Here, again, if there is no-self, who in fact suffers in samsāra? Who is liberated from the ills of samsāra? No body! That is the quandary I will proceed to discuss in the framework of the present thesis.

Human Experiences

In order to understand this quandary properly, we have to examine Buddhist categories of human experiences. Since human experience is a complex, so is the conditions gives rise to such experience[1]. A being (satta)[2], including a human being, in the ultimate sense is a compound of psychophysical factors that termed nāma-rūpa in Buddhist psycho-philosophy (Abhidharma). By human experiences we means the interaction between the factors that constitute a human being and the ways such a being relates to the animate and inanimate world. Thus, human experiences are accounted for bodily functions, sensation, perception, feeling, volitions, and consciousness, i.e., our knowledge of the subjective as well as objective world via perceptive, reflective and affective ways. There is an epistemological question regarding to what extent our perceptions of ourselves and of the world are reliable? A realist would say that genera and species (sattā-loka in Pāli, and sattvā in Sanskrit) are real things or entities, existing independently of our conceptions.[3] A consequence of realism in this sense is that the entities are there to be discovered, and that ignorance and errors are possible. However, a mind-independent world exists and in our perception we mentally grasp qualities and objects that are parts of the world[4]. In the contrary, however, an idealist adheres to the doctrine that in sense perceptions, there is an immediate cognition of the external object, and our knowledge of it is not mediated or representative, therefore, our perceptions are, in most the cases, not reliable. Further more, idealism holds that mind is the only ultimate reality, and the external physical world (saṅkhārā-loka) is, but a mind-dependent construct.[5] In developed Buddhist systems of psycho-philosophy, we can see the represents of both trends.

In the early Buddhist perspective, not to comprehend the Four Noble Truths is said to amount to being in the state of ‘ignorance’.[6] If it is due to ignorance that we suffer in samsāra, then, what kind of ignorance is it? The Buddhist scriptures consistently give the same categorical answer that it is one’s ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is stated in brief thus: “the five aggregates of clinging are unsatisfactory” [sankhittena pañcuppādānakkhandha dukkha]. The second truth is identified as craving (taṇhā), or sometimes, as clinging (upādāna). It appears that many scholars of Buddhism from the past to present have often missed the point when it comes to their interpretations of many doctrinal links. One of these is the link between an illusory notion (ignorance) of an ‘I’ and ‘mine’ which leads to craving and clinging to an identity (attā) and its property or a personality (attābhava). The first truth starts from the contention ‘birth is suffering’, begging the question of what is it that is being born? An authentic answer from a competent Buddhist would be that it is the birth of a personality here or there, or in other words, it is the process of identification with one’s experiences under the spell of ignorance.

Commenting on the critics of the Buddhist notion of dukkha as a pessimistic view of life, especially as illustrated by the first statement in the dukkhasacca ‘Birth is suffering’’, professor Kalupahana writes: “It is indeed the excessive emotive element, namely, anxiety that gives rise to the belief in the permanent and the substantial”. He continues on the exposition of the concept of vipallāsa, or the distortion of perception (saññā), thought (citta), and view (diṭṭhi), that responsible for the two encompassed views in the world, the eternality (sassatavāda) and the annihilation (ucchedavāda), corresponding to an optimistic and a pessimistic attitute. Cited a text from M.I. 265, the Professor writes:

For the Buddha who was willing to recognize retro-cognition as a valid source of knowledge, and for whom the beginning of the stream of consciousness need not be strictly confined to a definite point in the present life of a human being. Birth (jāti) is the result of a process of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) involving psychological factors while excessive craving for survival (bhavataṇhā) constitutes one of the psychological conditions for the birth of a human being, birth will not occur unless the necessary physical condition provided by parents are also available. Further more, birth could be a source of suffering in the present life only if this craving for survival continues to dominate a person’s life; not if he has, after being born, adopts an attitude of renunciation or dispassion (virāga) for such continuation. Birth is thus the result of excessive craving or passion for survival and the availability of other necessary physical conditions. Birth becomes a source of suffering only in this conditional, but not in an absolute sense. In other words, there is no intrinsic relationship between birth and suffering. If they were to be so related, there could not be any freedom from suffering for one who is born, at least in the present life. The same holds true to decay or old-age (jarā). It is the unwillingness to accept decay as a fact of life that causes frustration and unhappiness.”[7]

It is clear that existence is uncertainty, and human craving (taṇhā) expecting (chanda), and clinging (upādāna) are the main factors responsible for anguish and frustration. A Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) wrote: “to exist is to face the uncertainty of the world and to commit oneself passionately to a way of life.”[8] Accordingly, ‘to exist’ is not simply ‘being born’, but the act of volition and effort especially in constructing one’s personality. The ground that provides materials for building a personality is uncertain and beyond one’s will to control, further more, every effort to move on and each will to change or resist to change creates conditions for one experiences oneself and the world. It is the emotive reaction (taṇhā, upādāna) which reflects the affective field (vedanā) in human experience that makes existence (bhava) unsatisfactory experience (dukkhasmim’ti). Why then this craving and clinging invading the human mind and making life more complicated and unpalatable? It is the ignorance of the true nature of existence that responsible for living beings to grasp and get caught up in an entangled net of conditioned experiences. From a Buddhist perspective, the five aggregates of clinging (pañcuppādānakkhandha) that constitute human beings are considered to culminate in suffering not because of khandha or aggregates themselves, but rather due to clinging (upādāna) that identifies khandhas as “I” or “mine”. Khandhas is an analytical scheme for human experience beside salāyatana, or six sense bases, and dhātus or elements of existence.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, experience is:

1. Trial, as a test or experiment.

2. The effect upon the judgment or feelings produced by any event, whether witnessed or participated in; personal and direct impressions as contrasted with description or fancies; personal acquaintance; actual enjoyment or suffering.

3. An act of knowledge, one or more, by which single facts or general truths are ascertained; experimental or inductive knowledge; hence, implying skill, facility, or practical wisdom gained by personal knowledge, feeling or action; as, a king without experience of war.

4. Experience may be acquired in two ways; either, first by noticing facts without any attempt to influence the frequency of their occurrence or to vary the circumstances under which they occur; this is observation; or, secondly, by putting in action causes or agents over which we have control, and purposely varying their combinations, and noticing what effects take place; this is experiment. [Sir J. Herschel]

Relating these definitions to Buddhist concepts, we can match the first meaning with kamma or karma in which a person acts or reacts and experiences the effects of kamma in given circumstances[9]. This is to live a life without any theory or superimposition of intellectuals. The second meaning is compatible with the function of vedanā and saññā in Buddhist terms. They consist of two aggregates in the analysis of personality divided into five groups (khandhas, to be elaborated further in the chapter on khandha doctrine). In the field of feelings (vedayitaṃ), the experience is described as pleasant (sukha), or unpleasant (dukkha), or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (asukhamadukkha). In Buddhist classification, these sensations come under the aggregate of feeling (vedanākkhandha). Emotions, which comprise a developing stage of the felt experience, are those as like (piya) or dislike (apiya), glad or sad which come under the aggregate of volitional activities (saṅkhārakkhandha). The experience of happiness and suffering are considered as the results of volitions (cetanā or kamma), and thus volition is the present factor interacting with past kamma which are the conditions of that experience. By redefining kamma as cetanā, the Buddha avoids the pit fall of determinism (niyata).

In Buddhist analysis, all of these are included under the umbrella of the first and second Noble Truths, the truth of dukkha and its origin. The fourth meaning is equated with the term bhāvanā in Pāli. Literally, this Buddhist term bhāvanā means ‘development’, however, this development is used as a means to refine one’s personality as well as gaining insight knowledge into one’s own experiences. The technique is also called ‘meditation’ employing two techniques termed samatha, or calming the mind and body by concentration, and vipassanā or insight meditation by a disinterested observation (sati). This also confirms that Buddhist practice (at least in its pristine form) is experimental field, and verifiable which is attributed as ehipasiko, literally “come and see” and paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi, “to be experienced by the wises” here and now (akāliko) for a better quality of life (opanāyiko). Another aspect of bhāvanā is jhāna or dhyana, which are different degrees of mental absorption that sometimes mistaken as some mystic experiences.

The “I” or the Ego

Can we experience something that is without the subject who is experiencing, and the object that is being experienced? In an ordinary sense, this is impossible. An ordinary person always feels that there is a ‘feeler’, a ‘perceiver’, a ‘goer’, a doer’, a seer’, etc., and a world ‘out there’. This is the problem of dualistic notions in which there is a self (subject) relating to the world (object). This self is thought of as distinctive from and independent of the world. There is a separate “I” and a distinguished “me” in contrast to the world of people and things that are perceived by the “I” which are related to the “me”. Thus, the conceptions that are formed by these perceptions and the feelings of the affective agent are all perceived via an egoistic perspective.

Now, what is that “I” or the subject that is experiencing? According to the English dictionary [1913 Webster +PJC], ego is defined as:

1. “The conscious and permanent subject of all psychical experiences, whether held to be directly known or the product of reflective thought; the subject consciously considered as “I” by a person; -- opposed to non-ego.

2. In psychoanalysis, ego is “that one of the three parts of a person's psychic apparatus that mediates consciously between the drives of the id and the realities of the external physical and social environment, by integrating perceptions of the external world and organizing the reactions to it. Contrasted with the id and superego.[PJC]

There are two Pāli terms matching this sense of “I”, one is the notion of a conscious and permanent subject that is termed ‘atta’ in Pāli or ātman in Sanskrit, and the other is māna, or conceit. In the first sense, there is an explicit notion of a metaphysical self (ātman) that is the subject of one’s action(s) and the object of one’s reflective thought(s). Māna or ‘conceit’ is its twin. A person with a ‘māna-istic attitude’ will relate himself with others in terms of ‘I am equal’, ‘I am inferior’, or ‘I am superior’. In Buddhist philosophy and psychology, the notion of a permanent self and the egoistic attitude (as a necessary sequel) are both harmful and problematic. This topic will be focused on in chapter three, and partly in chapter four and five of the present work. From a Buddhist perspectives, the “self”, individuality, or personality is a relative set or a complex of psychophysical factors termed ‘nāma-rūpa’ or in a more elaborated term ‘pañcupādānakkhandha’- the five aggregates.

Experience is always through and through relational in structure. Things exist not as isolated units, but as participants in a vast network of relationships which can be broken down only in thought and never in fact.[10] Interestingly, a modern French psychologist, Jacques Lacan also finds that “subjectivity is entirely relational; it only comes into play through the principle of difference, by the opposition of the ‘other’ or the ‘you’ to the ‘I’. In other words subjectivity is not an essence but a set of relationship.”[11] In search of an identity that accounts for an individual existence in the human realm, anthropologists look into different directions and many find out a similar notion with Buddhism. “Identities at all levels are constructed by establishing order and security within a radically impermanent and interdependent world.”[12] Another interesting conclusion were reached by the evolutionary biologists who observe that self-awareness typically entails a degree of built-in blindness, an innate ignorance about who we are and what we do, especially concerning the illusion that “the self” is a miniature, “controlling person”, a homunculus.[13]


What is the ground for sentient beings, or to be more accurate, human beings, to grasp at to support the sense of his/ her identity? To answer this question we are likely to stumble upon another problem in Buddhist philosophy and psychology that causes much debate and controversy, concerning the fifth factor in the analytical scheme termed khandha or aggregates. Whether the aggregate of consciousness (viññāṇakkhandha) is a merely personal component or universal phenomena is a matter of debate among the various Buddhist schools. Consciousness, is defined by Sir W. Hamilton thus: “Consciousness is thus, on the one hand, the recognition by the mind or “ego” of its acts and affections; -- in other words, the self-affirmation that certain modifications are known by me, and that these modifications are mine..[14] According to this definition, consciousness is highly individual, an act of personalization. In Buddhist psychology, the word viññāṇa stands for consciousness, as we shall discuss in chapter three. In the analysis of elements (dhātu), it is one of the six elements (six elements being paṭhavi, apo, vāyo, tejo, okāsa, and viññāṇa), thus consciousness, as an element, is a universal factor. The universal characteristic of consciousness is approved in Dhātuvibhanga sutta (M.140) as follows: “There remains only consciousness: pure and bright. What does one cognize with that consciousness? One cognizes 'pleasure', One cognizes 'pain', One cognizes 'neither pleasure nor pain.” This element which serves as a discerning faculty is a state of consciousness in jhāna or vipassanā knowledge (in the context of the quoted sutta). Viññāṇa here is equal to paññā or wisdom. This quality of consciousness is elaborated in Surangama sutra, a long discourse (circulated only in Mahāyana texts). This long discourse has served as the main text of Mahayana meditation, and demonstrates how consciousness is a universal element and unaffected by individual emotions and biases.

Consciousness (viññāṇakkhandha), the factor that joins the different stages of experiences and makes sense of what is being felt and perceptions is a complex causal event based on the sense and its corresponding object. This analysis of human experience makes the Buddha’s teaching a unique doctrine that not only denies the existence of an all- powerful- creator (God or Brahma) but also rules out the possibility of an independent and permanent self or soul that presides over and wills its power on human experiences. However, as a khandha or aggregate, consciousness is a personal component, a divided knowing via subject-object relational processing. Consciousness can not arise without an object, and as a mental processor, it always arises together with a certain number of mental concomitants such as attention, feeling, apperception, contact and volition. How many mental factors cooperate with consciousness is a matter of debate among the different Buddhist schools. However, that consciousness is colored by its associated factors is acknowledged by all schools. Consciousness in this sense is equal to a thought (citta.)[15], and is highly individual, and this consciousness (called saññā in D.9) is the subject of training in Buddhist meditation. The individual consciousness as the core of one’s personality should be gradually purified from the kilesa, defiling factors. This can be done since Buddhist philosophy holds that they are changeable and conditioned, therefore, to alter condition(s) will affect the quality of consciousness. This is a crucial point differentiating the Buddhist philosophy and psychology from all other systems of philosophy.

Beside the khandha doctrine, Buddhist scriptures also describe human experiences in terms of āyatana – sphere or domain, and the psychophysical interactions that originate life are presented in the Paṭiccasamuppāda doctrine, or the law of dependent existence. From the above analysis, experience is a complex relational field involving the interplay of a multiple factors. This interplay between the subject and object is a dynamic state that employs various functional interdependent factors termed salāyatana, six sense bases and their respective fields. Once, the Buddha told his followers: “bhikkhus, I will teach you the all. The eye and visible object...the mind and mental objects” [S 35:32 or S IV, 15]. The all (āyatanasabbā) here is restricted to the empirical realm of experience. Sometimes the all is taken as personal experience or the all of personality (sakkāyasabba). This restricted interpretation is presented in the first discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya, the Mūlapariyāya sutta, or The Root of Existence. Herein, the different modes of human experiences are divided into the cognitive patterns that pertaining to different levels of the cognizance. They are ordinary people (puthujjanā), the learners (sekkhā), the beyond learners (Asekkhā or Arahant), and the Thus gone (Tathāgata). Again, objects of experience are categorized into 24 modes or elements (dhātu). It is noteworthy that in Buddhist scriptures, the word dhamma and the word dhātu are in many cases interchangeable. The relationships between dhammā or dhātus are treated in a separate book of the Abhidhamma called Paṭṭhāna Pāli. In Mahāyana system, these modes of relational existence are explored in the Avatamsaka sutras.

As we have seen from the above analysis, the human experience, or in general, the samsāric experience is analyzed into five aggregates termed khandha in Pāli or skandha in Sanskrit. It is said in the Buddhist scriptures that whoever tries to pin together his self, or tries to conceive what is meant by his own existence, he is only doing so with regard to the five aggregates, not otherwise[16]. The assumption that one has a self, an identity that makes one’s existence a separate unique entity is a problem: can we probe into that self? Many philosophers in different traditions, from the dawn of human civilization till now have tried to identify what that self truly is. They speculate, contemplate, and describe its attributions in considerable details but all fail to come to a conclusion, and for that matter, they remain in samsāra, said the Buddha. In ordinary experience, the tension between the ongoing sense of self and the failure to find that self in reflection is the origin of human uncertainty and irritation (dukkha). This uncertainty and irritation push one forward in a struggle to build a self or a personality amounting to an ego-centric attitude inherent in every one. The outcome is, but grief, sorrow and despair caused by craving and grasping unto experience which is transient and dependent arising, that ever- proving its inherent non-self nature. Man’s suffering is, indeed, due to his ignorance of this fact. The Buddha, over 2500 years ago, briefly stated: “pañcupādānakkhandha’pi dukkha- in short, the five aggregates of clinging is unsatisfactoriness”.

Khandhas and the Self

The Pāḷi term khandhas is often translated as ‘aggregates’ or personal components. As we have stated at the beginning, the whole or partly personal components are ordinarily taken for granted as ‘mine’ or my-self. According to the Dictionary of Psychology, self is defined as: "(1) the individual as a conscious being. (2) the ego or I. (3) the personality or organization of traits."[17] The definition of ego is "the self, particularly the individual's conception of himself." Personality is defined as "the dynamic organization within the individual of those psycho-physical systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought." Another definition of personality is "that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation."[18] According to these definitions, the Buddhist technical term khandha or nāma-rūpa is the best equivalent to personality or individuality respectively.

The birth of an individual is described in the Pāli language as ‘khandhānaṃ paṭilābhaṃ...’the acquisition of aggregates’, and in reflection on one’s former experiences, one’s accounts may run like this “I was born there, of such and such a name, in such a clan, such a class, enjoyed such a food, experienced such and such happiness and suffering, such was my life-spent.”[19] In other words, we identify with our name, our positions, our happiness and suffering in this life time, and a sense of life’s continuity (of oneself) is marked by events and memories. In another context, the individual existence is described as ‘attābhava paṭilābha’, and thus, khandhas and attābhava are used as synonyms. The term attā when it is used in a metaphysical sense, is equivalence with ‘individual’ as this definition shows: ‘Not divided, or not to be divided; existing as one entity, or distinct being or object; single; one; as, an individual man, animal.’[20] I will devote a full chapter, the second Chapter of this thesis, to research on the concept of self, soul, personality and ego in different systems of philosophy and theology.

Contention and Structure of This Study

The first quandary characterizing Buddhist philosophy is the Buddhist acceptance of the concept of samsāra, the endless circle of birth and rebirth in Indian philosophy on the one hand and its revolutionary doctrine of anatta on the other. How can these two apparently contradictory conceptions of eternalism and annihilism be in concert with the Buddhist unique doctrine of anatta? In his early discourses, the Buddha taught the doctrine of the Middle Way (majjhimapaṭipāda) that avoids these two prevalent philosophical trends. Actually, Buddha’s doctrine of the Middle Way or the Noble Eightfold Path was intended to counteract these two trends of motivational practice as the results of these above mentioned views. They are the asceticism, a postponement of indulgences for the sake of a greater pleasure, be it a heavenly rebirth or in union with the Ātman or Brahma, or hedonism, an attitude of nihilists and the practice of indulgence in each and every pleasure graspable here and now. For the intellectuals, the Buddha pointed out to the law of causality or dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), thus avoiding both the nihilistic view as well as the belief in eternality.

In a later period, under the pressure of philosophical debates and in interaction with other faiths, Buddhist thinkers searched in different directions to solve these problems. Sarvāstivāda, a Buddhist sect prevalent in India a few centuries after the demise of the Buddha had succumbed to metaphysical speculation whereby they tried to pin down the term dhamma in the early discourses, and redefined it in the sense of an element of existence. Even earlier than the Abhidharma system of Sarvāstivāda school, we find a systematic analysis of dhamma in Theravāda school. This system of Buddhist philosophy seeks to analyse all human experience into a scheme called dhamma classification. Perhaps, the best translation of the term dhamma as it appeared in the Buddhist scriptures is ‘idea(s)’.[21] Dhamma is a dynamic state that can be experienced objectively, and the subject that experiences a dhamma is also described as a dhamma itself. However, this is not a static entity. A renowned Buddhist meditation master puts it in a simple language thus: “the dhamma is simply the dhamma. It is a natural, selfless process. It does not belong to us or any one else. It isn’t any thing. Whatever a person experiences, it all falls within the five fundamental categories (khandhas): body, feeling, perception, thoughts and consciousness.”[22] Even in this simple definition, it appears to be difficult to understand! A more detailed treatment for the term dhamma as it is understood in Buddhist circles, especially in early Buddhism is presented in chapter fourth. Herein, we will have a glimpse at the map classification in the Abhidhamma system. This Abhiddhamma system was criticized very strongly by its younger brother, the Madhyamika or Middle way thinkers such as Nagarunja.

If the self is not a valid and enduring entity accounting for one’s experiences, then, to what extent, can human perception of the external world (loka) be valid? This is a fundamental question requiring that a serious attention be paid to the analysis of human experience. The term dhamma as a basic unit of human experience thus covers a very wide range in its connotations. Buddhist philosophy and psychology, from the very early stage (as recorded in Pāli suttas) gives a very precise description of the cognitive process, and motivational behaviors (human characteristics). In fact, in its most highly developed stage (the sectarian period), it had agued extensively on the validity of perception. In this way, the Buddhist idealists deny the validity of dhamma as an irreducible unit of experience. However this line of inquiry is not within the scope of this thesis. Herein, I will mainly discuss on the analysis of dhamma in terms of khandhas- aggregates, dhātu- elements, nāma-rūpa, mind and matter, and how our perception of ourselves and the external world is conditioned in a certain dimension.



The explanation of each term in this diagram will be given in chapter three and chapter four; chapter five will deal exclusively with the anatta doctrine; while many of the terms will be discussed in the chapter on motivation from a Buddhist perpective, being an extension of the chapter four. In chapter seventh we will chiefly discuss on the kusala- dhammā as the means to liberation from the grip of samsāra. Note that all dhammā are in the range of human experience, and the classification as seen above is a map derived from the Abhidhamma tradition. Dhamma may be classified into different groups merely to meet the different temperament of the learners. While one person might apprehend and realize human experience better in terms of mind and body (nāma-rūpa), another might view it as being more comprehensive in terms of khandhas, and yet, another might incline towards the analysis of elements. Once again, we have to ascertain that a dhamma as an irreducible unit is not an entity as such. All dhammā are of non-self nature, i.e., impersonal elements and without substance, whether saṅkhārā dhammā or asaṅkhāra dhamma. All saṅkhārā dhammā are impermanent and therefore, unsatisfactory experiences. It is said that all human experiences are included in dukkha.[23] Unless we realize this reality of unsatisfactoriness, and start to look for a way to transform its causes, we are helplessly tossed up and down by the waves of worldly phenomena (loka-dhammā) that we call success and failure, gain and loss, fame and humiliation, happiness and suffering. A deep insight into the illusory nature of samsāric experiences is a necessary condition for liberation, corresponding to the Buddha’s Fourth and Third Noble Truth.

According to Thompson, the difference between Western rationalism and the realism embodied in the Abhidharma is that in the latter, the designation of basic elements (dharmā) as ultimate reality was not an assertion that the elements were ontological entities in the sense of being substantially existent.[24] Further more, he argues: “...basic element analysis was not simply an abstract, theoretical exercise. It has both a descriptive and a pragmatic motivation.”[25] This topic will be treated in details in chapter five.

Returning to the Mūlapariyāya sutta (M.1) which explores the different modes of cognizance in different kinds of persons (Puthujjana, Sekkhā, Arahant, and Tathāgata) in relation to the world of phenomena we can have a glimpse at how different fashions of cognitive process and emotive respond making people different. Herein, an ordinary person (Puthujjana) is described as an "untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, perceives earth (solid, extension element) as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, he conceives (himself as) earth, he conceives (himself) in earth, he conceives (himself apart) from earth, he conceives earth to be 'mine', he delights in earth. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it”, said the Buddha. Similarly, the sutta mentions twenty four modes of experiences that an ordinary person may encounter and how he, from the cognitive process to the emotive reaction, identifies phenomena and experiences with the 'self'. Because of lacking comprehension, ordinary people are liable to perceive things in distorted ways and react with emotions leading to their own suffering. This 'self-made' suffering is called the psychological suffering.

How does a partly enlightened person (Sekkha) relate to the world? A sekkha is able to resist the temptation of identifying what he is experiencing with self and takes delight in it. The enlightened persons (Arahant and Tathāgata), who, on the other hand, have fully comprehended things as they are, they do not identify the phenomena with self, and they do not take delight in or become excited by what is being experienced. This is a very important factor differentiating the noble ones from the ordinary men, because the correct cognitive process necessarily results in correct perception. This in turn leads to proper attentions (yonisomanasikāra) which immunes the enlightened ones from subjective appreciation and emotive responds which in the case of ordinary persons would result in psychological suffering. This topic will be discussed in details in chapter fourth (in terms of vipallāsa) five, six, and chapter seven of the thesis.        

In fact, the fact of impermanence does not affect anybody if one does not try to hold on to pleasant experiences and repulse to unpleasant experiences. Unskillful reactions to experiences are designated under akusala dhammā. They form the cause of suffering, the second Noble Truth, and are termed kilesavatta, the round of defilements, found in the twelve links of the dependent origination formula. Elsewhere, in the early discourses (sutta) they are termed upakkilesa, nīvaraṇa and anusaya kilesa. The abyākāta dhammā are those of neutral elements, i.e., dependent upon the way we handle them, they can be either beneficial or harmful to us.

This state of affairs is described in the suttas thus:

On seeing a form with the eye, he lust after it if it is pleasing; he distastes it if it is unpleasing. He dwells into it with an unestablished mindfulness as regard to the body (i.e., he has no mindfulness or he is headless), his mind is contracted (due to reactions), and he does not understand it as it actually is the deliverance of the mind and the deliverance by wisdom wherein those evil states completely ceasing.

Engaged as he is in favoring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels – whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral one – he delights in that feeling, welcome it, and remain holding to it. As he does so, delight arises in him. Now, delight in feeling is clinging. With his clinging as condition, being (comes to be); with being as condition, there is birth; with birth as condition, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair come to be. Such is the beginning of this whole mass of suffering.[26]

Returning to the quandary proposed earlier, to answer the second question, who suffers in samsāra, the Buddha unfolds the nature of the first and second truths as samsāric experiences in which a seemingly concrete and continuous self exists due to illusory notion (avijjā) and grasping tendency (upādāna). As we have seen in the above quoted text, due to unmindfulness, one perceives things through a subjective approach, i.e., things are either ‘mine’ or ‘not mine’ (possessive attitude), it pleases ‘me’ or it does not please ‘me’ (emotive reaction). Towards these one feels delighted or rejected, and both states (the feeling of elation and rejection) are born of ignorance which reinforces an egocentric tendency that in turn prolongs the saṃsāric experience. Avijjā or ignorance represents for intellectual errors and upādāna or clinging represents for emotional tendency in regards to experiences. Under the influence of these two factors, one perceives and feels as if there is an identity (unchanging subject or agent) experiencing the world. This notion helps to affirm one’s authentic existence in relation to a real world of objective stimulations.

The problem is that one wants to affirm one’s identity in a world characterized by constant change. The personality (khandha– collective factors) is the result of a series of interactions between the senses and their corresponding objects (termed sal’āyatana). These interactions are mingled with an affirmation of identity, an “I” or ego in relation to the rest. This is the practical reason lies behind the Buddha’s advices in many occasions not to identify with sense-experiences. These reactions are termed saṅkhārā as the second link of the dependent arising formula, and they are the first truth, the truth of unsatisfactoriness. The personality is viewed as unsatisfactory because it is, in most cases, not subject to self-will, therefore, to identify with any of them or collectively to the whole set will inevitably meet with frustration. However, under the spell of ignorance (avijjā), people voluntary take the construction as their selves for granted. The fact that ordinary people identify with that is due to their notion of atta, the personal view. It is ‘atta’ or the notion of a metaphysical self, an ego-centered attitude which creates the burdens of dukkha of existence. Firstly, one identifies with one’s body, rūpakkhandha, then with one’s feeling, vedanākkhandha, with one’s perception, saññākkhandha, with one’s volitional activities, saṅkhārakkhandha, and finally, with one’s consciousness, viññāṇakkhandha. The Buddha said that beside these five modes of identifications, there is nothing can be declared as ‘I’, or ‘me’.[27]

In many discourses[28], birth is defined as "the coming into existence, the manifestation of aggregates..."[29] This begs the question of what is it exactly that has come into existence? The texts provide a categorical answer that it is consciousness (viññāṇa), the embedded impacts of sensory experiences on the human mind (mano viññāṇa dhātu). As we have seen from the above discussion on consciousness, viññāṇadhātu is an element of existence, and the process of birth and death is presented as the transition of a “stream of consciousness” (viññāṇa sota). “Birth (Jāti) is result of a process of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) involving physical as well as psychological factors.”[30] Citing the exposition on the process of birth (the continuation of death) in M I, 265, Professor Kalupahana continues: “While excessive craving for survival (bhavataṇhā) constitutes one of the psychological conditions for the birth of a human being, birth will not occur unless the necessary physical conditions provided by the parents are also available”[31]. However, in a conventional language (vohāra, or nirutti) we say that ‘a being or person is born’ to such and such a parents. This conventional notion inevitably influences the way we think giving rise to the concept of self, soul (atta or Ātman), or an acquired personality (attabhāvapaṭilābhā). The notion of a 'self' or an ‘experiencer’ called 'I', 'me' incites the will to solidify or materialize it through the acquision of many attributes and properties (attaniya). The struggles building up and maintaining an identity (atta) and its extended properties (attaniya) in the course of existence in order to certify that it is a distinctive entity incur much suffering. These struggles are the manifestation of the survival instinct (bhavataṇhā).

People in general see themselves and others as living entities, each with a soul, self or ego, called in Pali atta, corresponding with the Sanskrit word Ātman. Atta is also known as jīva, life; thus atta conveys the concept of life, soul or living entity. Holding the view that there exists a soul or a living entity in man is known as the misconception or wrong belief in self (attadiṭṭhi).

Ordinary worldlings are not free from this wrong belief in self; the only difference from person to person lies in how firmly it is held and how plainly it manifests. The vipassanā meditator who is developing keen insight into the physical and mental processes, and contemplating the fact that there is no self or living entity, is free from that wrong notion of self, but only for the duration of his noting the arising and passing away of corporeality and mentality. The misconception of self is likely to return.[32]

This observation of a meditation master is true. Let us see another opinion, from the scholastic point of view that of Steven Collins in his book entitled "Selfless Persons" writes:

The idea of kamma is a very basic plank of the Buddhist doctrinal edifice; the theory of non-self and of continuity, [...] represent far more sophisticated and complex intellectual products. If kamma is not an ubiquitous and uniform element of religious practice in Buddhist societies, how much less so will be such abstruse matters as non-self and continuity?[33]

He then proceeds to point out the gap between theoretical doctrine and its actual practice, the idea of anatta and the problems of personality and continuity. This inquiry into the Buddhist theory and practice will be considered in a section on the social application of the Anatta doctrine in chapter five. The profound teaching of non-self or anatta is linked with the teaching of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), and sometimes, in terms of suññatā, voidness or emptiness, insubstantiality. Without seeing that things, people and events are conditioned, dependent upon a network of relationships termed dhammā in which karmic operation is one of the laws that govern the occurrence of personal traits and the existential conditions in which we find ourselves, we are easily prone to the wrong view of determinism and eternalism or existentialism and nihilism. According to the analysis of Professor Kalupahana, the belief in eternality as well as a nihilistic attitude would guarantee optimistic out look while a view that sees life as circling struggles with uncertainties of a doomed separate self is a prey of pessimistic.[34]

Returning to the statement of the Buddha “In brief, the five aggregates of clinging is unsatisfactory”, one might tend to think that this is a gloomy view of existence based on the assumption that Buddhist philosophy is inherently pessimistic. However, with thoughtful analysis, one can see that the existential circumstance whether relating to one’s own personality or to the world (external factors such as family, society, and natural environment) are conditioned and changing (vaya dhammā saṅkhārā). In this regard, although they are considered unsatisfactory (dukkha), the key lies in the term “clinging” or upādāna in Pāli. In fact, if one does not cling to the percipient being or to personal factors in terms of ‘the five aggregates’ as oneself (attā or ātman) and to the external objects as mine (attaniya), any change or alternation of these factors or objects would not effect any body. It is the clinging and attachment to changeable and impermanent things (saṅkhāra and anicca dhammā) that causes mental anguish and sorrow. Hitherto, one might have thought that it is possible to find something permanent or at least more stable to attach to or identify with. Is there any thing that is permanent and unchangeable in our perceptible world? This causes many speculations about the true nature of the self (ātman) and the world (loka). The second chapter of this thesis will explore in this topic.

The need for human beings to identify with something that is permanent, unchanging and uninterruptible, at least some stable thing      to believe in, causes them to grasp at whatever is graspable in order to feel secure. This is such a wide spread belief and practice that no body before the Buddha had ever challenged it. Even among his immediate disciples, a monk named Sati expressed the view that there is some body or some agent transmigrating from this life to another.[35] He cited to the Jātaka stories in which the Buddha himself narrated his former births and his practices of perfections. Perhaps, he (Sati) was not only one, but only the one who dared to express that "vicious view" openly! Of course, he was rebuked sternly by the Buddha and other fellow monks for his apostasy. This incident reveals that the Buddha did not under any circumstances, implicitly or explicitly, encouraged his followers to find such an unchanging and independent agent in this compounded world. The quandary of such affirmation on the absence of a permanent agent in all beings and the notion of saṃsāra have, since the Buddha’s time, caused much confusion. The same question was posed by a Greek King, Milinda in Pali, that if there is no self who takes rebirth who responsible for the evil kamma that done by ‘nobody’?[36] The enlightened monk Nagasena satisfied him by the exposition on the continuity (of consciousness) and using the similes of a seed becoming a tree, the transition of a flame, etc. This will be discussed in chapter five. The Buddha had, in many ways demonstrated that clinging to the view of self whether it is intellectually or emotionally, is harmful[37]. On the intellectual level, this self-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) is due to an error in perception (saññā vipallāso), and at the emotional aspect, it is the very strong temptation to identify with perceptible experiences in order to feel authentic and stable in a changing world. Atta is considered as an illusory perception (saññā vipallāso), a wrong view, and a dogmatic grasping (sakkāyadiṭṭhi, and attavādupādāna). Nevertheless, it is still such a powerful temptation to be ‘someone’ (ātman graham vāsāna) that mere intellectual knowledge of it would not exempt the beholder from being involved. That is why suffering is a truth (sacca), corresponding to the inherent nature of existence in the conditioned or compounded world.

The Buddhist path is not to ‘build up’ but to deconstruct the superimposed structure in human experience to unburden the load that one involuntarily carries on as oneself, the ego or one’s identity. So far, we have identified that unsatisfactory experiences are psychological orientation, the solution is to alter or improve the mind’s contents to the effect that emptying all the unnecessary superstructures. There are a remarkably similar between the Dhamma therapy and the modern cognitive therapy. This will be discussed in chapter sixth, on motivation. Further, we shall discuss on the Buddhist ways to transcend the human limited experience based on the Pāli canon in Chapter VII. Due to the limit scope of this study, this will only sketchily discuss on the traditional and formal approach termed the Noble Eightfold Path which falls into a systematic scheme named Tisso-sikkhā- The Higher Training in morality, concentration, and wisdom. This chapter also focuses on the Vipassanā technique- a unique approach termed paññāvimutti that helps to disillusion about a permanent and unchanging self. Chapter eighth will conclude harmoniously between theory and practice under the topics: suññatā, anatta- the paramattha sacca- the ultimate truth in the realm of noble ones; and the samutti sacca- the conventional truth in the realm of human experiences.


The method applied in this study is that of a critical textual analysis as the title of the thesis suggests. Besides this analytical method, comparative and critical as regard selected doctrinal points, their traditional expositions and some modern scholar’s approaches are also presented. Being rather popular themes in Buddhist philosophy and psychology, dukkha, khandha, self (attā), and selfless (anattā) are widely discussed in many existing works on Buddhism. In this study, the researcher will draw on materials for these themes first from the Sutta Pitaka of the Pāli canon, especially from Nidānasamyutta and Khandhasamyutta (SN), and Vinaya and Abhidhamma works whenever necessary, with the additions from traditional expositions such as Milindapañhā, Visuddhimagga, and some from the Mahāyana suttas, e.g, Śūrangama-śūtra, Hadayaparamita-śūtra, Vajrachedikā-prajñā-paramitā-śūtra, Lankāvatāra śūtra, etc.

There are many well-known treatises on the same doctrinal points such as khandhas, self (attā) and not-self (anattā), and dukkha, etc., and the researcher will refer to these works in the context of the different topics of discussion. The main reason for this work is to present a proposal for a new approach to Buddhist studies inhering in the examination of doctrinal points from the psychological approach, while putting texts in their contexts to avoid dogmatism. The present work is also an attempt to bridge the gap between purely theoretical approach and actual practice. Works of well-known scholars on the selected topics will thereby be used as secondary sources. The writings of modern scholars on the relevant themes are especially referred to, for example, a work by Professor Hajime Nakamura, A Comparative History of Ideas, Sue Hamilton’s book entitled Experience and Identity, Steven Collin’s book: The Selfless Person, and E.A.Johanson’s The Dynamic Psychology of Early Buddhism.


[1] Kalupahana, David 1987: The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, State University of New York Press, p. 83.

[2] Ledi Sayadaw (1846- 1923), an eminent scholar of Buddhism who lived in Burma wrote: “A being is said, from the conventional standpoint, to be born, to decay, to die, to fall from one state of existence and to be reborn into another. Taken in this sense, a being is born, during his whole life-term, just once at the time of birth and die once for all at the time of death. Mind (nāma) and matter (rūpa), on the contrary, come to birth, undergo decay, die and breakdown many hundreds of thousands of times, even in in one day.” – The Manuals of Buddhism, Niyāma Dipani, edited by Ayeyarwaddy, Publishing House Yangon, Myanmar 2004, p.219.

[3] Webster 1913: English Dictionary, electrical edition 2002.

[4] The Penguin Dictionary of philosophy, Ed. By Thomas Mautner, p 472

[5] Ibid. p. 473.

[6] Matthieu Ricard & Trinh Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus, p. 224 (Published by Three Rivers Press) New York 2001: In Buddhism, the dichotomy between “me” and “the world” is the first sign of ignorance. In a sense, it’s Buddhism’s “original sin”, but its original only in name, given that we commit it every moment of our lives.

[7] Kalupahana, David 1987; pp 85-6.

[8] Ref. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy; ed. By Thomas Mautner, pp 187.

[9] Kamma, according to the Paṭiccasammupāda, literally means ‘happening-because-of’; karma is the law that governs action and reaction. Modern trends tend to explain it as merely psychological law. For example, Gina Cerminare in her book: Many Mansions, writes: “Karma is a psychological law and acts primarily in the psychological realm. The physical circumstances bring merely the means whereby the psychological purpose is fulfilled. Therefore the reversal or reaction on the objective physical plane is not exact, but only approximate; on the psychological plane, the reversal is more nearly exact.” [The Edgar Ceyce story on Reincarnation; Signet Printing 1999. P. 56].

[10] Bhikkhu Bodhi: The Discourse on the Root of Existence, BPS 1992; p.9.

[11] M. Sarup, Post- structuralism and Postmodernism. P. 24; also at The Resonance of Emptiness by Gay Watson, p. 41.

[12] William S. Waldron: Common Ground, Common Cause: Buddhism and Science on the Afflictions of Identity, Buddhism & Science; pp. 164.

[13] Ref. Ibid, pp 158.

[14] 1913 Webster; English Dictionary, E-ed. 2002

[15] S .I: Citena nīyati loko. Cittassa parikkassati’ cittassa ekadhammassa sabbeva vasaṃ angavū- the world is led by thought. By thought it is drawn along. All go under the sway of one thing, that is the mind (or thought)- Bhikkhun Bodhi. . P. 30; a similar expression is found in A. II. P. 177 and M I, ...

[16] SN 22.47: Ye hi keci bhikkhave, samaṇāvā brahmaṇā vā anekavihitaṃ attānaṃ samanupassamānā samanupassanti, sabbe te pañcupādānakkhandhe samanupassanti, etesaṃ vā aññataraṃ.

[17] Ref. U. Sīlananda, No Inner Core: Introduction; Singapore 1998; also at Oxford Dictionary of Psychplogy by Adrew M. Colman, p. 233, 547.

[18] Ibid.

[19] D, 28, P. 108: Amutrāsiṃ evaṃ nāmo evaṃ gotto evaṃ-vaṇṇo evaṃ- āhāro evaṃ-sukhaṃ-dukkha-paṭisaṃvedī evaṃ āyu-pariyanto.

[20] 1913 Webster

[21] Any object apprehended, conceived, or thought of, by the mind; a notion, conception, or thought; the real object that is conceived or thought of.[1913 Webster]

Whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or as the immediate object of perception, thought, or undersanding, that I call idea. Locke.[1913 Webster].

A belief, option, or doctrine; a characteristic or controlling principle; as, an essential idea; the idea of development.

[22] Achahn Chah, Talks on Meditation, BPS 2006, p.20.

[23] S iv, 36:11: yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ taṃ dukkhasminti

[24] Thomson, Varela, and Rosch 1991, T he Embodied Mind, cognitive science and human experience, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology ) P. 118

[25] Thomson, Varela, and Rosch 1991, p. 118

[26] M 38: So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe byāpajjati. Anupaṭṭhitakāyasati ca viharati paritta cetaso, tañca cetovimuttiṃ paññāvimuttiṃ yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti yatthassa te pāpakā akusalā dhammā aparisesā nirujjhanti. So evaṃ anurodhavirodhaṃ samāpanno yaṃ kiñci vedanaṃ vedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā, so taṃ vedanaṃ abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati, tassa taṃ vedanaṃ abhinandato abhivadato ajjhosāya tiṭṭhato uppajjati nandī. Yā vedanāsu nandī tadupadānaṃ. Tassupādāna paccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti, jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ soka parideva dukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

[27] SN: Ye hi keci bhikkhave samaṇā vā brahmanā vā anekavihitaṃ attānaṃ samanapassamānā samanupassanti sabbe te pañcuppādākkhandhe samanupassanti etesaṃ vā aññataraṃ- Any ascetics or priests who conceive manifold (ideas) as the self, all conceive the five aggregates (as the self) or any one of them.

[28] M141; M 8; S ....

[29] M 1: Sattanikāye jāti, sañjāti, okkanti,abhinibbatti, khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo, āyatānaṃ paṭilābho

[30] Kalupahana 1987: The Principles of Buddhis Psychology, p.85.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Mahasi Sayadaw, The Exposition on Anattalakkhaṇa sutta, extracted from Buddhasāsana CD-ROM, version 2004.

[33] Steven Collins 1973: Selfless Person, pp.70

[34] Kalupahana, David : The principles of Buddhist psychology, (State University of New York Press 1987) p. 85.

[35] M.38, Mahātaṇhākhaya sutta: “As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another [...] It is that which speaks and feels, and experience the here and there the results of good and bad actions have been performed (by the same self).

[36] MilP. Bhante Nāgasena, atthi koci satto, yo imamhā kāyā aññaṃ kāyaṃ saṅkamati’ti.

Na hi, maharāja’ti.

Yadi Bhante Nāgasena, yo imamhā kāyā aññaṃ kāyaṃ saṅkamato natthi, na nu mutto bhavissati pāpakehi kammehi?’ti.

[37] M.22; PTS I, 231: Monks, I do not see any doctrine of self that not resulted in sorrow,...


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Sincere thanks to Venerable Nguyen Huong Dhammananda for giving the digital files (Binh Anson, 01-2009).

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