Help with sutta MN 35 - Regarding viewing the five aggregates as self

So in this sutta the Buddha asks Aggivessana if he can control his body by making it thus and thus - as an argument that his material form is not his self.

I can accept that the five aggregates is not myself, theoretically at least, but why is the controlling of them an argument?

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in the footnotes: The Buddha is here suggesting that the aggregates are not self because they lack one of the essential characteristics of selfhood — being susceptible to the exercise of mastery. What cannot come under my mastery or perfect control cannot be identified as “my self.”

Why is mastery over the material form of my body required in order for it to be a basis for the self?

After all, we can choose to gain weight, lose weight. Move our body etc.

Must I grow three heads and make the body thus and thus, in order to call it my own? Why is it less myself if I can’t do that?

Who said wielding mastery over something is a good basis for whether or not it is regarded as my own?

I’m stuck on this one and would really like some help on clarifying this argument made by the Buddha!

With Metta

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The argument is that if body belongs to me, I have total jurisdiction over it. Just like a king would over his subjects. However, one cannot compel it not to grow old, get sick and die. One can put it to use but not own it.


Actually, when I look at the text:

Argument 1: Just as when seeds and plants, whatever their kind, reach growth, increase, and maturation, all do so in dependence upon the earth, based upon the earth; and just as when strenuous works, whatever their kind, are done, all are done in dependence upon the earth, based upon the earth—so too, Master Gotama, a person has material form as self, and based upon material form he produces merit or demerit. A person has feeling as self, and based upon feeling he produces merit or demerit. A person has perception as self, and based upon perception he produces merit or demerit. A person has formations as self, and based upon formations he produces merit or demerit. A person has consciousness as self, and based upon consciousness he produces merit or demerit.

Logically speaking, from Argument 1, Aggivessana does NOT directly says:

Conclusion 1: Material form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, formations are my self, consciousness is my self

Instead, logically speaking, from Arguments 1, Aggivessana should infer something like this:
Conlusion 1a: “Material form BELONGS to me, feeling BELONGS to me, perception BELONGS to me, formations BELONGS to me, consciousness BELONGS to me”

Of course, if we accept conclusion 1a then we will more or less accept that there is a Self and also will deny the statement “This is not mine”.

So, @Myspace has said it clearly above:

I only try to make it clearer for you here. :smiley:

I think the Buddha used the example about the king over his subjects to directly refute the conclusion 1a and so indirectly refute the conclusion 1. This complication also explains the reason why you don’t feel convinced about the complete mastery control has anything to do with the final refutation:

Final takeaway is: The aggregates are suffering. So, it does not make any sense for a Self (if exists) to bring along such sufferings and consider them as belongings.


You are right to feel confused. The word “Self” is a translation of the Pali “Atta”.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite mean the same thing.

self (Merriam Webster dictionary)

(Entry 1 of 5)

1a(1): an individual’s typical character or behaviorher true self was revealed

(2): an individual’s temporary behavior or character, his better self

b**:** a person in prime condition, feel like my old self today

2**:** the union of elements (such as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person

3**:** personal interest or advantage

4a**:** the entire person of an individual

b**:** the realization or embodiment of an abstraction

5**:** material that is part of an individual organism, ability of the immune system to distinguish self from nonself

When it comes to the Pali “Atta”,one of the defining characteristics is the ability to exercise complete control, which is something the chosen English translation word completely lacks. See the current discussion about the meaning of the word “Atta”.


I’m curious about the basis for saying that a defining characteristic of atta is complete control?

I’ve never really understood the lack of control argument for anatta.
If I had a cat, I would regard it as “my cat”, but that doesn’t mean I could control it! Similarly I can have the view “my body”, or “my mind”, while realising that my control over them is actually quite limited.
I don’t see why ideas of “me” and “mine” depend on mastery or complete control.

You guys are simply the best… taking your time writing long answers, it really helps.

My brain still hurts, but that’s common now since I started delving into Buddhism. I’m sure I’m not the only one. :sweat_smile:

I’m going to read this sutta a few more times in light of what you’ve said and hopefully come to a better understanding.

Sometimes I feel like I’m not supposed to understand it all completely, until I’m at least a stream-enterer who have dropped identification with the five aggregates. Does that make sense?

I mean some of it you understand right away, but some you kind of have faith in that you will see for yourself as you go along with your practice. Or is that close to blind faith?

It’s implied in sutras that argue the opposite to explain why the aggregates are painful by nature, which is that a person can’t make them be as they want them to be. (Examples: “Why do I always seem to be irritable when I get home from work!” “Why can’t I lose weight and keep it off!” “Why does that old injury keep hurting from time to time!” “Why can’t I stop remembering that bad thing that happened!” Etc.) So, they are frustrating in the same way external things and conditions are frustrating. And that frustration stems from their impermanence. (But imagine if they were permanently stuck in state we find frustrating! In a way, they are because they are always impermanent…)

An example of this type of explanation is in SA 86 (or 1.143 by my numbering). I believe similar explanations are in SN, too.


I am just guessing that the eternalist have two types of views about Self. First, Self is apart from the five aggregates. The five aggregates cannot know Self through the six senses. However, Self which is eternal, has the power to control and is conscious of the five aggregates. Then comes the argument that if Self controls the five aggregates, why can’t it compel them so that they don’t lead to its own afflictions? See SN22.59 Anattalakkhaṇasutta.

Second view is that Self is the five aggregates. Through some form of purification, rites and rituals for instance, its true nature of permanence and satisfaction can be revealed. To that end, the argument of impermanence and dukkha refuted it.

I think the argument is basically that for salvation to be possible for a “self” then that self would have to be something that is eternal, perfectly happy, and that you can get to or be in. the buddha constantly points out that all our actual experiences of things are that things are in fact impermanent, not perfectly happy, and not something that what we call our “self” can actually hold on to forever. So the buddha says that this view that there is such a thing as a self is wrong view, and that if we eradicate selfishness from our being we will be able to see things as they really are, that is not permanent, not belonging to ourselves, and seeing them as they really are be free from the suffering that is caused by mistakenly thinking of them selfishly.

The buddha is not saying you don’t have a cat, just that it is your posessions, like your cat, that cause you suffering, like when your cat dies and you feel sad. If you didn’t have a cat, you wouldnt feel sad when it dies, similarly if you give up/give away/let go of all and any impulses and feelings of possessiveness towards your own body, thoughts and mind then you won’t be upset when it all dies. hope that helps.


The intellect knows that the cat will die or has died but the heart ignores or does not want to accept the fact. It has no control over the reality, the cat is subjected to death however much you wish otherwise. There lies the disconnect, the tension, the basis for dukkha.

Sure, it’s attachment to the cat that causes suffering, when the cat dies. And attachment is wrapped up with the sense of it being “my cat”.
Much the same applies to “my body”. I’m attached to my body, and don’t want it to get ill, and eventually die.

So not regarding my body as “me” and “mine” is a way of reducing the suffering associated with it.
But this is a strategy, a method of reducing suffering. It doesn’t “prove” anything about the existence or non-existence of self.

I still don’t know the source of the idea that a self would have complete control, and I don’t recognise it from pre-Buddhist scripture or tradition.
It seems quite contrived to me.

Why should an eternal Self which is separate from the aggregates have the power to control the aggregates? I don’t see a logical or historical basis for this position.

The texts seem to imply this is not only a strategy because the texts always say something like this:
“see it as it really/actually is, with correct wisdom…” rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vinnana are not me and mine"

But the point seems to be that the Buddha discovered that rupa is just rupa, vedana is just vedana, sanna is just sanna, sankhara is just sankhara, vinnana is just vinnana, Nibbana is just Nibbana.
It is the result of active defilements in the mind that those are viewed as mine and as Me (sakkaya ditthi) and perceived or experienced as Me and mine (asmi mana).

I think the Buddha discovered that the nature of mind is just to reflect, like a mirror does. It does not become involved in reflections. All defilements are a kind of violation of the function of only mirroring.

For me it sound quit normal that when you would be the body, literally, that you can change it.
If the body does not answer to you wishes, than it shows you are something other than the body.
The same for the mind If you would be mind, well than why are you not always happy? You want to be happy right? Well, if this happiness is not in control, when it even disappears, how can it be you?

For us, it seems abnormal, strange, that one would not be attached to the body and mind and do not see those as Me and mine.

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Saying we might be something different from the mind and body is one thing. Saying that we have limited control over them seems like another.

Yes, i think, in a practical sense, it is wise to accept this dukkha. Something which is normal as long ones heart wishes the best for everyone. Isn’t a side-effect of good will, a loving, caring and compassionate heart, that one also suffers from it?

A seperate eternal self not connected to your body or your feelings or your decisions or your mind seems like it has nothing to do with you and also is something you have never experienced and no one else has experienced, so maybe that’s part of the reason the Buddha rejected such an idea

A girlfriend of mine had MS. She has died some years ago. She had to accept all this bodily decay because there is no cure. To accept this progressive powerlessness. She did this very well. She was not able to walk anymore. She needed assistence with almost everything we do ourselves. At a certain point she even was not able to eat anymore. But there are all kinds of technical ways to keep one alive. She never wanted to die. She kept appreciating life. She was not a budhist or religious.

If she would be the body, i find it logic she would immediately wish for another healthy body. But is shows it does not work that way.

I think I read a verse somewhere but I don’t recall the source.

In fact, I find this belief to be very difficult to refute. The claim is that a Self exist apart from the five aggregates (that is they belongs to Self) but there is no means to know that Self through any of the six senses. It is an postulation that cannot be disproved since any objections could just be countered with the fact that Self is not cognizable. Buddha categorically refute it by the argument of control. In other sutta, he also state that there are only two things, sense faculties and the objects. There are nothing apart from these two.

Anyway, for eternalist, either the five aggregates belongs to an eternal Self or the five aggregates are that eternal Self.

Buddha explained that with craving of five clinging aggregates, existence comes to be. With cessation of that craving, extinguishment follows. So it is a dynamic process, the middle path and not an eternalistic or annihilistic view.

For example, if one forms attachment with a cat, one becomes identified as the owner. With this identity, existence comes to be.


I belief there is a difference between claiming and teaching an eternal personal-self which is individual of nature, unique, like an eternal unique individual soul, AND an unborn, an unbecome ground of asankhata dhatu, which is the ground of every being and is always present. This ground can be refered to as true self or true face in the sense that one can not go beyond this. It is nakedness. One can stripp of coat (rupa) pants (vedana), sweater (sanna), t-shirt (sankhara), underware (vinnana) and at that moment one cannot strip anything anymore. Than one sees treu face, nakedness.

For me, the theravada Thai monk describes this as the Citta, a subtle knowing essence. This is who we really are in deepest sense. He also teaches that this knowing essence is unborn and it stands on it’s own. He experienced that even the most severe pain do not affect this knowing essence at all. In other words, one can be totally unaffected. It is not like one feels pain. The Citta is not a vinnana.

It would not suprise me if in sannavedayitanirodha there is only this knowing essence left. This knowing essence knows that all has ceased but it does not experience or perceive cessation.