Students of Buddhism are familiar with the term sakkāya, the view of which is one of the fetters binding us to suffering. I have previously translated it as “identity”, but in his most recent work, the translation of the Suttanipāta, Ven Bodhi says:
Sakkāya: the composite of the five aggregates subject to clinging. A translation of the word is
almost impossible. My past attempts, as “personality” and “identity,” are inadequate. Sakkāya
is a compound of sat = “existent” and kāya = “body,” but what is meant is not solely the
physical body but the entire conglomeration of material and mental factors that constitute the
He now renders it as “personal entity”.
Let’s have a look at why it is so hard to translate, and see if we can excavate some context that will help us clarify it.
One reason for the difficulty is that the roots of the word are very general, yet it is used in a specific doctrinal sense.
- sat = “existent”, also “real”, “true”, “good”.
- kāya = “body”, also “category”, “mass”, “substance”
The first item is definitely sat, but in Pali, the prefix sa- can stem from the Sanskrit sat or sva, “own”, “self”. We know that isn’t the case here, because the doubled kk in sakkāya is created by the assimilation of the t in sat. Occasionally, Sanskrit and Chinese sources do take this in the sense of sva-, but this is rare.
This is understandable because is used in the context of the five aggregates, and is explained as the identification of the self with the five aggregates or one of them. Because it is in the context of “self” theory, translations often lean on the “self” side of things, with “personality”, “identity”, “own body” (Horner), “self-identity” (Suddāso), and so on. But it would seem to be a case where the word is being inferred purely from context, without considering what the word brings to the context.
Other translators lean on the “existent” side, rendering it as “reifying” (Wayman), “embodiment” (Nyanamoli, Anandajoti). Ven Bodhi’s “personal entity” straddles the two.
While the doctrinal explanation of sakkāya as the five aggregates is well understood, there seems to be little interest in asking why the Buddha used such a term. It all it means is being attached to the aggregates, why not say so? Why introduce an obscure technical term to explain a simple concept?
Given that sakkāya is used specifically to denote the wrong views and misunderstandings of non-Buddhists, it seems reasonable to search among non-Buddhist texts.
A search through the pre-Buddhist Brahmanical literature comes up blank. Not only is sakkāya not found, but even more interesting, kāya itself is not found. Or at least, I couldn’t locate it. If it is found, it’s certainly not in any doctrinally significant context.
But then I remembered that kāya is indeed found in a doctrinally central position in DN 2, in describing certain views of the non-Brahmanical ascetics.
View of Ajita of the Hair Blanket:
This person is made up of the four primary elements. When they die, the earth in their body merges and coalesces with the kāya of earth. The water in their body merges and coalesces with the kāya of water. The fire in their body merges and coalesces with the kāya of fire. The air in their body merges and coalesces with the kāya of air. The faculties are transferred to space.
View of Pakudha Kaccāyana:
Great king, these seven kāyas are not made, not derived, not created, without a creator, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar. They don’t move or deteriorate or obstruct each other. They’re unable to cause pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain to each other. What seven? The kāyas of earth, water, fire, air; pleasure, pain, and the soul is the seventh. These seven kāyas are not made, not derived, not created, without a creator, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar. They don’t move or deteriorate or obstruct each other. They’re unable to cause pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain to each other. And here there is no-one who kills or who makes others kill; no-one who learns or who educates others; no-one who understands or who helps others understand. If you chop off someone’s head with a sharp sword, you don’t take anyone’s life. The sword simply passes through the gap between the seven kāyas.
In these cases, kāya does not mean “body”, but a “mass” or “substance” that forms the fundamental reality of existence.
Clearly kāya, from the point of view of the suttas, has a central significance in the non-Vedic ascetic movements that it does not have in Vedism. So we should look to them for more context.
The problem here is that most of these ascetics have vanished leaving little but the quotes in the Pali canon. To make it worse, their doctrines were not always attributed consistently or correctly in the Pali canon. However, without getting too much into the history, it is also true that these theorists were often closely related, may have practiced together, and shared ideas. So it’s not unreasonable to suppose that we will find a similar usage in the texts of the Jains, who are the only one of these groups to leave scriptures, although they stem from a later period.
There we have a lot more success, because there is a Jain concept of astikāya:
Astikāya is merely a formal variation of the same word we know as sakkāya. So it seems clear it was a term the Buddha drew from the Jains, or from the ascetic teachers more generally.
There is a discussion of the concept in the Jain Bhagavati Sutra:
The basic points:
- astikāya means “existent substance” or “ontological category”.
- it refers to five things that define all reality: the medium of motion (dharma), the medium of rest (adharma), space (ākāśa), soul (jīva), and matter (pudgala).
- the terminology here is very idiosyncratic to the Jains, so just roll with it!
- these things include the state of liberation
- they are pluralistic, many atomic entities making up one overall astikāya, hence the translation “ontological categories”.
- this shows that the sense of kāya here is similar to khandha, i.e. “mass”, “conglomerate”, “category”.
Thus the overall sense is “the mass of substances that make up all of reality”.
This is in broad agreement with the usage in the EBTs.
- Sakkāya is defined as the five aggregates, emphasizing the closeness of kāya and khandha in the sense of “mass” rather than “body”.
- It is treated in terms of the four noble truths, hence sakkāya = dukkha = all of conditioned reality.
- The commentaries, which consistently analyze sakkāya correctly as sat + kāya, gloss it as tebhūmakavaṭṭaṁ, i.e. “cyclic existence in the three realms”.
There is, therefore, no basis in “personal” renderings of the term, and even Bodhi’s “personal entity” does not go far enough, because sakkāya includes all phenomena, not just those pertaining to an individual.
A key difference with the Jains is that for the Buddha, Nibbāna is not included in sakkāya. And not just the Jains, but also “the Brahmā realm is impermanent, not lasting, and included within sakkāya” (sn55.54).
This answers our earlier question, why did the Buddha choose this term? What point was he trying to convey? He wanted to make it clear that in his teaching, unlike the Jains, the goal of Nibbana was not part of sakkāya.
This gives us a better sense of the word’s meaning and rhetorical purpose. How then to translate it?
Obviously we must reject any “personal” renderings, as they do not convey the sense of the word at all.
We should definitely translate sakkāya in some way that draws out the idea of “real”, “existent”, “substantial”.
Now, the Jain philosophy is that these astikāyas are a kind of substance that comprises all reality. They are defined, in fact as forms of dravya (“substance”):
This is an example of a kind of philosophical approach whose general name is “substantialism”.
We can draw upon this, and keep a broad consistency with the handling of astikāya in Jainism, by rendering sakkāya as “substance” or “substantial reality”, and sakkāyadiṭṭhi as “substantialist view” or “substantialist view of reality”.