On sakkāya, identity, and substantial reality

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
empirical person.

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”.


Sorry for dumb question, can we leave sakkāya untranslated? The reader will find plenty of explanations in the suttas for sakkāya anyway.

DN2 Woo! :slight_smile: wonderful stuff @sujato ! Great analysis of a fascinating topic.

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I agree with you Bhante. I’ve reached the same conclusion myself. To me it means substance metaphysics. That there is something independent and so fundamentally real. The Buddha was arguing that such things can’t be found, that we can’t say ultimately if things exist or not as they simply arise dependently, and so can’t be substantially real.


Thank you, what a fascinating viewpoint. (Even modern science agrees, when one peers closely with a microscopic to observe what is happening, the idea of a solid substantial reality goes out the window!)

You can. My job is to translate.

If that were true, then why did virtually all of the translators get it wrong?


And the Abhidhammists too! :face_with_hand_over_mouth:

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It looks like the translators were influenced by MN 44 that says:

“But ma’am, how does sakkāya view come about?”

“Kathaṁ panāyye, sakkāyadiṭṭhi hotī”ti?

“It’s when an unlearned ordinary person has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen true persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the true persons.

“Idhāvuso visākha, assutavā puthujjano, ariyānaṁ adassāvī ariyadhammassa akovido ariyadhamme avinīto, sappurisānaṁ adassāvī sappurisadhammassa akovido sappurisadhamme avinīto,

They regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form.

rūpaṁ attato samanupassati, rūpavantaṁ vā attānaṁ, attani vā rūpaṁ, rūpasmiṁ vā attānaṁ.

They regard feeling …

Vedanaṁ …pe…

perception …

saññaṁ …

choices …

saṅkhāre …

consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness.

viññāṇaṁ attato samanupassati, viññāṇavantaṁ vā attānaṁ, attani vā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇasmiṁ vā attānaṁ.

That’s how sakkāya view comes about.”

Evaṁ kho, āvuso visākha, sakkāyadiṭṭhi hotī”ti.

It looks like sometimes the Buddha borrowed terms, such as namarupa, from other doctrines for the purpose of defining those terms. Therefore, just as namarupa for the Buddha in SN 12.2 did not literally mean ‘name-form’; it looks like sakkaya borrowed from Jainism does not literally mean what the Jains took the term to mean. If one takes a literal literalist approach to translating Vedic & Jain words the Sutta translations will start to embarrassingly sound like Brahminism or Jainism, such as those Western monks using translations such as “divided consciousness”, “subject-object”, for vinnana & namarupa. "Reifying/reification” (Wayman) sounds like a practical translation :slightly_smiling_face:. The notion of “substantial reality” does not sound like it highlights the view of self in MN 44.

“But ma’am, how does substantial reality view come about?”

“It’s when an unlearned ordinary person has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen true persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the true persons.

They regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form.

They regard feeling …

perception …

choices …

consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness.

That’s how substantial reality view comes about.

To claim substantial reality of water is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom does not involve regarding hydrogen, oxygen & water as self.

Although the above certainly sounds correct, it must also include translating sakkāya in some way that draws out the non-etymological idea of “self” because this is the Buddha’s literal redefinition in MN 44. Instead of ‘self-identification’, possibly ‘self-reification’. For the Buddha, the essential ‘reification’ to abandon was the reification of ‘self’. :buddha:


Fascinating Bhante!

So, sakkayaditthi would be thinking that the rainbow Exists and is Real, rather than knowing that it simply exists and is real, emergent from a certain set of codependent conditions, liable to arise and cease?

(Explanation of notation :- Initial capitalization indicates the view that some absolute independent permanent essence is to be found related to the object, non capitalization indicates the view that the object being experienced is a relative reality- though nominally accepted as tangible, it is codependently originated)

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Yes, sakkayaditthi seems generally associated with the 5 aggregates, and since they are ‘the all’, the whole argument cycles around…

The term “the all” is associated with the sense fields rather than with the aggregates.


Certainly, but would you say the 6 sense bases lie outside the 5 aggregates?

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No, I am not saying that. It’s a different angle to look at things.

If you search for “the all” you find it mostly in the Saṁyutta of the senses, SN 35, and not a single result in SN 22, the aggregates Saṁyutta.

I think the aggregates are simply not meant to be a comprehensive description of reality, but rather to give a handy overview over the things we identify with as “self”. We identify either with the body, or with feelings, perception, choices, or consciousness. Or all of them. But as far as I know it doesn’t say anywhere that they encompass all that exists.


Yes, I agree with that.
I’m not sure the Buddha was so interested in what might exist outside of the 5 aggregates.
He seemed much more interested in ending suffering than metaphysics.

Perhaps metaphysics is a form of sakkayaditthi.

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That’s a good question Stephen, because in the Nagarasutta SN 12.56, it says:

Then it occurred to me: Tassa mayhaṁ, bhikkhave, etadahosi— This consciousness turns back from name and form, and doesn’t go beyond that. paccudāvattati kho idaṁ viññāṇaṁ nāmarūpamhā na paraṁ gacchati. This is the extent to which one may be reborn, grow old, die, pass away, or reappear.

That is: name and form are conditions for consciousness. Ettāvatā jāyetha vā jīyetha vā mīyetha vā cavetha vā upapajjetha vā, yadidaṁ nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṁ; Consciousness is a condition for name and form. viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṁ; Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṁ; The six sense fields are conditions for contact. … saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso …pe… That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

‘Origination, origination.’ Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another. ‘Samudayo, samudayo’ti kho me, bhikkhave, pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṁ udapādi ñāṇaṁ udapādi paññā udapādi vijjā udapādi āloko udapādi.

This is a little outside the topic, but I think what Sabbamitta is saying—or at least what I would say if I were her!—is that it is more than that. There’s nothing in the definition of the “5 aggregates” that suggest they were meant to be a complete set of phenomena describing a person. Indeed, the suttas are full of mental factors that are not in the five aggregates, but which the Abhidhamma later shoehorned into saṅkhārā, turning into a catch-all category, whereas its original meaning is clearly “intention”.

Rather, the five aggregates were a summary—likely pre-Buddhist—of things that people take to be self, a kind of matrix for listing theories of self.

Yes, the point being that when we reify existence into Existence we are reifying our personal attachments to self into our view of the world, i.e. reading self into world.


Yes, this a very important and excellent point.
And seems much more important than what there ‘really is’ for one concerned with ending suffering.


So Nibbana, which is not an aggregate but which is a sense object (ayatana; Ud 8.1) of the mindsense base is not part of The All?

The word āyatana does not in and of itself mean “sense field” (or worse, “sense object”, for which there is no counterpart in the EBTs—things are interrelated, hence cannot be “objects”).

It means “dimension”, “field”, “space”, “opening”, etc., and is used in a wide variety of meanings.

One of those dimensions or fields is the six senses, in which case the āyatana means the sense “field”. For convenience we can say that saḷāyatana is the “six senses”, but the word itself means “six fields”.

Obviously it does not have this meaning in the sutta you are citing, however.

So yes, Nibbana is not part of the “all”, which applies to the entirety of conditioned existence. The “all” is on fire; Nibbana is the extinguishing of the fire.


Thank you for these personal opinions. SN 35.28 says:

Burning with the fires of greed, hate, and delusion. Burning with rebirth, old age, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.

This quote does not apply to living Arahants yet conditioned phenomena are still occurring to living Arahants, such as:

Bhikkhus, dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises; the meeting of the three is contact; with contact as condition there arises a feeling felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant. When one is touched by a pleasant feeling, if one does not delight in it, welcome it, and remain holding to it, then the underlying tendency to lust does not lie within one. When one is touched by a painful feeling, if one does not sorrow, grieve and lament, does not weep beating one’s breast and become distraught, then the underlying tendency to aversion does not lie within one. When one is touched by a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, if one understands as it actually is the origination, the disappearance, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in regard to that feeling, then the underlying tendency to ignorance does not lie within one. Bhikkhus, that one shall here and now make an end of suffering by abandoning the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feeling, by abolishing the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling, by extirpating the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge—this is possible.

MN 148

The Arahant monks said the Buddha was a conditioned phenomena:

But the mendicants who were free of desire endured, mindful and aware, thinking,

Ye pana te bhikkhū vītarāgā, te satā sampajānā adhivāsenti:

“Conditions are impermanent. How could it possibly be otherwise?”

“aniccā saṅkhārā, taṁ kutettha labbhā”ti.

DN 16

The use of the word ‘all’ in SN 35.28 cannot mean “the entirety of conditioned existence” when Arahants free from the fires of greed, hatred & delusion still have aspects of conditionality. This shows the brief sermon in SN 35.23 may not apply to all uses of the word ‘all’. Nibbana is an ayatana of the mind sense base. Your personal translation of ‘dhamme’ as ‘ideas’ in respect to the six sense spheres sounds tenuous. As an example, since ideas or thoughts end in the 2nd, 3rd & 4th jhanas, your translation sounds like it is suggesting jhana is not a ‘dhamme’ of the mind sense base. Bhikkhu Bodhi has translated ‘dhamme’ here as ‘mind objects’. This ‘dhamme’ must include Nibbana because the Dhamma says about dhamma: “Sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta”. Nibbana is a dhamma. :slightly_smiling_face:

This sounds like Advaita Vedanta. The EBTs refer to internal & external ayatana. Obviously there are countless external ayatana existing outside of the internal ayatana, such as when the Dhamma existed before the Buddha awakened to it, as expressed in AN 3.136.

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