On sakkāya, identity, and substantial reality

Yes, the five astikāyas in Jain philosophy are soul, motion, stillness, space, and matter. It’s interesting: I don’t see how astikāya is equivalent to sakkāya functionally, but I can see the five astikāyas as a sort of parallel to the Buddhist five aggregates. Both separate existence into five elements, but the Buddhist version describes subjective (or psychological) existence, while the Jain version describes objective (or material) existence. I suppose it is about substantialism, but a particular kind: personal substantialism (that is, the idea of souls).

I’ve also noticed that Chinese translations do sometimes translate sakkāya as “self view” instead of “person view.” I ran into it recently while working with the Samyukta Agama. It’s interesting to think about, but at the end of the day, it looks like it’s about the nature of the person to me.


Thanks for this.
It seems to be a hallmark of Buddhist practice, this ‘self’ examination as examination of ‘the world’.

1 Like

That’s the paradigm case, but what is true for soul substances is also true for other substances (for example matter). This is the implication the Prajñāpāramitā draws out.

1 Like

For me, sakkāya-diṭṭhi means the existence of a separate self from the world. In reality, it can be imagined that a person is always in a state of interaction with the world.
Individualism is the word that ChatGPT suggested to me to talk about this view.


This paper by Rupert Gethin seems quite relevant to the discussion

Be that as it may, the use of dharman/dharma in Vedic literature in the senses of ‘foundational rituals’ and ‘foundational authority’ is sufficient to account for the development of early Buddhist dhamma in its normative and prescriptive senses, but what of its descriptive sense, what of dhamma as the truth about the ways things are? In the course of his discussion of dharma in Hinduism, Halbfass comments:

“Since ancient times dharma has also possessed a meaning which may be rendered as ‘property’, ‘characteristic attribute’, ‘essential feature’, or more generally as ‘defining factor’ or ‘predicate’. Evidence of this is available since the time of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. In classical Hindu philosophy, and most clearly in the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika; dharma functions as ‘attribute’ or ‘property’ in the broadest sense and is used to characterize anything that is inherent in, or predicable of, an identifiable substratum (dharmin).” 52

In fact this usage of dharma in the sense of ‘property’ or ‘characteristic attribute’ would seem to derive directly from the Vedic usage of dharman to refer to ‘the foundational nature of a deity’, while there are also several places in the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads where dharma appears to be used in a sense close to ‘qualities’, ‘attributes’ or even just ‘things’.53 The passage of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa that Halbfass cites ( is one in which dharman occurs as the last member of a bahuvrīhi compound; the same passage is also found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: ‘This self, you see, is imperishable; it has an indestructible nature.’54 The linking of the technical philosophical usage of dharma in the sense of an attribute belonging to an underlying substratum (dharmin) to its usage as the last member of a bahuvrīhi compound is crucial. We have already noted that this kind of usage is common in early Buddhist texts, and again it would seem that it is a common usage inherited from earlier usage. So, to expand on Halbfass’s remarks, to describe y as x-dharma, is to say that y is something that possesses the dharma – the attribute, the quality – that is x; and in philosophical, as opposed to purely grammatical, terms, the ‘something’ that possesses an attribute (dharmin) is an underlying substance. As Halbfass points out, this understanding of dharma and dharmin as attribute and substance respectively involves the use of dharma in terms of a passive derivation: a dharma is what is ‘supported’ or ‘maintained’ (dhriyate) by the underlying substance (dharmin). I think we can see a precisely parallel development of the usage of dhamma in Buddhist thought. In fact I have already suggested that the early Buddhist understanding of dhammas as the basic mental and physical qualities that constitute experience or reality is to be related to the usage of dhamma at the end of a bahuvrīhi compound in the sense of a particular nature or quality possessed by something. To this extent the basic qualities of early Buddhist thought and the attributes of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika are the same things. The crucial difference, however, is that instead of understanding these particular natures or qualities as attributes that belong to some underlying substance, early Buddhist thought takes them as natural qualities in their own right, emphasising how they arise dependent on other qualities rather than on a substratum that is somehow more real than they are.

Seeing the development of the Buddhist understanding of dhammas in this way also casts a somewhat different light on some of the remarks made about dhammas in the Pali commentaries, which are perhaps often viewed too much in the light of later controversies about the precise ontological status of dharmas and the Madhyamaka critique of the notion of sabhāva in the sense of ‘inherent existence’. John Ross Carter has drawn attention to the way in which the Pali commentaries later come to gloss dhamma at the end of a bahuvrīhi compound both by pakati and sabhava.56 It follows from this that when the commentaries define dhammas as sabhāva this is not a statement about their ontological status and that sabhāva should not be translated as ‘inherent existence’, but is merely a gloss stating that dhammas are ‘particular natures’ or ‘particular qualities’. Moreover when the commentators say that dhammas are so-called ‘because they maintain (dhārenti) their own particular natures, or because they are maintained (dhārīyanti) by causal conditions’,57 this should be understood, I think, as a direct and deliberate counter to the idea of dharmas as ‘particular natures’ that are ‘maintained’ by an underlying substance (dharmin) distinct from themselves; it is not intended to define dhammas as ontologically irreducible entities.

This gives us two basic meanings of dhamma in early Buddhist texts: the practices recommended by the Buddha and the basic qualities that constitute reality. The first takes dhamma as something normative and prescriptive, the second as something descriptive and factual. Both of these meanings essentially derive from pre-Buddhist usage but are adapted to the specifics of Buddhist thought.

When the Jains argue for the existence of the atta substance, they do so by saying it posses qualities that we experience (if I recall things like reasoning etc). The Buddha’s argument then that there are nothing but dhammas would be to say all we know are the qualities, which are impermanent, rather than permanent substances which is the view of sakkāya.

I found the paper quite insightful, and it’s quite supportive of the Classical Theravādin teaching on the subject, although disagreeing with the ontological status of the dhammas.

Would you say then that the Prajñāpāramitā literature is drawing out its implications, but taking it in a direction the Buddha didn’t have in mind?

@sujato look for satkāryavāda in sanskrit rather than satkāya.

There is plenty to read about it.

My experience is that things in Dhamma have often different layers. I also think sakkaya ditthi.
A coarse layer might be this:

One has some view of a fixed personality. “I am just an impatient person”…“This is me”…“Accept me…this is how I am”. No willingness to change, to develop, to let go. Based upon attachment to a self-view.

I had such a neighbour. Ran into all kinds of problems. I tried to help her in some ways.
Her motto was always…“they just have to accept me as I am” :heart_eyes:
Oh oh…

Many people, i feel, are also proud about even their immoral tendencies. They do not want to change because they cherish: ‘I am this’, this is me’. Everybody and all must change, but not them. That is always their attitude. Not easy to deal with.

In a coarse way, I believe, sakkaya ditthi, refers to a view on oneself that hinders any development, change for better. Such people also do not feel that they need change, a cure, a Path, a refuge. A view on oneself that blocks the Path, that hinders any acces, that does not even tolerate the idea of personal development and change.

What ChatGPT says is strictly meaningless.

It’s a completely different concept.

I’m not being snarky, but I’m honestly perplexed at why this fairly straightforward point has people so confused. Sat means “real, existent”, kāya means “substance”, sakkāya means “real or existent substance”.


But why would one use the etymological meaning and not what it means in a practical sense or how it used in the sutta’s?

Also with Nibbana. In a practical sense Nibbana refers to a sublime state of supreme peace. It refers to a mind in which there is no unvoluntairy engagement with sense object anymore. A mind easy to apply, free, pliant, not burdened with the restlessness and attachment of unvoluntairy engagement. To translate it as extinguishment that makes things so unclear. Or one must say that Nibbana refers to a situation in which defilements are extinguished. But to translate it is as extinguishment because that is its etymological meaning does not connect up with what it means in a practical sense.

I feel it is the same with sakkaya ditthi. In how it is used in the texts it does not refer to some belief in substance. It is tendency, an anusaya, an instinctive pattern ingrained in the mind. And how it is explained in MN44, substantial reality view does not really cover its meaning, i feel. If i consider pain as mine that is said to be sakkaya ditthi arising but is this substantialist view? I do not say it does not cover it at all, but to me it sound to philosphical, as if some people have sakkaya ditthi and others not while we all have sakkaya ditthi, even without any ideas about substance or no substance.

Perhaps one method to understand sakkaya dithhi is to look at its antonym by way of simile as described in the Phena Sutta:

Such is this process,
this illusion, cooed over by fools.
It’s said to be a killer,
for no substance is found here.

SN 22.95

The Jains and other non-Vedic ascetics in the time of the Buddha regarded the aggregates as having substantial existence - aka they had sakkaya dithhi of the aggregates, but here the Teacher is explaining that this is a grave error; indeed it is said to be a killer. The Teacher recommends analyzing the aggregates to see if they truly can be described with sakkaya dithhi - the view of having a substantially existent reality - and finds that the wise understand that no such sakkaya dithhi is justified.

It isn’t just that no personal identity (a self) can be found in the aggregates, but that the aggregates themselves lack any essence/core/basis upon which a view of them as substantially existent can be supported. If the aggregates themselves can’t be viewed as substantially existent, then this leaves no basis whatsoever for any view of a self.

Now, it is a point of contention within the Theravada that all phenomena lack substantial existence rather than they just lack a personal identity. Venerable Sujato, can this essay be read as evidence that in the EBT’s a lack of substantial existence for any phenomena is supported and that understanding this emptiness - refuting sakkaya dithhi regarding any phenomena - is necessary to achieve the soteriological purpose of dhamma?


Ditthī is view. Aggregates don’t have a view, they can only have a substance or not.
When aggregates are analyzed, no substance is found, not “no sakkāya ditthī is found”. We have views, which are add-ons.


Yes, I apologize if I was ineloquent. The view that the aggregates have a substantial existence is challenged and described as a killer in the Phena Sutta. That view is what is being talked about in this essay or at least that is what I understand at least. :pray:

1 Like

‘Substance’ is probably an incorrect translation for kāya.

Kāya means the physical body (of a human/animal), or the trunk (i.e. body) of a tree, or a collection of things that make up such a body. It means the entire physical body.

Refer to Cone’s Pali dictionary where she (correctly) gives only these 3 meanings for the word kāya (body, trunk of tree and assemblage/totality) and these are only the three meanings in which the word is invariably used in standard Sanskrit. Edgerton’s BHS dictionary also agrees with standard Sanskrit and Cone.

But you may be right that Pāli sakkāya is = sat-kāya , and not = sat-kārya.

Well, my point is that this meaning has been overlooked.

But fair enough. Have a look at the original post: how would you translate kāya in those contexts?

I think one thing it is very easy to overlook is how different the sramana ideas and terminology are. They often have familiar terms used in quite radically different ways. One example is pudgala, which means “matter” in Jainism.

But because the Jain texts are much understudied and unavailable, it’s hard to look things up. Just finding the right spelling is a hassle.

1 Like

Hi Bhante,

Thanks for this analysis. Sakkāya is one of those central terms that has always been somewhat obscure to me, although I had a long time ago also concluded that ‘identity’ is leaning too much towards the “personal” side of things. (I recall noting this in my comments on your early translations.) I was then very happy to read Venerable Bodhi’s footnote in the Suttanipata; and now this analysis of yours, which goes even further.

I will have to reread it to fully assimilate all the points—which is also why I took some time to respond. So far, I agree with the essence. Particularly illustrative are the uses of kāya in DN2, and I wonder why I didn’t connect those to sakkāya myself before.

The only real issue I have is that the translation “substantialist view”, though perhaps technically a good rendering, is a rather obscure philosophical term which is bound to be misunderstood/questioned. It renders a quite famous term, particularly well-known as one of the fetters, so I’m wondering whether something more transparent can be found.

I also like Venerable @Vaddha’s comment that sakkāya in effect refers to ‘existence’ in a concrete sense (and the rest in that post). To go from there, sakkāyadiṭṭhi would then be ‘the view of true existence’… I don’t this suggestion of mine is a satisfying translation either, though. But something along those lines may be more clear.

(A quick comment upon the essay itself: to convince others of the validity of your translation, it would be helpful to back up statements like “sakkāya = dukkha = all of conditioned reality” a bit further, particularly with sutta references like SN22.105.)


Sure, we can always seek something better. But it is a philosophical term, and it maps pretty well onto the actual English term, so :person_shrugging:


Interesting observation. Do you take “sat” to include something having independent existence, rather than conditional existence?

According to some presentations, understanding the refutation of sakkāyadiṭṭhi can come in many forms from the coarsest to the subtlest.

The coarsest level is linking sakkāyadiṭṭhi to the belief in a permanent, unitary and independent thing. Permanence here refers to not arising and not disintegrating; unitary means being a single entity without component parts; and independence means not depending on conditions. Understanding that no thing can exist in such a manner is the coarsest level of refutation of sakkāyadiṭṭhi.

Believing things exist counter to this coarsest level of refutation comes from acquiring intellectual/conceptual beliefs about how things exist. We acquire this mistaken belief from contact and learned familiarity with a system of philosophy or mode of thinking that adopts this view.

Understanding impermanence itself can come in coarse/gross and subtle forms. Gross impermanence can be seen with the obvious perception of how constructed things eventually fall into ruins. A constructed building or shelter ages naturally and eventually crumbles given enough time. This is gross impermanence.

Subtle impermanence is harder to see; it is the understanding that from the moment any thing is constructed there is not even an instant of static unchanging duration. All things, from the moment of arising, are in a constant flux of change; this is their subtle impermanence. This is important to understand because it follows that a thing’s eventual demise inevitably follows from its very construction. The cause of construction is also the cause of destruction.

Independence can also be understood in coarser and subtler ways. There is the coarse version which just means not being affected by or relying on causes and conditions for arising and disintegrating. The subtler version means able to exist or be posited in a self-sustaining and independent manner without relying upon anything else. An independent thing in this sense would not rely upon anything relative to itself in order to be posited. An even deeper and subtler understanding comes from realizing that nothing can exist without relying upon being imputed depending on name and concept.

In terms of the person or self, refuting sakkāyadiṭṭhi fully entails all of the coarse and subtle understandings above. It also entails realizing that for a person to have substantial existence it would mean that they could be known to exist independent of the aggregates. That is, the person could be known without the aggregates appearing to the mind. However, the person cannot be known in this way. Rather, the person is merely imputed to exist based on the appearance of the aggregates to the mind. Ordinary persons constantly mistake the appearance of the aggregates for a substantially existent person. This is not an acquired mistake, but rather has been with us for an unfathomable amount of time.

This latter non-acquired mistaken sakkāyadiṭṭhi does not depend upon reason or intellectual concepts and therefore can not be overturned and refuted through reason or logic. It also does not depend upon the view of a person or self, but rather is a subtle ignorance about how all things exist. Without overturning this very subtle ignorance of substantial existence with regard to all things, the soteriological goal of the path cannot be fully realized.

All the above is my very poor understanding of what my teacher’s have tried to pound into this very limited and thick skull and all errors or mistaken beliefs in the above are mine alone. No doubt I’ve got lots wrong and stated the situation quite ineloquently. Much of it comes from a very poor paraphrase of the book, Insight into Emptiness by Khensur Jampa Tegchok. :pray:

1 Like

Is sat equivalent to svabhava, own-being?