What is subjectivity?

This question seemed worthy of reflection due to comments made on previous threads.

Most recently, the idea was expressed, that the body is the basis of the designation: the subject.

Clearly, subjectivity is not predicated on the existence of a body. A ‘dead body’ is designated as an ‘object’ - isn’t it?

There has to be the conviction that there is some kind of subjective experience or, at least life-signs before we talk about a subject.

When they turn off a life-support system and allow a life to end there seems to be an assumption that subjectivity - subjective experience - is absent.

Someone might say: ‘Joe’ is no longer there! Meaning, Joe as a subject is no longer believed to be part of the process. The body is still breathing, there are vital signs and, that’s about it.

Exactly what subjectivity is ‘taken to be’ is an important theme in Buddhism. The theme of subject/object dualism and, nondualistic states in natural stillness and beyond is Buddhism 101?

There does not seem to be consensus in this forum or, in similar circles, as to what we are referring to when it comes to subjectivity. How come?

Who - or what - do you take yourself to be, as a subject?

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The word “subjectivity” is not used in any of Bhante Sujato’s translations. However, it is a word we have used ourselves to talk about Buddhism.

I find it convenient to define subjectivity as that which feels fear and desires continued existence. It’s a long and complicated word, so “self” is my usual word. This definition allows the use of “objectivity” as a contrast, and “non-self” is my usual word.

When I say “I”, “my”, etc., I mean that as an abbreviation to @karl_lew, which is just so much longer to type.

The difficulty with the word “subjectivity” in general is that it has two definitions that don’t really match up in Buddhism. From Google, we have:

  1. the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
    “he is the first to acknowledge the subjectivity of memories”
  2. the quality of existing in someone’s mind rather than the external world.
    “the subjectivity of human perception”

So my personal definition leans towards the first, but has an emphasis on identity view. I’d rather not use the word “subjectivity” because I cannot have conversations with most people using that word. I should be able to talk about the Dhamma with anybody.

I have been robbed at gun point. When a gun is being waved around, words like “subjectivity” don’t matter. Words like “fear” come to mind. On the Titanic, we don’t talk about “subjectivity”, but we do say either “Me first” or “After you”. I would like to just say “After you” without thinking. That to me would be Right Freedom. :pray:

BTW, thanks for starting this thread. It’s been fascinating to watch ourselves stumble over different meanings. I trust that a shared vocabulary will facilitate communication.

Yet, we need words to express the most subtle levels, not just describing ‘crisis mode’ like being robbed, raped, or drowning. When we meditate we don’t deal with the coarsest levels of being thrown back to our subjective hyper-pumped experience.

And sure, we can talk to all people about the dhamma, but only on the level they can understand. Most people don’t even understand why Buddhism talks about ‘suffering’ all the time. It’s not that Early Buddhism has the best understandability going for itself.

So I wouldn’t worry about being elitist when it comes to subtle levels of the teaching. Not that a soccer pro cares if I understand the subtleties of team composition, pacing, and defense lines.

Not in love with the word ‘subjectivity’, but at least it points to an impersonal core, and we need a term to signify why it’s not anatta when “I’m lost in the moment” while ironing, watching a squirrel, in jhana, or in deep sleep. No ‘I’-experience is necessary to be a fully functional (unliberated) subject.


Then you would also be inclined towards the first but not the second definition?

Because there is also the use of the word as “subjective impression” (second definition) when simply moving a hand to a seen object. This is perhaps where the arguments start because the definitions can differ in identity view:

  1. the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. (“self”)
  2. the quality of existing in someone’s mind rather than the external world. (minimal sense aggregates)

If we must use a word, I would follow your own usage of Pali to avoid confusion. Indeed, after reading what we have written, I would really like to avoid the word “subjectivity” since it lacks the precision we need.

Sorry, I didn’t refer to the definitions - I don’t think they cover what I mean. I’m not into definitions so much. Here’s a more philosophical one that applies better:

“relating to the essential being of that which has substance, qualities, attributes, or relations”

or, maybe in more dhammic terms: “that which occupies a certain realm, connected in time to past states, determining future states”

But again, let’s not get lost in definitions - what I mean is simply the personal core which continues whether or not it is fueled by personal experience.

This is such a great example. Please share what the Pali words are for each of the following:

  1. mindfully just ironing (with memory)
  2. mindlessly ironing (without memory)
  3. selfishly ironing my clothes but not yours because I can’t be bothered

I have no idea how arahants iron, so that might require a different Pali word.

The first seems very close to the “connected” action you describe.
The second is “lost in space”
The third is Identity View dukkha ironing.

I’ve had all these experiences, but I don’t know the right Pali word for them.

Haha, let’s have the Pali cracks please :slight_smile:

Probably the closest I can think of in Pali for what fuels abstract subjectivity is the āsavas (flow, in-flow, out-flow). A second term is the abstract connotation of sankhara as the impersonal counterpart to ahamkara (not as intention etc.)


@Gabriel, you have taught me something, so I think we have made progress!
Thank you. :smiley:

  • (what-Pali-word?) mindfully just ironing (with memory)
  • (what-Pali-word?) mindlessly ironing (without memory)
  • āsava: selfishly ironing my clothes but not yours because I can’t be bothered

I hesitate to use sankhara here with Ajahn Brahmali’s guidance that sankhara is almost always in the Identity View kamma sense.

I don’t think that’s correct. The asavas are there, all the time, in any situation, in any circumstance - as long as full liberation is not realized: arahantship, Buddhahood… So it doesn’t matter how you’re ironing, asavas are there.

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The Pali dictionary says that arahats have ended asavas, so asavas are impure influences:

  1. ‘inflowing’, influence (the concerns, attitudes, predispositions, listed as kāma, bhava, avijjā, and sometimes, ditthi, which form an obstacle to the realization of the truth.
  2. affliction, pain (so commentary).
  3. discharge (from a awound); of things, and so, in themselves and through the actions they motivate, bring about further existence; their ending or destruction is in fact arahatship).

From MN121 we have some good terms for the first:

  • avipallatthā
  • parisuddhā
  • suññatā

So we might say that mindful ironing tends towards suññatā. Mindful ironing is empty of intent other than ironing. I say “tends” because there’s always some ulterior motive kicking around in my head, but the tendency is towards emptiness.

It does leave the second one unsolved. Maybe that is zombie ironing.

  • suññatā mindfully just ironing (connected with past, present and future)
  • chava mindlessly ironing (without memory)
  • āsava: selfishly ironing my clothes but not yours because I can’t be bothered
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I would drop the ironing-example really. The specialized sramana language of the Buddhists and Jains was not used to describe petty activities. suññatā for example is for a highly developed mind. And again, asavas have nothing to do with selfishness in the crude sense. But maybe some other folks with decent Pali knowledge could comment on this…

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Simply replace “ironing” with “getting on the Titanic lifeboat” and it becomes a life or death issue. Same differences.

If a highly developed mind has no sense of ethics, then what use is it?

A mind which practices suññatā on a high degree is not apart from ethics, it has developed ethics already long time before. Again, crisis mode or ironing doesn’t apply to a mind that practices on paññā level - this is stuff already left behind.

The sramanas of old were neither ironing nor on the titanic, they were in the forest, meditating.


in the forest

In one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s past lives, he was a young prince Mahasauva, walking in the forest. He came across a hungry tigress who was about to eat her cubs. A great feeling of compassion arose in the young prince, and he gave his body to the tigress to save the cubs and her from dying. The prince gave selflessly to protect and save others; he had pure Bodhicitta (altruism). Upon hearing this story I was filled with compassion and devotion. This was the first story I heard of the Buddha’s life.

I originally heard a variant of this story regarding an old Zen nun who was walking with her students on a forest path on a hill looking down at the cubs. The outcome was similar.

Contemporary stories include that of Thích Quảng Đức. I was alive when he gave his life for others.

On a side note, bodhichitta does not appear in the EBTs. Perhaps this is a later development…maybe I’m in the wrong forum. :rofl:

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Just a reminder to keep the focus within EBT’s and not just general philosophy :slight_smile:


I did some research and although bodhichitta does not appear in the EBT’s, we do have this from AN4.95:

But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.

Here are the updated examples of EBT references used instead of “subjectivity”:

  • suññatā mindfully doing X (connected with past, present and future)
  • chava mindlessly doing X (without memory)
  • āsava : selfishly doing X just for me without regard for others

The X can be any simple task with implications for others that a lay person or monastic might engage in. For example:

  • walking by an injured person on a secluded path
  • drawing water from a well during a drought
  • etc.

These tasks are simple daily processes that do not require much (if any) thinking. Yet I’d say they deal with the extent of “subjectivity” with regard to the OP. I would assert that “subjectivity” covers all of the above and therefore can’t really be used precisely enough for practical agreement. There are, however, EBT Pali words (see above) that do have subtle meaning that can be used instead. I would propose that we use EBT words for clarity of discusssion and avoid “subjectivity”.

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Comming from outside your frame of reference, I’d reply to this subject that the entirety of existence is a formation based on contact of the 6 sense bases of an individual human. Given that each human is part of a discreet ‘Kamma-thread’, each persons perception and formations will be different - no uniformity/objectivity, at the most fundamental level.

Until one can see completely through all formations, and while one is still subject to hindrances, one cannot see reality as it is. As such the whole of samsara is unreliable, and simply existing t/here, results in suffering.

As such I’d suggest that the further one moves along the path, the further one has trained ones mind, the more one can see through formations of self and other, and the closer one becomes to seeing things as they truly are > gradual training.

just my 2 cents worth :smile:


It follows from the above to,

Is to be,

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To see through formations of self and other would be the ending of a form of subject/object dualism. Perhaps, the notion of ‘subjectivity’ is relevant to Buddhist inquiry into the ‘truth’ which liberates?

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Lord Buddha did give an example of a trap, a snare and, the escape from samsara. There are many similes used for Nibbana as finding refuge, safety.

I like the simile of a fly trapped in a bottle! I believe the Buddha spoke directly to this commonplace human perception. Many of us have had the feeling, the perception of being ensnared, caught up in, trapped in conditions we seek to escape - be free of - be liberated from. If this is not a subjective concern and preoccupation then, what is?

When subjectivity vanishes there is no perception or conception of a sufferer or enjoyer. One barb has been removed - the sufferer. One barb remains for the Arahant - there is still the pain of the body - it’s just a fact of being alive.

Without subjective fears, grief, lamentation and despair the Arahant has the realisation: what needed to be done, has been done. They have literally put the self-view out of it’s misery. There will be no more coming to any state of being - as a somebody, as a subject. There will be no more subjection to needless suffering.

Perhaps, a clear understanding of subjectivity is absolutely critical to understanding the Dhamma. I don’t feel we have got to the bottom of this inquiry - just yet?

How about the the sense of a ‘doer’ - the will - might that have something to do with the ‘arising of’ the, sense of being ‘somebody’ and, the ideas that are identified with, attached to, when it comes to subjectivity?

What happens when this process of I-making comes to an end? Might this have some relevance when it comes to the understanding of subjectivity? What gives rise to the experience of being a ‘subject’? This is Buddhism 101 - is it not.

Maybe, we can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to the Dhamma?

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