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Depersonalizing the human personality


Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 7, March 2008. 

The 6th century BC, the period of rigorous religious search after ‘what is good’ (ki? kusala gavesi?), witnessed the discovery of an ancient path (pur??a-magga?)trodden by Buddhas of all ages. And that ‘ancient path’ as discovered by Gotama Buddha consists of the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya??ha?gikamagga) which is supplemented by the Law of Dependent Co-arising (Pa?icca-samupp?da) and the Truth of Tilakkha?a (Three Universal Characteristics). However, what made Buddha’s teaching revolutionary was his introduction of the Truth of Soul-less-less (Anatt?), the last of the Tilakkha?as.

In Buddhism, the Depersonalization (Anatt?) of the so-called human personality (att?/sakk?ya) equals enlightenment (bodhi). Personality perceived by an untrained (sekha) worldling (pu?hujjana) in Buddhism is but a false mental construct (papañca) of the psycho-physical phenomenon. The Buddhist best definition of the so-called ‘personality’[1] comes from the C??avedalla-sutta of the Majjhima Nik­?ya. “Personality, personality, is said, O Venerable One, but what is personality, does the Blessed One say?”, Up?saka Vis?kha asked Bhikkhun? Dhammadinn?. “The Five Aggregates of grasping (Pañc?p?d?nakkhandh?) are personality – these Five Aggregates of grasping, namely, the grasping of the aggregate of the Corporeal Form (R?pa-up?d?na-khandha), the grasping of the aggregate of Feeling (Vedan?-up?d?na-khandha), the grasping of the aggregate of Perception (Saññ?­-up?d?na-khandha), the grasping of the aggregate of Kammic Dispositions (Sa?kh?ra-up?d?na-khandha) and the grasping of the aggregate of Consciousness (Viññ??a-up?d?na-khandha), friend Vis?kha, constitute the personality, so the Blessed One has said”, replied Bhikkhun? Dhammadinn?.

In his analysis, the Buddha categorically classified the so-called human personality into a mere collection of ‘Name’ and ‘Form’ (N?ma-r?pa). R?pa is again accompanied by Feeling (Vedan?), Perception (Saññ?), Kammic Disposition (Sa?kh?ra) and Consciousness (Viññ??a).

The Corporeal Form (R?pa), on the other hand, sustains itself on the basis of the Four Great Elements (Catt?ri Mah?bh?t?ni) of solidity (pa?hav?), liquidity (?po), heat (tejo) and motion (v?yo). Therefore, the Heart S?tra declares that form is empty and emptiness is form. The idea of this profound statement of the Buddha conveys the idea that the corporeal form intrinsically is empty of self-nature (ni?svabh?va), which in turn is signless (animitta) and empty (??nya), the true nature of form. So, in other words, human personality is the Five Aggregates (of Form, Feeling, Perception, Kammic Dispositions and Consciousness); the Pañcakkhandhas which are dependently co-arisen (pa?icca-samuppann?) are subject to change (anicca), un-satisfactoriness (dukkha) and above all, self-less-ness (anatt?) or empty (suñña).

However, in Buddhism, the mere collection of the Five Aggregates is not suffering in itself but the grasping (up?d?na) upon of the Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandh?s) is what brings into existence the whole mass of sufferings for an untrained ordinary being (pu?hujjana), because ‘the worldling grasps it (Five Agreggates of grasping) and clings to it so tightly that he imagines himself to consist in it, as if a man with hands besmeared with resin caught hold of a twig’[2] . On the basis of Ignorance (Avijj?) and wrong view (micch? di??hi), what the world-ling perceives as Self (Att?) or personality is either the mere collection of the Five Aggregates of clinging or any one of them – so said the Buddha[3] . Thus due to his wrong view of personality based on Avijj?, the perception of three false claims gives birth to – ‘This is mine (eta? mama); This I am (eso aha? asmi) and This is my soul (eso me att?)’ – in the mind of a pu?hujjana. But the reality is that ‘the Five Aggregates, monks’, said the Buddha, ‘are impermanent; whatever is impermanent, that is unsatisfactory; whatever is unsatisfactory, that is without Self. What is without Self – That is not mine, That I am not, That is not my soul. Thus should personality be seen by perfect wisdom (sammappaññ?ya) as it really is (yath? bh?ta?). Whosoever sees by perfect wisdom as it really is, his mind, not grasping, is detached from taints, he is liberated’[4] .

Summarily, the core of Buddha’s entire teaching is that the so-called personality of the mere collection of the dependently co-arisen Five Aggregates is empty (suññ?) and without a permanent entity (anatt?) in its intrinsic nature. The Essence-less-ness and Emptiness of human personality is more clearly expressed in the Phenapind?pamasutta of the Sa?yutta Nik?ya where Buddha compares, ‘Form to a mass of foam, Feeling to a water bubble, Perception to a mirage, Kammic Dispositions to a plantain-trunk and Consciousness to a magic show’.

Form is a mass of foam because it is unstable and in the nature of constant rising and vanishing. Feeling is a water-bubble because its disappearance is very fast, not permanent, cannot be trusted and thus subject to the Truth of Tilakkha?as. Perception is likened to a mirage because the perception of a so-called ‘being’ is just an optical illusion which in reality is just a phenomenon (dhamma) of non-stop upp?da (arising) and vaya (ceasing). Kammic Dispositions are like a plantain-trunk because just as a plantain-trunk is made up of layers of fibrous materials with no substantial inner core, so are Kammic Dispositions void of any substantial inner soul. 

Consciousness is like a magic show because it is in the nature of constant arising and disappearing. Its arising and disappearance is conditioned by its own cause and effect and not by what one wishes [5] . But because a pu?hujjana is deceived and tricked by the deceptiveness of the Five Aggregates, he ‘creates, as it were, his own Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Kammic Dispositions, and Consciousness just as a painter would fashion the likeness of a woman or of a man, complete in all its major and minor parts, on a well planed board’[6] . And thus ‘the world (of the Five Aggregates) appears as real to one who is fettered to delusion’[7] .

Therefore, it almost brings us to the conclusion that the superimposition of an ‘I’ or an ‘ego’ (att?) onto the mere collection of the ‘Five Aggregates’ which are dependently arisen is the cause of suffering (dukkha) and misbehaviour (du-carita). It is responsible for the promotion of self-pride (aha?-k?ra), conceit (m?na) and the three poisons of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). It is an obstacle for the promotion of the Four Sublime States of Loving-kindness (Mett?), Compassion (Karu??), Appreciative Joy (Mudit?) and Equanimity (upekkh?). In other words, the penetrative, intuitive and comprehensive understanding of these ‘Five Aggregates of grasping’ as Anicca, Dukkha and Anatt? constitutes the relinquishing the sign of human personality or depersonalization of human personality. The discernment of the Depersonalization of human personality therefore perfects human behaviour/conduct because of the annihilation of the illusive Self or Ego. Buddha is supreme because He is ‘endowed with ‘knowledge’ (vijj?) and ‘conduct’ (cara?a) and that vijj?-cara?a is resulted from the intuitive understanding of personality as Anatt?, soul-less or suññ?, empty.

Having said this so, it is also equally important to mention here that Buddha’s denial of a permanent entity in the mere collection of the Five Aggregates is prompted not by materialistic view which was prevalent at his time. Buddha’s theory of Anatt? is certainly a Middle Way approach (Majjhimapatip?da) between materialistic view and eternalistic view of his time. The materialistic view is a view of amoralist which is firmly based on the philosophical view of Annihilationism (Uccheda-v?da). This particular view not only rejects Att? but also moral accountability (kamma and vip?ka) of beings, which is a vital factor in the Buddha’s teaching. Whereas the eternalistic view (sassatav?da) strongly advocates a permanent Self (Att?) which transmigrates from one life to the next unchanged.

Buddha is different in that He categorically denies the existence of a permanent Self in the Five Aggregates on the basis of the afore-discussed analysis while maintaining his socio-ethical position as a strong advocator of moral accountability (kamma-v?din). Nevertheless, when the highest peak of Buddhist spiritual life is reached in the face of depersonalization of human personality, even the law of moral accountability ceases to operate. In other words, a depersonalized person, known in Buddhism as an ‘Ariya’ (Noble Saint/Enlightened being) or ‘Asekha’ (lit., no more training; enlightened), transcends the law of moral accountability and subsequently rebecoming (punabbhava) followed by detachment from all dogmatic views and theories. That is to say, the deeds of a person of Depersonalization are not subject to the Law of Kamma; in the P?li Canon, they are simply called ‘Kiriya’ or ‘Action’ of non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa) and non-delusion (amoha). 

Thus in the light of the above discussed points, Buddhism says that when the light of wisdom arises with regard to the Insubstantiality of Self (Puggalanair?tmya) and Insubstantiality of Phenomena (Dhammanair?tmya), keeping intact the theory of moral accountability, human perfection, in all aspects, is attained and by the attainment of human perfection, Nibb?na is attained and finally by the attainment of Nibb?na, the notion of Self and personality is abandoned. In this way, a man of perfection, understanding his personality as just a collection of various parts with no inner substantial core just like a plantain-trunk, does not cling to the world of his sensual experiences and he lives in this world with all its temptations but is untouched by them just like a lotus untouched by the mud of a pond. If he were to use them, he uses them without ontological commitment.


1.      Thera, Piyadassi, The Buddha’s Ancient Path, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1979

2.      Grimm, George, The Doctrine of the Buddha, The Religion of Reason and Meditation, Motilal Banarsidass,Delhi, ?

3.      Ñ??ananda, Bhikkhu, K, Nibb?na – The Mind Stilled, Vol.-II, Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya, Sri Lanka, 2004

4.      Lay, U Ko, Guide to Tipitaka, Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka


1. Sakk?ya is used in the P?li Canon for the term ‘personality’

2. A?guttara Nik?ya IV,

3. Sa?yutta Nik?ya III

4. Yamaka-sutta of the Sa?yutta Nik?ya

5. See bibliography ‘Lay’

6. Gaddula-sutta of the Khandha Sa?yutta of the Sa?yutta Nik?ya

7. Mohasambandhano loko, bhabbar?po va dissati

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