Abhidharma Teachings on Not-Self

Ego and Personality

Obsessive Fixity

The Buddhist meaning of the word atman is “obsessive fixity.” Now you might ask, “What does this have to do with the famous ego?” Let’s explore how this famous self and ego as a “good guy” or a “bad guy” is used in Buddhism.

Let’s look again at the four noble truths. The cause of suffering is said to be clinging (trishna, literally “thirst”). Take the metaphors of Buddhism in all of their concrete splendor. Trishna means you are suffering from thirst—you are so dehydrated that you obsessively think only of the one thing that will alleviate your thirst—as if you were dying; all you can fixate on is finding water. In the desert you might even hallucinate its presence; the thirst is so strong that it might produce a hallucination, and the name of that hallucination, according to the Buddha, is that there is a self (atman). According to this metaphor, because this is based on an obsession, which is the cause for the continuation of suffering, this sense of atman is taken as something “bad.”

According to Buddhist teachings, we thirst (trishna) in three different ways, and atman is the name given to the obsessive quality of our thirsting—to our obsessive fixity. I use the word atman here to avoid its translation as ego, soul, and self. Atman is just a word that’s used to talk about any of the three following kinds of obsessions that are the cause of suffering:

  1. We want certain things to be permanent, to not change.
  2. We want something to be unique, to have never happened before.
  3. We want things to be independent, not depending on anything.
[T]hirsting and hungering for some certainty, we grab on to something as if it were permanent.

We regard, obsess, or plan about things as if they were permanent (or stable), unique, and independent—hence all the practices on impermanence. Impermanence here refers to . . . birth, stability, and decay.

A perfect example for taking things as unique or singular is thinking of only this life. But if we think of dependent co-arising in terms of carrying over the course of many lives, we can think of things differently, that is, subject to change and dependently arisen. This famous metaphor is used by Nagarjuna in a text known as Letter to a King. Here, Nagarjuna tells a king that if he had insight into how many lives he had already undergone, and were to make a heap of the bones from each of those previous lives, that mountain of bones would be higher than Mount Meru.

And finally, we want things to be independent as opposed to dependently arisen. Many types of meditation seem to be specific antidotes for this habit in which, thirsting and hungering for some certainty, we grab on to something as if it were permanent. As an exercise we can imagine that our close companions—perhaps a boyfriend or girlfriend—have a “past” of many previous lives, and if their bones were right now piled in front of us they would make a heap taller than the tallest of mountains. Yes, still, we want things to be stable, to be unique, and independent.

So, to summarize this important point, in Buddhism “self” (atman) is the name given to any or all of these three tendencies toward fixation. That’s the technical definition. From this perspective we might see how “ego,” “me,” and “myself” are simply habitual tendencies of fixation. We cling to these static notions of ourselves and of others. You can see how ego and self are a bit secondary. It is said, in fact, that we grab on to this. We might call it “static cling”!

Cutting Through the Fixity: Anatman

It is said when we begin to have insight into this obsessive clinging as the primary dynamic of suffering, then the quality of that clinging begins to break up a bit. There are two ways in which the breakup of that clinging is indicated. We will primarily focus on only one of these ways: no self, which in Sanskrit is anatman.

The veil of upset is ripped asunder.

This famous anatman is an insight that, according to the Tibetan tradition, has been called the basic Shravakayana insight. It defines, in part, what is meant by Shravakayana. There is a certain level of insight into how this atman works, so that it loosens up a bit with respect to being a “person” (pudgala) which is Sanskrit for “my sense of who I am,” “my personality,” “me.”

When we say, “I have a problem,” “I” is already the problem. Who is this “I”? Is this person really permanent? Or is it not so solid or fixed? Many Buddhist practices have as their aim coming to experience this so-called person as not so permanent, unique, or independent.

In fact, personhood and personality is not so fixed. All conditioned dharmas are the impermanent, multiple, dependently arising factors that give a full account of this so-called me and my so-called world of experience, allowing it to not be so fixed. And the benefit—what we gain—is that the upset, the veil that masks our true openheartedness, is cut through. The veil of upset is ripped asunder. . . .

Arhat: To Have Conquered the Enemy

The name given to that stable state in which the veil of upset has been thoroughly cut through (klesha avarana)—the goal according to the Shravakayana tradition—is said to be the state of being an arhat, a noble one, one who has conquered the foe of emotional upset. Arhat is glossed as foe destroyer. It is said that through this basic practice of seeing through the fixity of the personality, one cuts through the crippling effects of emotional upset so that you have slain this enemy. The enemy is upset itself.

Stuckness of Habit Patterns

In these Buddhist traditions and also in Western forms of psychotherapy meant to help those whose ego has been damaged, the damage is understood to be an inability based on a kind of stuckness of patterns. The point is not to be stuck, and to learn how to become unstuck. What, then, would Buddhists say about the Western notion of the necessity of having a “healthy ego”? A healthy ego from the Abhidharma point of view consists entirely of having stabilized those conditioned factors in that category called wholesome factors or positive mental factors. These include factors such as confidence, self-respect, decorum, equanimity, and so on.

The Buddhist View of Personality

[W]e should communicate according to the temperament and openness of those we encounter . . .

If you ask a Buddhist what the Buddhist view of personality is, there are possibly two extreme responses. One extreme response would be, “There is no such thing as personality.” But if a psychologist asked a Buddhist to elaborate, and pointed out certain recurring features of that Buddhist’s behavior (which anyone can see) and also inquired about their habitual ways of thinking, their habits of hopes and fears, that psychologist might awaken the Buddhist from this dogmatic slumber of thinking that there was no personality. In that case, then, that Buddhist might reply differently. They might say: “Oh, now I see what you pointed out. Well, we Buddhists say with respect to that: ‘get over it.’”

This exemplifies the two possible views some students of Buddhism have with respect to the existence or nonexistence of a personality. Either response may, in fact, be regarded as unskillful or unhelpful, depending on the situation. As the Buddha reminds us, we should communicate according to the temperament and openness of those we encounter, and Buddhist teachers do tend to teach according to the circumstance and capacity of those present.

Personality Types, Basic Temperaments

What does Buddhist thought say about personality types or basic temperaments? The Buddhist tradition might have the earliest recorded classification of personality. It’s called A Designation of Human Types and is one of the Abhidharma texts in the Pali Canon. The term for human types in this text is “personality” (pudgala). This term is the name for a kind of fixity, a reference point, or habit that we tend to rely on. As we’ve already discussed, cutting through this fixity and habit is, in part, the goal of Buddhist study and practice, for as long as we are bound to such reference points of self, me, and mine, we keep the wheel of suffering turning in full swing.

What do Buddhists say about the variety of personality types? The ancient text A Designation of Human Types states that there are three basic personality types: you are either (1) a greed type, (2) a hate type, or (3) an ignorance type. These are character or personality types, karmic habits deeply rooted in early development. We can imagine them as orientation and survival strategies, like the Western notions of humors as discussed by Paracelsus (melancholic, choleric, bilic, and sanguine). As such, they are not to be conflated with overt displays of anger, greed, or confusion, expressions of upset which might arise in different circumstances. These three possible temperaments are more deep-seated. They are congenital and constitutive (a materialist, one who only believes in the material reality of things, might say they are genetic).

Greed Type

For such types, any interruption . . . is often experienced as a disconfirmation of who they are.

A person who is a greed type or who has a greed temperament is one whose dominant pattern, sense of reality, and sense of normalcy is created and maintained by a style of responsiveness characterized by “greed.” Why so? How does this work? Here, greed is the general tendency—from childhood up through adulthood—to feel most affirmed, real, and normal when one is allowed to absorb or merge with what is presented as an experience (or to merge or absorb into an experience) with no blockage or hesitation. For such temperaments, this is the normal, most comfortable way of responding in everyday situations. We might call such types “blenders” or “mergers.” When they are allowed to do that, they feel good and normal. For them, it is the most natural way of responding. It corresponds to how they experience the world, themselves, and other people. They tend to choose their careers and friends according to what is most in accord with such responsiveness. For such types, any interruption, any suggestion that something might impede that blending or merging, is often experienced as a disconfirmation of who they are, and so it is unsettling and potentially disturbing.

Hate Type

Such greed types tend to have stylistic conflicts with those of a hate temperament. A hate type doesn’t mean one is running around being angry. The hate type is the most spacious, most happy, most real and normal because they have a great capacity to emotionally create distance from a new experience. That allows them the space to analyze, to make distinctions, and to note differences in the sudden onslaught of experiences. The hate type could be called “the separator,” “the distancer.” They become claustrophobic when asked to just take things as they are, to not ask questions, and to not go into things.

No matter which type we are, we can all learn which situations shut us down and which situations open us up. A hate type is in contradistinction to a greed type. A hate type’s sense of reality is affirmed through pushing away and resisting the way in which reality is presented at first glance. They are not accepting it just like this. This is energetically the opposite of the greed type.

They distance themselves, moving the object away from them so that they can actually bring it into focus.

Let’s give a concrete example of an interaction between a hate type and a greed type. One day, a greed type was reading a book and said to their friend (a hate type), “This book is fantastic!” Then, that friend picked up the recommended book and noticed such things as: “When was it written? Oh, that means it’s about ten years out of date. What’s the bibliography like? Who does the author cite? Oh, the author is citing a person whose work has been superseded.” And the hate type continues in that manner.

As a hate type, that’s how they explore and engage. They distance themselves, moving the object away from them so that they can actually bring it into focus. This is their way of gaining a foothold into the material of that book. But the greed type, who recommended that book, says, “Why do you always have to criticize everything?”

The hate type responds, “But I wasn’t criticizing, I was finding my way into the book. That’s my way of engaging—not only books but most subjects I am drawn to. I seem to first take a critical stance in order to access it.” This is a typical example of how these two personality types might interact.

Ignorance Type

Ignorant or delusional types may be thought of in two ways. First, and most broadly, one can say that all beings are ignorant insofar as they do not (yet) comprehend reality. This “not knowing” (avidya) is said to bind beings to the wheel of suffering; unbinding from that is often called an “awakening” (bodhi) from the sleep of delusion. Secondly, and more narrowly, there are beings called “tortured ones” or “hungry ghosts,” who have been so traumatized that they feel neither safe to merge with something, as do greed types or “attractive types,” nor safe to distance themselves from things, as do hate types or “distancing types.” They’re somewhat shut down. We might reflect here on a possible extreme case of ignorance, on what it might be like to be an extremely deluded type, in the sense of not being able to discern what is real or true.

[T]hese are only categories; we can be a bit loose and think carefully about them.

In The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, there is a wonderful discussion where he takes the example of the hungry ghost, a preta, which is one of the modes of sentience in samsara. In Patrul Rinpoche’s discussion, he talks about how samsara is not spiritually beneficial to engage with, and he goes on to say a preta is dominated by terror and hallucinations. For them there is no basis for distinguishing what is real from what is not, and this causes a pattern of terror in the entire organism. It’s said that the dominant upset that characterizes a preta is an avarice that can never be satisfied. We might think that this represents a greed type. But these are only categories; we can be a bit loose and think carefully about them. The idea here, from a psychological point of view, is that there is an underlying terror for those who have been so shut down due to physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. It’s known very well.

Dissociative identity disorder (formerly called “multiple personality disorder”) might be understood as an extreme form of the deluded or ignorance type, where the fixity is closed and split because it is not safe to be either a greed or a hate type. For them it is not safe to be a type that merges because to be present and to merge may mean total annihilation. Nor is it safe to make distinctions because this may be monitored and sensed by someone who will come and annihilate them. It is not safe to relax, and also it is not safe to put one’s voice forward, so to speak, and so these beings survive by not being present at all.

A student once asked me to translate a question to a Tibetan lama. She asked: “How do you give a direct introduction to the nature of mind to someone with multiple personalities?” So, I tried to think how to translate multiple personalities, and I came up with, “somebody who has many minds.” Thereupon, the lama laughed and said: “Multiple? But we can’t even say there’s one mind.”

Tathata: Reality

Buddha Nature

The analogy that is often given for enlightenment is the sky: The sky does not change.

Once again, our goal is to repeatedly manifest the direct perception of reality rather than changing our personality. So then, what is reality? The Tibetan term that was sometimes used for reality is de zhin nyi; in Sanskrit it is tathata, meaning thusness. One of the names of the Buddha is the Tathagata, the one who has “thus gone” or “went like this.” And we are encouraged to reflect that this understanding of tathagata is our true nature. We have the nature and capacity to go like “this”; in Sanskrit this is called tathagatagarbha. Garbha means we have the potential or the capacity to move, to change, to develop like “this.” “This” means as the Buddha did. In the technical sense, “buddha” was not a person; it instead names the open, luminous state that never undergoes suffering; that is sometimes called “awakened.” The Buddhist teachings clearly say that enlightenment cannot be different from reality. So to directly encounter or perceive reality and to have full and complete realization is the same thing. Of course, I simplify!

The analogy that is often given for enlightenment is the sky: The sky does not change. Whether or not one is a Shravakayana follower, the sky is still the same. Reality itself does not have the label Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish.

In a text called the Uttaratantra (Sublime Continuum), it is said that this buddha nature, this reality, which is our innermost essence, is the great self (maha atman), beyond both the “self” of non-Buddhists and also beyond the “not-self” of Buddhists.

Buddhists asked themselves the same question: What is the true invariant nature of this reality, this buddha nature? They knew they weren’t alone in the world; they lived among those with different views, and they wondered, “Do those who are not Buddhists have buddha nature?” And they indeed understood that non-Buddhists and Buddhists have the same essential abiding capacity to overcome all suffering.

[A]ll living beings (not only humans) have this buddha nature.

We should not be surprised that even Shravakayanists have buddha nature from the perspective of Mahayana. Even eternalists have buddha nature. Even nihilists, all bodhisattvas, all mahasiddhas, all serial killers, and all suicide bombers have buddha nature. If you think this isn’t fair or not right, go argue with Maitreya, who authored the Uttaratantra.

When we judge others as good or bad—and to be human is to judge—our judgment never touches their buddha nature. It is now accepted, especially in the Mahayana traditions, that all living beings (not only humans) have this buddha nature. It is a precious thing. That is why, in part, it is considered a grave karmic error to kill or hurt other living beings.

In the Mahayana tradition, it is a vow, and a form of mental training, to honor the buddha nature of all living beings. From an Abhidharma point of view, the way to do that is to find a way to directly perceive reality because what blocks us from being able to directly perceive the reality of our own buddha nature is a wrong view of the way things are. . . .

It is said that the Abhidharma is high because it leads to a complete spiritual transformation, one that will not change: it leads to the direct perception or realization of reality. This reality is not only a problem for us here, it has been an intellectual problem for countless Buddhist practitioners. To put it in a nutshell: How do we know whether this “reality” is the reality that is being talked about? Upon what basis do we decide what enlightenment is? I don’t say this to discourage us but to suggest that it is very deep and profound.

So reality, full and complete enlightenment, our buddha nature, a state that is unconditioned by causes—all of these terms more or less speak of the same thing.


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Steven GoodmanSteven D. Goodman (1945-2020) was Program Director of Asian Philosophies and Cultures at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. He received his PhD in Far Eastern studies from the University of Saskatchewan, and he lectured and taught Buddhist philosophy and comparative religion at universities throughout the United States.

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