The mind ensnared by attachment and ignorance


In the Buddhist understanding of the nature of the mind, there is a clear distinction made between holding to a destructive belief, and being ignorant. This can be explained in a number of ways. For example, one can adhere to a wrong belief, known as a ‘wrong-view’ but in theory still be in possession of a proposition which is factually correct. But, one can adhere to a correct belief, a right-view – one cannot be attached to a correct view, a right-view. The very act of attachment makes it a wrong-view. One could however, know what is true – but one should not adhere to that proposition with the thought ‘this alone is true, anything else is falsehood’. By adhering to the correct view in this way, its ‘correctness’ is negated – it becomes a wrong-view.


The ‘corruptions’ (āsavas)

In describing this process I will examine the ‘corruptions’ (āsavas). In the list of corruptions four are occasionally listed instead of the more usual three, both views and ignorance being given as separate corruptions.[1] Why are ‘views’ and ‘ignorance’ separate corruptions? Aren’t they both a lack of knowledge? If we examine how the corruptions are explained we may find an answer to this question. Buddhaghosa describes the corruptions in the following terms: the corruption of sensual desire (kāmāsavo) is the lust for the five pleasures of the senses; the corruption of becoming (bhavāsavo) is the passionate desire for life in a heaven of form, and formless existence, longing for ‘absorption’ jhāna, and lust co-existent with an eternalistic view;[2] the corruption of views (diṭṭhāsavo) is explained as the sixty-two views;[3] and the corruption of ignorance (avijjāsavo) is the lack of knowledge regarding eight points,[4] understood as the four truths, knowledge of the past, future or both, and of dependent-origination.[5] This explanation implies that views and ignorance refer to different things. In the following I would like to explore why there are two separate corruptions: views and ignorance, and to delineate the differences between them. My argument is that the corruption of views is the attachment to knowledge, and that the corruption of ignorance is false knowledge itself. This leads me to understand the corruption of views as the attachment to doctrine, not doctrine itself


The thicket, wilderness, contortion, vacillation and fetter of views

In the Atthasālinī (As 248) Buddhaghosa explains ‘wrong-views’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) as ‘not seeing things as they are’ (ayāthāva-dassanaṃ). The phrase points to the way in which certain views are held. It is not so much the content of the doctrines that posits a wrong conception of the way things are, but the fact that, by becoming an object of attachment, wrong-view distorts the true nature of things.[6] A view can be doctrinally correct but if, through giving rise to attachment, it distorts the holder’s response to the world, it is a wrong-view. The early Abhidhamma emphasises that a view is incorrect if it becomes an object of attachment, not because it is untrue. From the Abhidhamma perspective, ‘views’ (diṭṭhi)is exclusively connected with a mind (citta) rooted in greed (lobha-mūla). Views occur in four types of consciousness rooted in greed.[7] Views are primarily (if not exclusively) associated with greed, not delusion, in the Abhidhamma. In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa explains right-view as a type of knowledge,[8] and wrong-view as a type of greed (Vism XIV 90-91). As Rupert Gethin has observed ‘diṭṭhi can only be present in the mind when greed and attachment occur’.[9] This tells us that the early Theravāda understood the nature of views in relation to greed and attachment: wrong-views occur with greed and attachment, and right-views occur without greed and attachment. This connection between view and craving will now be considered.


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi

I would like to look at an Abhidhamma passage explaining wrong-views, and Buddhaghosa’s comments upon this passage. In the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, micchā-diṭṭhi is explained in the following terms :

‘Gone over to view (diṭṭhi-gata), the thicket of view (diṭṭhi-gahana), a wilderness of view (diṭṭhi-kantāra), the contrariness of view (diṭṭhi-visūkāyika), the turmoil of view (diṭṭhi-vipphandita), the fetter of views (diṭṭhi-saṃyojana), holding (gāha), fixity (patiṭṭhāha), adherence (abhinivesa), clinging (parāmāsa), a bad path (kumagga), a false way (micchā-patha), falsity (micchatta), the realm of (other) systems of crossing over (titthāyatana), the hold of the perverted views (vipariyesa-gāha).’[10]

This formula is also added in many contexts in which wrong-views are being discussed. One example of this is found in the Vibhaṅga. A discussion of dependent-origination explains the phrase ‘with craving as condition there is attachment’ (taṇhā-paccayā upādānaṃ) as ‘gone over to view, the thicket of view, a wilderness of view’, etc.[11] Craving, and the attachment that it gives rise to, are being explained as micchā-diṭṭhi. Wrong-view is the embodiment of craving and attachment.[12]

In the Atthasālinī Buddhaghosa comments on each of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi terms. I will summarise these comments:

‘Wrong-views are ‘gone over to view’ (diṭṭhi-gata) because they are a way of seeing that, due to its being included in the sixty-two wrong-views (dvāsaṭṭhi diṭṭhi-antogatattā), has gone over to views in the sense of ‘not seeing things as they are’ (ayāthāva-dassana). Views are a thicket (diṭṭhi-gahana) because they are difficult to get beyond, like a grass thicket, a forest thicket or a mountainous region. The term ‘wilderness of view’ (diṭṭhi-kantāra) implies that view is dangerous and fearsome, like a wilderness infested by thieves and snakes, without food and water. In the sense of overthrowing and conflicting with right-view, it is the ‘contrariness of view’ (diṭṭhi-visūkāyika). This is because when the ‘wrong way of seeing’ (micchā-dassana) occurs, it overthrows and conflicts with the ‘right way of seeing’ (sammā-dassana). The ‘turmoil of view’ (diṭṭhi-vipphandita) is the turning to the other form for one who at one time holds the eternalist-view and at one time the annihilationist-view, for one lost in views is unable to stick with one position. The ‘fetter of view’ (diṭṭhi-saṃyojana) is itself considered as a fetter in the sense of ‘binding’ (bandhana), because it takes hold of its object firmly as crocodiles, and so on, take hold of a man, it is ‘holding’ (gāha). As a result of becoming fixed, it is ‘fixity’ (patiṭṭhāha). Indeed, by reason of its forceful occurrence, having become fixed it takes hold; and, because it is convinced about permanence and so on, this is an ‘adherence’ (abhinivesa). Because it misses the nature of dhammas and insists on holding on by way of the idea of their permanence and so on, it is ‘clinging’ (parāmāsa). A ‘bad path’ (kumagga) is a path that is vile due to its taking one to what is unbeneficial or it is a path to the vile descents. As a way that is not in accordance with the truth it is a ‘false way’ (micchā-patha). For even though one who is confused about the way takes a road thinking ‘this is certainly the way to such and such a village’ it does not bring him to that village, just so, even though one who is lost in view holds a view, thinking, ‘this is the way to a happy destiny’ it does not bring him to a happy destiny; so a ‘false way’ is a way not in accordance with the truth. As something that is by nature false it is ‘falsity’ (micchatta). A ‘system of crossing over’ (tittha)is where, just because of their roaming about there, it appears the foolish cross over; and because this is the realm of things unbeneficial, it is the ‘realm of other systems of crossing over’ (titthāyatana). Alternatively, the ‘realm of other systems of crossing over’ is a ‘realm’ (āyatana) in the sense of the dwelling place and country of birth of those belonging to other systems of crossing over. The ‘hold of the perverted views’ (vipariyesa-gāha) is a holding on which constitutes a perverted view; alternatively it is holding on because of perverted view; ‘perverted view’ (vipallatthagāho) is the meaning.’[13]


The content of the view, what it proposes, is not ignored in this passage. A wrong-view does propose a false proposition. However, it is the tendency of views to become an object of greed and attachment that is of primary importance.[14] This suggests that the Abhidhamma is interested in how views are held, not, essentially, what they propose. Rupert Gethin has suggested that it is the fact that a view is an object of greed and attachment that the Theravāda Abhidhamma wishes to stress. He compares the definitions given of ‘delusion’ (moha) to that given for diṭṭhi in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi.[15] The list of terms describing diṭṭhi in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi were given above with the formula beginning ‘gone over to view, the thicket of view, a wilderness of view’. In contrast, the list of terms in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi explaining moha is dominated by the notions of not knowing and not seeing. [16] Ignorance and delusion obscure the true nature of things. The content of the proposition is emphasised. This is clearly different to the list of terms that characterise micchā-diṭṭhi, which I have just discussed. These terms emphasise grasping, fixity and holding.


Gethin secondly considers Buddhaghosa’s definitions of micchā-diṭṭhi and moha. Hence diṭṭhi has the characteristic of inappropriate adherence (ayoniso abhinivesa); its function is clinging (parāmāsa); its manifestation is wrong-adherence (micchābhinivesa); its basis is the absence of desire to meet Noble Ones and the like (ariyānaṃ adassana-kāmatādi), and it should be seen as the ultimate fault (paramaṃ vajjaṃ). In contrast, delusion has the characteristic of mental blindness (cittassa andhabhāva), or not knowing (aññāṇa); its function is not penetrating (asampaṭivedha), or concealing the true nature of the object (ārammaṇa-sabhāva-cchādana); its manifestation is the absence of right practice (asammā-paṭipatti), or blindness (andhakāra); its basis is inappropriate bringing to mind (ayoniso manasikāra); it should be seen as the root of all that is unskilful (sabbākusalānaṃ).[17]


The Peṭakopadesa

To these examples may be added others. In the Peṭakopadesa (Peṭ 94) diṭṭhi and avijjā are described in the following way: ‘views are characterised by adherence and clinging’[18] while ‘ignorance is characterised by non-penetration (of the four truths), and unawareness of ideas’.[19] The passage further explains that the āsava of views is ‘abandoned by contemplating mind as mind’ (so citte cittānupassissa pahīyati), while the āsava of ignorance is ‘abandoned by contemplating dhammas as dhammas’ (so dhammesu dhammānupassissa pahīyati). The ‘āsava of views is thus abandoned in the mind’ (diṭṭhāsavo citte pahātabbo), while the ‘āsava of ignorance is abandoned in dhammas’ (avijjāsavo dhammesu pahātabbo).[20] This is possibly a reference to the third and fourth foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). The four, which I have already cited, are to contemplate body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and dhammas as dhammas.[21] This passage could be understood using the model I considered earlier of the cleansing of body, speech and mind. In my discussion of the ‘ten wholesome courses of action’ (dasa kusala-kammapathā), I suggested that the sequence of these actions suggested a gradual transformation of conduct. In this understanding, contemplating the mind as mind implies an understanding of the working of the mind, of the cravings of the mind, in order to understand things as they are.


Earlier in the Peṭakopadesa it is explained that ‘[the view that there is] self in the mind [is the āsava] of views, and that there is permanence in the concomitants of consciousness (cetasikas)[22] [is the āsava of ignorance]’.[23] The Peṭakopadesa is analysing these ideas on different grounds and is clearly separating the corruptions of diṭṭhi and avijjā. Another example of the difference between the corruptions of diṭṭhi and avijjā is the following classification. The ‘perversion that there is self in what is not-self, attachment to view, the bond of views, the bodily tie of clinging, the corruption of views, the flood of views, the barb of views’ are terms found together to explain the tendency towards views.[24] In contrast, the ‘perversion that there is permanence in the impermanent, attachment to the theory of self, the bond of ignorance, the bodily tie of insistence that this is truth, the corruption of ignorance, the flood of ignorance, the barb of delusion’ are a set of terms found together to explain the tendency towards ignorance.[25]


The Mahāniddesa

One final example of the notion of diṭṭhi characterised in terms of grasping and attachment is found in the Mahāniddesa. This canonical text is the only commentary found in the Nikāyas, being (in part) a commentary upon the Aṭṭhakavagga. The Mahāniddesa asks a number of questions about different views. The answer to each question is identical. Hence the question is asked: ‘What is the selfishness of view?’[26] The answer is that it is sakkāya-diṭṭhi with twenty bases, the wrong-view with ten bases (i.e. natthika-diṭṭhi), the extreme view with ten bases (dasavatthukā antaggāhikā diṭṭhi, i.e. the ten avyākata). These are then characterised as gone over to view (diṭṭhi-gata), the thicket of view(diṭṭhi-gahana), a wilderness of view (diṭṭhi-kantāra) etc., using the same formula as the one from the Dhammasaṅgaṇi considered above.[27] The Mahāniddesa then uses the same format to explain other terms. These terms become increasingly difficult to translate with different English words as they are all terms relating to attachment, clinging and grasping. Hence, the question is asked, ‘what is attachment to view?’ (katamo diṭṭhi-nivesanā). The same answer is given, that is sakkāya-diṭṭhi with twenty bases, the wrong-view with ten bases, the extreme view with ten bases, and that this is gone over to view, the thicket of view, etc.[28] The same answer is given as an explanation of ‘fashioning by view’,[29] ‘devotion to view’,[30] ‘holding onto view’,[31] ‘dependence on view’,[32] ‘the stain of view’,[33] ‘the taking-up of view’,[34] ‘fixing attention on view’[35] and the ‘dart of view’.[36]

All these examples illustrate that wrong-views emphasise one aspect of not knowing, and ignorance another. Though their definitions overlap, there is a definite emphasis on either attachment or not knowing. Why exactly is this distinction being made? I would like to suggest that different doctrines are being used in different ways. Or, to put this another way, different doctrines perform different roles. One doctrine may make a claim about how we perceive the world, another about the nature of the world. For one doctrine, it may be the value which that doctrine has for the treading of the Buddhist path, and for another the emphasis may be on what the doctrine explains about the nature of existence. In fact, as I have said, views are not doctrines, but knowledge of doctrines. Wrong-views insist, take hold of, and are attached to their objects (doctrines). This type of ‘wrongness’ may not essentially be ignorance of the true state of things, it may be a correct description of things, but the view is wrong because it is a ‘perversion’ (vipallāsa) and because the ‘perverted view adheres’ (viparīta-diṭṭhi abhinivisati, Peṭ 106). It is ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). It is wrong knowledge of doctrines and not, essentially, a wrong doctrine (though it is likely to be this as well). Wisdom knows how things are, right-view knows how to know how things are. To paraphrase the Sammohavinodanī: one who is attached needs to abandon views, while one who is ignorant needs to abandon delusion.[37

Views are then a type of craving, but how are they distinguished from craving itself? Why not simply subsume the notion of views under the notion of craving? The Peṭakopadesa (Peṭ 26-28) discusses a passage from the Udāna (Ud 32-3), and how this passage relates to ‘defilement by craving’ (taṇhā-saṃkileso) and ‘defilement by view’ (diṭṭhi-saṃkileso). This passage further explains the nature of the type of attachment expressed by the corruption of views. The following is said to be an example of defilement by craving:

‘This world is born to anguish and subject to painful contact,

It is sickness that it calls self;

For however it conceives [it],

It is ever otherwise than that.

Maintaining its being other than that,

The world clings to being, expectantly relishing only being,

[But] what it relishes brings fear,

And what it fears is pain.’[38]

The following is an example of defilement by view:

‘Whoever have declared escape from being [to come about] through [love of] non-being, none of them, I say, escape from being. Whoever have declared liberation from being [to come about] through [love of some kind of] being, none of them, I say, are liberated from being.’[39]

While the discussion of the Peṭakopadesa passage also deals with other issues, I would like to concentrate on what I consider it is implying by these two distinctions, between defilement by craving and defilement by view. The first distinction is relatively straightforward: what we crave changes and is different from what we want it to be. The second distinction, however, deserves more consideration. We could assume that, as defilement by craving points to sensual attachments, so defilement by views points to cognitive attachment. The early Theravāda tradition is, to an extent, preoccupied with craving and how this affects the conduct of the person so obsessed. It seems reasonable to assume that, in the example of defilement by view, the text has in mind sassata and uccheda-diṭṭhi. Though the text has made the distinction between defilement by craving and defilement by views, it seems likely that, by using the term diṭṭhi instead of terms such as delusion (moha) or ignorance (avijjā), the text is implying, as in other places where the term diṭṭhi is used, a certain type of cognitive clinging (parāmāsa). [40] Being and non-being, self and not-self, are all potential objects of attachment. I would go as far as to suggest that, at a certain level, Buddhist thought is not concerned with whether there is a self or not. The issue of a ‘self’ is abandoned and, to an extent, not-self is sammā-diṭṭhi precisely because it rejects the strongest object of attachment. My overall point is that ignorance and views apply to two different forms of corruption, and that views apply to a form of craving, but a specific type of craving. So, when the right-view of anattā abandons the view of self, it is not knowledge abandoning ignorance, it is knowledge of craving abandoning attachment. This is what is meant when it is said that micchā-diṭṭhi is abandoned and sammā-diṭṭhi taken up. Attachment is abandoned and one sees without attachment.



[1] In the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta (D II 72-168) at D II 81, 91, 94 and 98 the four āsavas are given: ‘The mind, when imbued with wisdom becomes completely free from the corruptions, that is, from the corruption of sensuality, of becoming, of wrong-views and of ignorance’ (paññāparibhāvitaṃ cittaṃ sammadeva āsavehi vimuccati, seyyathīdaṃ: kāmāsavā bhavāsavā diṭṭhāsavā avijjāsavā ti). There is another list of terms, identical to the list of four āsavas, that occur in the Nikāyas. These describe sensuality, becoming, views and ignorance as the four yokes (yoga), sometimes found in opposition to the four unyokings (visaṃyoga, see D III 230, 276, S V 59). There are also the four floods (oghas, D III 230, S V 59), consisting of the same categories.

[2] rūpārūpabhavesu chandarāgo jhānanikanti sassatadiṭṭhisahajāto rāgo bhavavasena patthanā bhavāsavo nāma, As 369.

[3] Of the Brahmajāla-sutta: dvāsaṭṭhi diṭṭhiyo diṭṭhāsavo nāma, As 369.

[4] aṭṭhasu ṭhānesu aññāṇaṃ avijjāsavo nāma, As 369.

[5] The Expositor, p. 475, note 3.

[6] This certainly appears to be the understanding of wrong-views by the period of the early Abhidhamma, and, as I will suggest, seems implicit in such discussions as those found in the Brahmajāla-sutta.

[7] Dhs 75, 80-82 (this is a reference to the PTS page numbers). The formalised definition from later Abhidhamma is given in Appendix (5).

[8] Buddhaghosa uses the view of affirmation to explain this view, i.e. it is a type of paññā (Vism XIV 84).

[9] Gethin, ‘Wrong View (micchā-diṭṭhi) and Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma’, p. 218.

[10] yā tasmiṃ samaye diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāro diṭṭhi-visūkāyikaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ gāho patiṭṭhāho abhiniveso parāmāso kummaggo micchā-patho micchattaṃ titthāyatanaṃ vipariyesagāho, ayaṃ tasmiṃ samaye micchā-diṭṭhi hoti, Dhs 78, 183, 198, 202, 208, 212, passim (all references to page numbers of the PTS edition). Translation adapted from Gethin, ‘Wrong View (micchā-diṭṭhi) and Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma’, p. 218. Most of these terms are found in the Nikāyas. In the Sabbāsava-sutta (M I 6-12), diṭṭhi-gata is described as the thicket, wilderness, contortion and vacillation of views: ‘This speculative view […] is called a thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say’ (idaṃ vuccati […] diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāro diṭṭhi-visūkaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ. diṭṭhi-saṃyojanasaṃyutto bhikkhave assutavā puthujjano na parimuccati jātiyā jarāmaraṇena sokehi paridevehi dukkhehi domanassehi upāyāsehi, na parimuccati dukkhasmā ti vadāmi, M I 8). In the Aggivacchagotta-sutta (M I 483-89), the Buddha is asked what danger he sees in the ten avyākata, so that he does not take up any of these views (kim pana bhavaṃ gotamo ādīnavaṃ sampassamāno evaṃ imāni sabbaso diṭṭhi-gatāni anupagato ti, M I 485). The Buddha replies that each of these views is a thicket, a wilderness, a contortion, a vacillation and a fetter of views (diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāraṃ diṭṭhi-visūkaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ, M I 485). They are beset by suffering, vexation, despair and fever (sadukkhaṃ savighātaṃ saupāyāsaṃ sapariḷāhaṃ), and do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment or nibbāna (na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya na abhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati, M I 485). In a sense, in this reply, as in the Dhammasaṅgani, the Buddha is not alluding to the content of the views but the effect upon the person that holds to them. Vacchagotta asks the Buddha if he takes up any speculative view (atthi pana bhoto gotamassa kiñci diṭṭhi-gatan ti). The Buddha replies that speculative view is something that he has put away (diṭṭhi-gatan ti kho vaccha apanītam etaṃ tathāgatassa, M I 486). What the Buddha has seen is each of the five khandhas, their origin and their disappearance. In the Yoga-sutta (A II 10-13) at A II 11, views are described as a bond (diṭṭhi-yoga). The bond of views is described as the lust for views, the delight in views, the affection for views, the greed for views, the thirst for views, the fever, clinging, and the craving for views (yo diṭṭhisu diṭṭhi-rāgo diṭṭhi-nandī diṭṭhi-sineho diṭṭhi-mucchā diṭṭhi-pipāsā diṭṭhi-pariḷāho diṭṭhi-ajjhosānaṃ diṭṭhi-taṇhā, A II 11). The term diṭṭhi-visūkāni, contrariness of view, occurs in the Sutta-nipāta where the sage is described as having gone beyond the contrariness of view (diṭṭhivisūkāni upātivatto), on a fixed course, wandering solitary as a rhinoceros horn, Sn 55.

[11] tattha katamaṃ taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ: yā diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāro diṭṭhi-visukāyikaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanā gaho patiṭṭhāho abhiniveso parāmāso kummaggo micchā-patho micchattaṃ titthāyatanaṃ vipariyesagāho, idaṃ vuccati taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ, Vibh, § 249, p. 145.

[12] This is the analysis according to the Abhidhamma. In the analysis according to the discourses, the same connection between craving and attachment is described as the attachment of desire, wrong-view, precepts and vows, and the attachment to the theory of self (taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ: kāmupādānaṃ diṭṭhupādānaṃ silabbatupādānaṃ attavādupādānaṃ, idaṃ vuccati taṇhā-paccayā upādānaṃ, Vibh 136).

[13]As 252-53. Translation adapted from Gethin ‘Wrong View (micchā-diṭṭhi) and Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma’, pp. 218-9.

[14] A different analysis is given by Jackson. He argues that avidyā is ‘ontological ignorance’ while mithyā-dṛṣṭi is ‘cosmological ignorance’ (Is Enlightenment Possible, p. 48, note 19). Jackson holds that the four truths, as sammā-diṭṭhi, are a proposition which carry with it many philosophical and cosmological presuppositions (ibid. p. 43). It is in this context that he arrives at this understanding of ignorance and wrong-views.

[15] Gethin ‘Wrong View (micchā-diṭṭhi) and Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma’, p. 220.

[16] yaṃ tasmiṃ samaye aññāṇaṃ adassanaṃ anabhisamayo ananubodho asambodho appaṭivedho asaṃgāhanā apariyogāhanā asamapekkhanā apaccavekkhanā apaccakkhakammaṃ dummejjhaṃ bālyaṃ asampajaññaṃ moho pamoho sammoho avijjā avijjogho avijjāyogo avijjānusayo avijjāpariyuṭṭhānaṃ avijjālaṅgī moho akusalamūlaṃ, ayaṃ tasmiṃ samaye moho hoti, Dhs 78 § 390.

[17] Vism XIV 163-64, As 249; see Gethin ‘Wrong View (micchā-diṭṭhi) and Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma’, p. 220. As Gethin explains: ‘For the Theravādins what is significant about diṭṭhi is not simply that it is a wrong or false way of seeing, but that it is a grasping at or holding onto a particular way of seeing; it is a fixed or rigid view of things. The emphasis in the register of terms for moha, on the other hand, is on its not knowing, not seeing, not understanding, on its failure to penetrate (appaṭivedha), and get below the surface (apariyogāhanā) to the true nature of things.’ Ibid. pp. 220-21.

[18] abhiniveso ca parāmāso ca diṭṭhāsavassa lakkhaṇaṃ, Peṭ 94.

[19] appaṭivedho ca dhammesu asampajaññā ca avijjāsavassa lakkhaṇaṃ, Peṭ 94.

[20] Note an error in the PTS edition, or a probable earlier error, which has avijjāsavo citte pahātabbo. so citte cittānupassissa pahīyati, diṭṭhāsavo dhammesu pahātabbo, so dhammesu dhammānupassissa pahīyati, which I have read as diṭṭhāsavo citte pahātabbo. so citte cittānupassissa pahīyati, avijjāsavo dhammesu pahātabbo, so dhammesu dhammānupassissa pahīyati, Peṭ 94; see Ñāṇamoli, Piṭaka-Disclosure (PTS, London, 1964), p. 127, note 344/1.

[21]idha bhikkhave bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ. vedanāsu vedanānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ. citte cittānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ. dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ, M I 56; see Gethin, The Buddhist Path to Awakening, pp 29-68. There is also some connection between ‘the emptiness gateway to liberation’ (suññatā vimokkhamukhaṃ), and ‘the signless gateway to liberation’ (animittaṃ vimokkhamukhaṃ, Nett 123), which I shall consider in chapter five.

[22] Ñāṇamoli interprets the cetasikas as dhammas (Piṭaka-Disclosure, p. 126, note 339/1).

[23] tattha citte attā ti diṭṭhāsavo, cetasikesu niccan ti avijjāsavo, this is Ñāṇamoli’s suggested correction or restoration of tattha citte atthiti diṭṭhi cetasikesu niccanti, Piṭaka-Disclosure, p. 126, note 339/1, Peṭ 94.

[24] anattani attā ti vipallāso, diṭṭhupādānaṃ, diṭṭhi-yogo, parāmāsa-kāya-gantho, diṭṭhāsavo, diṭṭhi-ogho, diṭṭhi-sallaṃ, Peṭ 246.

[25] anicce niccan ti vipallāso, attavādūpādānaṃ, avijjāyogo, idaṃsaccābhiniveso kāyagantho, avijjāsavo, avijjogho, mohasallaṃ, Peṭ 246.

[26] katamaṃ diṭṭhi-mamattaṃ, Nidd I 51, 122, 125, 129, 276, 369, 440.

[27] The Mahāniddesa adds ‘grasping at things wrongly’ (micchā-gāho ayāthāvakasmiṃ). katamaṃ diṭṭhi-mamattaṃ? vīsativatthukā sakkāya-diṭṭhi, dasavatthukā micchā-diṭṭhi, dasavatthukā antaggāhikā diṭṭhi, yā evarūpā diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāro diṭṭhi-visūkāyikaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphandikaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ gāho paṭiggāho abhiniveso parāmāso kummaggo micchā-patho micchattaṃ titthāyatanaṃ vipariyesaggāho viparītaggāho vipallāsaggāho micchā-gāho ayāthāvakasmiṃ yāthāvakan ti gāho. yāvatā dvāsaṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gatāni, idaṃ diṭṭhi-mamattaṃ, Nidd I 50-51.

Dhs: yā tasmiṃ samaye diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāro diṭṭhi-visūkāyikaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ gāho patiṭṭhāho abhiniveso parāmāso kummaggo micchā-patho micchattaṃ titthāyatanaṃ vipariyesagāho, ayaṃ tasmiṃ samaye micchā-diṭṭhi hoti, Dhs 78.

[28] vīsativatthukā sakkāya-diṭṭhi, dasavatthukā micchā-diṭṭhi, dasavatthukā antaggāhikā diṭṭhi, yā evarūpā diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ diṭṭhi-gahanaṃ diṭṭhi-kantāraṃ diṭṭhi-visūkāyikaṃ diṭṭhi-vipphanditaṃ diṭṭhi-saṃyojanaṃ gāho paṭiggāho abhiniveso parāmāso kummaggo micchā-patho micchattaṃ titthāyatanaṃ vipariyesaggāho viparītaggāho vipallāsaggāho micchā-gāho, ayāthāvakasmiṃ yāthāvakan ti gāho. yāvatā dvāsaṭṭhi diṭṭhigatāni, ayaṃ diṭṭhi-nivesanā, Nidd I 100.

[29] diṭṭhi-kappa, Nidd I 112-13, 251, 328, 336.

[30] diṭṭhi-purekkhāra, Nidd I 113.

[31] diṭṭhi-pariggaha, Nidd I 129, 275.

[32] diṭṭhi-nissaya, Nidd I 133, 245, 431.

[33] diṭṭhi-lepa, Nidd I 136, 332.

[34] diṭṭhi-upaya, Nidd I 308.

[35]diṭṭhi-pakappanā, Nidd I 316. There are two types of pakappanā, those of taṇhā and diṭṭhi, Nidd I 72, 186.

[36]diṭṭhi-salla, Nidd I 414-15. There are seven darts, rāga, dosa, moha, māna, diṭṭhi, soka and kathakathā, Nidd I 59.

[37] Vibh-a 300.

[38] ayaṃ loko santāpajāto

phassapareto rogaṃ vadati attano,

yena yena hi maññati

tato taṃ hoti aññathā.

aññathābhāvī bhavasatto loko

bhavapareto bhavam evā bhinandati, yad abhinandati taṃ bhayaṃ

yassa bhāyati taṃ dukkhaṃ, Peṭ 26.

[39] ye hi keci samaṇā vā brāhmaṇā vā vibhavena bhavassa vippamokkham āhaṃsu, sabbe te avippamuttā bhavasmā ti vadā vā pana keci samaṇā vā brāhmaṇā vā bhavena bhavassa nissaraṇam āhaṃsu, sabbe te anissaṭā bhavasmā ti vadāmi, Peṭ 26.

[40] It should be noted that the Udāna passage which the Peṭakopadesa is discussing, does use the term avijjā, Peṭ 27.

Socially Engaged Buddhism


To act politically is clearly to involve oneself in the world – at the most basic level it is to make a choice, to take a position, to change the world for the betterment of those who live within society. One of the dilemmas faced by the proponent of Buddhist social engagement is the seeming reluctance of the Buddha to make pronouncements about social change. But, it goes deeper than this. There is not only a reluctance but a very real philosophical necessity to remain distant from strategies of social change and distinct from political involvement. I discuss here part of this philosophical necessity.


The Pali Aṭṭhakavagga’s insists that one should not depend upon apperception (saññā), knowledge (ñāṇa), views (diṭṭhi), on what is seen (diṭṭha), heard(suta), or thought (muta), or on precepts and vows (sīlabbata).[1] This is consistent with the four primary Nikāyas. The Aṭṭhakavagga teaches that purity is not by means of views, learning, knowledge or precepts and vows, nor is it by absence of these. The Mahāviyuha-sutta (Sn 895-914) speaks of giving up all precepts and vows and action both blameable and blameless.[2] This suggests a ‘teaching’ a dhamma of non-involvement – not showing preference for what is seen and heard.[3] Preference or choice (cetanā) is involvement in ‘action’ (kamma), in the round of endless existences pervaded by suffering (saṃsāra, Sn 901).


In the Suribheda-sutta (Sn 848-861) the question is asked, ‘having what vision and precepts is one called “calmed”’?[4] The answer is that it is not to be dependent,[5] not to prefer (purekkhataṃ), not having attachment, and not going astray among dhammas.[6]Knowledge or right-view is an insight into the nature of reality that leads to calm.[7]


Dependence on what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is a familiar basis for wrong-views in the Nikāyas. The diṭṭhi-saṃyutta explains how views arise due to attachment to whatever is seen, heard, thought, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind.[8]It is also explained in the Alagaddūpama-sutta that to regard the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[9] or what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, and ranged over by the mind as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’[10] is a basis for view (diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ). Without attachment and doubt concerning these things, wrong-view does not arise.[11] This constitutes stream-attainment, when all views are abandoned.[12]


To argue, as some have, that the relinquishment of attachment to what is seen, heard, thought and cognized is an isolated teaching in the Nikāyas, is perhaps to overlook the prominence of passages condemning such attitudes.[13] The Nikāyas suggest consistently and often that attachment to the ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) is the cause of wrong-views, and this, I contend, is the same as stating that one should not be attached to what is seen, heard, thought or cognized. This way of seeing, the detached way expressive of right-view, is described in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi as the unincluded (apariyāpannā) explained as ‘neither the issue of attachment nor favourable to it’.[14] This attitude of non-attachment is at least comparable to that described in the Aṭṭhakavagga as non-attachment from what is seen, heard or thought, from any view, apperception (saññā),[15]contact (phassa), or even dependence on knowledge (ñāṇa, Sn 800).[16] Just as the stream-attainer, one who has achieved right-view, is described as having no dependence upon any act of cognition, so the Aṭṭhakavagga advises the eradication of all attachment to views, apperceptions and knowledge. The sage of the Aṭṭhakavagga ‘does not believe in any view at all’,[17] but then nor does the stream-attainer of the Nikāyas. I suggest that the Nikāyas and the Aṭṭhakavagga describe the same cognitive attitude toward views, wrong or right. The Aṭṭhakavagga verses positing non-attachment from what is seen and heard are consistent with the Nikāyas in which the dhamma is a raft to which one should not become attached, and with the Abhidhamma description of sammā-diṭṭhi as paññā. If we wish to find teachings similar to the Aṭṭhakavagga in the Nikāyas, then we must be clear about the Nikāyas understanding of what constitutes right-view. I am arguing that right-view is not depending on (upādāya), not being attached to, or craving, the khandhas. It is non-dependence on knowledge and views. The Abhidhamma explains how attachment to insight and practice can cause unwholesome dhammas to arise. This is described in the Paṭṭhāna. If the Paṭṭhāna is criticising the act of giving, holding the precepts, the duty of observance, and the practising of the jhānas, then the Aṭṭhakavagga is criticising knowledge and wisdom. As it is unlikely that either text is critical of practice or knowledge, then it is likely that they are stating that attachment to the path is destructive.

The Aṭṭhakavagga and the Nikāyas are not critical of knowledge and truth but hold that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental. The reason that attachment to knowledge and truth is detrimental can be explained by the need for both calm and insight in the process of seeing the true nature of things. I would suggest that, in the same way that action influences knowledge and knowledge influences action, so the texts are describing how calm influences insight, and insight influences calm. In other words, seeing dependent-origination involves being calm, and being truly calm involves seeing dependent-origination.


And here, I suggest, is where Buddhist social engagement must begin. It begins with an attitude free from attachment and stubbornness. Although the Buddha clearly made few prescriptions about how to transform society, he did make many about the adaptation of the mind – and this is the point at which Buddhism might depart from other religious traditions, and depart on a journey of political engagement. The philosophical necessity of non-involvement does not necessarily hinder the efforts by the Buddhist for social and political change – the mind though has to be in the right place for social engagement.



[1] An example of the teaching advising detachment from these means of knowledge in the Aṭṭhakavagga is the following: ‘Giving up old corruptions, not forming new ones, he does not go according to his wishes, he is not a dogmatist. He is completely released from views (and) wise. He does not cling to the world, and does not reproach himself. He is without association in respect of all mental phenomena (dhammas), whatever is seen, or heard, or thought. That sage with burden laid down, completely freed, is without imaginings, unattached, not grasping’ (pubbāsave hitvā nave akubbaṃ, na chandagū no pi nivissa-vādī, sa vippamutto diṭṭhigatehi dhīro, na lippati loke anattagarahī. sa sabbadhammesu visenibhūto, yaṃ kiñci diṭṭhaṃ va, sutaṃ mutaṃ vā, sa pannabhāro muni vippamutto, na kappiyo nūparato na patthiyo ti, Sn 913-14; see also Sn 798, 803, 900; see Gómez, ‘Proto-Mādhyamika’, p 140.

[2] sīlabbataṃ vā pi pahāya sabbaṃ, kammañ ca sāvajjanavajjam etaṃ, Sn 900.

[3] diṭṭhe sute khantim akubbamāno, Sn 897.

[4]kathaṃdassī kathaṃsīlo upasanto ti vuccati, Sn 848.

[5] Sn 849. cf., ‘He for whom there is no state of dependence, knowing the dhamma, is not dependent’ (yassa nissayatā n’ atthi ñatvā dhammaṃ anissito, Sn 856). See also Sn 910: ‘A dogmatist is indeed not easy to discipline, since he prefers a preconceived view. Saying that the good is there, in what he depends upon, he speaks of purity (saying) he saw reality there’ (nivissavādī na hi subbināyo, pakappitaṃ diṭṭhi purekkharāno, yaṃ nissito tattha subhaṃ vadāno, suddhiṃ-vado tattha tathaddasā so, Sn 914).

[6] dhammesu ca na gacchati, Sn 861.

[7] Nett 65.

[8] diṭṭhaṃ, sutaṃ, mutaṃ, viññātaṃ, pattaṃ, pariyesitaṃ, anuvicaritaṃ manasā, S III 203.

[9] The Alagaddūpama-sutta gives the first four khandhas, as noted above.

[10] diṭṭhaṃ sutam mutam viññātaṃ pattaṃ pariyesitaṃ anuvicaritaṃ manasā tam pi: etaṃ mama esoham asmi, eso me attā ti samanupassati, M I 135.

[11] Indeed, I have compared this process to attachment to the khandhas.

[12] S III 203.

[13] Eric Fallick, ‘Two Small Remnants of “Pre-Hīnayānist” Buddhism in the Pāli Nikāyas’, Buddhist Studies Review (17), 2000, 35-38.

[14] anupādinna-anupādāniyā, Dhs 181, § 992.

[15] Cf.: ‘By him not even a minute apperception has been formed here in respect of what is seen, heard, or thought’ (tass idha diṭṭhe va sute mute vā, pakappitā n’ atthi aṇū pi saññā, Sn 802).

[16] ñāṇe pi so nissayaṃ, Sn 800.

[17] diṭṭhim pi so na pacceti kiñci, Sn 800. The term pacceti is translated as ‘believe in’. The term literally means ‘to come on to’; see PED s.v. pacceti.

Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?


In the study of Buddhism it has often been noted that the teachings do not point to the changing of the world, but to changing our perception of it – there is nothing wrong with the world but the way we perceive the world. The problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha) is not ultimately to do with the world, but with the fact that people tend to grasp and become attached to all sorts of things. The world is seen with greed, hatred and delusion. This aspect of Buddhist teachings suggests that Buddhist doctrines should not be used to change the world, but to change the way we view the world.They should be used to lessen greed, hatred and delusion and, in so doing, solve the problem of dukkha. What is needed is a way of seeing that reduces and eradicates craving. I would like to consider these ideas and conclude with some comments on how this might affect our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism.

Let me use the Abhidhamma to explore these ideas. Throughout book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an evaluation is given of certain ways of apprehending the world. In the following I would like to focus upon one aspect of what I think the text is describing. Put simply this is that the world can be apprehended with or without craving. This aspect of Buddhist thought has been noted by Steven Collins, who has suggested that this reflects something of a dichotomising tendency within early Buddhism:


‘Anything with conceptual or experiential content was to be assimilated to the impersonal, non-valued side of the dichotomy; since in this sphere everything was dominated by desire and grasping, anything with content became potentially graspable. Against this stood the empty unconditioned nibbāna, susceptible neither to conceptualising nor grasping.’[1]


Buddhism is, at it were, concerened with different orders of seeing, between the graspable, and the ungraspable, between concepts and emptiness, beteen attachment and non-attachment, between craving and calmness. I would like to look at the Dhammasaṅgaṇi to see how it considers this apparent dichotomy. Book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi,the Nikkhepa-kaṇḍaṃ, begins with the following question:


‘Which ‘things’ (dhammas. I leave the term untranslated in the following) are wholesome?
The three roots of the wholesome:Absence of greed, hatred and delusion;The four ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[2] of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are wholesome dhammas’.[3]


With reference to the khandhas, I take this to imply that, when they are seen in their true nature, i.e. as not-self, they are wholesome (this is sammā-diṭṭhi).


The next question asked is:


‘Which dhammas are unwholesome?
The three roots of the unwholesome:Greed, hatred and delusion;The defilements (kilesā) united with them;The four khandhas of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are unwholesome dhammas.’[4]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is clearly stating that the four mental khandhas are unwholesome when they are associated with ‘greed’, ‘hatred’ and ‘delusion’ (lobha, dosa, moha). [5] In this analysis it must be remembered that in the Nikāya and Abhidhamma analysis the term khandha is a neutral term, but the khandhas can become associated with (are indeed prone to), corruption. Primarily they are prone to give rise to the corruption of ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) which distorts the way things really are. Rupert Gethin has commented on the nature of the khandhas in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma:


‘The term upādānakkhandha signifies the general way in which the khandhas are bound up with upādāna; the simple khandha, universally applicable, is used in the nikāyas and especially the Abhidhamma texts as a neutral term, allowing the specific aspects of, for example, upādāna’s relationship to the khandhas to be elaborated.’[6]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is using the khandhas in its explanation of two ways of apprehending the world, one ‘wholesome’ (kusala), and one ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). These ideas suggest that the text is attempting to explain two attitudes to the world found in the dichotomy suggested by Collins. The same reality is seen, but the one based on non-attachment is wholesome, and the other, based on attachment, giving rise to corruptions, is unwholesome.


One could state that in this particular understanding of the Buddha’s teachings the entire engaged Buddhism agenda appears fundamentally flawed. Socially engaged Buddhism begins with the premise that suffering is not only caused by mental reactions to external events, but that external events – social, political and economic, for example – can be the cause of suffering. For the engaged Buddhist suffering is not only psychological, to be overcome by such techniques as meditation, but finds its causes in a wide variety of factors. Political struggle, among other things, can then be used as a technique to overcome suffering. I’m not suggesting that either interpretation is correct. They appear to me to both be valid and to have support from different parts of the tradition. I would suggest that the teachings I am considering here offer a criticism, and one that perhaps needs to be addressed, of socially engaged Buddhism. As I have heard it suggested – to think that Buddhism has a political message is ‘wishful thinking’.



[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 113.

[2] I shall return to the use of four khandhas below.

[3] katame dhammā kusalā? tīṇi kusalamūlāni: alobho adoso amoho taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃ samuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā kusalā, Dhs 180, :981. All references to the Dhs are given by page then paragraph numbers.

[4] katame dhammā akusalā? tīṇi akusalamūlāni: lobho doso moho, tadekaṭṭhā ca kilesā taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃsamuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā akusalā, Dhs 180, :982.

[5] The text finally defines those dhammas that are indeterminate (avyākatā), which is not essential for the present discussion: katame dhammā avyākatā kusalākusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipākā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā arūpāvacarā apariyāpannā, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, ye ca dhammā kiriyā n’ eva kusalā nākusalā na ca kammavipākā, sabbaṃ ca rūpaṃ, asaṃkhatā ca dhātu. ime dhammā avyākatā, Dhs 180, :983.

[6] Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 14 (1986), 35-53 (p. 39).