“What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.”
—Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, Digha Nikāya 16
A Note: Pāli is the language most likely used by the historical Buddha so, the author has opted to use Pāli terms in this article.
The term vipallāsa sounds innocent enough. It sounds like you can walk into any ethnic restaurant and buy an entrée of vipallāsa and have a nice glass of red wine to wash it down with. Yet to partake in vipallāsa is a very dangerous thing and bring years of pain and suffering into one’s life. You see, a vipallāsa is a distortion, perversion or derangement. We see lot of that in our culture, mainly among politicians and often among ministers. The more committed one is to their vipallāsa, their chosen distortion of reality, the more vehement they become about its defense. To defend such a distortion, one requires a view of ‘self’ or what we casually call an ego (attā; Pāli or atman; Sanskrit). It was the ego that distorted the sense of reality in the first place and must now defend it.
In the Canon there are four sets of distortions discussed.
- Nicca-vipallāsas: when impermanence is erroneously perceived, thought and viewed as permanence.
- Sukha-vipallāsas: when the harmful or unpleasant is erroneously perceived, thought and viewed as pleasure.
- Subha-vipallāsas: when that which is impure is erroneously perceived, thought and viewed as pure.
- Attā-vipallāsas: when Egolessness (no-soul or no-self) is erroneously perceived, thought or viewed as a soul or an essential being.
So long as these distortions are maintained and nurtured the being is trapped in Samsāra, ‘the Wandering’, through the Realm of Rebirth (Jati-khetta), which contains decillions of universes. A single decillion is a real number. In English that refers to a one followed by 60 zeros. That represents an experientially mind-blowing number of possibilities for rebirth.
We like to believe that the ego is simply one of many functions of the self, but alas, this is but another distortion. What we call the self is simply the ego. We also call the ego a ‘soul’. We take this soul to be a person. What we call in convention language a “person” is in the absolute or ultimate sense only citta, cetasika and rupa. There is no lasting person or “self”, there are only citta (mind), cetasika and rupa which arise and then fall away immediately. These terms are explained below. What we call the ego is only a mental response to stimuli perceived to exist outside of ourselves. Ego is phantom created and existing in the citta/cetasika complex and nowhere else.
Of the vipallāsas, it is attā-vipallāsas that is the most harmful to the average person. A persistent belief in the existence of a permanent, self-existing and permanent ‘self”, i.e., a ‘soul’, makes one evil, it is said in the Buddhist teachings. People who have a soul belief have a predisposition to perform harmful, even evil, actions, thoughts and speech. Because of this belief they are doomed to continual existence in Samsāra, much of it in lower rebirth: mental states or hate and anger, fear and anxiety, addiction and craving for objects of desire that will never satisfy them. For them there is only the possibility of bullying the weak and being bullied by the strong.
Those who extinguish their belief in a soul are skillful practicers of the Dhamma. At the moment they let go of the attā-vipallāsa they are at that moment well established in purity and nobility. They may still wander through the Realms of Rebirth but are they are freed from danger and live in peace.
Why is it said that the soul-belief the root cause of evil called pāpa in Pāli? This leads to the formation of a dūsita-citta, depraved, sinful, evil mind and its views, thoughts and actions. Why is it said the destruction of this erroneous belief is the cessation of dūsita citta?
To preserve one’s view of having or being a soul, a self-existent, autonomous and eternal being one establishes and identity, an ego. In order to maintain that ego, the individual must exercise extreme gymnastics of logic to justify their belief. For example, say there is a man that thinks highly of himself. He goes into business and in order to prove his skill in business he lies to his clients to make money, the measure of his success. Because he needs flattery to support his sense of who he is, he makes claims that are untrue. He falsely claims he is more successful and worth more than he really is when it suits him, he lies and says he is worth less than he really is when that suits him. He may even attain great power among his countrymen. He begins to see himself as a king. He makes decisions that will aggrandize him, decisions that may even cause others to die or become ill. Because of his great power others follow him, believing in a soul, they also see the powerful man as their protector. Other fear the man and bow to his whims, even to the point of sacrificing their most valued possession — their integrity. One man’s erroneous perception of himself may cause the downfall of an entire society. Welcome to the United States and the Impeachment of a Little Man.
At the same time, if such a man were to abandon his ego and see the harm, they have done to themselves and others, he can abandon his personal suffering and turn toward the Stream of Life. Yet few take this road, instead they shun happiness for temporary gratification that will leave them disappointed and hungry for more moments of fleeting self-indulgences.
The word samana describes such a being who has abandoned the soul-belief. It comes from the words samite (quieting of) and pāpa (evil). In verse 265 of the Dhammapada a samana is said to be ‘someone who has pacified evil’. One need not be a monk to attain this status. One need only turn toward the Stream of Life. In pacifying our own minds, we can remove the distortions of thought that plague us and thus become truly human.
Explanation of terms
Citta refers to mind; heart; or state of consciousness.
Cetasika are mental factors that co-exist with citta or co arise with citta. They are mind conditioners and they influence mind and condition mind to have different names. They pass away at the very same time when citta falls away. They also have to depend on the same vatthu or base and they also have to take the same object that citta takes.
Rupa has a basic meaning of this word is “appearance” or “form.” It is used, however, in a number of different contexts, taking on different shades of meaning in each. In lists of the objects of the senses, it is given as the object of the sense of sight. As one of the khandha, it refers to physical phenomena or sensations, visible appearance or form being the defining characteristics of what is physical. This is also the meaning it carries when opposed to nama, or mental phenomena. Apart from citta and cetasika which are realities, there is another reality. It is rupa. Rupa are the nature which are always influenced by one or more of four causes namely kamma (karma), citta, utu, and ahara. Rupa are always changing as citta and cetasika are always changing even though they are relatively slower than nama dhamma. Unlike nama dhamma, rupa do not have the nature that can be aware of themselves and their surroundings.
While citta can experience rūpa through the appropriate sense door, rupa can never know anything.
Vipallasa Sutta: Distortions of the Mind
Anguttara Nikāya 4.49
translated from the Pali by
These four, O Monks, are distortions of perception, distortions of thought distortions of view…
Sensing no change in the changing,
Sensing pleasure in suffering,
Assuming “self” where there’s no self,
Sensing the un-lovely as lovely —
Gone astray with wrong views, beings
Mis-perceive with distorted minds.
Bound in the bondage of Mara,
Those people are far from safety.
They’re beings that go on flowing:
Going again from death to birth.
But when in the world of darkness
Buddhas arise to make things bright,
They present this profound teaching
Which brings suffering to an end.
When those with wisdom have heard this,
They recuperate their right mind:
They see change in what is changing,
Suffering where there’s suffering,
“Non-self” in what is without self,
They see the un-lovely as such.
By this acceptance of right view,
They overcome all suffering.