+1 vote
by (180 points)
If individuals are simply a collection aggregates, a mental continuum moving from life to life, with no real self, what exactly gives beings personalities? Some individuality arises, of course, due to environment, nurture, etc., but what about other traits that are evident even in the womb (ask any mother) or shortly after birth? Animals too can have very distinctive personalities: dogs, cats, even chickens, or so I have been told. From whence does this "uniqueness" come? I'm not clear how heaps or aggregates fully explains this.

Thank you in advance for any clarification. I find these questions and answers, here at Sirimangalo, most helpful!

3 Answers

+2 votes
by (5.0k points)
A mother might think her child has a wonderful and pleasant personality. An adversary might think the same person has a bitter and unpleasant personality. Which one is correct?

What we call a personality is a perception conditioned by previous experiences. When we say a heap of aggregates we are actually referring to the properties of experience.

Our normal way of looking at reality is believing that objects and entities exist. A woman, a house, a computer screen. But reality is actually moments of experience. Moments of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking.

Each of these experiences is made up of 5 aggregates. Form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness. As you can see perception is one of these properties. Just like all other properties, perception is conditioned by previous experiences.

When the mother perceives her child one way and an adversary perceives the same person differently its because both have different experiences.

I hope this helps.
by (180 points)
It's very helpful indeed, thank you.

I still struggle getting my mind around this, however. That our perceptions of others is largely based upon our own mental states, I understand, of course; also that previous experiences provide the data upon which we base our impressions of others. But is there no deeper basis for our belief, wrong-headed though it may be, of others' individuality?

Think for a moment of a loved one, someone in your family or a close friend. What words or adjectives describe them? Now, that we derive these words, descriptors from our experiences of them is self-evident, likewise that this picture will be partly derived from our own mental qualities (every man is a thief to a thief, and so on); but are personalities, individuality, nothing more than this? I see I'm repeating myself, but I want to be clear. So let me try one more:

Are the quite delightful differences of, say, Yuttadhammo Bikkhu, Ajahn Sumedho, Bikkhu Bodhi and other teachers of the Dhamma only explainable by saying they are just a series of impressions given to our minds, or is there some deeper basis to it than that?

Again, thank you so much for helping me understand this!
by (5.0k points)
They are interpretations (perceptions) based on sense experiences. Just like someone walking into a dark room and seeing what they believe to be a snake on the ground. Once the lights are on and they can see clearly they realize it was just a rope; not a snake.

But intellectualizing about this won't really convince you. You have to see it for yourself. You have to turn on the lights. Practice according to our "How to meditate" booklet and deepen your practice. You'll see it soon enough.
by (180 points)
Many thanks. I'll work on turning that light on...
+2 votes
by (7.7k points)
edited ago by

There are 2 aspects to nature. They are called Naama-rupa. Naama is the mental aspect and Rupa is the physical aspect. Naama-rupa are further subdivided as the five aggregates
Out of the five aggregates, only one aggregate belongs to Rupa(physical) category. Lets take few examples for Rupa in terms of conventional reality:

  • Trees/plants: mango, apple, banana, orange, papaya, oak, teak, grass, roses, lilies, orchids etc. etc. 
  • Stones: diamonds, ruby, sapphire, jade, marbles, cobbles, gravel etc. etc.

How are these so different even though they all belong to just one category? In other words, how can the physical stuff in nature be so different? It's the diversity of components making up the whole.

So if just one category of the aggregates can manifest with so much diversity, is it surprising that four categories have even a higher chance of being diverse? For example, the Abhidhamma lists 52 types of mental concomitants

All the five aggregates are involved when it comes to animals and humans. Different beings have different bodily attributes, mental inclinations, different levels of concentration, mindfulness,  wisdom, ignorance, dislikings, laziness etc. etc. All those contribute to what we call as 'personality' or 'individuality' in conventional reality.

By the way, it's wrong to say "mental  continuum moves from life to life" if by "mental  continuum" you mean Bhavaanga cittas. Bhavaanga cittas arise between two experiences and they die instantly. They do not go from life to lfe.


by (180 points)
I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to answer my question. This gives me much to ponder. Thank you, too, for the correction. Much to learn, much to learn!
by (7.7k points)
You're welcome!
0 votes
by (960 points)
Both great answers given already. Past karma is also the reason for our differing personalities.
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