Person or Personality?

In last week’s blog I was exploring the connection between self and tasks, and off the back of it I found myself with an important question. One day last week I was feeling tired and headachy but had an important job to get finished. Strong feelings of resistance to doing the job, or anything else for that matter, came up and I said to myself there’s no person and there’s no task. But this sparked a question in my mind, if no-one is there then who or what is resisting? Where does this feeling of not wanting to do something come from?

When I asked myself who was resisting the answer that came back to me straight away was ‘my personality’. Buddhism sees personality as simply a collection of habitual actions; when faced with a particular situation or sensation we have a range of different ways to respond to it but out of that range we will have ones that we use more often than others. These more frequent ways of doing things become our ‘personality’. Habits though are not self, we often just do things in a particular way because that is the way we usually do them. But we don’t often manage to see this separation between mechanical, habitual action and not-self.

There is a story that the great teacher Maha Boowa, who was thought by some to have been an arahant, on a visit to England to do some teaching frequently came across as somewhat gruff and dismissive with most people. After a while his host enquired about how he was feeling, in case perhaps they weren’t looking after him in the right way. He apparently just laughed and said “this is just my personality, I’m a coarse rude guy, don’t make anything out of that”.

I’ve always loved this story, and been intrigued by just what Maha Boowa meant by what he said. The idea of being so unidentified, and completely at ease, with the vagaries of your personality that you aren’t embarassed by it or ashamed of it in any way is surely the dream of every wannabe self-help book author. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go about doing things our own way and not be the least bit bothered about how it comes across?

My angle into understanding what he meant has always been an examination of the personality from a perspective of allowing and accepting. Whatever personality quirks I have, I try to understand them, where they came from, what triggers them, and accept them as just part of who I am regardless of whether they bring me praise or criticism. But when I saw that the feelings of resistance I was experiencing were in essence an aspect of my personality, a habit, I could see the absence of self in what was coming up, and I had a better understanding of how Maha Boowa could be so at ease with the traits of his personality.

Personality is a very interesting area of practice and investigation in Buddhism. We sometimes feel like our personality is the very essence of who we are, and yet at the same time as Buddhist practitioners we realise that this cannot be the case. There is no self to be found in something that is conditioned, so we know that personality cannot be self, but it feels so much like it is that we might struggle to imagine what it feels like to be as blasé about it as Maha Boowa was.

Buddhism does have some categorisation of personality types. They were drawn up in the Vissudhimagga as a means to target the most effective teachings for people of different temperaments. In this system of personality there are said to be six personality types; three wholesome personality types, and three unwholesome:

  1. Greed type
  2. Aversion type
  3. Delusion type
  4. Faith type
  5. Intelligence type
  6. Speculative type

Unlike modern ideas of personality types, these six personalities are not something to create an identity out of. They are not a way of understanding ‘who we are’ but are more a way of understanding ‘what we do’. Meditation teacher and writer Amita Schmidt points out that:

“Although there can be a natural tendency to use this, or any typology system, to judge or stereotype, the system was originally intended as a skillful means to support awakening. The actual word used in the Visuddhimagga , cariya, is closer to “temperament” than “type.” The Pali word comes from the verbal root car, “to walk,” which can (as here) refer to a way of acting. Since cariya is how you habitually behave, rather than who you “are,” the temperament system is most effective as a tool to hone the practice of mindfulness of mind and behavior. Recognizing the patterns associated with your temperament can help you release your habitual reactions and bring greater awareness and balance.”

Maha Boowa felt that our idea of being a self came from attaching to the kilesas, also described as ‘defilements’. The kilesas are 10 unwholesome qualities that ‘defile’ the mind. You might notice that the three unwholesome personalities are also the first three of the kilesas: 1.greed, 2. hate (also translated as aversion), 3. delusion, 4. conceit, 5. speculative views, 6. skeptical doubt, 7. mental torpor, 8. restlessness, 9. shamelessness, 10. lack of moral dread.

In addition to the 10 kilesas, there are also 16 upakilesas, or impurities: 1.covetousness and unrighteous greed, 2. ill will, 3. anger, 4. hostility , 5. denigration, 6. domineering, 7. envy, 8. stinginess, 9. hypocrisy, 10. fraud, 11. obstinacy, 12. presumption, 13. conceit, 14. arrogance, 15. vanity, and 16. negligence.

Looking at these lists you can recognise that these are words that we might use to describe aspects of either our own or someone else’s personality – conceited, angry, stingy, vain, etc. so that might suggest why Maha Boowa saw them as being so connected to our feeling of having a self.

But investigating these experiences when they come up gives us the chance to see through them as being something to build a sense of self out of. We might think of ourselves or someone else as ‘greedy’, but in reality the greed only happens in the moment that something triggers that response. It might feel like we are always ‘greedy’, but that is just the mind weaving disparate pieces of information together to make a story out of it. To make the response last longer than just the moment that triggered it requires us to attach to it, and when we attach to something we make a self, so it is clear how these habitual responses of personality can come to feel so convincingly like a reflection of self as Maha Boowa suggested.

I won’t overlook the fact that you might be thinking ‘if someone is really enlightened then wouldn’t they stop being rude to people?’ It’s an interesting question, but neither being enlightened myself nor knowing anyone who is, it would be entirely speculative of me to give a concrete answer. It does raise the question of how it lines up with right speech though, because it would leave a bit of a gap in the teachings if we could just write off any of our unskilful behaviours as ‘just our personality’.

Right speech, samma vaca in Pali, is a factor of the Eightfold Path to be cultivated as part of the practice towards enlightment. It is defined as:

“Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter: This, monks, is called right speech.” trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

While there is no requirement to avid saying what has to be said, there is a frequent reminder that it should at least not be done harshly:

“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

But while it seems initially that being rude could be a case of wrong speech, there is an intriguing sutta where a group of monks go to the Buddha to complain that another monk, Pilindavaccha, speaks down to them all the time.

“…the Blessed One said to him, “Is it true, Pilindavaccha, that you go around addressing the monks as if they were outcastes?”

“Yes, lord.”

Then the Blessed One, having directed attention to Ven. Pilindavaccha’s previous lives, said to the monks, “Don’t take offense at the monk Vaccha. It’s not out of inner hatred that he goes around addressing the monks as if they were outcastes. For 500 consecutive lifetimes the monk Vaccha has been born in brahman families. For a long time he has been accustomed to addressing people as outcastes. That’s why he goes around addressing the monks as if they were outcastes.” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So while Vaccha has a bit of a short way of talking to the other monks, it isn’t because that is how he actually feels about them, it is just the product of 500 lifetimes of habit. As the summary description of this sutta succintly points out:

“Ud 3.6: Pilinda Sutta — Pilinda {Ud 28} [Thanissaro]. Sometimes, disrespectful behavior is done out of habit, rather than malice.”

So we could suppose that Maha Boowa may have been a rude guy for many lifetimes, but the more important point in this sutta seems to be that he didn’t hold any bad feeling towards anyone and he wasn’t going out of his way to be rude. As he said ‘don’t make anything out of that’, don’t take it seriously, don’t think that it implies that I dislike you or feel aggrieved in any way.

There are other aspects to weigh up too, such as the variations on what is considered polite across different cultures, nationalities, and even across history, such as these intriguing examples from the Victorian era in the UK:

“a lady’s visiting card should be three-and-five-eighths inches wide, and that when crossing the road she shouldn’t raise her dress with both hands, lest she show too much ankle. Or, from a volume with the title Manners and Rules of Good Society, written by “a member of the aristocracy”, that “jellies, blancmanges, ice puddings, etc., should be eaten with a fork, as should be all sweets sufficiently substantial to admit of it”.” by Henry Hitchings

(For anyone outside of the UK I can assure you that these desserts are now routinely served with a spoon.)

What counts as polite and what counts as rude varies massively between cultures, as anyone who has ever been to another country can attest to. One man’s rude is another man’s perfectly reasonable, so we should factor in that rudeness is a concept, and one that is very different between people. Being gruff and short with people is generally considered to be rude in the UK, but if you let go of the idea of it being rude then maybe you can understand it as being more a case of individual difference.

Some dhamma teachers talk about people just having different natures, like the different calls of the birds. The song of a nightingale is beautiful and melodious, always a joy to listen to, but the call of a crow is coarse and harsh. But the crow isn’t bad, it is just the nature of a crow to have a harsh call. So we can learn to separate the harshness or sweetness of someone’s ‘call’ from their fundamental qualities, as the Buddha did with Pilindavaccha.

And this is something that we can learn to do to ourselves too, which is what I like so much about the Maha Boowa story. He could see that it was just his ‘nature’ to be coarse and rude, he was just like that. He didn’t take it personally, he knew it wasn’t who he really was, it was just his personality, just his habitual way of interacting with the world.

So while his worldly personality hadn’t changed, his Buddhist personality had because he could see through the delusion of thinking that the way he presented himself was in any way his ‘self’. And he also knew that he wasn’t harbouring any ill-will towards anyone either, so he could see that it was indeed just his old habits.

Likewise even though I know there is no ‘person’ doing anything, it can still feel convincingly like there is a ‘someone’ who doesn’t want to do something. But when I look at it from a perspective of personality, in the Buddhist sense, I can see that the feeling that comes up is just my habitual response to certain situations. In some situations habitual aversion makes the feeling of resistance come up, and the ‘someone’ is a sense of self that gets attached to that feeling of resistance.

There is a recipe that I cook, and every single time I think about making it my habitual response is to think ‘oh, no that’s too complicated, do something else’. The reason that comes up is because I need to use a blender, but this step of the recipe takes no longer than chopping an onion in reality. So then I start telling myself a story about how lazy I am because I won’t go and get the blender, and it just continues like that.

But when I look at that scenario through the perspective of personality, the moment of thinking it’s too complicated is just a habit. When I have an overwhelming feeling that I don’t want to do something, it doesn’t really show that I am ‘lazy’ or ‘aversive’ even, it is just one response in one moment. If I wait then quite often another response comes up that is less resistant to the task.

So I can see that I don’t really need to be frustrated with these types of feeling, or any other type of feeling, because they are just habitual responses. I don’t need to ask myself questions like ‘why am I like this?’ because in fact “I” am not like anything, these are just stock responses from my psycho-physiological system to stimuli. To change these responses requires only to see that they come from habit and not from self, and the ability to tolerate an uncomfortable feeling long enough to let it go.

Unravelling the workings of our sense of ‘personality’ is an important aspect of Buddhist practice, not least because the practice needs us to challenge our sense of ‘who we are’. Maha Boowa showed that it was possible to let all of those ideas go, and that there is a freedom that comes with letting go of the baggage that personality brings with it. It can seem strange to say that habits are not-self because we largely define people in terms of their habitual ways of acting, and usually describe ourselves in the same way. But when we look closely at personality we can find that there is nothing more there than the moment and the reaction it created. Freed from the limitations of how we usually respond to the moment we open up the possibility of something different, and little by little that is how we change one type of habitual response into another, hopefully more skilful, one.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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