A passage from Ñanavira's Notes on Dhamma from Atta:

The puthujjana confuses (as the arahat does not) the self-identity of simple reflexion—as with a mirror, where the same thing is seen from two points of view at once ('the thing itself', 'the selfsame thing')—with the 'self' as the subject that appears in reflexion—'my self' (i.e. 'I itself', i.e. 'the I that appears when I reflect'). For the puthujjana the word self is necessarily ambiguous, since he cannot conceive of any reflexion not involving reflexive experience of the subject—i.e. not involving manifestation of a soul. Since the self of self-identity is involved in the structure of the subject appearing in reflexion ('my self' = 'I itself'), it is sometimes taken (when recourse is not had to a supposed Transcendental Being) as the basic principle of all subjectivity.

The subject is then conceived as a hypostasized play of reflexions of one kind or another, the hypostasis itself somehow deriving from (or being motivated by) the play of reflexions.

The answer needs to show:

  1. How the second passage of my question is a result of the previous passage's last sentence.
  2. What the term 'play of reflexions mean.
  3. What 'a hypostasised play of reflexions mean.
  4. Why he says that the hypostasis is somehow derived from or motivated by the play of reflexions.

Address each of these points by using them as sub headings and if I am happy I will give you the checkmark.

  • 1
    Perhaps clarifying the definition of puthujjana and the Distinction between two types of self will be helpful... Jun 12, 2022 at 18:17
  • Not familiar with the work you reference or the author. I do see that it is a commentary pointing out faults in the Pali scriptures of Theravedic (Hinayana) Buddhism. Theravedic Buddhism essentially says that, in simplistic terms, nirvana is the absence of any existence as the final answer, an Eastern nihilism. It is not to be confused with Mahayana Buddhism which affirms that nirvana as a positive existence - just the absence of the sensiual universe. Jun 13, 2022 at 14:37
  • If the 'Existence' (self) that is looking in the 'mirror' (this observable world/universe) has no existence, then this universe has no existence. The problem with the arguments of the Theravedists has always been this fatal logic. Who's looking in the mirror? Jun 13, 2022 at 14:37
  • @SwamiVishwananda - It is not to be confused with Mahayana Buddhism which affirms that nirvana as a positive existence - just the absence of the sensiual universe. Depends on what you mean by "positive existence"--Mahayana say that the doctrine of emptiness, lack of a distinct essence or intrinsic self-nature that something has to the exclusion of anything else, applies to Nirvana as well (including the lack of a self-nature to distinguish it from Samsara).
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 13, 2022 at 20:26
  • @Hypnosifl yes, I agree. Read the entire quote you gave again - "....that something has to the exclusion of anything else" It (nirvana) is homogeneous, there is no 'something else' there is no awareness of samsara. Jun 13, 2022 at 23:47

1 Answer 1


'Hypostasis' is a philosophical term for the underlying reality of something, as opposed to the attributes or 'appearances' of the thing. For example, a red ball has attributes of being 'red' and 'round', but the thing-in-itself is something beyond those mere attributes.

'Hypostasise' (American: 'hypostasize') is a verb meaning to come to an understanding of the underlying reality of something. In other words, it's a valid philosophical question whether we can understand (hypostasize) the actual nature of a red ball, aside from the attributes that appear to our senses.

Basically, Ñanavira is saying that the conventional mind creates an image of the self by observing the attributes of the self in reflection: e.g., we do or say something, observe that which we've done or said, and then we think: "That is (or that isn't) the kind of person I am." Over time (and through many such reflections) we build up an image of our self, the same way we might build up an image of an actor by watching all of his or her movies.

In other words, the conventional mind thinks of itself in terms of the reflections of its own behavior that it sees occur, as though it were watching a movie of its own life and imagining itself as the protagonist. This is the 'play of reflections' that Ñanavira talks about. We do X (an act of speech or behavior) then evaluate ourselves in terms of the results. We roll a bowling ball down a lane and flatten all ten pins, then stop and think: "oh, yeah, I'm awesome, what a great bowler!". Then we rehearse what we did in our minds, trying to repeat the event and outcome. We think about what we did and didn't do, how we stepped and swung and released; we let our own self-reflections wash over us so that we can emulate our selves and create another strike.

That's the play of reflections: how we examine ourselves to correct what we did 'wrong' and solidify what we did 'right'.

Now, the natural inclination here is to presume that the self we have observed is the self itself. This is natural because that's what we assume about all external objects and entities. We see a horse behave in certain ways and thing: "that's how that horse is"; we see a rock display certain properties and think: "that's how that rock is". This is the moment of hypostasis. We see the way a thing behaves and we make assumptions (hypotheses) about the internal essence of the thing: it's 'horse-ness' or it's 'rock-ness'. And likewise we see how we behave and assume that our accumulated behavior defines what we are. And thus the 'play of reflections' — our own observation of what we concretely do and say — reifies into an image of what we are. It's as though we see that every time we go to the movies we eat popcorn, and conclude that we are the type of thing that must always eat popcorn at movies. We have taken a behavior and come to a (not necessarily true) understanding of what we are.

There's nothing particularly odd about this. I'd really just an informal form of induction: we do X a number of times, and thus conclude that we have a disposition to do X. This is what bridges the first and second paragraphs. We watch ourselves do things on a daily basis, and over time we hypostasize (create an image) of our essential essence from what we observe. It's no different than deciding that some person is conniving while some other person is gullible, except that it's done through a process of self-reflection rather than other-observation. So all of these self-observations allow us to build up an image of ourselves — similar to the images we construct of others — and we quickly and easily conflate this self-image-object with the actual essence of ourselves. This is what leads to the concept of a soul: something that is simultaneously exterior to us (defined in our external behavior) and identical to us (essential to our being).

The arahant doesn't confuse the reflection with the essence. An arahant doesn't think: "I am the kind of person who always eats popcorn in theaters" just because s'he always has eaten popcorn in theaters. The induction doesn't apply, because the arahant is liberated from the karmic processes that dictate identity in that way.

  • 2
    "hypostatis" literally means in Greek "what is underneath" in the sense of "the basic essense"
    – Nikos M.
    Jun 13, 2022 at 8:43
  • I don't see how your answer correlates with what Ñanavira is saying, could you link which part of his sentence to the parts of your paragraph that is explaining it. Thanks
    – PDT
    Jun 13, 2022 at 9:47
  • @PrinceDeepthinker: Hmmm... I really just restated Ñ's explanation in more colloquial terms, so I'm not sure where the connection has gone awry. Do you see the distinction between the self as an object that is observed and the self as a subject which is observing? Jun 13, 2022 at 16:58
  • Your paragraph doesn't show 1) How the second passage of my question is a consequence of the previous passage. 2) It is unclear what is the explanation of the term 'play of reflexions' in your paragraph 3) what ' a hypostasised play of reflexions mean' 4) why he says that the hypostasis is somehow derived from or motivated by the play of reflexions. Address each of these points by using them as sub headings and if I am happy I will give you the checkmark.
    – PDT
    Jun 14, 2022 at 2:59
  • @PrinceDeepthinker: Ok, I'll see if I can revise it tomorrow. Jun 14, 2022 at 4:49

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