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It is said by the bhikkhuni Vajira:

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,

The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates exist,
There is the convention ‘a being.’
SN 5.10

The pali translated as 'convention' is 'sammuti'.

Looking at other places where the word 'sammuti' is used we can find numerous references in the theravada vinaya.

Each of these translates the word 'sammuti' from pali to english as 'agreement' and not 'convention.'

Is that all the conventional existence of 'a being' is - an agreement? Is 'a fist' an agreement? Is 'a lap' an agreement? Is 'the President of the United States' an agreement? Is 'rebirth' an agreement?

It would seem some agreements are skillful and some are not. That is why the Buddha gave the vinaya, right?

Do Noble Ones with Right View not understand agreements or somehow give up these agreements or do they just acknowledge that all of these are just agreements and not real and actual?

It would seem to me that Noble Ones with Right View see that 'mother and father' is just an agreement to the same extent as 'this world' and 'the next world.'

Right View does not utterly deny any of these; it simply acknowledges them for what they are and no more: useful agreements.

UPDATE:

This was too close to a seeded question. Although it was asked sincerely in that I was curious to know others responses (particular users on this site who I respect and admire) I do have my own idea of how I would answer this question so I should not have opened it out of mere curiosity. I was going to delete it given it goes against the site moderation guidelines, but then there are good answers and we are discouraged to delete questions where people have attempted to give good and thoughtful answers so I will leave it, but I do regret opening it in the first place.

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  • See dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN22_22.html and footnotes below. Sujato’s book on mindfulness also discusses this “debate” in chapter 2. Sujato’s book also makes the case that this is one of the earliest suttas.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 19, 2023 at 16:38
  • Do you believe that the two camps mentioned in the footnote are alive and extent in Theravada schools today? I'm not aware of any that accept the heritage of the Pudgalavādin (Personalist) school. I'm also not sure how any of this has to do with the questions I've asked above.
    – user13375
    Oct 19, 2023 at 16:45
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    The title asks if the conventional existence of a being is just an agreement - the “debate” is precisely about just such issues. I do not know how extant either of the two camps are; but I bring it up because a) this sutta appears to be early b) the interpretation of this sutta is relevant to your question c) there has historically been much debate about the interpretation.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 19, 2023 at 17:00
  • I think you're mistaken. The debate you linked is whether a being is just a convention or not. I think one side won that debate - Theravada - and the answer is in the affirmative: 'a being' is a convention as can be seen definitively with SN 5.10. That debate is settled. This question is not about that debate. This question is what is the meaning of 'convention' ... and the question is 'does it just mean agreement?' as the word is translated in vinaya rules I've linked.
    – user13375
    Oct 19, 2023 at 17:09

3 Answers 3

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This question is what is the meaning of 'convention' ... and the question is 'does it just mean agreement?'

from The Dhamma Theory. Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma by Y. Karunadasa:

The term sammuti is derived from the root man, to think, and when prefixed with sam it means consent, convention, general agreement.

The statement: "The person exists" is not erroneous, provided one does not imagine by the person a substance enduring in time. Convention requires the use of such terms, but as long as one does not imagine substantial entities corresponding to them, such statements are valid. On the other hand, as the commentators observe, if for the sake of conforming to the ultimate truth one would say, "The five aggregates eat" (khandha bhunjanti), "The five aggregates walk" (khandha gacchanti), instead of saying: "A person eats," "A person walks," such a situation would result in what is called voharabheda, i.e. a breach of convention resulting in a breakdown in meaningful communication.

Because the Buddha is able to employ such linguistic designations as "person" and "individual" without assuming corresponding substantial entities, he is called "skilled in expression" (vohara-kusala). Skilfulness in the use of words is the ability to conform to conventions (sammuti), usages (vohara), designations (pannatti), and turns of speech (nirutti) in common use in the world without being led astray by them.

From this explanation it is apparent that sammuti is a common way of thinking about something, a common way of conceptualizing some phenomena agreed upon by many or most people.

Whether the reason they agreed to it is because it is more functional or more skillful or more convenient, or simply due to tradition is outside of scope of the term sammuti.

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  • Excellent point that just because something is a convention does not necessarily mean it is functional, useful or skillful!
    – user13375
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:17
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Yes. There is an agreement. If hand touches fire then there will be a sensation of burning. It is painful. When horse pulls the chariot then the wheels will roll and some distance will be covered.

There is an agreement to call Hand a hand, fire a fire, burning a burning, painful as painful , horse as horse, pulls as pulls , chariot as chariot , wheels as wheels , distance as distance.

But reality is that no self can be found in hand, fire , burning, painful, horse, pulls , chariot , wheels and distance.

Why ?

Because hand is impermanent, fire is impermanent, burning is impermanent, painful is impermanent, horse is impermanent, pulls is impermanent, chariot is impermanent, wheels are impermanent and distance is impermanent.

Meaning hands arise , change and vanish,,fire arises , changes and vanishes,,burning arises, changes and vanishes,,horse arises , changes and vanishes,,pulls arise ,change and vanish,, wheels arise , change and vanish,, distance arises , changes and vanishes.

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No, I think it exists. Babies don't have a self. Everything is the same for them. They can't make a difference between them and the world. It's like insanity.

Proof: mirror-test babies solve at 24 months old not before: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test

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  • @blue_ego Can they what? What is your question?
    – Micromega
    Oct 27, 2023 at 19:34

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