With birth, death applies

Posted: December 23, 2010 by pathpress in Bhikkhu's Notebook, Dhamma Article

1. We are born. We come into this world through our birth. As we shall see in the following paragraphs, there are many ways that one can think of one’s birth. However, from a phenomenological point of view our birth is always here with us. The fact that one is constantly engaged with the world of one’s desires, decisions and miseries, means that one is born – his birth is present. Obviously, for someone not used to thinking phenomenologically, it might be fairly difficult to pull oneself out of the habitual way of regarding things as something which is clearly defined, something palpable in one’s experience. For such a person ‘birth’ is an event from the past, and we shall address this issue in the paragraphs to follow. However, there is also a simpler and easily overlooked reason for one failing to grasp the phenomenological description of ‘birth’. In our language the term ‘birth’, as a designation of experience, carries certain past connotations. These connotations are absolutely gratuitous, and we shall see that the reason for that lies in people’s views (diṭṭhi). The established usage of terminology draws its significance (i.e. the meaning of its words) from the most common views (on the level of humanity or a particular culture), about the nature of experience. Needless to say, the common views are rarely correct, especially when it comes to the experience of an individual. These views can never represent the real order of things. Thus, apart from the way we speak, and use the language, nothing requires us to think that birth can, and shall only be understood as a past event which has started and ended in time.

2. Naturally, it is possible for one to regard, and understand to a certain extent, birth as something which has happened to him a long time ago, even without having the actual memory of the event. However, this kind of limited understanding is only possible in the objective (scientific) view of the world, and oneself. We can even go a step further and say that it is precisely because of that view that one thinks of birth (and other things, including ageing-and-death) in these temporal categories. With this kind of view, the objective world in front of one, the world which is in time, takes precedence over one’s experience as such, which is of time (cf. Ñāṇavīra Thera, Notes on Dhamma, FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, Dynamic Aspect, para. 5). One starts regarding the objects that appear through one’s experience, as something more fundamental than the experience itself – he puts second that which is to come first, and he puts first that which is to come second.1 As a result of this one starts regarding oneself objectively as also being in time. Thus, time develops into a category which has become external to everything, and all of the things appear as being “within” it2. Therefore, one sees that others are born, their event of birth occurs in time, when he observes it externally. But because he views himself externally too, he naturally (i.e. in conformity with his view) comes to assume that his birth has also occurred some time ago in the past. One also assumes, since he can see it in his everyday experience, that death will happen to him in that same ‘external’ sense, “as it happens to others all the time”. By regarding things in this way, he, as an individual, does not feel threatened by any of it, until the actual death comes of course. So, we can see that one doesn’t adopt this objective view voluntarily – when avijjā is present, the view is developed naturally as the quickest way of offering one assurance from a threatening world. The world and one’s experience becomes explainable and measurable – one has regained control.

Let us get back to the phenomenon of ‘birth’, we were discussing. The Buddha referred to ‘birth’ as:

Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-being, coming-forth, manifestation of aggregates, and acquisition of [sense] spheres of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth. (Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta, M. 9/i 50)

Thus, although we can agree that birth is some sort of a “beginning”, so to speak, a “manifestation of the aggregates”, what obliges us to think that that beginning has ended there? The fact that one keeps accepting and using the five-aggregates, the fact that one is constantly involved with the world of one’s senses, doesn’t that mean that one’s manifestation of aggregates is present3? And would one be able to desire various things in the world, if those things were not manifested? If one were able to relinquish any attachment for his own body, would one be bothered when that body falls apart and dies? It is because one affirms that manifestation of the five-aggregates, through desire-and-lust for them, that the manifestation exists, it comes-into-being – with being, birth is (bhavapaccayā jāti). And when one regards it as ‘mine’, one ages, falls sick and dies (and also experiences any other misery possible in this life) – with birth, ageing-and-death (jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ…). If there is no being whatsoever, would manifestation be able to manifest itself? And if nothing manifested, would one be able to appropriate it? And if there is nothing which belongs to one, would one suffer on account of those things breaking up and disappearing? No, because one has escaped.

3. Let us go back to the question of when birth ends. Actually, we can even ask when does birth start? The common view is that first one is conceived, and than, after nine months or so, things culminate in one being born. But when does the conception take place or when exactly is one born? Is it with the formation of an embryo or with cutting of the umbilical cord? Generally, the accepted view is that birth is over when the baby comes out of the womb and into the world. And when it comes to ‘general views’, we all know that people often tend to blindly comply to them, taking them for granted for the most (or whole) of their lives, without even realizing they are doing so. In this case, ‘birth’ becomes that which accords to the majority of opinions on that subject. One chooses to conform with “what everyone else thinks”, since the majority is “always in the right”. One accepts Heidegger’s impersonal ‘They’ as a dictator of one’s own values, one finds safety in doing so. However, no matter how secure the majority’s view might seem, all it takes is for someone else to come along and say (perhaps supporting it with “the latest medical research”) that birth actually ends when the formation of an infant is completed in the womb, and that coming out of the mother is not relevant as such, to question of birth itself. (Though, for parents, even if they happen to be those scientists, this is probably the most relevant part4.) If his utterance manages to change the general opinion, if the majority of people come to accept it, we will have a new, “more accurate” view on the nature of birth. The majority might have been wrong earlier, but now it is in the right… until it changes. And one can again choose to conform to that majority and make a choice out of it, but no matter how far one goes that choice will always remain personal, and as such, be on the level of an individual. So, although one thinks what everybody else does, one nevertheless remains responsible for that very thinking. It becomes clear then that by choosing the majority’s opinion on a certain subject (in this case ‘birth), out of ‘faith’ in modern science (or religion) perhaps, a person chooses his individual view on given subject. So, by deciding to accept the scientific explanation of birth, one decides that birth, for him, is something observable, an event in the world. Thus, whether one is aware of it or not, one is responsible for the meaning of things in one’s experience. Even if we go further and say that we could pinpoint the exact moment of birth5, when, for example, conception takes place, and even if the whole of humanity, without an exception, agreed upon it, nevertheless, this would not escape the nature of ‘view’, and that is to be ‘imposed’ onto things in one’s experience, while at the same time directly depending upon them. In our case that would most likely be the ‘objective view’, which is of course, based on personal preferences and inclinations6. Thus, for a puthujjana coming-out-of-womb is that which is birth. His birth exists.

The Buddha, on the other hand, talks about the nature of birth, as a phenomena (dhamma), in one’s experience. He does not refer to birth as an occurrence in time, upon which even puthujjanas cannot agree, and this can be seen from the usual paṭiccasamuppāda (p.s.) description. In this description, jāti refers to that ‘nature’ of birth and any temporal events are completely irrelevant to it. If there is no ‘birth’ whatsoever, if there is no manifestation (as such) of the aggregates, a puthujjana would not be able to regard any event (in this case ‘coming-out-of-womb’) as his7 birth8. Thus, one doesn’t suffer on account of birth as an event in the past, one suffers on account of the nature of birth in the present. In p.s. context, ‘birth’ structurally precedes ‘ageing-and-death’. ‘Ageing-and-death’ is not ‘birth’, but they wouldn’t be without it – together they arise, together they cease. So, it is that with ‘birth’, ‘ageing-and-death’ (and ‘sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair’) apply. Consequently, if we were to discuss jāramaraṇaṃ, we could say that it is because ageing-and-death is present, that one will age and die (and suffer) in time. But, if one could manage, through an understanding of the Dhamma, to free oneself from ‘being’ – to bring it to an end – ‘ birth’ and ‘ageing-and-death’ would cease to exist for him: all of the temporal occasions for suffering would cease to be his suffering, since by not-being born, one doesn’t have the desire to interfere with them any more – one is free.

5. Let me just say something more, for those who find it difficult to accept that the existential (phenomenological) method9 can validly be applied to Dhamma. We can put aside Sartre, Heidegger and those like them, and disregard what they have to say about birth. However, even in that case, still, we need look no further than the p.s. description in order to see what the Buddha meant by ‘birth’. In Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta, M. 9/i 50, it is said, as we already referred to it earlier on:

When a noble disciple has thus understood birth, the origin of birth, the cessation of birth, and the way leading to the cessation of birth… he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view… and has arrived at this true Dhamma.

Thus, a Noble disciple, an ariyasāvaka, can by understanding ‘birth’, in the same sense that he would have understood the Four Noble Truths – directly and timelessly – free oneself and become an arahat. So, one may rightly ask now: would this be possible, if ‘birth’ were not already somehow present10, as a phenomena, in our experience? How would one be able to understand birth directly and without involving time? If one’s birth was indeed a distant event, in some maternity ward perhaps, one’s fate would be sealed according to the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta, since the event of birth has already passed and cannot possibly be understood directly. Fortunately, one’s birth is not in the past, so one can, if one chooses to follow the Buddha’s Teaching, cease to, in the present, regard ‘birth’ as his and by doing so remove himself from the domain of ageing-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. One can escape.

Bhikkhu Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli


1 Cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, (Routledge Classics, 2007, p. 82):

I detach myself from my experience and pass to the idea. Like the object, the idea purports to be the same for everybody, valid in all times and places, and the individuation of an object in an objective point of time and space finally appears as the expression of a universal positing power. I am no longer concerned with my body, nor with time, nor with the world, as I experience them in antepredicative knowledge, in the inner communion that I have with them. I now refer to my body only as a idea, to the universe as idea, to the idea of space and the idea of time. Thus ‘objective’ thought (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is formed – being that of common sense and of science – which finally causes us to lose contact with perceptual experience, of which it is nevertheless the outcome and the natural sequel. The whole life of consciousness is characterized by the tendency to posit objects, since it is consciousness, that is to say self-knowledge, only in so far as it takes hold of itself and draws itself together in an identifiable object. And yet the absolute positing of a single object is the death of consciousness, since it congeals the whole of existence, as a crystal placed in a solution suddenly crystallizes it.

2 Time, as a phenomena in one’s experience, is regarded as more primordial (read – ‘permanent’), than the experience of things. The things seem to come and go, while the sense of time stays.

3 Furthermore, nothing obliges us to think that ‘manifestation of aggregates’ refers to the event of coming-out-of-womb. The Buddha has said that “when mother and father come together and the mother is in season and the one to be tied is present, with the coming together of these three things, there is descent into the womb” (M. 38/i 265-66). Thus, the five-aggregates are already manifested, in a way, even at the stage of an embryo, and before the infant is formed. (Cf. also A.III, 61/i, 176-7)

4 And therefore it is not accidental that this is most commonly regarded as birth.

5 This, in itself, is clearly impossible, since the “exactness”, in any area of science, is determined by the capacities of one’s perception (i.e. the refinement of our technology and observational instruments). (Cf. Ñāṇavīra Thera, Notes on Dhamma, FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, Static Aspect, para. 16.)

6 It is very unlikely that the whole of humanity could actually agree on this (or anything), since all people are not the same. The birth of a baby, in this case, carries different significance for different individuals. A mother might say that her baby was born the moment she held it in her arms, and that it was conceived the moment she fell in love with its father. A scientist, in his carefully cultivated attitude of disinterestedness, might say that a baby is conceived when embryo cells become discernible (he observes it under his microscope!), and perhaps that it is born when it starts to breathe independently. For a doctor, involved in performing abortions, there is no question of ‘baby’ (i.e. ‘human’), until three months are due. Thus, it is how one feels towards ‘birth’, how one perceives it, how one intends it, that determines what that birth is for him. (“Contacted, monks, one feels; contacted, one intends; contacted, one perceives.” – Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta, iv,10.)

Also, compare the passage from the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, M. 18/i 111-112:

Dependent on the eye and forms (ear, nose…) eye consciousness arise. The meeting of three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What man feels, that he perceives. What he perceives, that he thinks about. What he thinks about that he diversifies. With what he diversified as the source calculations about perceptions of diversification occupy a man with respect to past, future and present.

7 Compare this passage from J.P. Sartre – Existentialism is Humanism, chapter on ‘Freedom and Responsibility’:

Yet I find an absolute responsibility for the fact that my facticity (here the fact of my birth) is directly inapprehensible and even inconceivable, for this fact of my birth never appears as a brute fact but always across a projective reconstruction of my for-itself. I am ashamed of being born or I rejoice over it, or in attempting to get rid of my life I affirm that I live and I assume this life as bad. Thus in a certain sense I choose to be born. This choice itself is integrally affected with facticity since I am not able not to choose, but this facticity in turn will appear only in so far as I surpass it toward my ends. Thus facticity is everywhere, but inapprehensible; I never encounter anything except my responsibility. That is why I can not ask, “Why was I born? ” or curse the day of my birth or declare that I did not ask to be born, for these various attitudes towards my birth – i.e., toward the fact that I realize a presence in the world – are absolutely nothing else but ways of assuming this birth in full responsibility and of making it mine.

8 This can be stated even more precisely: the temporal things (events in time) are possible only because there is an atemporal structure (nature of time) – time is secondary to one’s experience. Hence, the p.s. is said to be akālika, ‘timeless’. (Cf. Ñāṇavīra Thera, Notes on Dhamma, NP. & FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE). That is why, in the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta, M. 9, we can see that a Noble disciple can, by understanding ‘being’, ‘birth’ or ‘ageing-and-death’ respectively, come to the same result – complete freedom from suffering, arahatship. P.s. can be understood by understanding all or any of its “pairs”, since each of them represent, or rather are, the principle of simultaneous dependent origination – ‘when this, this is’ (imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti).

9 We are not interested in the conclusions (or lack of them, as Ven. Ñāṇavīra would say) they drew from the method itself.

10 Cf. Ñāṇavīra Thera, op. cit., NP., para. 9 & 10. This ‘somehow’ is important to note. If a puthujjana, who is not satisfied with the idea of birth being something which occurred in his past, admits that there has to be some other way in which ‘birth’ can be present, and if he admits that he doesn’t see that way, he might make the effort to find it out, and than eventually see it.

  1. nick c says:

    yes but isn’t self-view involved, ie we think as putthujanas and hold the view that we were born, into the world as we know it in our current circumstances, that they go back to our birth..so birth does mean born however we construe the idea…because we have a self view which involves the conception of a beginning we think of our birth and also have the idea we will end, ie decay and death..i see you quote NP 9 and 10 but the interesting part (to me) is the beginning of 10 : ‘the fundamental upadana or ‘holding’ is attavada…which is holding a belief in ‘self’. The putthujana takes what appears to be his ‘self’ at face value; and so long as this goes on he continues to be a ‘self’… The putthujana knows that people are born and die; and since he thinks ‘my self exists’ so he also thinks ‘my self was born’ and ‘my self will die’.’ Isn’t birth present as an idea or view and does refer to our being born. As Bodhesako says the Buddha urges people to use common phrases so he must be referring to our birth in our current existence… The only view that i can see is that we have a view of our birth bound up with holding a self view. I don’t disagree with this article but feel that the ‘self view’ part has not been brought out. Nanavira also says in NP 10 ‘The putthujana sees a ‘self’ to whom the words birth and death apply.’

    • pathpress says:

      Nick, thanks for your post. I passed it on to the author and he gave me his respond. Please see it bellow:

      Thank you for taking the time to write down your points, regarding the essay in question. Firstly let me say that I agree with you that the whole matter could have been dealt with through a description of the Self-view. However, the avoidance of this was resulting from deliberate way of presenting the topic. The purpose of my essays in general is not to explain the experience, but to describe it, with hopes that some readers may see for themselves that which is being described. Thus, I could have said exactly the same as Ven. Ñāṇavīra did, and as you quote: “The fundamental upādāna or ‘holding’ is attavāda (see Majjhima ii,1 (M.i,67)), which is holding a belief in ‘self’” (NoD, NP, para.10). The point is, however, that if I had done so I would have been liable to the same type of criticisms that people directed towards Ven. Ñāṇavīra. I know that quite a few people have rejected his description of p.s. on account of not being able to accept ‘birth’ as something which is present. My aim was to affect their understanding on a different level, and in order to do so my approach had to be focused on showing the nature of views (with attavāda being the chief amongst them), as I thought I made clear in the opening paragaraphs. As I said in para. 3 – “[the nature of views] …is to be ‘imposed’ onto things in one’s experience, while at the same time directly depending upon them”. Thus, by understanding the nature of views, the reader would indirectly understand the Self-view too, and then see for himself that Ven. Ñāṇavīra was right in his p.s. formulation. I could have made these intentions clear in the beginning of my essay, but I feared that people might then regard it as a some sort of a ‘thesis’ which I was trying to prove. In that way the reader has no need to engage, he can observe it from a distance and in the end decide whether the author was right or wrong, according to his opinion. It is that ‘opinion’ that I tried to undermine, albeit indirectly. Obviously, I am sorry if I have failed to do this.

      You asked: “Isn’t birth present as an idea or view that does refer to our being born?” And my reply is in the para.3: “Thus, for a puthujjana coming-out-of-womb is that which is birth. His birth exists.” The subtle and crucial distinction is here: it is the view that refers us to the event of coming-out-of-womb, not ‘birth’ as you seem to suggest. Jāti refers us to the manifestaion (i.e. nature) of aggregates, which a puthujjana chooses to identify with the event of being born. By not seeing that it is because of his view that he thinks that his birth was in the past, a puthujjana takes his birth to be that which his view points at. And as long as he doesn’t understand the nature of views, a puthujjana will not be able to escape them, and in our example escape from ‘birth’ as such. He remains a puthujjana.

      Without going into too much detail here, for which people can simply re-read the essay, the point I was trying to make is that jāti, in p.s. description, refers to nature of birth; and that nature is not the event in the past. By not seeing that nature, by not understanding ‘birth’, for a puthujjana birth exists in a same way that he exists, and for him his birth is an event in the past, same as he is an occurence in-the-world. But again that is not what is meant by jāti in p.s. context. Thus, as long as a puthujjana is ignorant of the nature of things – in this case nature of birth particularly – the events in-the-world can apply to him: he was born and he will die. His being exists (cf. NoD, NP, para.10 you already mentioned – “…he continues to be a ‘self’”. Also, note here that puthujjana‘s being is his Self, there is no temporal succesion of these things – when puthujjana is, he is as Self.) That’s why I said that “…if one could manage, through an understanding of the Dhamma, to free oneself from ‘being’ – to bring it to an end – ‘ birth’ and ‘ageing-and-death’ would cease to exist for him: all of the temporal occasions for suffering would cease to be his suffering.” (end of para.3). And this is also why an ariysāvaka “…can by understanding ‘birth’, in the same sense that he would have understood the Four Noble Truths – directly and timelessly – free oneself and become an arahat” (para.5).

      I hope this makes the position I’m coming from a bit clearer.


  2. nick c says:

    Thank you, bhante for your reply and further clarification. I have re-read your article several times and this has led me to think further on the whole issue. I can now see more clearly how birth is a manifestation of the aggregates in the present !

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