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Jul 19th
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Home Teachings Dependant Originations What is Dependant Origination - Birth to Suffering

What is Dependant Origination - Birth to Suffering

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Article Index
What is Dependant Origination
Ignorance to Formations
Formations to Consciousness
Consciousness to Mind-and-Body
Mind-and-Body to Six Bases
Six Bases to Contact
Contact to Feeling
Feeling to Craving
Craving to Clinging
Clinging to Becoming
Becoming to Birth
Birth to Suffering
The Three Periods
Other Aspects
All Pages

Birth to Suffering

Kamma's role in the chain of causation is emphasised in the teaching, "Dependent on mental formations, rebirth consciousness arises," which we have already explained in detail. Since the dying person is attached to the signs and visions relating to kamma, kamma-based material phenomena arise after death with rebirth-consciousness conditioned by deathbed attachment. Contact with sense-objects leads to feeling, which in turn produces craving. It does not matter whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant. Pleasant feeling creates desire for pleasant objects while unpleasant feeling also makes us crave for pleasant ones. When the desire becomes strong and develops into attachment, it leads us to make efforts for its fulfilment. People do wholesome or unwholesome deeds, which they hope will help to satisfy their needs and desires. It is this kammabhava rooted in craving that causes rebirth. Rebirth is accompanied by suffering wherever it takes place.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the sufferings in the animal and other lower realms. For human beings, too, suffering is inescapable. One has to work hard to make a living. One may be harassed by employers or landlords. Even if one avoids most of the suffering inherent in the struggle for survival, one will finally have to face aging, disease, and death. Suffering begins in the womb; from the time of conception, one is heading inexorably towards aging, disease, and death. Though one may live an apparently carefree, happy life, both body and mind are constantly aging and decaying.

An Indian fable illustrates the inevitability of aging, disease, and death. One man, being afraid of aging, rose into the air with the elixir of life in his mouth and hid in the sky. Another man hid under the sea to escape disease and a third hid in a cave in the Himalayas to avoid death. When their sons searched for them they found that the first man had become old and decrepit, the second man was terminally ill, and the third man was already dead. Everyone is subject to aging, disease, and death. Once one is reborn, nothing will protect one from these misfortunes. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, "There is no place in the sky, on land, or in the ocean where one can escape from death."

Aging, disease, and death are inevitable as long as rebirth takes place. Rebirth also leads to grief, anxiety, lamentation, and despair. We grieve when a member of our family dies. The grief is overwhelming when we lose our parents or someone on whom we depend, or a son or a daughter whom we love dearly. Another cause for grief is the loss of material possessions through corrupt officials, thieves, fires, floods, storms or unworthy heirs. Grief also results from disease and decline of health. Some patients are so depressed that their mental state becomes a hindrance to their recovery. For scrupulous monks and laymen, any defect in their morality causes remorse. Thus the hermit Isisinga suffered terrible anguish when he was seduced by a goddess. Anxiety and remorse also torment those who realise they have been following wrong views due to the influence of a misguided teacher. Many other misfortunes such as accidents, robbery, unemployment, and so forth, also cause grief, anxiety, and despair.

Because of his intelligence, man also suffers anguish whenever he is in contact with unpleasant sense-objects. Since he has to suffer mentally as well, it is like adding insult to injury. This does not apply to the arahant or the non-returner, since, being free from ill-will, they remain unperturbed in the face of physical suffering. It is similar for the mindful meditator who is free from ego-illusion, which is inclined to increase feelings of self-pity. Hence, the importance of the Buddha's teaching that we should be aware of unpleasant feeling whenever we suffer from it.

People are unhappy when they think of the frustrations and misfortunes that beset them in the past and the present or that may beset them in future. They feel bitter and disappointed when they find themselves in difficulty and burdened with misfortunes. All these sufferings are rooted in birth. Life is unsatisfactory and impersonal, and would lack any lasting enjoyment even if a self did exist to enjoy it. According to the doctrine of Dependent Origination, the only thing that links one existence with another is cause and effect. From craving, kammic effort, etc., based on ignorance in one existence, five effects arise: consciousness, body and mind, sense-organs, contact, and feeling. These effects begin with birth and end in death with aging, anxiety, and other types of suffering in between.

This teaching of the Buddha does not appeal to ordinary people who harbour illusions of happiness and selfhood. However, impersonality and suffering are undeniable — even beings in the celestial realms are not exempt from it. Some earth-bound devas have to struggle hard for survival and are more miserable than human beings. They are called Vinipā tika Devas, and comprise ghosts, goblins, etc., who belong to the lowest order of devas. Some devas in the celestial realms are dissatisfied because they do not have magnificent mansions and enough attendants. Even Sakka, the king of the devas, admitted to Venerable Mahākassapa that he was not so luminous, since his attainment of the celestial realm was due to wholesome kamma done long before the propagation of the Buddha's teaching. He said that he had to hide when he saw those devas who outshone him because they had done wholesome kamma in the time of the Buddha. Thus Sakka was not always happy, nor were his female attendants. They told Venerable Mahākassapa that they were wretched and miserable since they counted for little among the high-ranking queen-goddesses.

Some devas become unhappy on the approach of death, which is heralded by the withering of their flower garlands, sweating from their armpits and other signs of aging. Other devas die suddenly while indulging in celestial pleasure just like a man whose life is cut short by a stroke. Death may take only a second, like the snuffing of a candle. This is borne out by the story of Subrahma Deva.

The Story of Subrahma

Subrahma Deva was enjoying life when his attendant goddesses, who were singing and plucking flowers, died suddenly and landed in hell, where he could see them suffering. He also realised that he too would die in a few days and share the same fate. Greatly alarmed, he went to the Buddha and asked the Lord to show him where he could live without fear. The Lord replied that the only way was by cultivating the factors of enlightenment, by ascetic practices (dhutanga) and right exertion (sammappadhāna) that eradicate defilements, sense-restraint (indriya-samvara-sīla) that wards off defilements, and nibbāna, which means the renunciation of everything. On hearing this, the deva and his attendants attained stream-winning.

Here, what we should note is the sudden death of the goddesses. The fate of those who die suddenly while engaged in the pursuit of pleasure is terrible since they are likely to be born in hell because of unwholesome kammic impulses. If any sign appears that heralds the approach of death, it creates fear and adds to their suffering. Suffering that stems from attachment to pleasure is not confined to the sensual realm, for it is also the lot of the brahmās in the immaterial realms. In the brahmā realm, there is no sexual pleasure or sensuality. The objects that brahmās can see, hear or think of have no sexual overtones. However, as the Visuddhimagga says, some people crave for the pleasures of the brahmā realm because they believe, either through hearsay or speculation, that such pleasures are superior to those of the human and celestial realms. It is nothing other than their sensual craving that leads to the attainment of rūpa-jhāna or arūpa-jhāna and finally takes them to the fine-material or immaterial realms. It is not surprising that some people think or speak of the sensuality in the brahmā realm. Those who know the true teaching of the Buddha will reject the idea but it probably appeals to ignorant people. The Indian religious books portray Brahmā with his wife, and some people even regard nibbāna as a heavenly realm with celestial mansions where one can dwell with one's family and attendants.

Excessive attachment

Kāmupādāna means not only excessive attachment to sensual pleasures, it also means craving for the fine-material and immaterial realms. Therefore, according to the Visuddhimagga, one can eradicate this insatiable craving only at the final stage of the Path, and it is this craving that underlies every effort to attain rūpa- or arūpa-jhāna. For ordinary people, such jhāna means kammic effort based on sensual craving, which leads to rebirths in the fine-material or immaterial realms of brahmās. The incessant aging of mind and matter begins from the moment of rebirth. The aging of a brahmā is not apparent as it is for human beings, but when his lifespan ends he cannot avoid death. Being free from hatred, a brahmā is not subject to grief and anxiety. Lack of a body ensures freedom from physical pain. However, a brahmā cannot escape aging and death, which are inherent in every kind of existence. So escape from aging and death presupposes the end of rebirth. To avoid rebirth, we must strive to avoid unwholesome kamma and even wholesome kamma. Negation of kammic existence calls for the effacement of attachment and craving. For this purpose, the mental process must end at feeling and stop short of developing the desire for anything. This avoidance of craving through contemplating impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self in all phenomena is the only way to avoid rebirth and the other links in the sequence that leads to aging and death. This means the temporary extinction of suffering which one can finally overcome when one develops insight on the Noble Path.


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The Dhammapada

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