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Chapter 8

The Cycle of Birth and Death

In Lumbini we sat down for a Dhamma discussion near the pool that reminds us of the two streams of water coming down from the sky which were used as a water libation for the Bodhisatta and his mother, just after he was born. As we read in the Commentary to the “Chronicle of Buddhas” (the “Clarifier of Sweet Meaning”), the Bodhisatta took seven strides and, scanning all the quarters of the world, he said:” I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am eldest in the world. This is the last birth, there is not now again-becoming.”

Lumbini

We still cling to rebirth and we are very far from reaching the end of rebirth. We cling to the five khandhas that constitute what we call a “person”. One of our friends asked Acharn Sujin why the five khandhas are a burden. She was referring to the following sutta: “The Burden” (Kindred Sayings III, Khandha-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Elements, First Fifty, Ch 3, ?22) 1. We read:

Monks, I will explain to you the burden, the laying hold of the burden, the holding on to the burden, the laying down of the
burden. Listen.

What, monks, is the burden?

“The five khandhas of clinging” is the answer. Which five? They are the khandha of clinging to corporeality... to feelings... to perceptions... to mental formations... to consciousness. This, monks, is called “the burden”.

What is the laying hold of the burden?

The answer is that it is the person, the Venerable So-and-so, of such-and-such a family. This, monks, is called “the laying hold of the burden”.

What is the holding on to the burden?

The answer is that it is that craving which gives rise to fresh rebirth and, bound up with lust and greed, now here now there finds ever fresh delight. It is sensual craving, craving for existence, craving for non-existence. This, monks, is called “the holding on to the burden.”

What is the laying down of the burden?

It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and giving up, liberation and detachment from it. This, monks, is called “the laying down of the burden.”

Thus said the Blessed One, the Wellfarere spoke thus; the Teacher then said:

The five khandhas are the heavy load,
The seizing of the load is man.
Holding it is dukkha,
Laying down the load is bliss (sukha).
Laying down this heavy load,
And no other taking up,
By uprooting all desire,
Hunger is stilled, Nibbana is gained.

Acharn Sujin said about seeing the five khandhas as a burden:

“The body, rupakkhandha, is a burden, because we have to look after it from birth to death. Also the nama-khandhas are a burden, but we do not consider them as a burden. We have to see and we have to hear already for countless aeons. We are not tired of seeing, it is not self. It must arise, it lasts for an extremely short while and then it must fall away, it is dukkha. Visible object impinges just for a moment on the eyesense, it is seen and then it falls away. Realities appear through the six doors very shortly and then fall away, there is nothing left. We keep on thinking on account of what is experienced through the six doors, but there is no self who thinks. There must be right understanding so that the khandhas can be seen as a burden.”

So long as there is ignorance and clinging the khandhas have to arise again and again, there will be the continuation of the cycle of birth and death. The khandhas have to arise and to fall away, and thus, they are dukkha. In the above-quoted sutta it is explained that craving, the second noble Truth is the cause of dukkha and that the extinction of craving means the ceasing of dukkha.

 

Lumbini

After our discussion we showed our respect to the Buddha by walking three times around in the area of the pillar erected by King Asoka. This pillar, impressive because of its simplicity, has the inscription commemorating King Asoka’s visit:

“By His Sacred and Gracious Majesty the King, when he had been consecrated twenty years, having come in person and reverence having been done- inasmuch as ‘Here was born Buddha, the sage of the Sakyas’- a stone bearing a horse was cause to be made and a stone pillar was erected.

Inasmuch as ‘Here the Holy One was born,’ the village of Lummini was released from religious cesses and required to pay one-eighth as land revenue.”

One can still see the small remnant of an old statue placed on the ground next to the pillar.

During our pilgrimages in India we always discussed the perfections, paramis, accumulated by the Buddha during his lives as a Bodhisatta. The perfections are most important, because if they are not developed together with satipatthana defilements cannot be eradicated. Each of the  perfections helps to eliminate the clinging to the idea of self and they can support the panna which can eventually eradicate all defilements.

 

The perfections are: liberality, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving kindness and equanimity. These qualities are only perfections when they are developed without thinking to gain something for oneself. They should be developed with the aim of having less selfishness, less defilements. Acharn Sujin explained that we should not think, “Now I shall develop this perfection, then that”, because then we try to develop them with an idea of self. The development of the perfections is conditioned by listening to the Dhamma. If we do not listen and study there is a concept of self who performs kusala. She said:

“When we listen to the Dhamma there is the perfection of patience already. There can be perfections at each moment of our life, and there is no need to think of a specific perfection. There can be more patience. We accumulate the perfections and see ever more clearly the ugliness of akusala. However, when there are conditions, akusala arises.”

Dana is opposed to lobha, dosa and moha. When we are generous, there is alobha, non-attachment, otherwise we would not be able to give. There is also adosa, non-aversion: there is no aversion or sadness when the receiver is unkind and does not appreciate our gift. When we are angry, we are absorbed in an idea of a person instead of being aware of nama and rupa. At the moment of generosity there cannot be moha, the cetasika arising with all akusala cittas. All perfections are opposed to lobha, dosa and moha.

When satipatthana arises at the moments we perform wholesome deeds, the idea of self who performs them can be eliminated. When metta arises, there is also patience, patience with regard to people and circumstances. In Savatthi we had a bad hotel room full of insects everywhere, even in bed. One of our friends laughed about it that these crawled into her ears. Acharn Sujin reminded me that if we would complain and ask for a change of room, someone else would have the uncomfortable room and thus, we would have lack of metta, we would think of ourselves instead of other people. When we see the value of metta we can develop it. We can understand that whatever happens arises because of conditions. Akusala kamma conditions akusala vipaka and kusala kamma conditions kusala vipaka, nobody can prevent this.

Sometimes we have to experience an unpleasant object and sometimes a pleasant object. We admired Acharn Sujin’s great patience when she had to pose for the cameras countless times. Sometimes she could not take any step without the cameras being focussed on her. She told me that she just thinks of the happiness of others. Thus, metta conditions patience. When we were in Kusinara, in the temple of the reclining Buddha, we recollected the Buddha’s parinibbana. Ever since the moment of his enlightenment until his passing away he had taught satipatthana, the only way leading to the end of the cycle of birth and death, and he himself had reached the end of the cycle. The monk held a long discourse and it was extremely hot in this temple. Acharn Sujin reminded me that we should have metta for the monk who held the discourse. If there is metta we have no aversion.
When we were sitting near the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya there was a good opportunity to express my appreciation of all the kusala performed by my friends. This is a way of dana, it is anumodana 2 dana. I paid respect to Acharn Sujin who had given us so much Dhamma every day, explaining to us with great patience the development of satipatthana and helping us to see our clinging to the self more and more. I also expressed my appreciation to all my friends who had been full of kindness to me and had helped me with their generosity and consideration in many ways. When during bus stops we had to walk through bushes and on rough grounds there was always someone helping me. Or when I was coughing I immediately received a medicine from one of my friends. 

The morning before our departure from the hotel in Gaya, I said to Acharn Supee that, when I would be back in Holland, I would miss the company of my friends and the countless Dhamma reminders we received all day. We had the following conversation:

Supee: The firm understanding of the Dhamma is the condition for the arising of sati of the level of considering, even though it is not yet of the level of direct awareness, satipatthana. We can consider the Dhamma everywhere, it does not matter what we are doing. 

Nina: But in India we have more opportunities for Dhamma conversations and for considering the Dhamma.

 
Supee: There are more conditions in India, but if the understanding of realities is firm enough, there are conditions for the arising of satipatthana, even if you have complicated work to do. If one’s understanding is not firm enough, one can read the scriptures and study them, so that there are more conditions for sati of the level of considering realities. When we have Dhamma discussions with friends there are conditions for the arising of sati of the level of considering realities, but this is not sufficient. Satipatthana should arise in daily life, also when your work is complicated, and it should be aware of all kinds of realities in all circumstances. Even when you are angry, there can also be awareness of anger. We should not select a specific situation and believe that we have to be with Dhamma friends.

Nina: We cannot select a particular situation or force the arising of sati. The arising of sati depends on the conditions in the case of each individual, people are not the same.

Supee: In the beginning satipatthana does not have enough strength. It seems that it arises more often when we have Dhamma discussions with friends, but it does not arise naturally in daily life. When satipatthana is firmly established there are conditions for its arising, no matter where we are, and it can be aware of all realities. Panna becomes keener and more refined.

Nina: It is panna that performs its own task. I always forget that it is not self who understands.

Supee: It is natural that we have an idea of self who considers the Dhamma. Panna should become keener so that it can understand that it is not self who considers the Dhamma. When there is more understanding, panna realizes that even an idea of self considering the teachings is also a dhamma, a reality.

Nina: I understand more that there is clinging to a self so often.

Supee: There can gradually be more understanding about the clinging to a self, panna can realize all such moments. When panna is keener it knows that it is a kind of nama that clings to the idea of self. Panna can understand the more subtle lobha and the other defilements.  If there is no awareness and  understanding of all realities, there is lobha that selects to go to a particular place in order to hear Dhamma discussions. One may want to avoid doing complicated work. There may be panna that sees the value of Dhamma discussions or there may be lobha that selects such a situation. The moments of clinging and of real understanding are very close.

 

Nina: The moments of lobha and of panna arise alternately. There may be wrong practice but we may not notice this. Even when there is an idea of self who guides just a little it prevents us from knowing the present moment. We may unknowingly separate satipatthana from daily life. Wrong practice does not lead out of the cycle of birth and death whereas right practice does. We still cling to rebirth and we may not see the disadvantage and danger of rebirth. However, we may come to see the ugliness of defilements and the benefit of having less defilements. When all defilements have been eradicated by panna, it means that there will be no more rebirth. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (II, Nidana-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Cause, Ch I, # 3, The Way) that the Buddha, while dwelling near Savatthi, said to the monks:

Which, monks, is the wrong way? “Conditioned by ignorance activities come to pass; conditioned by activities consciousness”... even (the way of) the uprising of this entire mass of dukkha. This is called the
wrong way.

And which is the right way? “But from the utter fading away and ceasing of ignorance (comes) the ceasing of activities; from the ceasing of activities (comes) ceasing of consciousness”... even (the way of) the ceasing of this entire mass of dukkha. This is called the right way.

Ignorance is the factor that is mentioned first in the teaching of the conditions for the cycle of birth and death, the “Dependent Origination”, Paticcasamuppada. Ignorance conditions the “activities”, or “kamma-formations” (abhisankhara), which are: akusala kamma or “demeritorious kamma formations” (apunn’abhisankhara 3 ), kusala kamma of the sense-sphere and rupa-jhana (fine material jhana) or “meritorious kamma-formations” (punn’abhisankhara), and kusala kamma of the degree of
arupa-jhana (immaterial jhana 4 ) or “imperturbable kamma-formations” (anenj’abhisankhara). Kusala kamma of the degree of arupa-jhana is more subtle and more refined. These three kinds of kamma-formations are links in the Dependent Origination, they condition consciousness that is vipaka in the form of rebirth and in the form of vipaka arising in the course of life. So long as ignorance of realities has not been eradicated, there are kamma-formations that condition vipaka and thus, the cycle of birth and death continues, there is no end to dukkha. When ignorance and the other defilements have been eradicated, the cycle comes to an end.

One may wonder why even meritorious kamma-formations and imperturbable kamma-formations are the wrong way. These lead to rebirth in the happy sensuous planes, in the fine material planes, which are the result of rupa-jhana, or in the immaterial planes, which are the result of arupa-jhana, and therefore, they lead to the continuation of the cycle of birth and death.

The Commentary to this Sutta, the “Saratthappakasini”, states: “The wrong way5 is the way that does not deliver beings from dukkha.” The Commentary explains that in this respect also the attainment of the stages of jhana (the eight jhana samapatti, including rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana) and the five “supra-natural powers” (abhinnas 6) are part of the cycle (vatta) and are as such the wrong way of practice. The way of practice by which ignorance and the other defilements are completely eradicated and nibbana is attained is the right way. Further on, the Commentary explains that in this sutta the practice is considered from the point of view of the result it leads to: the continuation of the cycle (vatta) or the end of the cycle (vivatta). When it leads to the end of defilements, nibbana, it is the right way practice.

The Commentary states that even the offering of one ladle of rice or a handful of leaves can be the right way of practice, leading out of the cycle. When someone performs dana together with satipatthana, without the idea of self who is giving, the giving is very pure, it is the right practice.

 

During the two weeks of our pilgrimage we heard day after day Acharn Sujin’s We read in the “Basket of Conduct” (Cariyapitaka, Khuddhaka Nikaya, Minor Anthologies III) Division I, the Perfection of Giving
1, Conduct of Akitti, that the Buddha, during the life he was the ascetic Akitti, gave alms to Sakka, the King of the Devas of Thirtythree who came to him in the disguise of a brahman. Akitti only had leaves without oil or salt, but he gave all he had gathered. Also a second and a third time he gave as before. He went without food but he was delighted. He said:

If for only a month or for two months I were to find a worthy recipient, unmoved, unflinching, I would give the supreme gift. While I was giving him the gift I did not aspire for fame or gain. Aspiring for omniscience I did those deeds (of merit).

By awareness of nama and rupa, the idea of self developing kusala can be eliminated. The Buddha praised all kinds of kusala: dana, sila, samatha and vipassana. For people who have accumulations for the development of calm, even to the degree of jhana, but who do not develop insight as well, defilements can be subdued but not eradicated. As we have seen, jhana leads to rebirth in higher planes and thus sustains existence in the cycle. Those who develop calm to the degree of jhana as well as insight, can be aware of realities appearing through the six doorways, including the jhana-citta. Then they follow the right practice leading to the elimination of wrong view, ignorance and all defilements, thus, the practice leading to the end of the cycle.

We read in the Scriptures that the Buddha spoke about exerting right effort for kusala, and people may misunderstand such passages. They believe that they should try to have kusala and make an effort for satipatthana. However, effort, viriya, is a cetasika arising with many cittas, with akusala cittas as well as with kusala cittas. When we perform kusala, kusala viriya accompanies the kusala citta already because of conditions. We discussed the four right efforts, samma-padhanas: the effort of avoiding akusala not yet arisen, of overcoming akusala already arisen, of developing kusala not yet arisen and of maintaining kusala already arisen. They are part of the factors pertaining to enlightenment, bodhipakkhiya dhammas7.

Acharn Sujin explained that when there is a moment of satipatthana the four right efforts perform their functions. When they accompany the citta that is “mundane”, lokiya, not yet lokuttara, they have not yet reached fulfillment. They develop together with satipatthana and the other factors pertaining to enlightenment until lokuttara citta arises when enlightenment is attained. Then lokuttara panna accompaying the magga-citta, path-consciousness, experiences nibbana and eradicates the latent tendencies of defilements in accordance with the stage of enlightenment that is attained. Also the other factors accompanying panna experience nibbana while they perform their functions at that moment.

Acharn Sujin explained:

“When at the moment of enlightenment supramundane (lokuttara) panna experiences nibbana, it supports the other factors pertaining to enlightenment, so that they can perform their functions completely. When there is a moment of understanding that accompanies lokiya citta the latent tendencies, anusayas, are eliminated to a certain extent, but not completely. If there is no gradual decrease of them, how could panna eradicate them at the moment of enlightenment? Then panna, that was developed through satipatthana and reached the stages of insight knowledge, vipassana nana, can completely eradicate latent tendencies.”

The Himalayas

During the two weeks of our pilgrimage we heard day after day Acharn Sujin’s most valuable explanations about the development of satipatthana. Also during our long bus trips we could listen to tapes on Dhamma and in between we had many opportunities for dhamma discussions with our friends. Acharn Sujin often reminded us of the importance of the three “rounds” or intertwining phases: understanding of the truth, sacca nana, knowledge of the task to be performed, kicca nana, which is the practice, and knowledge of the task that has been done, kata nana. When we carefully consider these three phases we can see the necessity of intellectual understanding as a firm foundation of understanding of the level of the practice, patipatti, that is, awareness of the present moment. The more we understand the appropriate conditions for the arising of satipatthana, the less shall we have anxiety about the countless moments of forgetfulness. When we unknowingly try to have sati it is wrong practice, a form of wrong view that is only eradicated by the sotapanna.

When there are no conditions for the arising of sati, it does not arise, but, someone may wonder, is there any action that can be taken? We should continue to study and consider all realities of our daily life, with the aim to have more understanding of them. Our aim should not be having more moments of sati, that is desire and thus counteractive to the arising of sati.

 

The four Applications of Mindfulness of body, feelings, cittas and dhammas include, as we have seen, all realities of daily life. They are explained under many different aspects with the aim to remind us that whatever appears in our life can be the object of mindfulness and right understanding. We cling to “our feeling”, be it pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent feeling. We cling to “our remembrance” (sanna), whenever we remember or recognize someone or something. Feeling and remembrance are dhammas, they are cetasikas arising with the citta. We have intellectual understanding of the difference between citta and cetasika, but they are not clearly understood as different namas before the first stage of insight knowledge has been reached. Still, we can begin to be aware of nama such as feeling or remembrance when they appear, so that understanding can gradually develop and the different characteristics of citta and cetasika can be realized as nama elements devoid of self.

We heard each day that we should develop understanding with courage and gladness. Acharn Sujin asked me whether I have gladness of the level of pariyatti, intellectual understanding, or of the level of practice.

I answered that it is of the level of pariyatti. Her question was a good pointer for me. We think about courage and cheerfulness, but when there is satipatthana there is no need to think of them, because there are conditions already to be courageous continuing its development and not to be downhearted. The difference between the levels of intellectual understanding and understanding based on the practice, I found, became clearer during our pilgrimage. If we do not know the difference we are bound to take thinking for awareness.

Acharn Sujin stressed all the time that everything is dhamma, and that means, realities are non-self. It became more apparent to me how deeply rooted our clinging to the idea of self is. We wish to develop satipatthana “for our own sake”, as Acharn Sujin said, and this had not occurred to me before. We may cling to “our progress”. There is such a deeply rooted idea of “I know, I understand, I consider”, but we usually do not notice this. There are many moments of listening to the Dhamma, they do not last, and therefore, we should not take them for self. I had not noticed before that also listening can be taken for self.

I am most grateful to Acharn Sujin for pointing out the different moments of more subtle clinging that are bound to arise. When we see the extent of the clinging to ourselves, we shall have more confidence in the teachings and we shall have a deeper respect for the Buddha who taught all realities in detail. Considering the Dhamma is the greatest respect we could show to the Buddha at the holy sites. We know that understanding should be developed until we realize that in truth all that appears is dhamma.