by Nina van Gorkom | 2000 | 31,190 words
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What is life? What is the origin if life? How and when does it end? These are questions people keep asking themselves. Life is not something which is far away; it is nama and rupa of the present moment. There is seeing now; is that not life? Attachment, aversion and ignorance can arise on account of what is seen; is that not life? There is thinking of what we have seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched. Is that not life?
We have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind; we experience objects through these six doorways; on account of what we experience defilements are bound to arise. This is life at the present moment. But it was also life in the past and it will be life in the future, unless there is an end to defilements.
How did life start? Is there a beginning to our countless existences? We cannot go back to the past. If we want to know what conditioned our life in the past we should know what it is that conditions our life at the present moment. Is there ignorance now, when we see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think? Is there clinging now to nama and rupa? As long as we cling to sights, sounds, smells, flavours, to things touched and to objects experienced through the mind-door, there are conditions for life to go on endlessly. Life is conditioned by ignorance and clinging.
We read in the 'Discourse pertaining to the Great Sixfold Sense-field' (Maha-salayatanika-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya III, Salayata-vagga) that the Buddha, while he was staying near Savatthi in the Jeta Grove, said to the monks:
Monks, (anyone) not knowing, not seeing eye as it really is, not knowing, not seeing material shaped... visual consciousness... impact on the eye as it really is, and not knowing, not seeing as it really is the feeling, whether pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is attached to the eye, is attached to material shapes, is attached to visual consciousness, is attached to impact on the eye; and as for the feeling, whether pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye- to that too is he attached. While he, observing the satisfaction, is attached, bound and infatuated, the five khandhas of grasping go on to future accumulation. And his craving, which is connected with again-becoming, accompanied by attachment and delight, finding its pleasure here and there, increases in him. And his physical anxieties increase, and mental anxieties increase, and physical torments increase, and mental torments increase, and physical fevers increase, and mental fevers increase. He experiences anguish of body and anguish of mind.
People wonder whether there is a first cause in the cycle of birth and death. How and when did ignorance first arise? The Buddha did not speak about a first cause, because it does not lead to the goal, which is the eradication of defilements. There is ignorance now; that is a reality. It is conditioned by past ignorance. If it is not eradicated there will be ignorance in the future, forever. Life is like a wheel, turning around, without any beginning.
We do not know from which plane we last came, nor to which one we are going. Life is so short, it is like a dream. We are born with different characters and we have accumulated many defilements. We cannot go back to the past and find out how we accumulated our defilements. People in the past had defilements as well. Some of them could recollect their former lives and see how they accumulated different defilements. In the 'Therigatha' (Psalms of the Sisters, Canto XV, 72, Isidasi) we read about the life of Isidasi who had one husband after another but could not please any of them. However she became a bhikkhuni (nun) and she later attained arahatship. She was able to recollect her former lives and she knew then why she had had to endure so much sorrow: in a former life she had committed adultery. This akusala kamma caused her to be reborn in hell where she had to stay for many centuries, and to be reborn an animal three times. After that she was reborn as a human being three times. After that she was reborn as a human being three times, but had to suffer great misery in the course of those lives, until she attained arahatship.
Life is birth, old age, sickness and death. The sorrow which all of us experience in life is unavoidable as long as there are conditions for it. We read in the 'Therigatha' (Canto VI, 50, Patacara's Five Hundred) about women who suffered the loss of their children. They came to see Patacara who herself had lost in one day her husband, two children, parents and brother. She was mad with grief, but was able to recover. She became a sotapanna, and later on she attained arahatship. She consoled the bereaved women:
The way by which men come we cannot know;
Nor can we see the path by which they go.
Why mourn you then for him who came to you,
Lamenting through your tears: 'My son! my son!'
Seeing you do not know the way he came,
Nor yet the manner of his leaving you?
Weep not, for such is here the life of man.
Unasked he came, unbidden went he hence.
Lo! ask yourself again whence came your son
To bide on earth this little breathing space?
By one way come and by another gone,
As man to die, and pass to other births-
So hither and so hence- why would you weep?
We do not know from which plane of existence people have come nor to which one they are going. The number of a person's lives in the past is incalculable and thus it is not surprising that in the course of those past lives people have been related to each other in many ways, as parents, brothers, sister, children. Do we want to continue in the cycle of birth and death? We read in the 'Therigatha' (Canto VI, 55, Maha Pajapati) that Maha Pajapati, who had made an end of defilements, spoke thus:
... Now have I understood how I'll does come.
Craving, the cause, in me is dried up.
Have I not trod, have I not touched the end
Of Ill- the ariyan, the eightfold Path?
Oh! but 'tis long I've wandered down all time.
Living as mother, father, brother, son,
And as grandparent in the ages past-
Not knowing how and what things really are,
And never finding what I needed sore.
But now my eyes have seen the Exalted One;
And now I know this living frame's the last,
And shattered is the unending round of births.
No more Pajapati shall come to be!...
Events in our lives today have their conditions in the past. Tendencies we have now we may have had in the past as well. Deeds we do now we may have performed in the past too. We read in the teachings that the Buddha said of both his own deeds and the deeds of others that similar ones had been performed in the past. We cannot recollect our former lives, but we know that we have accumulated defilements for countless aeons.
Is the word 'defilement' not too strong an expression? Many of us think that we have a pure conscience marred only by a few imperfections and weak points. 'Defilement' is the translation of the Pali term 'kilesa'. Kilesa is that which is dirty, impure. When we know our own kilesa better we will see the loathsomeness of kilesa and the sorrow they bring. We will see the dangers of kilesa, how deeply rooted they are and how hard to eradicate.
Our lives are full of attachment, ill-will and ignorance. Not everybody sees that there will be less sorrow when defilements are eliminated. We each have different expectations in life. We all want happiness but each one of us has a different idea of happiness and the ways to achieve it. Both in the Buddha's time and today there are 'foolish people' and 'wise people'. Foolish people think that it is good to be attached to people and things. They say that one is not really alive if one has no attachment. Because of their ignorance they do not see cause and effect in their lives. When they have pleasant experiences they do not see that these are only moments of vipaka, which fall away immediately. When they experience unpleasant things they blame others for their experience. But they do not understand that the real cause is within themselves, that the cause is the bad deeds they themselves have performed. Those who suffer from mental anxieties and depressions, and are distressed about their daily life, try to escape from it in many different ways. Some people find satisfaction in going to the movies. Others take alcoholic drinks or intoxicating drugs in order to live in a different world or to feel like a different person. Those who flee from reality will not know themselves; they will continue to live in ignorance.
There were in the past and there are today people who reject the Buddha's teachings, or misunderstand them. They do not see that life is conditioned by ignorance and craving. they do not know the way leading to the end of defilements. But those who see that defilements cause sorrow want to have less defilements. They listen to the teachings and apply themselves to dana (generosity), sila (morality) and bhavana (mental development). Those people who are inclined to cultivate each day of their lives the wisdom which eradicates defilements are the wise people.
In the 'Thera-Theri-gatha' (Psalms of the Brethren, Psalms of the Sisters, Khuddaka Nikaya) we read about men and women in the Buddha's time who has the same struggles in life, the same anxieties and fears as people today. Though they had many defilements they were able to eradicate them by following the eightfold Path. If they could do it, why can we not do it?
Those who are wise understand that life does not last and that it is therefore a matter of urgency to cultivate the way leading to the end of defilements. People are inclined to delay practising the Buddha's teachings. We read in the 'Thera-gatha' (Matanga's Son, Canto III, 174):
Too cold! too hot! too late! such is the cry.
And so, past men who shake off work (that waits their hand), the fateful moments fly.
But he who reckons cold and heat as less
Than straws, doing his duties as a man,
He no defaulter proves to happiness.
Do we think it is too cold, too hot, too late to be mindful? It seems that we always want to do something other than be mindful of the present moment. Is our highest aim in life the enjoyment of the things which can be experienced through the senses. Is it wealth, physical comfort, the company of relatives and friends? People forget that none of these things last. They forget that as soon as we are born we are old enough to die. Those who are wise, however, see the impermanence of all conditioned things. In the 'Thera-gatha' (Canto II, 145) we read about Vitasoka who liked into the mirror when his hair was being dressed by the barber. While he was sitting there he attained enlightenment. We read:
'Now let him shave me!'- so the barber came.
From him I took the mirror and, therein
Reflected, on myself I gazed and thought;
'Futile for lasting is this body shown.'
(Thus thinking on the source that blinds our sight my spirit's)
Darkness melted into light.
Stripped are the swathing vestments
(of defilements) utterly.
Now is there no more coming back to be.
A look into the mirror can be most revealing! It can remind us of impermanence. Thus we see that even when we perform the most common things of daily life we do not have to waste our time; mindfulness can be developed. We may think that our daily tasks prevent us from being mindful, but there are nama and rupa presenting themselves through the six doors no matter what we are doing. Even when one is preparing food, insight can be developed and enlightenment can be attained. We read in the 'Therigatha' (Canto I, 1) about a woman who was preparing food in the kitchen. A flame burnt the food. She realized at that moment the impermanence of conditioned realities and became then and there, in the kitchen, an anagami (non-returner). She entered the order of bhikkhunis and attained arahatship later on. She declared her attainment with the following verse:
Sleep softly, little Sturdy, take your rest
At ease, wrapt in the robe you yourself have made.
Stilled are the passions that would rage within,
Withered as potherbs in the oven dried.
We may think that we cannot be mindful because we are too restless and agitated. It is encouraging for us to read that people in the Buddha's time who were also oppressed by their many defilements and who suffered from their obsessions, could nevertheless attain enlightenment. In the 'Therigatha' (Canto V, 38, 'An Anonymous Sister') we read about a nun who was vexed by sense desires. She was taught Dhamma by Dhammadinna and she attained the 'six supernormal powers', the sixth of which is the destruction of all defilements. The text states:
For five-and-twenty years since I came forth
Not for one moment could my heart attain
The blessedness of calm serenity.
No peace of mind I found. My every thought
Was soaked in the fell drug of sense-desire.
With outstretched arms and shedding futile tears
I went, a wretched woman, to my cell...
... The mystic potencies
I exercise; and all the deadly Drugs
That poisoned every thought are purged away.
A living truth for me this 'Sixfold Knowledge'
Accomplished is the Buddha's Norm.
Those who are oppressed by their anxieties to such an extent that they want to flee from reality may even think of committing suicide. In the Buddha's time people were no different from people today. But even for those who have lost all hope there is a way by which they can be freed from despair, liberated from sorrow and fear. We read in the 'Therigatha' (Canto V, 40, Sila) about a nun who was on the point of committing suicide. But at that moment her knowledge attained maturity and she became an arahat. The text states:
Distracted, harassed by desires of sense,
Unmindful of the 'What' and 'Why' of things,
Stung and inflated by the memories
Of former days, over which I lacked control-
Corrupting canker spreading over my heart-
I followed heedless dreams of happiness,
And got no steadiness of mind,
All given over to dalliance with sense.
So did I fare for seven weary years,
In lean and sallow misery of unrest.
I, wretched, found no ease by day or night,
So took a rope and plunged into the wood:
'Better for me a friendly gallows-tree!
I'll live again the low life of the world.'
Strong was the noose I made; and on a bough
I bound the rope and flung it round my neck,
When see!... my heart was set at liberty!
When reading about men and women in the Buddha's time we can recognize ourselves and other people who are living today. We have all accumulated lobha, dosa and moha. We are all hindered by our many defilements. We sometimes wonder whether we will ever reach the goal. Nibbana seems to be far away. But in fact, with every moment of right mindfulness some of our wrong view is eliminated, and thus nibbana is near at that moment. We read in the 'Theragatha' (Canto XVI, 252, Malunkya's Son) about the son of Malunkya who listened to the Buddha and later attained arahatship. The text states:
Sight of fair shape bewildering mindfulness,
If one but heed the image sweet and dear,
The heart inflamed in feeling does overflow,
And clinging stays. Thus in him do grow
Divers emotions rooted in the sight,
Greed and aversion, and the heart of him
Does suffer grievously. Of him the Buddha said
Thus heaping store of pain and suffering:
Far from nibbana!
( The same is said about the impressions through the other senses)
He who for things he sees, no passion breeds,
But mindful, clear of head, can suffer sense
With uninflamed heart, no clinging stays;
And as he sees, so normally he feels;
For him no heaping up, but diminishing;
So does he heedfully pursue his way.
Of him, building no store of ill, the Buddha said:- Near is nibbana!
The Buddha's teachings can change people's character if they walk the way he taught. We read in the 'Theragatha' (Canto II, 139, Nanda) about Nanda, who had attained arahatship. He said:
Headless and shallow once my thoughts were set
On all the bravery of outward show;
Fickle was I and frivolous; all my days
Were worn with wanton sensuality.
But by the Buddha's skilful art benign,
Who of sun's lineage comes, was I brought
To live by deeper thought, whereby my heart
From (the great swamp of endless) life I drew.
People in the Buddha's time understood how mindfulness should be developed every day of their lives. We read in the Commentary to the 'Maha- satipatthana-sutta', the 'Sumangalavilasini', (commentary to the Digha Nikaya) that the Buddha taught the 'Four Applications of Mindfulness' to the people of Kuru (in the district of Delhi). In Kuru all classes of people would develop mindfulness, even the slave-labourers. Those who did not develop mindfulness were censured; they were looked upon as dead people. If we are not mindful we are like dead people because we have to continue in the cycle of birth and death.
Those who are ignorant of Dhamma and those who are wise have different aims in life and they also have different views of the future. There are people who think of a happy rebirth as the fulfilment of all their expectations in life. They hope for life to continue in a heavenly plane where there is bliss forever. Others who do not believe in an after-life dream of an ideal world in the future in this realm, a world without wars, without discord among men. But they do not know how such a world could come into being.
Those who have right understanding of Dhamma know that what we call 'world' is impermanent. This world arose by conditions and it will pass away again. World systems arise and dissolve. When it is the appropriate time a Buddha is born who teaches the truth. But even the teachings do not stay; they are misinterpreted and corrupted because of people's defilements. People today still have the opportunity to hear Dhamma and develop the eightfold Path. Those who are wise do not dream of an ideal world in the future. They know that the best thing one can do both for oneself and others is to eliminate defilements right at the present moment. The Buddha taught mental development for those who want to eliminate defilements. People have different accumulations. Some cultivate samatha (tranquil meditation), others vipassana (insight); others again develop both samatha and vipassana. Those who cultivate vipassana will know what the world really is; they will know that there are six worlds: the world of sight, of sound, of odour, of flavour, of touch and of mental objects. They will know that these worlds are impermanent. The Buddha knew with clear vision all those worlds; he is called 'Knower of the Worlds' (loka-vidu).
Those who still have clinging to the world cannot see that it is the end of rebirth that ends dukkha. And only those who see the impermanence of all conditioned things will eliminate clinging stage by stage. The arahat does not cling to life any more. For him there will be an end to life, that is: an end of nama and rupa, never to arise again, and an end to birth, old age, sickness and death. The arahat realizes that the end of birth is true happiness. In the 'Theragatha' (Canto XVI, 248) we read that the arahat Adhimutta was assailed by robbers who were amazed by his calmness. Adhimutta said:
... He who has passed beyond, from grasping free,
Whose task is done, sane and immune, is glad,
Not sorry, when the term of lives is reached,
As one who from the slaughter-house escapes.
He who the ideal order has attained,
All the world over seeking nought to own,
As one who from a burning house escapes,
When death is drawing near he grieves not...
Ignorance and clinging condition our life. When ignorance and clinging are eradicated there are no more conditions for rebirth. The end of birth is the end of dukkha. We read in the 'Discourse on the Great Sixfold Sense-field' (Maha-Salayatanika-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya III) that the Buddha said about the person who does not see things as they are, that he experiences 'anguish of body and anguish of mind.' He said about the person who sees things as they are:
But (anyone), monks, knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes... seeing-consciousness... impact on the eye as it really is and knowing, seeing as it really is the feeling, whether pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to seeing-consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that feeling, whether pleasant or painful or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye- neither to that is he attached. While he, observing the peril, is n ot attached, bound or infatuated, the five khandhas of grasping go on to future diminution. And his craving which is connected with again-becoming accompanied by attachment and delight, finding its pleasure here and there, decreases in him. And his physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments... and mental torments... and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. He experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind.