2020-05-15: The Four Noble Truths: Samudaya (5 of 5) Becoming and Not-Becoming
3:35PM May 15, 2020
second noble truth
four noble truths
So with this talk, we come to the fifth of the five talks on the second noble truth, part of a four week series on the four noble truths. As I said yesterday, the primary reference point for many of the interpretations of the Four Noble Truths as they come down to us, down through the ages, is what appears in what's called the Buddha's first sermon. And mostly, some of the popular interpretations don't really take in all that it said, the teachings there about the second noble truth. They often will stop and say that craving, thirst, 'tanhā' in Pali, is the cause or the condition or the source, the origin, for suffering and that's a very useful interpretation as I've been saying. That just having that idea can help people investigate their lives very effectively and see where craving or strong desire causes limitations, causes challenges and distress for people.
This idea that it's the cause is a little bit like one way of making logical sense of this idea that the explanation says: "The noble truth of the arising of suffering is that craving." So, then just stop there and then just, okay, craving. So how is it that craving causes the arising of suffering? Well it must be the source and must be the origin.
However, as I said yesterday, the full explanation is that it's that craving, that leads to rebirth or re-becoming literally. And, what the text is explaining is not the source, the origin, the cause of all suffering that humans have. But it's the original cause. That in a previous lifetime, because there was a craving for rebirth. And you don't get born into the world of suffering unless you crave to be born again.
And so in this interpretation, the idea is to become free of rebirth by becoming free of that craving for rebirth. This idea for the four noble truths almost certainly didn't come from the Buddha in the way it's been formulated, and probably was composed maybe 100 years after his life. Perhaps a time when the idea of rebirth became increasingly important in Buddhism in a way that doesn't really represent how important it was in the earliest period of Buddhism. But still, it gives us this wonderful interpretation: that craving is the cause of suffering.
Sometimes that's very useful. Sometimes that interpretation gets in the way. It leads to too much analysis and trying to figure out. Some of the other interpretations, conditionality, and especially inconstancy, seeing what's there, especially inconstancy, the idea is that the noble truth of the arising of suffering is simply the arising, how it appears.
And something about seeing something appear, where there's space, there's a recognition that it can be even a sense of independence from it. It's there, and I'm here, we're not the same thing. It's the beginning of a process of becoming freer of suffering. In a sense, rather than solving suffering, and figuring it out, it's learning to have a different relationship to suffering, by seeing it as arising and ceasing, coming and going.
The explanation of craving, that craving gives rise to rebirth, actually continues. There's a second half of it, which I would like to refer to today, and offer an interpretation, which may be a nice segue into what we could do next week. So as I said yesterday, reading Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, and he uses the word 'origin' for samudaya, the word that means arising. He translates it as 'origin.' And now we understand why he does that: because it's this original craving that gives rise to birth. "Now this bhikkhus is the noble truth of the origin of suffering. It is craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight, here and there."
So first to say this, the craving that is accompanied by delight and lust. I think the idea in the ancient world is that this original craving that leads to rebirth. That fundamental drive to be reborn is a lusting or wanting of pleasure or delighting in the world. So we want more of it. So that's one of the fundamental concerns of early Buddhism. This idea of not having that desire for the world that is just delighting and relishing in it that keeps us going in the cycles of rebirth. It goes on and says, "That is craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination."
Bhikkhu Bodhi has this big word 'extermination' that's big and a little bit dangerous and sounding little bit, violent even. The literal meaning for the word for existence and extermination is 'bhava' and 'abhava'. Bhava means becoming. And that's a little difficult word in English that many people translate as 'existence,' But it's more about becoming, coming into being. One reason why that's important is that existence can seem a little bit static, becoming as a constantly dynamic process, of coming into being. That's constantly what we're doing - participating in a constant process of coming into being.
And then abhava is not-being, not-becoming. So not having that process continue. So, this ending or the not-becoming, so not exactly not existing, but no longer contributing to this becoming.
With the idea of rebirth, there's the framework for this interpretation. That is when it says that there's a craving for sensual pleasure. That's really deep in human beings, the desire for pleasure and, maybe deeper than most people realize. And some people are a little bit put off by the constant early Buddhist emphasis on the being trapped or caught by sensual pleasures, the craving for sensual pleasures being a problem.
But sensual pleasure means any movement towards comfort, any movements towards any kind of pleasure, not the more dramatic ones of, Epicurean, just enjoying food or enjoying sex or whatever it might be. Many of the small ways that people live their lives, many people live their lives, is oriented around making themselves more comfortable. Even like how we sit in a chair or how we sit at a table or, we might buy food that's more, doesn't have to pay more for it than we absolutely have to. Because it's, we get more pleasure from it. We might buy some clothes that are more than what we need, but we get pleasure from it.
There's the idea, of receiving pleasure from experience, is really a deeply ingrained thing in human nature. And, it's one of those things that people crave and in craving, they can suffer. They feel frustrated, feel upset, driven .
The next two: becoming and not-becoming. Some people translate this almost as identity, forming an identity of who we are ... creating an identity, creating a sense of "I am this" or creating a sense of "I'm not that." Not to be that is kind of a non-identification of something. And so it may be in a kind of simple ways. The clothes people choose to wear sometimes has to do with forming an identity, becoming something for other people.
Whereas, some people have the opposite: they don't want to become. For example, there are some people who are very happy to have logos, like over their college or high school on their sweatshirt and they've assumed that identity they become something, person from that school, or their sports team or something, or their favorite company.
And then there's people, and I fall in this camp, I have a little bit tendency to this 'abhava,' non-becoming. I really don't want to wear any anything that has a logo on it, and it's very rare I think you'll ever see me do this. And I'm not particularly proud of this tendency, but it's maybe a little bit, this movement like, "I don't want to be, I don't want to be." So that's my thing.
And so, this becoming identity. So when this rebirth can be pulled in... the idea of wanting to be reborn can be desire for becoming, to exist again. The paradox here is that the craving for non-becoming, non-existing, because it's craving, is also a cause to becoming reborn. In other words, if a person doesn't want to be reborn so strongly that there's a craving not to be reborn. Paradoxically, that very craving is what gets them reborn, because craving's such a strong drive and push.
So in my teachings and my practice myself, it's very rare that I'm making much reference to rebirth, it's not really important part of what I feel like I want to teach or what I... part of my own practice. But I offer you what is in the very traditional texts. So, you understand the full range of what goes on with these four noble truths and all the different interpretations of it.
But I am partial to the interpretation of rebirth or becoming and non-becoming, as not being about being reborn one lifetime after another, but about being reborn moment-by-moment. There's a constant movement we have of craving for pleasure or avoiding displeasure, movement of becoming something, identifying as something, assuming an identity, being someone, asserting ourselves as being someone. Or the opposite, not wanting to be and hiding or shutting down or avoiding something. And this constantly kind of becoming and non-becoming, identifying and then dis-identifying, it can be an incessant form of suffering, incessant form of ongoing manufacturing, constructing, concern, preoccupation for human beings.
And, this doesn't have to be. We don't have to live with an incessant preoccupation, a craving, an addiction even for some people for pleasure - an addiction to identity, to self, to being someone, to having a clearly constructed sense of self that we present to the world, or a clearly constructed sense/idea of what we don't want to present to the world and hide from.
When we learn to sit still in meditation, and that's why I did this meditation today, on the stillness of the mind, is when the mind moves, it's often because it wants and doesn't want. It wants becoming or doesn't want becoming. And even the idea of not wanting or non-becoming, is being trapped in the cycles of becoming, of craving and suffering. And the interesting question, and this is the question that I'll leave here for today, is : "If becoming is a source of suffering, and the opposite, non-becoming is a source of suffering, what's the solution? What's the third option?"
If non-becoming just creates more becoming, more on-going creation, what is the third option? That's why I think Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of existence and extermination is a little bit difficult to work with. But anyway, what's the alternative to existing and exterminating, and ending? Is there a third option? And that will be the topic for the third of the Four Noble Truths for next week.
A couple of things I want to say quickly, one thing quickly. I'm very much appreciating all these, all of you who are coming and joining and saying hello. And I think some of you are starting to feel a sense of community just from the chat box there. And I thought that perhaps next week at the end of our Friday thing here, maybe we have, those of you who would like to, we could switch to a zoom meeting, and I'll post the zoom account, maybe in the chat box, so it's not discoverable by the rest of the world. And, and if you'd like to, you know, have a little town meeting, global meeting to talk about things or ask some questions that way. But also, we can do some breakout group, maybe a breakout group, where some of you in some random way have a chance to meet some of the other ones of you who are doing, been doing this now, some of you for many weeks, and see what the pleasure is of and the value is of coming together a little bit more more fully as a community. So we'll do that at the end.
And now if any of you would like to stay on, then I'll try to take maybe 15 minutes or so if you have any questions you'd like to ask about this four noble truth stuff or anything. I will try my best to track the questions here. And the zoom account we have has 500..., big enough for 500 people. So I'm hoping that's plenty, and that every single one of you who are coming to here wants to come that particular time. And we'll keep doing it, maybe periodically, and so if you miss it, it's okay. So, very nice that people are appreciating this idea of doing it. Could you hope, let's see? ...
Could you please clarify if there's a difference between abhava and 'vibhava?'
Oh, yeah. vibhava! You know, it's possible I was wrong about the Pali. It could be that 'bhava' and 'vibhava' in this particular text. I don't really know if there's a difference. 'vi' is maybe a more emphatic kind of 'a.' Maybe 'vi' is a little more, has to do with a craving for not existing. So maybe that's why Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as extermination. I'll look into it. And I think many years ago, I researched this, and so thank you for bringing it up.
Have you written about the four noble truths, as you discussed them today, in any of your books?
No, not in any of my books. I've written some drafts of scholarly articles on this topic. And part of the purpose of this is that some of what you heard from me this week is a relatively new idea that I've come up with over the last 10 years of doing some real in-depth research into the suttas. And so I've done some drafts of what I hope to be serious scholarly articles laying out this very clearly, how this is the case in the suttas.
It seems that some of this interpretation about the Four Noble Truths being insight into inconstancy, has been overlooked. Even though now that I see it there, it's like this open secret in the text. Hundreds and hundreds of times the texts talk about seeing the importance of seeing, as other subjects, not always suffering, but seeing suffering, seeing x, the arising of x, the ceasing of x, and the practice leading to the cessation of x. And, it's clearly synonymous with seeing the appearance and disappearance, the rising and passing of things, seeing inconstancy. This is really held out to be the liberating insight.
And because the four noble Truths had been the predominant way of understanding the central teachings of Buddhism, that's been projected back on the earliest text, and we've actually missed seeing what the real liberating insight is. That's emphasized in the texts because of this projection back of later interpretations. So I've laid this out very, very carefully, but it's not really ready to share with people because I need to work on it more. And a Dharma teacher doesn't have much time for that. When I have some more time, I'll do it.
The idea of craving for non-becoming creates becoming makes me giggle. I struggle not to move because I'm more used to moving meditation with yoga. This is helpful.
I'm so glad.
you've like I said, like the lighting. I figured out how to create a little barrier for it. And if you noticed earlier, I was almost blinded by it.
And so I hear aspects of dependent origination in this talk of the second noble truth, specifically links eight and eleven. Can you comment on the relationship of these two teachings?
Yes, this is one of the reasons why some people have the conditionality interpretation of the second noble truth, because it's very similar to what goes on in the twelvefold sequence of dependent arising of suffering. And in it, there's, based on sense contact, there has to be sense contact first. That sense contact is a condition for there being either pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. That pleasure or pain is the condition for the arising of craving. The, what we're talking about, the second noble truth. So without some kind of pleasure or pain or discomfort, there won't be a craving. That craving is a condition for clinging. So craving is one thing, and then when it gets translated into doing something about it, it's clinging, holding on. And that leads to becoming 'bhava' and 'bhava' leads to birth. And birth leads to sickness, old age, grief, lamentation, pain, distress, and so forth.
So it's very closely connected. And in fact, I said the Buddha only has five different interpretations of the four Noble truths, and there's basically three different categories of them. But one of them defines the second noble truth as the twelve-fold sequence of dependent arising. The whole thing, all twelve - not just the end of it - is the arising of suffering. And then the third noble truth is the reverse of dependent arising. It's what I call the twelvefold sequence of dependent cessation, that goes on. So there the Second and third noble Truths are clearly connected to the teachings of dependent arising.
I'm sorry, I'm doing this out of sequence, so it's a little bit hard for me to track all these with the chat when they come.
Inconstancy is also translated as impermanence. Question mark?
Yes, the most common way in English of translating 'anicca,' is as impermanence. The issue around translating as impermanence, is many people will interpret that to mean that something exists now, but it's not going to always exist. It's impermanent, so sooner or later, it's no longer going to exist. The day is impermanent because by night it'll be gone. Mountains are impermanent, because in a few hundred million years, some of these mountains will have washed away. The sun is impermanent, because in a few billion years, it'll go up and disappear.
But what the Buddha's talking about is how things appear and disappear. And he has a lot of different words, languages he uses in Pali, that are synonyms of appearing and disappearing, coming and going, arising and passing. So it's really clear this is what he means, this ongoing inconstancy of things. And that means that things don't have to disappear and end once and for all. So days are inconstant. They come and go. And they'll come and go as long as the sun is in the sky or something. The fundamental insight, liberating insight is this arising and passing, so probably 'inconstancy' works better. And 'nicca', what's being negated with an 'a' in 'anicca,' actually means constancy. So it makes sense to translate it that way.
So yesterday, did you say that craving refers more to rebirth than worldly craving?
Yes, I said that yesterday in relationship to a very particular teaching about the four noble truths - it's one of the interpretations. And that interpretation is solidified, in a sense, in a text usually referred to as the Buddha's first sermon. I'm certain the Buddha had a first teaching, but that this particular text is his first teaching is very unlikely.
One of the reasons it's unlikely is that this text teaches parts of the teachings about the four noble truths - I'll talk about this later in this series - that are quite inspiring. Some people seem to see it that was very important. If he said it at his very first teaching, if it was important, you'd think that he would say it again later.
In fact, the Buddha is very repetitive in the suttas. He teaches things over and over again, exactly the same way, same words in many different ways, and in the same ways. And so if this teaching was really his first teaching and important, you'd expect it would reappear. But it hardly ever appears again in the suttas, maybe one or two other places, in passing. And chances are that this represents a later interpolation into the suttas. Not everything that is attributed to the Buddha is likely to have been his teachings.
So this idea that the second noble truth involves the craving that leads to rebirth is not exactly an interpretation, though, that's what it's become. For the early text, it's an application or an elaboration, that when someone becomes fully awakened as a Buddha, the traditional idea is that then they will not be reborn. And the reason they're not being reborn is because this specific craving that leads to rebirth, has ended.
This idea is not really referring to ordinary, worldly craving. And so for those of us interested in our how we suffer day-to-day, these other interpretations of the four noble truths are much more useful - rather than being fixated on this idea of the rebirth, and the craving that leads to rebirth.
So my friends, thank you. I appreciate all these questions.
Is it impossible to not be becoming? The question is, "How are we becoming?" So isn't it impossible to not be becoming? Well, that's the cliffhanger that is ending this talk today. Next week, we'll talk about the alternative to becoming and not-becoming as we talk about the third noble truth.
So thank you so much everyone, and I look forward to our time next week, and to setting up the zoom for Friday. Thank you.