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Birth, Aging and Death

In the arahat, all determinations that determine dukkha have ceased, including the most important determinations that drive the individual into authenticity, and finally seeking the assistance of the Buddha’s teaching regarding birth, aging and death. He seeks this assistance with the fervent hope:

I am beset with birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, beset with displeasure, come to displeasure; perhaps putting and end to this whole mass of displeasure may be discerned.” — Cātuma Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 67)

Therefore it is necessary that we pay special attention to this problem of birth, aging and death and see how the problem has been solved in the case of the arahat. Before he left home, the Buddha led a very luxurious life as Prince Siddhartha.

Monks, I was delicately nurtured, exceedingly delicately nurtured, delicately nurtured beyond measure. For instance, lotus pools were made in my father’s house—one of blue lotuses, another of red lotuses, another of white lotuses, just for my benefit. No sandalwood powder did I use that was not from Kasi; my turban was made from Kasi cloth; my jacket was made from Kasi cloth; my cloak was made from Kasi cloth. Monks, by day and night a white canopy was held over me, lest cold or heat, dust or chaff or dew should touch me. Moreover, monks, I had three mansions: one for the winter, one for the summer, and one for the rainy season. In the four months of the rains, monks, I, waited on by my minstrels—all of them women—did not come down from my mansion in those months. Monks, whereas in other men’s homes broken rice with sour gruel is given to the slave servants, in my father’s house they were given rice, meat and milk-rice as food.” — Sukhumāla Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.39)

But he realized that living this luxurious life was only a pursuit of what was liable to birth, aging, death, sorrow etc.

I too, monks, while I was still a bodhisatta, not fully awakened, being myself subject to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth; being myself subject to aging, sought what was likewise subject to aging; being myself subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement, sought what was likewise subject to defilement.” — Pāsarāsi Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 26)

Then, he said, it occurred to him as follows:

Suppose that I, being myself subject to birth, having seen the misery in what is subject to birth, were to seek the unborn, uttermost quietus of extinction; being myself subject to aging… seek the ageless; being myself subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement, having seen the misery in what is subject to defilement, were to seek the undefiled; uttermost quietus of extinction.” — Pāsarāsi Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 26)

And so he left his luxurious home to carry out his search:

“Then I, monks, after some time being young, hair jet-black, of radiant youth, in the prime of life, my unwilling father and mother with tearful faces, crying, having cut off my hair and beard, having put on yellow robes, went forth from home to homelessness.” — Pāsarāsi Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 26)

And later, after an inconceivable struggle (described in Majjhima-Nikāya 26 and 36), he achieved what he had sought:

So I, monks, being myself subject to birth, having seen the misery in what is subject to birth, seeking the unborn, uttermost quietus of extinction, reached the unborn, uttermost quietus of extinction; being myself subject to aging, having seen the misery of what is subject aging, seeking the ageless, uttermost quietus of extinction, reached the ageless, uttermost quietus of extinction; being myself subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement, having seen the misery of what is subject to defilement, seeking the undefiled, uttermost quietus of extinction, reached the undefiled, uttermost quietus of extinction. Knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is my release; this is the end of birth; now there is no more ‘being’.’” — Pāsarāsi Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 26)

Thus the Buddha claimed that he attained the unborn (ajataṃ) the ageless (ajaraṃ) and the undying (amataṃ). Nevertheless the puthujjana sees the Buddha and the arahat being born, aging and dying just like the others. What, then, is the difference?

It is easier if we deal with the question of aging first. The definition of aging is given by the Buddha himself:

The aging the decaying, the brokenness, the greying, the wrinkled-ness, the dwindling of life, the decrepitude of the faculties, of this and that creature in this and that order of creatures—this is called aging.” — Paccaya Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.27)

The important thing in this definition is that it refers to aging in relation to ‘creatures’ (satta). As discussed earlier, satta (creature) refers to the five clinging-aggregates, and is further defined as follows:

“That desire, that lust, that delight, that craving towards matter… towards feeling… towards perception… towards determinations… towards consciousness—the hanging therein, the clinging therein—therefore it is said ‘creature’.” — Satta Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 23.2)

Aging, then, means the the aging of the sense organs and faculties considered as ‘I’. It is the puthujjana’s concept with regard to a particular change that occurs to his faculties. It is his view regarding that change, and this view is always associated with displeasure. It is a displeasurable change because it is an unwelcome change to ‘my faculties’, or to faculties that are what ‘I am’, that are ‘my self’.

For the puthujjana, this is not just a pure and simple change; it is a change to a thing that is ‘for me’, ‘for my self’. And a change ‘for me’, whenever it is perceived and known, must be either welcome or unwelcome, be determining either pleasure or displeasure. A change to the sense faculties is perceived as a change for the better or worse only if it is it is conceived as a change to that which ‘I am’. It is very important that this is seen. The puthujjana designates it as aging or decaying only because it is an unwelcome change, a manifestly displeasurable change, a change that when perceived determines displeasure for him. The simple perception of the change is not displeasurable; it is the unpleasant mental feeling that is always determined by his perception of this change as a change to that which is ‘I’ that makes the change displeasurable for him.

We can also understand this by way of desire. To the puthujjana, the six sense organs are the means he uses to satisfy his desire (chanda)—a desire that is dependent on his taṇhā (craving). This is their significance for him. When they have changed to what he calls aged or decayed, they no longer permit him to derive the same degree of satisfaction of his desire, which unfortunately still remains as strong to him as it ever was. The complacent aging puthujjana sometimes thinks that his desire has subdued. Nothing of the kind; the fundamental desire—the desire for ‘being’ (‘I am’) still remains in him as strong as it ever was. The perception of this state of affairs regarding himself determines displeasure for him. So he considers the faculties, which he identifies as ‘my self’, as having aged or grown old or decayed.

So aging is simply a matter of consideration. A maggot waiting for the body to grow old and die so he can feast on it would similarly consider its aging to be a change for the better, and might derive pleasure from such a perception. Further, the perception of aging is invariably associated with the perception of death as being close at hand. That is possibly why we so often find aging and death closely coupled together in the Suttas as jarāmarana: aging-&-death.

In comparison, the arahat has done away with desire. Consequently, the sense faculties do not have the same significance to the arahat that they have for the puthujjana. To the arahat, the sense faculties are no longer something concerning an ‘I’ or ‘self’. Not having desire, when the faculties change, the perception of this change does not determine displeasure. He does not lament and grieve at aging as the puthujjana does. The faculties have changed; the change is perceived, and that is all. This change is not aging (jarā) to him. This is why arahat-ness is described as non-aging.

Consider the following passage from the Upasena Sutta:

Once Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Upasena were staying near Rajagaha in the Cool Forest, at Snakeshood Grotto. Then it so happened that a snake fell on Ven. Upasena’s body [and bit him]. Then Ven. Upasena said to the monks, “Quick, friends, lift this body of mine onto a couch and carry it outside before it is scattered like a fistful of chaff!”

When this was said, Ven. Sariputta said to Ven. Upasena, “But we don’t see any alteration in your body or change in your faculties.”

Then Ven. Upasena said, “Quick, friends, lift this body of mine onto a couch and carry it outside before it is scattered like a fistful of chaff! Friend Sariputta, in anyone who had the thought, ‘I am the eye’ or ‘The eye is mine,’ ‘I am the ear’ or ‘The ear is mine,’ ‘I am the nose’ or ‘The nose is mine,’ ‘I am the tongue’ or ‘The tongue is mine,’ ‘I am the body or ‘The body is mine,’ ‘I am the intellect’ or ‘The intellect is mine’: in him there would be an alteration in his body or a change in his faculties. But as for me, the thought does not occur to me that ‘I am the eye’ or ‘The eye is mine,’… ‘I am the tongue’ or ‘The tongue is mine,’… ‘I am the intellect’ or ‘The intellect is mine.’ So what alteration should there be in my body, what change should there be in my faculties?”

Now, Ven. Upasena’s ‘I’-making, ‘my’-making, & obsession with conceit had already been well rooted out for a long time, which is why the thought did not occur to him that “I am the eye” or “The eye is mine,”… “I am the tongue” or “The tongue is mine,”… “I am the intellect” or “The intellect is mine.”

Then the monks lifted Ven. Upasena’s body on a couch and carried it outside. And Ven. Upasena’s body was scattered right there like a fistful of chaff. — Upasenā Asīvisa Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 35.52)

The Sutta says “Upasena’s ‘I’-making, ‘my’-making and obsession with conceit had already been well rooted out for a long time”, which means he was an arahat. Now, what the arahat Upasena said was in reference to the root-structure of the arahat’s reflexive experience, wherein the arahat is described as not-‘existing’ or not-‘being’. With the arahat there is no subject, no ‘I’, no ‘self’. When there is no subject, there are no faculties for a subject; and when there are no faculties for a subject, there are no faculties ‘existing’; there is no ‘I am these faculties’. For the faculties to ‘exist’, they must be identified with a subject with an ‘I’, with a ‘self’. The faculties have to be appropriated, meaning they have to be taken as being identical with ‘I’ or ‘my self’. They have to be stamped with the concept ‘I’, and thereby be falsely assumed as things that persist in time without change, as things that are permanent, as things that truly exist. And a change to them will be a matter of concern only because that change will be perceived as a change to something that has been assumed as a permanent and never-changing self. In the arahat there is no appropriation; hence no ‘existence’, no ‘being’, and nothing falsely considered permanent or never-changing self that can change later, either for the better or the worse. The arahat perceives change, but he does not perceive change to something falsely assumed to be a permanent, never-changing self, as the puthujjana perceives. Therefore the arahat’s perception of change is not displeasurable. It does not determine displeasure because it is not the perception of the impermanence of a ‘self’ or a ‘being’, whether that ‘being’ is the ‘being-faculties’ or anything else.

When the monks questioned Upasena, their question implied a change to ‘being’, in this case to the ‘being-faculties’. Upasena replied that there is for him no such change, simply because there is for him no such ‘being’. We have to drive home this point of the arahat’s not-‘being’, even at the risk of being criticized for excess repetition. It is so vital, because if it is missed then the Buddha’s teaching is also missed. Existential philosophers say that the primordial purpose of philosophy is to ask the question of the meaning of Being, and of course by Being they actually refer to what we term ‘being’ (bhava); regardless of whatever mystical theories they concoct, they cannot refer to anything else, because ‘being’ is all they know. And of course they invariably have wrong views regarding it. To really see ‘being’ one must also see the cessation of ‘being’, and only the Buddha shows us how to do this, having experienced the cessation of ‘being’ for himself. This does not mean, of course, that all philosophers interested in the question of ‘being’ are going to discover or follow the Buddha’s teaching. Kāmataṇhā and bhavataṇhā are deep-rooted, not easy to see through or dislodge.

The puthujjana, his innermost being, subtly and falsely perceives or assumes a never-changing self, and then he sees manifest a change in that which he had falsely taken to be such a self. Thus there is in him a perpetual contradiction, there is an ambiguity in him—an existential ambiguity—that determines displeasure. Viññate viññātamattam bhavissati: “In the cognized there shall be just the cognized” is not applicable to the puthujjana, nor is it within his grasp. There is always something more than just immediate experience involved for him. So the change that he cognizes is not a simple change, but a change to something that he tacitly assumes to be unchanging by identifying it as ‘I’ or ‘my self’.

So when there are no faculties ‘existing’, then there are no ‘existing’ faculties to change and cause concern, then there is no aging. Thus, arahat-ness is not-aging (ajaraṃ). The point is that though the faculties—eye, ear, nose, etc.—change for the arahat, this change does not determine displeasure. Thus for him, the change is not ‘aging’. The arahat’s hair turns gray, the skin gets wrinkled, the teeth fall, just as with a non-arahat. But while for the non-arahat this is ‘aging’, ‘decay’, etc. it is not so for the arahat. For the arahat it is just a change that has no displeasurable significance whatsoever, and therefore in his case, it is not to be called ‘aging’ or ‘decay’. These words always signify displeasure, and since there is nothing perceived or felt displeasurable in the arahat’s experience, these words are not used in reference to him.

We may now proceed to the question of birth and death. unlike aging, (jarā), birth (jāti) and death (marana) are not things that the puthujjana can presently experience. Under ordinary circumstances, he has no recollection of his birth; and he cannot experience his death, although he can have the experience of impending death. But the Buddha says, jātipi dukkhā… maranampi dukkham: “Birth is displeasurable… death is displeasurable” — Titthāyatanādi Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.62). However, if the puthujjana does not now experience his own birth and death, what ‘birth’ and ‘death’ does he now experience as being displeasurable?

The puthujjana sees others being born and dying. That is a matter of immediate experience for him. Naturally, he comes to the conclusion that he was born and will also die; he thinks, ‘I was born’ and ‘I will die’. This is all that birth and death mean to him during his conscious existence. His thinking of birth and death is a present displeasurableness to him, not the actual events of his own birth and death. He can experience only thoughts regarding birth and death. Even the experience of impending death is thinking of death, with increasing anxiety as death becomes imminent. For this reason Kierkegaard asks in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript whether “it follows as a consequence that death is only when it is not.” Thinking of his own past birth as this ‘being’, with whatever unsatisfactory features may be in it, and his own future death, for which he always has some fear and anxiety, goes on right through his life whenever he reflects on himself.

manopubbangamā dhammā manoseththā manomayā

“Things have mind as forerunner, mind as chief, are mind-made.” — Dhammapada 1

What drove Prince Siddhartha out of his palatial residences at the age of twenty-nine was not the actual event of birth or death, but the thought of his past birth and his death to come.

Now, within the unity of our existential structure, ideas of birth and death can be considered subordinate to ideas of ‘being’. The puthujjana thinks, ‘I exist, I am; and I am in essentially the same way as I was born; and as born, I am liable to die.’ The puthujjana finds that this ‘my self’ was born and will die as essentially the same as it is now. He now has thoughts regarding his birth and death because he now finds himself to be a self in his own eyes. So the puthujjana, reflecting upon his present existence, sees a ‘self’ that he refers to as ‘my self’, and he thinks: ‘This my self which I now see when I reflect is the same as it was born in the past, and as it will die in the future.’

The existentialist Sartre says in his Being and Nothingness, “For finally this fetus was me; it represents the factual limit for my memory but not the theoretical limit of my past. There is a metaphysical problem regarding birth, in that I can be anxious to know how I happened to be born from that particular embryo.” Sartre adds that “this problem is perhaps insolvable”, and certainly it is—without the Buddha’s teaching.

Thus even to the existentialist, thinking of birth is an anxiety-determining thing; but being a puthujjana, he does not see that it is because he tacitly assumes an I that has been a permanent-by-itself since at least his birth, since that is as far back as his memory goes. Actually when he speaks of an ‘I’ that happened to be born from a particular embryo, he tacitly assumes that the same ‘I’ existed even before its inception in the embryo—the ultimate implication of this is that the same ‘I’ had been existing in the eternal past. The phrase “not the theoretical limit of my past” indicates this implication.

The question of a ‘was born’ and ‘will die’ cannot arise unless present experience is somehow reckoned as concerning a self. The puthujjana is concerned with a birth only because he sees a ‘self’ to whom birth and death apply. Similarly the puthujjana thinks he existed yesterday—which only means he thinks he was the same ‘self’ yesterday as he is now—and he thinks his ‘self’ existed earlier too. And the earliest point of his ‘existence’ or ‘being’ for which he sees certain and definite grounds is his birth. Likewise with the future; the last point of his ‘existence’ at which he can perceive being the same ‘self’, is death.

Because in the puthujjana’s experience there is a false that-which-stands (thiti) —because in his experience a false self is manifest—there is also manifest an arising (uppāda) and a passing away (vaya) or death, both concerning this that-which-stands in his own eyes. Such a that-which-stands is not manifest (na paññāyati) in the arahat’s experience. When in his experience a that-which-stands is not manifest, then neither an arising nor a passing away of that-which-stands is manifest. The non-manifestation of a false self, and its concomitant arising and passing away, are characteristic of the arahat’s experience. That is why the arahat is called unborn (ajataṃ) and deathless (amataṃ).

‘I am’—monk, this is a conceiving. ‘I am this’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall not be’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be of matter’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be of not-matter’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be of perception’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be of not-perception’—this is a conceiving. ‘I shall be of neither-perception-nor-non-perception’—this is a conceiving. Conceiving, monk, is a disease; conceiving is an imposthume (abscess); conceiving is a barb. When, monk, the sage has gone beyond all conceiving, he is said to be at peace. But, monk, the sage who is at peace is not born, does not decay, is not agitated; not decaying, how will he die? Not dying, how will he be agitated? Not being agitated, how will he envy?” — Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 140)

That which is, and by which one can be born, grow old and die, is ‘I’ or ‘self’. But the arahat is completely free from ‘self’. The deception of ‘self’ no longer arises in him. “He himself does not perceive ‘self’.” (Suttanipāta 477) Therefore there is nothing for the arahat that can be referred to as being born, aging and dying. Further, as the Sutta says, when there is no death to come, then there is no agitation (kuppati) whatsoever, and no envy (pihessati) of anything or anyone. Cessation of ‘being’ (bhavanirodha) cannot be agitated or unsteadied or shaken, nor can it have envy. These displeasurable things—birth, aging and decay, death, agitation, envy, etc.—pertain only to ‘being’. And arahat-ness as the experience of the cessation of ‘being’ is at one and the same time the experience of extinction of all these displeasurable things.

Just as the change that goes on in the body of the arahat is not decay for him, laying down of life (jīvita pariyādāna) of the arahat is not death for him. Decay and death always imply ‘self’, and for the arahat there is no ‘self’. Decay and death determine displeasure. In the arahat’s experience, though change and disappearance are manifest, no decay or death are manifest. Not being manifest, they do not determine displeasure.

In Sāriputta, no change to anything whatsoever gives rise to sorrow, lamentation, displeasure, grief or despair—not even the passing away of the Buddha—and this is because he has entirely uprooted the latent tendencies to the conceits of ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making.” — Upatissa Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 21.2)

It should be quite clearly understood that the Buddha did not declare that he will be experiencing deathlessness after his life is over. He said that he and the arahats live experiencing deathlessness. Exhorting the five monks he first taught at Benares to listen to him, he described himself thus:

The Tathāgata, monks, is arahat, is all-enlightened. Give ear, monks. Deathlessness has been reached. I will instruct you.” — Pañcavaggiya-kathā

Thus deathlessness is something that has been attained by the arahat, something that has been achieved by him.

Having attained and realized deathlessness, the arahat lives experiencing it in the body.” — Kīṭāgiri Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 70)

The arahat has come to the cessation of birth, aging and death. He is:

  • parimutto jātiyā jarāmaranena: “entirely freed from birth, death and aging” — Dutiyacatumahārāja Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.38)
  • pajīnajātimarano: “has done away with birth and death” — Vacchagotta Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.58)
  • jāti marana maccaga: “has gone beyond birth and death” — Itivuttaka 77
  • jātikkhayaṃ patto: “has arrived at the destruction of birth” — Itivuttaka 99
  • maranabhibhu: “has conquered death” — Theragātha 1180
  • santo vidhūmo anīgho nirāso atāri so jātijarantī brūmi’ti: “calm and unclouded, peaceful, free from longing, he has crossed over birth and aging, I say.” — Ānanda Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 3.32)
  • dhāreti antimaṃ dehaṃ jātimaranaparāgu: “Gone to the end of birth and death, he bears the final frame.” — Theragātha 1022

Overcoming death does not mean living forever. Death is overcome by removing that thing to which death applies. the experience of the living arahat is birthless, ageless and deathless, simply because all subjectivity—being ‘I’ or ‘self’, to which alone birth, aging and death apply—has been completely cut off, never to arise again.

This is the deathless—that is, the release of the mind though non-clinging.” — Theragātha 1022

Now from the viewpoint of everyday conventional verbal usage, it is certainly possible to apply the terms ‘aging’ and ‘death’ to the arahat. But the implications should be very clearly kept in mind, because these words do not have the same meaning or significance as when used for anybody else. For this reason, it is best not to use these words in reference to the arahat. Note how in the following passage the words ‘born’ (jāti), ‘aging’ (jarā) and ‘death’ (marāna) are deliberately avoided when speaking of the arahat in comparison to others:

King Pasenadi: “To the born, lord, is there any other [fate] than aging and death?”

The Buddha: “To the born, great king, there is nothing apart from aging-&-death. Great king, even those who are eminent nobles, prosperous, owning great treasure, great wealth, large hoards of gold and silver, immense means, abundant supplies of goods and corn—to them too, being born, there is nothing apart from aging-&-death. Great king, even those who are eminent divines… Great king, even those who are eminent householders, prosperous, owning great treasure, great wealth, large hoards of gold and silver, immense means, abundant supplies of goods and corn—to them too, being born, there is nothing apart from aging-&-death. Great king, even those who are monks who are arahats, destroyers of the cankers, reached completion, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, achieved his own welfare, utterly destroyed the fetter of ‘being’, released through comprehending rightly—to them too, it is the nature of this body to break up, to be laid down.” — Jarāmaraṇa Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 3.3)

Now after all subjectivity is extinct, nevermore to arise again, there yet remains life for a while longer, which is the arahat’s life, the living experience of the arahat. The Buddha describes this as upādisesa, which means ‘stuff remaining’ or ‘residue’. This too comes to an end when the arahat’s body breaks up. We shall discuss more about this phase of life later on.

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