I asked my teacher how somebody should see for themselves that rebirth occurs, he (a Theravadin monastic) said that with great samadhi one should watch the twelve nidanas (the process of dependant co-arising) to see the eleventh nidana (becoming leads to birth).

I can accept that if one watches the nidanas then one would see that becoming leads to birth. However, seeing birth occurring during our (biological) life is separate from concluding that (re)birth occurs after physical death. I think that the most simple way to put this is that the process of becoming leading to birth is not dependent on the body. If one can see the eleventh nidana then how would they confirm that the eleventh nidana does not require form?

Perhaps I am on the wrong track entirely and the proper action is to watch some other process to see that the mind (instead of just the nidanas) does not require a body to sustain it.

1 Answer 1


Yes. This question is on the wrong track because Dependent Origination is only about the 12 conditions that result in suffering, i.e., sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair. To quote:

And what is dependent co-arising? From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabricators. From fabricators as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes mentality-&-materiality. From mentality-&-materiality as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging. From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising

In other words, the 12th nidana is not about physical death. The following quote states aging-&-death cease when 'the eye sees a form', i.e., while the physical body is still alive:

On seeing a form with the eye, he isn't infatuated with pleasing forms, and doesn't get upset over unpleasing forms. He dwells with body-mindfulness established, with unlimited awareness. He discerns, as it has come to be, the awareness-release & discernment-release where those evil, unskillful qualities cease without remainder. Having thus abandoned compliance & opposition, he doesn't relish any feeling he feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — doesn't welcome it, doesn't remain fastened to it. As he doesn't relish that feeling, doesn't welcome it, & doesn't remain fastened to it, delight doesn't arise. From the cessation of his delight comes the cessation of clinging. From the cessation of clinging comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

MN 38

When someone or something you love & are attached to dies, you suffer. This is because the mind previously took 'birth' ('jati') via becoming ('bhava') as a 'self-identity' ('sakkhaya') attached ('upadana') to the sense object ('ayatana') that passes away ('marana').

For example, you identify yourself with a sense object that is a woman that you call 'my wife' & you call yourself 'her husband'. If your wife physically dies (by physical death) or the legal status (convention) of 'wife' socially dies (by divorcing you), your self-identity as a 'husband' also 'dies', which is suffering.

Or when you look into a mirror & see your skin wrinkling, your hair becoming grey, your teeth rotting, etc, you suffer due to the thought: "I am aging, I am going to die". These thoughts produce suffering because those five aggregates that appear in the mirror the mind regards to be "I", "me", "mine" & "myself".

For example, you may watch TV and see 10,000 Chinese people die in an earthquake but suffer more if you see your pet dog, pet cat or pet goldfish die. You may suffer more if your favourite pen is stolen. This is because the mind identifies with & is attached to the pet dog, pet cat, pet goldfish or pen but not attached to the 10,000 Chinese people. The death of 10,000 unknown Chinese people do not cause suffering but the death of a pet cat causes tremendous suffering.

Aging-&-death in Dependent Origination refers to the aging-&-death of 'beings' ('satta') and the various orders of 'beings'. 'Beings' ('satta') is defined in the suttas as states of attachment & identity (rather than physical life forms). 'Satta' is merely a 'view'.

The relationship between the nidanas of birth (self-identifying) & aging-&-death (suffering due to loss) is explained simply below:

He assumes consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness. He is seized with the idea that 'I am consciousness' or 'Consciousness is mine.' As he is seized with these ideas, his consciousness changes & alters, and he falls into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair over its change & alteration.

Nakulapita Sutta

You may ask yourself when suffering: "Why am I suffering?". The general answer is because of change & loss, i.e., aging-&-death. Then ask: "Why did aging-&-death cause me to suffering?" The answer is because I ignorantly regarded the lost or deceased object to be "I", "me" & "mine"; I took birth as the 'owner' of those objects.

Below is what famous Thai monk Ajahn Chah had to say about this:

Now, how do we know that it's a bhava? It's a bhava (sphere of existence) because of our clinging to the idea that those trees are our own, that that orchard is our own. If someone were to take an ax and cut one of the trees down, the owner over there in the house ''dies'' along with the tree. He gets furious, and has to go and set things right, to fight and maybe even kill over it. That quarreling is the ''birth.'' The ''sphere of birth'' is the orchard of trees that we cling to as our own. We are ''born'' right at the point where we consider them to be our own, born from that bhava. Even if we had a thousand apple trees, if someone were to cut down just one it'd be like cutting the owner down.


This taking 'birth' as the 'owner' of sense objects is explained in the definition of 'birth', below:

And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, entering, coming-to-be, coming-forth, production of the the various beings in this or that group of beings via the manifestation (distorted perceptual appearance) of the five aggregates & acquisition (taking ownership) of sense media (objects), that is called birth.

Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising

Again, the same Pali term for 'acquisition' is used below:

yāyaṃ attabhāvapaṭilābho yasmiṃ attabhāvapaṭilābhe attasañcetanā kamati no parasañcetanā, attasañcetanāhetu tesaṃ sattānaṃ tamhā kāyā cuti hoti

...in that acquisition (paṭilābho) of individuality (attabhāva; self-becoming) in which one's own volition (attasañcetanā) operates but not the volition of others (parasañcetanā), it is by reason of their own volition that beings (sattānaṃ) pass away (cuti; shift; vanish) from that group (kāyā)

AN 4.171

The sutta below states whenever objects of consciousness are appropriated or 'stolen' to be "I", "me" & "mine", there will be inevitable punishment or suffering.

"And how, O monks, should the nutriment consciousness be considered? Suppose, O monks, people have seized a criminal, a robber, and brought him before the king saying: 'This is a criminal, a robber, O Majesty! Mete out to him the punishment you think fit!' Then the king would tell them: 'Go, and in the morning strike this man with a hundred spears!' And they strike him in the morning with a hundred spears. At noon the king would ask his men: 'How is that man?' — 'He is still alive, Your Majesty.' — 'Then go and strike him again at noontime with a hundred spears!' So they did, and in the evening the king asks them again: 'How is that man?' — 'He is still alive.' — 'Then go and in the evening strike him again with a hundred spears!' And so they did.

"What do you think, O monks? Will that man, struck with three hundred spears during a day, suffer pain and torment owing to that?"

"Even if he were to be struck only by a single spear, he would suffer pain and torment owing to that. How much more if he is being struck by three hundred spears!"

"In that manner, I say, O monks, should the nutriment consciousness be considered. If the nutriment consciousness is comprehended, mind-and-matter are thereby comprehended. And if mind and body are comprehended, there is, I say, no further work left to do for the noble disciple."

Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh

  • Perhaps I wasn't clear but I'm quite aware of what birth means (not rebirth but the birth that leads to suffering), this is different to the rebirth which occurs after physical death but the two concepts are relatable which is why the monastic suggested that this was the way to see that rebirth occurs after physical death. If you don't think this approach is valid what approach would you suggest?
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 2:05
  • 1
    I personally have found no evidence that dependant co-arising relates to anything that happens after death. I am aware there are sectarian views about dependant co-arising occurring over 3 life times but I cannot find any evidence of this in the Pali suttas. Imo, a person must choose one viewpoint over the other (rather than attempt to reconcile both). My explanation of dependant co-arising comes from my personal meditation experience, which I have happily reconciled for myself with the Pali suttas. I share it with you, which you are free to consider, accept or reject. With metta Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 2:50

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