Im asking about the Vajrayana or Mahayana view, but theravadan views are fine too. Buddhism rejects a first cause, but how can birth and death go in infinite regress? How did samsara start? Ultimately nothing arises yes, but then there would be no movement or action, right?

The only way I can posit a solution is the cyclic universe theory where mind and appearances have always existed, and are dependent upon each other. Thus they can be said to give rise to one another in a sense (but not in succession, just that without one the other cant exist). I think this is what Guru Rinpoche also said somewhere? Is this the Buddhist view?

By the way, I have recently converted to Buddhism after having debated it in the past. I want to understand it more, so this is not an attack on buddhist Pratityasamutpada.

This is very hard for me to understand. I am hoping someone more knowledgeable than me can provide some insight.

Edit:I think I have found an answer with the theory of the Five lights in dzogchen.matter and consciousness(wich is a element)are always there,and have always been there.

  • 'The Dhamma Theory' pdf by Prof Y Karunadasa, The Linga Sharira and The Akashic Record, may throw some light. May 13, 2020 at 17:26

7 Answers 7


Let's say you are learning to play baseball. One of the first thing you find out is that the game has nine innings. What, you ask breathlessly, comes before the 1st inning???? While you are mulling that over, your turn comes at the plate. You stand there asking yourself "What comes before the 1st? What comes before the 1st????". As you delve deeply into the fundamental nature of innings, their arising and their passing away, the pitcher lobs three balls to the catcher in quick succession. The umpire calls you out. You go back to the dugout none the wiser on the nature of innings nor having actually played the game.

Buddhism doesn't seek to make any ontological statements about reality. Even the headiest of Buddhist philosophies are exclusively soteriological. The statements they make on the nature of being, mind, karma, etc. are to be understood exclusively within that context. Notions of beginning and endings or the nature of reality are entirely Western constructs that are completely out of bounds in discussions of Buddhism. More to the point, they have no bearing whatsoever on the endeavor of Buddhist practice.

"Don't waste your time on doubts and arguments that have nothing to do with this." - Seng-Ts'an.


The Vajrayana (Dzogchen) interpretation is that in the beginning there was this "Ground of All". This ground is said to be spontaneously present, undifferentiated or undetermined, and having potential for manifestation of infinite possibilities including the fundamental nature of mind - the ability to represent.

This ground is also atemporal, meaning it does not disappear or lose its character until even this moment.

From this Ground of All come all kinds of random fluctuations. Most of them disappear right away, but some start a cyclic process whereby the first instance of fluctuation creates favorable conditions for the second instance of a similar fluctuation to emerge, creating a sort of positive loop. These are so called "tendencies", samskaras. From accumulation and aggregation of these tendencies, everything else arises.

If you insist on seeking the first cause, it is this Ground Of All (usually equated with Emptiness and Buddha-Nature) that can be called the first cause.

The basic nature of mind, so called Luminosity or the potential ability to represent, exists primordially as a quality of this Ground.

The appearances arise from iterative proliferation of discriminative tendencies, as described in The Twelve Nidanas.

  • Thanks.is this representive of the Rangtong view aswell?or just the shentongpa view?
    – johny man
    May 12, 2020 at 23:23
  • As I was writing this answer it occurred to me that it was probably much more aligned with shentong although in practice Dzogchenpas don't concern themselves with such lowly theoretical matters.
    – Andriy Volkov
    May 13, 2020 at 1:43

I do not have a sutta citation for it (I spent several hours looking), but there is one sutta where the Buddha was pressed for a first cause and he said that if such a thing must be had it would be taṇhā, thirst. Not avijja, blindness.

To say that blindness was the first cause would be to mistake the individual as being the creator (something not uncommon in this world), for ignorance is a property of an already existing being.

Hello Bhante (Samana Johann):

Those suttas are found in an SN vagfa

I have just read through the entire Samyutta 15 and the reference I remember is not there. I think it was in one of the many suttas where the question of the unanswered questions came up. In any case I am not saying this, this is what I remember being said in a sutta by Gotama.

My guess to householders answer is that such idea is merely avija, or? How could there be craving without no knowing, not seeing?

I myself questioned the idea of thirst being a first cause in a situation where it is also being said that the beginning point of samsara is not to be seen. I believe what is being spoken of is just "pick a point in the cycle of causal associations which is where it 'starts over'". That would be thirst.

But thirst is not exclusively a property of living beings. A sponge is said to be thirsty. If we think of this world as an evolving chemical reaction which has self-awareness as one of its properties, we can imagine this evolving thing at one point jumping from being 'inanimate' to 'animate' by way of a property similar to that of the sponge.

There is much talk of the time when computers will become self-conscious and able to make decisions to act on their own based on their 'thinking'. At what point, dependent on what factor will the transition take place if not wanting (thirst)?


Why should one think there is no infinite regress. The assumption of a first cause doesn't resolve or explain anything. It really only actually begs the questions: where does the first cause itself come from.

Mathematically, we don't have a problem with an infinite regress when it comes to things like the number line or expanse of Euclidean space.

But when it comes to Dharma practice, it really doesn't matter one way or the other how you think about this. The Dharma focuses on the Four Noble Truths which aren't interested in such philosophical quandaries like first causes.


I am hoping someone more knowledgeable than me can provide some insight.

I am more knowledgeable, with insight.

Buddhism rejects a first cause

Buddhism does not reject 1st cause

Buddhism teaches about how suffering arises & how suffering ceases

Buddhism teaches the 1st cause for the arising of suffering is ignorance (AN 10.61)

but how can birth and death go in infinite regress?

Materialist ideas eventually came to dominate Buddhism. In original Buddhism, the word "birth" ("jati") refers to the creation of self-identity. "Death" is the death of the same "self-identity". The original teachings don't refer to any "infinite regress".

How did samsara start?

Samsara means "continuation" of self-views. Refer to SN 22.99.

The only way I can posit a solution is the cyclic universe theory

The Buddha taught about the origin of suffering rather than the origin of the physical universe. Refer to SN 56.31 and MN 22

By the way, I have recently converted to Buddhism after having debated it in the past. I want to understand it more, so this is not an attack on buddhist Pratityasamutpada.

Paṭiccasamuppāda, as originally taught, is only about the arising of suffering. To quote AN 3.61:

And what, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering? With ignorance as condition, ... activities come to be; with ... activities as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, mind-and-body; with mind-and-bodyas condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and anguish come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This is called the noble truth of the origin of suffering.

  • your link to show that ignorance if a "fiist cause" does not include the terns "first" or "cause"
    – user2512
    May 13, 2020 at 5:29
  • the sutta says " not seen such that before this there was no ignorance and afterward it came into being"... May 13, 2020 at 10:35

From SN 15.4:

“Mendicants, transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.

What do you think? Which is more: the mother’s milk you’ve drunk while roaming and transmigrating for such a very long time, or the water in the four oceans?”

“As we understand the Buddha’s teaching, the mother’s milk we’ve drunk while roaming and transmigrating is more than the water in the four oceans.”

“Good, good, mendicants! It’s good that you understand my teaching like this. The mother’s milk you’ve drunk while roaming and transmigrating for such a very long time is more than the water in the four oceans.

Why is that? Transmigration has no known beginning. … This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.”

According to the sutta above, you have been reborn for more times than you can count, with no known beginning to suffering.

Usually, people take this to mean that the very same consciousness that is reading this answer has been reborn many times and experienced all that has been experienced through this body since birth.

However, according to MN 38, this is not true:

The Blessed One then asked him: “Sāti, is it true that the following pernicious view has arisen in you: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another’?”

“Exactly so, venerable sir. As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.”

“What is that consciousness, Sāti?”

“Venerable sir, it is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”

“Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? But you, misguided man, have misrepresented us by your wrong grasp and injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.”

Consciousness is always changing and it is dependently originated. However, it may appear to be the same just as the water stream of a river appears to be the same, when in fact, the droplets of water in it are constantly changing. Please see this answer.

So, yes - you have been reborn for an uncountable number of times and have drunk more mother's milk than the waters of the four oceans. But who are "you"? You are not the same consciousness that moves through the births.

"You" refers to the self i.e. the thought or idea of the self. It's not a soul. It's simply the thought or idea or view of the self in the mind. It's not the same common self for every person. It's also not the same thought that exists at all moments in time - it's dependently originated.

When there is the thought of the self, there is the objectification and classification (papanca) of everything else that is perceived as non-self, relative to its relationship to the self. This causes the arising of craving and suffering. This is elaborated in this answer.

So, there is definitely rebirth - not the rebirth of a permanent consciousness or soul, but rather the rebirth of the mental idea of the self, and together with it, the rebirth of suffering.

So, the Buddha looks at YOU - yes, that's right - YOU - the SELF - and tells you that you have been reborn for an uncountable number of times, with no known beginning. You (the SELF) have also drunk more mother's milk than the four oceans combined. This to me, is definitely proof that there is rebirth in Buddhism, just not the kind of rebirth that you may have in mind.


Buddhism rejects the existence of a permanent self (ātman), and denies the existence of a first cause in any form

Dr Tadeusz Skorupski

Ignorance is not really a "first cause", it is not an uncaused thing that brought all other things into being; think of ignorance prolonging dependent origination, just like suffering old age and death -- itself not some final effect, but causation thought through in a particular way.

How did samsara start?

There's no explanation for the beginning of samsara, only particular phases of it. A "first cause" would make for some single essential cause being the basis of reality, which is not Buddhist [cf The Awakening of Faith].

although beginningless, it has an end

  • On Buddha Essence: A Commentary on Rangjung Dorje's Treatise p5

So asking how it began will confuse.

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