3

Finding resources to better understand the meaning of the 12 links of dependent origination has been challenging for me. The best resource I've been able to find to decipher the meaning thus far is this dharma talk.

2009-06-21: Gil Fronsdal: Dependent Origination

In it, the first 9 links are described in a fashion that makes sense and rings true but the last 3 are still fuzzy to me.

1: ignorance the choice to ignore that which is uncomfortable
(i.e The biological purpose of "pain" is to provide the sensory motor brain with feedback that its predictive model of the world is incorrect. It contains a wrong view about the world which leads to unskillful movements in the world. This wrong view should be investigated and replaced with a more skillful view which makes more skillful movements in the world possible. e.g. You burn your hand on the stove. Within this context, the choice to IGNORE the discomfort, to cling to views, gives rise to suffering. Suffering is the persistent pressure by the sensory motor brain to pay attention to the feedback and correct the wrong view in its sensory-motor predictive model of the world.)
ignorance is the condition for
2: unwise intention
is the condition for
3: unwise attention
is the condition for
4: unwise mobilization of body and mind
is the condition for
5: the 6 sense bases
directed to receive and interpret sensory input (perhaps unwisely)
is the condition for
6: contact
the sensory experience. which may be interpreted unwisely
is the condition for
7: feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral)
is the condition for
8: craving (to pull towards or push away)
is the condition for
9: clinging
is the condition for
10: becoming
is the condition for
11: birth
is the condition for
12: old age and death

The speaker suggests that “birth and becoming” refer to the creation of an identity associated with suffering and that “old age and death” is a synonym for suffering. This is too fuzzy for my liking and I desire a clearer and more precise understanding.

I think this means
The wrong view that “happiness depends upon the satiation of THIS desire for THIS sensory experience”, when clung to, gives BIRTH to an identity whose mission is to attain that sensory experience by BECOMING the identity required to attain it.
So “birth and becoming” kind of make sense to me, though I am still somewhat uncertain if this is the meaning the Buddha intended.
“Old age and death” however does not make sense to me.
If this is just a synonym for suffering, why didn't the Buddha just say “suffering”.
My impression is that he chose his words very carefully.

2

Aging & death are defined as follows:

And what, bhikkhus, is aging-and-death? The aging of the various beings in the various orders of beings, their growing old, brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of vitality, degeneration of the faculties: this is called aging. The passing away of the various beings from the various orders of beings, their perishing, breakup, disappearance, mortality, death, completion of time, the breakup of the aggregates, the laying down of the carcass: this is called death. Thus this aging and this death are together called aging-and-death.

SN 12.2

The most important word in the above definition is "beings" ("satta"). "A being" is merely a "view" or "convention" (SN 5.10) founded in "strong clinging" (SN 23.2).

For example, "aging" in SN 12.2 above is not the greying of the hair and the wrinkling of the skin. Instead, "aging" above is when you look into the mirror and start to lament: "My hair is greying; my skin is wrinkling; I am getting old". "Aging" is the aging of "a being" rather than only the aging of a physical body.

Aging & death are a type of suffering, as follows:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

SN 56.11

‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: what is the source of this suffering, what is its origin, from what is it born and produced? When what exists does aging-and-death come to be? When what does not exist does aging-and-death not come to be?’

As he explores he understands thus: ‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: this suffering has acquisition as its source, acquisition as its origin; it is born and produced from acquisition. When there is acquisition, aging-and-death comes to be; when there is no acquisition, aging-and-death does not come to be.’

SN 12.66

And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, formations come to be; with formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, mind-and-body; with mind-and-body as 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, aging-and-death plus/and sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, bhikkhus, is called dependent origination.

SN 12.1

In short, when aging & death occurs, suffering (sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair) will inevitably/simultaneously occur.

For example, if you have craving (ordinary love), attachment and identification with five aggregates you call "my mother"; when the aggregates of "my mother" end, this is the "death" of the "mother" identity. Due to the craving & attachment, causing the sense of "loss", there will simultaneously be suffering. This is most simply explained in SN 22.1.

For example, if you watch TV and see some lifeless bodies on the TV news in an earthquake in Iran, you do not suffer at all or, otherwise, suffer much less than seeing the lifeless body of "my mother". Why? Because there is no attachment to those lifeless bodies in the Iranian earthquake.

In summary, the word "death" means the death of "an attached to being" or "identity". As SN 12.66 says, the cause of the suffering of aging & death is "acquisition" ("upadhi"; "attachment"). Thus, the idea of "death" will always simultaneously cause suffering.

2
  • “When there is acquisition, aging-and-death comes to be; when there is no acquisition, aging-and-death does not come to be.” Eureka! This seems to fit precisely: So long as the choice to pursue the sense-desire via birth and becoming is rewarded with acquisition, ignorance is rewarded, clinging to “wrong view” is rewarded and we remain trapped in the cycle of suffering.
    – Alex Ryan
    Mar 7 at 1:23
  • 1
    Only when the unskillful choice of ignorance is not rewarded by acquisition does the mind feel forced to search for an alternative way to alleviate the suffering. Only then will it feel compelled to think more deeply about its unskillful choice to ignore the discomfort which is feedback to be investigated for insight. An insight the mind desperately needs to find to break the cycle of suffering. Thank you. This sounds exactly correct. The op was satisfied and delighted in the blessed one words. ;)
    – Alex Ryan
    Mar 7 at 1:23
0

The speaker suggests that “birth and becoming” refer to the creation of an identity associated with suffering and that “old age and death” is a synonym for suffering. This is too fuzzy for my liking and I desire a clearer and more precise understanding.

I think there's some truth in that (i.e. what you say the speaker suggested), and that the specific type of suffering that the Buddha tried to find a cure for was death.

  • Consider the devadutas (loss of youth, health, life) -- which we're told are what caused Siddhattha to leave home

  • More canonically there's MN 26:

    Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I too, being liable to be reborn, sought what is also liable to be reborn. Myself liable to grow old, fall sick, die, sorrow, and become corrupted, I sought what is also liable to these things. Then it occurred to me: ‘Why do I, being liable to be reborn, grow old, fall sick, sorrow, die, and become corrupted, seek things that have the same nature? Why don’t I seek the unborn, unaging, unailing, undying, sorrowless, uncorrupted supreme sanctuary, extinguishment?’

  • One of the synonyms of nibbana is "undying" or "deathless"

  • The story of Kisa Gotami seems to me typical of how people suffer from death.

  • And I like this comment from MatthewMartin (talking about lay people):

    "People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk."

  • It is the last of the 12 nidanas (like the "QED" in a proof)

So “birth and becoming” kind of make sense to me, though I am still somewhat uncertain if this is the meaning the Buddha intended. “Old age and death” however does not make sense to me. If this is just a synonym for suffering, why didn't the Buddha just say “suffering”.

So I think that death is meant fairly literally -- it's not a synonym for suffering but it's an important occasion for suffering.

The proof of that I think is that there may be (at least in theory) death without suffering, or non-suffering even though there is death.

To the extent that it's a synonym perhaps it can be understood as a synonym for "loss" -- e.g. "death" of a loved one generalizes to "loss" of some familiar experience.

And so I think the question is, "Given that death and suffering exist, what causes death, and what causes the suffering associated with death?"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.