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When we see with an eye of Dhamma , we realise that that which has a beginning must have an end because birth is conditional. (I am using Bhikkhu Sujata’s translation of SN 35.74)

If we reverse the Truth then is it true that that which has an end must have had a beginning?

PS: To clarify , I share an example, suppose a candle light is put off then can we conclude that sometime in the past the candle was lit? It was not always burning.

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    "It was not always burning" It was not even always a candle -- before that it was wax in a candle-factory, etc. ... where then is "a beginning"?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 7, 2023 at 11:02
  • Also what kind of answer are you looking for, and/or why: an answer based on "logic"? Or a reference to a canonical statement?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 7, 2023 at 11:05
  • @ChrisW Whichever way you may wish to answer. Nov 7, 2023 at 12:38
  • Applying logic to religon seldom produces logic. Not sure logic suports what you're reversing. The counting numbers begin at 1 and have no end. Care to define "everything" in some way that keeps the logic from falling appart? Nov 8, 2023 at 17:07
  • @candied_orange For your kind information, Buddha is very logical. Begin counting from 1 to infinity. I am sure you will be able to count only finite numbers ,no matter how large!! And then you will die. Everything means everything which has a beginning. Nov 8, 2023 at 17:41

6 Answers 6

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is it true that that which has an end must have had a beginning?

The dhamma doesn't say so -- translations of SN 15.9 say that samsara has no known or knowable beginning:

See also MN 72

Master Gotama, is this your view: ‘The cosmos is eternal. This is the only truth, other ideas are silly’?”

“That’s not my view, Vaccha.”

“Then is this your view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal. This is the only truth, other ideas are silly’?”

“That’s not my view, Vaccha.”

When my little brother and I quarrelled, we'd say to our Mum, "He started it!" and "No, he started it!, and she'd tell us, "I don't care who started it: you both have to stop."

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  • AN 3.47 says so
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:12
  • @Yeshe Tenley, it looks like ChrisW was answering a different question, I updated his answer to make it more clear. If I am correct your comment does not apply.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:52
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    Hmm. I am not understanding. Anything that has an end must be a fabricated/compounded/produced thing, right? If it is, then the Buddha explicitly says in AN 3.47 (which is 'the dhamma') that it can be seen to have a beginning, right? So it would seem to follow that the dhamma does say that 'that which has an end must have had a beginning'?? I won't rule out that I'm misunderstanding something, but I think there is a very important point here that can deepen understanding of sunyata: that 'beginnings' and 'ends' and 'ceasing' etc are themselves fabricated things
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:55
  • This is Nagarjuna's point in chapter 7 of MMK. If you don't understand that arising, ceasing, beginnings, ends, etc are themselves fabricated things then this can lead to a seeming contradiction between SN 15.9 and AN 3.47
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 16:00
  • I think ChrisW's point in this answer is that Samsara has no beginning and yet it has an end. So there's clearly at least one case when something can have an ending without having a beginning. But also, see my answer for an explanation of how it's not really about beginning but rather about renewal and new arising.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 7, 2023 at 16:11
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When SN 56.11 says: "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation", what is the important matter here is the "cessation" because the essential revelation of SN 56.11 is the cessation of suffering.

In other words, while SN 56.11 pointed out the type of suffering called 'birth' is conditioned by craving, attachment & becoming; the essential matter of the teaching is the cessation of suffering. SN 56.11 is not explaining there is birth after death. It is only explaining all of the conditioned suffering that arises/originates can be subject to complete permanent cessation.

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All products have a beginning. All products are composite. Being composite they are subject to continual change (anicca). Being subject to continual change means that they will end.

What about non-products? Cessations, absences, and space are all non-products. Being non-composite, they are not subject to continual change. Both absences and space may still end, though, (for example, the absent mother returns after a day of work).

Cessations do not end. That is what is meant by a cessation: It has ceased to be. (For example, the mother who died).

Yet cessations begin. (For example, the moment that the mother died).

It follows:
All products have a beginning and an end. Some non-products have a beginning and an end. Cessations have a beginning but no end.

(Sautrāntika Abhidharma, as presented by Jang-gya's "Presentation of tenets")

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Yes, the reverse of that truth is actually very useful. That's exactly what the Four Noble Truths come from: in order to end something we must understand its beginnings.

But let's analyze it in detail.

First of all, the original saying in Buddha-Dharma is not exactly "Everything that has a beginning must have an end". The original saying uses slightly different words, it seems similar on the surface but has a rather different meaning in depth.

The original is,

yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ, sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamman'ti
SN 35.74

or

"whatever has a nature of samudaya -- all that has a nature of nirodha"

Samudaya is from sam + ud + i, literally “together + up + go”. It has a meaning of composition, coincidence, junction, i.e. an emergent effect of multiple causes and conditions coming together. Also the meaning of Samudaya is not confined to momentary beginning, it's more like sourcing or continuous generation. Consider a fire that keeps generating the heat as long as the firewood remains together.

Nirodha is NOT an antonym of samudaya, it does not imply falling apart! Instead, it comes from ni + rodha, literally "no + fence". It has a meaning of arresting, blocking, suppressing, preventing, confining, i.e. not letting something harmful to come and get us.

So the meaning of the saying is: all phenomena produced from combinations of causes and conditions can be stopped and prevented. And of course the phenomena we are talking about are various kinds of dukkha and it's predecessors or precursors: conflicts, wars, misunderstandings, diseases, pandemics, the global warming and so on.

If we try to reverse this truth, by starting with Nirodha and going back, we can say: look, we have this phenomenon that we want to stop, and we don't want a new one like this to arise again in the future, how can we do that? And looking backward to its Samudaya we can say: let's try and understand the composition of this phenomenon, what causes and conditions it comes from. Then, once we find the necessary conditions, we can say: removing these conditions will stop and prevent arising of the phenomenon. And then we can come up with a methodical plan for doing that.

Reminds of anything? Of course, because these are the Four Noble Truths! Turns out, they are based on this very principle: in order to nirodha something we must understand its samudaya.

There are two famous sayings in Buddha-Dharma:

  1. "All composed phenomena are impermanent."
  2. "Whatever comes together can be stopped and prevented."

— These are two sides of the same coin. The first one is the passive outlook where we find ourselves as the victims of the cosmic order. The other one is the active outlook of someone ready to be the master of his or her destiny.

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    See below also for AN 3.47 where the Buddha declared explicitly that all compounded things can be seen to arise, endure and then cease.
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:47
  • I'm not sure whether it's important to know how a thing started, or whether it's only how a thing continues, i.e. what sustains it. I mean fire stops when you remove the fuel or air, right, it doesn't matter how or when it began?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 7, 2023 at 16:27
  • Sure, but I was trying to tie my answer with the colloquial language used by the OP. By the way, uppāda, the word used in AN 3.47 means more like production or generation than a one time arising. This may be a way out of this conundrum. We must understand how phenomenon is renewed, if you wish.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 7, 2023 at 16:28
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I will answer this from a different angle. To an ant, many things seem permanent and everlasting. To us, a beginning and ending of things are more discernible. This ability to discern a start and end (and even a restart) increases as we go up the samsaric realms; the beings in higher realms with their longer lifespans would easily observe the birth, death and rebirth of beings in lower realms. But all these consciousness are nonetheless conditioned with their constraints. To reach a consciousness that is without constraints, a being must attained to enlightenment and transcend to the consciousness without surface.

So, this answer sort of twisted the question around by asking what are the constraints on consciousness that prevents it from being aware of any beginning or ending (or any cyclic existence)? As any beginning or ending (cyclic or not) that is beyond the constraints of consciousness is unknowable. Therefore, I think we should instead focus on such constraints and see if there is indeed one that is free from all conditions.

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The Teacher said:

“Mendicants, conditioned phenomena have these three characteristics. What three? Arising is evident, vanishing is evident, and change while persisting is evident. These are the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena.”

AN 3.47

Alternative translation

Bhikkhus, there are these three characteristics that define the conditioned. What three? An arising is seen, a vanishing is seen, and its alteration while it persists is seen. These are the three characteristics that define the conditioned.

AN 3.47

Another translation from Tibetan canon:

Oh monks, these three are the characteristics of the produced: The arising of the produced is seen; the ceasing of the produced is seen; that which endures is also seen transforming.

Ocean of Reasoning

This is the relative truth. If you are looking for the ultimate truth Nagarjuna has:

A state does not make
That state itself cease.
Nor does one state
Make another state cease.

Since for no entity
Is arising tenable,
For no entity
Is ceasing tenable.

For an existent entity
Cessation is not tenable.
A single thing being an entity and
A nonentity is not tenable.

Moreover, for a nonexistent entity
Cessation would be untenable.
Just as a second head
Cannot be cut off.

Cessation does not exist through itself.
Nor does it exist through another.
Just as arising is given rise to
Neither by itself nor by another.

Since arising, enduring, and ceasing
Do not exist, there are no produced things.
If no produced things exist,
How could the unproduced exist?

Like a dream, like an illusion,
Like a city of gandharvas,
So have arising, enduring,
And ceasing been explained.

That last part again comes from the Teacher who taught:

“Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitions like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion,
So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

SN 22.95

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