Why Were We Born?
By Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
Why were we born ?
First of all, is this question a significant one for the average man? I think we can take it that this question is one that everyone is interested in and puzzled over. There may, however, be some who will raise an objection.
'The Buddha taught the non-existence of "the being," " the individual," "the self," "you," and "me". He taught that there is no self to be born. So the problem "Why were we born?" does not arise!"
This sort of objection is valid only at the very highest mental level, for someone who himself knows Freedom but for the ordinary man who does not yet know Freedom it is not a valid objection since it is not relevant, not to the point. A person who does not as yet know Dharma thoroughly is bound to feel himself involved in the process of birth and to have a great many problems and questions. He has no idea for what purpose he has been born.
It is only an Arahant, one who has gone all the way in Buddha- Dharma, who will really realize that there is no birth, and on "being" or "parson" or "self" to be born. For an Arahant the question "Why was I born?" does not arise. But for anyone who has not yet attained the stage of Arahantship, even though he may be at one of the lower stages of insight such as Stream entry, and in whom the idea of "self" and "of self" does still arise, the question "Why was I born ?' very definitely does exist.
So we are putting the question "Why was I born ?" and we are taking it that this question is a relevant one for anyone who is not as yet an Arahant.
Now let us have a look at the different ideas that naturally come up in the minds of different people in answer to this question "Why were we born ?"
If we ask a child for what purpose he was born, he will simply say that he was born in order to be able to play and have fun and games. A teenage boy or girl is bound to answer that he or she was born for the sake of good looks, dating, and flirting. And an adult, parent, householder, will probably say he was born to earn a living, to save up money for his retirement and his children. These are the kinds of answers we are bound to get.
A person, who has become old and feeble, is more than likely to have the foolish idea that he was born in order to die and be born again, and again, and again, over and over. Very few people consider that, having been born, we shall simply die and that will be the end of it.. Right from early childhood we have been trained and conditioned to this idea of another world, another birth to come after death, with the result that it has become well and truly fixed in our minds. In any culture having its origins in India the majority of people, Buddhists, Hindus, and others, adhere to this doctrine of rebirth after death. So people who are too old and senile to be able to think for themselves are bound to answer that they were born to die and be reborn.
Generally these are the kinds of answer we get. If we go into it in rather more detail, we shall find some people saying they were born to eat because they happen to have a weakness for food. And them are bound to be some, those who are permanent slaves to alcohol and value nothing more highly, who will say they were born to drink. Others were born to gamble and would part with their own skin before they would give up their vicious habit. And there are all sorts of other things, some of them utterly trivial, in which people become so wrapped up that they come to regard them as the best of all things. Some people, usually the so-called well educated ones, set a lot of value on prestige, they are very concerned about making a name for themselves. Such people were born for the sake of name and fame.
So some people consider they were born for the sake of eating, some for the sake of sensuality, and some for the sake of name and fame.
The first of these, eating, is a necessity, but people carry it so far that they become infatuated with taste and addicted to eating. At the present time there is evidence of a general increase of interest in food. The site of increase of newspaper advertisements promoting the art of eating would Lead one to conclude that not a few people are obsessed with eating and worship food. These born eaters form the first group.
The second group comprises those who were born for sensuality, for every kind of pleasure and delight obtainable by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Most people when they have satisfied themselves with eating go off in search of sense pleasures. Their subjection to the power of sensuality may be such that they can rightly be described as slaves to it. Ultimately all the kinds of infatuation we have mentioned so far can be include under sensuality. Even ideas in the mind, the sixth of the senses, can be a sources of delight amounting to infatuation. It can be said that such people live for the sake of sensuality, for the sake of visual, auditory, olfactory. gustatory, tactile, and mental things serving as objects of desire. They constitute the second group.
The third group consists of those born for the sake of name and fame. They have been conditioned to worship prestige, to the extent that they would sacrifice their very lives for it. Name and fame, whether the means employed for attaining it bring benefit to others or only to the individual concerned, can still be of considerable worth, and in terms of worldly values is not something to be condemned. But in terms of absolute values, to go so far as to become a slave to name and fame is a tragedy. It by no means puts an end to the unsatisfactory condition (dukka).
So eating, sensuality, and prestige all lead to various kinds of obsession.
Among poorer people, we hear more than anything else of the need to earn a living in order to get the necessities of life. For the poor man nothing is so important or necessary as earning a living. This then is his major concern, and it can be said that he was born to earn a living. He is all the time plowing his fields, or attending to his business, or whatever it may be, so that this becomes his one and only concern, and he can never have enough of it. In other words he really feels he was born to earn a living, and has never regarded anything as more important than this. The reason for this is that he has never moved among spiritually advanced people, never heard Dharma from them. It is fairly certain that he has moved only among his follow worldlings and heard only the talk of worldlings. This is something well worth thinking about. Such a person considers his way of life thoroughly right and proper and worthwhile; but in reality it is only half right, or even less. The magnitude of such a man's obsession with material things shows that he lives to get much more than just enough to eat.
Now what each one of us has to concern himself with, and examine, and come to understand clearly is why we were born to earn a living and stay alive. When we have come to understand property for what ultimate purpose we are here in this life. we realize that this business of earning a living is something quite incidental. It is subsidiary to another big and important purpose, the real purpose for which we were born. Do we earn a living simply in order to stay alive and go on endlessly accumulating more and more wealth and property ? Or do we do it in order to achieve some higher purpose ?
For most people this endless accumulation of wealth and property does seem to be the purpose of earning a living. Few people stop short at earning just enough to satisfy their basic wants, to feed themselves and family, to provide the necessities for a happy life free from misery. For most people no amount of wealth and property is enough. Most don't know where to stop, and have so much they don't know what to do with it. There are plenty like this in the world.
In terms of religion this kind of behavior is considered, either explicitly or implicitly, to be sinful. In Christianity the accumulation of more wealth than necessary is explicitly stated to be a sin. Other religions say much the same. A person who goes on endlessly accumulating and hoarding wealth and property, who has become in some way or other infatuated and obsessed by it, is regarded as deluded and a sinner. He is not as much of a sinner as someone who kills, but he is a sinner nevertheless. This then is how we ought to see it. We ought not to live just in order to go on endlessly accumulating wealth and property. We ought to regard it as simply a means to an end. We ought to acquire wealth simply to provide for our basic wants, in order that we can then go in search of something else. something better then wealth. And just what that something is we shall discuss later on.
Now the man who lives for the sake of sensuality ought to give a thought to an old saying: "Seeking pleasure in eating, sleeping, and sex, and avoiding danger all these man and beast have in common. What sets man apart is Dharma. Without Dharma man is no different from the beasts."
This is an old saying dating back to pre-Buddhist times, and no doubt also current at the time of the Buddha. In any case it certainly accords with Buddhist principles. Human beings normally feel the same way as lower animals towards eating, sleeping, and sex, and danger in the form of disease, pain, and enemies, The lower animals can handle these things just as well as human beings. Preoccupation with these things, which any animal has access to, indicates a none too high level of intelligence. And because those objects of sensuality have such an influence over the mind, it is difficult for any ordinary being to recognize them for what they are and break free from them.
To live for sensuality by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind will never lead to Liberation. The average run of people are far removed from the top level, the highest stage attainable in human birth. Having become obsessed with sense objects, they have got stuck half-way along the road, mid-way towards the goal. They are not to be taken as a model. If this sensuality were really as precious as they seem to think it is, then they, together with their animal counterparts, ought to be rated the highest of beings.
At this point we ought to mention that even celestial beings dwelling in the "heaven of sensuality" (Kamavaca radevata) are in no way especially well-off. They too are subject to suffering and anxiety. They too are impure, constantly defiled by their inappropriate bodily, vocal, and mental actions, Devatas of this type, whenever they succeed in elevating themselves, leave their heaven of sensuality and go off in search of Buddha Dhamma and Sangha. Sensuality, even in its highest form, is not by any means the highest thing for man, and no man should maintain that this was the purpose for which he was born.
Now we come to prestige. For a man to think he was born for the sake of name and fame is a tragedy. A glance at this thing known as prestige shows it to be thoroughly insubstantial. It depends on other people's having a high regard for one; and it may well be that, though no one realizes it, this high regard is quite unfounded. When the majority of people are deluded, slow-witted, undiscerning, lacking any knowledge of Dharma, the things for which they have a high regard and to which they give prestige are bound to be pretty ordinary and average things. In keeping with their ordinary and average sense of values. In their eyes the things advocated and taught by spiritually advanced people will hardly rate very high. In fact we invariably find that the more concerned people are with name and fame, the worldlier are the things they rate highly. The person who deservers to be rated highest is the one who is able to renounce worldly values and promote the happiness of mankind; but in practice we find all the prestige going to the people responsible for adding to the world's confusion and distress. This is an example of prestige in the eyes of the worldling, the man stuck here in the world.
To say that we were born to gain prestige is as ridiculous as to say we were born to pursue sensuality or to eat. All these views are equally pitiful. They differ only in degree of sophistication. In short then, there is no doubt whatsoever that neither eating, our sensuality, nor prestige is the highest thing, the objective for which a Buddhist ought to aim.
Now let us have a look at a saying of the Buddha which I believe may help us to answer the question of why we were born.
Sankhara parama dukkha
Nibbanam paramam sukham
Etam natva vathabhutam
Santimaggam va bruhayeti.
Compounding is utter misery,
Nirvana is highest bliss.
Really knowing; this truth.
One is on the Path to Peace.
To understand the first line of this quotation, we have first of all to understand property the word "sankhárá". This word has several meanings. It can refer either to the physical, the body, or as in the present case to the mental, the mind. Literally "sankhárá" means simply "compound" (both noun and verb), that is, the function we refer to as "compounding" (and the compound that results there from).
Following this definition. then, compounding is utter misery, thoroughly unsatisfactory (dukkha). But it is not being stated that compounding is in itself misery, a cause of human distress and suffering. The world "compounding" implies no rest, just continual combining leading to continual "rebirth." And the things responsible for this compounding are the mental defilements (kilesa). These are the compounders. With the arising of ignorance, stupidity, infatuation, the root cause of the other defilements, greed and hatred, compounding takes place. They are responsible for the compounding function of the mind, causing it to grasp at and cling to one thing after another, endlessly, without let-up. The word "compounding" as used here refers to grasping and clinging with attachment (upadana). If there is no attachment, if contamination by attachment does not take place, then the term "compounding" is not applicable.
Sankhárá parama dukkha - All compounding is thoroughly unsatisfactory. This means that involvement which has reached the point of craving and attachment is nothing but misery. Without this kind of compounding there is freedom from the misery of the unsatisfactory condition. It is this very compounding that is referred to as the Wheel of samsara, that cyclic process with its three aspects: defilements, action based on those defilements, and results of the action. The defilements, producing satisfaction with the results of our actions (or karmas), prompt us to further action -and so the cycle of defilements, action, and fruit of action goes on endlessly. It is this process that is called compounding: and it is this endlessly repeated process of compounding that is referred to in the statement that all compounding is thoroughly unsatisfactory.
Now the second line: Nibbánam paramam sukham. This has become a household maxim. It refers to Nirvana (nibbána), the precise opposite of the compounded condition, in other words, freedom from sankhárás. At any time when compounding ceases, there is Nirvana. Complete and final freedom from compounds is full Nirvana, momentary freedom from compounds is momentary Nirvana, just a trial sample of the real Nirvana. Anyone who has come to know fully the true nature of compounding will have no trouble in understanding by inference the opposite condition of freedom from compounding. The word "Nirvana" can be translated "extinction," or "cessation," or "coolness,' or "freedom from distress." All these meanings are consistent with the idea of stopping, of not compounding. Compounding is nothing but constant worry, trouble, distress, misery. "Nirvana" implies the antithesis of "sankhárá," that is, freedom from this process of compounding.
Now the next part of the quotation: "Really knowing this truth, one is on the Path to Peace." This means that the realization of this truth leads one to seek the path leading to peace or Nirvana. Nirvana is sometimes called peace (santi), that is, stillness, coolness. They are equivalent terms. So this realization prompts us to do everything possible to move in the direction of peace or Nirvana.
From this we can gather that the Buddha wished us to know about the unsatisfactory condition (dukkha), to know about freedom from the unsatisfactory condition, and to set out on the path leading to this freedom from the unsatisfactory condition, in other words to Nirvana. If a person has no idea of the possibility of Nirvana, and does not realize that Nirvana, being the absolute cessation of the unsatisfactory condition, is something to be valued above all else, then he will have no wish for Nirvana, and will never set out on the path towards it. As soon as a person recognizes this present condition as thoroughly unsatisfactory, and loses all wish for anything but the very opposite condition, he will start taking and interest in Nirvana and will set out on the path towards it. What he has to do is have a good look at his own mind and subject it to a deep and detail scrutiny, to discover whether or not it is in the compounded condition.
When a person under the influence of defilements performs some action (karma), especially when he performs some action considered evil, such as drinking, killing, adultery, stealing. or the like, then he is compounding. Compounding is based on ignorance, delusion, stupidity. It goes on until it produces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction in the mind of the doer. When he experiences the unsatisfactory result of his actions, he attempts to deal with it by further action...which only makes matters worse. The result is that compounding goes on more than ever... until the time comes when he recognizes this as an unsatisfactory state of affairs and determines to put a stop to it. He then has a look around for something that is not unsatisfactory, and so is able to get free from his evil ways.
Now let us have a quick look at the man who does good, the sort that abstains from evil acts and performs only acts of the type usually called good. Such a man gets all the fining results of his so-called good actions. He my get wealth and prestige, and all the things a good man could wish for. But if he were to examine his mental condition, he would realize that he is still subject to worry and anxiety. He experiences the suffering that always goes with wealth and prestige. A man rich in fame is usually caused distress by that very fame; and the same goes for wealth and children. Whatever one happens to be attached to and finds satisfaction in is bound to be a cause of distress.