A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #10 Becoming

There are these three kinds of being: sense-sphere being, fine-material being and immaterial being. . — MN 9 translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi

 

This link is second only to sankhara in giving translators and students of Buddhism trouble. The examples of the field are not much help to us because they are embedded in their time and place, making reference to things that are no concern of ours now. This is not the same as saying that they are meaningless to us. Two of the three spheres get mentioned in relation to levels of meditation, and it is clear that some of the people of the time felt that when they reached these states they had reached “that other world”, so these represent the desired outcome from leading a good life: go to the world where one takes form (and lives happily ever after in bliss), or go to the world where one becomes totally absorbed in Union with the Great All (and forever after experience bliss), or — the third option seems likely as — simply return to the world of the senses (and hopefully enjoy sensual bliss).

The three “spheres” are various conceptions of where the self goes after death: back into the world of the senses, taking form in the world beyond, or being diffused into union with brahman, and though you and I may not have these particular conceptions about what happens to us after we die, each of us has our own variants on these beliefs. We might believe that when we die we are just gone, our constituent parts dissolved and diffused into the matter of our world in its place as part of the universe. Some might believe that when one dies one goes on to heaven (if we are good) and that would be comparable to living happily ever after in bliss in company with the deities of the day. Others may believe that we reincarnate into a new life. It really doesn’t matter what form our beliefs take, they still shape our sense of self, and how we behave in the world. Any sense of certainty about what happens after we die is liable to be based on far too little information, and yet we do tend to develop certainty. Even without concerning ourselves with what happens after death (for years I conceived of myself as an open-minded agnostic with no opinion on the subject) we still tend to perceive of ourselves as having a lasting self for the duration of this life at least, and it is our nature to at least hope, at some level, that that self will survive death, or at the very least hope that that self has a meaning that will outlast our short stay here on the planet.

If you object to the above statement, feeling it doesn’t apply to you, remember, first, that we are talking about conceptions of self that are founded on ignorance. If you are a practicing Buddhist who has some understanding of what the Buddha taught, you may have less of a tendency to hold beliefs about having a lasting self than many folks do, because you’ve been paying attention, and learned skills to look for that self — and you’ve probably not found it. But even so (if you are like me) you may find as you keep probing that there are little pockets of belief you hadn’t known were there (it was not until I realized how uncertain my fate after death actually was that I discovered I was not as agnostic as I had thought — I was still holding out hope that I would somehow survive).

What “becoming” is pointing out to us is the ways in which our opinions about who we are get shaped into beliefs about who we are, and how those beliefs transform us into (the next step’s) visible “self”; this is what we should be looking for, because those opinions are the field in which beliefs grow, and the beliefs blossom into something else entirely, as the next step shows us.

With the definition of this link given in terms of “becoming into a certain sort of world” — and if we combine it with the idea of “nutriment” — it might be said that “we are what we eat” (or at least “we *become* what we eat). The fuel of our opinions about who we are and how the world operates feed our sense of who we are; and the way we sort our experiences in terms of what-is-like-us and what-is-not leads us to a false certainty that the world is just as we perceive it to be.  We can say, then, that because we believe the world is this way, we will see that it *is* this way. If we expect to arrive in a certain world, we will, because what we notice about the world will tend to support our perception of it being as we expect (we will ignore or block out information that contradicts our views). This is how it happens that we will be “born into a world of our own making”.

On the other hand, is the world *really* as we perceive it? We all know that it really isn’t. The difference between the two — our perception and the reality — will be brought home to us as the results of our behavior. If our perceived world is *too* far off from the way the world actually works, our happy expectations of the world working the way we think it should will get bumped up against reality, and we’re going to feel it. (An example of the Buddha talking about this can be found in the sutta about The Dog Duty Ascetic, in which the believer in the title is advised that diligent effort will have him end up in the company of dogs, as long as his aspirations are just that humble, but if he thinks it’ll get him into some higher heaven, he’s kidding himself.)

From the midpoint of dependent arising (which is the description of our oft-repeated rituals) to this link and the next, dependent arising is talking about how our perceptions of our self and the world play out, and what we are doing that makes them appear to us the way they do. “Becoming” speaks of a transitional phase, a sense of self taking shape, preparing to “be born” (become visible) in the world. Only with the last step does the conversation change from “how we perceive self and the world, and why” to the results of our conceptions’ effect on our actions.

 

 

Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Candol on June 19, 2012 at 8:43 am

    “The examples of the field are not much help to us because they are embedded in their time and place, making reference to things that are no concern of ours now. ”

    What do you mean here. Specifically what do you mean by the field here. What field?

    “Two of the three spheres get mentioned in relation to levels of meditation” What three spheres. Are you referring back to what you’ve quoted above. It would be clearer if you could have said what they are exactly. Actually i don’t understand the whole of what you are on about in the first paragraph. Its like there is some asssumed knowledge. I think it would have helped if you have filled us in first.

    “and it is our nature to at least hope, at some level, that that self will survive death” This is not the case for atheists, certainly not for me. I don’t harbour any such hope. I am glad its all going to be total death. LIfe will be much easier when i’m dead (joke).

    “at the very least hope that that self has a meaning that will outlast our short stay here on the planet.”

    Yes, here there is where memory and family come into it. And for some people, a wish to do something meaningful that one could be remembered fondly for after death. Even i would like that. But the point of it is, while you are still alive you can know that you will be remembered. Although it didnt’ happen, i am fine with that too. Ultimately i know it really doesn’t matter. Even if you are remembered for doing evil things, it won’t matter to you if there’s no afterlife. Its all only about the perceptions and hopes of the living.

    I probably need to read this again because i find it really confusing reading. Up until i read the sentence below i was thinking “why can’t she just say what becoming is in one sentence.” I think it would even be helful (to me) at least you started your articles off by making an assertion and then arguing. I just didn’t know where this was going most of the time.

    “Becoming” speaks of a transitional phase, a sense of self taking shape, preparing to “be born” (become visible) in the world.”

    When i was reading the first two paragraphs, i was asking myself “why is she talking about our perceptions after death. Becoming is between birth and death.”

    So i think finally i have understood (though i am not sure it is correct) that it is because of how we think about dying that we develop our sense of self (which has to be true in some senses ie for self preservation we have the impulse to protect our self). I just wonder if how we think about our lives after dying if that has anything to do with becoming. I am not convinced. I think our sense of self comes from the need for self preservation and protection. Psychologists would say it emerges when we realise we are separate from our mothers.

    So at this point, after one reading, you haven’t persuaded me taht you are right. partly also because i have completely forgotten what you wrote about birth IN fact have you written about birth yet. It is supposed to come before becoming if i recall correctly.

  2. Candol on June 19, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Ok so i just noticed there’s no edit function available. Ijust have to correct myself that becoming in the sutta is not between birth and death but before birth.

    Still i tend to understand becoming as being a life, a mature person, just as the whole of the 12 steps start off with a mature person but one who is ignorant of course.

    I have read though taht being or becoming is conception, when a child is conceived where as birth is when the baby emerges into the world.

    Its hard to drop this interpretation when you read the sutta and read about dropping the baby and rotten teeth and such obvious things. If it was a metaphor would there be those descriptors or do you think that early sutta memorisers elaborated all that.

    If anyone ever properly understood what hte buddha meant, why didn’t they choose to elaborate the description in a way which clearly indicated we are in the realm of metaphor. There’s just no clue that this is all a case of metaphor. I’m sorry i just can’t find it.

  3. Linda on June 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Hey Candol. Sorry for the confusion here, but each post builds on previous posts so, yes, there is “assumed knowledge”. If I wrote each post as a complete, stand-alone article where I define each term again, the posts would be very long and the whole series would be extremely repetitive.

    When I talk of “the field” this refers back to the definition I gave it in sankhara (#2), and the way I’ve been using it in all the posts since, where I say that Sariputta “is specifically pointing out the ‘field’ that is going to grow what goes on here, and so he’s telling us to look at what we do to see what’s happening.”

    This makes the field for “becoming” the three “spheres” mentioned in the opening quote.

    The traditional way of looking at what is in each link is to take what’s being named in the link’s title as “what is” — in other words to take them literally. This almost works. Ignorance does exist, so does consciousness, feeling, birth and aging-and death, for example. But that explanation — that everything is literal — has some problems. The first one we get into trouble with is “name and form” which, if taken literally in the traditional context, has to mean that either there is name, and there is form — which has the Buddha saying “there is a duality” (mind is one thing, body another, they are separate) because the definitions describe the two parts separately — and him talking about a duality doesn’t make much sense. Or it would have him agreeing with the Vedic definition of “name and form” which is that all things that we can see (forms) have an inherent nature (name) — which clearly doesn’t make sense given what he says about emptiness. That’s the first easy hint we get that the links aren’t to be taken literally. The second problem with taking them literally is that in order to break the cycle by, say, ending “ignorance” (which is surely what all the Buddha’s talks are aimed at doing) this would mean the literal end of consciousness, and of contact with the world — which is not possible on a “literal” level (without immediately dying at any rate).

    What I am pointing out by talking about “the field” is that none of the links are describing things in the literal way we tend to describe things nowadays. Instead each one is describing where to look to see what is happening; Sariputta is pointing out where to look and we’re expected to know that our job is to see what it is that grows in that “field” — and it is whatever is growing that is the problem being addressed in each link — the field itself is not the problem.

    In the case of “bhava” the field is the three “spheres” — and, yes, when I mention the spheres in the text, I’m making reference to the quote that starts the article, so there again there is “assumed knowledge” — I’m assuming you recall the word “sphere” from the quote at the start of the article. I then give a brief explanation of what “sphere” means in context and in practice.

    As for you “being unconvinced” that’s fine, Candol. As I pointed out at the beginning of the series, these articles aren’t a defense of what I’m saying the underlying structure of dependent arising is — the paper I had published does the job of laying out the case for the structure. These articles are only about how to put the message that comes through the structure into practice, nothing more. If you don’t find the articles “convincing” that the structure of DA isn’t what the traditions tell us it is, that’s because they aren’t written to convince you of anything at all. This is also the reason I don’t “lay out an assertion and then argue” for it. Perhaps part of the reason you’re having trouble understanding what I’m saying (aside from my lack of skill as a writer) is because you’re expecting me to be arguing a case, when that’s not what I’m doing.

    “So i think finally i have understood (though i am not sure it is correct) that it is because of how we think about dying that we develop our sense of self…”

    I think this is very close to what the Buddha is saying but not quite there.

    He defines “the why” (the “because”) in the first few links, so I don’t find him to be saying that it is *because* of how we think about dying that we develop our sense of self — it’s the other way around. Or, rather, it’s more complex than that.

    The order of events begins with the drive to create a sense of self — that’s sankhara — so that’s the “because” that is behind developing our sense of self. It’s not because we have conceptions of death that we develop a sense of self (anatta). Instead, first we start developing a sense of self, and then our conceptions of what life and death are about shape the sort of self that forms as a result. In other words, by the time we get to bhava, we are talking about what specific part of the sense of self is the problem. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is not every part of us (not everything we think and do) that is the problem, but because of the way a casual definition works to narrow down the problem further and further with every step, it is a very narrowly-defined part of what we think and do that is the problem (so it’s not all consciousness, not all contact, not all feeling).

    With bhava the Buddha is saying that in particular our problem is the aspects of anatta that have to do with our perception of who we are and where we go after we die. The anatta that is going to cause serious amounts of dukkha is anatta created out of certainties about how the universe works and our place in it.

    This means that our certainties don’t cause the sense of self to arise — sankhara does that — but our certainties are what shapes the specific type of “being” that leads to our problems.

    “The field” that we are looking at in “becoming” is, then, “the spheres” we conceive we will be born into after death. In this sense, your understanding of “becoming” as “conception” and as coming before “birth” matches what I’m saying because (if I understand you correctly) you’re talking about the three-lives model, and the “conception” and “birth” would be into your next life in that model, right? So we are both, then, talking about a conception and birth that follows a death — which is why I am also talking about “after death” — we both are, actually. The difference is you are assuming that the conversation at this point is saying that we are being told that there is a birth after our death in this life, whereas I am saying the Buddha is actually “talking about what people tend to believe about birth after death” — he is saying that our perception about death and what follows is the problem rather than him pointing out that there is something that happens after death.

    So when you say, “I think our sense of self comes from the need for self preservation and protection. Psychologists would say it emerges when we realise we are separate from our mothers…” I see the Buddha as agreeing that the sense of self comes first. In our times we see it as you describe it above; in his day there was a theory of how-we-come-to-be that he used as a model to explain how it happens — again, though, this is discussed in the paper and isn’t the point of these articles; I’m not here to “argue” for my understanding, I’m just trying to show how it gets put into practice. This is why I’m not going to attempt, here, to answer your questions about elaborations in suttas — because that’s not what these articles are about.

  4. Candol on June 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Name and form is not mind and body. Name and form as i understand it is the person and the name we give to it, its a platonic duality. the thing itself and the concept of that thing so that we can communicate about it. Name and form as i read it not a problem at all.

    With regard to what you say about assumed knowledge. I think you could appreciate that people reading this article haven’t just read the previous ones five minutes ago so may not remember what you defined days or weeks ago. I think its makes good sense to repeat yourself occasionally. Good speakers do this because they know that people can’t hold on to everything that has been said.

    Also what i mean by assumed knowledge is an intimate understanding of the sutta. But rather than go on nit picking or saying what i think you should have done so that the argument is easier to follow, I’ll just leave it at this.

    “The second problem with taking them literally is that in order to break the cycle by, say, ending “ignorance” (which is surely what all the Buddha’s talks are aimed at doing) this would mean the literal end of consciousness, and of contact with the world — which is not possible on a “literal” level (without immediately dying at any rate).”

    No this is not how i understand it. For me, the way i understand is that when we follow the buddhist path, take on a homeless life, what would end up happening if one could take it to its logical end is that people would stop breeding and people would die out. Basically the buddha says life is suffering. End life and you end suffering. I know this sounds extreme but its the way i understand what this DO means and its also why I am starting to draw away from caring too much about what the buddha meant. But also you see, the buddha not being an idiot understood that people wont’ all take up the homeless life, that there is a long way to go before that sort of ultimate end would arise but along the way people would have less suffering because they are learning more skills about better ways to live. So one might keep having sex and keep having babies but now that the parents are more aware, the babies will grow up to be more aware and so less suffering. Meanwhile the monks are around to demonstrate the perfection of the ultimate way to behave. To model the goal. And notice that those perfect models, many of whom achieved nirvana, would not have kids.

    i’m answering as i go through and i’ve got to say this word field is difficult to hold in mind. Every time i read i don’t know what it refers to. This must mean i am quite stupid. I am fine with using the word field as a metaphor. It is used this way elsewhere but whatever is the meaning of this version i’m finding it not a great metaphor.

    I’m going to come back and finish this response tonight. I”ve just got up and got to get on with other things right now.

  5. Candol on June 20, 2012 at 6:47 am

    With the definition of this link given in terms of “becoming into a certain sort of world” — and if we combine it with the idea of “nutriment” — it might be said that “we are what we eat” (or at least “we *become* what we eat). The fuel of our opinions about who we are and how the world operates feed our sense of who we are; and the way we sort our experiences in terms of what-is-like-us and what-is-not leads us to a false certainty that the world is just as we perceive it to be. We can say, then, that because we believe the world is this way, we will see that it *is* this way. If we expect to arrive in a certain world, we will, because what we notice about the world will tend to support our perception of it being as we expect (we will ignore or block out information that contradicts our views). This is how it happens that we will be “born into a world of our own making”.

    Re this paragraph. What you say in the first couple of sentences if pretty much what oprah says (and i’m sure she’s not the first to have said). You become what you believe about yourself. You are both saying that one’s views and beliefs are self limiting.

    Its funny the different understandings i’ve heard with regard to this last bit. Some people, thsoe who believe in reincarnation and such, are inclined to be that we literally produce the world out of heads, ie the same world we all live in. Where as what you’ve just described is our subjective experience of the world and that certainly makes more sense and is what i’ve always understood this phrase to mean.

    • Linda on June 20, 2012 at 7:03 am

      Yes, but with the distinction that “the world” kicks us in the butt if our beliefs about what it is and how it works is too far out of line with reality. I think this is one way of looking at how karma works, and how the Buddha’s teaching works. The Buddha is trying to help us get our understanding of how the world works to line up a little more accurately with the way it does — specifically in the realm of social interactions. When our views of who believes what and why they do what they do are too far from others’ own reasons, we misjudge the situation and make bad choices because our “facts” (such as they are) are wrong, and this gives us bad results.

      I say (I do not say that the Buddha says, this is me saying) that “karma” is banked in other peoples’ memories of us; that it is a social phenomenon, not one based on Cosmic Order (although, of course, an argument can be made that the way we work as social beings is part of the Cosmic Order).

  6. Candol on June 20, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Just one more point, re what i first said about the order of birth becoming and death, i said it on the understanding that that was how it went in DO normally. Then i checked and realised it was becoming then brith adn then death.

    I think must get it from the phrase that is oft repeated in many of the suttas where mentions these three things at the end of a paragraph or sutta. I can’t think how ti goes off the top of my head though.

    Well i’m sorry that you’ve taken the tack of just showing a route of your thought from a to z rather than telling us what the destination is first.

    Whether you like it or not you are making an arguement. Articles like this are arguments. You are saying this is what i believe DO means. Because there is a different standard understanding, you are putting a different position. Its an argument. You have put yours up against the other and are suggesting readers consider yours to be a better/more accurate understanding. That’s an arguement. Its not really like you are showing us a work of art and saying “look at me” do you like it? knowing that the reader can like your work of art as much as the other pre-existing works of art. Cause that’s how it goes with art. People don’t have to judge one against the other. But ones does do this with ideas.

    • Linda on June 20, 2012 at 7:17 am

      I can see how you’d see it that way, but I don’t see that someone who is trying to show you how to drive a nail into wood is “presenting an argument”. They are simply showing you their methods, their understanding of how it can be done. In my experience, they don’t usually tell you why you hold the hammer that way, or the reasons for the tap first then the hard blow, they just expect you to try it and see if it works for you. This is only “presenting an argument” (for their methods) in the very loosest of senses.

      And this is what I’m doing here — showing the method, not explaining the reasons behind it. I am not, trust me, presenting my arguments for why we should see it this way (which is what you were saying you were not convinced about) — I would know it if I were because it would take me a whole lot more words to do it.

      Of course, I admit that I prefer to have my teachers explain the *why* to me; I would prefer that my readers, reading this, were familiar with the “why”. But the why for DA is written up elsewhere, and is available now to those who want it enough (and I hope to make it available at some distant future date for less money than is currently being charged for it). The why can’t be presented in any convincing way in a small space, because what I am pointing out is the Buddha’s very complex and multi-layered method of teaching this lesson (so it was a challenge in its own time) which can only be understood through understanding what was going on in his time (so we have an extra layer of challenges to overcome to see why he uses the language he does). Maybe someone with more talent than I have could explain it all in far less space than it took me to do it in the “Burning Yourself” paper but I did the best I could. I have since tried to pack it into less space but have not found a way that preserves enough necessary detail. I regret that this is the case, believe me.

      • Candol on June 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm

        You say you think you are demonstrating how to drive a nail into a piece of wood but i think this project is more creative than that. if you think you are merely showing something, then you must think you are merely giving definitions. But these articles as i’ve read them feel a bit more than that. I feel that there is argument there. Maybe it wasn’t your intention but because there are alternative interpretations out there, it feels to me that a degree of argument is inherent in your presentation by necessity. Its inescapable. Hence i can say i am not persuaded. Of course as a persuasive piece of work, i can see your point that compared to your thesis published elsewhere, this hardly does as an argument. But i haven’t got that perspective.

        Of course if you are showing us how to drive a nail into a piece of wood. Someone else can still come along and say “no that’s not the way to do it. This is how its done.” So from that point of view, it might not be “argument proper” but its still argument enough.Or having watched you, i could still say, “I am not convinced that yours is the right way to do it.” So its still legitimate for me to say I am not persuaded or i am not convinced.

        I am not suggesting you should be writing the why of it all here; I can see how limits on space mean you can’t. do it here.

        I think we do know enough about what he was doing in his time. You’ve not addressed that here i think. But I at least feel, while still not knowing all there is to knwo, i know a bit about what was going on his time. I don’t feel you’ve shown us anything about that time particularly. In addition to having looked the context of the buddha’s life myself from various scholarly sources, I have spent a fair bit of time in india where old old ways are still in evidence. When you have been there it is not hard to imagine the buddha in his environment and the things he had to deal with, ie the prevailing view that has to be penetrated. I have been amongst sadhus who pretty much lead the life that the buddha led. There’s also a wonderful book called Sadhus by Patrick Levy who describes their lifestyle and their intellectual life.

        I guess when i have had the chance to read your “argument” then i will be able to say more convincingly whether or not i am convinced.

  7. Candol on June 20, 2012 at 7:02 am

    I should say one does do this with competing ideas.

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