14 November 2008

Unborn, unbecome, not-made, uncompounded

This well known quote came up in a WBO eforum discussion recently and I have been giving it some thought.
"There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.
Translated from the Pali by John D. Ireland
This is Udana 8.3, p.103 in the Edition cited. An alternative translation is available on Access to Insight. The heart of the Pāli, the 'udāna' itself, goes:
Atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. No cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī’’ti.
In the first sentence the form of the Pāli allows for any article: the, a, an - ie "the unborn", "an unborn" are equally possible, however the verb is atthi which is 3rd person singular - "there is" - so we deduce that the unborn etc are not distinct terms but synonyms, and as we will see they are in fact synonymous in this context. The terms are all based on past-participles - things that have already happened. Jātaṃ would be "has been born", and ajātaṃ is literally "not- has been born" so could be rendered as unborn, not-born, non-born, or perhaps will not be born.

The middle sentence of the texts tells us that there would be no knowing of escape (nissaraṇaṃ) from the born, become, made, compounded. The verb here, abhavissa, from the root bhū - 'to become' or 'to be' - is in the rarely used conditional tense which is used to state "false or impossible hypothesis" - so it means something like "if there were not". The idea that there might not be an unborn etc. is a stating a false hypothesis (so don't panic). The last sentence says that arising from unborn etc, there is an escape - I will unpack this below.

I was thinking about what this text means and the question I began to ask was: what is it that is unborn (ajātaṃ) unbecome (abhūtaṃ), unmade (akataṃ), uncompounded (asaṅkhataṃ)?

The usual answer is something like "nibbana" or "enlightenment" is unborn, unbecome, not-made, and uncompounded. Unborn might typically be thought to mean that a post-parinibbana Buddha does not undergo birth, or that after enlightenment there is no rebirth. My answer to the question would be experiences and/or dhammas - dhammas being the elements of experience. It is dhammas then that are unborn, unbecome, un-made, and uncompounded. This suggests that ajātaṃ means that nothing substantial is 'born' during the process of experience, a common axiom in Perfection of Wisdom texts but one that fits this context quite well. Abhūtaṃ (unbecome) might conventionally be a synonym for ajātaṃ - meaning no becoming, as in no again-becoming or rebirth. It might be thought perhaps to be a reference to the becoming (bhāva) being fuelled (upādāna) by desire (taṇha) in the twelve nidanas. (see my Playing with Fire). I would point again to the process of experience in which no "thing" comes into existence. Jāta and Bhūtaṃ in this context are direct equivalents.

The term kata is a synonym of saṅkhārā, both coming from the Sanskrit root kṛ - "to make, do, produce". The last term confirms that what is being referred to here is dhammas, because experiences that are saṅkhārā - compounded - are compounded from dhammas. And saṃkhata is also synonymous with saṃkhārā. So akata and asaṃkhata can be seen as saying much the same thing, that in experience no "thing" comes into being. No-thing is made, and no-thing is compounded. The purpose here is not paradoxical, although without the appropriate reference points it is difficult to understand, the text is pointing to the consequence of being aware in the way that we are.

So we're out of the area of mysticism and metaphysics and into the existential situation - which is a good thing in my book. We have experiences that consist only of sense data and mental events - 'citta arising in dependence on contact' in the jargon. Because of the perceptual situation we can only process experience via the apparatus of experience - the five blazing masses of fuel (pañca-upādāna-aggi-khandhā) aka the five khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). There is no way around our perceptual apparatus to get behind experience - such attempts merely generate more sense data and mental events. There is never a naked object without any subject. However we believe that our experiences indicate actual things which are independent of our perception of them. So, though we believe we experience "objects" the set-up means that we only have experiences. To experiences no definite ontological status can be assigned - they neither exist, nor non-exist. The ontological status of objects, which are strongly suggested by our common perceptions of them, is indeterminate and not relevant to the Buddhist project.

Now we must ask what hope the Buddha is holding out here? He is offering nissaraṇaṃ paññāyati. Nissaraṇa is complex so let's quote the whole entry in the PTSD: "going out, departing; issue, outcome, result; giving up, leaving behind, being freed, escape, salvation". The translator clearly has some latitude here, but let's keep that in mind while sticking to "escape". It's neuter so nissaraṇaṃ could be the agent or the patient of the verb, I'm reading it as the patient (i.e. as an accusative; the verb happens to this). Pāli and Sanskrit allow for implicit agents - the verb being 3rd person singular implies the agent is "he".

Paññāyati is a verb meaning "to be (well) known, to be perceived, seen, or taken for, to appear" - it's a passive form of pajānāti "to know, find out etc". So I'm reading this as "he comes to know the escape", or perhaps "the result is perceived by him". We need not settle on a single rendering as that would tend to make us exclude other possibilities - keep in mind that this sentence can be read in multiple ways!

I notice that in the last sentence our familiar list of un-s are all given this time in the genitive case. This is typically used to indicate possession. However Pāniṇi apparently says that there are 100 uses of the genitive and I don't know them all. I'm not convinced that Ireland's interpretation (that "since there is an unborn etc") is the right one. What the verse seems to suggest to me (and this is a tentative and naive reading) is that out of the unborn etc, that is to say on the basis of a quality of them, comes the knowledge or perception of escape (from saṃsara).

So what the text would be saying in this case is that by observing one's experience one becomes aware that actually all that happens is that there are experiences; and by seeing, to the fullest extent, that nothing substantial arises during this process one sees that escape from saṃsara is possible. Contrarily if something really did come into being in the way we interpret it, if our experience was real, then we would be stuck. It's only because of experience is ephemeral that we are able to radically change the way we relate to it. The parallel with King Midas comes to mind. He was granted his wish that everything he touched turned to gold. And he could not eat or drink gold; and his family (daughter?) was turned to gold - his fondest wish became a curse. We too are better off not wishing for things to be real, or unreal. Things are just what they are.

Clearly there is some ambiguity in this text, and it could be translated in a number of different ways. Thanissaro's translation is similar enough to mine to make it likely that I have not strayed too far from the plausible.

Of course I'm fond of this line of argument because it makes the whole Buddhist project less mystical and makes it seem a whole lot more possible! But I would say that in my better moments I believe I have seen into this with some depth, enough to give me confidence that it is a fruitful theme to pursue. I also believe that this theme was taken up by, and further expanded in, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and is quite powerfully represented in the alphabetical meditation on aspects of śūnyatā as we find it in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (which I have written about quite a bit both on Jayarava Rave and on my Mantra website).

As an aside there is an interesting parallel here with the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BṛU) 4.4.24-5:
"There is this great unborn (aja) self (ātman), eater of food, giver of wealth. The one who knows this finds wealth

This is the great unborn self, unaging (ajaro), undying (amara), immortal (amṛta), fearless (abhaya), Brahman. Brahman is fearless: the one who knows this becomes fearless Brahman."(Roebuck p.76)
The BṛU is usually considered to be pre-Buddhist because the Buddha specifically parodies it in some suttas (see for instance the Tevijja Sutta, DN 13). The construction between this and the Udāna verses is quite close I think. Certainly the theme of birth (ja or jati), old age (jara) and death (mara) should be familiar to Buddhists as the subjects of the first of the three sights, and from the Nidana chain. It may well be that Udāna 8.3 is another case of the Buddha consciously parodying an Upaniṣadic theme. Next week's post is going to be on the Buddha as satirist. This BṛU verse reads like a description of tathāgatagarbha doesn't it? Which is Jayarava as satirist ;-)

The questions "what is liberation, is it possible, and how is it possible?" are
major concerns for Buddhism. The answer here is that liberation is possible precisely because of the nature of experience, because in the process of experiencing nothing substantial comes into being. It is not that in saṃsara things are born, become, are made and conditioned; and that in nibbāna things are not born, do not become, are not made and conditioned. The condition of ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ always applies! What changes is whether or not we are drunk on (pamada), or obsessed (pariyādāya) or infatuated with (madanīyesu), objects of the senses: if we are, that is saṃsara; if we are not, that is nibbāna (more or less).

There is a possibility of confusion here with other things I've been writing lately. Previously I have written about recognition and noticing according to what has become (yathābhūta) for instance which says that experiences or dhammas can be seen to have 'become'; that is that some 'thing' is actually becoming. (Trying to stick with the past tense of the original texts is a bit awkward I know). The contradiction is more apparent than real: experiences become; but no verifiably real object has become. I believe that if we keep in mind that dhammas are elements of experience, that both statements remain true.

  • Pāli texts in Unicode Roman from www.tipitaka.org/romn/. (Nice one Mr Goenka!)
  • Roebuck, Valerie. (trs., ed). 2003. The Upaniṣads. London : Penguin.
  • Udana 8.3. Access to Insight. Trans. Bhikkhu Thanissaro : John Ireland. Also Ireland, J. 1997. The Udāna : inspired utterances of the Buddha, and the Itivuttaka : the Buddha's sayins. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society.

image: Ikea assembly instructions from Don't Call Me Tina.
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