Birth, Ageing and Death
by Geshe Sonam Rinchen
For name and form, the six sources, contact, feeling, birth, and ageing and death to occur, the six causal factors — ignorance, formative action, consciousness, craving, grasping, and existence — must have taken place. When the process is spread over two lives, the first three of the twelve links — ignorance, formative action, and consciousness — and the eighth and ninth — craving and grasping — occur in one life and all the others in the next life. Where the process extends over more than two lives, the first three steps take place in one life, the eighth and ninth steps in another, and the others in the following life.
The three projecting causes and their four projected results are presented first. They are followed by the accomplishing causes — craving, grasping, and existence — and by birth and ageing and death, which are their results.
Sometimes birth, the eleventh link, is interpreted in the conventional way to mean the emergence of the baby from the womb. Usually, however, the consciousness of the living being at the moment of conception in the womb is defined as birth and is simultaneous with the fourth link, name and form. Consciousness at this point is referred to as resultant consciousness, whereas it is termed causal consciousness at the moment when the imprint of the action was implanted.
We have used the example of conception in the womb as a human or mammal. The greatest number of beings take a miraculous birth, although we find this difficult to believe because we do not see it. Celestial beings and those in the hell realms are born in this way. Beings are also born from eggs and through heat but the fundamental process is the same.
These days there are many good books about the development of the fetus in the womb and the description in the Buddhist texts of what occurs compares quite well with what we can see from photographic evidence. People have different ideas about what the unborn child experiences in the womb. Some say it is a pleasurable state, but from a Buddhist point of view it is considered a traumatic experience first to be confined in an increasingly uncomfortable space and then to be forced out through the birth canal. When we are born, we are incapable of speaking about it and by the time we can express ourselves, we no longer remember what we experienced in the womb.
Although it may become possible to produce human beings who have not developed in the womb, all of us humans who are in this world at present have spent some time in the womb and have gone through the experience of being born. Better to grow in the womb of a mother who is capable of loving feelings for the unborn child than to grow in a glass dish! While they were pregnant, most of our mothers took great care that no harm should come to us.
Those who claim that the fetus experiences well-being in the womb are relying on appearances and cannot recall the experience themselves. Ordinary people cannot, of course, remember it as an unpleasant experience either, but great masters with abilities far beyond our own have alluded to the unpleasantness of the fetus’s condition. Perhaps the situation of the fetus is a little like that of a prisoner who prefers the security of the jail to the insecurity of the world outside. This does not mean that a jail is a pleasant place.
Ageing and death are combined as one link. Ageing starts the moment after conception, as the body begins to develop. It always occurs before death even in the case of an unborn child that dies in the womb. All of us, whether young or old, are experiencing the twelfth link now and what is left is death. But conventionally, of course, we speak of ageing when our hair turns grey and then white, when our teeth fall out and our faculties begin to deteriorate. Ageing is the ripening of the aggregates and death is the process of giving up the aggregates. Ageing, death and sorrow, lamentation and suffering are all the result of being born.
Nagarjuna speaks of sorrow, lamentation, suffering, unhappiness, and distress. These are not included within the twelve links because it is possible to die without experiencing them if we perform many positive actions and practice sincerely during our lives. Why then does Nagarjuna mention these emotions and their expression? Since we have been born in cyclic existence, there is a strong possibility that we will die like this. By drawing our attention to it, Nagarjuna reminds us of the disadvantages of our present condition. We have been born and are definitely going to die, but we still have the opportunity to insure that we will not die in distress. We cannot afford to wait until we are actually dying. Now is the time to prepare and familiarise ourselves with what will prevent such a death. If we do this properly, it is possible to die with joy at leaving behind a decrepit and troublesome body to take a good rebirth full of potential. But if at death we are confused and full of craving and grasping, suffering is inevitable.
In general, existence and cyclic existence have the same meaning. Sometimes four types of existence are presented. The first is intermediate existence. This refers to the aggregates during the period between existence at death and existence at rebirth, and it is a relatively subtle state. The second is existence at birth, referring to the aggregates at conception, which can be equated with the eleventh link, birth.
Preparatory existence extends from the moment after conception until the moment of death, which indicates that our life is a preparation for death. Some commentators have misinterpreted the term preparatory existence and have taken it to refer to the intermediate state that follows death. People often mistakenly think that the being in the intermediate state looks like the deceased person. When we die and become a being in the intermediate state, we do not look like the person who died but like the being we will become in our next rebirth. Finally there is existence at death, which is the moment of death itself.
The eleventh link may be taken to refer just to the moment of conception, to the period from conception until conventional birth has taken place, or to the period extending from conception until death. In any case ageing begins immediately after we have been conceived. Ageing is the moment-by-moment change that occurs while the continuum of aggregates of a similar type persists. Giving up the aggregates of a similar type marks death.
As we die, confusion and clinging to the self are present, which Nagarjuna refers to as sorrow. The verbal expression of this grief and sorrow is lamentation. As the power of the physical senses diminishes, there is suffering. The mental anguish that accompanies this is termed unhappiness. As a result of the physical and mental experiences that occur all kinds of delusions arise and we feel acute distress. Where does all of this come from? From being born. Through the force of the various causes and conditions described in the twelve-part process this aggregation of suffering comes into being.
The text says, “Thus these exclusively painful aggregates come into being.” The word exclusively is loaded with meaning. It implies that these painful aggregates are totally unrelated to happiness, are not in any way connected with a real “I” or “mine,” and that they are merely attributed by naming. They have come into existence through a variety of causes and conditions — in this case the projecting causes and the accomplishing causes as well as many other factors — therefore they have no intrinsic existence in and of themselves and are merely an aggregation of suffering, a collection of suffering, an accumulation of suffering. They exist nominally as a mere attribution dependent on a panoply of causes and conditions.