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The Fundamental Issue: Being

August 8, 2013

Q: What is the fundamental issue in spiritual life?

The Arahant: Never mind ‘spiritual’ life; in life in general, the fundamental issue is ‘being’. [makes finger quotes — Ed.] I use the quotes because ‘being’ as we usually understand it is not real Being, not true Being. True Being is eternal, changeless and unconditioned. Ordinary ‘being’ is temporary, changeable and conditioned. For this reason the Buddha called it anicca-dukkha-anattā: impermanent, displeasurable and not-self.

This is another one of those deep subjects on which an entire book easily could be written; the problem is, who could understand it? Ordinarily, as soon as we contemplate ‘being’, there is ‘I am’. Who am ‘I’? What is ‘being’? What ‘am I’? What do ‘I do’? What is ‘mine’? What is the ‘world’? and so forth: all these questions torment us endlessly. As far as the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are concerned, we are talking about the Second Noble Truth: the origin of suffering. ‘Being’ itself is the origin or cause of suffering.

None of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, simply because they all depend upon ‘I’; and ‘I’ is a fabrication that does not really exist in the sense of real Being. As soon as we postulate ‘I’, then ‘others’, ‘the world’, ‘existence’, ‘being’, ‘time’, ‘motion’, ‘change’, ‘kamma‘, ‘rebirth’ and so many other illusory phenomena arise.

And the Third Noble Truth: the truth of the end of suffering. We can put an end to them and the suffering they create only by dissolving this concept of ‘I’. But of course, that is the last thing ‘I’ want to do; so we suffer on and on.

The Buddha found the exit from this labyrinth of ‘being’, and tried to share it with as many people as possible. Unfortunately, over time his solution has itself become distorted into a platform for ‘being’. That’s why we do not promote ‘Buddhism’, but advise people to go back to the Buddha’s original teaching in the Theravāda Suttas. There it is stated:

“Monks, just as a monkey journeying along a forest slope catches hold of one branch, having let it go catches hold of another, having let that go catches hold of another; even so, monks, this thing called thinking, called mind, called knowing, springs up as one thing and ceases as another, day and night.” — Assutavā Sutta (SN 12.61)

Descartes’ famous statement—”I think, therefore I am”—gets it completely backwards. That is ‘being’: a false, inauthentic, fabricated existence based on manipulation of words and symbols. Better to say “I am, therefore I think.” But real Being can dispense with both ‘I am’ and thinking. There is no need for discursive mental discourse in the higher realms of existence, such as infinite space and consciousness.

But even these exalted realms disclosed by the Buddha and made accessible through practice of jhāna (concentration), where there is no ‘other’, are still fabricated. Even the realms of Brahmā and the shining Brahman are still realms of ‘being’. Real Being is unfabricated, unconditioned and without suffering of any kind, even the most subtle disturbance. But to reach that state is very rare; one must become an Arahant.

“Monks, whosoever monk is an Arahant, a destroyer of the cankers, one who has reached completion, done what was to be done, laid down the burdens, achieved his own welfare, destroyed the fetter of ‘being’, one who is released by comprehending rightly, he recognizes earth as earth. By recognizing earth as earth, he does not conceive earth, he does not conceive in earth, he does not conceive from earth, he does not conceive ‘earth is for me’, he does not delight in earth.” — Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1)

In other words, he simply sees what is without artificially making it something in relation to ‘I’. Actually, for the Arahant, ‘I’ does not exist:

“Anurādha, the Tathāgata, actually and in truth, is not to be found here.” — Anurādha Sutta (SN 22.86)

The same is true of all the Arahants. The Arahant no doubt has matter, feeling, perception, determinations and consciousness; but there is no longer any matter, feeling, etc. with which an ‘I’ or ‘self’ might be identified. There is no longer an ‘I’ or ‘self’ for whom there is matter, feeling, etc.

Consciousness is always consciousness of something. In the non-Arahant there is consciousness of a subject. That is, his consciousness is indicative of ‘I’ or ‘self’, which is also clinging-consciousness (upādāna-viññāna). There is no such consciousness in the Arahant; in him this clinging-consciousness has been cut off at the root, never to arise again.

Similarly, in the Arahant there is no longer the perception of an ‘I’ or ‘self’, no longer any feeling determined by an ‘I’ or ‘self’, no longer any determinations (intentions) concerning an ‘I’ or ‘self’, and no longer any matter conceived as ‘I’ or ‘self’ or forming a support for ‘I’ or ‘self’. The Arahants are therefore said to be freed from reckoning as matter, feeling, perception, determinations and consciousness.

“Thus indeed, great king, that matter… that feeling… that perception… those determinations… that consciousness by which the Tathāgata might be manifested has been eliminated by the Tathāgata, cut off at the root, dug up, made nonexistent, is incapable of future arising. The Tathāgata indeed, great king, is free from reckoning as consciousness, is deep, immeasurable…” — Sattajaṭila Sutta (SN 3.11)

Therefore the state of the Arahants is termed ‘extinction’, which means the extinction of ‘being’ and the state of actual Being. We can discuss this more later on.

From → Q&A

  1. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    I am rather weak on the Suttas, but did the Buddha mention an eternal, changeless Being? Indeed, he described Nibbana as unconditioned, unborn, and unfabricated more often. But the Buddha repeatedly mentioned concepts of not-self and emptiness as Right View rather than speak of authentic Being. I was wondering if you can clarify this. Thank you.

    • This is a deep and intricate topic. We go into the background in Luminous Mind, but perhaps the best way to summarize it would be to say that Nibbana is held up as an absolute eternal but nothing is permanent except the Dhamma and the Unconditioned. It’s something experiential, not really understandable.

      • peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

        I understand. It is something language cannot describe. It is be experienced- I am not even sure if that is a valid statement. Anyway, thanks for the perspective.

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