Gratitude to LR who transcribed part one of the Bhava Daylong (see also part two):
All right, friends. So this morning we’re going to introduce and look at a topic that is important, vital, foundational in Buddhism, but is not quite in the order of something like the four noble truths or the eightfold path; it’s not as simple as the three obstacles of greed, hatred, and delusion. We will be talking about a subtle concept; its implications are vast.
My teacher, Ajahn Pasanno, had a simile for the dhamma. He said it’s like an afghan, a sort of blanket that’s made out of knitted yarns. You could reach in and you could grab one of the yarns and start pulling, but in doing so, you would end up picking up the whole afghan, the whole blanket. And it doesn’t matter which yarn you pull on because the whole blanket comes with it.
So when we’re talking about this topic, you might see how a lot of the other dhammas are coming along for the ride. And it is part of what the Buddha calls dependent origination, “nidana” or, the way that things are conditioned. And it’s there at the end, the very important focal point, the transition between our mental realm and the physical reality.
So with that lead-in, what are we talking about? We’re talking about something called bhava.
Bhava is a verb in the Pali language, which means “to be,” but the way that they use that verb in Pali, it can also have connotations of “to become.” So it’s not stagnant. “This is what it is, but also, it has become this.” And in an either case you use the verb bhava. I point that out because that’s important to know that many of us are familiar with the translation “becoming” for this word.
And as soon as you hear that “becoming” is a source of suffering, I think all of us probably felt, Yeah, I get that.” Because we’ve seen it, right? We’ve seen it in the flow of our mind. Like, I’m trying to be something, like I’ve got an identity that I am trying to protect or trying to nurture or that I want to have, but don’t have. And so the word “becoming” is vital.
In the early translations where Bhikkhu Bodhi looked at the word bhava, he thought, “I know people are saying ‘becoming’, but I think it means ‘existence’.” Some modern translators also use that word. And so “existence” has a very different flavor. But they understand that we’re looking at this dichotomy.
And the Pali language used one word for both things, both the existence of something, but something coming to be something. It doesn’t matter whether it’s already there or if it’s just turning into that… you use the same word. And it’s the same for this link to dependent origination. This thing that we are looking at today. And so what we’ll do, we’ll talk about it a bit and flush it out, but this is something that’s deep.
This is something that will challenge some of your sensibilities,. We’ll also dredge up odd feelings from deep, deep down… the stuff that you tend to try not to listen to except in the dead of the night when nobody can hear you… what does it mean to exist, what does it mean to be part of the world? And are you really part of the world?
Or are we all on a singular, solitary journey led along by our karma? And everything on the surface is an illusion? We row, row, row our boat and life is but a dream? It’s a perspective that’s equally valid, and it’s worth allowing ourselves to just explore this from time to time, because I think it is harmless, but it can also be insightful.
I will say at the beginning, many people say that once they get introduced to these higher concepts, it’s like, “I can never see things the way I did before.” And they almost lament. It’s like, “oh… I just can’t enjoy indulging in something mindlessly like I used to be able to!”
And I mean, yeah, it’s kind of true, but they can they still do almost everything.
They just can’t do it with ignorance.
And so there’s really no risk in exploring these things, right? If you find that this turns out to not be that useful, you will just go back to operating the way that you have before. But if it does encourage you to look at deeper realities, then you may want to come back to it, time and time again.
So what is existence? What does it mean to you? Is existence necessary, or is it added on? We’re getting into a gray area, like, “what exists”?
This bell, does this bell have bhava? Is this bell dealing with dependent origination?
Now, in terms of philosophy, a philosopher would look at this and be like, “Well, I mean, it has a name, it has a function. I have a name, I have a function. I guess we’re in this together, Mr. Bell. We’re all moving on according to our karma.”
But that’s the danger of philosophy, because it’s not rooted in practicality, like the Buddhist teaching or other religions are rooted in.
Like, this might sound very smart: “There’s no difference between me and the bell,” but it’s not very practical, right? It doesn’t help you lead your life. In fact, it gets in the way and it’s like, if I’m no different from the bell, then why do I seem to suffer? And the bell seems to be okay. It’s not because the bell is enlightened…or every rock on the street would be more enlightened than us.
So as smart as that sounds, it’s not quite talking about the crux of the matter. And the crux of the matter is our experience.
So we’re talking about bhava, we’re talking about the existence and the becoming of sentient beings. This is the only thing that matters in practice.
You know, if the rock can’t move unless something picks it up and moves it, then whether or not it suffers is totally out of its control.
Even if there is a consciousness in there that is experiencing suffering, the rock can’t do anything about it. But we can do something about it, about our experience of suffering.
And so if we found that our concept of existence describes this process and allows us to get out of the part that causes us suffering, then it’s worth engaging with. It’s worth looking at.
So what does it mean to exist? And furthermore, what is the definition of bhava?
So part of the reason why you don’t see whole books on the subject of bhava is because there’s just three phrases, three words pretty much associated with what is bhava.
Bhava is sense sphere existence, subtle sphere existence, and formless existence.
And if you’re a westerner, you’re like, “pah…” Right?
The Buddha did not separate this from the idea of rebirth. Yeah. So we are going to be talking about that. It will be the elephant in the room, but we’ll point to it right away. Rebirth is part of this scenario. And there’s an important reason for that.
So there is a function of bhava, which deals with existence, which is active right now. You have an existence and it’s this body, it’s this life, right?
And all of you have it, I can see your faces, I know you’ve got bodies. I know that you’ve got names and you’ve got lives and you’ve got stuff that you do. I’m not talking to the bells on your counter or the books on your shelf. I’m talking to you, as thinking, breathing human beings.
But that thinking, breathing existence was preconditioned.
It arose at conception, but Buddha points out it did not arise based on nothing.
There was an embryo,
obviously there were chemical and biological processes,
but for some reason, consciousness arose,
and started identifying with this being
and started going through a whole bunch of karma
that because it’s not separate from the body,
the whole body is having to go through all of this karma.
So there is an aspect of existence (even if you become an arahant and you become fully enlightened) that does not immediately cease… because the conditions are already in place. You already have this kind of existence. And so at the surface level, that canonical definition is talking about “why are you here right now?” And more, more than that…
Why are you there right now? And you are over there right now and you’re over there right now.
We’re all in different places right now because different bhava happened at different times.
And so to take that “why are you here right now?” principle a bit further, it means that animals or spirits, things you’ve experienced, maybe things you don’t know if they exist,
they have taken a form of existence in whatever place they find themselves.
They are in that existence based on previous conditions.
Now, some of you might not like the idea of rebirth. You might not sign on for the idea of rebirth. And I say this is important for us to engage with this concept. In order to take becoming seriously as a threat to our happiness, we have to acknowledge that when we engage in it, we don’t know when it’s going to end, right?
So the real threat of bhava that the Buddha points out is that this mental process might result in us taking a life existence somewhere.
And that that will have to play out whether or not we want it to, for whatever duration the lifespan of that existence is, right? So even if you don’t want to be a human being that has to get up and to work and to struggle and to eat and to get sick and to age and to lose everything, even if you don’t want that, if you’re running that process, you have no guarantee that at the end of your life, this process of becoming might not lead to you jumping into another existence and having to go through that period of time.
So even the Buddha’s disciple, Sariputta, did not categorically believe in other worlds. And that’s amazing, right?
He was right next to the Buddha, who had psychic powers and was talking about devas day in and day out. He was talking with devas day in and day out. Either that or muttering to himself. Sariputta, though, didn’t have the divine eye. He didn’t know, and he was considered the wisest of all people. So the Buddha asked him, “Hey, do you believe the sermon I just gave on the realms of existence?”
And Sariputta is like, “No.”
And all the monks were like, “Ahhhhhh!!!!”
….and Sariputta says, “Because I have no experience with any of that.”
So the wise person does not categorically believe something that they have no experience of. And in fact, it is wisdom to not categorically believe something you have no experience of.
So if you have no experience of other realms, no experience of this chain of rebirth, then you don’t have to believe in it. But the reason this will be useful today, at least if not going forward, is because it is the mark of a wise person to not categorically disbelieve something that they have no proof does not exist.
And this is what’s really important to us. You may not believe in rebirth, but that’s not what’s being suggested.
We have to take on, in order to really truly see “becoming” as a problem, the understanding that we don’t know when it ends, right?
So if “becoming” was guaranteed to end at the end of our life, it’s not that big a deal because no matter how much suffering it generates in our life, it’s over when we’re over.
But if we acknowledge that we don’t really know how this works or when it ends, then we have a very important mandate to look into “becoming” in all of its subtle aspects.
Including why I think I’m a person here in this place, why I think I’m a citizen of this country, why I think I’m this ethnicity, why I think I have a definite relationship to that other being over there that I’m the father of or the son of or the brother of.
“Why do I think these things and why do I continue to think these things? Why do I build up these ideas? All of that energy I put into that. Do I recognize that, that energy doesn’t go anywhere on its own? That that energy might continue and it might continue in dramatic ways?”
If you’re familiar with the Jataka stories or the Buddhist talk about causality in terms of rebirth…he’s saying that this person is the daughter of so-and-so, but then so-and-so passes away and because of their attachment to that person, they get reborn as the daughter of their daughter.
So now who’s the daughter and who’s the mother? Well, you can only say that for each given point of time. And now the relationship changes.
But what was static was the idea of a relationship. It was a mental idea that caused a form of birth.
When we go to sleep at night, we lose consciousness. And for many of us, this is how a person without the ability to meditate, relaxes, There’s no other way. Once we learn to meditate, we can start to try letting go of things while we’re still conscious. But no matter how bad the day is, we can crawl into bed, we can shut our eyes and we can blank out and wake up and maybe we’ll be in a different place.
As practitioners, we understand that there are parts of the mind that don’t need to be held onto to continue to have an effect on our lives. So if we wake up in the morning and the first thing that arises is, I am so and so I have to go do this, then it didn’t matter that we broke that up.
We broke up the continuity with going to sleep, but it came right back. And that’s the power of a mental process, right? That’s the suffering of a mental process. Because maybe we didn’t want that to come back. Maybe it would be nice to wake up the next morning and we can be whatever we want to be, whatever seems the most useful or appropriate thing.
Instead, we’ve put all this energy into being that one thing. And that’s where we wake up and we end up becoming.
We’ve got this static idea of existence, but we’ve also got an active idea of bhava. We’ve got this active sense of what we’re generating and what is caused by clinging, craving, identification, a preference for certain kind of experiences. That is also where bhava comes up, right? It’s also where it’s in some ways the most functional and vital part of bhava for us, as meditators.
Because that’s what we’re going to see on a moment to moment basis. We’ll be walking down the street and we’ll pass a certain shop and we’re like, “Oh! Oh, I really like those things.” And you know, we’re thinking, “Oh, I gotta get one of those. Oh, that’ll make me look so good.” Or, “You know, I always have a better day when I get to eat one of those. Or, maybe I should have one of those, it’d make me fit in better at work or at school. Or it would help me shape this image.”
And that’s becoming, right? And we have a sense of an entity, a sense of an existence. And there’s clinging, there’s craving… it gathers things towards it.
So, setting the framework, setting up the stage for a day of allowing yourself to investigate. Why do I start by bringing up the heavy, deep cosmological stuff about bhava? When you’re meditating, you might have this experience of “there’s a gap,” right? Like you’re not feeling this strong impulse to be something or to, to even to exist.
And it might feel like the world is starting to pass you by. You might see the people on the street, or you might see the birds in the sky. Or you might hear your neighbor and you realize that they’re not interacting with you. And that if you don’t say anything, you don’t do anything, they will continue to carry out their lives as though you don’t exist.
And this is a very interesting experience to engage with. We should look for this and allow ourselves to experience this because it can be a bit scary. We tend to only allow ourselves to dwell in these kind of thoughts in the dead of meditation or the dead of the night when it feels non-threatening, right? Like, “Okay, it’s 3:00 AM, I can have an existential crisis and when I get up at 6:00 AM it’ll be fine. I’ll be better. So no worries…. What am I?”
But we don’t have to take it that far, right? The Buddha said, “What is the condition for doubt?”
The condition for doubt is asking those questions. “What am I, who am I, what have I been, where have I been? What will I be, when will I be it? Having been this, how, what will I be in the future?”
We don’t need to ask those questions.
Instead we can recognize and start to sink into that feeling we might have in meditation that “I kind of feel like I don’t exist.”
And that’s how simple non becoming can be. It’s something to reflect on. How to cultivate that and how to look for that, how to look at that. And as an introduction, that’s what we are looking for.
So notice when a sense of becoming comes up and what it feels like in relation to what would be “non becoming” or “not being” that thing.
So we have an active reality of what we are. We ask ourselves what we think that is. And then we look for, well, where does that not apply?
You know, we are a son or a daughter, right? Except when we’re not living with our parents and we haven’t written or talked to them today. We’re kind of doing our own thing and they’re doing their own thing. So for a moment, that relationship doesn’t really accurately describe these two different people on different trajectories. It is simply a mental concept, right?
At a physiological sense, you could say, Okay, the, the genetics are there. But if you take those people further and further and further apart, then the link becomes more and more tenuous, merely a genetic link.
In terms of being an employee, it’s like “I work at that place.” Well, can that end? Not to date this recording, people at Twitter just found out they’re not people who work at Twitter anymore, right? That was like flipping a switch. A very rich person had a very expensive switch that he flipped, and they were no longer people who work at Twitter.
And this is the reality of many of our becomings, We wake up and gears start to turn and a process begins and we start telling ourselves, “I am this. I do this. I like this. This is mine.”
So we look for those and start to know what those sound like and start to know what those feel like, right? We can begin to appreciate that the Buddha said, “This is a bad thing. We should get rid of it,” but we’re not going to get rid of it unless we begin to recognize what it does to us.
It’s not just that it’s dangerous, and productive of future existence. It also limits us. You can feel the constraints of it if you say, “I am this” (and we do it because often it feels quite good to say!) or “I am, I am one of these, this is what I am, this is what I believe in.”
But if we hold to that, then what we’re also saying is,
“I am not the infinite number of other things that I could have been.”
We have gotten rid of those things or we’re blocked from those things because of our specificity.
Many times we lean into the specificity. We nurture the idea that “I have a relationship to this person, my spouse, my partner,” because of the good things that perception brings without recognizing the ways that it constrains us.
But in an instance where it’s really better to be a friend, or really better to be neutral and just be a bystander and be able to give them a neutral reflection on something that they’re doing, we’re stuck because we’ve been telling ourselves, “No, no, this is, this is mine. I am this. They, they own me in certain ways. There’s a thing going on here”
And that’s becoming. It’s a static idea, and a static idea doesn’t flow.
If we look at our reality, our reality is flowing. And in those moments where we fail to become something, we get to see what that’s like. The world flows on and it continues running.
And this is going to be one of the most interesting ways that the Dhamma opens up for us: being able to watch when we are not becoming. Do we continue to run?
Do we continue to follow a course based on our karma, based on our activity, based on what we do enjoy, based on our our fundamental sufferings that kind of motivate us. Does that still happen? Because the whole structure of our mind is based on the idea that we must do this. We must follow this chain of dependent origination. Because otherwise we will cease to exist. We’ll cease to accomplish anything. So you find in meditation that you’re not fulfilling that function.
You’re not fulfilling the function of doing what the world demands, You’re not developing existence. And so it’s starting to fall apart.
But do you fall apart? I mean, literally you don’t, literally your arm doesn’t fall off. Your foot doesn’t fall off because you’re not holding it to your body. And it’s the same with our minds. Our patterns, our habits, our being able to remember our telephone number doesn’t fall away and disappear forever because we’re not holding onto it.
If we’re not actively cultivating it, does our identity cease to have a function in the world? If we were to walk outside right now without telling ourselves, “I am so-and-so,” and we were to see our neighbor on the street, would they say, “Hi So-and-So”..? Or would they look at us and see that we were not holding onto this idea that “I am so-and-so I do such-and-such.” Then they would look at us and be like, “That’s a person who’s not becoming… I, who is that? What are they doing?”
No, they’re gonna say, “Hi So-and-So.” Why? Because the world doesn’t really care. Their knowledge of what we are in relation to them is not dependent on what we think we are and vice versa. We will see the people on the street and whatever we think they are, they really aren’t because the becoming that we have tried to slot them into is also failing to account for the way that they’re flowing.
They’re changing, they’re adapting, they’re growing. We didn’t see them through all the intervening time before from the last time we saw them, until we walked out our door. So we don’t know what they’ve been through. We don’t know what they have done. We don’t know how they’ve changed. There’s an illusion that because most people change very slowly, people aren’t changing at all. But in fact, every moment they’re gaining new memories, new ideas, hearing new things from the media, and it changes them, they act differently.
So this is bhava. And see how it feels when we do it to ourselves, when we do it to others, when it feels like it’s done to us. Because in some ways we are the recipients of the patterns that we’ve developed. And many of our strongest identifications have been built up over the course of our life. And that’s the thing, when we started building them, they seemed quite harmless.
But this is the momentum of mental activity.
Now they’re kind of landing on us and we’ve been telling ourselves, “I’m a go-getter. I’m a do-gooder. I’m a great person. I’m very competent.” And then we’re starting to near middle age and we haven’t become rich. We haven’t become popular. We haven’t become famous.
It can be a crisis, right? Because we have all this momentum that’s says I am, I’m all these good things. And it’s trying to land on a kind of mediocre human being with flaws. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. But in the current day, can we recognize that that’s just momentum. It’s just karma. And can we let it land on us? Cause we don’t have much choice. We put all that momentum into it. But can we let it start to dissolve?
Can we start to question and break down these identities that we’ve built up?
So, as an example, I spent much of the year, staying in an apartment in Massachusetts and sort of nurturing a small community. People would come to meditate and I’d give the retreats, the day longs and such from there. And from time to time I’d go out and I’d do a retreat, and then I would come back and try to keep things going, and receiving meals and saying, Okay, I’m a teacher. I’m looking after this community.
And one day everything kind of went its own direction. The stuff that we had went one place, I went one direction. The people who had been coming to meditate went another direction. And, you know, day and night, it was just, it was no longer there. And I found myself walking away and everything I had been like cultivating and becoming, suddenly wasn’t existing. And after years of doing this practice, I’m like, “Ooh, oh, it’s so quiet. I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow. Is this a problem?”
And I have found, well, it doesn’t have to be a problem.
And in fact, many monastics go forth simply to have this experience of non becoming, to be anonymous, to wear the same clothes as the person next to them, to have the same haircut as the person next to them, to just be able to sit on a cushion and examine their life, examine their motives, examine their memories and their habits, where they think they are in the scheme of things and where they think they’re going based on their trajectory. So this is my own experience that I’ve been going through and this has been very relevant right now.
Because when we do find ourselves in any kind of gap where we’re not quite doing this activity of trying to “be” something, it feels like we should, right? It feels like something’s missing if we don’t. But it takes this appreciation of what peace is actually referring to. There’s a tangible absence of suffering. There’s a tangible absence of narrowing my possibilities.
And how would you say that in the positive?
Well, the absence of suffering could be called happiness.
The lack of narrowing possibilities could be called potential or opportunity.
This is something we can lean into. This is why we bother to deconstruct our sense of becoming, our sense of identifying, our sense of this is this.
We’re not just afraid of rebirth, you know, we’re afraid of the rebirth moment to moment. The moment to moment rebirth of our suffering, which can happen at a moment’s notice.
Okay. So with that, let’s begin and we can sit together for 15 minutes and then we’ll begin the process.
You can just look at the half hour and decide, in terms of sitting or walking, what you would like to do. We’ll keep going for another two hours. And then I’ll see you in the afternoon. All right? So happy meditating.