Birth and Death
by Ajahn Maha Boowa
When people come to me with questions, most are eager to ask this one: Is there a next world after death? This sort of question is not any one person’s issue. It’s an issue for all of us who are carrying a burden. When people ask a question like that, I ask them in return, “Was there a yesterday? Was there a morning today? Is there a present at this moment?” They admit that there was and is. “Then will there be a tomorrow? A day after tomorrow? A this month? A next month? A this year? A next year, and years after that?”
Things from the past that we remember can be used to make guesses about the future. Even for things that have yet to happen, we can make comparisons with things that have already occurred. The future has to follow the way things have been in the past. For example, yesterday has already occurred, today is occurring. These things follow one after the other. We know this, we remember, we haven’t forgotten. This afternoon, this evening, tonight, tomor- row morning: We’ve already seen that time moves in this sequence. This is definitely the way things have happened, so we accept that this is the way they will continue to be.
Doubts about this world and the next, or about other things concerning us, are forms of self-delusion, which is why these things become big issues, causing endless fuss about rebirth all over the world. “Is there a next world? When people die, are they reborn?” These questions go together, for who is it that takes birth and dies? We ourselves are always dying and being reborn. What comes to this world and then goes to the next world is us. Who else would it be? If it weren’t for us wanderers in the round of rebirth, no one would be burdened with these questions.
This is the harm of delusion: we’ve been through birth so many times before but we fail to remember. It shows in our lives, but we can’t catch hold of its causes, of why it has come about. We can’t remember what happened. Our daily affairs spin us around in circles, getting us so tangled up that we don’t know which way to go. This is why self-delusion causes endless complications. Being deluded about other things is not so bad, but being deluded about ourselves blocks all the exits. We can’t find any way out. The results come right back at us and bring us suffering, because these sorts of doubts are questions which bind us, not questions which set us free. We can have no hope of resolv- ing these doubts unless we seek the answers by practicing meditation.
This is why the Lord Buddha taught us to solve our own problems. But it’s essential to do this in the right way. If we do it by guessing or speculating about what’s right, we won’t succeed. The only way to succeed is to steadily develop goodness as a support for our meditation practice, so that we can begin to un- ravel our own affairs, which lie in the sphere of meditation. This is what will lead us to a clear understanding that cuts through our doubts, bringing us satis- factory results. We will be able to stop wondering about whether there is death and rebirth, or death and annihilation.
What are our own affairs? The affairs of the heart. The heart is what acts, creating causes and results for itself all the time: pleasure, pain, complications and turmoil. For the most part, it ties itself down more than it helps itself. When we don’t force it to go in good ways, the heart reaps trouble as a result. Suf- fering comes from being agitated and anxious, thinking restlessly from various angles for no worthwhile reason. The results we receive are an important factor in making us pained and unsettled. This is a very difficult matter for those who are deluded about the world and about themselves, who are agitated without being interested in confirming the truth about themselves using the principles of the Dhamma, principles that guarantee the truth. For example, once we die, we must be reborn; as long as the seeds of rebirth are in the heart, we have to continue being reborn repeatedly. It can’t be otherwise; we cannot be annihi- lated at death.
The Buddha teaches us to keep a watch on the instigator. In other words, we should observe our own heart, which causes birth and death. Since we don’t understand it, he explains various ways to observe the heart until we can understand the situation and deal with it properly. In particular, he teaches us to meditate, so that the heart – which has no solid footing – will gain enough of a footing to stand on its feet. In that way, it will gain quiet and calm, free from the distraction and unsteadiness that destroys our peace of mind.
For example, he teaches us to repeat “Buddho, Dhammo, Sangho” or “bones”, “hair of the head”, “hair of the body” or whatever phrase suits our temperament, being mindful to keep watch over our meditation theme so as not to become forgetful and send the mind elsewhere. Then the mind, which we used to send out to various objects, can stay firmly with its Dhamma- theme: its meditation-word. Our awareness, which used to be scattered among various preoccupations, will now gather into that point – the heart – which is the gathering place of awareness. All the currents of our awareness will con- verge at the Dhamma-theme we are repeating with interest. This is because the meditation-word becomes more and more an object of clear and conspicuous awareness. Thus at the beginning stages of meditation, the meditation-word is very important.
Once we have seen the intrinsic value of the peace that appears this way, we also see clearly the harm that comes from the agitation of a mind that has no footing to hold to. We know from our own experience the benefits of a peace- ful mind and the harm of an agitated mind. The Buddha teaches this as the first step on the path to understanding the affairs of the mind.
We then try to make the mind progressively more settled and calm by repeating the meditation-word, as already mentioned. We keep at it, again and again, until we become adept, until the mind can become still the way we want it. The sense of well-being that arises from a calm mind becomes even more prominent and clear all the time. As soon as the mind becomes still, giving rise to clear and prominent awareness, it at the same time gathers the defilements into a single spot so that we can see them more clearly and more easily observe their behavior – so that we can more easily remove them with the levels of wisdom suited to dealing with crude, intermediate and subtle defilements step by step. Now, concerning defilements, the things that force the mind to be agi- tated in countless, inconceivable ways: We can’t catch sight of what defilement is, what the mind is or what the Dhamma is, until we first have a firm basis of mental stillness. When the mind gathers in and is still, the defilements gather in and are still as well. When the mind draws into itself, becoming a point on which we can focus, the defilements also enter a restricted range in that same point. They gather in the mind and rarely ever run loose to stir up trouble as they used to before the mind became still.
Once the mind is still so that it can stand on its feet, we are then taught to use our wisdom to investigate, contemplating the various parts of the body in which the defilements hide out. What is the mind interested in? When it isn’t quiet, with what does it like to involve itself? While the mind is quiet, it doesn’t stir up trouble for itself, but a common habit with us human beings is that once we have gained peace and relaxation, we get lazy. We simply want to lie down and rest. We don’t want to probe into the body or the mind with our mindfulness and wisdom for the sake of seeing the truth and removing the various defilements from the heart. We don’t like to reflect on the fact that those who have removed the various kinds of defilement that hide out in the body and the mind have done so by using mindfulness and wisdom. As for mental stillness, or samadhi, that’s simply a gathering together of the defilements into a restricted range. It doesn’t effect a removal of the defilements. Please remember this and take it to heart.
When the mind isn’t still, it tends to get entangled with sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations, and to take them as issues for stirring it- self up. We can know with our mindfulness and wisdom which of the various sights, sounds, etc., the mind tends to favor most strongly. While we are inves- tigating, we can know with mindfulness and wisdom which objects the mind likes to get involved with. We can observe the affairs of the mind because of its stillness. As soon as it begins to head out toward its various preoccupations, we know. This is why we are taught to investigate things with our wisdom so as to know what the mind tends to involve itself with. Try to observe so as to know, so as to see clearly with mindfulness and wisdom while you are investigating. Only when you are stilling the mind in samadhi is there no need for you to investigate, because samadhi and wisdom take turns working at different times, each in their own way.
When you are investigating visual objects, with which visual object is your mind most involved? What is the reason? Look at the object. Dissect it. Analyze it into its parts so as to see it clearly for what it truly is. Once you have dissected the object – whatever it is – so as to see it with wisdom in line with its truth, you will see the absurdity and the deceptiveness of the mind that misconstrues things in all kinds of ways without any real reason, without any basis in fact.
Once you have investigated carefully, you’ll see that the object has none of the worth assigned to it by the mind. The mind’s assumptions have simply fallen for the object, that’s all. Once you have investigated, separating the various parts of the body so as to see them in detail, you won’t see anything worthwhile or sub- stantial at all. The heart of its own accord will see the harmfulness of its assump- tions and attachments. The more it investigates, the more clearly it sees – not only the various sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations, but also the acts of the mind involved with those objects – until it fully knows and clearly sees with wisdom, because it has been constantly unraveling things both within and without. You fully know and clearly see the mind’s actions, knowing that they come about for this reason and that, all of which are thoroughly absurd.
Before, you didn’t know why the mind was so involved. But now you know clearly that it is involved because of delusion and mistaken assumptions. When you investigate in line with the truth and see the true nature of external things, you know clearly within yourself that the mind has construed phenom- ena to be like this and like that, which is why it has continually developed more and more attachment and clinging, more and more of the defilements of love and hatred. The mind then realizes its own absurdity.
When the heart realizes that it has been deluded, it withdraws inward, because if it were to continue to think of becoming attached to those things, it would get cut right through by wisdom – so what would it gain from becoming attached? To investigate so as to know clearly that this is this, and that is that, in line with the truth of every individual thing of every sort: This is the way to unravel the great mass of problems that, taken together, are the mass of suffer- ing inside the heart.
As wisdom constantly keeps unraveling things without letup until it under- stands clearly and distinctly, we don’t have to tell the mind to let go. Once the mind knows, it is bound to let go of its own accord. The clinging mind is the mind that doesn’t yet know, doesn’t yet understand with wisdom. Once it does know, it fully lets go, with no concern or regrets. All the concerns that used to disturb the mind vanish of their own accord because the mind sees right through them. Once it sees everything clearly and distinctly, what is there left to grope for?
The next step is to investigate the mind, the gathering point of subtle de- filements, so as to see what it is looking for when it flows out. Where does it flow from? What pressures the mind into forming thoughts? When mindfulness and wisdom can keep up with thoughts, these thoughts vanish immediately without amounting to anything, without forming issues to entangle us as they did before. This is because mindfulness and wisdom are wise to them, and al- ways ready to herd them in and wipe them out as they keep following the tracks of the origin of defilement to see exactly where it is. Where do its children and grandchildren – the defilements – come from? Animals have their parents, what are the parents of these defilements? Where are they? Why do they keep forming again and again, thinking again and again? Why do they give rise to assumptions and interpretations, increasing pain and suffering without end?
Actually, thoughts are formed at the mind. They don’t form anywhere else. So investigate, following them in, step by step, without losing the trail that will lead you to the truth. This is genuine exploration, observing the affairs of all the defilements, using the power of genuine mindfulness and wisdom. Ultimately you will know what the mind is lacking, what it is still connected with, what it is interested in, what it wants to know and to see.
So we follow the connections on in. Day by day, the defilements become more and more restricted. This is because the bridges that connect them to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations and the various things of the world in general have been cut away from the mind by using continuous mind- fulness and wisdom to the point where we have no more doubts. It’s as though the outside world doesn’t exist. There remain only the preoccupations that form
– blip, blip, blip – in the mind. This is where the rebellious monarch lies. The one who concocts and creates, the one who struggles and writhes restlessly, lies right here.
Before, we didn’t know in what ways the mind was writhing. All we knew were the unsatisfactory results that appeared, giving us nothing but pain and suffering, which no one in the world wants. Our heart was so burdened with suffering that it couldn’t find a way out, because it had no inkling of how to remedy things. But now that we know, we see more and more clearly into the heart where delusion is the major player. Delusion can’t find anything to latch onto outside, so it simply acts inside. Why doesn’t it latch on? Because mind- fulness and wisdom understand and have it surrounded. So how could it latch onto anything? We now see it more clearly and focus our investigation on it, scratch away at it, dig away at it with mindfulness and wisdom until we have it surrounded every time the heart makes a move. There are no longer any lapses in alertness as there were in the first stages when mindfulness and wisdom were still stumbling and crawling along.
Our persistence at this level is no longer a matter of every activity. It be- comes a matter of every mental moment in which the mind ripples. Mindful- ness and wisdom have to know both when the rippling comes out and when it vanishes – so no issues can arise in the moment the mind is fashioning a thought, an assumption or an interpretation. This is possible because our super- fast mindfulness and wisdom can keep up with everything. As soon as a rippling occurs, we know. When we know, it vanishes. No issues arise in between. They vanish the moment they appear. They can’t branch out anywhere because the bridges to outside matters have been cut by mindfulness and wisdom.
When mindfulness and wisdom are exploring earnestly, relentlessly, un- flaggingly, they want to know and to destroy whatever is hazardous. “What causes us to take birth? What leads us to wander in the round of rebirth? What are the causes and conditions that connect things?” This is called scratching away with mindfulness and wisdom, digging away at the heart of delusion. There is no way we can escape knowing and severing the important cause that creates pain and suffering for all living beings: namely, the defilement of delu- sion that has infiltrated the heart in an insidious way. Such is the power of mind- fulness, wisdom, conviction and persistence at the advanced level; something we never imagined could be possible.
The defilements begin to reveal themselves now because they have no place to hide. Since the bridges have been cut, they no longer have the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations in which they used to hole up. Their only hideout is in the heart: The heart is delusion’s hideout. When wis- dom ransacks through the heart until everything is completely smashed so that nothing remains, ultimately the supreme defilement of delusion – the emperor of the round of rebirth – is completely obliterated from the heart. At this point, how can we help but know what it is that causes birth on this or that level? As for where we will or won’t be reborn, that’s not important. What’s important is seeing clearly that this is what causes birth and death to occur.
This is how we prove whether death is followed by rebirth or by annihila- tion. We have to prove it in the heart by practicing in line with the principles of mental development, in the same way the Buddha and his Noble Disciples practiced and knew so that it was clear to their hearts. There is no other way to know. Don’t go groping and guessing, like scratching at fleas. You’ll end up all mangy and dirty, without gaining anything at all. When we reach this point, it’s called eliminating birth – whose primary seeds lie within – completely from the heart. From this moment onward, there is nothing that can ever again connect and branch out. Mindfulness and wisdom on the level of Dhamma-realization know this completely.
Delusion is the culprit who asks, “Is there a next world?” This is the one who reserves a place in the next world, the one who reserved our place in past worlds, the one who has been born and has died over and over and over again, unceasingly and relentlessly to the point where it can’t remember the births, the deaths, the pleasures, the pains, the sufferings large and small in its various lives. This is the one.
So please remember its face well. Probe and slash at it until it’s destroyed. Don’t show it any mercy: You’ll simply be feeding and fattening it for it to come back and destroy you.
When we gather the defilements, they converge into the heart. They gather here, and we destroy them right here. Once we have finished destroying them so that nothing is left, the questions about birth, death and the pain and suffer- ing that result from birth and death no longer exist. We can know this clearly for ourselves in a way that is immediately apparent.
There is no more problem about whether or not there is a next world. Our past worlds, we have already abandoned. As for the next world, the bridges have all collapsed. And as for the present, we’re wise to it. There are no conven- tions, no matter how refined, left in the mind. This is truly a mind with no more problems. Once they are all solved here, there will never be any problems again.
The Lord Buddha solved the problem right here. His Arahant disciples solved it right here – knew it right here, severed it completely right here. The proclamation that the Teacher was completely free of pain and suffering, that he was the foremost teacher of the world, came from this knowledge and this free- dom from issues. Our study of the world is completed right here at the heart. Our study of the Dhamma reaches full completion right here.
The “world” means the world of living beings. “Living beings” means those who are caught up at the heart. This is where we cut through the problem. This is where we study and know. The Arahant disciples studied and knew right here with their full hearts – and that was the end of the problem. They solved the problem, and it fell away with nothing remaining.
But as for us, we take on the whole thing: the entire heap of pain and suf- fering. We take on all problems, but we aren’t willing to solve them. We simply hoard them to weigh ourselves down all the time. Our heart is thus filled with a heap of suffering that nothing else can equal, because nothing else is as heavy as a heart heaped with pain. Carrying this heap of problems is heavy on the heart because we haven’t completed our studies. We carry nothing but this heap because of our delusion.
When true knowledge appears and eradicates all the hazards from the heart, this is what it means to “graduate” in line with natural principles, with no conferring of degrees or titles that would cause us to become even more de- luded. Completing our study of the Dhamma means that we have totally erased all delusion from the heart, with no traces remaining.
At that moment, the three levels of existence – the levels of sensuality, form and formlessness – are no longer a problem, because they all lie in the heart. The level of sensuality is a heart composed of sensuality. The levels of form and formlessness are the conventions of those realms buried in the heart. When the heart removes them, that’s the end of the problem. When we solve the problem, this is where we solve it. This world and the next world lie right here, because that which steps into any world lies right here. This heart is what steps out to receive suffering. The motor, the propeller, lies here in the heart and nowhere else.
The Lord Buddha thus taught at the right point, the most appropriate point: the heart, which is the primary culprit. Where do the things I have mentioned here lie if not with each of us? And if we don’t solve them right here, where will we solve them?
Living beings are reborn in various realms of existence through the power of the good and bad kamma within the heart. The heart itself is what’s reborn into those realms. If we don’t solve the problem right in the heart, we’ll never be able to escape the bonfires of suffering and anxiety. If we solve the problem right there, it doesn’t matter where the fires are, because we can keep ourselves protected. That’s all there is to it!
Whatever problems arise, they arise right here. “Is death followed by rebirth? By annihi- lation? Is there a next world? Does hell exist? Does heaven? Does evil exist? Does merit?” Ev- erywhere I go, there’s the same question: “Do heaven and hell exist?” I never feel like answer- ing. I don’t see any reason to answer it, because that which is burdened with heaven and hell is the heart, which everyone already has. So why waste time answering? After all, I’m not a record-keeper for heaven and hell!
Straighten things out right here at the cause that will lead to heaven and hell. Straighten out the bad causes and foster the good ones. When we straighten things out correctly, suffering will not bother us. And how can we miss? The well-taught Dhamma teaches us to solve things right on target, not off-target. Where will we solve things if we don’t solve them at the heart? The big problems lie solely at the heart, at this awareness. Crudeness is a matter of this aware- ness. Refinement is a matter of this awareness. That which makes people crude or refined is this awareness, with defilements as the rein- forcement. If the heart becomes refined, it’s because goodness is the reinforcement, making it refined until it goes beyond the final point of refinement, beyond the final point of conventions, and ends up gaining release from all suffering, with no seeds for any further connections.
Another question that people are always asking is how to overcome lazi- ness. If we were to tell them to use laziness to overcome laziness, it would be tantamount to telling them to become an enemy of beds, blankets and pillows by sleeping without ever waking up. It would be as if they were already dead, because laziness makes you weak and listless like a person ready to die. How can you use laziness to cure laziness? Once you get a nice resting place as a means of lulling you to drown in sleep, it’s as if you were already dead – dead right there on the pillow! Even when you wake up, you don’t want to get up, because laziness stomps all over you, forcing you to stay prone. This is how it goes when you use laziness to cure laziness.
If you use energy and persistence to cure laziness, then you get right up, ready to fight. If there’s a fight, you have hope of winning. But if you simply lie prostrate, all you can do is lose – although whether we should call it losing or something else is hard to say, because you don’t even put up a fight at all, so how can you say that you lose? If there’s a fight and you can’t win, then you can say that this person wins and that person loses. But here there’s no fight at all! You simply lie there wallowing. If you don’t call this being a servant in the house of defilements what would you call it? Because that’s what it is: being a servant in their house. If you use laziness to cure the defilements, you end up piling on even more defilements. Or what would you say? As things stand, the defilements already fill the heart, so if you foster them even more, where are you going to put them? You’ve got only one heart! The only way is to remove the defilements so that you can begin to breathe, and not let them sit on top of your nose so that you can never gasp a breath at all.
Persistence. Diligence. Exertion in the way of reason that can accomplish our purposes: This is the path that sages have followed. Even though it may be difficult, we’re up to the fight. It’s like removing a thorn from your foot: Even though it hurts to remove it, you have to bear it. If you let it stay there, your whole foot will become infected. You won’t be able to walk at all, and you may even lose your foot. So there’s only one reasonable course: Pull it out. No matter how much it hurts, you have to bear it, because you have to get the thing out! This is a line of reasoning you have to accept. Once the thorn is out, it holds no more poison. Put medicine on the wound, and the foot will heal without flaring up as it would if the thorn were still embedded there.
Defilement is just like a thorn. We let it lie buried forever in the heart. As long as it remains, the heart is constantly infected. Is this what you want? To be a putrid person? Ask yourself. Don’t ask the defilements. They’ll simply do you more harm. If you don’t want this, you have to fight them. Once you fight them, you are sure of somehow finding a way to win. No matter how many times you lose, there will have to come a time when you win. Once you’ve won, then you can keep on winning and winning until there is nothing left for you to fight because the defilements are completely destroyed.
When you win, what do you defeat? You defeat laziness with diligence. You defeat defilements with energy and persistence. This way you gain release from all suffering. This is how you solve the problem of birth and death, right at the heart. There is only this spot that most needs solving. It’s the most appro- priate spot, the most correct spot to solve. There is no way you can solve them anywhere else. Keep on making assumptions and interpretations for eons and eons, and you’ll simply continue to be burdened with the problem as it leads you to more birth, death, pain and suffering.
“Does suffering exist, or not? Do merit and evil exist, or not?” Actually, all of us without exception experience these things. “Evil” is mental darkness and suffering. “Merit” is well-being and ease. These things exist in the body and mind of every person, so how can you deny them? “Merit” is a name for well-being. The Buddha calls it merit. Suffering he calls evil. We are touched by good and evil all the time. Whether we live in this world or the next, we can’t help but meet with good and evil.
Hell or not-hell, if there’s pain filling the body and the mind, who wants it? Who wants to meet with it? This is something we all know, so why ask about hell when it’s already with us like this? Wherever pain is burning us, it’s as hot as being branded with fire. No matter where you’re branded, it is hot in the same way. You can call it hell or not-hell as you like, but nobody wants it, be- cause pain is something we have all known for ourselves.
And where are you going to look for heaven? When you meet with the well-being that comes from practicing the Dhamma – and especially with well- being in the heart, beginning with stillness and calm in ascending stages to the point where the heart develops a firm and solid footing within, so that it is sure of itself; and then further, to the point where you gain release – then where are you going to ask about heaven and Nibbana? There’s no need to ask. You know them directly with your heart. You are the owner, in charge of the heart that is clearly the instigator, so where else are you going to look for the names “heaven” and “hell”? What is there to grope for?
You’ve got the real thing within you. That’s all that matters. The Dhamma of the Lord Buddha doesn’t delude people into groping for this or that. So take hold of the real thing right here.