Beginningless Samsara or no known beginning

Did the buddha teach there cannot be a beginning of samsara or did he teach that he did not see a beginning of samsara?

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At least if you look at the suttas in SN 15 the wording is kinda careful

Transmigration has no known beginning.
Anamataggoyaṁ, bhikkhave, saṁsāro.

No first point is found…
Pubbā koṭi na paññāyati…

We can argue that if there was a beginning the Buddha would know, but strictly speaking the suttas teach he didn’t find a beginning.

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What the Buddha taught is that such questions are not pertinent to development of the path:

“Then is it the case that the cosmos is finite… the cosmos is infinite… the soul & the body are the same… the soul is one thing and the body another… after death a Tathagata exists… after death a Tathagata does not exist… after death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist… after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?”

“Potthapada, I haven’t expounded that after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless.”

“But why hasn’t the Blessed One expounded these things?”

“Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don’t lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That’s why I haven’t expounded them.”

“And what has the Blessed One expounded?”

"I have expounded that, ‘This is stress’… ‘This is the origination of stress’… ‘This is the cessation of stress’… ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’

“And why has the Blessed One expounded these things?”

“Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That’s why I have expounded them.”—DN 9

1.11.08

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So you can find it in all SN 15 suttas, and in SN 22.99, SN 22.100, SN 48.50, SN 56.35.
It’s very much the same text snippet in all cases and I haven’t found another instance that covers the beginning of samsara.

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Beginning to this universe, yes, we can follow the physics.
Beginning to the rounds of rebirth, no.
The link below shows how to reconcile this, by having cyclic multiverse models of the universe. Anyway, in DN 27, DN 1, the Buddha did mentioned the cosmos expands and contract.

Given the cyclic multiverse models, there’s a few possibility to the beginning of rebirth question, given the careful wordings of the Buddha saying no known beginning.

  1. There’s a beginning, but it lies in the infinite past, or effectively infinite past time ago. Like a number line, 0 is the beginning, we are at infinity+3. That’s what some of the discussion in physical cosmology goes to.

  2. There’s no way to know whether there’s a beginning or not via recollection of past lives. This is supported by the suttas in SN 15 where even recollecting for a long time, very many lifetimes, very fast, there’s no beginning to be found. Another theoretical reasoning is that past life memories are considered information, and information is physical, the smallest bit of information requires the smallest unit of area to exist. Given that the observable universe is finite (due to finite speed of light and finite beginning to the universe), there’s limited information that can ever be packed in this universe, so even if the mind can access to infinite information, it cannot manifest those into the physical universe (in speech).

  3. There’s no beginning. This is the philosophically most neat of solutions. For if there’s any beginning point, we have to answer, how did sentient beings start in the first place to get reborn? Who was the first Buddha? How can there be a first caused which is itself uncaused? Etc. Also, if we haven’t lived infinite lifetimes, might not it justifiable to want to stay in samsara longer instead of developing dispassion and disenchantment with beginningless rebirth?

I am all for 3 and for all practical purposes, it’s best to just take it as no beginning.

I believe we simply don’t know. The Buddha recollected many, many past lives and did not find a beginning. So if there was or was not a beginning would be speculation. And as paul1 said, it is not connected to the goal. But I do not want to discuss my view. Thanks for your answer.

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I just wanted to post this link here of the Cyclical Universe Theory in its purely physics habitat. Because it might actually be provable if they can find the right equations and use the right detection methods. It’s really cool how it matches Indian descriptions of the universal cycles. I won’t speculate if it’s an exact match though.

(video is 18 minutes)

I’ve heard of a story that might give you a lively metaphor for beginningless samsara. In 1964, during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, there was a man who was going out at sea as part of his daily life. But on that particularly day, he found himself surrounded by a great bombardment of artillery shell, he was so shocked that he jumped off into the sea and almost drowned. Later he was rescued, everybody was glad that he had survived such a horrendous encounter. When asked about if he was afraid of death at that moment, he answered that the struggling for his survival was nothing compared to what happened after he began to lose consciousness. He said at that moment, he started to remember that somehow he had died over and over again before, so many to the point that when he was floating and struggling for a single gasp in the giant sea, he looked down into the ocean and felt that even if all the water of the entire sea of this earth was to cover all the time that he had died over and over repeatedly, it would not suffice. And it startled him so much that he began gaining back consciousness, and grabbed onto a piece of wood nearby and finally got rescued. He said it was that particular moment itself must had been the most scary thing he had ever met in his life and not anything else.

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I tend to interpretation similarly to the end of MN11 where the Buddha said “the question has wrongly been formulated” (or so, paraphrasing from the german translation). And that our structure of mind, fixated to the “causal chain” thinking, shall, by principle, be unable to work with that question and come to a coherent conclusion. It’s a mindboggling moment for math-students, when they become confronted with the question: 0.9999… = 1? And ask, well, infinitely many digits of 9, and what comes after?
If I remember correctly I’ve seen some (german) translation of a discussion of the Buddha about this (methodical/principal) impossibility for the “causal think” to understand how - and when - there could have been a beginning. Or not…
I’m not a scholar of philosophy but I remember some discussion about Kant (in some usenet forum) in which we were pointed to some saying, that the “time” cannot be discussed properly because that mental concept is well in the structure of our thinking itself.
Anyway, that has been one of my earliest impressions of the deep, self-reflected, understanding of the mind shown by the Buddha, and I always understand the quote like “a beginning… cannot be found” - not saying: there is none and not saying there is one. Just " cannot be found "

I think we all have attained jhana in the past due to the beginningless time

Because the probability of us attaining jhana in the past will be greater than zero

Jhanas could be lost. If you still have Jhanas from past life, it might give you an easier time to attain it back in this life. Anyway, regardless, the practice in this life is most important.

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Would the concept of infinity apply here?

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Well, maybe. But let’s look at another sutta where the Buddha uses exactly the same verb (na paññayati – “is not found / discerned”) as in your example.

Hatthesu, bhikkhave, asati ādāna­nikkhepa­naṃ na paññāyati; pādesu asati abhikka­ma­paṭik­kamo na paññāyati; pabbesu asati samiñja­na­pasāra­ṇaṃ na paññāyati; kucchismiṃ asati jighacchā pipāsā na paññāyati.

"When, bhikkhus, there are no hands, picking up and putting down are not discerned. When there are no feet, coming and going are not discerned. When there are no limbs, bending and stretching are not discerned. When there is no belly, hunger and thirst are not discerned.

Evameva kho, bhikkhave, cakkhusmiṃ asati cak­khu­samphas­sa­pac­cayā nuppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhaṃ dukkhaṃ.

"So too, bhikkhus, when there is no eye, no pleasure and pain arise internally with eye-contact as condition.
(SN 35.236)

It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to claim:

“The Buddha is being kinda careful here. He’s choosing his words advisedly, limiting himself to the epistemic verb paññāyati because he doesn’t want to ontologically commit himself on the question of whether there can be picking up and putting down when there are no hands, walking when there are no feet, bending and stretching when there are no limbs, or hunger and thirst when there’s no belly.”

:upside_down_face:

Rather, I think we should want to say that although lexically na paññāyati may appear to be making no more than an epistemic assertion, contextually we have to take it as an assertion of ontological absence: “When there are no hands there is no picking up… etc.”

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In the end it’s a minor point, but just for the exercise:

  • a Buddha doesn’t lie
  • a Buddha isn’t omniscient
  • doesn’t it follow that he truthfully had to assert: “I could’t see” istead of “there isn’t”?

We might deduce out of that a “There is no” - because who else could give us more information apart from a Buddha? But it might be that the Buddha wasn’t able to give an ontological statement here.

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I would say no, for non-mendacious and non-omniscient beings could inferentially arrive at the knowledge that samsāra must be without beginning. They could (if arahants) do so on the basis of their insight that avijjā depends on the āsavas and the āsavas upon ignorance, as taught in MN. 9. The commentary to this sutta does exactly this and as far as I can see the inference is apodictic:

In the section on the taints, with the arising of ignorance (avijjāsamudayā): Here ignorance is a condition for the taint of sensual desire and the taint of being by way of decisive support, etc.; (it is a condition) for the taint of ignorance only by way of decisive support. And here the ignorance that arises subsequently should be understood as the taint of ignorance. The previously arisen ignorance itself becomes a decisive support condition for the subsequently arisen taint of ignorance. The rest by the aforesaid method.

This section is stated by way of showing the condition for the ignorance which heads the factors of dependent arising. Stated thus, the undiscoverability (anamataggata) of any beginning of samsāra is established. How? Because with the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance, and with the arising of ignorance there is the arising of the taints. Thus the taints are a condition for ignorance, and ignorance is a condition for the taints. Having shown this, (it follows that) no first point of ignorance is manifest, and because none is manifest the undiscoverability of any beginning of samsara is proven.

Discourse on Right View and its Commentary

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Kinda reminds me of the English idiom “does not obtain”

Or French se trouve, which means litterally “find oneself”. But if you “find yourself” in Paris, it means you are actually are in Paris.

See also AN5.167: “If I know that there is no such quality in me, I tell him: ‘It doesn’t exist. This quality isn’t found in me.’” (Although here a different verb for “found” is used, the idea is the same.)

Still, in context of samsara I belief it actually simply does mean that no beginning can be found, not that it doesn’t exist.

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…has no known beginning…Anamataggoyaṁ, bhikkhave, saṁsāro.

the world is beginning-less. the question of “a beginning” & thereafter “a creator” or the “primary cause” comes in mind due to our linear thinking. actually, the cause becomes effect and which in turn again becomes a cause in the cyclical beginning-less happening of things.

at the cosmic level - its all akin to infinity for our petty lives & mind. buddha pointed out the perennial suffering that continues on and on with continued rounds of birth-death and admonished us to act now to end the suffering.

may venerable monks & elders guide.