Hope you are all well.
Some thoughts on the meaning of bhava. The word is sometimes translated as ‘becoming’, generally by people who marginalize rebirth in the second noble truth and in Dependent Arising. They explain bhava as “becoming an identity” or something similar. But in the suttas bhava means existence in a certain realm/place. It essentially means a life, not a kind of momentary “becoming” that one does in the moment. Here are some quick and self-explanatory contexts requiring little or no explanation:
- In the Ratana Sutta the stream enterer is said to not take an eighth bhava. (Snp2.1)
- Multiple suttas in the Aṅguttara Nikāya say a developed stream enterer with “one seed” takes only one more rebirth in a human bhava. (AN3.87-88, AN9.12)
- The Anuruddha Sutta mentions being reborn in a bhava after death. (MN127 at 3.147)
- The Lakkhaṇa Sutta says the Buddha came from the Tusita heaven to a human bhava. (DN30 at 3.178)
- The same text mentions the Buddha’s “former lives, former bhavas, former dwellings”. (DN30 at 3.145)
- In the Theragāthā Anuruddha says with his divine eye he sees beings dying and getting reborn, going from one bhava to another bhava. (Thag16.9)
- In the Therīgāthā Sumedhā mentions no bhava is permanent, not even that of the gods. (Thig16.1)
- Bhava is detailed as the three realms where one’s consciousness goes dependent upon karma: the sensual realm, the form realm, and the formless realm. (AN3.76-77)
- A curious but illuminating sutta in the Aṅguttara says certain highly developed non-returners will still obtain bhava but not birth. They are said to attain full extinguishment in the “in-between” of lives, which means in a state of existence after death, but before taking rebirth in the non-return realm. (AN4.131)
- Bhaddaji said the highest bhava is that of the devas of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. (AN5.170)
- The Buddha, being a bit playful with the term, said: “As far as the abodes of beings go, as far as the highest types of existence (bhava) go, the arahants are the foremost and the best.” (SN22.76) This also indicates arahants haven’t abandoned bhava yet.
- And indeed, the Itivuttaka says that all bhava completely ceases only “after this life” (samparāyikā), at the stage of extinguishment that leaves no remnant (anupādisesā nibbānadhātu), aka pārinibbāna. (Iti44)
None of these fit the idea of bhava being a kind of mental “becoming”. Especially challenging to this idea are the passages which say an arahant still has bhava. Many other passages also connect bhava to things like saṃsāra and birth, not to mental events. The term punabbhava, literally “again-existence” but often translated as ‘rebirth’, always refers to rebirth too. One very clear example is the Buddha no longer taking rebirth (punabbhava) in a womb. (AN8.11–12) I could find no examples of bhava referring to something “momentary”.
As to the sequence of Dependent Arising, in my understanding bhava precedes birth—which is unambiguously defined as physical birth (SN12.2, SN12.27-28, DN22)—because after death one needs to continue to exist before one can be reborn. The Dependent Arising sequence starting with craving and ending with suffering is effectively an expansion of the second noble truth, which says suffering originates out of the craving that leads to “again existence” (punabbhava), i.e. to rebirth. This is the meaning of bhava in Dependent Arising.
I’m not taken by the commentary’s explanation of bhava, which does link it directly with rebirth, but also involves kamma in it. This makes bhava more “active” than what it is in the suttas. It also turns it into a defilement, effectively. But as seen, arahants still experience bhava, so that can’t be right. I think the traditional Theravāda doctrine of there being no existence in between lives may have influenced the commentaries’ understanding of bhava. Because in that case birth immediately follows death, without existence continuing in between. So one would expect the order in Dependent Arising to be “birth > existence”, not the other way around.
There is a persistent problem in many “momentary” interpretations of Dependent Arising. They tend to take the twelve links in isolation, not considering how the terms are defined or used in the suttas. But this is very dangerous, because words without context have no meaning. Bhava is a prime example of this. Its meaning is very clear from various contexts. But ignoring these, people have given the word their own spin. It does not mean ‘becoming’, however.
Please let me know any mistakes I made, or any sutta examples of bhava as a momentary mental process that I may have missed on my search.
See also Bhante Sujato’s post here.