Bhava doesn't mean 'becoming'

Hi friends, :slightly_smiling_face:

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. :no_mouth:

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. :blush:

See also Bhante Sujato’s post here.

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Thanks Ven, nice collection of sources!

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Venerable. The above is interesting. The text includes:

For them, everything that’s felt, being no longer relished, will become cool right here.

Tassa idheva, bhikkhave, sabbavedayitāni anabhinanditāni sīti bhavissanti.

What has nothing left over pertains to what follows this life,

Anupādisesā pana samparāyikā,

where all states of existence cease.

Yamhi nirujjhanti bhavāni sabbaso.

How would you differentiate the term bhavati/bhavissanti from bhavāni? Thanks :slightly_smiling_face:

The above possibly occurs due to texts such as:

What is the origin of identity that the Buddha spoke of?”

Katamo nu kho, ayye, sakkāyasamudayo vutto bhagavatā”ti?

“It’s the craving that leads to future lives, mixed up with relishing and greed, chasing pleasure in various realms. That is,

“Yāyaṁ, āvuso visākha, taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandīrāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṁ—

craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence.

kāmataṇhā bhavataṇhā vibhavataṇhā;

The Buddha said that this is the origin of identity.”

ayaṁ kho, āvuso visākha, sakkāyasamudayo vutto bhagavatā”ti.

MN 44

Possibly the word ‘bhava’ is used more broadly than only in the three defiled modes in Dependent Origination, such as:

Make an island of yourself!
So karohi dīpamattano,
Swiftly strive, learn to be wise!
Khippaṁ vāyama paṇḍito bhava;

Dhp 238

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Hi,

Bhavati is a verb, bhava is a noun. Which makes them different words. They are obviously linguistically related, but bhava is technically speaking what is called a (de)verbal noun. Such nouns can have a meaning that is quite distant from the verb they are “derived” from. For example, when I say “I work at an organization”, you don’t make a direct link with the verb ‘organize’, although it’s obviously linguistically connected to it. The same happens in Pali, if not even more so. You can’t link such words too directly; that’s bad linguistics. Otherwise you will assume things like everybody who works at an organization is organizing things! :sweat_smile: (Perhaps not the greatest example, but I think you get the point.)

The word bhava doesn’t happen is not what’s defined here, so it’s somewhat irrelevant. Regardless, I disagree with the translation ‘identity’ here for sakkāya. Venerable Bodhi notes in his most recent translations, of the Suttanipāta (n.315): “My past attempts, as ‘personality’ and ‘identity,’ are inadequate. Sakkāya is a compound of sat = ‘existent’ and kāya = ‘body,’ but what is meant is not solely the physical body but the entire conglomeration of material and mental factors that constitute the empirical person.” In the introduction to The Connected Discourses of the Buddha he also correctly observed: “Sakkāya is a term for the five aggregates as a collective whole.” So it’s not a mental process that’s spoken about here. Obviously rebirth doesn’t really lead to some kind of mental momentary “identity”. Bodhi translated as “personal existence”. It means the existence of an individual, basically, not the existence of “identity”.

That’s not the same word. Here bhava is also a verb, not a noun. It’s the short imperative form of bhavati (long form is bhavahi). It’s not the word bhava I’ve been discussing.

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Either way, doesn’t bhava have a phenomological characteristic? i.e. it can be discerned in one’s experience? In AN 10.7 Sariputta implies that bhava is visible here and now, and can be discerned, albeit extremely difficult and requires meditation mastery to discern.

And they wouldn’t perceive the dimension of infinite space in the dimension of infinite space, the dimension of infinite consciousness in the dimension of infinite consciousness, the dimension of nothingness in the dimension of nothingness, or the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. And they wouldn’t perceive this world in this world, or the other world in the other world. And yet they would still perceive.

It seems like he’s saying he’s removed/calmed all these forms of mental experiences and yet there was still experience, and I think he’s implying this is how deeply buried and obscured bhava is.

Then he describes the signs or features of bhava and its removal

But at that time what did Reverend Sāriputta perceive?

Ananda is here asking him for a tangible defining phenomological characteristic.

“One perception arose in me and another perception ceased: ‘The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment. The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment.’ Suppose there was a burning pile of twigs. One flame would arise and another would cease. In the same way, one perception arose in me and another perception ceased: ‘The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment. The cessation of continued existence is extinguishment.’ At that time I perceived that the cessation of continued existence is extinguishment.

To me this means that bhava is present in the mind and can be experienced here and now and can also be “un-experienced” i.e. ceased as per idappaccayatā (when this is, that is, when this isn’t, that isn’t).

So I disagree that bhava is only a place one is reborn in, but also a phenomological experiential characteristic that arises, can be seen here and now, and ceased.

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Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, bowed down to him and sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Lord, this word, ‘becoming, becoming’ — to what extent is there becoming?”[1]

“Ananda, if there were no kamma ripening in the sensuality-property, would sensuality-becoming be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

"Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.

Bhava Sutta: Becoming (2) (accesstoinsight.org)

One rabbi will say “yes” and the other will say “no”
With all due respect, Bhante. I’m confused.

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Hello! :slightly_smiling_face: But of course. How did you get it from my post that it can’t be experienced? Bhava is existence. We know that we exist, right? So it can be discerned in one’s experience quite easily. :slightly_smiling_face:

But the second noble truth goes deeper. If you see it, you’ll also see that as long as there will be craving, you’ll keep existing in a next life. That’s seeing “the craving that leads to rebirth” or literally “again-existence” (tanha ponobhavika).

It’s an interesting passage. Sariputta is reflecting on the cessation of existence, which is the extinguishment that happens at death, aka parinibbana. See Iti44 I quoted which makes this clear. He’s not experiencing the cessation of existence right now, because it only happens at death. But being enlightened, Sariputta knows it’s going to happen. (In fact, stream winners already do so, and can reflect on the cessation of existence similarly.)

Lying beyond the state of neither perception nor non-perception is the cessation of perception and feeling. Yet Sariputta says he perceives things. How does that work? What’s happening is, he’s being a bit playful. He’s implying that reflecting on the cessation of existence is in a way a perception that is beyond neither perception nor non-perception. Because the cessation of existence is also the cessation of perception and consciousness. But if you’re simply reflecting on this, you are still percipient, because it not actual cessation of existence (bhava) yet, just a perception of it.

So in a way his perception went beyond neither perception nor non-perception. In another way it didn’t.

I’m not sure how exactly this relates to my points, though, or exactly what you’re trying to (dis)prove with it.

I never said that, though. I said bhava is existence in a certain place. By which I meant to clarify it is not some kind of existence in the mind, not a mental state.

Hey, sorry to confuse you, but I think the blame is not on me. :joy: :smiling_face:

Your quoted source says:

a survey of how he uses the term in different contexts suggests that it means a sense of identity in a particular world of experience: your sense of what you are, focused on a particular desire, in your personal sense of the world as related to that desire. In other words, it is both a psychological and a cosmological concept. For more on this topic, see The Paradox of Becoming, Introduction and Chapter One.

Well, I gave a survey of the term in this topic, and it seems like these ideas are wrong. In the Paradox of Becoming I don’t really see such a survey of the term. Instead I see mainly implications made by the author, not straightforward quotes from the suttas. For example:

Bhava is included in a variety of lists describing mental states that an arahant—a fully awakened person—has overcome. Thus it is one of the three asavas, or effluents; one of the four oghas, or floods; one of the four yogas, or burdens; and one of the seven anusayas, or obsessions. Although it does not occur in the standard list of ten sanyojanas, or fetters, a standard formula describing the arahant states that he/she has “destroyed the fetter of becoming.”

But saying that “bhava is included in a list” is very oversimplified at best, because in those lists it occurs in compound words, not in isolation. For example, to say “bhava […] is one of the seven anusayas” is not correct and potentially misleading for the ill-informed. Because the anusaya is not bhava but bhava-ragānusaya, ‘the tendency of desire for existence’. How is this a proof that it means “becoming” or a sense of identity? It’s the same with the other examples. And “the fetter of becoming” is better understood as the fetter to existence. In other words, they are no longer bound to existence in the sense that they won’t be reborn.

Also, as I’ve shown before, bhava is not yet abandoned by the arahant. The Buddha himself explicitly said that being an arahant is still a type of bhava. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

There’s much more to critique there, but the simple fact remains that there is no clear sutta quote given where bhava clearly means a kind of mental becoming. At least it’s not anything remotely as obvious as the suttas I’ve referenced. For example, the stream winner not taking an eight bhava is pretty clear as to what it means, once we recall that a stream winner has at most seven more lives. It doesn’t mean becoming in the way it’s explained here. It means a life, basically. :slightly_smiling_face:

Hope that removes some confusion!

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Thanks for the survey :slight_smile:

I thought I’d contribute to this topic with the Vedic perspective that I’ve been digging into.

In the Vedic cosmogonies which paṭiccasamuppāda parallels in several ways, Reality is forced to undergo constant birth and death / death and resurrection. It is like a fire: fire needs fuel in order to continue existing. The Absolute that manifests itself as existing reality, in order to manifest its existence, must subject itself to this repeated process of jāti and jarāmaraṇa. Also, the processes which Reality undertakes to maintain existence, and therefore repeated birth and death, is essentially taṇhā: it must realize sexual acts or eat itself like food (very sensual images), consuming itself to experience itself.

Because all reality is monistic, the eater is also the eaten. It divides itself into these pieces and then feasts on itself. Or the fire is the fuel, the husband is the wife, etc. Basically, craving for union with pleasure drives reality to manifest itself and keep itself within existence → birth and death. In the later parts of the Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads, we start seeing how the cessation of this repeated birth and death is the relinquishment of the desire/drive (craving) to cognize and experience things, realized by the fulfillment of monistic self-cognition with reality. Reality itself would recede into the pre-creative, non-manifest state (no bhava) if it stopped all upādāna as well. For the Buddha, the metaphysics are different, but ponobhavika ends when craving ends as well.

The other connection relates to this point. As Joanna Jurewicz briefly discusses in ‘Playing with Fire,’ in the Aitareya Upaniṣad (AU)—which has one of the most clear references to cognitive powers being nestled within 6 āyatanas—the self (ātman) is said to first be born and nourished within the womb of the mother before being born. The passage she references is this one:

It becomes one with the woman’s body (atman), as if it were a part of her own body. As a result, it does not harm her. And she nourishes this self (atman) of his that has entered her. As she nourishes him, so he should nourish her. The woman carries him as the embryo. At the beginning, he nourishes the child even before its birth. When he nourishes the child even before its birth, he thereby nourishes himself (atman) for the continuance of these worlds, for it is in this way that these worlds continue. That is his second birth.
AU 2.2-3

The larger context of this passage is all about the continuation and rebirth of the cognitive/subjective aspect of reality which is ultimately cognizing itself (all ātman). It talks about how one is reborn to continue cognizing things (in worlds—loka—which, as the Buddha also often defines the term, refer to spaces of experience and cognition), and then how true knowledge of reality leads to immortality. All of this is fairly close to Buddhist ideas, but it is highly embedded in earlier Vedic thought and imagery.

Also, for those who may doubt if the Buddha would have been familiar with ideas like these, the paragraph right before this one says that the first birth of the ātman is through the father’s semen (and that the father depositing semen is the first birth). This is of course the pre-Buddhist / Vedic notion of rebirth in which people are born via the semen first, and Bhante Sujato recently made a post about this arguing that this is what the Buddha used the word gandhabba in reference to when speaking to Brahmins right here.

This is not necessarily the most directly related, but there are some connections in that cognitive forces (in Buddhism this is dependently arisen consciousness; in the AU it is a reified cognitive ‘atman’) are established within the womb before being born for the ‘continuation of these words (loka).’ Bhava is related to three loka as you already mentioned. I think bhava is more than just the establishment of consciousness in the womb—it seems to be the establishment of consciousness (via upādāna) anywhere at anytime. This obviously includes the womb though, which is just a renewed-bhava.

Mettā

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Thanks for the references!

You haven’t mentioned the common phrase bhavataṇhā (and the related bhavarāga). Using “becoming”, this would have to be rendered as “craving for becoming”, which is essentially craving for change. Change, of course, is a problem, not something we crave for.

The one thing in your write-up I do not quite agree with is that bhava does not have a kammically active side. Bhava is properly defined in only two suttas in the Canon, that is, AN3.76 and AN3.77. Both of these suttas show the link between kamma and its result. The sense I get from this is that bhava bridges the gap between lives, showing how the existence in one life leads to a particular result in the next, often via an intermediate existence.

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Bhante. I recall viewing a post from 2016 where you posted Bhikkhu Bodhi mistranslated “kamabhava” as “sense-sphere existence”. Assuming you have not changed your view about this, Dependent Origination refers to sensual bhava, form bhava & formless bhava. If bhava means “a life”, this seems it would imply: (i) a type of bhava, such as “sensual”, is fixed; and (ii) no change from say “sensual existence” is possible during a lifetime. This seems it would then imply a Non-Sensual Noble Eightfold Path is not possible to practice & complete. Have I misunderstood something here? Thank you :saluting_face:

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I have no recollection of saying this, nor do I agree with it!

I would say that within a single life you are both trapped and capable of change. You are trapped in the sense that you cannot fully escape that life until you get reborn elsewhere, or ideally attain final extinguishment. On the other hand, you can change the inclination of your mind from leaning towards sensuality to leaning towards meditation, including the jhānas. It is the inclination of your mind that will determine your next rebirth.

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It is here: A mistranslation in the analysis of dependent origination?

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Thanks! My issue here is with the word “sphere”. “Sphere” tends to suggest a world “out there”, whereas the Dhamma focuses on personal experience. Saṃsāra is the personal experience of repeated birth and death, not an objective reality in itself. I base this view on such suttas as the Rohitassa Sutta, AN4.45.

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Hey all,

That’s an interesting point, Ajahn. I would also say “becoming” misses the whole context of the dhamma, of what leads to suffering and what we need to end to end suffering, namely rebirth.

Continued existence (bhava) is a vital condition for rebirth. Rebirth (jati) is a vital condition for suffering. (SN12.23)

So how then do you reconcile the suttas that say bhava ends at parinibbana only, and that the arahant still has bhava? They don’t have karma anymore.

I do not think those suttas (AN3.76-77) include karma in bhava. To me they say karma results in bhava, not that they are the same. So I like Ven. Sujato’s translation:

“If, Ānanda, there were no deeds (kamma) to result in the sensual realm, would continued existence (bhava) in the sensual realm still come about?”

As long as you have a human body, you are bound to the sensual realm. The mind may temporarily achieve the “formless” states, for example, but you can’t stay there forever. It only is “formless bhava” for beings that are reborn in those places, that live in those realms permanently. Although some translations obscurify it, AN3.67 clearly talks about rebirth.

That’s how there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future. (AN3.76)

Here “rebirth into a new state of existence” renders “punabbhavābhinibbatti”. Both the terms punabbhava and abhinibbati imply rebirth. Abhinibbatti for example is found in the definition of birth. (SN12.2)

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So the Buddha did not have a human body? :saluting_face:

  1. (He has) well-placed feet,
  2. under the soles of his feet there is the mark of a wheel,
  3. the heels of his feet are long and deep,
  4. his fingers are long,
  5. his hands and feet are webbed,
  6. his hands and feet are soft and tender,
  7. his body has seven prominent marks,
  8. his calves are like an antelope’s,
  9. what is covered by a cloth is ensheathed,
  10. his torso is like a lion’s,
  11. between his shoulders it is firm,
  12. his upper back is even all round,
  13. the arms hang low without bending,
  14. the limbs are bright,
  15. his neck (has lines) like a conch,
  16. his jaw is like a lion’s,
  17. his forty teeth are even,
  18. his teeth are without gaps,
  19. his teeth are very white,
  20. his tongue is large,
  21. his taste buds are supremely sensitive,
  22. his voice is like Brahmā’s or like the sound of the cuckoo,
  23. his eyes are very dark,
  24. his eyes have eyelashes like a cow’s,
  25. he has fine skin,
  26. he has golden skin,
  27. his body-hairs arise singly,
  28. his body-hairs bristle and turn to the right,
  29. the hair of his head is very dark,
  30. the tuft of hair between the eyebrows on his forehead is very white,
  31. he has a protuberance on the head,
  32. his (body) is well-proportioned like a banyan tree.

So bhava is “rebirth” and jati is “rebirth”. Are you saying “rebirth” is the condition for “rebirth”? While the 3-life-model is well-accepted in Buddhism, my impression is you are proposing a 4-life-model. Is this the case? Thank you :saluting_face:

Venerable. How would you differentiate/distinguish the use of the English word “existence = lifetime” above with the term “atthita = existence” in SN 12.15? Thank you :saluting_face:

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Absolutely.

I haven’t looked up the references you supply. On general grounds, however, the way bhava is defined in these suttas, it includes the life that is a result of past kamma. The arahant still has this existence, and so it would be wrong to say they do not have bhava.

But these suttas are definitions of bhava. Why does the Buddha include the kammic process if it is irrelevant? If bhava meant mere life in a particular realm, then there are simpler and more precise ways of saying this.

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Is not “bhava” one of the three asava? How does the term “asava” reconcile with the view “bhava” refers to a lifetime? :saluting_face:

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Perhaps Bhava = Experience of Existence ? :thinking:

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Some good points by @CurlyCarl

If you say that bhava doesn’t cease in this life, then dukkha doesn’t cease in this life either. Either Dependent Origination is a one life model where bhava ceases along with everything else in a single life, or a multi life model where anything after bhava (like dukkha) ceases in another life/death. I don’t think you can hold on to both interpretations at the same time as they’re not compatible.

Another thing is that I don’t believe bhavatanha is easily discerned, as a common pattern in the suttas show that to discern something you have to “turn it off” or “calm” it, and this leads to knowledge, hence the importance of jhanas. You need seclusion from sensual desire to discern the patterns of the mind for example. If bhavatanha was easily discerned then there would be no need for jhanas, which is also a visuddhimagga interpretation. So once again, you can’t hold on to both interpretations at the same time as they are incompatible.

Depends on the interpretation you subscribe to. If you subscribe to a phenomological existential dhamma one life dependent origination model, then yes bhava, bhavatanha, vibhavatanha, etc… have to do with 3 poisons resulting in certain cravings and classes of experience.

If you believe dependent origination is not entirely visible here and now, bhava and dukkha cease only at death, a multi life dependent origination model, etc… then bhava is not anything more then where you’re born, and bhavatanha means where you want to be reborn.

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Hi Sunyo,

Yes, but the event of physical birth is cognized. That is to say, it is only through cognition that a certain experience is understood/ known as physical birth, i.e. child-birth. And it is exactly this process of cognition that the buddha explained with DO, i.e. birth of the self, and birth of suffering.

This doesn’t align with sabbe dhamma anatta.

But DO doesn’t start with craving.

All the best to you.

Warm regards,
Peter

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