Bhava doesn't mean 'becoming'

Thanks bhante. I see. This word always confused me a bit. I stand corrected on that translation issue, and take back that it can mean “how”. But then I still think the text can be interpreted mostly along the lines that I suggested. Namely, the question is not for an exact definition of bhava, but something like “to what extend is there bhava?” or “to what extend does bhava come about?” The answer is the three realms of bhava. And how does that bhava come about? Through kamma and craving. This aligns with how these things are talked about everywhere else. Craving and karma lead to rebirth (punabbhava), i.e. to continued existence (bhava).


I just changed the translation to:

“Mendicants, when a mendicant is inquiring, how do you define when they are inquiring for the complete ending of suffering?”

No, thank you! My goodness, I have improved my translation so much from all the questions on this forum. Even when, as in this case, I don’t really change my mind, I often learn to express myself better.

I mean this comes down to how we define “define”. Which starts to get a little funhouse mirror-games for me.

For me the insight came when I simply realized that to “define” means to “place a limit”, which is pretty much the same thing. but certainly it’s the case that often “definitions” in the suttas are not exactly the kind of thing we’d expect from a definition today.


Right, I see, about ‘definition’. That makes more sense now. I think the English, or my grasp of it, is the issue, then. :slightly_smiling_face: I see the connection with ‘to what extend’ in kittāvatā. So as I read it now, bhava is “defined as” (or limited to) the three realms. Not to kamma or craving, which I still take to be different things. Seeing it like this also aligns it with the more normal “definition” of bhava, as in SN12.2, where it is just the three realms without any mention of kamma.


Right. Perhaps it is a case where the idiomatic English is too far from the underlying meaning. Hmm.


Hi, there’s a sutta isn’t there, in which Buddha reminds people that y’all come from mom and dad.

It’s the female body that at first duplicates the DNA strands in order for cellular division to begin occur. We also know that the egg actively selects sperm on the basis of chemical signalling and “allows it in.” Your birth is most definitely dependent upon and conditioned by other things, and the very first of that would be your mother’s body, with obviously, parental genetics having some say.

Women’s bodies aren’t passive vessels to entered, invaded, bombarded, descended into, etc. by some greater consciousness on its path to Awakening as it kicks them in its traces. You’re born because someone made a choice to have you. And more and more apparently, actually, very specifically you.

Granted, there was a time in the West, at least, in which women were put under and babies were pulled out of their bodies, but it is no longer the case that others can cognize “birth” for us. Maternal health is vitally important to everyone but also very much to your well being, including your capacity to cognize.

Bhava, existence, can most definitely be becoming, whether you like it or not, and a becoming over which you have no control. Be glad. Your mom did good. She considered things and practiced care and restraint. Some make terrible mistakes and many children are born these days with things like FASD.

This is what happens when we don’t want to accept good knowledge about physical reality, for instance, because it doesn’t happen to suit our point of view, inclinations and so forth. We don’t bend ourselves to the discomforts of necessary, active practice toward doing no harm. You don’t need to enter into speculative contemplation to realize DO … with the arising of this … that occurs … with the ceasing of this … that ends.

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Venerable, won’t most people understand “define” as it is used in school? That is, a set of words to memorize because an authority figure told you so?

Even in the hard sciences (even in math!), they don’t tell you how the top scientists argued about a definition for 200 years before they put it in the textbook, where it sits as if it were an self-evident revelation from nature that need not be questioned or investigated.

Personally, I think “to what extent” is better because it is a description of the natural world. On the other hand, definitions can be whatever we want; definitions don’t have to be good descriptions of anything in principle.

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In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

He says the five clinging aggregates are stressful. Clinging is the craving psychological component. Without clinging the 5 aggregates have nothing to do with dukkha, they just exist and do their own thing.

Well technically we won’t because the knowing faculty will cease :wink:

Personally, I subscribed to your and Ven Sunyo’s interpretation in the past, but it’s too faith based for me, although really this matter is not that significant in the first place, regardless of which interpretation you have, since eitherway, the 3 poison, 5 hindrances, and what we can see here and now needs to be dealt with. Whether there is a little dukkha left over in the end or not, is ultimately not that important unless you’re becoming an Arahant in this life. So while it’s an interesting discussion, it’s not that significant if your goal is to reduce as much of dukkha as you can in your short human life.

And the stoic in me only worries about what they can control not what they can’t control, the pyrrhonist in me only worries about what is knowable (which is very little), the epicurean in me enjoys the rest, and all of the above combined with the Buddhist in me focuses on removing the dukkha that I know exists (pyrrhonist), can be removed (stoic), resulting in sublime joy (epicurean).


Thanks, Erik. Because this is exactly how I interpreted it at first instance. :slightly_smiling_face: But this kind of definition is not what is happening in AN3.76-77. I now understand Ven. Sujato to mean ‘define’ in the sense of “my role is strictly defined”, i.e. limited. The idea seems to be that bhava is “limited” to the three realms. Funny how a single word (kittāvatā) can sometimes be so difficult to grasp. (Hence my earlier wrong suggestion to render kittāvatā as ‘how’.)

I also tend to think “to what extent” is better. The question then is, “To what extent is there existence?” The answer essentially is, to the extent of the three realms, because all kinds of karma that may exist lead to one of those.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Putting AN3.76-77 aside for the moment, I think the general meaning of bhava is quite clear from the other quotes I’ve given. If AN3.76-77 are indeed somewhat questionable, we should interpret these text in light of the clearer ones, not the other way around. Which is why I still would be happy to see any other sutta references where bhava clearly is some sort of mental process of “becoming” in this life, or where it clearly includes kammic activities. During my search for the term, I didn’t come across any.


PS: @Thito, @Vaddha, @Jasudho: Sorry for ignoring some of y’all. But I don’t want to talk here again on whether enlightened life is still suffering, and how it relates to the upādānakkhandhas. Perhaps another topic? :cowboy_hat_face:


Thanks for taking the time to give such a detailed analysis, @Sunyo. I must admit you make a number of good points. In particular, your analysis of the meaning of AN3.76-77 is interesting. (Although I would have to look at it in a bit more detail to arrive at a final conclusion - one way or the other.)

To me the greatest weakness in your argument is that I do not think it makes a sufficiently good case for why the Buddha uses two words for the rebirth process, that is, both bhava and jāti.

Anyway, here are a few words in response.

Not really. The idea that we create kamma as a result of how we live is also implied by upādāna and the resulting inclination of the mind. I suppose the only difference is which term we use to explain this process. So I don’t have much vested interest in this, which should make it easier for me to let go! :grinning:

Except that in DO ponobhavika is covered by jāti. To my mind, your interpretation makes the distinction between bhava and jāti negligible.

Good one! Sunyo vs. Brahmali: 1 - 0.

Yes, but there needs to be some distinction between bhava and jāti. Otherwise one of them is redundant. In fact your whole argument here and below almost erases the distinction between the two. We need a clear explanation of why the Buddha used the two terms, including the conditional relationship between them.

The ideas of kamma and rebirth are mainstream, intermediate existence is not. True, there are only these two suttas, but they don’t really say anything new. They are just applying an existing scheme to a specific context.

The point here would simply be that as you exist in the sense sphere you tend to make sense sphere kamma. The doing is implied by the existence.


Thank you Venerable. I do not regard my questions as “silly”. It seems you sought to correlate the words “sensual” & “human”, which seems to have no basis in the EBTs; thus giving the impression to imply the Buddha lived a “sensual life”; or otherwise the Buddha was not “human”. While DN 30 seems to have the flavour of late Jataka inspired sutta, I already offered my view that “bhava” in DN 30 may refer to a “mode of behaviour/kamma”, as follows:

In some past births (jatim), past existences (bhavaṁ), past abodes the Realized One existed (samāno) as a human being (manussabhūto). He firmly undertook and persisted in skillful behaviors such as good conduct by way of body, speech and mind…

Similarly, you seemed to offer an idiosyncratic translation of “dukkham” as the characteristic of things; thus stating the aggregates are “suffering” rather than the aggregates “lack a pleasurable nature”. MN 115 seems to make it clear the characteristic of “dukkham” means there is no inherent pleasurableness in conditioned things, as follows:

‘It’s impossible for a person accomplished in view to take any condition as permanent.

‘It’s impossible for a person accomplished in view to take any condition as pleasant.

‘It’s impossible for a person accomplished in view to take anything as self.

MN 115

You seemed to propose an undefined Path that must end the aggregates that is not the destruction of craving. Again, the suttas seem to have only one Path, which is the destruction of craving.

The above give the impression of attempting to give greater scope to Dependent Origination than was originally intended for that Teaching. As stated in my initial replies, there are only three bhava in Dependent Origination:

  1. Sensual
  2. Form
  3. Formless

Dependent Origination does not refer to human bhava. Therefore, DN 30, which seems to be a late Jataka style sutta, is probably unfit for the purpose of explaining bhava in core suttas such as SN 12.2. Regardless, as suggested from the start, the word “bhava” seems too broad to only be about the three ignorant bhava of Dependent Origination; as indicated in Iti 44. In Iti 44, the Arahants abide in the Nibbana With Remainder, which is not sensual, nor form; nor formless. Therefore, it seems when Iti 44 says “all bhava” ends in Nibbana Without Remainder, “bhava” here cannot refer to the three bhava of Dependent Origination but, instead, may simply mean the very broad term “being”. Keep in mind, SN 12.3 literally says Dependent Origination is the wrong path therefore the three bhava in DO cannot apply to Arahants. :slightly_smiling_face:


Dear All,

Please keep the discussion on topic and avoid combative, ad hominem statements. Remember the advice of the Araṇavibhaṅga Sutta (MN 139): Criticize ideas, not people.

With Metta,


A post was split to a new topic: Does kamma mean intention?

I found CurlyCarl’s question to be very relevant and not malicious.

Titho brilliantly wrote how to approach this topic. One should use the Buddha’s teachings for practical purposes. The term becoming moment by moment serves me very well. It shows me that the ego is an illusion. I change my kamme all the time. Kamma has suffering within it. The more emptiness, the less kamma - less suffering. After all, even in the highest states there is kamma that needs to be let go. Thank you for this discussion. Venerable Sunio for the topic. CurlyCarl for good arguments. Thito for wisdom.


Thanks for sharing. I hear what you’re saying regarding the practical aspects of the practice.

At the same time, per a Venerable on another topic: If final Nibbana is the cessation of the Khandas…? A question I've been pondering
"…the aggregates are suffering. If the mind hasn’t seen that, you can aim for the cessation of craving all you want, but attachments and craving for those aggregates will remain. Craving is there because of not understanding suffering. If you understand suffering, craving will automatically disappear, whether you want it to or not. "

This seems to be an important practical point worth considering and which can be verified in practice. Also, as quoted many times, see Iti44.

Yup. The comment was offered lightheartedly… :slightly_smiling_face:

As we know, the Buddha taught over and over again about the necessity of developing dispassion (virāga) for the mind to fully let go – > liberation.

So just for consideration: If the khandhas are seen as “OK in themselves”, a subtle clinging to them can remain which, practically speaking, can be an obstacle to liberation compared to an understanding, for example, that pain (in the kāya, body) is simply pain, pain = dukkha, and it all has to go, (parinibbāna).

As long as the khandas are present, form is present, and pain will be experienced through the khandhas of form, perception, feeling, and consciousness, even without clinging or identification with them.

If the khandhas, in themselves, are not suffering then why not be born again and again without clinging? By this definition, this would be the cessation of dukkha.
Are there any suttas that express this?

Instead, the Buddha’s N8FP is specifically about ending dukkha by ending rebirth.

With respect and all best wishes :pray:

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:slight_smile: But before you get too convinced, Ajahn, please see my later discussion with Bhante Sujato: I did change my mind somewhat on kittāvatā. (Although not a full turnaround.) My suggestion of ‘how’ was too simplistic. But on the other hand, kittāvatā also isn’t a clear definition.

I actually agree with this, to an extent. The two terms seem somewhat redundant. But then we might say the same about craving and taking up, which more or less imply one another. Or we could say the same about nāmarūpa and the six senses, which are pragmatically very much the same. As you know, DN15 even skips the six senses, which shows the near equivalence of these factors. So does every factor in DA have to mean something completely different, or do some of the terms also explain one another and overlap to some extent? I think the latter.

I don’t see that as a real problem. Because we can wonder why the Buddha said many things. But one thing he consistently did is explain concepts in terms of one another. That there are such explanations inside DA doesn’t surprise me much. So if this is the greatest weakness of “my” ideas, I’m very happy with that. :wink:

But then this same “problem” of redundancy would seem to exist if bhava were effectively kamma. Because then bhava moved very close to upādāna. As you said, “The idea that we create kamma as a result of how we live is also implied by upādāna and the resulting inclination of the mind.” In fact, I would feel the exact same thing you’ve said: to me it would make the distinction between the factors of bhava and upādāna (and craving) kind of indistinguishable. Although I’m sure we could pinpoint some difference, how pragmatic would it really be? Do we need three factors in a row (craving, upādāna, bhava) to point at the defilements?

That said, I think there is a difference between jati and bhava, which can also matter pragmatically. Because in a sense jati is a further “narrowing down” of bhava. Bhava (in this context of DA at least) implies more of a general existence in the three realms, as it is indeed repeatedly “defined”. But jati is more a specific incarnation in a certain body, which of course aligns with the definition of birth including “beings into an order of beings” and with the specific list of devas, humans, birds, etc. in DN15’s explanation of birth. So bhava is (sometimes) used more abstractly, in a sense, than jati. That alone, I’d say, makes for a pragmatic difference between bhava and jati. For example, those who’ve seen the second noble truth but aren’t enlightened (the sekhas) will know that if they keep craving, they will keep existing after death (i.e. they know they will have more bhava). But they don’t really know in what specific jati they may get reborn. So they can make the link ‘taking up > bhava’ more easily than they would ‘taking up > jati’. To what extent this is pragmatic will of course differ from person to person.

Also, to make the difference between jati and bhava bigger: I do like the translation ‘rebirth’ for jati at times, but translating it as ‘birth’ distances jati from bhava a bit more. Jati in the Buddhist context of course always implies rebirth, but I think it’s most basic meaning is still just ‘birth’. I mean, there must have been a word for ‘birth’ that the materialists also used, who didn’t belief in rebirth, and that word was probably jati. (Whether this is birth into the womb or into the world is irrelevant.) So it may be that the Buddha put bhava before birth to clarify that when he used jati, he was talking about rebirth, not just birth in the physical sense, not the kind of birth (jati) materialists could also see. In other words, he was saying jati happens after you already exist before (bhava), not out of nowhere.

Also, to directly link craving to jati may have been a bit too direct, perhaps, for those listeners who may have understood jati as physical birth. It wouldn’t have been explanatory enough. Perhaps they’d understand it as sensual craving of the parents leading to birth, or whatever. Just thinking out loud here. Just saying that “birth depends on craving” may needed some further clarification for some.

Anyway, instead of a third factor to describe the defilements, one on top of craving and taking up, I think we are better served with a factor that actually describes the deepest attachment, i.e. that to existence (bhava). And let’s not forget the cessation sequence! To specifically say that existence ceases is much more powerful than saying that birth ceases. That alone makes bhava worthy of inclusion, in my opinion, even if it were little different from jati. The cessatoin of existence would have challenged lots of people much more deeply than the cessation of (re)birth.

And on that topic, perhaps bhava did not necessarily imply jati either for people who believed in eternal existence outside samsara, like the brahmins. They could have believed in a state of existence (bhava) free from birth (jati). So it could be the Buddha wanted to say that bhava always leads to (re)birth. Perhaps this challenged some people who thought there was another kind of higher bhava free from jati.

Suffice to say, there may be many reasons for these links to both be included, even though they are closely connected.

To be born, you need to continue to exist after a past life. DN15’s explanation of this link between bhava and jati may be so terse and non-explanatory exactly because to the Buddhist this was so obvious. Perhaps it was not obvious to materialists and/or externalists, as I suggested, but then the link by itself would’ve explained how they were wrong. It didn’t need much further clarification.

‘Continued existence is a condition for (re)birth’—that’s what I said. And this is a way to understand how this is so. Suppose there were totally and utterly no continued existence for anyone anywhere. That is, continued existence in the sensual realm, the realm of luminous form, or the formless realm. When there’s no continued existence at all, with the cessation of continued existence, would (re)birth still be found?” “No, sir.” (DN15)

That’s a lot of words to effectively say: we may not know why the Buddha phrased things the way he did. But that doesn’t give a good reason to make terms more “complicated” than how he used them throughout the suttas. In this case bhava.


Well, in that case I must have been the one misunderstood and I apologize. :slight_smile: To me it came across like you (Carl) implied I suggested something dumb, something obviously wrong. But all I did was give a very standard (if not the standard) interpretation of these ideas, so I assumed you were aware of them. Next time, perhaps, can you explain your points instead of summarizing them as somewhat rhetorical questions which I have to guess what they mean? :+1:

Our main disagreement was whether enlightened ones still have bhava. Considering that the Buddha specifically specified them to do so (SN22.76), I do not feel a need to discuss this any further. Suffice to say, the suggestions that the eighth bhava of the stream enterer does not mean an eighth life but an eight fetter is very novel, and does not seem to work in the context. And the equation of ‘past bhava’ with “a mode of behaviour” where it is occurs in a list of synonyms including ‘past births’ and ‘past abode’ is not very convincing either, because then ‘past birth’ and ‘past abode’ are also a mode of behaviour.

These suggestions seem to me, with all respect, somewhat far-fetched. I’ll leave it at that. :slight_smile: Other readers can judge what they think.


In these cases it seems to me that there is a clear hierarchy. “Taking up” (upādāna) only happens when there is craving, not without it. On the other hand, it is possible to crave without taking up. Craving is more basic. And the way I understand bhava, it is a further development on upādāna. Once you take up a number of things, your life takes a definite shape, a kind existence. So I see a fairly clear evolution here.

The same is true for nāma-rūpa and the six sense spheres. Nāma-rūpa is there from the moment consciousness arises. The six sense spheres, on the other hand, take time to develop. I mean, initially you don’t even have eyes and ears, etc. So again, I discern a fairly obvious direction of development.

With bhava and jāti, I still fail to see this. You are right, of course, that the two terms complement each other. The terms bhava adds to our understanding of the process. But I do not see any sequential development from one to the other. (Unless bhava refers to the antarabhava, “intermediate existence”, which I have argued seems unlikely.)

In any case, I am not sure if there is much point in discussing this any further. We seem to agree on the actual process, which is what matters. That we give slightly different names to some of the stages does not seem particularly important. Or is it?


From SN 12.67

But I also understood you to say: ‘No, Reverend Koṭṭhita, consciousness is not made by oneself, nor by another, nor by both oneself and another, nor does it arise by chance, not made by oneself or another. Rather, name and form are conditions for consciousness.’

How then should we see the meaning of this statement?”

“Well then, reverend, I shall give you a simile. For by means of a simile some sensible people understand the meaning of what is said. Suppose there were two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other.

In the same way, name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. … That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. If the first of those bundles of reeds were to be pulled away, the other would collapse. And if the other were to be pulled away, the first would collapse.

In the same way, when name and form cease, consciousness ceases. When consciousness ceases, name and form cease. When name and form cease, the six sense fields cease. When the six sense fields cease, contact ceases. … That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.”

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

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How can you be born without clinging? Seems like a direct contradiction in terms.

If you’re not clinging to something, then by definition you wouldn’t want to have it, correct?

If you cling to something, then by definition you don’t want to let it go, agreed?

So to answer your question, if you’re indifferent about something, why would you want to have it? Seems like a direct contradiction in definition.

Likewise, if you don’t care about having the khandas in the present moment, then obviously you wouldn’t want to have them again in the future (rebirth).

I never said that the khandas should be seen as “ok”. I said the problem doesn’t lie with the khandas, in and of themselves, but the addiction to them, thus a perception of disgust must be employed against a perception of desire, for the sake of removing addiction (craving & clinging). Cigarettes can’t harm you if you don’t pick them up and put them in your mouth. Khandas can’t harm you if you don’t misuse them.

The world is not the problem, the problem is the poison that misapprehends the world, and thus misuses and abuses the world.

Notice below it says “the wise eliminate their hankering for them”, i.e. the problem lies with craving, not the things in the world.

There are five varieties of sensuous pleasure.

pañcime bhikkhave kāmaguṇā

Visible objects known via the visual sense…​ tangible objects known via the tactile sense, all of which are likeable, loveable, pleasing, agreeable, connected with sensuous pleasure, and charming

cakkhuviññeyyā rūpā…​ kāyaviññeyyā phoṭṭhabbā iṭṭhā kantāmanāpā piyarūpā kāmupasaṃhitā rajaniyā.

These however are not sensuous yearnings.

Apica kho bhikkhave nete kāmā

In the [terminology of the] Noble One’s training system they are called the varieties of sensuous pleasure.

kāmaguṇā nāmete ariyassa vinaye vuccanti

The sensuous yearning of a man is his thoughts bound up with attachment.

Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo

The world’s attractive things are not sensuous yearning

Nete kāmā yāni citrāni loke

The sensuous yearning of a man is his thoughts bound up with attachment.

Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo

The world’s attractive things remain as they are

Tiṭṭhanti citrāni tatheva loke

The wise eliminate their hankering for them

Athettha dhīrā vinayanti chandan ti.

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(continuated from previous post, sorry, I wanted to edit my previous post to include more sutta examples, but you can’t edit posts in slow mode)

In addition to my previous sutta reference on the things in the world being neutral, and removing hankering for them:

"Develop the meditation in tune with water. For when you are developing the meditation in tune with water, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when people wash what is clean or unclean in water — feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood — the water is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation in tune with water, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind.

The interior water element and the exterior water element are just the water element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the water element, detaching the mind from the water element.

i.e. the right understanding results in equanimity (neither liking nor disliking) the aggregates. When a perception of disgust neutralizes a perception of delight/desire, the result is equanimity which cannot co-exist with clinging and craving aka addiction, you cannot be both indifferent and clinging at the same time. Thus to answer your earlier question again, you cannot be born without clinging.

The elements which make the khandas are neutral, neither good nor bad, they exist in the world, it’s perversion of perception born of ignorance that misuses and abuses them.