Does gold get reborn?

The text and parallels

MN 26 Ariyapariyesana is one of the most important of long discourses dealing with the Buddha’s practice leading to awakening. The teaching opens with the Buddha distinguishing between the noble and ignoble searches. While the overall message is clear, there are some problems in the details.

The ignoble search is said to be when someone subject to various worldly conditions seeks what is also subject to those same conditions. These conditions are familiar: rebirth, old age, sickness, death, sorrow, and corruption.

The things subject to these things are, in the main, various kinds of sentient beings (family, animals, and so on). However in certain cases the text also mentions “gold and money” (jātarūpa). This contradicts the normal teachings in the Suttas, which strictly restrict the application of jāti, etc., to sentient beings.

This potentially lends support to those who would claim that jāti and the rest apply in a metaphorical sense to changes in mental states in this life. Given the widespread influence of such ideas, it is worth considering in some detail.

To start with, let’s clarify what the text actually says. Gold and money are said to be liable to the following.

  • jāti (rebirth): yes
  • jāra (old age): yes
  • byādhi: no
  • maraṇa (death): no
  • soka (sorrow): no
  • saṅkilesa (corruption): yes

Note that gold and money is the only inanimate thing included, and it is also the only factor that is not in every category. According to Analayo (Comparative Study), however, a Thai edition expands it to include all the factors.

Unfortunately, we seem to have only one passage that directly parallels this, which occurs in MA 204. According to Analayo, that passage omits birth, but says gold and money are liable to all the other factors. A related passage in T 765 (vol. 17, 679b28; an Itivuttaka) is similar. I’m not familiar with the background to T 765, but it should be borne in mind that many such texts derive from the same or similar schools, so this is not necessarily an independent attestation.

As to why these contexts omit jāti, as does the Pali text at AN 4.255, my suggestion would be that they are interlinked with the story of the bodhisattva seeing the four sights, which also omits jāti. Whether this was so originally, or the texts have influenced each other, I would not venture to say.

Can jāti, etc. be applied to things in general?

To be clear, it is certainly the case that the epithets jātidharma and so on are normally applied in the Sanskrit traditions, as the Pali, to sentient beings. Here are a few random examples.

Mvu 5: yadā manuṣyā parimitāyuṣkā bhavanti jarāvyādhimaraṇā
Mvu 4: kṛcchrāpannaiḥ satvaiḥ jātijarāpīḍitaiḥ maraṇadharmaiḥ
Mvu 53: nāpi mama ekasya maraṇaṃ sarvasatvā maraṇadharmā
Mvu 31: kṛcchrāpannaiḥ jātijarāpīḍitair maraṇadharmaiḥ
Sf 36: aham api sārathe maraṇadharmā maraṇadharmatāñ cānatītaḥ
Mu-kd 17: aham api sārathe maraṇadharmā maraṇadharmatāṃ cānatītaḥ

Rather than adduce evidence for the same from the Pali texts, which is all too easy, let me make an argument from absence. Normally such arguments are weak, but in this case I think it is justified. Analayo says (note 142 on page 171):

Although the definitions of birth, old age, and death, given, e.g., in MN 9 at MN I 49, 20 and MN I 50, 5, clearly indicate that these three terms refer to three stages in the life of a living being, the present passage suggests that the same terms are also used in a more metaphorical way in the early discourses. Another instance of such a usage can be found in Vibh 144, 10 , which in the context of an application of dependent arising (paṭicca samuppāda) to mind moments speaks of the “birth”, jāti, and the “old age and death”, jarāmaraṇa, of a state of mind.

Thus the only instance of similar usage is cited from the Vibhaṅga, an Abhidhamma text. This is highly noteworthy coming from a scholar who is normally as thorough and careful as Analayo. If this is the best he can do, it strongly supports the conclusion that this is, in fact, a unique usage in the early texts.

Let us look a little closer at the Vibhaṅga passage in question, Vb 6 on dependent origination. Firstly, note that there is no mention here, or elsewhere in the Vibhaṅga, of “mind moments”, a category that only emerged in later Abhidhamma. The text refers simply to citta.

The passage is part of the Abhidhammabhājanīya, the “explanation according to the Abhidhamma”. Those familiar with my earlier work in A History of Mindfulness may recall that there I cited and analyzed a passage from the Vibhaṅga, arguing that in certain instances such texts might preserve early features. However, that was the Suttantabhājanīya, the “explanation according to the Suttas”. There is no evidence that the Abhidhammabhājanīya passages preserve such early features. Given that these sections explicitly differentiate themselves from Sutta analysis and develop a distinctly different approach, any such argument would require very good evidence, which is not forthcoming.

In the context of dependent origination, what this passage does is take the Sutta teachings, which were applied to “sentient beings” (sattā) and reframe them to apply to phenomena (dhammā).

Thus, where the standard Sutta definition of jāti in this context says:

Yā tesaṃ tesaṃ sattānaṃ tamhi tamhi sattanikāye jāti sañjāti okkanti abhinibbatti khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo āyatanānaṃ paṭilābho.
The rebirth, inception, conception, reincarnation, manifestation of the aggregates, and acquisition of the sense fields of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.

The Abhidhammabhājanīya says:

Yā tesaṃ tesaṃ dhammānaṃ jāti sañjāti nibbatti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo—ayaṃ vuccati “bhavapaccayā jāti”
The rebirth, inception, production, reincarnation of the various phenomena is called “the process of existence is the condition for birth”.

So yes, if we take a set of terms that are used in one context, and change and redefine them to use in another context, they do indeed mean something different. But this tells us nothing about what they meant in their original context, which, as it happens, is perfectly clear.

I should add that this argument regarding this passage in the context of dependent origination was made many years ago by Ajahn Brahm, in response to a book by Pra Payutto, who relied on this passage to support the so-called “one-life” interpretation. Obviously Analayo is not doing that here, but that doesn’t make the argument any more valid.

So how are we to read the text?

So sum up what we have learned so far. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta we find the application of terms such as jāti and so on to inanimate things, namely gold and money. While this is fairly well attested in the text and parallels, there are a fair amount of variants. Such usage is unique. It is not found in any other early texts, and directly contradicts multiple standard, well-known, and widely attested passages.

Not only that, but as it stands the text raises a number of problems. Why are gold and money said to be liable to be reborn and get old, but not to die? If we can use jāti in a metaphorical sense, why not maraṇa, too? Equally puzzling, why only gold and money? Standard passages in the Suttas speak of multiple kinds of inanimate things that one might get attached to, such as fields and lands, buildings and possessions, etc. If we’re going to get metaphorical, all of these would apply just as well, so why are they omitted?

It’s noteworthy that most of the kinds of sentient beings mentioned in the passage also occur in a stock passage on monastic precepts, which list various things the ascetic refrains from. (Eg. AN 10.99) These list male and female slaves, goats and sheep, chickens and pigs, elephants and cows in exactly the same way as MN 26. They also include “gold and money”, although out of sequence. It’s possible MN 26 was contaminated from such a context.

However, there is another explanation. As Analayo points out, in AN 3.101 and its parallels at SA 1246 we find a simile where the purification of the mind is compared to removing the impurities of gold. The term here (upakkilesa) is similar to that in MN 26 (saṅkilesa). Clearly the meaning is similar. Since this is a famous simile, it seems plausible that this is related to the idea of the “corruption” of gold and money (or “silver”). Used in this very literal sense, it would apply only to precious metals, not to fields and lands, thus explaining why only gold and money is found in MN 26.

Whether this was part of the original text, or was added because it seemed to fit, is impossible to say. But it is plausible, even probable in my view, that “gold and money” was originally included in the passage on corruptions only. Later it was applied, somewhat inconsistently, to other passages, with the resulting incongruities. Such changes typically originate simply because the Suttas so frequently apply exactly the same formula in multiple contexts. It is very easy to overlook a minor variation; the remarkable thing is that it happens so rarely. The Thai Pali text and the Chinese parallels show a more developed stage, where the passage has been added to everything.

Normally we should be very reluctant to accept any textual emendation based purely on doctrinal grounds, lacking any manuscript support. However in this case, accepting the text as it stands requires a direct contradiction with multiple standard passages. Rather than resort to circuitous and unconvincing arguments to explain away the issue, is it not simpler to assume that there has been a minor textual corruption?


Maybe an aside, but I’ve always wondered why the word for gold is jātarūpa. Is there any relationship between the name and an idea about gold being born/reborn?

Possibly because they were not owned by individuals but owned communally or not owned as all, if there was a feudal society.

Does SN 23.2 define “satta” as “sentient” or “living beings”?

Gold is a sense field (external ayatana per MN 148), as stated by the following translation of MN 26:

These acquisitions are subject to birth; and one who is tied to these things, infatuated with them, and utterly committed to them, being himself subject to birth, seeks what it also subject to birth.

The emphasis here seems to be all of these things, such as gold, silver, wives, slaves, goats, etc, are “acquisitions”, which is the direct cause of “loss” or “aging-&-death”, as explicitly stated in SN 12.66:

As he explores he understands thus: ‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: this suffering has acquisition as its source, acquisition as its origin; it is born and produced from acquisition. When there is acquisition, aging-and-death comes to be; when there is no acquisition, aging-and-death does not come to be.’

Are we certain the Pali states: “gold is subject to birth”? Or is “gold a subject of birth”, similar to how the old Thai monk Ajahn Chah said apple trees are subjects of birth?

The ‘‘sphere of birth’’ is the orchard of trees that we cling to as our own. We are ‘‘born’’ right at the point where we consider them to be our own, born from that bhava. Even if we had a thousand apple trees, if someone were to cut down just one it’d be like cutting the owner down.

A Dhammatalk by Ajahn Chah


I have already played Mara’s Advocate and sense your position here is not strong.


This sounds like the ‘nama-rupa’ of Brahmanism, i.e., ‘naming-forms’. The Buddhist one-life interpretation is gold is subject to birth when the mind self-identifies itself as a lover of gold & owner of gold. When the price of gold falls or the gold is stolen or the gold is confiscated by the government, the gold-identity is subject to aging & death and the resultant sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair.


The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming: This, friend Visakha, is the origination of self-identification described by the Blessed One

MN 44

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No, it’s just an idiom.

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At least in older texts, janati can also mean ‘to create, to produce’, e.g. in the rgveda. Would that solve a bit?

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In jātarūpa, jātapathavī and similar idioms, the prefix ultimately harks back to the sense of “natural”.

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I meant rather as for the ‘birth’ of gold, to read it as ‘creation/production’ of gold

No: the idiom is jāti, as used in hundreds of cases to mean “rebirth”. It is used in exactly this way in exactly this context over and over and over again. It doesn’t just suddenly assume a new meaning in one isolated, dubious context. The fact that in other contexts it might have a different meaning is irrelevant.

I’m sorry if I appear to be dogmatic on this point, but I have been countering this exact argument for over twenty years.

Let me give you an example.

Let us say we have a set of Council bylaws that deal with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. “Car” is explicitly defined as “four-wheeled automotive vehicle”. :blue_car: This definition is applied in dozens of laws regarding speeding, parking, and so on.

One law has caused a problem. It says, “Cars should not rock too hard.” Huh, sounds a bit weird, right? Someone comes up with a bright idea. :bulb: There used to be a band called “The Cars”. Maybe that’s what it means here! They’re such a rockin’ band, a special law was made just for them.

Or, alternatively, the word means the same thing as it always does. The law is against unstable vehicles, it’s just awkwardly phrased. The fact that in unrelated contexts the word means something else is irrelevant.


I understand. You’re familiar with all the contexts so I trust your judgment. I saw as a possibility that if jāti was used in other contexts also quite regularly as ‘created’ it might have easily spilled over into this more doctrinal passage. But yes, I see the framework is quite specific…

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Ha ha, this is very good–where do you come up with such examples ? Oh right I remember you used to play in a band.

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But here we are just talking about the special & exceptional case of the application of “birth” to an inanimate object, correct? It seems much easier to treat that exceptional case as textually anomalous than the read all of the many instances of the term “birth” as uniformly referring to only the kind of birth that happens at the beginning of an ordinary organic lifespan.

Wow, that takes me back to some late 70s parties, and heartbreaks… :frowning:

It’s an orangy sky
Always it’s some other guy
It’s just a broken lullaby
Bye bye love

I’ve just finished up my translation of the T765 passage that Analayo mentions. It’s Xuanzang’s Itivrttaka, sutra 83, which presents the noble and ignoble searches as an independent teaching apart from the rest of the narrative in MN 26/MA 204. The Chinese doesn’t appear to make these distinctions about which items in its list is under which quality (old age, etc). I say appears because only the first and last list is spelled out, the other three are abbreviated in both the Madhyama and Itivrttaka version. And, yes, being subject to birth is not in either of them.


That’s the natural history of currencies isn’t it … they are born, reborn, they get corrupted, they grow old… and they finally just atrophy away due to disuse… but they never die… think of Roman coins or Zimbabwean dollars… still around, almost completely useless… but not dead!