In SN 15.1 and elsewhere we have a striking assertion that the first point of samsara is unknowable.
Anamataggoyaṃ, bhikkhave, saṃsāro. Pubbā koṭi na paññāyati
Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found …
Philosophically this is crucial, as it introduces the acceptance of unknowability into the Buddha’s teaching. This is a fascinating and subtle point. Compare with foundations of modern science and mathematics such as Gödels’ theorems or the uncertainty principle in quantum theory. It seems to me that a clear-minded acceptance of the limits of knowledge is essential for any truly mature philosophy.
Of course the Buddha was not the first Indian to posit this. A few centuries earlier, the famous Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda said:
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows—or maybe even he does not know.
Despite such wisdom, ancient even in the Buddha’s day, philosophers in the time of the Buddha still sought to know the answer to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, questions that the Buddha repeatedly dismissed.
So in this case the philosophical position is clear and well established. What is unclear is the exact meaning of the phrase anamatagga. It most likely represents a double negative a+na+mata+agga, lit. “not known beginning”. But it is susceptible to various interpretations, and the Sanskritic forms are somewhat different. The PTS Dictionary comments that the meaning is best seen not from the uncertain etymology, but from context, and a century of Buddhist studies has not changed that.
Bhikkhu Bodhi renders mata here as “discoverable”. But I’m not sure that this doesn’t overinterpret the phrase just a little. Technically as a past participle it means “unknown”, and doesn’t explicitly mean that it can’t be known. Perhaps, though, this is justifiable in context.
It seems from the Sanskritic forms and the Tibetan translations that it came to be understood in the sense of “without beginning or end”. This is of course a distinctly different philosophical position. And it is hardly a surprise to find that later schools of Buddhism tried to gloss over the fact that even the Buddha had limits to his knowledge. The Buddha’s sophisticated acknowledgment of epistemological limits has been replaced with a metaphysical ontology, which is exactly what he was trying to avoid.
It’s refreshing to see that the Pali Commentaries don’t fall into this trap:
anamataggoti anu amataggo, vassasataṃ vassasahassaṃ ñāṇena anugantvāpi amataggo aviditaggo
anamatagga means: along-unknown-beginning [resolution of compound]. The beginning is unknown and unrealized even after pursuing it with knowledge for a hundred or a thousand years.
The term is commented on a number of times, with similar meaning: aviditaggattā, aviññāta-koṭikaṁ. The fact that the commentaries consistently acknowledge these limits on knowledge, resisting the temptation to explain it away in the light of the Buddha’s supposed omniscience, is a strong mark in favor of this reading.
Given this, it seems to me peculiar that modern dictionaries seem to favor the meaning “without beginning or end”. This is the sole meaning given in Cone’s DOP. The entry in CPD is very unclear, but there is no mention in the English text of the sense “unknowable”, despite the fact that several of the Indic passages quoted refer to this sense. (The BHSD entry likewise has “without end or beginning”, although of course this may be correct for the Sanskritic form.) None of these dictionaries give a coherent etymological defence of this interpretation, or consider the philosophical contradiction it would entail. Only the PTS dictionary and the Concise dictionary have the sense “unknowable”.
If the Pali term is to be taken in the sense of “without beginning or end”, this would seem to require that the element mata be interpreted as “measure”. However I find no support for that in early Pali texts; it always means “thought, known”.
It seems, then, that we should reject the dictionaries’ explanation as “without beginning or end”, at least in the Pali context. The early texts consistently accept limits on knowledge. And it is only with the acceptance of these limits that true liberating knowledge is possible.
As a postscript to this, in SN 15.7 we have an interesting exercise in the scope of samsara. It’s said that if four people were to recollect a hundred thousand eons per day for a hundred years, they would still not recollect all of samsara. Assuming 30 billion years for an eon, that means samsara is more than 4.38×10²⁰ years long.
And with a little math and science, and some assumptions, you can show that the tears you’ll shed in this time are, in fact, more than the water in the world’s oceans. But I’ll leave that for you!