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Why were We Born?

“Why were We Born?”

First of all, is this question a significant one for the average man? I think we can take it that this question is one that everyone is interested in and puzzled over. There may, however, be some who will raise an objection.

"The Buddha taught the non-existence of 'the being', 'the individual', 'the self', 'you' and 'me'. He taught that there is no self to be born. So the problem 'Why were we born?' does not arise! "

This sort of objection is valid only at the very highest mental level, for someone who himself knows Freedom but for the ordinary man who does not yet know Freedom it is not a valid objection since it is not relevant, not to the point. A person who does not as yet know Dhamma thoroughly is bound to feel himself involved in the process of birth and to have a great many problems and questions. He has no idea for what purpose he has been born.

It is only an Arahant, one who has gone all the way in Buddha-Dhamma, who will really realize that there is nobirth, and on 'being' or 'person' or 'self' to be born. For an Arahant the question "why was I born?" does not arise. But for anyone who has not yet attained the stage of Arahantship, even though he may be at one of the lower stages of insight such as Stream entry, and in whom the idea of 'self' and 'of self' does still arise, the question "Why was I born?" very definitely does exist.

So we are putting the question "Why was I born?" and we are taking it that this question is a relevant one for anyone who is not as yet an Arahant. Now let us have a look at the different ideas that naturally come up in the minds of different people in answer to this question "Why were we born?"

If we ask a child for what purpose he was born, he will simply say that he was born in order to be able to play and have fun and games. A teenage boy or girl is bound to answer that he or she was born for the sake of good looks, dating, and flirting. And an adult, parent, householder, will probably say he was born to earn a living, to save up money for his retirement and his children. These are the kinds of answers we are bound to get.

A person who has become old and feeble, is more than likely to have the foolish idea that he was born in order to die and be born again, and again, and again, over and over. Very few people consider that, having been born, we shall simply die and that will be the end of it. Right from early childhood we have been trained and conditioned to this idea of another world, another birth to come after death, with the result that it has become well and truly fixed in our minds. In any culture having its origins in India the majority of people, Buddhists, Hindus, and others, adhere
to this doctrine of rebirth after death. So people who are too old and senile to be able to think for themselves are bound to answer that they were born to die and be reborn.

Generally these are the kinds of answer we get. If we go into it in rather more detail, we shall find some people saying they were born to eat because they happen to have a weakness for food. And there are bound to be some, those who are permanent slaves to alcohol and value nothing more highly, who will say they were born to drink. Others were born to gamble and would part with their own skin before they would give up their vicious habit. And there are all sorts of other things, some of them utterly trivial, in which people become so wrapped up that they come to regard them as the best of all things. Some people, usually the so-called well educated ones, set a lot of value on prestige, they are very concerned about making a name for themselves. Such people were born for the sake of name and fame.

So some people consider they were born for the sake of eating, some for the sake of sensuality, and some for the sake of name and fame.

The first of these, eating, is a necessity, but people carry it so far that they become infatuated with taste and addicted to eating. At the present time there is evidence of a general increase of interest in food. The rate of increase of newspaper advertisements promoting the art of eating would Lead one to conclude that not a few people are obsessed with eating and worship food. These born eaters form the first group. The second group comprises those who were born for sensuality, for every kind of pleasure and delight obtainable by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Most people when they have satisfied themselves with eating go off in search of sense pleasures. Their subjection to the power of sensuality may be such that they can rightly be described as slaves to it. Ultimately all the kinds of infatuation we have mentioned so far can be included under sensuality. Even ideas in the mind, the sixth of the senses, can be a source of delight amounting to infatuation. It can be said that such people live for the sake of sensuality, for the sake of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental things serving as objects of desire. They constitute the second group.

The third group consists of those born for the sake of name and fame. They have been conditioned to worship prestige, to the extent that they would sacrifice their very lives for it. Name and fame, whether the means employed for attaining it bring benefit to others or only to the individual concerned, can still be of considerable worth, and in terms of worldly values is not something to be condemned. But in terms of absolute values, to go so far as to become a slave to name and fame is a tragedy. It by no means puts an end to the unsatisfactory condition (dukka).

So eating, sensuality, and prestige all lead to various kinds of obsession.

Among poorer people, we hear more than anything else of the need to earn a living in order to get the necessities of life. For the poor man nothing is so important or necessary as earning a living. This then is his major concern, and it can be said that he was born to earn a living. He is all the time ploughing his fields, or attending to his business, or whatever it may be, so that this becomes his one and only concern, and he can never have enough of it. In other words he really feels he was born to earn a living, and has never regarded anything as more important than this. The reason for this is that he has never moved among spiritually advanced people, never heard Dhamma from them. It is fairly certain that he has moved only among his fellow worldlings and heard only the talk of worldlings. This is something well worth thinking about. Such a person considers his way of life thoroughly right and proper and worthwhile; but in reality it is only half right, or even less. The magnitude of such a man's obsession with material things shows that he lives to get much more than just enough to eat.

Now what each one of us has to concern himself with, and examine, and come to understand clearly is why we were born to earn a living and stay alive. When we have come to understand properly for what ultimate purpose we are here in this life, we realize that this business of earning a living is something quite incidental. It is subsidiary to another big and important purpose, the real purpose for which we were born. Do we earn a living simply in order to stay alive and go on endlessly accumulating more and more wealth and property? Or do we do it in order to achieve some higher purpose?

For most people this endless accumulation of wealth and property does seem to be the purpose of earning a living. Few people stop short at earning just enough to satisfy their basic wants, to feed themselves and family, to provide the necessities for a happy life free from misery. For most people no amount of wealth and property is enough. Most don't know where to stop, and have so much they don't know what to do with it. There are plenty like this in the world.

In terms of religion this kind of behaviour is considered, either explicitly or implicitly, to be sinful. In Christianity the accumulaltion of more wealth than necessary is explicitly stated to be a sin. Other religions say much the same. A person who goes on endlessly accumulating and hoarding wealth and property, who has become in some way or other infatuated and obsessed by it, is regarded as deluded and a sinner. He is not as much of a sinner as someone who kills, but he is a sinner nevertheless. This then is how we ought to see it. We ought not to live just in order to go on endlessly accumulating wealth and property. We ought to regard it as simply a means to an end. We ought to acquire wealth simply to provide for our basic wants, in order that we can then go in search of something else, something better than wealth. And just what that something is we shall discuss later on.

Now the man who lives for the sake of sensuality ought to give a thought to an old saying: " Seeking pleasure in eating, sleeping, and sex, and avoiding danger all these man and beast have in common. What sets man apart is Dhamma. Without Dhamma man is no different from the beasts".

This is an old saying dating back to pre-Buddhist times, and no doubt also current at the time of the Buddha. In any case it certainty accords with Buddhist principles. Human beings normally feel the same way as lower animals towards eating, sleeping, and sex, and danger in the form of disease, pain, and enemies. The lower animals can handle these things just as well as human beings. Preoccupation with these things, which any animal has access to, indicates a none too high level of intelligence. And because those objects of sensuality have such an influence over the mind, it is difficult for any ordinary being to recognize them for what they are and break free from them.

To live for sensuality by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind will never lead to Liberation. The average run of people are far removed from the top level,  the highest stage attainable in human birth. Having become obsessed with sense objects, they have got stuck half-way along the road, mid-way towards the goal. They are not to be taken as a model. If this sensuality were really as  precious as they seem to think it is, then they, together with their animal counterparts, ought to be rated the highest of beings.

At this point we ought to mention that even celestial beings dwelling in the "heaven of sensuality" (Kamavaca radevata) are in no way especially well-off. They too are subject to suffering and anxiety. They too are impure, constantly defiled by their inappropriate bodily, vocal, and mental actions, Devatas of this type, whenever they succeed in elevating themselves, leave their heaven of sensuality and go off in search of Buddha Dhamma and Sangha. Sensuality, even in its highest form, is not by any means the highest thing for man, and no man should maintain that this was the purpose for which he was born.

Now we come to prestige. For a man to think he was born for the sake of name and fame is a tragedy. A glance at this thing known as prestige shows it to be thoroughly insubstantial. It depends on other people's having a high regard for one; and it may well be that, though noone realizes it, this high regard is quite unfounded. When the majority of people are deluded, slow-witted, undiscerning, lacking any knowledge of Dhamma, the things for which they have a high regard and to which they give prestige are bound to be pretty ordinary and average things, in keeping with their ordinary and average sense of values. In their eyes the things advocated and taught by spiritually advanced people will hardly rate very high. In fact we invariably find that the more concerned people are with name and fame, the more worldly are the things they rate highly. The person who deserves to be rated highest is the one who is able to renounce worldly values and promote the happiness of mankind; but in practice we find all the prestige going to the people responsible for adding to the world's confusion and distress. This is an example of prestige in the eyes of the worldling, the man stuck here in the world.

To say that we were born to gain prestige is as ridiculous as to say we were born to pursue sensuality or to eat. All these views are equally pitiful. They difter only in degree of sophistication. In short then, there is no doubt whatsoever that neither eating, nor sensuality, nor prestige is the highest thing, the objective for which a Buddhist ought to aim.

Now let us have a look at a saying of the Buddha which I believe may help us to answer the question of why we were born.


                    Sankhara parama dukkha,

                    Nibbanam paramam sukham.

                    Etam natva vathabhu tam

                    Santimaggam va bruhayeti.   

                    Compounding is utter misery,

                    Nirvana is highest bliss.

                    Really knowing this truth.

                    One is on the Path to Peace.

To understand the first line of this quotation, we have first of all to understand properly the word "sankhara". This word has several meanings. It can refer either to the physical, the body, or as in the present case to the mental, the mind. Literally "sankhara" means simply "compound" (both noun and verb), that is, the function we refer to as "compounding" (and the compound that results therefrom).

Following this definition, then, compounding is utter misery, thoroughly unsatisfactory (dukkha). But it is not being stated that compounding is in itself misery, a cause of human distress and suffering. The word "compounding" implies no rest, just continual combining leading to continual "rebirth". And the things responsible for this compounding are the mental defilements (kilesa). These are the compounders. With the arising of ignorance, stupidity, infatuation, the root cause of the other defilements, greed and hatred, compounding takes place. They are responsible   for the compounding function of the mind, causing it to grasp at and cling to one thing after another, endlessly, without let-up. The word "compounding" as used here refers to grasping and clinging with attachment (upadana). If there is no attachment, if contamination by attachment does not take place, then the term "compounding" is not applicable.

Sankhara parama dukkha - All compounding is thoroughly unsatisfactory. This means that involvement which has reached the point of craving and attachment is nothing but misery. Without this kind of compounding there is freedom from the misery of the unsatisfactory condition. It is this very compounding that is referred to as the Wheel of samsara, that cyclic process with its three aspects: defilements, action based on those defilements, and results of the action. The defilements, producing satisfaction with the results of our actions (or karmas), prompt us to further action - and so the cycle of defilements, action, and fruit of action goes on endlessly. It is this process that is called compounding: and it is this endlessly repeated process of compounding that is referred to in the statement that all compounding is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Now the second line: Nibbanam paramam sukham. This has become a household maxim. It refers to Nirvana (nibbana), the precise opposite of the compounded condition, in other words, freedom from sankharas. At anytime when compounding ceases, there is Nirvana. Complete and final freedom from compounds is full Nirvana, momentary freedom from compounds is momentary Nirvana, just a trial sample of the real Nirvana. Anyone who has come to know fully the true nature of compounding will have no trouble in understanding by inference the opposite condition of freedom from compounding. The word "Nirvana" can be translated "extinction," or "cessation," or "coolness," or "freedom from distress". All these meanings are consistent with the idea of stopping, of not compounding. Compounding is nothing but constant worry, trouble, distress, misery. "Nirvana" implies the antithesis of "sankhara", that is, freedom from this process of compounding.

Now the next part of the quotation: "Really knowing this truth, one is on the Path to Peace". This means that the realization of this truth leads one to seek the path leading to peace or Nirvana. Nirvana is sometimes called peace (santi), that is, stillness, coolness. They are equivalent terms. So this realization prompts us to do everything possible to move in the direction of peace or Nirvana. From this we can gather that the Buddha wished us to know about the unsatisfactory condition (dukkha), to know about freedom from the unsatisfactory condition, and to set out on the path leading to this freedom from the unsatisfactory condition, in other words to Nirvana. If a person has no idea of the possibility of Nirvana, and does not realize that Nirvana, being the absolute cessation of the unsatisfactory condition, is something to be valued above all else, then he will have no wish for Nirvana, and will never set out on the path towards it. As soon as a person recognizes this present condition as thoroughly unsatisfactory, and loses all wish for anything but the very opposite condition, he will start taking and interest in Nirvana and will set out on the path towards it. What he has to do is have a good look at his own mind and subject it to a deep and detailed scrutiny, to discover whether or not it is in the compounded condition.

When a person under the influence of defilements performs some action (karma), especially when he performs some action considered evil, such as drinking, killing, adultery, stealing, or the like, then he is compounding. Compounding is based on ignorance, delusion, stupidity. It goes on until it produces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction in the mind of the doer. When he experiences the unsatisfactory result of his actions, he attempts to deal with it by further action .... which only makes matters worse. The result is that compounding goes on more than ever....until the time comes when he recognizes this as an unsatistactory state of affairs and determines to put a stop to it. He then has a look around for something that is not unsatisfactory, and so is able to get free from his evil ways.

Now let us have a quick look at the man who does good, the sort that abstains from evil acts and performs only acts of the type usually called good. Such a man gets all the fitting results of his so-called good actions. He may get wealth and prestige, and all the things a good man could wish for. But if he were to examine his mental condition, he would realize that he is still subject to worry and anxiety. He experiences the suffering that always goes with wealth and prestige. A man rich in fame is usually caused distress by that very fame; and the same goes for wealth and children. Whatever one happens to be attached to and finds satisfaction in is bound to be a cause of distress.

So even good action, action in no way evil, sinful, unwholesome, does not by any means bring freedom from the unsatisfactory condition. Just as an evil man suffers the torment due to an evil-doer, so a good man too is bound to experience his own particular type of suffering. A good man experiences the subtle inconspicuous type of suffering that comes whenever one clings to one's own goodness. So when we examine it as a phenomenon of nature, we find that it is not only the evil man experiencing the fruits of his evil deeds who is whirling around in the cycle of compounding: the good man too, experiencing the fruits of his good deeds, is likewise involved in compounding. Both of them are involved in compounding. There is no end to this process. It goes on and on incessantly. Thought is followed by action, and when the fruits of the action have been got, thinking follows once again. This is the wheel of Samsara, the cycle of wandering on. Samsara is simply this cycle of compounding.

As soon as a person has managed to comprehend this process, he is bound to start taking an interest in the opposite condition. He comes to realize that money, name and fame, and the like are of no help at all and that what is needed is something better than all these. He then starts looking around for something better and higher, some other way. He continues his search until such time as he meets some spiritually advanced person, sits at his feet, and learns from him the Truth, the Dhamma. In this way he comes to know about that state which is the very opposite of all that he has so far had and been and done. He comes to know about Nirvana and the way to attain it. He arrives at the certitude that this is the goal that each and every man ought to attain. He realizes: "This is why I was born! ". Anything other than this is involvement, entanglement, compounding. This alone is the putting out of the flame, coolness, stillness. His interest in Nirvana prompts him to seek the means of attaining it, and he is convinced that the treading of this path to Nirvana is the purpose for which he was born.

There is one more small question to think over in this connection: "Am I glad I was born? Am I happy about it or not? ". Of course noone ever has any choice in the matter of birth. It never happens that a person is in a position to decide that he will be born. He simply is born. But no sooner is he born than he comes into contact with sense objects by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. He becomes engrossed in these objects, and finds satisfaction in them. This means that he is glad of having been born and wishes to continue existing in order that he
may continue experiencing these sense objects. And when people speak of making a lot of merit in order to have sense objects again after death, at a better, more refined, higher level than at present, this indicates an even greater desire to be born for the sake of these pleasant things.

The important point here is this: a person having been born, enjoys the forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile sensations, and mental images which his mind encounters. As a result he grasps at them and clings to them with egoism and possessiveness. He has been born and he finds satisfaction and delight in having been born. He dreads death because death would mean no more of all these things. The essence of this is that no man is ever born of his own free will, as a result of some decision on his own part; birth just happens as a natural process characterising all living reproducing things. No sooner is a man born than a liking for this birth arises in him in the manner described. In the completely natural situation, that is, among the lower animals, the desire for birth is very slight and does not pose the great problem it does for man.

A man should question himself and verify two things: "I am glad I was born." and "I was born for some purpose." Now if a man concludes that he is glad of having been born to carry out the highest task possible for a man, then his position is rather paradoxical. If the real goal of life is freedom from rebirth, then he was born in order not to be reborn, and so ought never to have been born in the first place! Why should he be glad he was born and so given the opportunity to walk the path to Nirvana? If freedom from birth is such a good thing, why then is there birth in the first place?

These are some of the questions that constitute ignorance, or at least that arise out of ignorance. 'Was I born of my own free will or was birth forced upon me? ". "Having been born, what ought I to be doing? ". The average person doesn't delve so deeply into these questions. Accepting his birth as an accomplished fact, he simply asks himself the immediate question 'What to do now? ". Believing he was born to accumulate wealth, he goes right on accumulating wealth. Or if he believes he was born to eat, or to build up name and fame, then he works towards those ends. He feels that is enough. To get name and fame and be materially well off is all the average person wants. For him that is the ideal; and there are not a few people who take this sort of shallow view.

But we are now in a position to consider this question rather more deeply. We have come to see that no amount of this kind of action or this kind of condition is by any means satisfactory. There is still something dissatisfying about it. Something is lacking. No matter how successfully we may pursue these worldly ends we are always left dissatisfied. We are forced to recognize that something more is needed, and in the end we find ourselves drawn to the Dhamma. We come to realize that we were born to study this highest and most precious piece of human knowledge and come to understand it, in order to attain Freedom, the highest and most precious thing accessible to a human being. There is nothing higher than this. This is the summum bonum, the best thing attainable by a human being.

Suppose we accept that we have been born, and that having been born we have a certain task to do, a task so important that to carry it through to completion ought to be man's highest aim. There can be no aim higher than this attainment of complete freedom from the misery of the unsatisfactory condition. And by following the Buddha's directions this complete freedom can be attained. The Buddhist teaching came into the world in order to inform people about the highest thing attainable by human beings. All the other religions existing prior to Buddhism had had this same objective, to answer the question: "Why was I born? ". They had all been fully occupied with this same question: "What is that highest good for the sake of which man was born? ". Some of these religions considered sensual satisfaction to be the ultimate, the highest good. Some considered the summum bonum to be the pure non-sensual bliss of the brahmaloka. Then there was a sect which maintained that man's purpose in life was to seek bliss in the knowledge that nothing at all exists! There even existed the view that the highest thing attainable by man is the death-like condition of complete unconsciousness in which there is no awareness of anything whatsoever! These were the highest doctrines in existence at the time when the Buddha-to-be started his seeking. When he searched and studied in the various ashrams, the highest teaching he was able to find was this. Being sufficiently wise to see that this was by no means the summum bonum, he set about investigating on his own account. Thus he arrived at the perfect insight which puts a final end to the unsatisfactory condition, and as we say, he attained Nirvana.

Even though people had been talking about Nirvana long before the time of the Buddha, the meaning of the word as used by him differs from the meanings it had for those sects. Mere words connot be relied on; it is the meanings that count. When we say we were born in order to attain Nirvana, we mean Nirvana as that word was used by the Buddha. We don't mean the Nirvana of other sects, such as abundance of sensual pleasures, or the highest stage of mental concentration. When we say Nirvana is our goal, we must have in mind Nirvana as understood in the Buddha's teaching. And in the Buddha's teaching Nirvana is generally to be taken as the opposite of the compounded condition. This is expressed in the Pali saying we have already quoted:

        Sankhara parama dukkha

        Nibbanam paramam sukham.

Nirvana is simply freedom from sankharas, compounds. We must understand then that we were born in order to attain freedom from compounding. Some people may laugh at this statement that our objective in life is to attain "freedom from compounding". Compounding, this spinning on in the wheel of Samsara, is unsatisfactory. Freedom from compounding consists in having such a degree of insight that this vicious circle is cut through and got rid of completely. When there is freedom from compounding, there is no more spinning on, no more wheel of Samsara. Our purpose in life is to bring to a standstill the cycle of Samsara, to put a complete end to the unsatisfactory condition. This complete freedom from unsatisfactoriness is called Nirvana.

Now Nirvana is not something occult and mysterious. It is not some sort of miracle, something supernatural Further more, Nirvana is not something to be attained only after death. This is a point that must be understood. Nirvana is attained at any moment that the mind becomes free from compounding. Freedom from compounding, at any moment, is Nirvana. Permanent cessation of compounding is full Nirvana; temporary cessation is just a momentary Nirvana, which is the kind we have been discussing. The experiencing of temporary Nirvana serves as an incentive to go further, to head for permanent Nirvana, the full Nirvana that makes a man an Arahant. This state arises with the knowledge that sankharas, that is compounds and compounding, are misery, while Nirvana, freedom from compounding, is peace, bliss. Every man's purpose in life ought to be to tread the path to full Nirvana.

So the answer to the question "Why were we born? " is provided by this saying:

                    Compounding is utter misery,

                    Nirvana is highest bliss.

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