VI. The Law of Becoming (or Bhava)

At a City Cemetery There is yet another law the understanding of which helps in the understanding of death. It is the Law of Becoming or bhava, which is a corollary to the Law of Change or anicca. Becoming, or bhava, is also one of the factors in the scheme of Dependent Origination. According to Buddhism the Law of Becoming, like the Law of Change, is constantly at work and applies to everything. While the Law of Change states that nothing is permanent but is ever-changing, the Law of Becoming states that everything is always in the process of changing into something else.

Not only is everything changing, but the nature of that change is a process of becoming something else, however short or long the process may be. Briefly put, the Law of Becoming is this: “Nothing is, but is becoming.” A ceaseless becoming is the feature of all things. A small plant is always in the process of becoming an old tree. There is no point of time at which anything is not becoming something else. Rhys Davids in his American lectures has said, “In every case as soon as there is a beginning, there begins also at that moment to be an ending.”

If you stand by the sea and watch how wave upon wave rises and falls, one wave merging into the next, one wave becoming another, you will appreciate that this entire world is also just that — becoming and becoming. If you can stand by a bud continuously until it becomes a flower, you will be amazed to see that the condition of the bud at one moment appears to be no different from its condition at the next moment and so on, until before your very eyes, the change has taken place through you could not discern it at all.

The process is so gradual, one stage merging into the next so imperceptibly. It is a becoming. If you close your eyes to this process, if you see the bud one day and then see it a day later, then only will you see a change. Then only will you speak in the terms of “buds” and “flowers” and not in terms of a process of a becoming.

If you can keep on looking at a new-born babe without a break for ten years you will not perceive any change. The baby born at 10 a.m. appears just the same at 11 a.m. or at 12 noon. Each moment shows no difference from the next. One condition merges into the next so imperceptibly. It is a becoming, a continuous process of becoming. Close your eyes to this process and see the baby once a month. then only will you perceive a change. Then only can you speak in terms of “baby” and “boy” and not in terms of a process or a becoming.

If you think you can watch minutely the progress of time, see whether you can divide it into present, past, and future as do grammarians speaking of present tense, past tense and future tense. In the view of Buddhist philosophy, time is one continuous process, each fragmentary portion of time merging into the other and forming such an unbroken continuity that no dividing line can precisely be drawn separating past time from present, or present time from future.

The moment you think of the present and say to yourself “this moment is present time” it is gone — vanished into the past before you can even complete your sentence. The present is always slipping into the past, becoming the past, and the future is always becoming the present. Everything is becoming. This is a universal process, a constant flux. It is when we miss the continuity of action that we speak in terms of things rather than processes or becomings.

Biology says that the human body undergoes a continual change, all the cells composing the body being replaced every seven years. According to Buddhism, changes in the body are taking place every moment. At no two consecutive moments is the body the same. In the last analysis, it is a stream of atoms or units of matter of different types which are every moment arising and passing away. The body is thus constantly dying and re-living within this existence itself. This momentary death (Khanika marana) takes place every moment of our existence.

In the Visuddhi Magga it is said that in the ultimate sense, the life span of living beings is extremely short, being only as much as the duration of a single conscious moment. “Just as a chariot wheel” continues the Visuddhi Magga “when it is rolling, touches the ground at one point only of the circumference of its tire, so too the life of living beings lasts only for a single conscious moment. When that consciousness has ceased, the being is said to have ceased.” Thus we see that every moment of our lives we are dying and being reborn.

This being so why should we dread just one particular moment of death, the moment that marks the end of this existence? When there are innumerable moments of death, why fear the occurrence of one particular moment? Ignorance of the momentary nature of death makes us fearful of the particular death that takes place at the last moment of existence here, especially as the next moment of living is not seen nor understood. The last moment in this existence is just one of the innumerable moments of death that will follow it.

It is not life in this existence only that is a process of becoming. The process of becoming continues into the next existence also, because there is a continuity of consciousness. The last consciousness (cuti-citta) in one life is followed by what is known as a re-linking consciousness (patisandhi-viññana) in the next life.

The process of one consciousness giving rise to another continues unbroken, the only difference being a change in the place where such consciousness manifests itself. Distance is no bar to the sequence of cause and effect. Life is a process of grasping and becoming, and death is a change of the thing grasped leading to a new becoming. Grasping is a continuous feature where human living is concerned. It is this grasping that leads to becoming.

What causes grasping? Where there is thirst, there is grasping. It is this thirst, this desire, this craving, this will-to-live, this urge which is known as tanha that causes grasping. The Kammic energy resulting from this tanha is like fire. It always keeps on burning and is always in search of fresh material upon which it can sustain itself. It is ever in search of fresh conditions for its continued existence. At the moment of the dissolution of the body, that unexpected desire-energy, that residuum of Kamma, grasps fresh fuel and seeks a fresh habitation where it can sustain itself. Thus proceeds the continuous flux of grasping and becoming which is life.

Let us now examine the unduly dreaded dying moment which marks the end of man’s present existence, only to commence another. The physical condition of any dying man is so weak that the volitional control by the mind at the dying moment lacks the power to choose its own thoughts. This being so, the memory of some powerfully impressive and important event of the dying man’s present existence (or his past existence) will force itself upon the threshold of his mind, the forcible entry of which thought he is powerless to resist. This thought which is known as the maranasañña-javana thought and precedes the cuti-citta or terminal thought, can be one of three types.

Firstly, it can be the thought of some powerfully impressive act done (kamma) which the dying man now recalls to mind. Secondly, the powerfully impressive act of the past can be recalled by way of a symbol of that act (Kamma nimitta) as, for instance, if he had stolen money from a safe, he may see the safe. Thirdly, the powerfully impressive act of the past may be recalled by way of a sign or indication of the place where he is destined to be re-born by reason of such act, as for instance when a man who has done great charitable acts hears beautiful divine music. This is called gati nimitta or the sign of destination. It is symbolic of his place of re-birth.

These three types of thought-objects which he cannot consciously choose for himself, are known as death signs and any one of them as the case may be, will very strongly and vividly appear to the consciousness of the dying man. Then follows the cuti citta or terminal thought or death consciousness.

This last thought series is most important since it fashions the nature of his next existence, just as the last thought before going to sleep can become the first thought on awakening. No extraneous or arbitrary power does this for him. He does this for himself unconsciously as it were.

It is the most important act of his life, good or bad, that conditions the last thought moment of a life. The kamma of this action is called garuka kamma or weighty Kamma. In the majority of cases the type of act which humans habitually perform and for which they have the strongest liking becomes the last active thought. The ruling thought in life becomes strong at death. This habitual kamma is called acinna kamma.

The idea of getting a dying man to offer cloth (Pamsukula) to the Sangha or the idea of chanting sacred texts to him is in order to help him to obtain a good terminal thought for himself by way of asañña kamma or death-proximate Kamma, but the powerful force of inveterate habit can supervene and in spite of the chantings by the most pious monks available, the memory of bad deeds repeatedly performed may surge up to his consciousness and become the terminal thought.

The reverse can also occur. If the last few acts and thoughts of a person about to die are powerfully bad, however good he had been earlier, then his terminal thought may be so powerfully bad that it may prevent the habitually good thought from surging up to his consciousness, as is said to have happened in the case of Queen Mallika, the wife of King Pasenadi of Kosala. She lived a life full of good deeds but at the dying moment what came to her mind was the thought of a solitary bad deed done. As a result she was born in a state of misery where she suffered, but it was only for seven days. The effects of the good Kamma were suspended only temporarily.

There is a fourth type of Kamma that can cause the terminal thought to arise. This last type prevails when any of the foregoing three types of Kamma is not present. In that event one of the accumulated reserves of the endless past is drawn out. This is called katatta kamma or stored-up Kamma. Once the terminal thought arises, then follows the process of thought moments lawfully linked with it. This terminal thought process is called maranasañña javana vithi.

The terminal thought goes through the same stages of progress as any other thought, with these differences of the apperceptive stage of complete cognition known as javana or impulsion, which in the case of any other thought occupies seven thought-moments. At this apperceptive stage the dying person fully comprehends the death-sign. Then follows the stage of registering consciousness (tadalambana) when the death-sign is identified. This consciousness arises for two thought-moments and passes away.

After this comes the stage of death consciousness (cuti citta). Then occurs death. This is what happens in this existence.

Now let us consider what happens in the next existence. Already the preliminaries for the arrival of a new being are in preparation. There is the male parent and there is the female parent. As explained previously, a third factor, a psychic factor, is necessary to complete the preliminaries for the arising of a live embryo, and that is the re-linking consciousness (Patisandi-Viññana) which arises in the next existence in the appropriate setting — the mother’s womb. On the conjunction of these three factors, life starts in the mother’s womb. There is no lapse of time, no stoppage of the unending stream of consciousness.

No sooner has the death-consciousness in the dying human passed away than rebirth consciousness arises in some other state of existence. There is nothing that has traveled from this life to the next. Even the terminal thought did not travel. It had the power to give rise to the passive or bhavanga state. At the moment of birth which marks a separate existence, through contact with the outer world, the unconscious or sub-conscious bhavanga state gives way to the vithi-citta or conscious mind.

From birth onwards activity again comes into play, propelled by desire in some form or another. So proceeds the onward course of the life-flux, desire-propelled and desire-motivated. Now what is the relevancy of a knowledge of the law of conditionality to the question of our attitude towards death? Once we thoroughly comprehend the fact that the will to live proceeds from life to life, we come to appreciate the view that this life and the next is but one continuous process. So also the life following and the next thereafter. To one who understands life thus as nothing more nor less than a long continuous process, there is no more reason to grieve at death than at life. They are part of the same process — the process of grasping, the process of giving effect to the will-to-live.

Death is only a change in the thing grasped. The man enriched with the knowledge of the law of conditionality comprehends that birth induces death and death induces birth in the round of samsaric life. He therefore cannot possibly be perturbed at death. To him birth is death and death is birth. An appreciation of the law of conditionality will reveal to him the importance of living his life well and when he has lived his life well, death is the birth of greater opportunities to live a still better life. That is how he regards death.

It all depends on the way one looks at death. Suppose there is only one gate to a house, is that an exit gate or an entrance gate? To one who is on the road side of the gate it is an entrance gate. To the inmate of the house it is an exit gate, but for both of them it is the self-same gate which is thus differently viewed.

As Dahlke says, “Dying is nothing but a backward view of life, and birth is nothing but a forward view of death.” In truth, birth and death are phases of an unbroken process of grasping. Death is a departure to those whom the dying man leaves behind. It is also an arrival to the members of the new family into which he is re-born. It is death or birth according to the way we look at it, but we can only be one-way observers. If we observe the death-process, we are not in a position to observe the birth process, and if we observe the birth process, we are not in a position to observe the death process. So, birth and death do not get co-ordinated in our minds as one connected process.

By our failure to see the close sequence of the two processes, the co-ordination of birth with death or death with birth, we are led to the illusion, or at least the wish, that we can have the one (birth) without the other (death). We want life but we do not want death. This is an impossibility. Clinging to life is clinging to death. The salient feature of life is clinging-grasping — and the logical result of clinging according to the law of conditionality is death. If you want to avert death, you have to avert life, you have to reverse the process of conditionality. This can only be done by abandoning the desire to cling, the desire to grasp. Let there be no attachment to life. If you attach yourself unduly to the things of life, happiness you may have for a brief time, but some day when the things to which you have attached yourself disintegrate and disappear as they must, by virtue of that mighty law of change working in conjunction with the equally mighty law of conditionality, then the very objects of joy become objects of sorrow.

To your disappointment and disgust you will find that all sources of earthly joy are sources of sorrow. You will then agree with the poet who said, “Earth’s sweetest joy is but pain disguised.” As great was the joy of attachment so great will be the sorrow of detachment. Is not this suffering? Is not this wearisome — one day to pursue a phantom with excitement, next day to abandon it with disgust, one day to be exalted and the next day to be depressed? How long will your sense of self-respect allow you to be thrown up and down this way and that, like a football? Is it not far more satisfactory, far more dignified, far safer and far wiser to go through life unattached? If misfortune has to come, it will; if sickness has to come, it will. We cannot change the events of life but we can certainly change our attitude towards them.

The laws of change and conditionality will help us here. Fears and sorrows will change into hopes and joys. To such a one living a life of calm and peace, viewing life with equanimity, death holds no fears and terrors. Cheerful and unafraid, he can face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.