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May 28, 2014
The Paradox of Becoming, The Paradox of Becoming

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We live in the same world, but in different worlds. The differences come partly from our living in different places. If you live to the east of a mountain and I to the west, my world will have a mountain blocking its sunrises, and yours its sunsets. But—depending on what we want out of the world—our worlds can also differ even when we stand in the same place. A painter, a skier, and a miner looking at a mountain from the same side will see different mountains.

Our worlds are also different in the sense that each person can move from one world to another—sometimes very quickly—over time. If you’re a painter, a skier, and a miner, you will see the same mountain in different ways depending on what you want from it at any given moment—beauty, adventure, or wealth. Even if you stay focused on nothing but the desire to paint, the beauty you want from the mountain will change with time—sometimes over years, sometimes from one moment to the next. Your identity as a painter will continue to evolve. Each and every desire, in fact, has its own separate world; and within those worlds, we take on different identities.

The Buddha had a word for this experience of an identity inhabiting a world defined around a specific desire. He called it bhava, which is related to the verb bhavati, to “be,” or to “become.” He was especially interested in bhava as process—how it comes about, and how it can be ended. So “becoming” is probably a better English rendering for the term than “being” or “existence,” especially as it follows on doing, rather than existing as a prior metaphysical absolute or ground. In other words, it’s not the source from which we come; it’s something produced by the activity of our minds.

The Buddha’s analysis of becoming as process throws a great deal of light on how imaginary, fictional, or dream worlds are created, but that was not his main concern. He was more interested in seeing how the process of becoming relates to the way suffering and stress are brought about and how they can be brought to an end. One of his first discoveries in analyzing the relationship between becoming and suffering was that the processes of becoming operate on different scales in space and time. The process by which the mind creates a psychological sense of location for itself in states of becoming within this lifetime is the same process by which it establishes a location for itself in another world after death. The question of whether death was followed by rebirth was hotly debated in the Buddha’s time, so in teaching the fact of rebirth he was not simply parroting the assumptions of his culture. The experience of his Awakening is what gave him proof that becoming has both psychological and cosmological dimensions— within the moment and stretching over lifetimes—with a parallel pattern in each. You can learn how the mind finds a place for rebirth by watching how it moves from one becoming to another here and now.

The Buddha’s Awakening also taught him that the craving and clinging leading to stress are identical to the craving and clinging that lead to becoming.

So becoming is inevitably stressful. This explains why the typical human way of avoiding suffering—which is to replace one state of becoming with another—can never fully succeed. If, to escape the sufferings of being a painter, you decide to become a miner instead, you simply exchange one set of sufferings for another. Regardless of what identity you take on, or however you experience the mountain of the world, it’s going to entail some degree of stress.

Thus to put an end to suffering, it’s necessary to put an end to becoming. And to do that, it’s necessary to understand the process that gives rise to becoming, so that the problem can be attacked at its cause. This is why the Buddha focused on becoming as process. And he found that the process has three components, which he likened to the act of planting a seed in a field. The field stands for the range of possibilities offered by past and present kamma. The seed stands for consciousness, together with other kammic factors that nourish it. The water moistening the seed represents the present mental act of craving and clinging, which fixes on a specific spot in the range of possibilities offered by the field, allowing becoming to develop from the potentials offered by the seed.

This is where the Buddha ran into the central paradox of becoming, because the craving and clinging that provide the moisture do not have to delight in the field or the resultant becoming in order to bear fruit. If the mind fastens on a particular set of possibilities with the aim of changing or obliterating them, that acts as moisture for a state of becoming as well. Thus the desire to put an end to becoming produces a new state of becoming.

Because any desire that produces becoming also produces suffering, the Buddha was faced with a strategic challenge: how to put an end to suffering when the desire to put an end to suffering would lead to renewed suffering. His solution to this problem involved a paradoxical strategy, creating a state of becoming in the mind from which he could watch the potentials of kamma as they come into being, but without fueling the desire to do anything with regard to those potentials at all. In the terms of the field analogy, this solution would deprive the seed of moisture. Eventually, when all other states of becoming had been allowed to pass away, the state of becoming that had acted as the strategic vantage point would have to be deprived of moisture as well. Because the moisture of craving and clinging would have seeped into the seed even of this strategic becoming, this would eventually mean the destruction of the seed, as that moisture and any conditioned aspects of consciousness the seed might contain were allowed to pass away. But any unconditioned aspects of consciousness—if they existed—wouldn’t be touched at all.

This is precisely what the Buddha attempted, and he found that the strategy worked. Becoming could be allowed to end through creating a specific state of becoming—the condition of mental absorption known as jh›na—watered by specific types of craving and clinging. This type of becoming, together with its appropriate causes, is what constitutes the path he later taught. Once the path had done its work, he found, it could be abandoned through a process of perceptual deconstruction, and the quest for the end of suffering would be complete. Freed from both suffering and becoming, the mind would be totally released from the limitations of any identity or location—a freedom that beggars the imagination, but captures it as well.

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The Paradox of Becoming, The Paradox of Becoming

Enter your name and email address to download this ebook.

About the author 

Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]