Nibbāna 10: Being and Nonbeing

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When the fuel is exhausted, the fire ‘goes’ out. The Pāli word upādāna often seen in such contexts has the sense of both ‘fuel’ and ‘grasping’; and in fact, fuel is something that the fire grasps for its existence. Upādānapaccayā bhavo: “being-and-becoming is dependent on grasping” (Mahā-nidāna Sutta). Grasping/clinging and being/becoming are two very important links in the process of Dependent Origination, paṭicca samuppāda.

Eternalists, overcome by the craving for existence, want to find some permanent essence of existence. But the Buddha taught that what is true for the fire is also true for existence. That is, existence is caused by and dependent upon grasping or clinging. There is existence only as long as there is grasping. As we saw above, the firewood is called upādāna because it catches fire. The fire catches hold of the wood, and the wood catches hold of the fire. And so we call it ‘firewood’. This is a case of a this-to-that relation or specific conditionality (idappaccayatā). This is also true of what is called ‘existence’, which is not an absolute reality but a conditioned phenomenon dependent on a specific chain of causality.

Even in the Vedic period there was the dilemma between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’. They wondered whether being came out of nonbeing, or non-being came out of being. Katham asataḥ sat jāyeta: “How could being come out of non-being?” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1–2) In the face of this dilemma regarding the first beginnings, they were sometimes forced to conclude that nāsadāsīt no sadāsīt tadānīm: “In the beginning there was neither non-being nor being” (Ṛgveda X.129, Nāsadīya Sūkta). Or else in their confusion they would leave the matter unsolved, saying that perhaps only the creator knew about it.

This shows what a lot of confusion these two extreme concepts sat and asat — being and non-being — created for the philosophers. The Buddha completely reappraised the whole problem of existence and presented a perfect solution, the Middle Way. He pointed out that existence is a fire dependent upon the fuel of grasping — so much so that when grasping ceases, existence ceases as well.


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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