Green Koans Case 24: Not Born Again

Clark Strand


Case 24: Not Born Again

The Metta Sutta proclaims:
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Metta Sutta   The Metta, or “Loving Kindness,” Sutra contains some of the earliest canonical Buddhist teachings. It is found in the Suttanipata portion of the Pali canon.
Fixed views   Refers to speculative thought or dogmatic opinions which become objects of attachment for the mind.
Sense desires    The term refers not only to the objects of sense experience that inflame our desires, but to the desire for sense experience itself, the mind being so restless that it will produce sense experiences even where none are to be found, as for instance in dreams or deep meditation—or, alternatively, in a sensory deprivation tank.
Not born again    In contrast to the Mahayana teachings, which stress the ideal of the bodhisattva, a being who chooses to be reborn again and again for the sake of suffering beings, the Theravada teachings stress as their goal a complete release from the wheel of birth and death through the attainment of nibbana, often translated as the “extinction” (of desires).
How is it not possible to be reborn into this world? Consider the following, drafted by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 (predecessor to the 1997 Kyoto Accord):

Life holds to one central truth: that all matter and energy needed for life moves in great closed circles from which nothing escapes and to which only the driving fire of the sun is added. Life devours itself: everything that eats is itself eaten; every chemical that is made by life can be broken down by life; all the sunlight that can be used is used. Of all that there is on earth, nothing is taken away by life, and nothing is added by life—but nearly everything is used by life, used and reused in thousands of complex ways, moved through vast chains of plants and animals and back again to the beginning.

There is no escape from this “one central truth,” these “vast chains of plants and animals”—nor does there need to be. If the cessation of birth really exists (in other words, if nirvana is true) it must be true to this one central truth. But how? How can we escape the wheel of birth and death when the wheel of birth and death is the very thing that saves us, holding us so close to its vast body that, in truth, no separation could possibly exist? Does the planetary ecology defy the basic teachings of Buddhism? Does Buddha defy the Earth? Where exactly is this nirvana—and don’t say, “Nowhere”!

Nothing is taken
Away by death, and nothing
Is added by life.
The stem says to the lotus,
“I am always in the world!”

Read all the Green Koans.

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Mat Osmond's picture

Many thanks Clark.
I believe the answer the answer to your question is that anyone interested in reading that conversation can go straight to it, thus:
I'm fairly new to that forum myself, but as far as I can tell, it runs on the same principle that operates here: anyone can read, but to post a reply you need to sign in.
As with here, signing in is only a practicality - as I recall no money or 'joining' is required beyond registering as a participant on the website...declaring your friendship and good intent.
(If anyone tries the above and hits a problem, you can let me know at and I'll try and help.)

Mat Osmond's picture

Sorry, loaded it twice.

Mat Osmond's picture

Thanks Katy. I like what you say about naturalness.
I live in small coastal town in a beautiful part of Cornwall. On the one hand, I feel blessed by the daily presence of the sea wilderness, the birds, the regular walking in the tidal landscape that surrounds Cornwall. On the other, we seem to be more or less as mad here as people in other places, on the whole! Conversely, I know light giving, nature attuned souls, living in the thick of the city 'with soil under their fingernails'.

Clark, I'm very interested to hear of BA. "Our goals would be to meet, to experience recovery together, and to develop our own literature like that of AA and other 12 Step fellowships." I would like to stay close to this emergence and to get involved as and when I can. I am conscious that I have limited ability to take on weekly attendance-based commitments because of work and family, but slow and steady is the way...and I'm quite sure there is a way.

The Dark Mountain Project (If you google it its easy to find) comes to mind...their question in the face of our collective Ecocide: If we weave our reality through the stories we tell ourselves, what are the toxic stories that have led us to this pass? What stories might serve us better in going forward into the dark?
I think the 12 steps programme is a rich ground from which to ask those questions. Funnily enough I recently read Jeff Wilson's discussion of the 12 steps from a Shin perspective in "Buddhism of the Heart".
A practical point: I'm finding it a bit difficult to find my way around Trike, as a newcomer. Can anyone tell me if there is a way to get email notification of responses here?

ClarkStrand's picture

Not sure if there's a way to get notices on posts for the Green Koans portion of the site, but Phil Ryan will know. I'll ask him. In the meantime, I will keep you posted about BA. By the way, is it possible for people who aren't part of AmidaTrust to read what we've been discussing on that site about Honen's famous "One-Page Testament" as an ecological manifesto? Or would someone need to join in order to read it?

katy.yelland's picture

Your ideas about the womb, birth, death, the world and nirvana are very interesting (and poetic!!) Mat. Thanks for that.

The ideas about city v. country are interesting too. I kind of agree with you, Clark, but I would personally say that "a return to nature" doesn't necessarily have to mean a literal return to the natural, countryside world. Perhaps a return to our natural state, a more natural way of being, whether in the city or the country. Perhaps it's easier to do this when you're surrounded by trees and grass than banks and clubs!

Is there really a group called Bodhisattvas Anonymous?! That's cool! What do you do?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Katy. There is, indeed, a group called Bodhisattvas Anonymous. The next Green Bodhisattva column in Tricycle will include contact info for a weekly Friday morning phone meeting, but we could start it before then if people are interested. We have a face-to-face meeting in Woodstock, New York, on Thursday nights. And I'll be giving talks in Manhattan and Berkeley in February, with plans for pilot groups in each place. Maybe Mat and/or the AmidaTrust folks will want to start something in London.

The basic idea is simple: Only an addiction model explains how a species could do to itself and the rest of the planet what human beings have done over the past few hundred years. Given this, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous offer a path of recovery, provided we are motivated to explore their literature deeply and honestly enough, asking ourselves what, at bottom, we are all addicted to, finding the answer, and then acting upon it, first for our own recovery, and then to help others along that path.

So why Bodhisattvas Anonymous, rather than Econoymous or Culture Addicts Anonymous or Overcomsumers Anonymous or something like that? The answer, I think, is that anonymity is the spiritual touchstone of the bodhisattva life. Bodhisattvas take the long view of time, accepting the necessity of living for others rather than only for oneself, and accepting also the reality of being born and dying many, many times for the sake of all other species-beings.

Naturally, I could go on and on about this, but that's probably enough for now. Our goals would be to meet, to experience recovery together, and to develop our own literature like that of AA and other 12 Step fellowships, which can then be used to nurture and sustains similar BA groups.

Please note, however, that apart from the great and all-inclusive ideal of bodhisattvahood, the group will not be limited to Buddhists, nor will it profess to offer Buddhist teachings. It will draw on a range of different teachings and traditions to provide a path that can be walked by all. The only requirement for membership is a desire to recover our ecological sanity, providing the basis for a healthier life as individuals, and by extension as a species.

Mat Osmond's picture

Great to discover this Clark.

Strange that in so much discussion of deep roots and pure petals, so little mention is usually made of the stem. Your words "I am always in the world" brought to mind the likeness of the stem to the umbilical cord.
We recently spoke of Dharmavydia's essay 'The Stem of the Lotus' that likens the stem to the work spiritual extension, I love the idea of practice as an umbilical cord.

I have no coherent answer to your question, but I think that nirvana, world and womb are closely associated thoughts for me. I have been thinking recently of the term Ojo in relation to our deep womb and birth memories. I suppose I relate to the notion of Nirvana as a re-entry into birth and death, form this empty room that I have papered myself into. An end of exile from that greater life.

I am very interested to know more of Bodhisattva's anonymous. I had brief teenage contact with the 12 step, and twenty five years later addictive patterns of thought still govern much of my life, including 'practice'...just more subtly than in the old days.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Mat. Good to see you making an appearance here on Trike. The line "I am always in the world" is actually a direct quote from Lotus Sutra. In fact, it is generally regarded as the climax of the whole sutra. To those who believe that the Buddha "comes and goes" from the world, Shakyamuni reveals that he is always present, in every generation, in every place or time.

I, too, like what you have to say about the womb and nirvana. For those reading this who aren't familiar with Pure Land terminology, "Ojo" means "birth"--specifically, birth in the Pure Land. In the sutras, that birth takes place from the "womb" of a lotus blossom, which is as beautiful a symbol for the working of a planetary ecosystem as I have found, although the Qur'an is filled with passages of comparable ecological depth.

About Bodhisattvas Anonymous, I'll have more to say below in my response to Katy, who asked about it as well.

ClarkStrand's picture

I have my own understanding of this issue, Katy, which I am happy to share. Perhaps others will add theirs. Mine is ecologically-based and follows a principle we sometimes refer to as "Biology, Not Ideology" at our "Bodhisattvas Anonymous" meetings.

We came to our understanding of nirvana by asking the questions posed in the commentary above, discussing them at some length among ourselves over the years. The answer we arrived at is as follows:

Nirvana is the extinction of desires, not the extinction of needs. This means that it does not represent the extinction of our biological lifeforce or the imperative for survival that goes along with it.

We human beings are very dramatic creatures, always fanning the coal of our basic needs until they put forth the flame of actual desire. We experience the death of desire as a form of "extinction" because our desires are what make us "special" in our own eyes. Take that away and we are left with a set of basic biological needs (some of which express themselves psychologically as well, as or instance in the need for love and community) that aren't hard to satisfy in most cases but which have very little to mark them apart as distinctive from the needs of just about any other person. This lost of "specialness" we experience as a kind of death--the coming to an end of our personal narrative with its destiny-driven ambitions.

We have developed a form of fellowship we call "Bodhisattvas Anonymous" which first addresses our actual needs, making sure these are met in the simplest, most straightforward and least disruptive way, then turns a cool eye on our desires, asking ourselves where they come from and whether or not they have any basis in biological/ecological fact. The answer is usually no. They are the product of social consensus and are invariably rooted in some form of ideological thinking that has little or nothing to do with our actual happiness or satisfaction in life--and, in fact, usually serve to work against it. This sorting out of our needs from our desires is an ongoing work in which we seek progress, not perfection, and we have no reference point aside from our own joy and clarity to tell us whether or not it is happening.

As a kind of thought experiment, we sometimes ask ourselves why the Buddha needed to leave the city of Kapilavastu in order to get enlightened. Why did he have to go into the jungle forest? Was it just to have a quiet place to think? Like most really good questions, this one is simplicity itself. Our answer is that he wanted to leave the impenetrable forest of desires that a city is and always has been, returning to the actual forest instead. We always lose our way in cities, whether it is the actual city one finds in urban settings or the symbolic city of our collective, media-driven life. Oddly enough, in the real forest, we always find our way.

Does any of this make sense to you? If not, feel free to ask for clarification. In a nutshell, my answer would be that nirvana is the return to Nature. Human beings experience this as an extinction, an annihilation, and a death. In fact, it is a birth, an embodiment, and a life.

Mellie's picture

Dear Clark, These are wonderful reflections, yet it seems to me that many people find the way (and their ways) in cities--whether they be Beat poets, dharma punx, musicians, or urban bodhisattva warriors. As Gary Snyder wrote about New York, cities have their own ecologies, too, and people and things are "alive in the sea of information." I'm not comfortable with such a sharp dichotomy between city and country, between the urban jungle and the "real" jungle. There are many places from which to find our way. Cities nurture the kind of sociality and creative energy that have led many a seeker to find what some call enlightenment.
"In the real forest, we always find our way."; "We always lose our way in cities." Is this always true? Gassho, Mellie (Ivy)

ClarkStrand's picture

This is a very good question, Mellie. And I think there are two answers, depending on where you stand when you ask the question. It is certainly true that one can find great cultural riches and even spiritual inspiration in urban settings. Seeking these things as individuals with limited lifespans and a thirst for knowledge and experience, I think you could say with confidence just what you have here: "Cities nurture the kind of sociality and creative energy that have led many a seeker to find what some call enlightenment." But pull back for a moment and ask youself if what is manageable or sustainable for an individual seeking fulfillment is, in fact, manageable from the standpoint of the overall species and the answer would be that there is not one city on the planet that is ecologically sustainable. Large masses of individuals living in the same place for long periods of time, steadily building their populations, all the while nursing increased demands for commodities and cultural stimulation, are virtually always a blight on the systems that (temporarily, at least) provide for their existence. There is a virtual holocaust of nature lying at the periphery of every major urban dwelling center, provided we make the journey to see it. Today one might push the periphery back even further beyond its traditional boundaries (sewage outlets, landfills, crowded suburbs) to include third world countries in crisis because of polution, resource depletion, and poverty, largely because of their role as labor/materials providers for cities.

My core belief, and what I would say lies at the heart of everything I write these days, is that what is sustainable for the species (with its potentially very long lifespan) and what is sustainable for the individual (with his or her relatively short life) ought to be one and the same. That would be my definition of ecological sanity. That, incidentally is the subject of the next Green Bodhisattva column for the print version of the magazine (due out next month, I believe).

So, in a nutshell, we may find our way in cities as individuals, but humanity loses its way when it goes there. And so, to the degree that we find our way as individuals there, it is at the expenses of what we most deeply and truly are. This, it seems to me, is the reason why virtually every major religious founder left some kind of urban area to go into the wilderness in order to discover the truths that he or she taught. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Bodhidharma, Milarepa...the list goes on and on.

katy.yelland's picture

I like the commentary on this above. Thanks.

katy.yelland's picture

I don't understand the whole thing of "ending the cycle of rebirth and death" when it's framed in the context of past lives, future rebirths etc. I can understand the idea of freeing oneself from the cycle in *this* life, and becoming free within life and death, but the suggestion that being born again is undesirable seems to me to be quite life-denying. It seems to me to be saying that we're alive, and that's rather a shame. The point of this practice is to end it all and not be alive any more. Can't commit suicide because that would mean rebirth in a nasty realm, so the aim of our life is to get rid of any possibility of living ever again.

I'd appreciate anyone's advice on this, or differing views. I find it very difficult to resolve this view in myself.

hennessey98's picture

very interesting thoughts, questions

tire11's picture

My feeling is that we don't know what lies beyond (or aside) this realm of existence. Unless we've become enlightened or have had "experiences" we don't know what the ultimate truth is. If this is all one cosmic experience happening all together, consciousness appearing in consciousness, made up of consciousness and there is another, larger truth than our day to day experience then we won't know what that is until this "life" ends and we see it for what it was. Or, when this life ends there will be absolutely nothing. It may all be over with nothing left to show for this experience. I feel there is something more than that. Is it fear based? Is it some internal message that I know is the truth? Not sure at all but also not interested in getting consumed by the question. My practice brings me comfort and peace and for now, that's enough. I guess my hope is that my karma leads me to a rebirth that is free from suffering. I know the Dalai Lama refers to this as our precious human birth so we could have done a lot worse.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"The pure-hearted one,...being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world."
(Metta Sutta)
Is this not also the desire of those for whom the Bible is The Canon? "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
(Romans 6:23)

Considering the assertions made at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, we wonder how it is not possible to be reborn on this island Earth. But according to the teachings of two different religions referred to above, it is possible to escape the eternal cycle of life and death. One only has to believe.