In the Buddhist tradition the notion of saṃsāra or more literally “to flow together” is the notion that all beings go through an infinite series of births and deaths.
Those who believe in rebirth will usually point to passages in the Pali Canon which show the Buddha promulgating the notion of saṃsāra. They use such passages to buttress their position that not only did the Buddha did believe in rebirth but made it a central feature of his teachings.
In the Samyutta Nikaya there is a whole chapter titled “Without Discoverable Beginning” (Anamataggasamyutta) that addresses the nature of saṃsāra.
The first sutta in the chapter, Grass and Sticks sutta, begins with a description of the beginningless nature of saṃsāra (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi):
Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on (saṃsarataṃ) hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. Suppose, bhikkhus, a man would cut up whatever grass, sticks, branches, and foliage there are in Jambudipa and collect them together in a single heap. Having done so, he would put them down, saying [for each one]: “This is my mother, this my mother’s mother." The sequence of that man’s mothers and grandmothers would not come to an end, yet the grass, wood, branches, and foliage in this Jambudipa would be used up and exhausted. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning.Of interest in this passage is that the Buddha is describing saṃsāra through the chain of one’s ancestors. There is no mention of rebirth at all, and the key idea expressed is the unimaginable amount of time human beings have been born and suffered over countless generations.
What is odd about this entire passages is the description of saṃsāra not through successive lives but through successive generations. But if the Buddha did firmly believe in rebirth and this was indeed a central teaching, why did he not discuss former lives?
The sutta goes on and concludes:
For such a long time, bhikkhus, you have experienced suffering, anguish, and disaster, and swelled the cemetery. It is enough to experience revulsion towards all formations, enough to become dispassionate towards them, enough to be liberated from them.So even though in the preceding passage there was no mention of rebirth, this one does appear to do so. The Buddha is clearly telling the monks that they have suffered for a long time and “swelled the cemetery.”
With this concluding passage to the sutta, it does appear that this is a good example to support the thesis that the Buddha did believe in rebirth. But are we missing something?
If we examine the key concluding sentence of the last passage in Pali, we have this:
evaṃ dīgharattaṃ vo, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ tibbaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ byasanaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ, kaṭasī vaḍḍhitāNow when we compare this stock passage to the fourth sutta of the same chapter, Ganges Sutta, we find this sentence again but with one crucial difference that changes everything:
evaṃ dīgharattaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, dukkhaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ tibbaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ byasanaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ, kaṭasī vaḍḍhitāIt may be a little difficult to spot but there are two differences here. The first difference is simply the substitution of the vocative plural bhikkave (“O, bhikkus”) with the vocative brāhmaṇa (O, Brahmin). The second crucial difference is the third word vo in the first and kho in the second.
This seems very minor but it is not.
The word vo is an enclitic plural pronoun of you (tumha), which can be in the accusative, instrumental, dative or even genitive which can mean: of you; by you; to you. In the translation above, it is translated more like the in the nominative case (subject of the sentence) by just saying “you”.
Kho, is a different word altogether that according to the Pali Text Dictionary is “an enclitic particle of affirmation & emphasis: indeed, really, surely.” In the context of the sutta which is describing very long periods of time, the use of such a particle of emphasis makes perfect sense.
The second passage with kho is translated by the Pali Text Society as (Bhikkhu Bodhi skips translating this part and refers to the first sutta in the chapter):
Thus many a day, Brahmin, has ill been suffered, has pain been suffered, has disaster been suffered, has the charnel ground been growing.While the Pali Text Society’s translation does not really do justice in conveying the kho particle (“for a very long time” is better), it is sufficient to see how all of a sudden the passage has no hint of rebirth; there is simply the observation that suffering and ill have been suffered by many over long periods of time.
Now if we take this second stock passage with kho and use it in the first sutta, things make more logical sense. Now we have a second passage without rebirth following the initial passage which does not mention it at all.
This observation leads me to contend that the Grass and Sticks sutta originally did have kho as still preserved in Ganges Sutta rather than the grammatically odd vo.
Most likely when literal rebirth became more prominent chanting monks mistakenly changed the very similar sounding word kho into vo.
If I am correct, what we may have here is the Buddha’s actual notion of saṃsāra. Instead of saṃsāra consisting of never-ending cycle of rebirths of an individual over innumerable lifetimes, saṃsāra is instead the never-ending cycle of successive generations of family units over time.
The idea of successive generations is a much more personal one that has a lot more emotional weight. Many of us can recall our mother and father, and most our grandparents and some even our great-grand parents. We can recall how they went through life and eventually died without having really found peace which was no different than their parents and their parent’s parents and so on.
And the really poignant point is that here we are as a living embodiment of that entire family line where we can choose to go ahead to either carry on the trend or deciding to break it.
Instead of a metaphysical description of the cycles of rebirth, the Grass and Sticks sutta is in fact a very down to earth admonition for us to escape what all those before us could not do.