Birth Is Suffering

Thanks to Barbara’s Buddhism Blog, I was pointed to a very touching piece by Jeff Wilson, Birth Is Suffering. He paints a new picture of Lord Buddha’s birth story for me:

The Buddha is said to have been born from his mother’s side, which hints at an emergency Caesarian section, and a week later she was on the funeral pyre. Supposedly, the Buddha never knew about death until it became time for him to enter the religious life, but this is blatantly incorrect. He grew up with the knowledge that his birth had been the occasion of his mother’s demise. How could he not have become introspective? In later years, when he said that killing one’s mother was one of the five cardinal sins, he could only have spoken with the knowledge of his own unwilling guilt. It is in the light of his hidden history that we should evaluate the Buddha’s puzzling statement that birth is suffering.

I always understood this story in the light of the mythology that I was taught. Lord Buddha said that “birth is suffering” because the passage through the birth canal was believed to be so traumatic that it caused the newly born child to lose all memory of the previous life. By this view, birth was no less unpleasant than sickness, old age and death. This perspective also framed the story of Siddhartha’s birth through his mother’s side: without passing through the birth canal, he was not affected by the trauma that would have prevented him from taking seven steps in each direction and then proclaiming, “Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the honored one!”

When I was younger I had understood the birth-from-side story as a way to explain newly-born Siddhartha’s precociousness. Having read Jeff Wilson’s piece, I can see that the story may have developed the other way round, with Siddhartha’s proclamation providing the explanation for the birth from his mother’s side. Perhaps even the historical rewriting of an emergency Caeserian section with fatal consequence. It’s a new perspective on an old and often confusing story for me, and I always appreciate that. The article has certainly given me a much fuller appreciation for the notion that “birth is suffering.”

This piece (and Barbara O’Brien’s semantic critique) brought me back to the passages that I used to recite every morning when I lived alone as a graduate student in Chicago. The following lines in particular served as daily reminders of why it was important for me to practice the Dharma.

Jatipi dukkha jarapi dukkha maranampi dukkham,
Sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupayasapi dukkha,
Appiyehi sampayogo dukkho piyehi vippayogo dukkho yamp’iccham na labhati tampi dukkham,
Sankhittena pañcupadanakkhandha dukkha…

As translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful / sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are stressful / association with things disliked is stressful, separation from things liked is stressful, not getting what one wants is stressful,” and followed by words that I imagine Barbara O’Brien would meet with some degree of satisfaction, “In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”

2 Replies to “Birth Is Suffering”

  1. Despite the popularity of the story of the Buddha’s birth from Maya’s side, this account cannot be found in the Tipitaka (as always, stand to be corrected) and seems to come from Mahayana, perhaps the “Lalita Vistara”.

    Interestingly, although Theravada replaced the hybrid form of Mahayana/Tantric Buddhism that was practiced in Myanmar, this version of the birth story is still generally believed.

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