Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1994

The Resolution of Conflict; Ajahn Jagaro
Child's Play; Ven Sunnato
Images of Sri Lanka; Sister Siripanya
Luang Por Chah's Relics; Ajahn Attapemo
Nourishing the Roots; Aj's Sucitto & Ajahn Amaro
Turning the Wheel in the West; Ajahn Amaro
Alone Together; Ajahn Sucitto


Child's Play

Venerable Sunnato points out some interesting parallels between the process of rebirth, as described by the Buddha and recent overviews relating to child development.

Part I.
The Buddha's teaching on rebirth is a rich vein of discovery. Some claim that it is a teaching of reincarnation and some that it is a profound psychology describing our individual worlds of perception. What follows is a possible way of approaching this subject, gathering together quotations from recent textbooks in psychology and matching them with certain scriptural passages from the Pali Canon. Remarkably, they form a strong correlation and, at one point, give surprise meaning to one of the more pointed mysteries of the teaching.

Let's begin with the description of a child's early development. From contemporary psychology:

  • 'Most people... assume... that the newborn baby's thoughts, feelings, and consciousness resemble, to a certain extent, our own. In reality.. . even his sensations barely resemble our own. . . He has no mind or emotions as we think of them, merely vague feelings of pleasure and distress.. . he is conscious of... sensations, but he is unaware that.., sensations represent events that occur in time and space.'
    Ref: Maurer, Daphne and Charles. World of the New-born (231 WM), Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • 'For the neonate (newborn), sensations from all modalities may combine to produce a "global" experience.'
    Ref: Shaffer, David R. Developmental Psychology Theory, Reseach and Applications (238 DP), Brooks-Cole Publishing Co.,Monterey, 1985.
  • 'Presumably neonates experience people and events as simple "streams of impressions".'' (Innocence/ignorance) (468 DP)
  • 'Psychologists are careful to distinguish between sensation and perception ...Perception refers to the interpretation of sensory input.. ." (203 DP)
  • 'It is the grouping together of certain features or the isolation of a certain relationship ...These patterns are only some among many possible patterns that could have formed.' (formations)
    Ref: Gregory, Richard L., The Oxford Companion To The Mind (429 OM) Oxford University Press.
  • 'Apparently the ability to detect and discriminate patterns is innate...' (205 DP)
  • 'Infants begin to form mental representations... for patterns and objects.' (238 DP)
  • 'The senses begin to "differentiate" during the first year.' (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking) (220 DP)
  • 'The fact that we perceive objects from stimuli without even seeming to try is extremely misleading.' (568 OM)'... (the first month), babies scan the boundaries of faces as if they were trying to "construct" a form and/or determine its location in space.' (210 DP) 'Infants older than two months... scan. . . figures as if they were trying to determine what these objects are. Perhaps we are not too far off if we characterise the neonate as a form "constructor" and the older infant as a form "interpreter".' (material form and mental name) (207 DP)
    For the newborn there is no baby, no world, no beginning, no ending, no coming, and no going.

  • '...children may learn the limits of their bodies during the first four months...' (469 DP) ... infants do not distinguish between the (physical) self and nonself (objects, other people) until four to six months of age [body base: eye, ear, nose, mouth, body].' (507 DP)
  • 'Early reaching is truly a hit-or-miss proposition. In contrast, infants older than 20 weeks can extend their arms and make in-flight corrections to guide their hands to the target [co-ordination of sense consciousness (ie. seeing), sense base (ie. eye), and sense object (ie. object of seeing )].' (178 DP)
  • '... the infant begins to organize sensory experiences and motor responses into behavioral structures. ....Responses that occur by chance and prove satisfying [feeling] are now performed over and over for the pleasure [craving] they bring.. they are the first co-ordinated "habits" [clinging] to appear... the pleasure they bring stimulates their repetition [pursuit of pleasure, arising of pleasure, and its inevitable end (repeated)].' (339 DP)

    Researchers are saying that when we watch a baby being born into the world this is not what is happening for the baby. For the newborn there is no baby, no world, no beginning, no ending, no coming, and no going. There are only meaningless sensations and the potential to form some interpretation of those sensations. It will take eight months, generally, to create the 'baby' and the 'world' as a basic interpretation. If we take a summary of these observations and align them with the steps of rebirth as described by the Buddha, we find an amazing similarity. The points listed thus far would read:
    out of innocence (ignorance) there rises formations: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking; material form and mental name; the body base (eye, ear, nose, mouth, body); co-ordination of sense consciousness, sense base and sense object (eg. seeing, the eye, and object of seeing); feeling; craving; clinging; pursuit of pleasure; the arising of pleasure; and the ending of pleasure.

    Compare this to the Buddha's steps of rebirth as noted in the Samyutta-Nikaya XII, 2: Out of ignorance rises formations: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking; name (mentality) and form (materiality); the sense bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind); the arising together of sense consciousness, sense base and sense object (eg. seeing, the eye, and object of seeing); feeling; craving; clinging; being; birth; ageing and death.

  • The similarity increases if we add a more general view. Once again from recent textbooks:
  • 'Initially, the fetus/baby is conscious of a confused profusion of sounds, feelings, tastes and - after birth -of sights... They are as senseless as the patterns of a kaleidoscope.' (194 WN)
  • '. .. the self.. .is not there.' (468 DP) ... . he has no mind nor emotions as we think of them... he is unaware that.., sensations represent events that occur in time and space.' (231 WN)
  • '.. . infants. . . form mental representations.. for patterns and objects.' (238 DP)'. . . around eight months... things [objects] exist. .. [then] space. . . time.' (232WN)... . the self.. . arises.' (468 DP)
  • '. . . no longer a kaleidoscope of meaningless sensations. It is a world...' (232 WN)
  • '... [an] interpretation of sensory input.'(203 DP)

    It is important to note that this formed interpretation, 'a world', is 'only some among many possible patterns that could have formed.' It is not an absolute reality, only a perceptual viewpoint.

    The Buddha:

  • 'There is a base where there is no earth.. . or water or fire or air.., or space ... or consciousness. . . or nothingness or... perception nor non-perception or this world or other world or moon or sun.., neither a coming nor going nor a staying nor a dying nor a reappearance: ... unborn, un-brought-to-being, unmade... unformed.' (Udana VIII, 1-3)
  • 'formations'.., form (physical) formations, feelings.., perceptions... (mental) formations and consciousness' (Samyutta-Nikaya XX1 1, 79)
  • 'This field of views is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views.' (Majjhima-Nikaya 2)

    It was mentioned briefly above that at birth the 'self' is not there. Researchers since the 1930's have noted this and it is also in the Buddhist Canon: 'The self has a character that is different from the physiological organism proper. The self.., is not there at birth but arises in the process of social development. Mead 1934' (468 DP)

    The Buddha:

  • .... the untaught ordinary man.., sees (material) form as self, or self as possessed of form, or form in self or self in form. [And the same with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness]. A well taught Noble Disciple does not do this.' (Majjhima-Nikaya 43, 109)

    Once again the likeness grows as we examine this development of 'self':

  • .... infants do not distinguish between the [physical] self and non-self until four to six months of age.' (507 DP) 'Recognizing that one is separate from objects and close companions is only the first step in the development of a personal identity.' (469 DP) 'Once children realize that they are separate and distinct from companions they begin to notice some of the ways that people differ and to categorize themselves on these dimensions, a classification called the categorical self [name, age, body build, etc.].' (470 DP)' ... it appears that children begin to acquire the concept of a private thinking self that others can't see between the ages of three-and-a-half and five.' (471 DP)'. . . somewhere between the ages of six and eight children become much more aware of their subjective "inner selves" and will think of this private self as the true self.' (473 DP)... . self as knower.' (470 DP)
  • Reducing what has been stated we find that the child identifies the actual physical form of the body first. Second, based on that form, a mental description arises. Finally, a much more abstract sense of a self, as formless perceiver (knowing, awareness), develops.

    This is also what the Buddha says:

  • 'There are three types of self acquired...The first has (physical) form...The second has form and is constituted by mind with all the limbs and faculties...The third is formless and consists in perception.' (Digha-Nikaya 9)

    As developments progress:

  • 'Twelve to fifteen year-olds face an "identity crisis", in that they are no longer sure who they are and yet must grapple with the question "who will I become?" (475 DP)

    A problem also noted by the Buddha.

  • 'The untaught ordinary man... gives unreasoned attention in this way: he wonders about himself now in the presently arisen period, "Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Whence has this creature come? Whither is it bound?" (Majjhima-Nikaya 2)

    Recent investigators are quick to point out that this structuring is a dependent arising:

  • .... it is important to remember that human development is a holistic process... each of these components of "self" depends in part on changes that are taking place in other areas of development.' (8 DP)

    This interdependence is a major element of the Buddha's teaching:

  • 'That comes to be when there is this; that arises with the arising of this. That does not come to be when there is not this.'(Majjhima-Nikaya 38)

    A development of particular importance in this correlation is the sense of permanence.

    Modern research:

  • '...One of the more notable achievements of the sensori-motor period is the development of the object concept.. .an "object" is something that the child conceives of as having an identity of its own, something that exists independent of his immediate perceptions.' (341 DP)
  • 'Between eight and twelve months the baby appears to understand that objects are permanent.. .This understanding does not happen suddenly, it develops gradually.. .As his understanding develops, more and more things around him...stop materializing and dematerializing, and stay put.. .But for everything to stay put takes...a certain amount of memory.' (191-2 WN)
  • What was a world of motion now becomes. . .'permanent, a fixed place of address.' (201 WN)

    More simply, in order to have permanence a child needs to remember that even though the sensations of this moment are slightly different from the last they still resemble the last sensations. Instead of focusing on the subtleties of difference present in each moment, the mind starts to remember and relate the similarities. These similarities carry a sense of continuity or permanence.

    For the Buddha it was of primary importance to see through this developed perception:

  • 'When one understands that (material) form, feeling, perception, (mental) formations and consciousness are impermanent, he possesses the right view.' (Samyutta-Nikaya XX11, 51)

    Ultimately, what are these modern observations pointing to?

  • 'The usual state of consciousness is characterized by ... a structured frame of reference.., which supports, interprets, and gives meaning to all experiences...'
    Ref: Tart, Charles T. Altered States of Conscious: A Book of Readings. John Wiley and Sons Inc., New York, 1969 (237 AS)
  • '...[it] is a... superstructure of ideas or... gestalt of relationships. From its totality are derived various concepts and functions, some of which are... self, world, other people, time, space, logic, purpose, various inhibitions, conscious fears and defences.' (239-40 AS)

    Again an echo of past teaching:

  • 'Formations? They form the formed, that is why they are called formations. They form (material) form, feeling, perception (mental), formations, and consciousness.' (Samyutta-Nikaya XX11, 79)
  • ''I am' is derived from form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.' (Samyutta-Nikaya XX1 1, 79)

    Most of us 'construct' a personal view of a self, in a body, as part of an external world, and this carries with it certain side effects. We do not see these 'constructions' as mere interpretations; instead, we believe these views. We believe that 'someone' is 'born'. We believe the notion of permanence. These are notions that can bring great anxiety. What is born must be seen to die at some point. 'Permanence', as a general rule, is at odds with existence, endlessly frustrating. We constantly hope to gain stability or security in the face of certain change.


  • 'The first stage of thinking is... how we look at the world: the concepts and perceptions we form. The second stage of thinking is.. . what we do with the perceptions that have been set up in the first stage.' (429 OM)

    The Buddha:

  • 'Old action? Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind are old action (already) determined and chosen. . . New action? It is whatever one does now, whether by body, speech, or mind.' (Samyutta-Nikaya XXXV 145)

    Why should any of this be of importance? For one simple reason. We do not need to be entrenched in our views, forever bound, nor do we have to suffer the side-effects. We can learn to use these perceptions skilfully without the agony of believing them to be absolute; letting go of conditioned inhibitions, fears and defences, and moving to an increasing state of rest.

  • 'Most of the time... (reality-orientation) is essentially non-conscious and even seemingly "automatic".'
  • (238 AS) De-automization ... (is) ... the undoing of automization... by re-investing actions and percepts with attention.' (31 AS)

    The Buddha:

  • 'This body is not yours or another's, but past action (already) determined and chosen that must be experienced to be seen.' (Samyutta-Nikaya V 145)

    We can become aware of our present patterning process and, once aware of it, we can see the delusions of our old patterning.

  • 'To the extent that the usual reality-orientation fades ... the greater the possibility... that primitive contents and modes of thought will come into awareness. (247 AS)

    The Buddha:

  • 'Whatever monks or brahmans recollect their past life in its various modes, they recollect the five categories..(of formations).' (Samyutta-Nikaya XX1 1 79)

    And how do we do this?

  • 'It is only when we become... absorbed in... reality.., that we begin to approach the disintegration of... the reality-orientation...' (240 AS)

    The Buddha:

  • 'I entered upon and abode in... onlooking equanimity.., when my concentrated mind was thus purified... I recollected my manifold past life. ..' (Majjhima-Nikaya 36)
    In more detail:
  • ' ...contemplative meditation... permits a different perceptual and cognitive experience... permitting the adult to obtain a new, fresh perception of the world by freeing him from a stereotyped organization built up over the years and by allowing... access to fresh materials, to create with them in a new way that represents an advance in mental functioning.., not a regression but rather an undoing of a pattern in order to permit a new and perhaps more advanced experience... Such ...effects point to a capacity.., for alterations in the perception of the world and of the self far greater than what is customarily assumed to be the case for normal people.' (217.18 AS)

    The Buddha:

  • 'I entered upon and abode in... onlooking equanimity...' (Majjhima-Nikaya 36) .... with the mind perceiving impermanence, it does not reach for gain, honour or renown with the mind perceiving no mentality-materiality, it is rid of the conceits of "I and mine, this body, and consciousness."' (AnguttaraNikaya Vii, 46)' ... feelings, thoughts, perceptions still arise in an awakened one but he knows them for what they are...' (Majjhima-Nikaya 123) 'The ending of greed, hatred and delusion is.. . peace... (Samyutta-Nikaya XL1 ii, 1-44)
    No matter how esoteric the scriptures become, the Buddha was very clear on one point: we should seek the truths of our life through observing our own experience and live in accordance with those truths. In the interests of healthy inquiry, the correlations noted here are worth some attention. It would be enough to end here but for one other intriguing parallel, which, as I mentioned at the outset, gives a possible meaning to one of is great mysteries... to be continued.


  • (OM) Gregory, Richard L. The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford Universiry Press, 1987.
  • (WN) Maurer, Daphne and Charles. World of the Newborn. Penguin Books. London, 1988.
  • (DP) Shaffer, David R. Developmental Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications. Brooks-Cole Publishing Company, Monterey, 1985.
  • (AS) Tart, Charles T. Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings. John Wiley and Sons, lnc.,New York, 1969.