I just came through my birthday weekend (thank you to everyone who sent blessings) and I’m thinking about this enigmatic thing the Buddha said: “I am the eldest in the world.” What he means is that he was the first to awaken fully, like the first chick in a clutch of eggs to break of of their shell. But the line, and the simile, have always rung strange in my ears.
One differentiation between a Buddha and an arahant (“perfected one,” the main term used in the Early Buddhist texts for a fully-awakened being) is that Buddhas arise in a time when the Dhamma has been absent from the world and is not being taught, and so they have to re-discover the path themself. They are self-taught. Arahants, by contrast, learn the path from teachers, so although their awakening is just as complete as that of Buddhas, they are not “fully self-awakened” (sammāsambuddho), and do not possess the same infinite skill in teaching. In this way, Buddhas are the eldest of their time. There have been many previous Buddhas, but since another definition of Buddhas is that they are no longer reborn, maybe those earlier Buddhas are no longer elder to our own Buddha.
But it’s the rebirth problem that always nagged me about this line. To the extent that we identify with a stream of kamma and attendant rebirths going back into the beginningless past, all of us have been moving around the universe of Saṁsāra for the same vast stretch of time. So in a funny way we are all the same age! And then a Buddha comes along and stops being reborn—wouldn’t that then make them sort of the youngest (in terms of having the shortest lifespan)?
If we take the simile at face value, we get an equation between awakening and birth. This is super interesting. Buddhas are never again reborn, but here is a simile that makes awakening sound a bit like being “born again.” And of course what Buddhas are born into is the “deathless” (amata, which is the Pāli version of the familiar Sanskrit term aṃṛṭa, often translated as the “nectar of immortality”). Of course there’s a beautiful cross-tradition nondual teaching here that “the deathless” in the Buddhist system that emphasizes the emptiness of the self and “immortality” in the Hindu system that emphasizes the Divine fullness of the Self are using the same word—because they’re essentially saying the same thing.
If life after awakening is like birth, then all of us unawakened ordinary people (puthujjana) are in a kind of long gestation, not yet born into life outside the shell. We can take this as a reflection not just on birth and death but on elder hood. In the monastic system, the hierarchy is a pure chronological seniority system rather than a meritocracy. So the community is strictly ordered by the date of one’s ordination, not by one’s attainment of insights or other markers of liberation. If we take the Buddha’s statement in light of this structure, he is partly just saying that he was the first monk. And that of the many fully-liberated people who would arise over time in the community, he was the first, and therefore he is the eldest.
Elderhood is not a matter of years but of wisdom. The physical age of our bodies really matters very little if we think in terms of rebirth. Someone quite young in this lifetime could be quite close to the end of their path based on practice accomplished in previous births. Likewise someone quite old could be quite young on the path. I think we all know examples of both of these kinds of people.
Part of what’s such a mystery to me about the rebirth idea is that it suggests how little I know about my own story. Until we have a direct experience of being just the most recent flowering of an ancient endless process, the force of feeling like a distinct individual bounded by this body and living narrative is really too strong to resist. If we can open to them, the teachings on rebirth, kamma, and liberation can cut through essentially all of our unsolvable neurotic ailments, which grow in the thick shell of ignorance, individualism, scarcity, grasping, and fixated identity.
If we hold it with enough experience of the mystery behind the doctrines, “eternal life” and “the end of rebirth” maybe mean the same thing. Once there’s the permanent end of grasping, the deathless will be realized, and whatever anyone calls what’s after that is just words.