June 11, 2005

Thoughts on Reincarnation.

To be honest, karma has always been my major problem with reincarnation. I found the whole idea had a kind of shallow, self-justifying ring to it. As if a person not only had an excuse to ignore others' suffering (which was karmically deserved) but to even scoff at those who suffered and died, since death (or the self, and thus the death of the self) was an illusion. But the Buddhists I know are all very kind, loving, compassionate people, without any trace of callousness that I thought might result from believing in reincarnation and an end goal of detached nirvana. So I let the topic drop, knowing I was probably missing something.

My feelings are still up in the air right now, but I thought I'd share two journal entries that I've written in the last few days about the whole issue of reincarnation. It seems to me that, as soon as you drop the idea of karma as a way of buying, trading or hoarding good luck, the whole idea of reincarnation becomes much more plausible...

[Side Note: the guitarist referred to in the first entry is Steve Vai, who is utterly amazing and composes his music out of his own spirituality which he describes as "walking the thin line between pagan and Christian."]


The way I know that this was not an intellectual conversion is because it has been a few months now and I am only just beginning to understand and to be able to articulate exactly what happened or what changed, and yet the change itself was immediate and palpable. There was that moment, during 'For the Love of God,' when the thought somehow occurred to me that death was an illusion. Not is these words, of course. Rather, what I realized was that I could not possibly conceive of an end to consciousness--but not even yet in these words. The exact experience was something like this: I had been so fully engaged by Vai's complex, beautiful and seemingly endless improvisational guitar playing during his final encore song of the concert that somewhere (that felt quite literally like the back of my mind), a quiet voice suddenly whispered in curious awe, "If I died right now, how would I know it?" To which every instinct in me suddenly responded (not in words at all, but with an obvious sense of awareness) that I would not know it, and furthermore I would not know it because the kind of 'death' implied in the question did not exist--there was no sudden black-out, no end to consciousness--even upon my death, it occurred to me, I could not possibly cease to listen to this music. Even if death in the traditional, physical sense came at that precise time, I simply knew that I would continue listening and experiencing this relationship, the interconnection and mutual vibration of song. Even my body might keep standing there, too engaged to realize it had died. The image of my body suspended ridiculously made me laugh out loud.

I have always resisted thinking about things such as death and eternity, convinced (or, at least, trying to convince myself) that my lack of concern and contemplation was really a kind of bravery. I had the courage not to fear death, not even to consider it, I told myself. But of course, this wasn't really true. Especially recently, I have come to feel utterly inadequate in my limited lifespan in the violent wake of history's course. What could I possibly accomplish, in this little body with this isolated little mind and weak little heart? I couldn't admit it to myself, but I was afraid of death because it meant that, at some point in the future, my efforts and deeds would end, my work here would be over. I did not fear death because I was afraid of the unknown or the possibility that I would cease to exist. I was afraid for the world's sake. I was afraid that all of its great leaders and loving individuals would fade away in death before their work was finished, abandoning those of us here still struggling. And I was afraid that I too would be gone before even my own pathetic work was done. This was a very real kind of fear.

But for a moment, at this concert, it suddenly seemed utterly silly. As ridiculous as a body suddenly evacuated of a soul still dancing and swaying to the music. The image suggested something I'd wondered about for so long but had never articulated: if the body does not disappear into oblivion, why should the soul, the consciousness? And for me, even heaven was a kind of oblivion--a spiritual respite, perhaps, but one cut off from the world and its on-going creation and evolution as a manifestation of God. My understanding of heaven was actually in some ways a disconnection from the Divine in being a disconnection from its creative activity, and so I could not hope even for that. If I died right now, how would I know it? Would I be swept away into some cheerful, wing-strewn oblivion where I could forget about the world and its suffering? I laughed. No, my body, my heart, my being answered me. Of course not.

It is amazing the freedom of infinity. As a character in the movie "I *Heart* Huckabees" says, "Infinity is everywhere, it's here right now--that's what makes it infinity!" If I am not condemned to abandon God's world when I die--if I can continue to participate in the active creativity which is, in essence, that of love--then what have I to fear? I am reminded only now--upon reflection months later--of a dream I had where I was the only person among a group of students to truly know that death was real because love was real, and that they were somehow connected. If I can love so greatly, engage myself so fully in the Divine and its loving activity, in not only its perfect being but also in its creative becoming, then I can overcome death as an unnnatural cessation and understand it instead as merely a transformation. I have nothing to fear of it. I will continue to evolve and grow as a spiritual being, growing ever closer to God and alligning myself ever more harmoniously with the Divine Will; I do not have to rush to accomplish it all in this one lifetime or otherwise consider myself a failure (believing only half-heartedly that God loves me despite all that I have failed to accomplish). It is enough to keep working, and in this way I am free of the distracting and even sometimes paralyzing fear of failure and disappointment.

These are all words, but I have only recently found them. After the night of the concert, some non-intellectual, non-rational conviction in me had shifted. I wanted to read--to perform--poetry. I was in part merely inspired by Vai's amazing showmanship. But I was also motivated by this new freedom, this new intuitive awareness that no performance needs to change lives or devestate minds, if only I performed whole-heartedly and with love, hope and good-humor. There was a great release, the relaxing of a pressure that had until now always been there, driving me towards improvement but also towards fear and stumbling. What I had known about flowers and rain and birds--that they are blessings not because they try so hard to be blessings but simply because they are themselves, and so also are they God--I now knew secretly about myself. Indeed, I didn't just know it intellectually or rationally, but I felt it deeply.

I have since then on many occasions forgotten this newly realized truth. In fact, more often than not I forget it and become entrenched again in a mist of distractions and pressures all insisting that I have only this one shot to be Something and that I am not yet the Something I should be. And in my rush and burning to be Something according to the world, I still forget so often to orient myself to the Divine, to give up my self-centered worrying and instead allow the Divine to be what it is through me. But I am slowly learning. I have these moments which remind me so strongly of this essential truth, moments which, unlike my intellectual convictions (which seem, so often, founded on shifting sands pounded by wind and waves), do not falter or fade.


[...] I've been reading a book my father gave me for Christmas--Infinite Life, by Robert Thurman--which talks about the Buddhist philosophy of selflessness and interconnection. Reading it, I can sense how cynical and resistant I've become. I've always been resistant, firstly, to reincarnation (probably because it's always been presented to me somewhat simplistically, and because it seemed almost a kind of nightmarish eternal separation from God, being stuck alive) even though I've also never been able to rid myself of feeling like an "old soul" with pasts full of learning and growth behind me. I clung to the one-lifetime chance of self-evolution to sainthood (because, yes, how can I lie? I have always wanted to become a saint) with a kind of half-hearted reassurance that God, being all-loving and all-merciful, would sweep me up into Divine Union after death no matter what stage I was in (though even this belief seemed to somewhat demean any growth or progress I might make).

This despite the contrary nature of almost all my other beliefs: (a) that the soul continues to evolve forever and that this process of growth is actually in itself sacred and a manifestation of the Divine; (b) that we are selfless creatures, essentially, but also infinitely interconnected with all other life and the Divine, not in a way that denies us freedom and meaning, but that gives us ultimate meaning and allows us infinite, creative freedom; (c) that the Divine is not merely transcendent, but also immanent within this very reality, the physical world in which we live, and thus this creative act of on-going creation and love is also holy. All of these things suggest that, when we die, we are not just 'kaput' forever, that God does not overrule our freedom in sweeping us along into a heaven which is, anyway, some isolated and disconnected escapist fantasy apart from the beautiful and sacred world. Heaven was no reward for me, to think that I might someday be severed from all life here and, thus, in some way from even the Divine itself as it manifests through and sustains that life.

I have been hesitant to accept reincarnation because it is against official Catholic doctrine, and because it seems to be for most people a simplistic way of explaining away current suffering and glorifying the ego by making it eternal, just some infinite body jumper. Of course, Thurman's emphasis on selflessness and the illusion of a separate, isolated ego self rings so true for me. And he goes on to detail how this very interconnection leads one logically not only to accept the idea of 'reincarnation' as an infinite interweaving of life with life (not some gamble with one's karmic stockpile), but also to emphasize that such interconnection, when recognized, manifests as infinite love and compassion for others.

If this is the case, then understanding karma as payback is about as shallow an interpretation of Buddhist philosophy as is interpreting the Christian heaven as a reward for lip-service and world-denial. Instead, the two religions seem to have a lot in common--understanding suffering not necessarily as punishment for past wrongs or sins, but as challenges placed before us that we must work to overcome and in this way continue to grow in perfect freedom, so that we may come to the Divine of our own volition and, furthermore, manifest the sacredness of the Divine to others through our overcoming. Reincarnation merely extends this process of growth infinitely, suggesting that the challenges placed before us in this life are the result of those which we have not yet faced or overcome in the past (just as, within one lifetime, we might run into the same patterns of difficulties and conflicts if we fail to learn from them). Such a view does not suggest callousness or indifference, especially when one emphasizes our interconnection and thus an interweaving, also, of responsibility for each other's spiritual evolution and happiness. Instead, it can lead us to be ever more compassionate to other's suffering.

I digress. I think my point is that, as much as it bothers me on some level, the idea of reincarnation is seeming ever more plausible. I think I will refrain from bragging on about these ever-changing understandings of mine (since sharing them too often only makes me appear unstable and serves only to confuse others) and instead simply live a good, loving life, so that I can be a living example and not merely a lecture to be ignored. Teahouse practice, after all.


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At 23.7.05, Anonymous Andrew Salck said...


So much to say on all of this that is in this post. But I'll settle with commenting on one thing that you said:

"There was a great release, the relaxing of a pressure that had until now always been there, driving me towards improvement but also towards fear and stumbling. What I had known about flowers and rain and birds--that they are blessings not because they try so hard to be blessings but simply because they are themselves, and so also are they God--I now knew secretly about myself."

Then you go on to say the difference between understanding this intellectually and feeling it: "Indeed, I didn't just know it intellectually or rationally, but I felt it deeply."

Have you read "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse? It's amazing. I'm assuming you've read it, but either way, this quote reminds me of what you said. Notice how by the end of it, he's also discussing the difference between understanding something intellectually through words and truly feeling it. The similarity of this passage to your journal is somewhat astonishing:

"'This,' he said, handling it, 'is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal, or man. Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has not value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. That is what I should have thought. But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the grey, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface. There are stones that feel like oil or soap, that look leaves or sand, and each one is different and worships Om in its own way; each one is Brhaman. At the same time it is very much stone, oily or soapy, and that is just what please me and seems wonderful and worthy of worship. But I will say no more about it. Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nosnsense to another."


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