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Archive for the tag “rebirth”

Maybe being a bodhisattva isn’t so silly after all….

In my previous post I suggested that if you want to be a bodhisattva you just might be crazy—or at least ill-informed and irrational.  You probably are all of these, but that’s no reason to give up hope!  While each of the quandaries I proposed is legitimate, none, it turns out, are fatal to the (surreal) sensibility of the task of trying to live and think as a bodhisattva.

The first problem I noted was that the historical Buddha did not teach the bodhisattva ideal.  More accurately, it might be said he did not advise it.  For the Pali Suttas clearly describe a universe in which numberless buddhas have come and gone, arising in succession, each rediscovering the lost “ancient path” to liberation and then proclaiming it.  (See the Mahapadana Sutta, D.14, for the most detailed account of the early bodhisattva ideal found in the Nikayas.)  So the prospect of becoming a bodhisattva and then a buddha was already acknowledged in the earliest texts, as was the possibility of becoming a paccekhabuddha or an arahant (what the later tradition calls a “disciple” or shravaka.)

Regarding rebirth and the length of time it takes to perfect the virtues required to issue in buddhahood: my feeling has long been that if there is no rebirth and you strive to help others, to be the best person you can be within the limitations of your genes and upbringing, you will certainly live a worthy life.  The effects of such a life will ripple down through generations and affect the world positively in ways that cannot be foretold.  And let’s face it: if there is no rebirth, the moment you die little buddhait will cease to matter that you did not experience an awakening of the sort the Buddha experienced.  If, on the other hand, there is rebirth then the force of one’s goodness and resolve will (presumably) carry over to the next life so that your bodhisattva career can continue.  The trick, of course, will be keeping with it in life after life, for there is never any guarantee as to what sort of rebirth you’ll have, or in what your circumstances.  (Crustaceans, sharks, and maggots probably encounter difficulties fulfilling their bodhisattva vows!)  The working of karma, as the Buddha noted, is something that cannot be conceived; every life is a roll of the dice for you do not know what you’ve done in the past; therein lies the challenge.

As previously mentioned, all of this will take a long time, and the old commentators proved adept at dreaming up fantastic metaphors to stagger the mind as to just how long the bodhisattva road goes on.  Really, though, we shouldn’t be put off by any of this.  How many of those previous lives (assuming rebirth happens) do you remember?  Probably none.  How much anxiety, guilt and general angst are you suffering now on account of what you did previously?  Well, that’s a tricky question since the nature of your birth–species, genes, environment–were all determined by your previous lives (again, assuming there were any).  So in all honesty there’s no way for you to answer that question.  Nonetheless, most people do not feel weighed down by countless memories of the past, so whether rebirth is real or not roughly amounts to the same thing in the experience of the average person.

All this is to say that while descriptions of the bodhisattva career are not for the faint of heart, psychologically we can face down the prospects and take up the call.  For a further primer on some of the historical and doctrinal issues involved, I strongly suggest reading Guy Armstrong’s excellent essay, “What is a Bodhisattva? and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Arahants, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.”

The ontology of rebirth, or, Does it make sense to be a bodhisattva?

If one wants to be a bodhisattva, the first question one has to ask is, Does this project really make sense?  The whole basis of the bodhisattva ideal is that one should dedicate a long time to perfecting certain mental characteristics to render one the most perfect possible vehicle of teaching for the liberation of suffering beings.  This is all sounds very heroic and altruistic, but there are several problems with this notion.

  1. The first problem is that this is not what the historical Buddha taught his disciples to do.  Forget the teaching of “provisional vehicles” in the Mahayana sutras: modern scholarship is emphatic these texts didn’t issue from the Buddha’s mouth but were later creations credited to him.  (This sort of after-the-fact, alleged authorship happened all the time in the ancient world.  Consider, e.g., the deutero-Pauline and pastoral epistles, all of which are dubiously attributed to Paul.)  The Buddha urged his disciples to guarantee their liberation as fast possible, to practice meditation like their hair was on fire.  He did not encourage anyone to hang around and wait for years, not to mention lifetimes, to perfect themselves so they could do a better job getting enlightened and teaching later on.  So anyone taking the route of the bodhisattva is not following what the historical Buddha taught.
  2. Let’s face it: our characters are, to an extent, determined by our genes.  This can be seen in the dispositions of infants and how they develop later as adults.  (Note: there’s a very strong correlation!)  This means fundamentally changing ourselves, training our characters, is a very difficult if not impossible task.  When you start studying bodhisattva literature (one of the main points of this blog) you will realize that very few people are equipped for this task, which is to say they are not ripe for becoming Buddha’s.  We can admire people like Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela for their mental toughness, their ability to sacrifice present pleasures for later, worthy gains, to demonstrate compassion and care for others.  But as extraordinary as any of them is/was, none of them had all the “requisites of enlightenment” (bodhisambhara) essential for the complete awakening of a Buddha.  (I’m stating this per the orthodox opinion.  In later posts I want to explore whether or not this orthodoxy is meaningful from a practical standpoint.)  What I’m getting at is that this project has to extend past this particular life–unless of course you already are a bodhisattva and this is your last birth.  Which begs the question: Is there any good reason to believe in rebirth?  I happen to think there is, but of course, I may be wrong.  (See here for one of my reasons.)  If there is rebirth, then you have all the time in the world; actually, you have much more time than that–you have all the time in the universe, through every cycle of creation and destruction, and in multiple universes to boot.  (Scientific opinion seems to be converging on the idea of a multiverse.  See, e.g., the eye-opening article “Starting Point” by Steve Nadis on the work of Tufts University cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin in the September 2013 issue of Discover.)  If rebirth is not the case, then in this one fleeting life you’ve thrown away the opportunity to experience what a liberated human mind is like.
    Infinity art
    infinite time and space
  3. Let us assume rebirth is a fact and you’ve determined on the bodhisattva career (despite the Buddha’s advice).  What is the guarantee you’ll have any recollection of this decision in a later life?  In fact, what’s to stop you from going senile in this life and forgetting who your spouse is, not to mention all your valiant resolutions (like giving up porn or cigarettes or whatever)?  Remembering that you wanted to become a Buddha may be really tough when you’re reborn as a sponge or even just as a regular bloke hauling fish for a living.
  4. Even if you manage to remember the awe-inspiring decision you made 100,000 lifetimes ago, how can you be sure you’ll feel like sticking with it?  I mean, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a paleontologist; I didn’t become a paleontologist.  Then I wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; I didn’t do that either.  For most of the past fifteen years I wanted to be a best selling novelist, but, needless to say, that didn’t pan out.  Now…  Hell, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  Given the fickleness of thought, how can anyone expect to make up their mind for a lifetime, not to mention for uncounted cosmic cycles.
  5. Actually, when I said “uncounted cosmic cycles” I was being rather vague.  The texts (e.g. Acaryiya Dhammapala’s A Treatise On the Paramis) cite eight incalculables (asankheyya) and a hundred thousand great eons (mahakappa) as the median length of time required for the task, but it could take as long as twice that!  How long, exactly, are eight incalculables and a hundred thousand great eons?  Well, by definition their length is incalculable and if you look about online for definitions and specs you’ll see that after a certain point the length of time in countable years stops meaning anything.  It might as well be forever.  A job that takes forever or almost forever is a job best not started.

These are just a few of the problems I’m noticing with the bodhisattva project.  I’m sure there are other problems people more astute than I am could think up.  That said, I still think it is not such a bad idea to dedicate oneself to being a bodhisattva.  In fact, it probably is the best thing you could possibly do.  More on this in my next post, where I will proceed to refute everything I said in this post.

Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki.  Wisdom Publications 2010.  190 pages.

Book blurbs are invariably hyperbolic, laudatory and, well, a wee bit exaggerated.  In this case, I think they’re actually spot on.  Consider this from Christopher Germer: “This book has the power to change how you see yourself and the world.”  Or the following from Joseph Goldstein: “[Olendzki] enlarges our understanding of basic principles and raises occasionally unsettling questions about familiar assumptions.”  Or, from David Loy: “Olendzki’s presentation of the Abhidhamma is particularly helpful and informative.”  I could go on, but you get my drift.  This is, indeed, a work of great knowledge and perspicacity.

First, as to the contents.  The book consists of previously published essays from a variety of venues, mainly Tricylce, Insight Journaland Buddhadharma.  The upshot of this is that there really is no sustained polemic or argument to the text, though it is organized into sections with such titles as “Caring for the World,” “Constructing Reality,” “Self and Non-Self” etc.  I admit I hardly noticed these as I read though. The individual essay topics hit all the traditional Buddhist favorites–dependent arising, not-self, suffering, impermanence, karma, ethics, as well as war and peace, the environmental crisis, modern psychology, and other things besides.  However, the book does not really develop progressively from section to section.

This hardly mattered to me because each essay is itself a little gem.  Olendzki brings several strengths to his work.  First, he is very familiar with the Pali texts, the oldest Buddhist scriptures and the only ones that can claim a direct link to the Buddha himself.  Second, he has clearly read and pondered and used these texts in the way they are meant to be studied and used–as guides to one’s world of inner experience.  He has done this thoroughly and reflectively, and brings a strong teaching resume to the work.  (His academic credentials are solid, plus he has a long-time association with IMS.)  Third, Olendzki is an excellent writer.  He is quotable, to the point, clear, and succinct.  In other words, he’s got all the ingredients necessary to turn out a masterful book, and that is what he’s done.

This is a work that can speak for itself, so I offer a few quotes as examples.  Here is Olendzki on the ever-controversial issue of anatta:

One assumption challenged [by the Buddha] is that the self has some sort of privileged ontological status as a substance, an essence, or a spiritual energy that is something other than the manifestations of a person’s natural physical and mental processes.  Self might be a useful word for referring to a person’s body, feelings, perceptions, behavioral traits, and consciousness, but it cannot be construed as something underlying or transcending these manifestations.  It may be a good designation of a person, in other words, but a person is not something other than how he or she manifests in experience (9).

Olendzki adds much as well to the understanding of paticca samuppada:

As an example of interdependent origination making a specific contribution to the new psychologies, we can look more closely at the relationship between feeling and desire.  As we have already seen, Buddhist psychology regards feeling–the affect tone of pleasure or displeasure–as an intrinsic feature of the mind/body organism.  Every moment’s experience of an object will come with a feeling tone, whether or not this feeling is accessed by conscious awareness.  In response to a feeling of pleasure or pain, an emotional response or attitude of liking or not liking the object may also arise.  Most of us conflate these two experiences much of the time, concluding that a particular object is liked or disliked.

However, in fact the object is merely experienced, and the liking or disliking of it is something added by our psychological response to it.  This difference is a subtle but important nuance…  It is the difference between “I am an unworthy person” and “I am a person who is feeling unworthy just now” (13-14).

Here Olendzki puts the Buddhist path into perspective, at the same time revealing its non-theistic origins:

Having identified that suffering is caused by a thorn–craving–lodged deep in the heart, the Buddha offered to pull out that thorn, allowing a person to find peace in any circumstance.  It turns out that extracting the thorn is not something magical, requiring the special grace or powers of a transcendent being; rather it is something that can be learned by almost anyone.  Since the causes of human suffering are ultimately psychological, the healing process is psychological.  This somehow puts the whole enterprise within reach, and renders it attainable (15).

Amazingly, the above passages are all found just in the introduction!  With such a wealth of well-put insight, how could any sincere and open-minded person not benefit from this book?

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.  Rupa Paperback 1997.  425 pages.

Judging by the number of reviews on Amazon, this is probably one of the most popular books on Tibetan Buddhism out there.  The reasons for this are not hard to understand.  In terms of its style it is extremely accessible and personable.  The writing is both sincere and approachable; this is a “regular guy’s” guide to Tibetan Buddhism, not a scholarly or esoteric rendition.  The author relates many personal stories about his own upbringing in the Tibetan tradition, giving it a feeling of great authenticity.

The material is quite comprehensive as far as an overview of Tibetan Buddhism goes, with a unique focus on issues of death and dying–how to relate to someone who is terminal, how to respect their feelings, help maintain their sense of integrity, and how to keep one’s own perspective on things as life passes away.  For people who are dealing with the loss of loved ones, or who are themselves terminally ill, I think the book has a lot of comfort and guidance to offer.

There are many applied discussions concerning meditation.  Practices of guru yoga and lojong are discussed, as are meditative preparations to help one deal directly with one’s own demise.  I found the discussion of the Tibetan Bardo teachings to be particularly interesting, as this is not an area of which I am very knowledgeable.  Essentially, the entire process of death, transition and rebirth is described from the inside out.  I would be fascinated to know the means by which these teachings came into being; I suspect this is probably a cumulative tradition based upon many peoples’ near-death experiences and past life memories.

Altogether, I can easily recommend the book.  What I can’t recommend is that you read anything about the author, because if you do it will give you something of a mixed feeling about what he has written.  Assuming he wrote it, that is.  Online I’ve encountered rumors that Sogyal Rinpoche is not even the author, that someone else either ghost wrote the book or contributed substantially without credit.  I find this hard to believe, but I suppose anything is possible.  I can only say that if the widespread allegations of sexual misconduct against Sogyal Rinpoche are true, then he must be something of a split personality, since it is clear he has also done much good.

My advice: read and benefit from the book, but don’t explore any further.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor.  Riverhead Books 1998, 127 pages.

This is my second reading of this book.  I can’t remember exactly when I read it the first time; the early ohs, probably.  But given some of the comments I’d made in the margins, I expected to disagree–perhaps violently–with a lot of it.  I was pleasantly surprised.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I read was to try to figure out if the book was appropriate for beginners to Buddhism, or strictly for more experienced sorts.  Honestly, I’m still not sure about that, because exactly how to classify Batchelor’s little tome even seems problematic.  To be frank, I’m not sure you can say it is about Buddhism.  It talks a lot about the Buddha and his teachings, no doubt, but the impression I get is that it is more of a meditation on the implications of dharma and dharma-practice for modern men and women than something about Buddhism as Buddhism.  For example, you get very little of the traditional points of doctrine, or even meditation practice, though a few exercises are discussed.  These are all in the background, though, like pieces of furniture, and the reader is expected to find his or her own familiar seat among them and listen while Batchelor discusses whatever’s on his mind.  So, on this account I think it must be for advanced dharma folks…

But perhaps not.  Many people, those “with little dust in their eyes,” will be startled and stimulated by Batchelor’s eloquent, often insightful ponderings.  He points out that the Buddha’s way of awakening did not begin as a religion–is not really a religion at all–but started out as an expression of one amazing man’s experience of freedom, of his putting an end to suffering–or, as Batchelor rather oddly terms it, “anguish.”  (I must confess, this translation of the word dukkha jarred me from beginning to end.  It’s rather too extreme and not general enough.)  Batchelor goes on to say–and here is where the controversy starts–that the proper attitude, the one in keeping with the Buddha’s own, is agnosticism, a critical, even desperate sense of not knowing, of being open to insight.

At times he explicates this position brilliantly.  Consider this passage, for me one of the highlights of the book:

Such unknowing is not the end of the track: the point beyond which thinking can proceed no further.  This unknowing is the basis of deep agnosticism.  When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.  We are free to begin a radically other kind of questioning.

This questioning is present within unknowing itself.  As soon as awareness finds itself baffled and puzzled by rainfall, a chair, the breath, they present themselves as questions.  Habitual assumptions and descriptions suddenly fail and we hear our stammering voices cry out: “What is this?”  Or simply: “What?” or “Why?”  Or perhaps no words at all, just “?”

The sheer presence of things is startling.  They provoke awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock.  Not just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.  This can be unsettling…

The task of dharma practice is to sustain this perplexity within the context of calm, clear, and centered awareness… (pp. 97-8)

A few paragraphs below, Batchelor writes in paraphrase of Tsongkhapa: “Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves.”  Herein lies the heart of the book.

Immediately I was reminded of the author’s Korean Zen (Seon) roots and of the practice of the hwadu, better known by the Japanese term koan.  For me the passage hit home for in fact the first awakening experience I ever had resulted from just such a sense of deep questioning following upon a very stimulating conversation with a friend, and my life has never been the same since.

Alas, Batchelor overreaches and in places his agnosticism descends into Western materialist pontificating.  This occurs especially in the chapter entitled “Rebirth,” where he makes a number of groundless assertions.  For example, on page 34 he says “The Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth.”  The texts, however, make it clear that rebirth was a matter of experiential fact for the Buddha as well as many of his disciples.  (My own experience inclines me, rather strongly, to side with the textual accounts.  I intend to write considerably more on this at a later date.)  Batchelor goes on to say “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.”  But in fact the Buddha redifined the understanding of this process, from one involving a reincarnating soul (atman) to one of impersonal consciousness taking form dependent upon conditions.  Cf. the Mahatnhasankhaya Sutta (M.38) which begins “Now on that occasion a pernicious view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sati… thus: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.'”  That “pernicious view” is none other than the ever popular reincarnation theory of Hinduism and Western New Age claptrap.  Batchelor then claims “The Buddha found the prevailing Indian view of rebirth sufficient as a basis for his ethical and liberating teaching” (p. 35).  But this is in direct contradiction to the quote from the Buddha on the opposite page: “But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxieity, and I shall live happily…”  Quite plainly, the Buddha’s ethics did not derive from a “belief” in reincarnation of any sort.  Rather, it was something that possessed independent merits and purpose.  Batchelor’s incoherence on this point undermines his otherwise excellent thesis that the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching is not dogmatic or ideological, but practical, empirical and investigative.

It is quite fine though if someone, Batchelor or even you, dear reader, wish to remain agnostic on the question of rebirth.  That is not an unreasonable position.  But where Batchelor’s materialist agenda really rears its ugly head is on page 37, where he claims karma (kamma in Pali) is some kind of “ancient Indian metaphysical theory.”  Batchelor says “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  But as he himself notes, the word karma literally means “action” and in the Buddha’s psychology specifically conscious action or, to put it redundantly, “intentional intention.”  The notion that intentions and conscious actions have repercussions, that they condition the psyche and predispose it to certain influences and outcomes, is hardly a “metaphysical theory” but rather a fact seen in direct reflexive observation.  A good course of vipassana meditation will make this apparent to any who harbor lingering doubts, for there the impersonal flow of cause and effect in the states and contents of consciousness become palpably, indeed painfully, clear.

Batchelor–good materialist that he is–adopts the notion that consciousness is entirely explicable in terms of brain function–itself an article of faith as yet unverified by any experiment or data.  While no one will argue against the notion that changing brain structure or chemistry can alter conscious experience, it is also a fact that by thinking consistently in a certain way, or by determining to do something repetitively–both of which are acts of conscioussness–I can alter my brain structure and chemistry, thereby clearly demonstrating that consciousness and the brain are interdependent; it is not a one way street where the one strictly determines the other.  Batchelor, however, is too ideological too consider this point.

I have not yet read this book’s successor volume, Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist, which even Christopher Hitchens found palatable.  From what I’ve read though, Batchelor there really presses his brand of agnosticism to the limits, perhaps to the point of utter failure.  I’ll leave my considerations on that one for a future review, if I ever get around to it.  For now I would simply like to say that despite the above noted flaws, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a beautifully written, deeply thought and felt little book worthy of the attention it has received.  Batchelor is a wise voice and an excellent writer to boot and though his book deserves criticism it also deserves praise.  My final conclusion is that while beginners in Buddhism can benefit from the book, it will probably mean much more to those who have sufficient reading and practice under their belts.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

The Memory: An Essay On the Buddhist Theory of Rebirth

The following is an essay I wrote in 1996 about a past life memory I had.  Readers should note that my reference to the Buddha’s fire metaphor is in error; while the Buddha often used the concepts of fire and fuel to illustrate psychological points, he in fact never asked a question such as I pose.  Guess I’ve learned a few things since ’96…

Scratch, scratch.  The metal rake made a quick, even sound across the ground and buried itself in the leaves, pushing them along like a crowd of reluctant children.  My hands, gripping the wooden handle of the rake, swept back and forth while my bare feet plodded after the slowly gathering pile of fallen leaves and twigs. 

This incessant removal of jungle debris is an integral part of forest monks’ lives in South and Southeast Asia, mirroring on the outside what their meditations should accomplish within.  Some monks, either for exercise or lack of anything better to do, seem almost to spend the whole morning whooshing a rake around the forest.  One wonders what they’d do if the leaves stopped dropping.

It’s a job with more than a small touch of danger though.  Sharp eyes can save your life, since small cobras and other still more venomous species often curl up under the leaves, some of which are a foot and a half wide.  Scorpions, though less common, can also be a hazard; hence many monks wear sandals.  I, however, did not.

The year was 1994, and the place was Sri Lanka, the little island that hangs like a teardrop off the tip of India.  Looking back, I’d say it was the hardest, loneliest year of my life, something I should definitely have avoided.  I went there at the urging of a friend of mine, a German fellow who was a monk, and who encouraged me to become the same.  I had already been four and a half years in Asia, ostensibly to study Buddhism and get enlightened, but perhaps also because I’d not figured out anything else to do with myself.  While not spiritually mature enough to grapple with the responsibilities and implications of monkhood—should I choose to follow that course—neither was I inclined to be responsible in the way the world demanded.  In the end I chose monkhood as the lesser of two evils, and went to Sri Lanka.  About four months later I was ordained and given the Buddhist name of Sudanta. 

It was a thoroughly hermitic life.  Each monk had a small cement cottage, called a kuti, some roofed with red tiles, others with asbestos sheeting (courtesy of generous American companies who simply wanted a market, no questions asked), a dirt yard, and a cement basin for bathing that was usually in some stage of algae overgrowth.  Surrounding us all was the jungle, a high, nearly impenetrable, wet green mass that housed a remarkable showcase of wildlife.  In my time there I saw dozens of cobras (occasionally on my front door step), as well as a snake known to locals as the Thirteen Steps To Death (why thirteen I never learned), apparently so venomous that if bitten you might have time for last rites, but little else.  There were enormous, fluorescent-orange frogs that could hurtle two or three meters in the bat of an eye, scorpions, meter-long worms, lumbering lizards that looked for all the world like miniature Komodo dragons, softly hooting owls, and hordes of raucous monkeys.  These last provided the most entertainment as well as annoyance, and served also to keep you on your toes, constantly on watch for their thievery, and provided a litmus test to see just how patient and calm your meditation practice had really made you.  I tended not to be very patient—one of the possible reasons for the eventual failure of my monastic career—and had a number of run-ins with them, some humorous, others frightening.

Asia taught me a lot about the world, and about myself.  The insights tended not to be flattering, and I have since realized the depth of maturity required to be fully open to and aware of oneself, to take oneself to task, and to train mind and body—but especially mind—towards a definite end.

In the course of that training many things rear up their heads—sometimes beautiful things, sometimes ugly things, sometimes strange things, things you read or hear about but still only half believe.  When I first came to Asia I was most drawn to Zen Buddhism—my destination had been Japan—and while an enthusiast of Buddhist teachings, I felt little conviction for some of its more metaphysical claims.  Books by D. T. Suzuki, Zen’s leading promoter, don’t say much about reincarnation, or “rebirth” as Buddhists call it, nor about any other paranormal phenomena, though they are acknowledged to exist.  But they talk lots about satori, the enlightenment experience, and that’s what I liked about Zen.  I liked its straightforwardness, its lack of concern for ritual and speculation and other matters that don’t bear directly on the real work, which for me at that time was meditation.

But life in Asia has a tendency to poke and push at the bounds of personal beliefs and assumptions, of working its way under the skin, and you find yourself subjected to a seemingly inexorable process of enculturation by forced osmosis, like being in a pressure cooker and having the steam of new ideas injected into you.  Just breathing the air and eating the food, knowing they’re not your native fare, is bound to exert an effect on all but the most hidebound travelers.

That’s how it was with me and the worldview of the country in which I dwelt.  It was a vision of reality that postulated numberless beings, most invisible, and multiple planes of existence, some utter bliss, and others more hellish than the snapping of your own bones.  And the machine of this alien worldview, its raison d’être, was rebirth.

From the Hindu point of view, this process is easy to explain and understand.  It is based on a belief in an infinite number of souls in an infinite universe, each soul migrating to a higher or lower state of existence at death depending upon the thoughts, words, and deeds it committed throughout life.  A person ordinarily angry, short-tempered and inclined to violence will accordingly be reborn in a place and form that reflects agitation and violence.  A generous and loving person will take life again in a harmonious and safe environment with all of his or her needs met.  It is the force of mental states and behaviors that create the new body.  From the Hindu perspective, a soul goes from life to life as easily as changing clothes.

Contrary to popular conceptions though, there is really nothing of fatalism in this, for thoughts and actions are for the individual’s choosing, and the more choice is exercised, the more freedom is gained.  Every thought and action is a cause, and every resulting mental state and situation is an effect, and effects are the seedbeds of potential causes, and so on and so on, ad infinitum.  As all beings desire happiness and the free exercise of their power to bring happiness, so each thought, word and deed carries with it the responsibility to choose happiness, good will, love and regard for life.

Buddhism says as much when it comes to self-responsibility, but there is a difference concerning what Buddhism says is actually reborn.  The difference between Buddhism and Hinduism here is subtle but immensely significant, and upon this difference hangs what, in essence, makes Buddhism and Hinduism two very different religions. 

As Hindus see it, the basis of spiritual existence is the soul, or atman.  But in Buddhism there is the central doctrine of anatman, meaning “no-self,” or “no-soul,” and this must stand as the single most radical teaching of the Buddha, and one of the most difficult concepts in all of religious thought.  Whereas all religions assume the existence of some sort of spiritual self-essence that is the basis of personal existence, the teaching of anatman is an explicit denial of any permanent substance, being or essence that could constitute an individual.  Individuality itself, the life of the ego, is relegated to the dust heap as a psychological fantasy or delusion.  The two obvious questions that arise then—and they are so nearly the same that a single answer will suffice for both—is: What, then, is a person, and what is reborn?

The Buddha himself, when answering this question, supplied an analogy to help people conceptualize what he had in mind.  He compared the “person” (and this term is used only nominally, for there is, according to this way of thinking, actually no person as a real, self-existent thing) to a fire that is lit upon a pile of wood or grass and is allowed to burn until, just as it dies from lack of fuel, is transferred as a single hot coal to another pile of dry grass or wood.  There a second fire soon blazes hotly, but it too eventually dies.  This process is repeated again and again.  The Buddha’s question to his audience was: “Is the second or third or fourth fire the same as or different from the first?”  This query of course draws to the fore the issue of identity; specifically, is there any permanent identity or merely a constantly changing process?  Obviously, neither “yes” nor “no” is an adequate answer, simply because fire neither has nor connotes any notion of identity or individuality.  Another such simile, my own, also illustrates this point. 

Ocean waves often travel great distances.  Suppose a swell began on the coast of Africa, and then traveled some three thousand miles to crash on a beach of the eastern United States.  The question would be: Is the wave that gently lifted a fishing boat in the waters off Liberia the same wave that crashed over the walls of some kid’s sand castle on the beach at Cape Hatteras?  The answer is yes—we can track large waves as they pass over the water and so identify them individually—but also no, because the water that was under the fishing boat never made it to America.  It is still sitting off Africa.  This is because the water of a wave does not move with the wave.

Yet Hinduism asserts that it is the same soul which is born now here as a beggar, then there as a monarch.  Buddhism claims that there are only causes and effects, and that these merely follow their own, impersonal order.  The body that arises is just the effect of past thoughts—it is the water of the wave and wave’s shape—but the thoughts themselves, the intentions and choices, are the force that creates body after body, just as energy is transferred through water, creating wave after wave.  As a wave is in fact simply energy moving through water, so the thinker is the thought.  But thought itself is empty of self, soul, or substance.

I was five years in Asia before I really understood the mechanics of rebirth and accepted its implications.  For a long time I was very much the doubting Thomas.  I remember one hermitage I stayed at in Sri Lanka where the abbot said something about talking to devas—the angelic, higher spirits of Buddhism—and my friend and I had a great laugh over the remark.  (“And can they help us get a year long visa?”)  But Asia worked its slow, patient magic over me, and in the course of time I, too, became a believer.

The psychological aspects of the Buddhist theory of rebirth, what it says concerning the nature of thought and its effects, mentally and physically, can actually be seen very clearly in the course of meditation practice.  The vanishing away of the self, and the bare awareness of impersonal thoughts coming and going in a mechanical flurry, each fast on the heels of the other, are experiences that can be had by most anyone with sufficient dedication and perseverance.  They are not the results of any dogmatic belief or self-hypnosis, but of training the faculties of concentration and awareness, plain and simple.

The implications of this radical psychology for a reality paradigm, however, are harder to demonstrate, and one ordinarily has to be willing to read the appropriate books and listen to a lot of personal stories.  These stories can be heard, certainly, if one opens the ears a bit.  Just talk to people.  Relish their tales, take them seriously, and they’ll tell you all the most unbelievable things.  Unbelievable if they came from only one or two sources, yes, but after finding that every Tom, Dick and Harry has a ghost story, your doubts start to become dogma and you no longer feel on the side of the winning team.  I’ve talked to engineers, peasants, Cambridge educated geniuses and Berkeley professors, and every one of them can tell you something that standard science and philosophy texts dismiss as impossible superstition.  In the end, I was compelled to throw out my prejudices and seriously consider the possibility that the “supernatural” is, in fact, quite natural.  It is only the narrow, artificial worldview of orthodox materialism that declares such things impossible.  “He who has eyes, let him see.”

Needless to say, I was not thinking of any of these things that morning while I raked the leaves.  It was in all respects the ordinary morning of an ordinary day.  I certainly was not “on the blink,” “under the influence,” or otherwise affected in any way.  I was not in a trance.  I had not recently experienced any “altered state of consciousness.”  In fact, my meditation was pretty low-grade and unrewarding that whole year, another reason for my eventual abandonment of monk’s life. 

But on that morning sometime in mid ‘94 something happened.  My restless rake gathered the leaves, it’s every swipe propelling the pile towards a ditch at the end of the mossy yard.  I turned briefly, standing under the eaves of the kuti, removing leaves from the base of the house.  Then, very clearly, I remembered.

It’s easy to tell a thought from a memory.  You know “I am thinking” and you know “I am remembering.”  Unless you are sick, senile, on drugs, or somehow impaired, the difference is plain.  That being so, there is no question in my mind that what occurred that instant was no thought that I had constructed, even unconsciously.  It was a memory—vivid, definite and, for an instant, totally possessing me.

If one considers for a moment, it is plain that a memory is composed of two parts.  There is the image one sees, which can be clear or faint, and there is the information packet that accompanies and informs the image.  This can be sketchy or detailed.  The info-pack isn’t so much the image’s soundtrack as its introduction or header, somewhat like the big, white, supine script that heads Star Wars, filling you in on the Death Star, the Empire and Princess Leia’s mission.  It lets you know where you were, and what the situation and time were.  The only difference from the Star Wars header is that this information occurs simultaneously with the image.  The image and the information packet together constitute a memory—they are the memory—and their vividness and detail determine how “good” the memory is. 

In the moment I remembered, a certain knowledge of what I had been and done a very long time ago came to me.  What I saw was a low, rounded hill rearing up over an empty field of tall, waving grass.  There were few trees in the picture, and the hill was alone, a solitary formation not connected with any other.  The day was bright and the sky blue with only a few clouds.  I vaguely recall my outstretched right hand in front of me, waving or gesturing, perhaps as I talked, probably to point out some significant characteristic of the view.

That much, coming to me so vividly as a memory, would have been strange enough in any case, as I cannot now recall any such scene in this life.  But it was the information packet that froze me in place and halted the scratch-scratch of the rake.  Just as I saw the hill and my hand waving as if in explanation, I knew the place was somewhere in Europe—probably Britain—in the Middle Ages.  I was a military architect, searching with two or three others for an appropriate site for a fortress or castle.  The knowledge was there, immediate, certain, without any fuzziness or effort at recall.  If I remembered now this morning’s conversation with my roommate, it could not be clearer.  I knew it was I who stood there; I knew why I was there and what my role was; I knew I was accompanied by several others; I knew it was long ago and not this life.  I saw and knew all this in the course of two or three seconds.  Then the memory was gone and I was standing in the mid-morning tropical sun with the rake clenched in my now unmoving hands.

 My reaction was stunned amazement first, then excitement and a degree of elation.  I searched my mind for the memory, for some shred connecting it to something, anything, else.  I could see the picture in my mind and I could recount what it had told me, but that was the memory of a memory, not a living thing.  Whatever door that little sliver of my past had escaped from was now closed tight.

There was not then and nor is there now any doubt in my mind as to what happened that morning, for my memory of a past life as a “military architect”—and those were exactly the words that came to me in the information packet—has a curious fit with certain personal characteristics I have displayed in this life.  When I was in junior high school I had an intense fascination for medieval European castles—especially British—and often spent hours in the local library or bookstore poring over books on the subject.  Diagrams and layouts especially captivated me, and I often drew my own. 

If this “memory” was an authentic recall of a moment in some previous existence, it certainly seems reasonable that strongly held traits both physical and mental would carry over.  The profession of choice in a prior life might become an absorbing hobby or intellectual pursuit in this life, or vice versa.  As the particular character and physique of a person is entirely dependent upon what the person has thought and done previously, and like causes always give rise to like effects, we can always expect a relation of the past to the present.

My experience, though, does not constitute proof of past lives in any scientific sense.  It was entirely private and cannot be substantiated in any way.  Anyone reading this account could dismiss it as a daydream, hallucination, or just say I got carried away with myself.  I would admit such possibilities as a matter of course, though there was nothing else that morning to indicate an abnormality within myself, and the singular nature of the experience marks it off from any other I have ever had.

Furthermore, as I said above, if you run into only one or two exceptions to the rules of your reality, that is nothing to be alarmed over.  But when similarly odd cases crop up en masse, a second look is usually justified.  With this in mind it should be said that past life memories—or, more exactly, memories that have no context at all in the present life—are with surprising frequency regurgitated under hypnosis when the subject is regressed to a time before he or she was born.  There are clinical records of this, and in a few exceptional cases there has been confirmation of the information thus divulged, information the subject had no way of knowing based on experience and knowledge gained during his or her present life.  While I have not done extensive research of past life memory cases, I have read enough to know there is a sufficient number of well-documented cases to set the materialist “you’re dead and that’s it” school of thought on very shaky ground.  Liars and hoaxers abound, no doubt, but I have substantiated so many “paranormal” phenomena—including incidents relating to past lives—with personal accounts from people I’ve met and known, some intimately, that I no longer have any doubt about their existence.

(For example, I once met a Sri Lankan monk to whose native village there came a Czech man whose young son frequently referred to experiences in a life he claimed to have known before.  He even provided his name and birthplace—the monk’s home village.  It turned out that a boy from that village bearing that name had died in a traffic accident roughly a year before the Czech boy’s birth, i.e., at about the time of his conception.  Materialists, presented with such a case, would have no recourse other than to dismiss it as coincidence or fraud.  But in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country where rebirth is accepted as a matter of course, the boy was considered to be the reincarnation of the dead village boy.  This is only one of a number of cases I heard, all from reliable sources.)

This being the case—not just for myself but for millions of others as well—one has to wonder why so many people of the scientific and academic communities unhesitatingly dismiss such phenomena as superstition and fraud.  It seems to me that many people who ostensibly spend their lives in pursuit of a truer understanding of the universe are in fact running away from it.  I would guess this is because the scientific community, to whom we look—almost as high priests—to tell us what is real, what our world is about, and what we should be doing with ourselves, is like any other clique beholden to an ideology—they cannot stand to see their beliefs die.  It is much easier to decorate the interior of a house than to blow it up and start over again.

I think also the complacency, or outright hostility, with which orthodox materialists view the paranormal, is that they do not really understand the nature of scientific thought.  A scientific theory is not a set of facts.  It is a picture of the world built up on the basis of observations, observations made using equipment of inherently limited capacity, and interpreted by ordinary people filled will innumerable theoretical and personal biases and presumptions.  As new observations are made, the picture must invariably change and be refined, sometimes drastically.  Discrepancies have to be dealt with, else the picture becomes irrelevant and the people who adhere to it self-deceiving.

Moreover, the true vulnerability and fragility of any theory must be recognized.  It has been observed by the physicist Gerhard Robbins that

…strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven.  It can only be disproven.  When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong—not that we are able to show, beyond doubt, that the theory is right.

A scientific theory may stand for years, even centuries, and it may accumulate hundreds of bits of corroborating evidence to support it.  Yet a theory is always vulnerable, and a single conflicting finding is all that is required to throw the hypothesis into disarray, and call for a new theory.  One can never know when such conflicting evidence will arise.  Perhaps it will happen tomorrow, perhaps never.  But the history of science is strewn with the ruins of mighty edifices toppled by an accident, or a triviality.

Therefore, any evidence whose source is legitimate and which calls into question the prevailing theoretical view is evidence that must be considered.  As I said above, one merely has to talk to people and the stories of paranormal phenomena—the conflicting evidence—pour out of the woodwork.  Not everyone with such a story could be a nutcase, hallucinating, or a liar.  I’ve met too many intelligent, often highly educated people of respectable character who believe in such things because of personal experiences.  Superstitions are innumerable, and so are the people who quite happily use them to exploit the gullible.  The New Age movement is fraught with such chicanery.  But just because Zeus does not hold court on Mr. Olympus and a black cat never did anyone harm besides a bite or scratch, does not mean that all things found outside a test tube or equation are the creations of immature or demented minds.

My feeling is that any scientist worth the name will consider any evidence that contradicts his own views.  As his goal should be a deeper and more accurate understanding of things as they are, the unknown, the puzzling, the challenging and disturbing should be welcome entities in his world.  Any person of open mind should be ready to consider the possibility that he is wrong, and to learn from what he cannot, initially, understand.  To not do so is to freeze our perspective into a dogma and become as inflexible and irreverent of experience as those who condemn many of the most basic and well substantiated scientific theories today.  Though they hold to different “truths,” there is no real difference between a dogmatic materialist and a religious fundamentalist who rigidly adheres to Genesis.  Neither is able to grow into a larger perspective because neither is willing to embrace the unknown that lies outside his established frame of thought.  Only when we are philosophers in the true sense—lovers of truth—will we value the general human experience more than our own small points of view.

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