Following on from my post about rebirth, it seems necessary to comment on the very great differences between Western ideas of "reincarnation," in which coming back again & again into samsara is seen as an endless amusement park ride, and the Eastern view (which is not at all monolithic, it should be noted), in which the whole point of rebirth & the accompanying theories of the functioning of karma is to get off the wheel of samsara & enter nirvana. (These are subtle ideas & come in many variations across Asia & now the globalized West as well.) Zen, specifically, drives up the level of difficulty by asserting that samsara & nirvana are one & the same thing. (The hell realms are right here with us, as well as the paradise of the gods & the animal realm, etc. Moment by moment we choose which realm to inhabit.) There is also a split within Buddhism itself as to the desirability of nirvana, or extinction, as the final goal of religious practice. The split is both historical & philosophical & manifests along the Theravada / Mahayana fault line in the history of Buddhism, with the Theravada emphasizing extinction & the Mahayana emphasizing the Bodhisattva ideal of continuing rebirths for an enlightened being until all beings are liberated. This is the Zen way & it involves being deeply engaged with the world as it is as part of one's practice. The reality of actual conditions needs to be confronted in a spontaneous moment by moment experiencing of the various realms of existence as we traverse them in our lives. Extinction, then, in my practice, has not been central, has not been a motivating factor; rather, it has been the bodhisattva ideal of helpfulness that has motivated my practice. Neither has my practice been worried about tracing out my "past lives"--if such things can even be said to exist.[1. The Buddha is said to have experienced all his past lives at the moment of awakening, but the narratives of those lives are clearly a later addition to the canon.] If the Buddha experienced his past lives at the moment of liberation, it was clearly not in narrative form. He may well have come through his enlightenment experience with the sense of his eternal aliveness, but just going over the narratives would have taken much too long, & he had other things to work out that were far more important to the initial turning of the wheel of the dharma he was about to undertake than whether he had been a lion in a previous existence, or a snake. (See the post on Reincarnation.) As for future lives, I have no senses that another "life" awaits me, as I have already said, though I leave room for the possibility of some bardo state I cannot even conceive of here in my human form. So if nirvana is now & samsara is now, how should we comport ourselves in carrying out the Four Bodhisattva Vows? The Five Remembrances might be a good place to start. As of today I am incorporating them into my daily liturgy along with the Heart Sutra. In Thich Nhat Hanh's version:
  1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
These are not morbid unless reality itself if morbid. They stand as a reminder for everyone--not just sick folk & old folk. You can recite them in sunlight & in a driving rain. They stand up to scrutiny either way. What I particularly value here is the way the Remembrances reinforce the simultaneousness of nirvana & samsara. They are equally of use in sunshine & in rain, in suffering & in pleasure. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.[1. This is a famous koan in both Soto & Renzai schools of Zen. Here is one taisho on the koan. There are many others on the internet, including one by my own teacher, Shugen Sensei.] I do not know how extinction will happen or if anything follows it. I know that it follows naturally from all that has gone before it, that it should be met with equanimity. And that is my practice now, to go down into the cave of despair without despairing.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Extinction”

  1. Whatever happened to the Buddha, and all the other bodhisattvas and lords before him? You consistently avoid that he went somewhere (to a higher level of consciousness), that he continues to exist, that if he exists he continues to have Buddha nature, which is compassion for all sentient beings and therefore the willingness to work to help all sentient beings achieve what he has achieved, the living perception of reality, which is that all is spirit, that there is only spirit, matter being its reflection, its temporary vehicle. He didn’t start out as a Buddha, he worked his way up, as we all can and must. It strikes me as irrational to think he simply got his and retired to some state of bliss. Though he need not return in a body, that doesn’t mean he does not continue to participate actively in the redemption of humanity. Also, reincarnation, as it is understood in the West, is not about being an animal in a prior life, by which it can be easily dismissed. It is the recognition that our actions have consequences, both intended and unintended, that lead us back to physical existence because only here can we compensate for them, restore balance in our lives and thereby become capable of service to others. Samsara is a karmic school, and we are all at different levels of development, graduating through all the signs of the zodiac and all the moods/types of personality, to achieve as human beings a level of spiritual accomplishment that exceeds the creating gods, who did not experience death, and therefore cannot bring the fruits of suffering and dying into the spiritual world as a new and uniquely human contribution to the evolution of spirit. I believe Buddha perceived all his past lives in a single glance, a panorama of comprehensive understanding and final acceptance. Again I think you’re locked into material notions of time, how much time it would take, etc. Time is death, his perspective was from the vantage of the timeless.

    Finally, let me have the impertinence of adding a 6th Remembrance: I am of the nature of spirit, and through my own actions, and with the help of the gods and my fellow creatures, I have the intention of achieving true freedom and love, which will be the making of a new earth.

    1. The historical Buddha died & after that, as I’ve been saying, there is just the possibility that some particle of light from that consciousness slipped free into the universe, but without an identity. I simply do not know what that bit of light would look like or manifest, but the historical Buddha is, as we say, historical. He is not more. He is an ex-buddha. The Mahayana fixes this by imagining the Buddha has three bodies. This can get quite technical quite quickly, but there is the physical body that dies, the Nirmanakaya; there is the bliss body of enlightenment, Sambhogakaya; and there is absolute Buddha nature, Dharmakaya. The Nirmanakaya bodies dies with the individual who belongs to it. The Sambhogakaya body is the karmic body whose acts propagate through space & time; as far as I know this body is only lives after death in so far as acts continue to reverberate karmically throughout space & time. The Dharmakaya body is Buddha nature itself. This is what you want to call “spirit,” I think, but which can just as easily be seen as a metaphysical principle of existence, part of the nature of reality. I might be willing to understand this as “mind” but “spirit” carries too much of a connotation of individual identity, which, if I read you correctly, is what you are trying to get into the system. I don’t see the need. I wouldn’t deny the possibility, but I don’t see the necessity. Which is to say, Five Remembrances are enough for me. I don’t feel like I’m avoiding anything & the Remembrances come from the historical Buddha himself, who, apparently, did not see a need for a sixth one about the world being in the nature of spirit. The historical Buddha did not talk much about spirit or eternity. Indeed, he explicitly ruled out discussion of some such topics because they had nothing to do with the relief of suffering.

      As for the animal & hell realms of samsara, as well as the heavenly realms, none are conceived of as permanent. No such thing as eternal salvation in Buddhism, though there are long periods of R & R. But the animal realm can, also, at least according to Robert Thurman, be a realm of karmic repair. Some animals are nicer than others, some animal might refrain from acting from its animal nature & thus climb the karmic ladder a notch. Thurman creates a kind a Lamarckianism out of this observation that I’m not so sure about, but I mention it because it demonstrates that at least one serious Buddhist scholar sees all the realms of samsara, not just the human, as places of potential karmic repair, though it is easiest in the human realm, as the Buddha himself noted on many different occasions.

      1. Yes, first we have to understand and get past the language. The Nirmanakaya, the Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya are, to simplify, body, soul and spirit, for me. The spirit part alone is real, and this spirit part has or is the ego, the self. We could also call them the sensory self, the higher self and the true self. Obviously this true self must be in harmony with all things and all beings above and below it, for it be the true “I”, even though we, still possessing only a physical-sensory-materialistic consciousness, cannot yet experience this higher consciousness, we perceive its necessary existence and participation in our more limited-to-self outlook. To the extent that the Buddhist goal is to relinquish self, it must admit the need to first acquire one, shall we say, worth relinquishing, the gift of a true self.

        When we live in physical bodies, like now, we live in two worlds simultaneously, but what animates this physicality, our own individual inextinguishable life force, with all that it has accumulated/learned from its earthly experiences, leaving the body behind, returns to an already existing, prior reality (read here: ‘coherent spiritual world’, not one in which our consciousness(which is our life) is lost, but one to which we can only bring the consciousness we have acquired here, by dint of our own efforts, as the Buddha did when he reviewed all his past lives) in which clearly many levels of consciousness exist all the way up to the Dharmakaya.

        How is karma determined if not by the working of some incomprehensibly wise and loving oversight? This alone implies the existence of a thought-being world where becoming a Buddha has some meaning, represents some accomplishment. How many Buddhas awaited the arrival of Gautama Buddha? I think one can think/meditate one’s way into this spiritual world, whatever you want to call it, since it is there, and we are a part of it, and we have the capacity to develop awareness at deeper levels. And yes, we must proceed with all due reverence, gratitude and scientific skepticism. But we have to start to appreciate its presence and its determining reality in our lives as the lens through which we see things, if we’re ever going to reestablish a working connection with the other side. Thanks for letting me run on about these most important things.

  2. Hey, I have open comments, Peter. I never restrict anything except spam or porn, which usually come together & so are easy to spot. So you’re welcome to the space for your always thoughtful comments & poems.

    You write: “Yes, first we have to understand and get past the language. The Nirmanakaya, the Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya are, to simplify, body, soul and spirit, for me.” As long as you don’t call it Buddhism, that’s cool. Your version makes structural sense, but is much closer to Christian mysticism than anything the Buddha ever taught. So I can see what you’re saying & that it has internal coherence, but the Mahayana it ain’t. And let me be the first to say that not everything must be judged by the standard of the Mahayana. Far from it.

    Anyhow, just to notate but not explicate: I have trouble accepting the material vs. spirit dualism you are promoting, even though you ultimately collapse everything into spirit, Not surprisingly, I also then don’t accept the “everything is spirit” conclusion of this line of development. Finally & even less surprising, since I am a Zen Buddhist, I don’t accept the reality of the self or ego, whatever it’s made of, except as a provisional collection of stuff & processes that cease to function when the material body ceases to function. And this is why we Zen Buddhists have so much trouble with a literalist reading of reincarnation &/or rebirth. That’s why I went to such trouble to try to tease out exactly what I do think might be possible. What is reborn? Damned if I know. Not knowing, is very intimate, though, as one of the old masters said.

    1. “A provisional collection of stuff & processes that ceases to function when the material body ceases to function”, but which in the meantime is able to recognize itself as “a provisional collection…etc.) If that’s what you believe, then you have to accept yourself as a materialist, a ‘that’s all there is’, empiricist and rationalist, philosophically speaking. But this self-recognition is itself a spiritual activity nested in a material form, but having in itself by its very nature something non-material, a living idea, a spirit. To deny the existence, however provisional it may seem from one perspective, of a self is like denying one’s own body. The confusion comes in in denying awareness of the accompanying existence of a soul and of a spirit. It’s not a dualism, but a trinity, with a mediator between two opposites. The soul, or astral body, bearing its karma, continues and is part of what, with a new mandate, returns in a new incarnation when one has been karmically arranged. If the goal with Zen is not-knowing and no-self, we’re already there without too much effort. I feel how much Zen Buddhism has run aground in fear and willed ignorance of the spiritual world out of which their own teachings came. It has become an abstraction wrapped up in a stoicism tied up with a flourish of intellectualism. A formulaic and sclerotic dogma. It reminds me of the flat earth believers in the time before Columbus who said we just can’t go there, we’ll fall off the earth. Some things just can’t be known. They emulate Buddha but have no desire to know what he is up to today, or do they think he just retired? Of course, I could say all this about the Catholic Church and the other institutionalized churches of the world. They all stop just short of actually taking their teachers seriously and developing a concrete and living awareness of the present activity of the spiritual world all around and within us, not as mysticism but as working reality.

      Sorry if I’ve been posting these at the wrong site. Thanks for listening.

  3. Peter, I said “stuff & processes” intentionally. Processes are not material, though I’m not sure they are automatically spiritual either. And my sentence was just a colloquial version of what the Buddha himself taught under the doctrine of the Five Skandhas, or heaps. So I’ll accept your characterization of me as “empiricist” (with bells on), but not as a materialist or rationalist. Processes, in the brain or in the world, are not material. And “rationalism” is one of those “eulogistic,” words, as William James said, claimed by everyone in every argument–or in some cases the reverse, disclaimed. But you know, all through this discussion I have been open to your view while not embracing them myself. I don’t know nothin’ bout no astral body. But I have asked, at least, that you would accept my Buddhism in the same spirit. Up until this post you have done that, but I find the second half of this last part of our discussion disappointing. It’s not that you have been posting on the wrong site–I’ve already assured you of that–& you can continue to post here. But I find your characterization of Zen as both wrong (empirically, based on my own experience) & frankly unkind under the circumstances. I don’t know why you found it necessary just now to trash Zen. You must know I’m not going to resign my formal relationship with the teachers in the Mountains & Rivers (Materialists!) Order, so what’s the point. You could even, by official policy, come sit in our temple with us & think your own thoughts, just as you can also, by policy, post your comments here. But what are you trying to accomplish? You have clearly outlined your position & I have responded with as much wit & friendliness as I have at my disposal, but this last attack on Zen feels personal, as you must have known it would.

  4. Joseph, I do apologize for the harshness of my words, they weren’t meant at all as a personal attack on you, but on Zen Buddhism as a limiting and antiquated thought system, which like Catholicism has settled into an unalterable theology convinced of its final authority, however polite and accommodating its hospitality. I am certainly not interested in having you abandon your sincerely held beliefs and practices, but in considering the possibility that a spiritual world exists that encompasses Zen and Catholicism, and all religions, as historical necessities and steps in the unfolding of a more comprehensive phenomenology, but that goes beyond them. I argue similarly with my younger brother who has been a Catholic priest and educator for the past 50 years. It’s frustrating to feel someone with fine spiritual sensitivities doesn’t want to know what ‘astral’ means, here it’s not just the language difference, but a lack of curiosity about what might challenge long-held and comfortable assumptions. In the end I think it amounts to a rejection of the spiritual world itself, except as it accommodates the Procrustean bed prepared for it. Forgive my frustration. I do appreciate your friendship regardless of these differences in how we see these important matters.

    I guess some of this got going for me in dealing with the question of death which you are facing, which we all face. If one does believe there is a spiritual world where the Buddha continues to play a part, along with other human and divine beings, in the affairs of the earth, then one can accept the continuity of consciousness following physical death and the entry into that world with an individual part to play as well. This reduces death to the equivalent of entering another room; death is a birthday into the spiritual world. This takes considerable amount of the sting out of it, though of course, one must still deal with the physical pain and suffering involved in how we let go of our physical vehicle. So much fear and emotional suffering is eliminated if one recognizes the falsity of death as an end to the self or the real life of each of us, I believe. Thanks again.

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