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 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.2 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.

Show 2 footnotes

  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.
  2. 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.

Favorite Poems: “To Elsie”

There is now a great deal of poetry available legally under copyright on the internet, good sources being the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Magazine, Poem Hunter, along with those repositories of older public domain literature, Bartleby.com & Project Guttenburg. There are also an increasing number of sites like Pennsound with audio archives of modern & contemporary literature. Drawing on these sources, I am going to begin a regular feature of the blog–a kind of commonplace book for me–called Favorite Poems. I will link to the full text of the poem & usually make a brief comment, personal rather than critical, about the poem. These will be my favorites, so I invite comments on other readers reactions, suggestions, etc. Join me in taking advantage of the rich resources available for our pleasure & edification. Note: I will soon begin a feature of favorite “bad” country songs in order to counteract the rather high-toned presumptions of the Favorite Poems series.

I begin today with William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie,” which astonishes by its clear seeing and unsentimental view of the world & its people. Williams has the ability to say things that are not conventionally “kind” out of a deep reservoir of love for the world & its things. Follow the link to the Poets.org site & read the poem. Here is audio of WCW reading the poem.

I’m Bored with My New Toy

I’m bored with my new toy. I am ready to go back to being an ordinary person without illness & to give up all this navel gazing & self analysis & pain & support from friends, both spiritual & secular & all the immobility. Oh, yeah. Crap. It doesn’t work that way. I have to carry on with being ill. It’s depressing, frankly.

Robins after Rain

We’ve had a lot of rain the last couple of days, but this morning sunlight is flooding the maple trees. There are a couple of robins–a mated pair perhaps–singing back & forth from the tops of two nearby maple trees. Not competitive singing, just a duet. Maybe they are teaching their fledglings the basic repertoire of the robin tribe.  They do something to intensify the qualities of the morning. The sunlight on green maple leaves is a degree more intense when they are singing; the coolness of the air wafting through an open window is just a little sharper; the bark of the dogs across the river just that much more distinct.

Signing My Will: Impermanence (Part II)

It’s not hard to understand the ordinary operations of impermanence. Things come & go, including people. Human beings are caught in “the relentless grip of time,” as the physicist Sean Carroll writes in The Big Picture.” And various versions of the self wax & wane over the course of an hour, a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Most human beings most of the time are only minimally aware that they are so gripped by time & change. It’s that big change at the end that eats away at consciousness & that we try to forget about, though of course we can’t really forget about it fully. It’s a mistake to push awareness of mortality into the unconscious, though. It is bound to manifest elsewhere. For much of my life the attempt to suppress thoughts of death emerged in various forms of misbehavior that I’m too modest (or embarrassed) to report here. Suffice it to say I only made myself more miserable.

But my marker on the gameboard has suddenly been advanced by some invisible hand so as to make me acutely aware of my own approaching mortality. Timor mortis contrubat me, wrote the poet William Dunbar at the beginning of the 16th century. The fear of death confounds me. He was ill & thinking of all the fine poets who had preceded him into death; he lists them by name & how they were carried off. He repeats the line in every stanza of a twenty-eight stanza poem, hammering it home & near the end writes, “Sen he has all my brether tane, / He will naught let me live alane.”Dunbar has seen what’s coming & now knows that poetry will not protect him. Perhaps it’s silly to imagine it ever could, but those old Scots bards were said to have magical powers.

Last week I downloaded & completed three legal documents: Last Will & Testament; Healthcare proxy; & Power of Attorney, the latter two giving my wife C. power to act in my name when I cannot, the first instructing her how I would like my megre assets distributed after my death. Working on these documents projected me into the future with a strange, ambiguous affect. On one hand, I was extending my control into the future by telling others what I wanted in a legally enforceable way; but on the other hand I was projecting myself into a future in which only my ghost existed–in these documents. I felt a little like a ghost in constructing them. Once they were completed, of course, they had to be witnessed & signed.

It turns out to be fairly difficult to assemble three witnesses, a notary & the two principals involved. So I set up a meeting at the hospital where I am being treated. The notary (a vice-president in the hospital administration & a very friendly woman about my age) met us & we sat in an alcove of the lobby, signing & grabbing staff to serve as witnesses as necessary. All done in fifteen minutes, during which we made small talk & joked about this & that, knowing but ignoring why I was concluding this business at this particular time. (I was the one in a wheelchair.) I don’t think we were being dishonest. We were strangers, after all, dealing with reality. But I suspect there was just a touch of unease in each of those random witnesses, picked out today to be confronted with a reminder of mortality. A dark wing passing through the sunlight, trailing a shadow. That’s probably why we laughed so much. (They work in a hospital–maybe they don’t need to be reminded.)

Flux & flow are the way of the world, or so the most advanced physics attests, to say nothing of several sophisticated sacred traditions. But this condition is by no means all Whitmanian slip & slide & spiritual smooth sailing. Change–especially the big change at the end–will punch you in the head, knock your feet out from under you, frighten you out of your wits & rub you raw. These days, I live with the big change on intimate terms. My cancer could spread, or decide that the drug we are using against it tastes like candy & go wild. But I actually don’t think in those terms most of the time. Most of the time I talk with friends, or eat a meal, or read, or listen to music, or write this blog, or make poems, or practice Zen. In dreams the shadows will descend in a confused mass sometimes, without resolving into a pattern. A particularly sharp stab of pain, or a new pain anywhere, will produce a cry of anguish or pulse of anxiety

There are those who seek to mitigate the vertigo induced by this kind of radical impermanence by finding some sort of foundation–traditionally, something like God, but taking many other forms, from dharmas1 to selfish genes & blind watchmakers. At this point it would be simple enough to slide off toward a discussion of entropy & the arrow of time, but I’ll just stipulate that the physics confirms a more intuitive insight that Buddhists have been developing for two & a half millennia: Everything is changing all the time, but our perceptual & psychological systems smooth out change & seek patterns that allow us to function in the world.2 Normally, then, we see the world through a series of filters & reducing valves. “Through a glass, darkly,” as Corinthians has it. I’ve said in a recent post (“Reincarnation”) that the universe seems just strange enough to me to allow for some subtle flow of energy out of one’s consciousness at death. But what happens to it or where it goes I would not pretend to know.




Show 2 footnotes

  1. The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like “natural law.” Its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support.” In this broad sense, common to many religious traditions, dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also. (Source: About.com).
  2. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception makes this idea central to his thesis about psychedelic drugs.


As a Buddhist, there is a sense in which I am “supposed” to “believe” in reincarnation, or, more subtly, rebirth.1 I certainly do not accept the picture of rebirth in which a person’s soul slips out of their nostrils at the moment of death & enters the body of a newborn human baby; nor do I accept the idea that one can recollect past lives as Shakespeare or Ulysses S. Grant. (Why, in this version, is the past life always a famous person?) Nor do I credit all the (mostly Christian) accounts in drugstore counter books about going to heaven & returning to tell about it. These have mostly turned out to be hoaxes anyway. This version of the soul & this sort of reincarnation is easy to dismiss as naive, at best.

But long before I became a Buddhist, I was not a good materialist, but more of an empiricist, & I had the sense even then that the fabric of the universe was far stranger than we had led ourselves to believe. Little hints or inklings of a greater mind during dreams or hallucinations, often revealing something about past events that later proved to be true, or future events that “came true” in certain ways. Perhaps this is just deja vu & can be explained physiologically or neurologically, but I don’t think this covers all the cases. Once I became a Zen student, different ways of thinking about rebirth became available to me. The metaphor I like best is that of lighting one candle from another just as the first candle gutters & goes out. Is the new flame the same flame? No. It is caused by the first candle but has no relationship of identity with it. There are just flames going out & flames being lit. One has to understand these “flames” & “candles” as representing in this metaphor any being in the universe, sentient or insentient.

I also think many of the accounts of Karma we find in popular Buddhism–to say nothing of the wider culture–are oversimplified & naive. You’re a bad person, consequently, you get reborn as a bug, or in one of the elaborate eschatological realms invented by Brahmin priests & taken over by early Buddhism. All my empiricist alarm bells start ringing at such a picture. Robert Thurman, in The Yoga of Everyday Life, argues for a kind of Buddhist Lamarckianism in which good actions here & now produce moral improvement later.

My own first impulse would be to imagine more randomness in the system–that which particular candle one lights as one’s own is going out is to some extent a matter of chance. In this way of looking at it, the universe is seething with possible connections & the person exiting this lovely scene of oceans & clouds gets plugged into the next available slot, which, statistically, most likely is the body of a bacterium, the most numerous life form on the planet. But I don’t rule out the possibility of moral improvement across space & time. Perhaps each helping action one performs “in this life” prepares one’s residual energy for more refined work in future rebirths, but I also have the sense that we live all our “births” at the same time. (Robert Thurman says this present life is a bardo,2 a transition stage from one life to another. I honestly do not know.

There is another problem behind these others & that is what gets transferred from one birth to the next. Is it a substance? A subtle form of energy? I’ve already rejected as naive the notion of a soul moving from one body to another but with little post-it notes of former identities stuck to its incorporeal carcass. In Zen & many other forms of Buddhism self or soul is a construct, without any permanent identity–just some temporary piles of different kinds of stuff hanging together–loosely amalgamated like the dust & stone of a comet. What part of that self gets transferred over to the other side? The very idea is incoherent.

Those piles of stuff are of course the skandhas of Buddhist psychology, which strikes me as very subtle. Those heaps that constitute the self have no metaphysical status, they are the results of conditions & cause & effect. When the constituted person ceases to exist, the heaps dissolve back into the flow of existence. So what little grain of identity gets reborn. I think it can only be the force of one’s moral actions in “this life” that goes forward.  If one performs good acts now & here, the reverberations of those acts continue outward infinitely, which is a kind of immortality. And there may be some kind of little boost that kicks in at the moment of death. Again, I don’t know & I refuse to presume.

But this doesn’t get me quite back to my starting point. Since I fell ill, I have naturally enough begun wondering what I will experience at the moment of death. Will my consciousness simply go out & the force of my accumulated actions jiggle the structure of the universe ever so slightly? That seems most likely. But it seems just barely possible that some flake of consciousness will detach itself from my identity & make a journey through some bardo to or toward . . . something else. I’d like to be awake for that, but of course there would be no “I” to be awake. I have to end by saying, again, I don’t know. One thing I do know, however, is that current science in its materialistic turn has missed out on the study of the world’s full range of phenomena. There is more going on in any part of this existence than we can begin to imagine.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. this is not actually true, strictly speaking, thus the scare quotes. As a Buddhist, I don’t have to believe in any particular doctrine.
  2. The intermediary stage between death and rebirth—where a soul who has just left its body experiences a . . . “virtual reality” where its life flashes before its eyes, and it gets to witness first-hand the karma it has accumulated during that lifetime.