I've seen it happen countless numbers of times in class with Geshe la: our discussion goes back and forth over a particularly engaging idea—reincarnation or nonviolence or vegetarianism—and Geshe la's response and the student's response stumble over the simple fact that each party in the discussion proceeds from an unexamined, unarticulated, and very different assumption about the subject at hand. A real-time example of East meets West. There are, in fact, fundamental epistemological differences.
As I've read through the literature, I've stumbled on examples of these assumptions in Tibetan or Buddhist thought, and when I find them, I'm generally glad I did because to understand someone's assumptions about reality often goes a long way in explaining their reality.
So what I propose to do is periodically take a break from Atisha and the 7-Point Mind Training and provide one of these eye-openers. I'll call these postings Time Out From Atisha.'
Today, I want to talk about reincarnation. No matter how logical it may seem to us, it is still not a part of our cultural inheritance, and it often does very little to address the Western fear of dying. We have trouble moving the idea from the head, where it registers logically, to our hearts where it directs our very perceptions, our emotions, our way of living, our way of fearing, our way of loving.
B. Alan Wallace mentions that we need to familiarize ourselves, through various discursive meditations, with the continuity of our lives beyond the current one, and he has suggestions for accomplishing this, but they seem at times very cerebral. It's important, though, to give it a try because it has a direct impact on our understanding of the 4 preliminaries, particularly as it impacts the preciousness of this human life and its place in the process death and dying. If we can ever get to the place where we make our decisions and judgments based on the notion that our central energy is not confined to this particular time and place, we will begin to make decisions that have long-term effects and benefits for all concerned.
But how to do that? Many of you have read Thich Nhat Hanh, and I find his approach to this issue
very helpful. He addresses it, among other places, in his wonderful little book, No Death, No Fear.
On pages 7-8, he writes:
Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Only when we touch our true nature can we transcend the fear of non-being, the fear of annihilation. The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient something manifests and we say it exists. When one or two conditions fail and the thing does not manifest in the same way, we then say it does not exist. According to the Buddha, to qualify something as existing or not existing is wrong. In reality, there is no such thing as totally existing or totally not.
Of course the great strength of any teacher resides in his or her ability to find the analogy that will open up one of these mysterious truths. We're looking for the analogy that will lead us into a fruitful meditation on the idea, so that the idea is gradually transformed into a livable reality, one that will quietly condition the ways we react to the constantly changing world around us. Thich Nhat Hanh's analogy is the television or radio:
We may be in a room that has no television or radio. And while we are in that room, we may think that television programs and radio programs do not exist in that room. But all of us know that the space in the room is full of signals . . . We need only one more condition, a radio or a television set, and many forms, colors, and sounds will appear. It would have been wrong to say that the signals do not exist because we did not have a radio or television to receive and manifest them. They only seemed not to exist because the causes and conditions were not enough to make the television program manifest . . . It is our notion of being and non-being that makes us think something exists or something doesn't exist.
The point, of course, is that our bodies are simply televisions or radios, playing host to these life-signals that manifest in each of us until the conditions are no longer sufficient for us to broadcast the signal. It's a profound analogy because our personalities, our preferences, our tastes, our loves, our hatreds, these are simply elements of the broadcast, but not the signals themselves. When the elements of our personalities vanish, the signals remain.
So there is no birth, there is no death. There is only manifestation of the signal, and we can, our teachers assure us, become aware of the signal, and nurture that awareness even after the personality fades away.
At any rate, that's one of the ways Thich Nhat Hanh talks about death and dying, and I've found it worthwhile to spend some time pondering it when death and dying is what I'm working on.