Giulia and I have settled down in a little room in the woods for the past two weeks near Dharamsala. While she’s been diving deep into Iyengar yoga, I’ve spent most of my time editing my book and writing an introduction (finished! And with the help of a couple editing friends, hopefully to be sent off to literary agents in the next week). Being in one of the best places in the world to study Buddhism, I’ve also engaged with a few key texts I’ve wanted to read for awhile. One of these is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (not to be confused with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, on which it is based), which has provided many insights and sparked more than a few questions in my mind.
The Tibetan teachings generally paint a picture that if we do not engage in spiritual practice in this lifetime, if we commit selfish action, if we cling to our ignorance, then rebirth will be a necessity. On a level, this is kind of a nice idea– if we don’t realize our intrinsically enlightened nature in this lifetime, we’ll have as many as we need to get it. But viewed from another perspective, it seems that to be born is a sort of compulsion over which we have no choice or control. The teachings explain that the process of rebirth after rebirth is just the working out of the natural law of karma, and that selfish seeds planted in this life will have their fruition in the next.
But underlying all this, isn’t there the assumption that existence is a sort of punishment? That it’s not something we want to go through again if we can help it? The Book of the Dead instills the fear in us that we might have to come back to the “swamp of samsara”- obviously an undesirable outcome. Enlightenment, it seems, gives us a sort of permission slip to escape from it.
Some might object to this characterization. What about the bodhisattavas like the Dalai Lama—the beings who postpone their own enlightenment and vow to reincarnate as many times as needed for the benefit of others, so that all beings may realize their own enlightened nature. It seems that they aren’t caught up in trying to escape—they’re willing to come back after all. But isn’t this attitude still based in the need to escape, since the bodhisattva’s goal is to help everyone else escape?
This doesn’t make much sense to me, and makes me acutely aware of the possibility that institutional Buddhism is just another form of brainwashing whereby people convince themselves of the imperfection and undesirability of this world and the consequent need to be “liberated” from it.
Although it seems to me that nobody really knows what happens after we die, perhaps I could propose another possibility. The Tibetan Book of the Dead claims that the moment of death brings us in direct contact with our true, enlightened nature (what the Tibetans call rigpa, but which is described in many different traditions as a blinding light). This is described as “the ground of luminosity” which is none other than the nature of mind itself. It is “brilliantly clear and radiant, transparent and multi-colored, unlimited by any kind of dimension or direction, shimmering and constantly in motion, like a mirage on a plain in the heat of summer.”
If we are not prepared to handle its immensity and intensity, we will recoil from it in fear (or other ego based emotions) and set ourselves like a pinball on the course for another birth. This is why they say that we have to prepare- realizing the reality that this radiance is actually omnipresent in this moment and is the basis of all states of ordinary mind will lead us to understand the illusion we have of being a separate self (ego), which will give us the ability not shirk from this universal radiance when we die, which utterly smashes all concepts of separateness and ego.
But perhaps in the moment of death, upon coming in contact with this ultimate reality (what others might call God), those who have not used this existence to its fullest potential—by living selfishly, never questioning their essence, etc.—will not be compelled to return, but will actually request another chance to live, in order that they may express this Truth that was here all along in this world but that they now directly realize. Many people who undergo near death experiences report that they are given a choice whether to remain abiding in the absolute bliss of the true nature of the universe (again, God would be a convenient metaphor) or to return to manifest reality. One who has not actualized their nature may, out of a deep, burning desire to serve and awaken others to the good news that this world is grounded in Love, choose to return to this world and all the consequent suffering that entails. Upon coming in contact with this unimaginably creative, generous, and loving force (the way it is described in all religious traditions), wouldn’t we hope for another chance to ‘align’ ourselves with this reality?
Seen this way, existence isn’t a swampy wasteland at all, but is the arena in which we can fully actualize and express compassion. Instead of using the fear of being reborn again as a motivating factor to “be good” (as common to Buddhists as it is to Christians), this way of looking at things inspires me with love. Using death as a means to a different and better life. Perhaps all of us have been through this process countless times. If this is so, the question become not when we will realize our true nature, but when will wee start living a life in accordance with it.