This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Choose Your Metaphor, where I engage a Buddhist monk on the topic of rebirth.
“I had some thoughts while was reading Siddhartha the other day next to a river.”
I was happy he let me continue without asking me to define river. Or explain why I had my nose in Hermann Hesse.
“I was thinking about the concepts of samsara and…”
He cut me off and demanded clarification.
Regurgitating what I had learned in a course on Hinduism, “I understand samsara as the potentially infinite round of rebirths that all sentient beings must endure until they attain moksha– liberation. Over and over again we are reincarnated into various forms, all depending on our past karma.”
His scowl said, without words, that I needed to back up. On the one hand, I was getting frustrated at my inability to flow between thoughts. On the other, I was beginning to wonder just how much of my life had been spent talking with others who I assumed understood words in the same way. Like a carpenter forced to readjust his margin of error for a demanding project, I had to whittle down my explanations little by little until I hit a precise meaning we could both agree on.
“By karma, I mean action. I read that it comes from the root kri, which means ‘to do.’ We wind up here as human beings because of the good karma we have ‘accumulated’ in our previous incarnations.”
He leaned back in his chair and let me continue.
“I was thinking, though, that maybe looking at these things on the level of an entire life is a little bit too big. I mean, couldn’t we consider sleep as somewhat of a ‘mini-death,’ and waking up as a ‘mini-rebirth’ back into the cycle of suffering? Perhaps people have missed this meaning because they are too concentrated on the big picture of life as a whole. Each day we take on a new form that we mistake to be identical to all the others. But every day, we are different people, different cells, one day older and more experienced. We are like the river I was watching, since the water that composes it at this moment is entirely different than any other moment! It looks the same on the surface, but its fundamental constituent structure is constantly being altered.”
My fellow meditators seemed taken aback by this sudden outburst of enthusiasm. I had been calm, composed, and somber most of the time, never allowing my intensity or seriousness to slip out. My excitement now propelled me, like water bursting through the dams the monk kept erecting.
“But then I thought, maybe even this was still looking at it a little too broadly. Maybe reincarnation doesn’t have to wait for sleep to come. Maybe it’s a constant process in every moment. If we act poorly and make selfish decisions, we are reincarnated as animals right now, for the man who seeks to exploit and cheat is no more than a dog wearing a man costume, living hand to mouth, having figured out how to manipulate or coerce others. His desires are all animalistic in nature, driven by desire and dominance.
“But the difference between the animals and us is that we can change. Evolution has left an animal residue in us, but it has also given us capacities like love, altruism, and compassion. It is interesting that all these uniquely human values are generally identified with the ‘feminine’ side of things. When we live these qualities and values, then perhaps we come closer to this liberation. We can remove ourselves from our enslavement to desire for each moment brings a new life. We are reincarnated with every heartbeat.”
Tiny wrinkles immediately formed on his smooth forehead as he raised his eyebrows, signaling either intense interest or extreme skepticism. He took a moment to make sure that I was finished, indicating that he had actually listened to what I had said rather than just waiting for his turn to speak.
“You know, I haven’t heard anything in a long time that’s made me happier than what you just said. Precisely! Buddhism is a religion of metaphor, since any word is only an approximation of the reality it points to. Personally, I believe in transmigration from life to life, but I do admit that reincarnation is the single most difficult subject for Westerners to understand. But if you can understand reincarnation as a metaphor in the way you just described, then that is an incredibly motivating factor, since you realized that there is nothing about the past that compels you to behave in certain ways in the present.
“It is, however, disappointing to find that we must do this work ourselves rather than rely on an external savior. But the real tragedy is that we settle for so little, and prefer to live in the fantasy rather than the reality of this persistent dissatisfaction. Understand the urgency. Don’t think that circumstances will be better in a future life. The idea of future incarnations can be just as much of a crutch as the teachings of heaven.
“You have the opportunity right now to turn it around. How many times will we have to be reborn? Isn’t this getting just a little bit old by now? At some point you must decide what’s important, and do it.”