Updated: Dec 9, 2021
David Flavin, Untitled DIA Beacon (figures are gallery visitors)
The more conservative iterations of Theravada Buddhism posit thirty-one planes of existence according to one’s karmic condition, from the lowest hell to the animal realms to the enlightened human to the Bodhisattva to one who has left samsara (the wheel of incarnation) forever. Where one goes after that is unclear, and probably not knowable by a personal intellect. In the lower realms, the suffering is long and terrible. To be incarnated as a human therefore is an extraordinary thing and should be a time to practice and become enlightened, to create good in the world. Presumably one can backslide to one of the lower forms of suffering. Since there is nothing I have read in the Pali canon that describes this I assume reincarnation to be the invention of Brahmanism in India that co-opted Buddhism very much like the Catholic Church did with the teachings of Christ. Stephen Batchelor writes convincingly about this in Buddhism Without Beliefs.
Mahayana Buddhism is variable in its versions of the afterlife; the Zen of Thich Nhat Hahn teaches that there is no continuing self; the only thing that continues is the fruit of our actions, for good or for ill. However, Tibetan Buddhism, although rooted in Mahayana, continues the belief in reincarnation in an exacting way, even being able identify former teachers as they incarnate in children.
And there is this, my favorite form of reincarnation: rebirth. I don’t necessarily mean the emotional, in-church Christian version of being born again, which is usually followed by some reactive backsliding. I mean being reborn, in this life, as a conscious person. This can happen sequentially, as if we are molting at intervals, leaving our old selves behind.
Bodhidharma is said to have thrown away the scriptures and stared at the wall for seven years (or twenty according to the source) in order to achieve enlightenment. I like to reframe this to mean he realized that conceptual thought is of no use in Buddhist practice, and that certain things are learned only by practicing and being. The Buddha was reputed to have said that he was not enlightened but awake.
In the middle of such a discussion, my meditation teacher, Mark Hart, said to me, sotto voce: “We don’t know what the fuck is going on, do we?”
The older I get the more I acquiesce to mystery. Maybe this was what Lao Tzu was getting at when he wrote (or said, or someone said he said) that the real Tao cannot be named.
Mystery is not merely a void but the frisson of not-knowing. Not-knowing is the most fertile place there is. Poems, music, art, and the deeper knowledge of physics come from not knowing. Not-knowing is the ground we seed with our actions.
The pull of mystery is spiritual hunger, the desire to practice, to learn, to be free of the bondage of self, and to create. Metaphysics is the boat we leave behind when we enter the river.