Monday, July 16, 2018
On August 22 of this year, my mother, Geraldine (nee Kane) Ellis, would have been 100 years old, had she not passed away 20 years ago. So I am dedicating this blog entry to her memory.
Back in the late 70s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I drove across the country with my parents, who were visiting my brother, then in California, while I was returning to Oregon from a visit home in suburban Philadelphia. While we were stopped in Salt Lake City, we visited the Mormon temple complex, including the Mormon Taberacle (where we heard the famous choir rehearsing), and then went to the visitor center.
The whole exhibit turned out to be an elaborate propaganda ploy for inducing the visitors to convert to Mormonism. First we went up a long, spiral ramp with murals of familiar scenes from the Old and New Testaments, such as the Fall of Man, Noah's Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and so forth, right up to the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, and the Crucifixion (on the assumption that visitors, as biblically literate Christians, would feel right at home).
Then, on the upper floor, the big push began in earnest, with a diorama showing the figure of Joseph Smith in the woods of upstate New York when--Voila!--a bright electric light goes on, and a figure in white robes--the Angel Moroni--appears to him with golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon. And so forth...
Our guide was an impeccably dressed blonde-haired man with shiny skin and perfect teeth, whose carefully rehearsed enthusiasm grew in intensity as he retold the story--of Smith's revelation, of the new sect, of their persecution and exile, and finally, after Smith's death, of their triumphant establishment of their New Jerusalem under Brigham Young on the shores of Great Salt Lake.
My mother, showing her best Victorian manners, listened politely to the entire presentation, but on our way back to the car, after we passed a sculpture of a robed angel whose feet floated just about the ground, handing the "staff of Aaron" to Joseph Smith on the shores of the Missouri, my mother stopped, put her hands on her hips, and said, "What a bunch of balderdash!!"
This story has stuck with me ever since that day. It evokes a habit of mind that my parents both instilled in me from childhood, for which I will be forever grateful: the habit, that is, of skepticism--of knowing and calling out "balderdash" when I hear it.
I thought of this story the other day, when I was reading an excellent book by Alan Wallace, an eminent scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. This particular book, one of many he has written, is on the Lojong teachings, also known as the Seven Points of Training the Mind--a series of 59 pithy slogans, divided into seven categories or "points," to help practitioners train their mental processes so that they can transform any adverse circumstance into a seed of awakening to wisdom and compassion. Wallace's commentaries on these slogan are, by and large, keenly insightful, and imbued with his exhaustive study of the vast body of sutras and commentaries in the Tibetan tradition. For this reason, he is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers.
And yet...there is one thing about Alan Wallace's teachings, along with those of many other Buddhist teachers, both East and West, that sticks in my craw: his insistence upon belief in the doctrine of reincarnation, or "rebirth" as many Buddhists call it, as a prerequisite for understanding the body of Buddhist teachings and achieving true wisdom and compassion.
I am reminded, when I see such insistence, of a young devoutly Christian woman who challenged me, after hearing a Bach cantata, as to whether I "believed" what I had just heard, sung along with on the final chorale, and applauded. As she engaged me afterwards, trying to convert me, she at one point said, "All you have to believe is..."
"Wait," I interrupted. "I don't 'have to believe' anything."
And the same goes, I'm afraid, for Alan Wallace, much as I admire him and have learned from his teachings. I cannot agree to "believe" in reincarnation, as a prerequisite, as he would have it, for achieving true enlightenment--any more than I have to "believe" in the divinity or the resurrection of Jesus, in order to be "saved." For me, any claim, from any religious tradition, that I "have to believe" anything is, ipso facto, BALDERDASH.
So what about this Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation/rebirth--the idea that my current suffering is the consequence of my karma, my accumulated misdeeds and delusions from past lives--or, conversely, that we should predicate the injunction to extend compassion toward all--even our enemies--on the notion that, in some past life, they all were my mothers? Or that after we die, we ascend to some Bardo where we await rebirth, and when our practice is sufficiently advanced, we can choose our own rebirth?
A quick scan of the belief systems about the afterlife throughout world history that we know about will disclose two salient facts: (1) they are all completely different, and deeply rooted in the mythology of each particular culture; and (2) they all serve the pragmatic purpose of giving people a reason, based on hopes for bliss or fear of the unknowable (i.e. what happens to them after death), to behave themselves--that is, to act in socially adaptive ways and curb selfishness when it threatens the social order. Any thematic commonalities between these widely divergent narratives of the Afterlife can be attributed to this pragmatic purpose of encouraging good behavior while alive. But of course "good behavior" is often construed as behavior benefitting one's own tribe, as against their rivals or enemies. This is why so many people, throughout history, have been willing, based on their hopes for the afterlife, to take up swords and massacre their enemies--from the Christian crusades to the present-day fervor of ISIS terrorists and even the Buddhist zealots in Burma who are annihiliating the Rohingya Muslims in order, they claim, to protect their Dharma-based culture from the barbarians.
But if one does not believe in past and future lives, or chooses an honest agnosticism about the whole question, can one still be an authentic Dharma practitioner? Alan Wallace would probably say no. But fortunately, I have some able assistance in rebuttal of this claim from Stephen Batchelor, the British author of an excellent book called Buddhism without Beliefs. In a recent open letter to Wallace, Batchelor observes that the belief in reincarnation was a commonplace throughout the Hindu world at the time of the Buddha--just as the belief in the One True God of Israel was part of the cultural furniture for Jesus and his disciples. But he also cites specific instances in which the Buddha remains silent in the face of this and all other unanswerable questions. On this basis, he argues--rightly I feel--that no mandatory beliefs--in rebirth or anything else--are a prerequisite to authentic Dharma practice--the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. We don't need a self-serving excuse to practice compassion, once we understand that doing so is intrinsically gratifying, even while it contributes, however slightly, to healing a very sick society, culture, and planet.
My own take? I believe in recycling--not "rebirth" per se. Like every other living organism, when I die, the elements composing my body will decompose, quickly entering the food chain through worms, maggots, and microorganisms, and become raw materials for the new growth of microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. As for my mind--that unique perspective on the world that looks through my eyes and is conditioned by all of my past experiences, my unique heredity, and so forth--it will wink out as surely as the Cassini Spacecraft did when it crashed into Saturn, for that mind, like the Cassini spacecraft, depends entirely on the delicate and complex organization of its component parts to function as an information processor. And when all those connections are broken, it will cease to exist as sure as the spacecraft did when it burned up in Saturn's dense atmosphere.
But as long as I know that this thing called "I" is actually just a temporary configuration of Gaian elements--Earth, Air, Fire, Water--organized into the trajectory of a living system, from conception to birth to life to death, it does not really matter whether I live or die. As William Blake, a poet and visionary whose deep wisdom I can always rely on, put it,
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art thou not
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
(Happy Birthday, Mom!)