Monday, 17 March 2014

The fear of death and the idea of reincarnation

Big JuJu today. Bit chewy - I'll do my best.

People are/may be filled with dread by the idea of the end of the self, "me," "I," at death. Can the idea of reincarnation help with this fear? 

A few takes:

1) The classic Hindu/Buddhist-derived concept: we have souls; when our bodies die, our souls take off, and re-enter the cycle of life, to be reborn as another creature. We can't remember our previous life or lives (well, a few people say they can...)

But that's no good, is it? Jane Ordinary might say "It still means the end of 'me.' There's no continuity. I might see it as a way of urging me to live a more ethical life, if I believe in a causal, 'karmic' relationship between my behaviour now and my next reincarnation.

But when I'm a mayfly I won't have any connection to the current 'me.' So I still dread the death of my self.

 2) The whole thing is a rather wonderful myth, a longing for some kind of cosmic justice. 

The myth says "Jane Ordinary, you were once a dung beetle, then a tern, then warrior, then a teacher, and now you are enlightened and virtuous? You can step off the wheel of reincarnation and fuse with the eternal." H'mm. "But," says Jane, "that's nothing to do with this 'self' that doesn't want to end. And what if I don't think I've got a soul?"

3) In one sense, we are reincarnated. The matter of which our bodies are made is not eliminated, it's simply re-arranged, with atoms and molecules being, er, redistributed.

 "Gee, thanks," says Jane, "I find that no help at ALL."

4) Step forward Alan Watts. In "Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown" there is an essay called "The Reality of Reincarnation." I couldn't possibly outline here (or anywhere else) such a sophisticated line of thought, but here are a couple of very crude versions of points he makes, in that essay and elsewhere*:

  1. It only feels that "I" am a separate thing from the rest of the universe, but "I" is not a thing, it is a set of vibrations, a pattern of movements (atomic particles, molecules, cells...) just as a river isn't a piece of water you can isolate and say 'that is the essential river.' The flowing of water in a channel is a river, ever changing. "I" is a process, continually changing.
  2. If that's so, then I am the same as the universe; the universe peoples like a tree leaves or a river flows. I am not part of the universe; I am the same thing as the universe, which existed before "I" did, and will continue after "I" end.

So, Jane Ordinary, try looking down the other end of the telescope. If you don't believe in the traditional Hindu/Buddhist version of reincarnation, or any New Age version thereof, then work (via reading and meditation or contemplation) on your perception of yourself; on what you feel yourself, your "I" to be. 

This may not be a matter of logical thought alone. Someone somewhere (Lawrence Durrell?) wrote that (this kind of) "truth is a matter of direct apprehension; you canot climb a ladder of concepts to it." But the path to apprehension may come through perfectly rational thought and reading. 

Jane, maybe you could try letting go of reincarnation as a lifebelt on which you can prolong "Jane." Let go of what you currently think "I" is, what your self feels like, and maybe your sense of dread will lessen. "Jane" is a manifestation of something more than just "Jane."

Maybe you will feel that the pulse that you are now has always been and always will be. The water molecules in the river run into the sea, evaporate, rain, becomes river. Our planet "peoples" just as it "rivers." Our universe "planets." 

Once your sense of "I" relaxes its grip on your states of mind, you will, I hope, no longer fear so much the death of "I, Jane Ordinary."You may be able to accept the end of that transitory, constantly re-made and necessary social construct we call "me."

Well, it may be worth a try; and of course there are other ways of lessening the dread of personal extinction. Did I ever mention mindful meditation? I did? Oh, good.

I know all the "" above are a bit irritating, but I'm trying not to slip back into the usual unconscious assumptions about our individual identities. Which I thin are only part of our story.

*Especially in "The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are."  

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Letter from China: "spiritual?"

I've often skirmished with this word "spiritual;" it gets used easily and frequently. I was told, in another working life, that someone I worked with was "a spiritual man." (I thought he was devious and unreliable, just like most of us.) Bookshop shelves are sometimes labelled "mind, body, spirit." Which means you'll get astrology books next to bibles next to Dawkins. Anyway:-

There's a huge Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing called Yonghegong. It's full of people doing this stuff:

which under Chairman Mao would have got them locked up or worse. (It's also full of tourists like me, c.f. St Paul's in London.) It's great to see them doing what they want. I guess it's a spiritual observance, or is it simply a religious act, which may or may not have a deeper, "spiritual" significance?

Maybe it's an example of "this is what we do around here," by which I mean religion as a cultural habit, something that feels right and homely, not usefully to be seen as a matter of belief distinctions, more as a matter of something that works for a particular group of people.

Maybe the observances at the Temple are symbolic, by which I mean the people may not believe there is a non-material being, a BuddhaGod or spirit, to whom they pray; perhaps  they are simply expressing their wonder and admiration at what the historical Buddha did for them. 

After all, Buddhist thinkers in the Chan/Zen tradition will tell you that Buddhism is not a religion; it has no God, in the Judeo/Christian mould. So maybe these people at the Lama Temple are not worshipping, in any way comparable with Christian worship.

Or maybe they are worshipping, in the hope that a nonmaterial entity, a god, a spirit, will interecede for them and make things better.

I mean, presumably they don't think he's actually going to eat this stuff, do they? The monks take it away when it gets rotten, surely...

All very colourful, fascinating and puzzling.  

But one answer to my questions might simply be that the people with the incense sticks, and the monks, are engaged in practices which have a spiritual significance for them.

It seems to me that we use "spiritual" (in contexts where we do not relate the term to a god, a non-material power) to mean an experience that seems much more significant than our usual states of mind; something that creates in us deep meanings, connections and perceptions beyond those that we are used to. 

I am certain that such experiences happen to atheists, in-betweens, and followers of a religion. I am certain that we need such experiences, and the vehicle we ride on to get there matters much less than experiencing the destination itself.

We tend to over-value belief as a definer of spiritual practices. Does it matter what someone believes, as long as what they do provides a spiritual experience for them? And provided it doesn't hurt others.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Einstein and Buddha - and Alan Watts too.

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description...if there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."

Er, but - it appears Albert never said this, or at least not in this tidy form. He is usually described as a theist, or a pantheist, rather than an atheist, and he certainly didn't go for the personal God who is directly involved in human affairs, the "Lord please smite our enemies because we don't like them" sort of God. It would seem he approached Buddhism via Schopenhauer, and he does mention it favourably.

I think MythoAlbert, as quoted above, is right, in that the experience of a sense of unity above/below individual forms and processes, the "mystical" experience Alan Watts tried to describe (in my last posting here) sits better with Big Science than the Judeo-Christian family of faiths.

So Gautama Buddha* still gets top marks from me (and one or two others) for:

  • not claiming divine origins or a pre-ordained mission
  • telling his followers to find their own light, their own way
  • giving them the astonishing** insight that the ego, the self, is transitory and not a consistent entity
  • getting people to meditate their way to a better, calmer, more compassionate state of being

So well done GB, and AE!

* Many Buddhists believe in Buddhas before Gautama, and that there will be Buddhas in the future, e.g. the overweight cheerful bloke you see in China, represented in lots of little easy-to-purchase statues. See below.

** astonishing, because it seems to be confirmed, or at least supported, by psychologists and neuroscientists; they tell us that we continually recreate our sense of who we are, and that the feeling that "I," my sense of self, is a consistent thing- that's simply a sort of working assumption we need for social interaction etc etc. And GB had no psychologists or brain scanners to help him discover this insight. Just meditation.

The future Buddha, Maitreya; I have to say as an aesthetic experience I prefer Gautama....

but no doubt he'll be welcome, if/when he arrives!