Welcome Back, and welcome to the new day for the Moment of Zen! It looks like Saturday is going to be the day to post this from now on.
Sorry about the missed week, thanks to a new job (yay!) I'm in the middle of some life changes right now, and haven't quite figured out how to schedule things (little things like exactly when I should be sleeping). Today we're going to talk a little about life changes, but first young Natalie here has some growing up to do:
More transformations under the fold...
Hi there, sorry about the scheduling issues over the past few weeks, I have a new job (one far more in keeping with right livelihood). Changing jobs, and the rapid dramatic change in sleep schedule required to perform a job that takes place largely during what used to be bedtime, took a lot out of me. While I feel sleepy and disoriented, I also feel fresh and new, like a new person.
Reborn, if you will.
So it seems fitting to chat about the Buddhist concept of rebirth for a moment. It might not be quite what you think it is, because we're not talking about past lives as Napoleon, Cleopatra, or even a peasant in ancient Armenia. Actually, I'll be starting the chat with movies.
However, before we really get into it, this seems like a good place for a disclaimer. These chats are not Teisho, not formal Dharma Talks expressing my attainment and realization of Buddhadharma. I'm not a Zen Master, I'm not even formally a Zen Student, I'm just a Zen practitioner, and these words represent my imperfect expression of my incomplete understanding of the teachings offered by Buddhism, and of the world around me. They're here because people have expressed an interest in learning more about Buddhism, but to more fully realize understanding of the concepts I touch on here, meditation does far more good than reading my awkward prose.
Dharma Chat — Twenty-four
When we sit in a darkened movie theater, watching a film, let's slow things down for a moment. The large screen is lit by a bright light passing through a frame on a strip of film, suddenly a shutter closes, the screen is dark, the shutter opens again, and we see the light as shone through the next frame of film, often very similar, but subtly different, to the previous one. This process continues, the shutter opening and closing, showing a new, different, frame of film, typically twenty four times every second (the shutter often opens more frequently, but most film moves at 24fps).
When we watch this film, our brain becomes so immersed in the apparent reality presented by of this flickering light on a flat screen, we viscerally respond, often as if the events on the screen are happening to us. Our brains take these discrete events and form them into the idea of a flowing, coherent, reality, not just when watching a movie, but constantly, it's part of how our brain works.
Which leads us to a pointy question: If our sensory organs and brains have evolved, over millions of years, to automatically tape over the gaps and iron out the wrinkles in our understanding of the world we see around us, what is the actual extent of those gaps and wrinkles that we never realize?
One of the big gaps is simply a gap in attention. Let's say we're an australopithecine in the savanna, we see a big cat stalking us, we turn to find a tree to climb. While we quickly scan for an escape route, our brain keeps the formation of that cat in mind. We feel as if we can perceive her, even when we have no new sensory input coming in from her, because she's quiet, downwind, and no longer in front of our eyes. It's not static either, if we last saw her approaching, our mental stalker moves closer as our brain predicts her likely motion.
If we hear grass rustle, out brain not only changes its understanding of her location, it retroactively changes its memory of her path, the path that we didn't even see. Once we find the right tree, and turn back, there might be a moment of surprise, as we find she's moved faster than we expected, or she's decided naptime is better than stalking time right now. That surprise is accompanied by our brain furiously rearranging memories and understanding to incorporate the new sensations.
But there are more subtle gaps going on, even in this brief example. Our understanding of our the world around us (and our place in it) is constantly changing. Our past was different before and after we heard that rustle. Our future was different before and after we turned back to refresh our understanding of where the huntress is.
Our brains are literally changing, what chemicals are where, which synapses are where, as events unfold around us. Some of these changes are propagated to the rest of the body, which muscles should move, how much adrenaline to pump into our blood. The simple act of looking away from the cat, and looking back towards the cat, has literally transformed our physiology. In many ways, when we turn back to the cat we have become a different person, reborn.
It goes deeper than that. Today, tens of billions of cells in your body will die. A few days from now the vast majority of the cells you currently call your body will be gone, (hopefully) replaced by brand new cells. The food we eat, and the crap we excrete, fuels an engine of continual self-transformation on a chemical and cellular level. Part of my spleen today was in corn in Iowa a month ago; a month from now the same molecules will probably be in a squid off of Greenland. The smaller we look, the faster and more dramatic the continual transformations appear within and around us.
This is the start of my understanding of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth. We are reborn, constantly, because what we imagine is our coherent selves living our daily lives, separated from the rest of the world by our skin, is an illusion that ignores the furious transformations and interchanges that connect us intimately on every level with the universe around us.
Our brain routinely irons out this continual rebirth as just one more inconvenient wrinkle, because it happens faster than twenty four times a second.
Dharma Chat Beyond the Valley of Death
Surely, some of you are going, "Wait, I thought Buddhists believe in reincarnation and past lives! Isn't the 14th Dalai Lama the 14th reincarnation of someone important?". The answer is yes and no.
While the Buddhist sutras, and pretty much every Buddhist school of teaching I know of, explicitly rejects the idea of reincarnation (ie. we have an immortal soul that comes back after we die to live a new life), many Buddhists do believe in reincarnation. There are many reasons for this, but they mostly boil down to: religious literacy is hard, especially when faced with strong cultural memes, a difficult and time consuming day job, functionally illiterate great-grandparents, and sacred religious texts that are 6,568 volumes long.
It's also compounded by the fact that the process of Rebirth doesn't let a little thing like death get in its way, and the way some Buddhist schools (especially the Tibetan schools) present this fact becomes easy to misunderstand as reincarnation. Sometimes sloppy language by revered Buddhist teachers (and earnest Buddhist students like me) helps the misunderstanding along; so it goes.
So what happens when we die? Let's start with what we know. We know that what makes up our body gets mixed in (sooner or later) with everything else, due to decay, or burning, or scavengers, and continue to be a part of the life of the world. Our memories and ideas live on, in some form in the people that knew us, and in some way gets shared with the people that know them, and so on, also being a part of the life of the world. The consequences of our actions, our karma, also continues on as a part of the life of the world.
All of this continues on, as part of all of our rebirth, whether we're alive or dead.
Does anything more continue on? Perhaps it does. I wouldn't be so arrogant to think I know everything about life and death. Even if there is nothing else, there's an old saying from my childhood.
Karma's a bitch.
Someone dies before I was born. As I grow up, I find out I have some of their body in me, some of their ideas in me, and the unresolved consequences of their actions before me to deal with. Is it so unreasonable to consider myself a product of rebirth leading back through their life?
The fourteenth Dalai Lama certainly has some of the body, ideas and unresolved consequences from the thirteenth Dalai Lama in his life, and if there's a fifteenth Dalai Lama, the same could certainly be said. Rebirth.
Dharma Chat — Only a Moment
It takes only a moment to change our perspective, to be reborn.
In the Soto Zen schools of Buddhism, when we sit in meditation, it could be said that we express, to the best of our skill, the continuing rebirth of Buddha. When we stand and act, we attempt to act from within the lion's roar.
It takes only a moment to find that place of enlightenment, and only a moment to lose it again, so we try to live in mindful compassion and frequently return to sit in meditation. May we cultivate the merit for a fortunate rebirth, not after we die, but here and now.
So how's your rebirth treating you? The kettle's on, and the floor is open to questions, concerns, comments, on this or earlier moments...