Life & Death: Reincarnation

Rudolf Steiner argued that life seems a cheat unless we are literally passing through, accumulating wisdom, working out karma, whatever, and taking it with us from life to life. The Buddha, whose teachings arose within a culture that took reincarnation for granted, told his followers, "it may be, it may not be, but at any rate it's not important compared to the tribulations of this life." (I paraphrase.*) The karmic aspect of popular Buddhism delivers a kind of rough justice, but the places to which it points, like the realm of hungry ghosts, could also be seen as a hell of the present - a hell of one's own making, here and now.

My first sense of having fallen through time, as I put it to myself, coincided with meeting a significant person for the first time and intuiting a substantial prior history. Some time later, a psychic I consulted affirmed this.** This person and I are linked over a long succession of lives, she said. And this is not the only person of whom this could be said, she added.

So I wondered if, in between these incarnations, we have any hand in creating the scenario in which we'll find ourselves? Moreover, is the cohort that seems to matter to us one that falls with us, everything changing in the interim, so we can take things up again? There is so much that's uncanny about my own life, which these theories would help explain. (Volition seems to violate the idea of an unfolding and ephemeral universe, however satisfying it is to our teleological sense. Perhaps, though, it's not so much a scenario as a problem that we give ourselves - or this may be how karma works, presenting that problem as the logical outcome of what went before.)

Once, standing in front of a Japanese scroll, I dreamt up a story about the poet and his dog-eared assistant it depicted. They're turned away, giving their attention to a crane that's flying toward them. The gist of the story is that the crane is a messenger from the future and only the dog-eared boy - he's shorter than the poet - can speak with him. Two partial drafts of this story exist, fragments of what I saw: a trajectory of time travel, which - if you add cranes that can fly "up river" against time's flow - can involve a certain trading of knowledge. The cranes, of course, are very wise.

My sense of time travel posits that we take on and shed the elements of personal identity from life to life, making our way across different spectra, like gender. We may even be attracted to those who bring out the identity we've left behind, so momentarily we are no longer our real selves, but who we were - an act, yes, but so convincing because we knew the part so well. And we may bring expectations of others that no longer apply to them, causing disappointment until we finally understand them anew.

Nirvana, which is supposed to halt the process of reincarnation, could be as temporary as enlightenment.*** Perhaps it's a resting place or way station from which we contemplate the terrain before we plunge.

*: Stephen Batchelor notes this in Buddhism Without Beliefs.

**: In saying this, I'm not arguing that what a psychic says is necessarily proof, but rather that her comments about our extensive connection affirmed and elaborated on what I'd intuited.

***: In the view of Dogen Eihei, who declined to privilege enlightenment over other states, seeing it as transient.


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