Karma, Rebirth, & Seeking the Great Healing

Karma, Rebirth, & Seeking the Great Healing May 16, 2016

Reincarnation (Hindu)

After I delivered my sermon in which I unpack the renowned “Fox koan” for a Unitarian Universalist audience, and I was greeting people as they left the church, a man waited until near the end of the line. When most everyone was finished we shook hands and he introduced himself as a psychotherapist. He said he was concerned about the idea of reincarnation for a very practical reason. He had patients who were suffering terrible events in their lives. And they had been told by adherents of reincarnation that their circumstances were the result of their actions in a past life. It was a church, so I leaned into him and whispered “such people are full of shit.”

Once again the difficulties inherent in the doctrines of karma and rebirth were raised. This time in a Unitarian Universalist church in Fresno, California. In our era of global religion, where we are in fact marinading in some new larger perspective where heaven and hell, reincarnation, rebirth and the pure land, suffering and healing are all informing each other, and where Hinduism bleeds into Christianity, bleeds into Buddhism, bleeds into, well, who knows, such encounters are becoming common.

Now, while “full of shit” might be appropriate to describe those who seem to casually blame the victim, the real call is to understand what is wheat and what is chaff. And, as a western Buddhist, someone who has given a great deal of my life’s blood to the Zen enterprise, and now in my older years being asked to share what I’ve come to find, this particular controversy keeps arising. I continue to struggle with both the traditions and my own experiences and the wisdom of my fellow travelers on this way, and out of that considering what it all means.

I have to admit, my Buddhism doesn’t really begin with the wondrous Gautama Siddhartha or even the texts that have come to be the canon of Buddhism, but rather, what happened when that ancient, powerful, and highly speculative tradition brought Buddhism to China, and encountered an equally ancient and powerful culture, but one that was vastly more concerned with what is practical.

The core message that traveled from India to China held that we live with a profound and pervasive suffering. And this hurt within us arises because we grasp after things as if they were permanent, when in fact they have no essence at all, and are in fact moments created out of multiple causes, and will inevitably come apart. But, also, that there is a peace that passes all understanding, which we can find, that ends the hurt.

How these cultures dealt differently with the matter of suffering and its cessation, while both still considering themselves Buddhist, is particularly important to me. Indian Buddhism taught that while there is no essence to a person, there nonetheless was some central thing if only a bundle of consequences that traveled from one body to another. Chinese Buddhism, however, inherited a whole different idea of what a person was, that each of us are composed of many things, and that at death those many things return to their various natural places, and with that shifting the locus of hope in this one, passing life. Not to say that Chinese Buddhism didn’t embrace the language of transmigration. But there was and remains a cultural ambiguity about many lives or one that one can find throughout the tropes and images of Zen.

Seeing through the illusion of permanence and to the reality of a wildly interdependent and boundless web as our existential reality is the Zen project.

But, of course, our ways to that liberating insight are always flavored by our culture. The illusion of separation is the problem in both stories, the Indian and the Chinese. And while the Chinese version accommodates the Indian, it never abandons its practical this-worldly perspective. And, me, I find the Chinese story aligns with my own modern, or is that post-modern, or probably some other variation on the great Western theme with its own momentary name, that our shot is in this life.

Our contemporary “liberal” or some prefer the term “secular” and others “modernist” Buddhisms are on occasion dismissed as tainted by the seductions of modernity or even worse materialism when one or another of us expresses doubt or sometimes outright disbelief in rebirth and karma narrowly defined as those intentions that trigger rebirths. And some among us, I’m sure, are in fact simply materialists for whom Zen Buddhist practices are psychological devices that mitigate the inevitable hurt that comes with being alive and knowing we will die.

But while it is helpful to people, this “materialistic” Buddhism and its mitigations of various psychological hurts are not my Zen Buddhism. My Zen has a different goal than the mitigation of suffering. Somewhere around the beginning of the twelfth century the Chan master Huanglong Wuxin asked the question. “If you do not deliver this present human body in this lifetime, then, in what lifetime will you have a chance to deliver this human body?” Here, we’re less about many lives or one. Instead we cut to the chase.

And so the story in the West ever since the rise of the Enlightenment is one of minute inspection into the world at hand, putting our confidence in observation and out of observation with controlled experiment. And in that world our story becomes one of genetics and experiences, a great play of causes and effects and more causes and effects that come together in a moment as “me.” And in a moment it will be gone, like a shift in the wind. Me, I find this a lovely story.

And, frankly, I find it more resonant with reality I experience than either the story of a link of lives repeating over and over the ills and opportunities, or, even the Chinese story with its various pre-scientific elements gathered for a moment. Although, my experience is a lot more like the Chinese one. But, knowing there are two stories pointing to the same possibility, I see no problem with how that possibility comes with a third story, the story of my people just as much as was the case for those earlier stories. But, that’s not the end of the story.

My Zen, while liberal and rational and which is more than hesitant about claims to a multitude of lives, is, nonetheless all about that question of awakening as something considerably more than a materialist psychological calming within a sea of anxiety. Of course the way does help psychologically. However, we are also the product of many conditions and circumstances, multiply caused, and seeing through does not end those conditions and circumstances. If you are an anxious person, or an angry person, while seeing through is helpful, the anxiety and the anger are still to be dealt with. No doubt a lifetime occupation.

So, while awakening includes that psychological aspect, which is at best gradual, the Buddhist project is also about much more, something that can best be distinguished from psychological. Let’s call it spiritual. That story of permanence which is the alternative to our various ways of telling how we are in fact not is the great heart hurt. And its resolution is something other than the various wounds of our psychological makeup.

I believe the great project to be about a liberation that has informed people from Shakyamuni down to our own day. This great awakening has both gradual and sudden aspects. But its winning is the cessation of fear for our lives and the lives of those we love. It is seeing past the conventions we use to separate ourselves out from each other, without denying their utility and place within our consciousness, but in the same moment opening us to a larger truth, which we are in touch with in greater or lesser degree at various moments, but which once found cannot be lost. It is the Western Paradise, it is Heaven, and it is here. It is found shallowly, and deeply, but like a sip of water or a bucket of water, it is at heart the same experience.

The method is simplicity itself. As our teacher Sengcan sang to us, “The great way is not difficult. You only need to not get caught up in picking and choosing.” When we let go of our desires and resentments, when we let go of our knowing, we find it was always right here, the heart of our hearts. This may sound like some essence, but it isn’t. It is emptiness, it is openness, it is boundlessness. It is our great freedom.

It was found in India. It was found again in China. In each case given the flavor of the indigenous culture, but at the heart of the matter, the discovery is the same great truth. Going out into the world with empty hands. Forgetting. Opening. Just this, just this, revealing how even within our binding as earthly beings, we are at the very same time boundless. Taking up the plow with empty hands, putting on clothes made of emptiness.

And. And it is here to be discovered in America, and Europe, and everywhere else on this globe that human beings walk. Waiting for us to find it and give it our own color, our own flavor, our own style most appropriate to our time and place.

What it is, however we chose to call it, is our great inheritance, the healing of the great hurt.

Nothing less.

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