Uttaraloka Sketches 08

Revisiting Re-becoming – Again

In 2014 I gave a talk (note 1) at a National Order Weekend that created a little ripple – in it I stated that I did not believe in ‘literal’ rebirth, nor did I believe that the Buddha meant his disciples to take the teaching ‘literally’. I tried to explain what I meant by ‘literal’ in this case and I also said that I accepted that he taught re-becoming but for me the doctrine needed a rather deeper interpretation than to simply say that we die and are reborn into the world. I said on that occasion that I thought the doctrine of rebirth was more of a myth than a literal reality – that it pointed to a more profound truth. 

After several more years of reflection I still hold to what I said in that talk, I still reject the idea of ‘literal’ rebirth – which I will try to define again – but because of a radical shift in my understanding of what is real I have come to fully accept the idea of re-becoming.

What I call ‘literal’ rebirth is the view that there was an identifiable personality living in this world in the past, or that there will be an identifiable personality in this world in the future with which one’s present stream of being is uniquely linked. Another way of looking at this is that at death a stream of being drops out of this world in some way and then appears back in it at a later time. 

Both of these ways of understanding rebirth are based on the view that we all live in One World, this material world, this world of the senses, and that this world is Real. I confess that although I have always claimed that I do not hold a materialist view I have realised that I have held a subtly materialistic perspective. I claimed that because I have a background in physics and an acceptance of quantum field theory how could I be called materialistic in the normally accepted sense of the term? However I’ve realised that belief in the Reality of quantum fields is still a subtle strand of materialism. (note 2)

Reading Donald Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist, and some of his associates I realised that I still held onto a belief that consciousness had somehow evolved from, or emerged from matter.  The alternative view, that tips the mind/body problem on its head, is that our experience of a material universe – space, time, and objects – has in fact evolved in something more like mind. Human consciousness has evolved an interpretation – space, time and objects – that enables us to comprehend and exist in an otherwise unfathomable Reality.  

This being the case, we are fundamentally beings of, let’s say, ‘spirit’ (although I do not know what that means) who generate an experience called the material world so that we can come to terms with Reality. Space, time, objects, and the complex relationships between them, as well as dualistic consciousness, are therefore an illusion that enables us to exist. More importantly each of us is a unique complex flow of karmic conditions that produce the unique world in which each of us exists. Our personal world is one of countless worlds which all fall within the Six Realms. Clearly we share certain elements of our world with other individuals because of karmic connections – in what Hoffman calls a network of conscious agents – but in essence each of our worlds is unique because it is a model that we create in our own minds. None of these worlds exists in any fundamental manner – they are simply interpretations of a deeper Reality. This view clearly resonates very closely in all respects with a Yogacara perspective.

Maintaining our world is hard work – we need to let go on a daily basis – we need to sleep. We know that without sleep our world quickly starts to disintegrate. In the sleep state the mind is free to construct other worlds – other interpretations – or to sink even deeper into a state where we abandon all constructions. In meditation we let go of the world of the senses – including the kind of thoughts that are associated with the world of the senses – and take our awareness into deeper levels in which the activity of construction is altered or reduced.  In death we finally give up and let go of our world – what an incredible relief. However there is still a stream of being on the ‘spiritual’ level which could be thought of as a sort of ongoing disturbance in a field of something like mind.  Usually, of course, a new interpretation, a new model, a new illusion, a new world is constructed and into this we are ‘reborn’. However if there is no grasping for some sort of security and the mind rests in a pure state then perhaps the Clear Light can shine.

So, in the same way that an electron or a photon is understood as a perturbation or an excitation of a field rather than a solid material object, a being is an excitation of some sort of field (of something like mind) that generates the illusion of a separate self living in a particular world to which it is bound by grasping. When the self/world is renounced at death, or through insight, if the force of grasping is not fully eliminated, a new illusion develops under the influence of karmic tendencies, leading to re-becoming into a newly created illusion of a world. This reflects the fact that the Buddha, when asked what it was that linked lives, replied that it was grasping.

There is nothing new here – at least to a Buddhist – but what is new for me is that, put this way, I accept and believe in it as an authentic model (still a model of course – must not forget the Madhyamaka, or Lady Anne Thorne) of how things really are. It enables me to understand and accept re-becoming whilst still rejecting what I have called the literal view. And, it certainly takes the sting out of death and makes me think of an old 1960’s expression: Death is the biggest buzz of all – that’s why they save it for last!

Another strand of my practice over the last couple of years has been reflection on the Vajravarahi Sadhana. She appears in the cremation grounds – you meet her at death – spiritual or actual. She is the ecstatic freedom of the complete renunciation of one’s self and one’s world. I was introduced to her in a dramatic vision a few years ago when I was sitting at the boundary of my world and complete absorption into her body of renunciation. 

I have been reflecting on and deepening this experience, and more recently I’ve been taking a particular interest in the unique nature of the worlds created by myself and others. Our worlds are not isolated constructions – but like the small wavelets of the surface of a big wave that is on the surface of a swell and so on – our worlds interact on a ‘spiritual’ level. I want to establish connections with my vajra brothers and sisters so that any world I construct in the future will be cooperative, positive and supportive.  What fascinates me is the nature of the factors that contribute to the construction of our worlds and what we can do about it for this life, and for the life to come. How do insights, of various depths, influence our world view? Skilful actions are, of course, profoundly formative; deep meditation reveals the illusionary nature of the material world and, importantly, there are the connections with other ‘conscious agents’ particularly vajra brothers and sisters, with whom we can cooperate to build a happy – even pure – realm. 

One of the results of these reflections is that I’m appreciating the uniqueness of individuals and the realisation that we each live in a unique world. All of these worlds are different to mine – mostly very much so. In this way, taking much more interest in other people, I find that my feelings of metta, and so on, are blossoming – in the same way that the appreciation of the beauty of, say, a wild flower is enhanced by the fact that it is unique.

I hope that spending time at my flat in Ledbury will give me more opportunity to engage with other people and share something of their worlds.

1 http://bit.ly/47ZcfUJ
2.  In the very first lecture of my Physics Degree at Imperial College the lecturer, Lady Anne Thorne, insisted that all theories in physics were only models of Reality, not Reality itself. Something that I keep having to remind myself. Paul Dirac, the father of quantum mechanics, said the same thing.