Last night, I stayed up way past my bedtime watching a Public Broadcast System show entitled "My Reincarnation," a documentary about a Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose son slowly and reluctantly accepts his own role as a reincarnated teacher. Film clips used in the production span 20 years. I didn't think it was terribly well made, but I didn't stop watching either: Earnestness of purpose and quality of production are not the same thing.
Why I watched, I'm not entirely sure. In part, I suppose it was an interest in a sociological phenomenon about which I knew little and cared less. I am aware that there are things in life that are outside my ken, some of them magical in their seeming, and it is nice to have them pointed out. But also, I think I was waiting for a shazzam moment in which the movie would convince me to know more and care more and, perhaps, believe it. I came away with no shazzam, but neither did I come away wanting to slip on a comforting conclusion that "it's all bullshit." The thing that touched me most in the movie was not the teacher and not his son, but the adherents who gathered in their dozens and hundreds ... each with a glowing wish etched on their faces and in their supplicant questions. Human uncertainty moves me. Whether Buddhism is the answer to that uncertainty, I don't know.
In the Buddhist tradition I prefer, Zen, there is a willingness to credit something called "rebirth." Anyone who has practiced a bit knows that this is not just some belief or hope. It is just a fact that is as plain as dog shit on the front lawn. The present immolates itself in less than a nanosecond and becomes the past. The past cannot be grasped and yet as the present becomes past, 'something' remains or is reborn. Conversationally, we call this "me." Everything changes always and yet something seems the same. Over and over and over again ... rebirth. Believing in rebirth is not the point. Seeing and acknowledging what actually happens is the point in the same way that seeing the dog shit on the front lawn is the point ... not good, not bad, just present ... and maybe something not to step in.
I suppose that for some it is a short step from "rebirth" to "reincarnation," but it is not a step I am willing to take. Whether I was once an aardvark or the queen of Egypt or might yet be a puma or a valiant general ... these thoughts, whether true or not, whether supportive or not, strike me as TUI -- totally useless information. Mind you, I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong: Why else stay up past my bedtime? But dwelling in or relying on the past in this way -- the "reincarnation" way -- misses or obscures what I consider a more important point, i.e., wherever you go, there you are.
Everyone is a product of their past. OK. Investigating that past is OK. But attempting to delve into what cannot be ascertained by experience -- the past or future, for example ... well, that and a couple of bucks will get you a bus ride. Maybe some feel assured in their witnessing of past lives. It's OK with me but I can't help but wonder how nourishing that information or understanding might be. This life is now. This dog shit is now. This belief is now. This time is now. Investigation is OK ... remaining locked in belief is a poor man's supper.
Well, all this is just a bit of noodling. If I was once an aardvark, I suppose my aardvark will express itself as needed. Past, after all, is present. Controlling the past by intellect or emotion is fruitless. I think I'll just try to keep and eye on things, aardvark and all.
PS. As a bit of whimsey, it seems to me that those who have been 'reincarnated' were always in the spotlight in the past. They were important in one way or another. I have yet to hear someone say, "I was a spear carrier in a Roman legion." Somehow everyone was a general or a Buddhist teacher or held some other noteworthy post. The 'importance' of this past -- whether wonderful or horrific -- seems to form a foundation for a reincarnation. But I sense that that importance, far from being a bit of good luck, is, in fact, an indicator that something was not cleared up, that it formed a trip stone and barrier that now needs to be straightened out with another go at things. Reincarnation seen as a bit of good luck seems to me to be quite the reverse ... more sweat, more strain, more uncertainty, more dog shit. Delusion may be the foundation of enlightenment but delusion can certainly be a pain in the ass... just like enlightenment.