Sangha Reflections: On Rebirth

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THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, as a graduate student at Columbia University, I studied with Yoshito Hakeda, Professor of Religion and a Shingon priest. We worked one-on-one studying Buddhist texts. He was not only my teacher, but also my mentor and my friend.

At one point, deeply immersed in research in an unfamiliar eld, I was experiencing strange, fortuitous coincidences. I was genuinely puzzled and went to Professor Hakeda for an explanation. After I had described the events he looked at me with an uncharacteristic look of exasperation and said, “You haven’t understood anything we’ve done, have you. Some people think that time is a circle. Time is not a circle. Some think time is a line. Time is not a line. Time is a point!”

I was shocked both by the idea and by the strength of his frustration. After an awkward pause he leaned toward me and said, “Do you see?”

I was not a practitioner at the time and had no interest in koans. But later, after he died and after I sat zazen, I came to realize that he had given me a personal koan. Is this life the rebirth of all past lives and the life of all future re-births? What is this? What is “time”? If time is a point, what is rebirth? What is birth? What is death?

I have not passed this koan; my dear teacher is not here to approve my expression of it.

Or is he?

—Andrew Hobai Pekarik

 

A DELICATE WOMAN AWKWARDLY, answers my knock on the front door. She looks at me with some hesitation. You must be Linda. Her husband, Daniel, asked me to stop by the house this crisp Saturday morning. Daniel has plant- ed a group of ten fruit trees in front of their simple house—plums, cherries, pears and apples. The trees are young, spindly and distressed; they haven’t grown much since they were planted.

Daniel knows that I grow organic apples. Ten years ago, following a divorce, I moved to a small farm with three hundred abandoned apple trees. Slowly, I brought the trees back to health: my own resurrection mirroring the restoration in the orchard. Now I know something about apples, less about other fruits; but I begin by showing Laura how to identify them—the pears with their thick vertical branches, the plums with early bud clusters, the orange-tinted growth of peaches, and the apple trees, in the worst shape of all. The poignancy is palpable. Her husband’s health has quickly deteriorated; this week the doctors told them he has two months to live.

I give her suggestions—an organic fertilizer, a wood chip buffer around the base of the trees, and together we make some pruning cuts on the apples. I invite Laura to visit our farm so I can show her some more about caring for fruit trees.

I know she will soon come by. Out in the early spring sun, we’ve talked a lot about fruit trees; but also about life, death, and rebirth; health and sickness. When I leave an hour later, Daniel somehow knows. He hugs me and says, “Thank you for being a friend to my wife.”

—Linda Shinji Hoffman

 

FIRST THERE IS AN IDEA, a feeling, something I want to respond to, something I want to articulate, an image in my mind, a communication… something.

That something within me then meets a material in the concrete world: clay, cardboard, charcoal, wood, metal, paper. In this coming together, a new thing starts to be created, and it’s exciting, filled with potential. Then comes the inevitable fall—the recognition that the original something I began with is changing, moving out of my control. At first I feel like, “Oh no! What do I do now?” Losing control, or rather recognizing that I don’t have control, makes me feel like I’m trapped in a room with no doors. This paralysis can come and go in an instant; at other times it stays for what feels like an eternity. But sooner or later, from within that darkness, the light seeps through. There is the slow thawing, a rebirth, the body memory of how to respond to a material in my hands, the realization that there is no room and no doors, nothing holding me.

It took a long time for me to trust my pro- cess as an artist—to trust that I would find my way back—but now it might be the thing I trust most in my life. I notice this rebirth, this return to an essential trust in myself and my own process, in every part of my life—in my teaching, in the way I respond to my students, in my relationship, in my parenting, in my zazen… I learned this through making art, and it is always my art-making process that I return to when I feel most lost within myself.

—Chelsea Ross Green

 

EARLY ON IN MY CONNECTION to the teachings at the Monastery, I realized reincarnation didn’t need to be de ned as the transmigration of the soul from one body to another. Instead, I chose to understand each moment as arising as everything and passing away as nothing, leaving room for the next life. The less I hold on to life, the more joy and energy I find. I know intimately that the blackest depression, where the idea of suicide gets its lift, is the view of this life right now solidifying and extending into eternity. For me, true Hell is no death and no rebirth.

From this perspective, even being reborn to pain is a gift because it shows me that there’s no stopping the process: I know I have the ability to become human again and again, regardless of what’s come before. I look around at people and things and, at my best, realize that letting this life go without knowing how each of us will be reborn increases the love and the beauty we share and liberates us all. And at my worst, I look forward to rebirth as getting another shot at that. Rebirth is my bumpy path to freedom.

—Christian Panas

 

IT’S FUNNY TO THINK THAT I’ve been actively try- ing to re-birth myself at every turn of the calendar year, with every birthday, every new sea- son, every start to the week. I spent this New Year’s deep in a forest in central France, beneath a Native American hut, snuggled up against 37 other sweaty bodies, listening carefully to the invocations of a Shaman who was heading a traditional sweatlodge ritual. There were several opportunities to express what I wanted to let go of and what I wished to invite into my life for 2014. As is often the case, there was a productive tension between feeling I had to come up with something new, profound, deep, and unusual, and feeling that I could really just enjoy the sweet contact of the earth beneath me at midnight. How many times, I reflected, have I thought that the next step of living or of letting go required something dramatic and volitional on my part? It dawned on me just how afraid I was of missing something—some timely opportunity for change—and how I acted on that fear by attempting to control the next form my life would take. How painful it is to try again and again to will myself into a “better” body, a “better” mood, a “better”…you name it. How much more enlivening it would be to let this round of life, this calendar year, this period of sitting, surprise me, without taking it by the neck and shaking it up for the sake of something new.

—Johanna Magin

 

LAST FALL I HAD A BOOK published, my first. For almost a year before that—the amount of time between getting the news and the actual publication—I felt aware of a desire for the process to make me, somehow, new. I didn’t expect dramatic external change (after all, it’s a poetry book), but I think I did expect something internally big to happen, something decisive. Something that would make a clear, clean line in my mind between then and now.

Secretly, though I didn’t admit it even to myself, I think I wanted the book to make me feel like a “real” poet (whatever that is), someone not riddled with self-doubt. It didn’t.

And yet things have shifted. I find myself saying yes to things (giving readings, writing reviews—speaking in various ways rather than remaining silent) that a few years ago I’d have felt too shy and self-conscious to agree to. I find myself wanting to be in the world rather than wanting to be (mostly) invisible.

I remember Ryushin telling me years ago, when I complained about feeling stuck in some way or another, something is always happening.

Having a book has not created the enormous internal newness I wanted. But maybe some sort of rebirth is happening (is always happening?), in a quieter way.

In my neighborhood, there are snowdrops coming up.

—Kasey Ryoen Jueds

 

TO ME, REBIRTH MEANS taking charge of my life. For a long time I held on to the belief that I had been given a pretty raw deal by life. Born to an angry teenage mother and growing up in a household of emotional chaos, depression and violence, I was proud of the fact that I raised myself. I thought I had escaped where I came from. But raising yourself is hard and I didn’t do such a great job of it. There was a point when my life fell apart and I lost everything I’d worked for. In that period, while things were a mess, I also felt a certain freedom. There was no pretense that I had it all together, no internal expectation to excel despite the odds.

I think of the turning words in a koan where the Zen master said, “A bodhisattva does not ignore causation.” I think of the one and many. I think of my mother robbed of her childhood who then robbed me of a sense that life was worth living. I think of those I robbed in turn. Was I reborn by these experiences? Am I so radically different from who I was before I bottomed out? What is different now?

Recently, after moving to a new apartment, I tackled a few boxes of photos, letters and cards I’d collected for more than 20 years. In them I found a lot of expressions of love from friends, lovers, my mother. I suddenly questioned the narrative of lack I’ve lived with all my life. Why did I keep all of those things anyway? Have I just reconnected with something I already knew?

—Tamara Vasan

 

SINGLE SUBJECT STUDY

I once asked an 8-year-old client with Asperger’s “What is your earliest memory?” Without hesitation: “I came through darkness towards earth and found my mommy.” This child does not have a sense of humor or a fantastical mind. He likes talking about the periodic table and the number of moons Saturn has.

MIDDLE FEELINGS:

When I feel rebirth I think of the long circular arc of life, of lifetimes, of open space. Rebirth helps me to orient to space (reminds me that we are in space), helps me feel mystery and fear. It is like trying to gaze at the edge of the cosmos, an impenetrable barrier of not- knowing. That said, it points to how I care for the plant in my of office, or not, and how I salt the ice on my driveway, or not. WHAT

MY 8-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER SAID:

I asked, “Why is rebirth important to you?” “Because it makes it seem like we are not going to die, ” she answered.

—Thayer Kyusan Case

 

SOME YEARS AGO I TYPED up a passage from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, framed it, and hung it on my wall. It reads, in part:

[T]o find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency. Without realizing how to accept this truth, you cannot live in this world… If you think there is some other way to accept the eternal truth that everything changes, that is your delusion.

Yes, it is my delusion. This past winter, I seemed mired in my inability to accept the truth of transiency. I understood that the suffering I was causing myself stemmed from my refusal to accept impermanence, but understanding it and realizing it, as Daido Roshi always pointed out, are two different things.

Rebirth is not a question of winter changing into spring or good circumstances occurring in one’s life as opposed to bad ones. Rebirth is returning to the cushion and sitting zazen in the midst of delusion, seeing the mind, seeing it more clearly. It’s not a question, for me, of huge leaps and bounds, but rather, over time, slowly but surely, with a lot of detours, a pro- cess of being reborn to new possibilities, new insights, new ways of accepting, perhaps even appreciating, the eternal and difficult truths.

—Al Shobon Desetta

 

TO ME, REBIRTH MEANS While I believe that we live and die with each inhalation and exhalation, it is difficult to translate this belief into something that helps me be more of service and less of an asshole on a day-to-day basis. My idea of rebirth—the idea that helps me practice good and cease from evil—is more closely tied to diligently noticing my habits of mind that lead to good and bad behaviors. When I notice that thinking X usually results in my doing Y, then I have my opportunity to be reborn. Suddenly a choice appears: repeat the pattern or try something new.

When I first started sitting at the Temple, I would feel nauseous every time I sat down. This always set me off on a fantasy of what would happen if I actually threw up, how people would react, and so on. Finally, I noticed that I never experienced this nausea when I sat alone, and that even when I did, it was just a feeling that passed eventually—I never actually threw up. The next time it happened, I didn’t go through my whole storyline, I just let it come and let it go. Not surprisingly, the whole process stopped soon afterwards.

This is a very small thing that affected only me, but what if I had just decided that zazen made me sick? I would have stopped doing it before I noticed that pattern.

Yes, with each breath, I am reborn—only it happens very, very slowly, over many years.

—Robyn Ikyo Love

 

SPURRED BY A GROWING DISSATISFACTION with my job, I spent the winter prodding myself to do my heart’s work. During that time, my constant companion was a Shantideva quote, which I posted above my desk at the of office:

Just as cotton is swayed in the direction of the wind’s coming and going, so should one surrender oneself to one’s enthusiasm, and in this way one’s supernormal powers will thrive.

In January, I leapt—quit comfort, the steady full-time, and started my own psychotherapy practice. I used to feel grateful and frustrated within my dependable, but uninspiring job. Now I grapple within work that keeps me humming with questions and mistakes, small triumphs, relationships that confound and motivate me.

It is a relief that Spring is here. The season is finally syncing with the rapid sprouting inside my own body-mind. I have spent the colder months re-growing myself—sacrificing old ways, stepping forward when I’d prefer to hibernate. So much of this is counter to my habitual way of being that I feel the entire fabric of my daily life and relationships reconfigured…and I am seriously happy.

Inside our home, a variety of recycled containers act as makeshift seedling trays populated with eager firsts: Long Island Brussels sprouts and Oka melons, edible sun flower sprouts and unfurling pea shoots. They live in a mixture of peat, perlite and worm castings, lengthening unstoppably towards a hanging gro-light, leggy and zealous, seed coats dis- carded.

—Valerie Meiju Linet

 

IN MY TWENTIES, IN THE small college town where I lived, I visited a psychic who read a past life regression by looking into my hand. The stories she told were varied and strangely compelling, and some of them resonated despite my skepticism. As we parted, she looked at me with tears in her eyes, and I felt a deep love from her, as though she was sending her child out into a world built on shifting sand. I felt a sense of wholeness as well as the weight of experience beyond my age—like a burden, but a familiar one. There were messages in what she said, yearnings and aversions I couldn’t explain, none of it clear or conscious. The shape of her stories was already beginning to disintegrate as I wondered, less certain than ever, how to live. Wasn’t this why I had come in the first place, wanting to know how to live?

Over time I found the overlay of those stories shimmering in the contours of my relationships and experiences. They were not factually accurate, but the emotional currents were dead on. Over time other “stories” have emerged in dreams that appear like a double exposure on a moving picture. None of it is confirmable as real, but that doesn’t seem to matter one bit. I look to the basic precept teachings of not causing harm, of taking responsibility, and of atonement—even for things beyond my direct cause or understanding. The important thing I am learning is how to be in this life as real nourishment, and how to let the stories teach me with their wisdom.

What is being reborn in the shadow of the past? My life. My wholeness.

—Suzanne Taikyo Gilman

 

I HAVE A CLEAR MEMORY OF my mother consoling me when I was a kid. “Change is hard,” I remember her saying. I would get worked up and cry almost every time my cousins left after a visit, and when my Uncle Joe died, I was nearly inconsolable. I’m still very tender in partings. However, I’ve grown to appreciate change and hold it in wonder.

When I was leaving residency at the Monastery I wrote to a friend “Change is funny. Nothing changes and everything changes.” I had this sense that life would carry on as it was without me, but—closer to the heart of it—it felt that although something was changing, there was something fundamental that always was—always would be: something that stayed constant. I was just rearranging some pieces on the top of that. I remember writing those few words and flashing on my own death.

What is it really? How is it that nothing changes, while everything changes—while this body falls away?

That question has really stayed with me. People have this amazing capacity for change. I can begin to look at the world in a different way and—just by shifting my view—everything is different, I’m different. If it’s true that I’m just arranging pieces on the surface of something much deeper, more real, could I bring into being whatever was needed? Could I simply be whatever is needed?

For how long can I be whatever is needed? For as long as this life?

For as long as a vow?

—Bryan Kenshin Finnegan

 

THERE HAVE BEEN MILLIONS of words written about rebirth; I’ve read a lot of it and have returned again and again to the state of “I just don’t know.” I’ve yet to experience my own death, so how can I know? All I can possibly ever know is this moment right here, right now. This breath. And when this body ceases to breathe, it will be what it is.

My practice is teaching me is to be open and awake in each moment, and this includes the moment of my death, whenever it comes.

“Make of yourself a light,” said the Buddha before he died. Each time I shine that light on myself, I am reborn.

—Gwitha Kaido Nash