And, back when I was surer of myself and my place than I am now, I pronounced America to be plagued by new beginnings. We are, after all, a nation-full of people who picked up and left to start over. Don't fix it! Get a new one! A new home, a new wife, a new life. Now, I don't know, that sort of thing sounds glib and trivial to me. And anyway, what do I know? I've spent my life here: I can no more tell you the qualities of America than a fish can tell you the qualities of water.
But I do know that reincarnation is the Buddhist teaching that sticks most often in my throat, and it's because of that ambivalence about new beginnings, or cutting-and-running, if you prefer. Some people -- mostly people who've never thought hard about it -- think that reincarnation is a reassuring doctrine. Well, it's not. What would be reassuring would be an end: a guaranteed end to suffering, a time when the burdens are lifted, when the bets are all off. Having to do it again -- and again -- and again -- until we get it right? Oh, Jesus. I'm tired already.
And. It means, say the teachers, that you never really get to leave any relationship. You don't get to start over. You come back and take it up where you left off. That's why you connect so intensely with some (apparently) new people: you were in the middle of something when you left off with them. And you still have to work it out with them, for good or ill.
It's at this point that you begin to appreciate the enormity of the Buddhist world-view, the vastness of its time-scale, and, at the same time, the terrifying constriction it implies. The world is huge: but there is no way out of it. The kid you pushed on the playground, the spouse you divorced, the home-town you ditched: they're all waiting for you. You are slowly, but inevitably, cycling round to meet them again -- and again -- and again. Are you tired yet?
No, no, I don't believe in reincarnation. I don't believe in believing in things, for one thing, and for another, I don't see the mechanism. I think we die dead as a doornail. But that's not the point. Who cares whether we die dead or not? The point is what we do when we're alive, no matter how many iterations we have. And dying dead is not an escape. It's not a liberation. It's just -- nothing. It's really no help at all.
No, the only point of any cosmological notion is not perceiving ultimate reality -- which I'm convinced we are utterly unfitted for in any case: we have no more hope of understanding the universe than an ant has of comprehending Beowulf -- it's not for perceiving ultimate reality. It's for perceiving this reality, this one right here, where
And what the notion of reincarnation says is: there's no getting away from it. Starting over is an illusion: you may think you're walking away from these relationships, but you're just putting them off. There is no real choice but to fix them, here and now. There is no "away" to get to.The noise of life begins again, And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Believe it? No, why would I do a silly thing like believe it? That's not what it's for. But I will use it. I will use knowing that this is not just one thing here now, a one-off relationship of no importance. This is the whole pattern of my life, the basic confusion of my mind: it's the longing and the revulsion that marks out the minutes and hours of my ordinary life. The more I turn away and back off, the longer it will haunt me. I had better, far better, deal with it now, here, with you, in this fleeting shape.
But even if we say, we will not start over, we will clutch at no new beginning: still, there is the sweetness of night and the healing of sleep: stars casting shadows over closed eyelids, and water running underground. Rest, rest is real too.