Saturday, July 06, 2013


I don't know why I come up with these little mottos and slogans. A Lichtenberg manqué, I guess: I imagine my trove of pithy sayings being discovered and my genius suddenly flaring up to light the world. But anyway, the one I'm thinking of now is: never a new beginning.

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
The noise of life begins again, 
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain 

On the bald street breaks the blank day.
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.

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.


Dick said...

Yes and yes again. Beautifully put, Dale. This echoes the substance of a conversation I had with my father a month or so before his death. It made my experience of his passing much easier to bear, not least because of the relative peace his convictions must have brought him.

Zhoen said...

I used to want to believe in reincarnation,it did comfort me, because nothing I'd escaped from, no one, could be solved, resolved, healed. I had to step away from the poison and heal myself. Eventually, I began to see the rub, as you describe it here.

But I do find comfort in the idea that although my personality is done when it's done, I will be recycled.

christopher said...

My mother, who was a Unity Minister as her second career claimed that reincarnation was the best guess for a just universe. Otherwise there was no chance for justice as a value rooted in reality, nor for long term meaningful mercy for that matter. Sometimes the things we get into simply take longer than a lifetime to work out even though we are not really guilty, or for that matter not innocent either.

You can't cast aside reincarnation without giving up on the reality of the most sophisticated human values as well. However, if you are truly stoic, then you can give those up too.

Of course none of this is provable in any but the heart's sense.

Dale said...

Oh, a just universe is another matter. I can't wrap my mind around that, even with reincarnation. I'm in awe of / appalled by people who can make that leap!

Dale said...

Dick, I'm glad to have your company on the last third of this journey. Strange country we're traveling in! :-)

Dale said...

:-) Zhoen, yes, there's a lot that gets recycled! It's a stingy view of oneself, to restrict it to what happens inside one's own skin between conception and death: our words and deeds and gestures wander way beyond us, rippling the ponds of other consciousnesses far and wide. This body is just the spot where the pebble hits the water :-)

Dale said...

Still thinking about your words, Christopher! My teacher's teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, said much the same: he wondered why anyone would practice if they didn't believe in reincarnation. Some of us do, though. In a half-assed fashion :-)

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I echo what Christopher said:
"Of course none of this is provable in any but the heart's sense."
That's usually sufficient proof for me but then I don't care much about proving. The mechanism of reincarnation, if there is such a thing, would be interesting to try and figure out. But however it works, I really love the idea of stories taken up where they left off though the protagonists have no memory of where they left off. The novelistic possibilities are endless and fascinating. A non-stop soap opera. If it was God who thought up reincarnation, God should win the mother of all literary prizes.

rbarenblat said...



Kristen Burkholder said...

Whew, Dale, you taketh awayeth my breatheth once again with incredible insight and dark humor. There is no comfort in reincarnation, you're so right: the worst thing I've ever done is believe there's always another chance: with someone else, with another career, in another place. Hardest job: be where you are, do what you do. Root in. You feel the insignificance of your life but you are also still enough to watch trees grow and stars fall.

Tara said...

I think you should consider being in a band - all your phrases would make excellent lyrics!