Friday, September 12, 2008

How Can You Possibly Know

As a Buddhist, if someone asks me, “How can you possibly know you’ve been reincarnated?” the only reply possible is “How can you possibly know you were born?” I certainly don’t remember my birth, do you? And how many of our earliest memories are truly our own, and not made up from repeated second hand testimony to us when the family photo album comes out at Thanksgiving? I have never seen my face, I have only seen the changes it makes in a mirror or a camera. If there really is a true “me”, why do I have to accept so much about it on second hand testimony? The past is only a memory or a story, the future is nowhere to be found, and the present slips through our fingers whenever we try to grasp it. By the time you notice it, the tick of a clock is no longer there.

We expect to feel complete, whole, and unified. We expect our world to become tidy, just for us, and bring us "closure". The craving for “completeness”, for "closure", is part of the problem. It asks for something that the world gives no one, for the world is inherently essenceless, with no definite end or beginning. We are also inherently essenceless, with no definite end or beginning. And no boundary can ultimately be found between us and our world.

Buddhist teachers tell you to look directly and squarely into your own sense of incompleteness–there is something living and precise and splendid about it, of which we normally can only get glimpses. My tradition calls it “basic groundlessness”–the discovery that there are no permanent reference points anywhere for anything. When we think there are, these are merely bits of second hand testimony we’ve created or been given.

A really good psychological shock [the classic one is the abrupt and totally unexpected discovery of a cheating spouse] can sometimes knock all of this “evidence” completely away from us at a stroke, leaving only the groundlessness behind. We make everything all back up again, of course, and get on with our lives. But we really wouldn’t need to. We could just stay there, totally aware, without anything to be aware of and no one to be aware of it. In Japan they call this “the face you had before you were born”.

A Buddha is someone who doesn’t need the reference points, not even the ones so subtle we don’t even know they exist until we probe directly into our incompleteness like, as they say in Japan, a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball.

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