The second of The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice is contemplation on impermanence and death. We are encouraged to contemplate the precious human rebirth that we have succeeded in gaining and the fact that one day it will be lost through death. Does this inspire practise or despondency? I have noticed a tendency in the West toward despondency when death is mentioned. This is a shame, because it would be preferable to have a sense of hopelessness.
The hopelessness we are aiming for is fearless hopelessness. Trungpa Rinpoche describes this as the ‘hopelessness that is beyond fear’ – the realisation that we do not need to fear death, because it happens in every moment, continually, endlessly. The endless stream of deaths and rebirths—within life—affords us great opportunities. We can begin anew in each moment. Every moment has the potential to be a moment of realisation.
Reincarnation—metempsychosis or palingenesis—has never been a generally accepted tenet of Christianity. The Encyclopædia Britannica states that it was held as a belief by isolated Christian sects in the 4th and 5th centuries but was always ‘repudiated by orthodox theologians’, and that it is also not found in early Jewish texts. Hence the idea of rebirth may seem like an Eastern cultural curiosity, and quite alien to Westerners. ‘Rebirth’ is perhaps a misleading word. It suggests that something is being born again – re-born. In fact the birth is new form arising from the dissolution of old form. There is a continuity of connection, but no continuity of substance.
This principle is that each moment of being leads to the next moment of being. This moment may be the moment of living that leads to the next moment of living; the moment of waking consciousness that leads to the next moment of sleeping consciousness; the moment of living consciousness that leads to the next moment of dying consciousness; or the moment of dying consciousness that leads to the next moment of living consciousness. ‘Dying’ here is understood as the end of the animation of a particular physical form. Consciousness continues. There is a stream or continuum of being moments, even if those being moments result in a movement from one state of being to another state of being in terms of our physicality. Like a stream of water, if I dip a cup in a stream to examine the water, the water contained in the cup will be different from the water extracted a few minutes later. The individual drops of water move, change, arise, and dissolve, but the integrity of the continuity of the stream itself is not compromised.
The stream can be seen and known and understood as a continuum, despite the movement and change that denies its existence as a fixed entity named ‘stream’.
In the same way we recognise a definition of ourselves in terms of a lifetime. I am Nor’dzin and have always been this same person—or so it seems—even though I am aware of the major physical changes that have occurred to my body over the course of time. I may also be aware on a more subtle level of the psychological changes that have happened over the years of my life. I was not the same person at nine months old as I was at nineteen years, forty years, or will be at ninety, even though I may feel a continuity of being. The sense of continuity is real, but is not due to ‘something’ that has existed continually without change. The continuity has a stream-like nature, but owing to the definitions I place upon myself, and the relative longevity of experiencing myself as this particular being, I become rather attached to existing in this form and frightened about losing it. Death appears to us like a full stop at the end of a long and valued story. It seems final. Yet death is simply the moment when the stream begins to travel through a new land.
Rebirth denies the possibility of a full stop. From the perspective of our experience of the continuity of mind-moments, the possibility of a full stop occurring becomes meaningless. At the moment of death of the tangible body, the movement of intangible mind is followed by another movement of mind – as has always been the case. This movement of mind however, will be without the reference point of the familiar physical body.
Clouds arise and dissolve in Sky Mind continually, and this movement is not limited by physicality. The stream flows and is not limited by the landscape through which it moves. It may be in a rich and verdant valley where it flows fast and full. It may be trickling through limestone in an underwater cavern. It may be struggling through a barren wasteland as a tiny remnant of its former power. Movement of mind continues.
After the death of this body however, these moments are experienced in connection with a new and different physical form. This change can be frightening and confusing for us to consider – but only because we have been so fixated on associating our experience with a specific definition of form. In our attachment to this specific form, we have forgotten that mind does not depend on physicality. We often find change extremely challenging – even within the context of our everyday lives. It is not surprising therefore, that the idea of change at such a radical level is experienced as threatening and traumatic.