4. Ancestral Trauma & the Insight into Previous Births

The Buddha’s insights into the nature of identity and its relationship with pain and distress are expressed in three important concepts: Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), wandering (saṃsāra), and selflessness or insubstantiality (anattā). These are among the most challenging teachings in the tradition partly because they are based in phenomena that few practitioners can observe directly: past lives, the process of cause and effect, and the absence of unique and permanent individuality. Where much of the Buddha’s instructions fall easily within the scope of the classical verse describing the dhamma as “directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise,” the first two of the Three Knowledges explicitly require “clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman,” a power (iddhi) based in very deep samādhi, specifically in types of meditative immersion (jhāna) that are extremely difficult to attain. But observing these three phenomena directly through the use of this power was the process Gotama undertook on the mythic single night of his awakening, and seeing them clearly is the definition of awakening in the Theravāda tradition. The Three Knowledges (tevijja) are: seeing one’s own past lives, seeing how all beings die and are reborn based in their actions, and uprooting the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The framework of the Three Knowledges is rarely taught in Insight Meditation communities, though its byproducts, Dependent Origination, conditionality, and selflessness are, though still not often. This is understandable for a culture that prefers its Buddhism accessible. These concepts that were the heart of the Buddha’s awakening process are very difficult to teach on. In addition, some contemporary thinkers in both Asian and Euro-American Buddhist communities (Ajahn Buddhadāsa and Stephen Batchelor are prominent examples) have suggested that the teachings on rebirth can be discarded as either cultural beliefs common in the Buddha’s culture but secondary to his more unique teachings, or as mythical accretions added in by later generations.

A version of this critique current in “Secular Buddhist” discourse dismisses anything in the tradition that requires “superhuman” experience as irrelevant to the task of liberation, an argument I reject. Other teachers, intent on serving social justice causes, simply don’t emphasize the teachings on anattā and suññatā, implying that the defense of oppressed identities takes precedence over the more radical and deconstructive implications of the Buddha’s teaching. This approach I do have great sympathy for, use sometimes myself, and support as skillful means in a culture where trauma, oppression, and disempowerment are very real.

But I feel a bridge is still needed, in the growing social justice-oriented convert Buddhist world, between the seemingly incompatible teachings on absolute or “weak” identity in classical Buddhist thought, and relative or “strong” identity in contemporary anti-oppression work. I think the Three Knowledges, as abstract as they seem, could be the weight-bearing structure of that bridge, laying out how we can think about ourselves and our actions in the context of history: personal, generational, cultural, and cosmic. I suggest that even without superhuman clairvoyance we can explore aspects of the Three Knowledges in a way that supports the uplifting of oppressed identities even as we open toward their ultimate emptiness. We can do this by taking rebirth as a way to talk metaphorically about ancestry.

The word for past lives in the canonical passage on the Three Knowledges translates literally as “previous homes.” A displaced person looks into their past and finds a long string of places they’ve lived before, each with the varied conditions that life in that family, that place, that time provided. The text says that Gotama saw for each previous home his name, clan, appearance, food, experience of pleasure and pain, manner of death, and change of place when reborn. So here’s the thought experiment: if births/homes means bodies/places, and “I” means lifetimes, we can reflect on rebirth as comprising generations of family (name, clan), ethnicity (appearance), cultural heritage (food), and historical conditions (experience of pleasure and pain, manner of death). This immediately brings into our practice the vast series of displacements undergone by a family or tribe over the millenia, and all the myriad conditions we could call ancestral trauma, cultural heritage, and epigenetics.

If I know where and who I come from, the rebirth teaching suggests, I will realize that there is no stable home to be found, and that the identity formed by being part of a group of people is as unstable as the places those people have made home. Reflecting on rebirth as ancestry and culture encourages us to reflect on this profound but difficult heart of Buddhist practice in a new way. If we see that our identity is the product of familial, historical, and cultural conditions, we can open not so much to the idea that the “self” isn’t “real,” but to the insight that our identity is not an individual property, which means the same thing.

I am my family, in this sense, and my ethnic group, my language, my culture. I am culture. My thoughts, emotions, stories, reactions, and body itself are formed by the conditions present here, in this place, with these people, not just in the present but into the infinite past. What I call “my culture” is just the large-scale, fractal expression of qualities I share, and share in the development of. I occupy a specific position within the complex system of my culture the same way a neuron occupies a different position and role than a muscle fiber within the complex system of a body.

Positionality tells me what kind of cell I am, and how to know myself in relation to the whole. The term “positionality” describes how an individual’s distinct heritage and social conditions determine not just their access to knowledge and power, but even how they know, and how they move in the world embodying a distinct knowledge and experience. I propose that working on our own positionality, understanding who we are and what identity qualities most affect our relationships, is a necessary aspect of Buddhist liberation practice, not just because it will illuminate the power structures that sustain structural inequity in our communities, but as a critical deconstructive inquiry on the path to liberation from the fixated and painful individual self.

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