In preparation for the task of awakening, Gotama brought his mind into a state that would be useful for a very specific process. “Awakening” is shorthand for replacing ignorance with knowledge of how things really are, and finding “the deathless,” which was what Gotama called his goal. After fleeing a life of comfort, family, and hedonistic pleasure, he had practiced deep formless meditations, self-torture, and intense yogic energy work, all to finally figure out that the thing he really needed to do was prepare his mind for inquiry. All that time working hard on training the body and working with (and against) sensations wasn’t wasted, but it wasn’t to the point. The point was being able to observe the world more closely. Once he figured that out, he was almost done.
Our practice of meditation is directly inspired by this final phase in the Buddha’s awakening process. The wide range of exercises we call meditation are all aspects of training in deeply centered states of attention and perception that are capable of seeing as clearly as needed to understand the world. It’s a wonderful by-product of meditation that it’s healthy, nourishing, and often pleasurable, but from the perspective of the early stories, the purpose of the exercise is none of these. The purpose is to be able to direct attention in a way that reveals that which was always true but occluded by the intensity of the relational story we’re immersed in. Buddhism tends toward the psychological and philosophical because the core story it addresses is the existential narrative of the self and its relationship with other selves. When Gotama directed his mind toward understanding, this is what he looked for: who he was, and how he was related to others.
The stock passage on the Buddha’s awakening describes his insights as 1) “the recollection of past abodes,” 2) “the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings,” and 3) “the knowledge of the destruction of the taints.” The first one is often translated as the recollection of past “lives,” but I love “abodes.” It’s about seeing all the homes you lived in before this one. Put plainly, Gotama remembers his past—really far back. But how literally should we take this description?
Last week, writing about time and memory, I said “don’t believe anything fully until you have strong enough direct experience to write your own narrative.” This line has bugged me all week. I think it’s basically right, as Dharma, but as a spiritual instruction in our current moment, it has problems. When the Buddha says that he saw his past lives in detail, we’re being told he was seeing something that is objectively, materialistically true. In other words, whatever story he may have been raised with about where we come from and where we go after we die, that story was superseded by his direct experience of what actually happens. And we’re now meant to take that as an objective description of the cosmos, as if he’s a scientist discovering something we can’t see ourselves—like a germ, or an electron—that is true whether we believe in it or not.
This proposal is a standard feature of visionary literature: that what is being seen is more true than what we usually hold to be true. But why should we accept this? Why isn’t the Buddha’s vision of his past lives just an idiosyncratic personal mystical experience? Can any famous mystical moments in literature—Moses seeing God’s back through a crack in a rock, Arjuna seeing Kṛṣṇa devouring all the armies, Mohammed (PBUH) being told to “Read!”—be taken out of context as a representation of universal cosmic truth? Each of these religious visions expresses their culture and distinct conditions, and of course the stories and cultures that grew up around them add layers that almost eclipse the original.
I have no problem with the Buddha’s insight into his past lives being an idiosyncratic, culturally conditioned experience. It doesn’t have to be an objective description of the universe to be true, because that’s not how the tradition that grew up around his insight defines “true.” There’s no such description. There’s only process language: this leads to that. This is where “write your own narrative” is a poor instruction: it’s not sure if anything is objective truth. Looking around the “post-truth” world, we can see where that goes.
When held within the rest of the Dharma, emptiness—nothing has an independent, objective identity or activity—is both philosophically irrefutable and pragmatically efficient. It makes logical sense, and it helps us get free from limiting concepts. But without the refuge of the Dharma, and especially without the groundedness of actual practice and community, emptiness becomes nihililsm: nothing means anything. Awakening relies on direct experience of something that feels irrefutably true, but is nearly impossible for anyone else to confirm. By definition, you can’t know what a Buddha knows unless you are one.
So we have to wrestle with the idea that it’s possible, as the texts say, to “see things as they really are” (yathābhūtañāṇadassana). If we’re Buddhist skeptics, which is what I’m suggesting, we train the mind to see as clearly as possible, direct it to remember as deeply into the past as we can perceive, and interpret the resulting vision in as unbiased a way as we can, understanding that there’s really no such thing as unbiased. We rely on the teachings to point the way, but the snake eats its own tail: the Dharma is empty. Past lives are empty. Emptiness—a concept—is empty.
In practice, emptiness challenges us to provisionally believe the best story about the world we can find, and make choices with that story as a guide, but stay willing to update the story as we get better information and see more clearly. If any story is powerful enough to truly uproot your ancient tendencies toward greed, hatred, and delusion, you’ll know it to be true, and won’t be concerned with philosophical problems of objectivity and reality. The story is a tool with one purpose, and if Gotama’s quest is also yours, then his narrative about time and action can do some of the work for you until your vision is clear enough that you can see for yourself.