That Would be Unbecoming

Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.

Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.

This is the stock phrase from the Pāli texts describing the result of having attained nibbāna in two translations (Bodhi and Sujato). The middle two phrases, about completing the spiritual journey and having done what one must [to relieve suffering], are mostly straightforward. But how are we to understand the destruction of birth, and not returning to any state of existence? The classic Theravādin interpretation is that consciousness will not arise in connection with another physical or subtle body after the death of this one, and as such one is no longer going to repeat the cycle of birth and death called saṁsāra.

We don’t teach a lot on rebirth in Insight Meditation partly because

  1. we don’t practice the kind of concentration needed to have reliable visionary experiences of previous lives,
  2. we are religiously present moment focused and so tend to interpret existential problems as psychological ones, and
  3. we are so embedded in the scientific materialism of the European Enlightenment that it’s very hard to wrap our heads around animist, pre-modern worldviews.

The Buddha did say that the workings of rebirth had to be taken on faith initially, until one has the concentration needed to observe it directly through memory. Faith, then concentration, then direct experience. That’s the path. 

We suck at both faith and concentration, so our only pathway to thinking about rebirth is the mythic narrative and imagery channel—and that one has been so thoroughly neutered by post-structuralism and deconstruction that the Jātakas (the morality tales of the Buddha’s former lives) are just another book on my kid’s shelf, between the Norse Myths, Anansi Stories, The Tales of Tiptoes Lightly, Baba Yaga, and Gerald and Piggie. And “direct experience” is just another casualty of deconstruction—there’s no communicable experience free from positionality, so we don’t believe in it much either. Means that a lot of us don’t really believe in liberation at all. 

It’s very difficult to resist the inexorable logic of deconstruction. For good reason! It is one of the smartest, most equitable, most supportive of justice, most existentially healing of all views. But it’s still a view, and there is a strange magic in the unbinding of the heart from its service. The very fact that I treat the Pāli Canon as scripture, and give it a top shelf position by the altar is an act of resistance. I know it’s irrational and try not to care. I venerate these books. I pray for a wholesome rebirth, or none at all, as sincerely as I can—even though a miasma of irony clings to every object of reverence like old cigarette smoke.

To not return to any state of existence is a mystical insight about the future that depends for its power on an unverifiable past. To truly fear future rebirth, I must truly believe/know that I’ve had millions of painful ones already. To become free, in the present moment, is defined as knowing for certain I won’t ever again succumb to terrible, deluded states of mind. So liberation is not just an experience of profound presence, it’s the experience of certainty about the future. 

I do like that it’s stated in the present tense: “there is no return,” not “there will be no return.” Rebirth IS ended. It’s important, I think, that we understand this mystery both as psychological and existential, imminent and transcendent. To be finished with states of existence in the present life, in the present moment, while still alive and active, is the most interesting phase of existence. If the past, whether just in this lifetime or throughout the infinite ancestral past, consists of mostly being lost in reactivity and painful narratives, and the future after our death consists of plain old oblivion or liberation from the wheel, there’s this strange brief window between the two. 

After awakening and before death one is a very different kind of creature. A rare, scintillating bird, often described, occasionally glimpsed, impossible to breed in captivity. The psychological approach to the path focuses on this experience—becoming this kind of bird. The existential approach, which in Buddhism can’t rely on oblivion after death as a promised relief, focuses on the long future. Because of this, maybe a worldview that includes rebirth is more easily life-affirming than one committed to the materialist view of oblivion after death. A life that includes the profound privileges of health, wealth, and access to the Dharma—if it’s truly as rare as it looks to be in the current world—is precious indeed. 

Traditionally, this reflection is meant to lead to passionate urgency for the path. If I, on the other hand, trust that oblivion is my inevitable end, and I only have a few decades at most to suffer through (and delight in) this world, where would my passion either for individual liberation or social justice come from? I would have to constantly re-convince myself that my actions matter, and that I shouldn’t just give up. (Activist discourse has a lot of this as both tactic and aesthetic.) But I’ll always be working uphill on that one. The dingo of deconstruction ate my baby.

Maybe the climate crisis is the first external cataclysm since the last Ice Age powerful enough to make humans think about the future beyond their own lifetimes in a more serious way. And to actually engage with a potential future of endless lifetimes of sorrow and loss, and the desirability of no longer coming to any state of being.

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