If we do the meditation described in the last article on rebirth, we get a sense of the flow of our mind – what it is, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. This helps us understand rebirth. There are 5 different ways in general to understand rebirth, and understanding the continuum of consciousness is in some ways the best because, if we can meditate on our own mind, we can come to see in our own experience how our mind is continuously forming, becoming, evolving, flowing. It never stops. It is beginningless and endless. It is impermanent but never-ending. But this body we have right now, the physical body, although also impermanent (ie, changing moment by moment) is highly temporary. It arises in dependence on its physical causes, the sperm and egg of our parents, food, etc.; and when those causes deteriorate and disappear, this body vanishes. It has a very limited shelf life.
Which means that this life that we’re in at the moment is very temporary as well, and will not last for more than a few hundred more months, at most. Luckily, this is not who we are.
If we never give any thought to the nature of our consciousness, if we don’t understand its function or its continuum, then we will inevitably identify with this body very strongly, and with its infrastructure. We’ll identify with the things of this life; they will become what is most important to us. We’ll think that our job is most important to us, our career, our house, the amount of money we have in the bank, what restaurants we frequent, the friends around us. We will continually be externalizing the causes of our happiness and the sense of who we are. We think: “This is who I am.”
Me, for example, I’m 25 years old (yah!). I’m a Buddhist. I’m either American or English (depending on how I feel). I currently live and work in Denver, Colorado, I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account, but luckily or foolishly I don’t care too much. My mother is called Sally, my friend is called so and so. I am currently looking after a foster kitten called Dexton. I do a bit of editing. I like walking in the Botanical Gardens. Etc. I used to live here, there, everywhere. This is who I am.” But of course that’s not who we are! (Certainly not who you are – but also not who I am!) Nowhere close. We don’t really know who we are unless we understand our mind.
As a friend of mine put it the other day, we need to embrace the consciousness that is at the heart of life. For our life is our mind, our mind is our life. If we think about what life is, it is animation, isn’t it? It is awareness, it is experience, it is mind. It’s not body. Shantideva goes so far as to say that we are animated corpses! When we see a dead body, especially if it belonged to someone close to us, it is clear that it is not them, that they’ve left.
Our life, our mind, is continuously becoming, continuously flowing. From life to life we go through stages of consciousness — we’re alive, then we go through the death process, then we go through an intermediate state or “bardo”, which is like a dream state, after which we “wake up” in another life. You can read about this cycle of consciousness in the chapter on Understanding the Mind in Introduction to Buddhism. With powerful mindfulness and concentration we can be cognizant of this cycle of consciousness and remember past lives – without mindfulness we can barely remember what we had for lunch last Wednesday. Based on his first-hand experience, Buddha Shakyamuni and many other realized meditators since his time have had a lot to say about the cycle of life. For example, Clear Light of Bliss gives a very detailed description of what happens during the death process from the subjective point of view of the person who is dying rather than the onlookers. (This is very helpful for us and also helps us help others who are dying.)
Does anyone remember their dreaming last night? I dreamt that I was about to crash in an airplane. I’m happy to say that on this occasion I managed to go for refuge and not be alarmed. (I am not always so sanguine.) In our dreams we enter a different reality, we even have a different body, a dream body. And then we wake up from that in this meaty body again, in our bedroom. Constantly our mind is throwing up different appearances, but whatever is going on, dreaming or waking, we are thoroughly invested in it. When we’re dreaming, our dream world is our world at that time. When we wake up, this is our world. During deep sleep, everything disappears except emptiness. In the same way that we fall asleep and wake up every night and day, so we die and take rebirth life after life. Buddha said sleeping, dreaming, and waking are like a microcosm of dying, bardo, and rebirth. Our next life — months, weeks, or even days away — will be like waking up in a new life, with a new body, new parents, new environment, and so on.
Our mental continuum is perpetual, a ceaseless cycle of consciousness; whereas our physical bodies are exceedingly fragile and impermanent. Buddha says we are travelers bound for our future lives. This world is not our eternal home; there’s nothing eternal about it at all. So it is not who we are.
If we understand and identify our life as our mind, and if we understand that our mind is beginingless and endless, we start to get a very, very different understanding of who we are, do we not? We understand we are travelers, that this life is a detail — to be honest it’s got no more substantial reality than last night’s dream. It feels endless while it’s going on because of our permanent grasping. We think that this is all that there is. It’s me and this body and these friends, this job, this house, etc. It feels like it is really going on while its happening, doesn’t it? But, when we die it disappears like last night’s dream. Sometimes a dream seems to go on forever – but the moment we wake up it has gone. This life is like that. As we approach our death, we’ll see that this life was a completely fleeting dream-like appearance. It feels real because of our ignorance, because we’re grasping it as real, not because it is real. We’re also grasping it as if it is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that it is. We need to question appearances more deeply if we are to figure out who we are and what is going on.
We have had innumerable dreams in this life, and each of our countless previous lives is also a dream-like mere appearance to our mind. We will continue to dream forever — and those dreams will be out of our control and full of suffering until we overcome our inertia, our attachment to the status quo, and realize the ultimate nature of things, that they have no more reality than a dream. Then, as Buddha Shakyamuni and countless others have done, we will wake up from the sleep of ignorance to experience the lasting happiness of liberation.
Part 4 is here.