18 December 2009

Heaven, Hell, and Reincarnation...or not

Death was a hot topic at the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic dialogue this month, death and what happens after.

Professor Chris Chapple invited me to go to the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue a while back and I've gone when I could. This group of Buddhist and Catholic spiritual leaders and academics have been meeting together for over twenty years. It's been going on so long, there is a real personal warmth between all of the clerics and academics in spite of the great variety of their beliefs, backgrounds, nationalities and outfits. I mean, you've got sweet Sister Thomas Bernard in her wimple, white sweater and orthopedic shoes as well as a number of Catholic priests from different orders in their collars, interspersed around the table with Buddhist leaders of various traditions. If you didn't know better, you might think that there were representatives from three different religions because of the striking difference in dress between the Buddhists from the "northern" or Mahayana tradition (Chinese, Japanese, and Korea) and the "southern" or Theravadan tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand etc.) For example, Venerable Miao Hsi from the Taiwanese Hsi Lai Temple and Professor Jeung Park, who's also an abbot in a Korean Buddhist order, dress in robes that look like closely tied coats. Phrakru Sumanatissa Berua from the Wat Thai Temple, on the other hand, is partially, but not fully, wrapped in bright orange cloth with one shoulder completely exposed.

Here's a photo from one of the meetings back in 2008 so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about....

Over the past four or five sessions, the group has been working their way through a pamphlet that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gives out to its flock: "What Catholics Should Know About Buddhism." The Buddhists at the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue are correcting mistakes they find - and they've found quite a few.

The effort was actually suggested by the representative of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Right Reverend Alexei Smith who was ordained as a Melkite Greek Catholic priest.(* explanation of his unusual relationship with the Archdiocese below) "If we're going to be teaching our Catholic kids about these various world religions," Father Alexei said, "we should be teaching them accurately."

It's a pretty remarkable thing that representatives from all of these religious institutions have cared enough about building relationships with each other that they have devoted this much time and energy over decades to do it and with such little notice. And this is by no means the only group like it.

After four sessions, the group was just about to finish correcting this sixteen-page pamphlet. I know, it sounds like watching paint dry, but it wasn't. It wasn't just that there were a number of errors in the text itself but, on occasion, the Buddhists didn't agree among themselves about what should be said instead. Although they are all Buddhists, there are nuances in their tenets and beliefs as different as their dress.

But then, today, death got on the agenda. In the previous meeting, one of the Buddhists had said that, unlike in the West, many people consider themselves Confucian and Taoist and Buddhist or Daoist and Buddhist and Shinto. There just isn't the rigid separation between faiths. However, one of the Buddhist clerics said, in Japan, it wasn't until someone in their family died that they turned to Buddhism.

Professor Michael Kerze, an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Valley College, said he thought that was odd, given what he understood about Buddhism. "Why do (people in Japan) turn to Buddhism for funerals? Given Buddha's vision of samsara and being reborn, why turn to Buddhism for funerals when this is just one passing into another life?"

Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma, (cleric on the far left in the photo above who was born Joyce Adele Pettingill in Beloit, Wisconsin) abbess in a Vietnamese Buddhist order, said, "When somebody passes, they're headed for a new life. It's very important for Buddhists to try to help them towards a good new life."

Venerable Miao Hsi, added: "It's like a very grand spiritual send off."

Phrakru Sumanatissa Berua from the Wat Thai Temple said: "Actually death is the final journey of the human being. In Buddha's time, there was a very beautiful woman, a woman so beautiful that every male, chase behind her. Even monks. She pass away. Buddha say: 'Keep her. Don't burn her.' Her body lay there for days. Buddha say 'She's there. Anyone want to go there now?'"

I don't know about anyone else at that table, but there's a pretty strong image now stuck in my head.

The Wat Thai monk continued. "The Buddha have to teach them that this," the monk bent his fingers back to his body draped in bright orange, "is impermanent so they can decline from attachment. Everything is illusion. It's not real. So when we have a funeral we have to teach about that: life is impermanent. We like to say that the people who pass away are our teacher, that life is impermanent." So, he said, in his tradition, in the Theravada tradition, the funeral is not so much for the person who died, for aiding in their transformation into a better life. "That's governed by their karma, by what they did in their life. You did good things, you go to good place; you did bad things, you go to bad place - that's what Buddhists believe."

Professor Jeung Park, a Korean Buddhist abbot, explained that, for Buddhists, the concept of a sentient being or "sattva" is different than other religions. He said, for Buddhists, even people who pass away are "sattvas. Because they return. In other religions, whoever passes away aren't counted. For Buddhists, they are because they are in a cycle of samsara. Understand? We are reborn again continuously."

But Professor Kerze had more questions, questions his religious studies students asked that he didn't feel he was answering fully. "My students ask me 'But what, exactly, is reborn?'"

Professor Park said, "We deny that any kind of self exists." No 'atman' - that Hindu term for the "I" that can say "my mind." Wikipedia says it's the Hindu term for soul.

Rev Karuna Dharma said, "I wouldn't use the word 'reincarnation.' 'Rebirth' is different from reincarnation." There seemed to be general agreement from all the Buddhists clerics around the table on this point, no matter what the tradition.

But Professor Kerze persisted, "It's said that Buddha remembered 'all his previous lifetimes in the process of enlightenment.' What was he remembering if there is no 'soul' consisting through these lifetimes?"

Father John Raab said he, too, didn't understand. "Even if you called it "rebirth" instead of reincarnation, what is being re-born?"

Then Reverend/Professor Jeung Park made a point I'd never heard before. The whole idea of rebirth is not really that important in Buddhism. At all. "It's more like a teaching tool to help people see the benefit of living a moral and ethical life." He said that the notion of karma and of dependent origination (that nothing can exist on its own) are much more important than any notion of rebirth for Buddhists. "It's not a big topic or a main notion for Buddhism. So don't spend too much time arguing about it."

It was pretty funny. Everyone who wasn't Buddhist was pretty hung up on nailing down just what, exactly, Buddhists mean when they talk about reincarnation or rebirth while Professor Park was telling us the whole concept was little more than a teaching tool, nowhere near as important as living an ethical and moral life; the idea that nothing can be alive on its own, separate and apart from countless other people and circumstances; and the idea of emptiness or no "self", which is a pretty tough idea to wrap your head around. And it seemed as if most of the other Buddhists around the table agreed.

Those central concepts each make a certain amount of straightforward sense to me. Dependent origination -- that I couldn't exist without my parents and their parents and their parents' parents is easy to see but it's more than that. My continued existence is also completely dependent on a complex and almost infinite series of people, places, events and circumstances - things that are happening or not happening. No one is breaking in to my house right now with a gun so I am able to type these words. I have a glass of water beside me that probably began as snow in the High Sierras and then ran through hundreds of miles of sluices, pipes and pumping stations with the help of many forms of energy with the oversight of who knows how many people to get into my glass where I can use it to keep me alive and functioning for another day. What this means is that the 'me' I hold to be the center of my universe is, according to Buddhism, not self-sufficient, not self-contained, not at all the same as what I really am.

The Heart Sutra says that "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." This second notion - emptiness - is actually, according to Roshi Bernie Glassman easier to understand if you understand the first idea of dependent origination. It's not that there is nothing, that I am nothing, that Buddhism thinks everything is a big void. It's "empty" because "nothing can exist separate and apart from a web of causes and conditions. Suffering comes, in part, from our ignorance of this fact.

For me, it's pretty easy to see the trouble I've gotten myself into when I've acted as if my actions don't affect a vast web of other people, when I act as though this "self" is self-contained, unaffected by and not affecting others.

My guess is that part of the reason rebirth is not as important as we outsiders might think is that heaven, hell, and rebirth are all temporary - all part of the endless cycle that doesn't end until you've moved beyond karma, beyond the cycle of birth and death, by "realizing" the truth. And, like in Hinduism, you can only realize the truth while you are alive. Being alive is precious, it's temporary, it's fleeting, it's our chance to break free of our ignorance of the truth.

Sitting at that table, I was moved by the determined attempt at understanding and by its limits. Is it possible without at least some direct experience of another's faith? I think that's especially true in Buddhism because Buddhism is, at its heart, about directly experiencing what is unknown, beyond words, beyond concepts and using that direct experience to reduce one's suffering. But it sure was a relief to be sitting there watching people far more knowledgeable than me struggle with the same questions and concepts that make me feel like my brain is missing a few critical gears.


* Right-Reverend Archimandrite Alexei Smith was appointed by Cardinal Roger Mahoney as the Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He is the only Greek Catholic priest in the United States serving a Roman Catholic Archdiocese in such a visible position. I didn't know it but the Catholic Church is actually a communion of 22 Churches all united to Rome: Roman Catholics are one of those Churches, and by far the largest and hence most dominant and the Greek Catholic Church (not Greek Orthodox Church) is another.

If you're interested:
Minutes from a past Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, October 1- 4, 1998