On the night before his enlightenment, tucked away from the moonlight in the shadow of the Bodhi Tree, the spiritual seeker known as Siddhartha was said to recall all his past lives.
One by one, he relived all of his previous incarnations, spanning throughout the ages back to the very beginning. From the beetle to the butterfly, the fox to the lion, the peasant to the prince, he remembered himself. It was this very process that washed him up on the shore of the ultimate awareness of being.
For some, the fabric of this story is the very road to Nirvana; for others, it is just another vague spiritual teaching thrown on the insurmountable heap of well-meaning hocus pocus. While both of these viewpoints come from a valid place, I think the problem is less with roads and heaps, and more with our feet and climbing shoes.
Spiritual stories such as these are always in danger of being taken out of context because they is always the possibility of them being taken literally.
We suffer an immense difficulty with teachings of wisdom because we tend to approach them in such a way that our role becomes whether or not we grant them our permission to be true. In other words, we have been seduced into the thinking that our primary role—first and foremost, before making room for anything else—is whether we ought to believe the story happened or not.
This is a tragic mistake because it does not permit us to inhabit the narrative deeply enough to discover it for ourselves. In the case of the story of the Buddha, it can never begin where the person called Siddhartha began. It can only arise and end within you.
This is the great reframing of the self, as all stories begin right where you began, when the creature first emerged from the womb of creation.
You once were nothing more than single-celled organism, reflecting that very first moment of life on this planet. As an embryo, you entered into each and every stage of evolution. From that very first cell you became a fish, a reptile, a rodent, and an ape. You came into this world having passed through each gate marking the history of all the life that collectively gave rise to you.
And so immersion in this Buddhist story is not to provide the place to decide whether or not you personally believe in the Buddha, but whether or not you understand the Buddha story as it plays out in yourself.
The factual basis of reincarnation doesn’t really require your approval. You may say that you cannot remember being a crocodile. However, if you spend any authentic time with your innermost being, it will not be long until you forcibly encounter the beast face-to-face. Your crocodile-self remains beneath the waters of your conscious awareness.
One might be tempted to regard this realization as overly ethereal and brush the concept away as entirely unpractical, but, as is often the case, there remains a tangible influence that is becoming harder for the uninitiated to ignore.
For example, it is currently in vogue both within the general public and in the scientific community to speak of things such as “the reptile brain,” “the paleo-mammalian brain,” and the “the neo-mammalian brain” to describe both the structure of neurophysiology and the hidden origins of our behavior.
We are drawn to this triune model of the brain because on some level we understand that these forces are present within us, even a part of what makes us, us. One may easily sit in still awareness and immediately recognize the reptile—the mindless urge to eat or to procreate—forces that do not seem to seek our permission to exist within us.
The mistake we have made is to let them—like the memories of a pre-enlightened Buddha—go without naming, without remembrance, and exert their heavy influence from the darkness of our own preexistence. Without awareness, without intimacy with them, they remain hidden, and thus both powerful and beyond our control.
The accessible truth of reincarnation hinted at in the life of the Buddha is nothing more than the reality of the passages of life and time. It has little to do with a person understanding they were once something or someone else, but rather their coming to the realization that their current self includes everything before it and after it.
It is a beautiful story because it is your story.
Author: Dan Miller
Apprentice Editor: Lois Person/Editor:Travis May
Image: Hartwik HKD/Flickr