Life After Death and Other Inconveniences
Who among us has not sipped Lapsang Souchong in a quaint Russian tea room with a host so congenial and urbane that, had he confided he was anyone other than Empress Catherine The Great, he would have jolted us to incredulity?
Hmmm. Yes... Pass the brie.
Ah, these encounters with reconstituted royalty are too commonplace to warrant notice. Let us pass then to something far more rare: a true account of just what reincarnation's "Life After Death" means in real time. The National Geographic's June, 2003 edition contains a feature which documents the horrors of this unconscionable - and fortunately not Zen Buddhist - belief.
Untouchables, an article about India's 160,000,000 outcastes, written by Tom O'Neill and photographed by William Allard, begins, "The sins of Girdharilal Maurya are many, his attackers insisted. He has bad karma. Why else would he, like his ancestors, be born an Untouchable, if not to pay for his past lives?"
Because he was born an Untouchable, Mr. Maurya's employment opportunities were somewhat limited. He was qualified only to handle objects considered too filthy for ordinary human beings to touch: fecal material and sewage; blood; corpses; the skins and guts of slaughtered animals; and garbage. He could "midwife" the delivery of mammals; and when those mammals were unwanted human females, he could be employed to kill them, and so on.
Mr. Maurya, of the subgroup of leather-tanning Untouchables, had saved enough money to purchase a little plot of ground outside of town for his family; but since God had ordained that he, his wife and children should suffer for their past-life crimes, it was, by simple extension, sinful for their caste-member neighbors to allow them to evidence such prosperity - and thereby to flaunt the will of God. Not only were Mr. Maurya and his family forbidden to take water from the town well, but on a night that he was absent from home, the Enforcers of reincarnation's divine edict went to his little farm, tore down his fences, destroyed his tractor, beat his wife and children, and burned his house to the ground.
Mr. Maurya did not know the specifics of his or his family's previous life's misdeeds. Like Joseph K. in Kafka's Trial, he was caught up in an incomprehensible judicial system, arrested without being able to learn what charges had been brought against him. Maurya was simply a bewildered victim of the illogical circular argument that perpetuates this deplorable belief: the Untouchables are unfit for human society because they live and work in filth. They live and work in filth because they have been condemned to be Untouchables. This is the insanity of reincarnation when it is followed in any serious "religious" way.
But religion is not the motive behind the custom. Caste prejudice is not sexist, racist, ethnic, nationalistic, or, in any sense of the word, religious. The prejudice is of the common economic class-distinction variety which merely masquerades as religious dogma. India is a nuclear power and the world's largest democracy. It has an educated population and few among its intelligentsia would ever accept such a distorted interpretation of metaphysical reality. More than fifty years ago India outlawed the caste system; but as the victims of any class prejudice - racism in the U.S. or anti-semitism in Europe - can attest, there is a considerable difference between de facto and de jure. Just because a practice is declared unlawful does not mean that its inequities cease to exist or, for that matter, that criminal acts committed in the course of violating civil rights' laws will be prosecuted in any meaningful way. If we seek the reasons for the continuance of such atrocities we will have to look elsewhere than in religious doctrines. No, religion is merely the exotic veil which covers these rather common features of human behavior.
Hatred and all its cruelties serve a function. For as long as there is safety in numbers, there is a need to form groups; and there is but one sure way to make a collection of disparate individuals congeal into a forceful group, and that way is to collect their individual shadow elements and project them outside the group onto some despised enemy. Without this collective purgation, group members will likely vent their hostilities upon each other and, by the inevitable internecine strife, destroy the group. The "heroic" leader's function, then, is to target an outside "enemy" and direct the group's venom upon it. False scientific claims will mate with confused religious claims, producing an offspring of unassailable economic veracity.
If the despised persons are African negroes and a Confederate's prosperity is at stake, it will be shown that the cranial capacity of negroes measures less than that of normal human caucasians and that this obviously proves that negroes, being sub-human, fall into the category of those animals over which the Bible says God gave man dominion. No labor is cheaper than slave labor; and even the slaves are replicating, salable assets.
If the despised persons are Jews and the Third Reich's prosperity is at stake, it will be shown that the physiognomy of Jews indicates genetic inferiority when compared to Aryan physiognomy and that this explains the Jews' subhuman, rodential cunning which enabled them to kill Christ and to bring economic hardship to Aryan Europe. As rats could be exterminated with impunity, so could Jews. Rats did not have bank accounts and other valuable property that could be confiscated, but this is not the fault of the rats.
If the despised persons are the poor, then their promiscuity, incorrigibility, laziness, irresponsibility, and lack of education - not to mention etiquette - clearly evidence such subhuman inferiority as warrants their being herded into ghetto corrals and subjected to harsh disciplinary treatment. Idle hands being the Devil's workshop, they are expected to appreciate whatever manual labor they can get. The Law of Supply and Demand will complement the Biblical assurance that "the poor will always be with us;" and for so long as they can be with us in excessive numbers, competition for jobs will insure minimum wages.
And if the poor bear a physical resemblance to the rich or otherwise elite, it becomes necessary for these privileged classes to form closed groups... a social register for the highest class of old-money families; Ivy League fraternities and sororities; Daughters of the American Revolution; other exclusive associations or "castes"; religious sodalities; private clubs; and organizations at every level of society all the way down to the various guilds of skilled labor. (It used to be joked that it was easier to get a son into Harvard than it was to get him into Boston's Carpenters' Union. A union membership card was seen as the same kind of inherited "paper wealth" as stocks and bonds.) Only members' sons were given apprenticeships, effectively excluding unwanted outsiders. Fire Departments and military units in which men lived in close quarters excluded racial minorities on the grounds that there would be too much dissension in the ranks if the existing members were forced to live with such despised persons. In fact, at the same time that India was outlawing the caste system, the U.S. was finally integrating the military services. And though Mr. Maurya was only recently prohibited from taking water at the town well, it was not that many years ago that drinking fountains in our southern states were segregated and persons of color could not drink at "whites only" fountains.
When prejudice is not serving the interests of making one group of people feel genetically, ethically, esthetically, or intellectually superior to another group of people, we can all bet the farm that it is making one group of people benefit financially at the expense of the other.
Reincarnation, in one way or another, serves all these interests. What it doesn't serve is the interest of the living spirit. There can be no ascension of the spirit when class hatred is so vicious, when one person can look at another's misfortune, can look even at a crippled child and say, "He brought this on himself. It is his Karma. No doubt he was a thief in his previous life."
As Tom O'Neill writes in the Geographic, "During the winter I spent in India, hardly a day passed that I didn't hear or read of acid being thrown in a boy's face, or a wife raped in front of her husband, or some other act whose provocation was simply that an Untouchable didn't know his or her place." By way of illustration, we are shown a photograph of horribly disfigured young men who, because they dared to fish in waters in which caste members fished, had acid thrown on them. (As a personal comment, I can remember years ago discussing the making of martinis with some high caste Indians who were visiting the U.S. There was a joke about making a martini so dry that "only the shadow of the bottle of vermouth was allowed to fall upon the gin." The Indians laughed and said that there was power in the shadow.... that if an Untouchable allowed his shadow to fall upon a caste person, that person was permitted to beat the Untouchable for having defiled him with his shadow.) This is the stuff of the Gulag... of Auschwitz.... of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia... and of the countless Shi'ite corpses in Iraqi sand. This is the Ku Klux Klan enjoying a good lynching and a proper "Christian" plantation owner selling children and cutting off the foot of a runaway slave.
For Buddhists it is significant that in recent years a leader of the Untouchables, B. R. Ambedkar, frustrated in his efforts to end this exploitation and abuse, decided that there was no hope for outcastes but to abandon Hinduism and seek refuge in Buddhism which, since its inception, has opposed the notion of transmigrating soul 'reward and punishment.' Unfortunately, Ambedkar died shortly after he, himself, converted and so was able to lead only a few hundred thousand Untouchables into Buddhist liberation.
What, we may wonder, are the different kinds of post-mortem life available to the newly dead? There are two basic ways people live after death: they retain their ego-identity or they lose their ego-identity.
Those who retain their identity can either repose in heaven or suffer hell - according to a divine judgment of their earthly activity - or inhabit the world of ghosts and make themselves available to mediums, spirit-channels, and other persons who schmooz with dead people.
Those who do not retain their old identity are assigned a new one. This does not necessarily mean a human identity, for in many systems a newly dead person can be consigned to the realm of seemingly inanimate minerals from which state they must advance through normal evolutionary ranks. Among human reassignments, the new identity may be determined by divine judgment or left to the discretion of the deceased. In this latter case, the dead person may elect to inhabit a nether world for an undetermined period of time and then, upon finding an acceptable human fetus, may evict the DNA-determined personality propensities of the child in order to replace them with its own. In the former case, i.e., divine judgment, good karma is weighed against bad karma, and, aside from a few non-negotiable sins, the balance will tell the tale of the next birth's good or bad fortune.
In the actual assignment of Caste, there are four specific categories, and though there are many subdivisions within each caste, clefts as wide and deep as the Marianas Trench separate the four castes. While intra-caste movement is possible, inter-caste movement is not. To be born into a caste is to die in it. At the top are the Brahmans, the priest/philosophers; under them are the Kshatriyas, the warrior/governors; under them the Vaisyas, the merchant/manufacturers; under them are the Sudras, the common servant/laborers. The governing Laws of Manu dictate a code of conduct for each caste, specifying which duties must be performed and which sins must be avoided, and prescribing specific punishments for failures to meet the required standards.
Only in the interval between death and rebirth is a change in caste possible. Aside from such shifts in fortune, a sinner may find himself reborn in the body of a porcupine (Chapter XII, provision #65.) or he may find himself to be one of those fellows who dine upon human corpses or who are strict vomiterians (Chapter XII, provision #71). He may be required to endure a variety of diseases and deformities.
To establish that the Buddha's means to salvation did not include transmigrating-soul rewards and punishments we must, in the absence of a written historical record, apply common sense and also rely upon anecdotal sources. First of all, the Buddha was born into the Kshatriya Warrior caste. When he renounced his inherited political responsibilities and decided to usurp the role of a higher caste Brahman's religious function, he became immediately guilty of a grievous crime against the system. Further, we are told that he lost many disciples because he allowed a low caste woman to touch him and feed him rice milk after his near-fatal fasting episode; that he embraced Suniita, the Untouchable scavenger; that he counseled Kisa Gotama when her baby died by showing her that death comes to all - without any mention of rebirth whatsoever. Despite the need for a conciliatory approach in such a caste dominated society, he seemed always to avoid rebirth references.
The Buddha's unique message is that salvation must be sought and can be found in the here and now. The material "maya" world of Samsara prescribes that when a person immerses himself in this ever-changing, conditional world, his life is bitter and painful. He desires things which lose their valuable novelty once he has obtained them; and then, a prisoner in the world of built-in obsolesence, he desires something else, something with new features and fashions which he must then strive to obtain. And upon acquiring this, it too will cease to satisfy him. The Buddha specifically called this desire "thirst" because of its recurrent nature. To slake one's thirst on Monday does nothing to alleviate Wednesday's parched throat. He taught that this continual thirsting after objects can be ended by following a road that leads to Nirvana - where there is neither thirst nor unsatisfied desire. He revealed his insights into human suffering and its cure in the Four Noble Truths and in the Chain of Dependent Origination which amplifies the nature and causes of desire, itself.
We need somethimes to be reminded that material-world desire is the subject of Dependent Origination. This cause-and-effect list is not an apology for the caste system or some Circle of Life ontogeny. In the Vinaya, the Chain is specifically given as linear, not circular or cyclical. It proceeds as "A gives rise to B which gives rise to C, etc. And in reverse, "C is given rise to by B which is given rise to by A." It does not say, A gives rise to B which gives rise to C..which then gives rise to A." Nowhere, and in no plausible interpretation of the concatenation of desire's cause and effect, is there any reference to or even room for reincarnation. Skewed translations and selective definitions defeat the unambiguous intent of Middle Way salvation.
In other times and places Buddhism had to blend with existing religions, and wherever this synthesis was effected, interpretation of the original message had often to be amended to accommodate the existing beliefs. This is, of course, understandable, and if it serves to better the lives of Buddhists, there is no problem. But in China, where Zen was founded, another type of life after death was commonly believed. Ancestral spirits hung around to keep everyone on the straight and narrow and nobody would ever suppose that a member of somebody else's family could dispossess the spirit of a member of one's own family. No one had to suffer rebirth as a cooking pot when a mother-in-law's ghost was doing an excellent job of tormenting the cook.
Avidya, the first in the chain of dependence, is "maya"; it is also the first of the samsaric tattvas (the first five tattvas are nirvanic) which begins the Kashmiri Shaivist chain of dependence. In a future essay, we'll discuss how these two systems dovetail and how neither leaves room for life after death.
In the meantime, we can try to relive some of the happier moments of Catherine, Empress of all the Russias ... at least those moments that are not against the law in real time.