Article 27 Reality is a Fantastical Creation
We imagine realms which in turn reflect back as actual places and situations – beautiful and ugly homes or streets, loving or dysfunctional families and so forth. According to some traditions, this sort of thing also determines what sort of situations we are born into including place, status and body qualities (attractive, ill-favoured etc.).
Although we would crack jokes about it from time to time, during all my years as a hard-core Buddhist in a dynamic community of fellow practitioners back in the 70’s and 80’s, I cannot recall any serious presentation or discussion about re-incarnation or rebirth. The main way the latter was discussed, if at all, was in the context of what continues from the previous moment into the future moment – if anything. And even that notion was rarely brought up.
And then for a while I had the job of acting as the Head Tutor of a real, live Tibetan ‘tulku,’ or re-incarnated lama, when he was eight to nine years old. So interacting every day with a living example of that tradition afforded me the opportunity to consider such matters far more than I otherwise would have. Now this article won’t attempt to go into all the ins and outs of reincarnation but I would like to share one notion which occurred to me back then and which still seems helpful. Here goes:
Imagine you have just been elected President of the United States; you have just given your Inaugural Address in front of a crowd larger than any you have seen in your entire life and have now returned back to the White House and, after various quick meetings and introductions to the Staff downstairs, for the very first time you finally sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Now let us imagine what happens…
Along with an incoming flood of unfamiliar sense perceptions – the awe-inspiring presence of the Resolute Desk itself, polish and other unidentified smells, the drapery, the furniture, the paintings, your familiar photograph collection on a nearby side table, the faint muffled sounds of a few aides in the office next door, you are overcome with the profundity of the moment. You are now sitting in the same place as a very select lineage of predecessor Presidents, a line of which you are the living embodiment and moreover now the living lineage holder representing all the people who have ever lived, worked, struggled, fought and died in your country going back to the earliest native Indians and settlers.
You feel this national ancestral lineage as some sort of cloud-like presence felt both in what you witness around you in the Oval Office, in the dignity and history of the chair you are sitting in and the desk on whose polished surface you rest your hands, but also in how you feel inside psychologically and spiritually. For the first time it begins to sink in: “I am the President” so much so that when your aide comes in a few minutes later and asks “Do you need anything, Mr. President?” at this point the title reflects who you are. In essence, you are now the latest incarnation of the President of the United States of America.
Now lest you think this is idle or misguided fantasy about a very deep topic, let me just point out that the above description accords with one of many types of ‘reincarnation.’ The most popularly conceived one is actually quite rare, namely that Person A dies in Body A and then is reborn into Body B being able to remember what Person A experienced. Although rare, there are many instances in history of children born with such recall, including today – though they nearly all tend to be born in India or Tibet. Perhaps such recall is some sort of unusual psychic power and they are not incarnations of Person A at all but that is not the concern of this Article.
Apart from this direct type of reincarnation, a more common type relates with its root meaning being ‘in flesh’ or ‘be made flesh.’ In the sacred Christian context it also means ‘embodiment of God in the person of Christ’ which has the notion of a living human as manifestation of the Divine. In some translations from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this is called a ‘blessed tulku.’ Tulku is Tibetan for ‘physical body emanation/incarnation;’ ‘blessed’ means that one receives an influence from something like a ‘Holy Spirit,’ some sort of atmospheric transference such as described in the New President story above.
The point here is not to get lost in the weeds about whether or not reincarnation is a valid concept, rather to reflect on how the realms we live in, including in this example the realm of being President of the United States which is an actual realm hundreds – if not millions – of people are involved in creating and maintaining every hour of every day, are both real and imaginary at the same time.
In other words, dear Reader, so-called ‘objective reality’ is a bit of a myth. Or to put it another way: even if such a thing exists, we cannot experience it as such since all experience we have is a blend of sensation, imagination, habitual patterning, projection, emotion and so forth. There is no getting away from this and moreover no reason why we should want to. Perhaps the only reason is contemporary confusions and superstitions about the nature of reality making many of us feel obliged to discount ‘subjective’ experience when we try to get at ‘the facts.’ Some facts are straightforward: either the apple ripened and fell to the ground or it didn’t; simple. But most cultural-zone facts are not facts at all but rather things we agree to agree on – ‘he won the election’ – or things we cannot find consensus on and rather have to tussle over, like dogs after the same bone.
Even so-called ‘scientific’ facts are not as cut and dried as many in the media like to insist. Put ten experts in a room examining exactly the same factual data and more than likely you will get ten different conclusions from those same ‘facts.’ This is because a fact only has meaning within what is, when all is said and done, a subjective process.
In any case, I like the New President story not only as an interesting twist on explaining how incarnation works – because that makes it a far more down-to-earth process that too often is overlooked in overly arcane descriptions you can find in poorly translated texts from days of yore – but also as an effective way of understanding the power of the imagination, both individual and collective, in how our perceived realities are shaped and experienced. This is actually important to be aware of, because otherwise we fail to appreciate both historical and contemporary cultures as living art forms, as mutual creations informed by what has come before whilst also being re-created and re-invented day by day in the present. Our countries, our societies, our businesses, our towns, our families are all ongoing living art forms, blending imagination into direct experience of external and internal realities moment by moment, day by day.