Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Unmistaken Child," on Independent Lens

This PBS special brought me back to thinking once again about why I have not been able to call myself a Buddhist. Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) would tell me—has told me—not to worry my little head about such things, but the belief in reincarnation does seem to me to be the point at which Buddhism ceases to be the most healthy, rational, ethical way to live one’s life and becomes instead a religion. I struggle with this.

I hate to harp on about it, and realize that I speak out of very limited knowledge and understanding of these things, but I keep coming back to the position that everything about the teachings makes wonderfully good sense until we reach this ultimate point. As I have said perhaps too often in the past, I cannot wrap my mind around the notion that we keep returning to this world in a different incarnation after death until we reach enlightenment. It makes sense as a beautiful metaphor; not, to me, as a belief.

These thoughts inevitably occurred to me once again the other night as Ellie and I sat watching a recorded replay of “Unmistaken Child.” It’s the very beautiful, deeply moving story of a Tibetan monk, Tenzin Zopa’s search for the reincarnation of his beloved spiritual master Geshe Lama Konchong in the mountain villages of Tibet. After a long, arduous journey and many false leads he discovers, in a modest rural family, a chubby year-old boy who appears to recognize and “claim” the departed lama’s beads and other ritual objects. The boy‘s credentials are reviewed by the senior leaders, his astrological chart is examined, and he is eventually certified by the Dalai Lama himself as the authentic reincarnation of the master. The story ends with the tot’s richly ceremonial enthronement as the spiritual leader of his own monastery.

There is something extraordinarily compelling about this story. The majestic, snow-capped mountains and the green valleys of the region have something to do with it: the grand supremacy of nature over puny human beings is overwhelming. Unquestionable, too, is the faith of the villagers and the monks. Their faces radiate with it, and with the happiness it appears to bring them. To the Western mind, the circumstances of life are unimaginably bleak: tiny cottages of stone and wood, with only the barest of essentials; frigid temperatures and, in warmer weather, mud everywhere—most notably on the faces of the children! For heat, there are wood fires, and rough cots for beds. To most of us, it might seem impossible to find happiness in such harsh circumstances—but the eyes shine, the faces glow. Or am I projecting, along with the film-maker, my own patronizing and romantic dream about the uncomplicated rustic life?

The faith is touching. It is also omnipresent. We find ourselves on Tenzin Zopa’s journey in a world quite different from ours, where faith is less a matter of the loud profession of beliefs, of Sunday suits and sermons, and more a matter of the way life is lived, of daily ritual and observance. The monk’s profound love for his master amounts to a consuming passion, reflected in his dedication to the search. The faith of those he encounters along the way is clearly an essential part of their lives, and he is received everywhere with unquestioning respect for his spiritual status. There is a symbiotic relationship between the religious and the lay people that accords each his or her own standing—though it’s notable, as in all (?) religions, that the male predominates. The power rests clearly, in this Buddhist hierarchy, in the hands of men.

Religion as a way of life is one thing. It’s when it gets carried over into dogma and hierarchical structures—along with ostentatious ritual and what psychologists refer to as “magical thinking”---that my inner skeptic takes over. And all those things abound, it seems to me, in Tibetan Buddhism. True, there is something irresistibly appealing about those saffron robes and the colorful headgear, the chanting that seems to come from imponderable inner depths of being, the bowing and prostrations, the flapping prayer banners, the constant exchange of those white blessing scarves… There is something enchanting about the sober consultation with astrological charts, something seductive about a paternalistic authority that confers certainty and blessing, relieving us of a certain measure of responsibility and doubt…

And I do realize, of course, that this form of Buddhism is by no means the only one. There are many more “plain” practices than this, many more down-to-earth teachings and expressions of faith. But all of them, it seems to me, circle back to reincarnation and its companion concept, karma. Otherwise, there is nothing so far as I can tell to distinguish it from a philosophical understanding and a way of life—in which is suffices, amply, for me.

So I squirmed, in this story, to see a man as rational and enlightened as I believe the Dalai Lama to be, giving his seal of approval to those astrological charts submitted to him to validate the identity of this “unmistaken child.” I squirmed at what seemed, to my Western mind, an act of child abuse in snatching this child from his mother’s arms and his father’s loving care; at the sight of the little boy screaming as his head was forcibly shaved by the monks, despite his protests; at his bewilderment as the newly enthroned lama, approached for his blessing by untold masses of worshippers.

There is more to my skepticism, of course, than what I have touched on here. It reaches to religions other than Buddhism, and surely says as much about me as about the religions I mistrust. I plan to explore it further in another essay I have planned. Enough to say, at this point, that I loved "Unmistaken Child" despite—or perhaps indeed because of—the resistance that I felt.


mandt said...

I'm sorry that re-incarnation disturbs you. If it's any comfort, know that religion is pointless, except for its functionalist uses in institutional delusion. Practice always transcends metaphysics and mythologies. Ps. Always pick the beat-up, old brown malla and tin eating bowl and you too can be a lama! lol :)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

This is an honest exploration of the issues which do not resonate with you in Tibetan Buddhism. I have always deeply loved the many stories of found tulkus, the recognition and accepted proof of their former identities while also cringing at the thought of small children taken from their parents to be raised by monks.

I do not, however, have any difficulty accepting the idea of reincarnation as it is really the only explanation that makes sense to me. And when you think of how truly miraculous it is that we are here at all, it seems less of a stretch to believe that we return over and over until we no longer need to. It also seems to jibe with science in that matter cannot cease existing but merely transmutes itself; in that light, how can the soul be any different?

A wonderful post, Peter!

Kirsten said...

Stephen Batchelor, who has written a number of books on Buddhism, addresses just this issue in the latest Insight Journal. His journey re: the issue of belief is compelling. For me, not a practicing Buddhist, but an appreciator of many of its teachings, I was actually shocked to find my own processes and experiential conclusions so accurately mirrored in the words of this committed Buddhist practitioner. It's about the value of liberation from any belief system. I think it's called "Freedom of Not Knowing." In the end he calls himself a Buddhist atheist. Worth reading.

MysticBlueRose said...

I, too, cannot bear the thought of reincarnation. I consider it a "doctrine of despair". Here we are, locked into life after life after life, doomed to live again and again without the knowledge from the previous lives that would make it worthwhile, until we "get it right"? No thank you. The concept when I first heard it made me cry for hours.

Jean said...

I was about to recommend the writings of Stephen Batchelor, but I see that Kirsten is there before me. Both Buddhism without Belief and his new book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist are worth your time if you haven't already read them. His teaching of the dharma is steeped in learning, in an adult lifetime of practice, including some years as a Tibetan and then a Korean Zen monk, in respect and love for his Tibetan and Zen teachers and for both of these and for all Buddhist traditions. But he finds himself completely unable to believe in reincarnation or in any notion of religion or infallibility. This is pretty much where I find myself too. The power for good of the dharma and the practice in my life has been and remains such that it matters much more than whether I can call myself a Buddhist (probably espoused enough 'isms' for this lifetime anyway)

mandt said...

I think I brought this up once before, but it seems relevant to the discussion: "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring," a beautiful, exquisitely done little film on karma by the Korean writer/director Kim Ki-Duk. It has been out for awhile and available for DVD.

PeterAtLarge said...

So pleased to get all these responses! I have read Stephen Batchelor, of course, and find his thinking in these matters very close to my own. As I understand it, Buddhism is not theistic, and for this reason I find it somewhat odd to be an Atheist Buddhist. And, like Jean, I'm distrustful of all -isms. But if I were to seek a label--which I clearly don't--it would be something more like Skeptical Buddhist. And yes, mandt, I did see the film you mention, and found it truly beautiful and moving.

Jean said...

In a spirit of lively discussion and not wishing to get personal about this:

I have seen Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. Whilst it is certainly beautiful and whilst I cannot now recall it in a lot of detail (I blocked it out!), I found it shockingly violent and sadistic and about as far from anything I personally associate with buddhist as I could imagine.

Anyone else here seen it?

Paul said...

I saw Spring, Summer,... several years ago. I don't have an afinity for Zen practice and its apparent tendency to use violence to bring monks into line, but I did enjoy the movie. Every scene seemed to symbolize some aspect of Buddhism, and for days afterwards I would make a new discovery. Still, I imagine I got only a small fraction of what's there.