I had a talk with Craig Smith the other day, and we discussed a lot of things, including Buddhism. Craig used to be among the first batch of American students of the late Trungpa Rinpoche, and he is now a meditation teacher as well as policy advocate on the digital divide and the use of technology to promote spirituality. We talked about the plight of Tibetans living in China and the situation there and other things too. But what kind of stuck in my mind was that Craig told me that in Buddhist circles in the US today there are talks about living as a kind of suffering through a “post-traumatic stress.” What this means is that life as we know it has ingrained in it a deeply scarred psychological trauma that afflicts all of us who have been born.
This talk emerged after we started talking about death and dying, and what should be done about the terminal patients who are facing death. The idea of living as a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome is that when we approach dying and death, it is not that these are unique events that we have not experienced before. On the other hand, all of us have experienced countless number of deaths, so numerous that we do not typically remember. And the death experience is so traumatic that most of us chose not to remember them. This is why so few of us can remember our past lives. We live as if we were born fresh, but, alas, things do not work that way.
We do not remember our past lives because death is so traumatic that we automatically enter a stage of denial once we take over a new form of life. Once the consciousness approaches death, the experience is like being thrown into a fiercely flowing river. The transformation is so tremendous, and the experience so overwhelming that we prefer to leave all those behind and start anew. But that of course is an illusion. Sooner or later the consciousness approaches a new death and the same process continues.
What I like about Craig’s way of putting this is the way he uses contemporary and scientific terminologies to discuss this very old story from Buddhism. We have just described the usual process of samsara. But instead of quoting ancient texts Craig was using modern terms. This may be beneficial for those who are new to Buddhism and would like to see the connection with the life they find around themselves every day. Moreover, it gave me, at least, a chance to ponder on the very meaning of samsara itself.
The main culprit behind all this is the sense of self — the idea that there is something we need to hold on to which we call ‘me’ or ‘mine’. But what is the ‘me’? We fear death before we cherish this ‘me’ and we are afraid that it will go away with death. But, again, what is this ‘me’? In Buddhist term this is the root of all sufferings — ignorance or avidya. When the consciousness is going through the death transformation period, the experience was so traumatic that the consciousness just grabs anything that comes its way. Its needs to get hold of something. Thus the consciousness takes a new form of life, as a hungry ghost, or an animal, or a god, or a human being, depending on what kind or what quality of the mental episodes that happen to get hold of the consciousness at that moment. But the key is that it is trying to hold on.
So the reason you and I are living right now is that in the past our consciousness streams tried to hold on to something. That is why you and me are not now Buddhas. Living the life in a kind of a post-traumatic stress syndrome, the consciousness tries to avoid what is absolutely there as their past experiences, but they turn away from them, for these experiences are too sickening. The trick of the Buddha is to bring us to face these traumatic experiences head on. We need to see our past lives as every kind of beings there is. Then we will see the pointlessness of the whole thing especially the struggle in the near future when we die. Do we really want to suffer the same experiences over and over again? Kind of reminding me of Sisyphus.
It is experiences like these that motivated many to practice and eventually become Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.