rebirth

The Dalai Lama, Reefer Madness, kaiju, and more!

Prop newspaper with a story headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered

What does his Holiness the Dalai Lama have to do with moral panics over “marihuana,” (sic) a backwoodsman becoming an unlikely political hero, noir skulduggery in wartime San Francisco, Ronald Reagan, a resurrected Egyptian mummy, President Taft’s bathtub, and a giant reptile terrorizing Japan? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Several years ago, someone told me about a reference to the Dalai Lama that had appeared in fake (prop) newspapers in two old Hollywood movies: “Reefer Madness” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” (Unfortunately it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was that told me about this, and even a search of my emails has failed to turn up any clue.)

The newspaper story has the title, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.” This seems to be a reference to the discovery of the Dalai Lama’s “tulku” — his new incarnation — in Tibet in 1936.

I have to say I was a little skeptical when this was brought to my attention. I’d assumed that the prop newspapers used in old movies were entirely fake. My understanding was that to avoid incurring licensing fees, any prop newspaper used in a film would contain stories that were entirely invented. That turns out not to have been the case in the early days of cinema, because at least some of the stories were genuine — including the one about the Dalai Lama.

You can see this headline — just, if you screw up your eyes very hard and look sideways at just the right phase of the moon —  in the image above, which is from “Reefer Madness.” The main story is “Harper Verdict Expected Tonight.” This is a reference to the plot of the movie. Underneath that is the rather improbable, “Dick Tracy, G-Man, In Sensational Raid.” And tucked under that, you can just about make out, in the blur of a low-resolution image taken from a TV scan of an already low-resolution celluloid film, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.”

You can see the headline much more clearly in the image below, which is from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” starring an improbably young Jimmy Stewart. Here I don’t even have to circle the headline. In fact you can almost make out the subheading.

A newspaper prop from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, showing the headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

This is from the pivotal moment in the film when Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper tosses a coin to decide whether to replace a deceased senator with either a political stooge or a naive local hero. The tossed coin ends up beside this newspaper, helping him to make his decision.

“New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” and “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” are the filler stories.

I later discovered that His Holiness shows up in a number of other films as well.

These include “This Gun For Hire,” where our “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” appears below the main story, “Chemist and Woman Murdered.”

Prop newspaper from This Gun For Hire, with the story, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

Also (and thanks to the blog, “And you call yourself a scientist!?” for this) it’s in “Gigantis, The Fire Monster.”

Newspaper prop from Gigantis, The Fire Monster.

Thanks for eagle-eyed commenter Jeff (see comments below) I know that the article also appears on a prop newspaper on episode one of “Backstairs at the Whitehouse,” which was a TV miniseries that came out in 1979. That’s the most appearance of this story that I know of, and the only one I know of (so far) that’s in color.

Still from BackStairs at the Whitehouse, showing a prop newspaper with the story 'New Living Buddha Reported Discovered'

Earlier it appeared on “Girls On Probation” (1938), which stars Ronald Reagan, and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942).

The Dalai Lama gets around!

I can’t say for sure who originated these newspapers, but it’s likely to have been The Earl Hays Press, which has been supplying props to Hollywood for more than a hundred years.

But is this “Living Buddha” story really about the Dalai Lama? And is it based on a story that actually appeared in real newspapers.

The answers are “yes” and “yes.”

On Wednesday, 27 May 1936, an Associated Press story with the title “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” was published on page 25 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The same story was also published in other outlets under different headlines, such as “New ‘Living Buddha’ Discovered After Two- Year Search in Tibet,” in The Atlanta Journal, on the same date.

Here for the sake of completeness is the entire article, in case you were curious about what was behind the blur:

NEW ‘LIVING BUDDHA’ REPORTED DISCOVERED
Two-Year Quest Ends After Tibetan Priests Study Surface of Sacred Lake.

By the Associated Press.
SHANGHAI, May 27. Dispatches from the forbidden kingdom of Tibet reported today a new Dalai Lama, or “Living Buddha,” was discovered in the Han Jen district, northeast of Lhasa, after a search of more than two years.

The new Buddha was believed, the Tibetan advices [sic] said, to be a reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died Dec. 17, 1933.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Tibetans believe their “living god” is immortal and that when he dies, his attributes are handed down to a child born about the time of his death.

Tibetan monks and professional “diviners” have been searching for the reincarnated Dalai Lama ever since the death of the previous ruler. Reports received earlier from Lhasa said the omens were favorable for an early finding of the new “Living Buddha.”

The Tibetan new year began in February under auspicious circumstances, reports said. Spiritual authorities sent a deputation of high priests, sages, monks and philosophers to the sacred Chugkhorgyae Lake, east of Lhasa, near which the first Dalai Lama was born, to contemplate images reflected on the surface.

The lake gazers were reported successful in their quest for indications which might lead to discovery of a new Pontiff. Visions of a house wearing the mysterious words “a ka ma” appeared, thought to bear some relation to the name of the parents of the future Dalai Lama.

The populace was instructed then to join in the search for the house and the child.

The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, has been living in exile in China for the last 12 years.

He would be unable to go back. to assume his duties as tutor to his reported new “reincarnated brother” because no invitation has been extended to him.

Since the death of the late Dalai Lama under mysterious circumstances at Lhasa, affairs of state have been in the hands of the temporal regent, Jechen Hutukehtu.

Some of the other stories, such as “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” and “Fire Destroys State Arsenal,” were also taken from real newspapers.

Anyway, there we have it: The Dalai Lama made appearances in a number of films, from the classic “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” to the risible — “Gigantis” and Reefer Madness.” No doubt he was in many more as well. If you notice any others, please let me know!

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You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

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On radical honesty and agnosticism concerning rebirth

Indo-Tibetan Wheel of Life (bhavacakra)

This morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:

i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly agnostic about almost everything…. i find a belief in rebirth gives a me a sense of meaning – of possible progress – i still don’t understand how anyone can profess to be seeking Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s sense of a release from suffering – and not believe in rebirth. if death is the end of suffering then what’s all the fuss about? let’s just die….

And here’s what I wrote to Sheila:

Thanks for writing with these questions. It’s always interesting for me to meet, even indirectly, someone like your friend who sees life and Dharma practice in very different ways.

To take things out of order, with regard to the whole idea that life is pointless unless you believe in rebirth, I’d quote the Kalama Sutta, and gently point out that the Buddha seems to have disagreed with your friend’s position. If he taught the Kalama sutta, then he clearly thought that Dharma practice made sense even if you don’t have a belief in rebirth.

[To quote from the Buddha’s wager, in that sutta the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his “noble disciples” acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

So the Buddha is saying here that his disciples can practice the Dharma and benefit from that practice without believing in rebirth. What’s more, these disciples have mind “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure.” In other words, these are enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who have the assurance that their practice is worthwhile, even if they don’t know whether rebirth happens. You can go all the way to enlightenment and still not be convinced that rebirth is true!]*

Your friend gets her source of meaning from rebirth, but those of us who are skeptical about rebirth get our meaning elsewhere. Life to me doesn’t need any justification, so “let’s just die” would strike me as being a weird position to take, or even to imagine that people might take (unless, say, they were profoundly depressed). I don’t think it takes much empathy to recognize that people with differing views find life, and dharma practice, meaningful without the conviction that there is rebirth.

I hear similar arguments from Christians, who say that God is what gives life meaning, and if you don’t believe in God then you have no reason for living and might as well kill yourself. If your friend doesn’t believe in God then perhaps she might recognize that she’s adopting the same attitude in thinking that her source of meaning is the only possible source of meaning.

I wonder what she means by “let’s just die?” That without a belief in rebirth we should just kill ourselves? That’s absurd, since I don’t need a belief in rebirth to feel that my life is meaningful. That we should cease practice and just hang on until we die and then our suffering will all be over? That’s also absurd, since she’s suggesting that we should stop doing the things we find meaningful because we don’t get our sense of purpose and meaning in precisely the same way she does.

We all have different ways of finding purpose in life, and to me life is meaningful in and of itself. To be alive and conscious is a constant wonder and miracle. But in addition, seeing suffering in myself and others, and recognizing that most of that suffering is unnecessary, I find meaning in wanting to free myself and others from suffering. Now I can see how a Christian can think that serving god is a source of meaning or how the idea of pursuing enlightenment over many lives can give meaning, so I wonder why your friend can’t recognize that other things give my life meaning? I mean, hasn’t she ever *asked* someone with different beliefs what their source of meaning is? To just assume that they have none suggests some kind of lack of empathy or imagination.

To take your friend’s first point, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of faith to accept that other people are conscious. I am a human, and I am conscious. Other humans show the external signs, though facial expressions, words, etc., that they are experiencing the world in a similar way to me. So it would be bizarre, in my opinion, to assume that other people are not conscious. Assuming that consciousness survives death is an assumption of a completely different order from assuming that others are conscious.

As for agnosticism, I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to the teaching of rebirth. I have no evidence either way. It seems unlikely to me that consciousness can somehow function separate from a body (if we don’t need a body to be conscious, why does brain damage affect our ability to think?) and transfer itself to another body. There are on the other hand accounts of past-life memories, but few of us have had the opportunity to check those out first hand, and even if we did there’s no way we can rule out the possibility of the supposed memories having been acquired through some other route. I was advised to watch a video about a Scottish boy who apparently remembered a part life. I didn’t find it very convincing, and when much was made of his knowing that on the island of Barra, planes use the beach as a landing strip, it seemed quite possible to me that he’d seen this on TV. I try to keep a reasonably close eye on what my kids see on TV, but they’re always coming up with surprising things that they’ve picked up, and that I’d no idea they’d been exposed to. So most of the evidence that I’ve seen is rather shaky (plus there are some well-known instances of supposed memories having come from books people have read). On the other hand, we live in a very strange and wonderful universe, where there’s quantum entanglement. We don’t even know what 95% of the matter in the universe is made up of! So I’m not ruling anything out.

For me, being agnostic about rebirth is actually an ethical position. The Buddha promoted a sort of radical honesty (although of course we’re to be kind as well as honesty). The suttas describe truthful speech like this:

“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”

If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Otherwise you’re practicing a form of untruthful speech. Now I don’t know that there is such a thing as rebirth, so no matter how many references there are to rebirth in the Pali canon, I’m not going to say that rebirth happens. Unless someone has some extraordinarily convincing and even irrefutable evidence for the existence of rebirth, I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know,” [along with, “Of course what the Buddhist scriptures say is…”]*

Also, practically speaking, not being convinced in the reality of rebirth gives me a sense of urgency. I want to gain full awakening in this very life, and not have the feeling that I can always get around to it later. Sangharakshita has, if I remember correctly, described laziness as the besetting sin of traditional Buddhism, and I believe that this is due to people thinking that they have all the time in the universe to get enlightened.

***

*This wasn’t in my original reply, but it’s something I meant to say and I added it here for completeness.

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“The Buddha’s Wager”

In the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal outlined his famous “wager,” attempting to make a case for why we should believe in God. Briefly, the wager rested on the assumption that their either is or is not a God, that no logical proof can be make for either proposition, and that believing or not believing is a coin toss that we can’t avoid making. Weighing up the consequences of the coin toss, Pascal pointed out that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Therefore, he argued, we should unhesitatingly believe in God, in order that we might win an “infinity of an infinitely happy life.”

Better minds than mine have picked over the premises of this wager, but we could consider perhaps that we might worship the wrong God (this is Homer Simpson’s Wager: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder!”). Or we could consider that God might have a thing against people who try to game his system, and might have a special place in hell reserved especially for them.

The Buddha, over 2,000 years earlier, had proposed his own wager. The wager is found in a famous discourse in which he helped a clan called the Kalamas who were confused because they encountered many spiritual teachers with conflicting messages and were unable to decide which to listen to. The Buddha’s answer is rightly famous because he told the Kalamas not to rely on conjecture, tradition, holy books, habit, and even logic. Instead, he said, they should rely on experience — evaluating experientially whether teachings, when put into practice, are praised by the wise and lead to welfare and happiness. (The wise are those, presumably, who you have observed experientially to be right about such matters.)

That’s the part that the Kalama Sutta is well-known for. The wager is found a little further on, where the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his disciples acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are as follows:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

We’re not told why the Buddha decided to say this, but given that he was talking to a bunch of people who were skeptical and confused about the claims of spiritual teachers, it seems likely that they had asked him whether the system of practice he taught made sense if rebirth wasn’t a reality. And clearly, he thought it did.

This is of comfort to those us of who are agnostic, at best, about the likelihood of rebirth. On the one hand, I find it hard (to say the least) to imagine how consciousness could survive the death of the brain, exist independently of a body, and transfer itself to another body. On the other hand, we live in a universe where there are things like quantum entanglement and in which 95% of the matter that constitutes it is unknown, so who knows? The evidence for rebirth rests largely on supposed memories of past lives. In some cases it does seem there is such evidence, but on the other hand that evidence might be tainted by the belief systems of those conducting the investigations, especially where children are concerned.

As a result of such considerations, I describe myself as “profoundly agnostic” on the matter of rebirth, and this annoys some of my fellow Buddhists. But the Buddha himself seems to have suggested that it’s acceptable for a disciple to practice with rebirth being an open question, so I’m happy with my agnosticism. And more than that, the Buddha clearly held that belief in rebirth wasn’t necessary in order for us to experience the benefits of practice. So whether I come back (or something comes back) after death, I have this assurance, that my practice benefits me and others, right here, right now.

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The first truth: There is suffering

Dead, withered rose

Everything is impermanent. What arises will cease. When Shakyamuni gained enlightenment (insight), he became a Buddha, which means he attained an awakened mind. He awoke to what enlightened beings had seen before him. He rediscovered the path onto which we can return. The Four Noble Truths are part of the teachings that connect all Buddhist traditions.

The Four Noble Truths

The First Truth, that there is suffering, may seem pessimistic at first, as if life is hopeless. That is how it once appeared for me. Although I had suffered, I would have told you once upon a time that I had a great childhood, but once I stopped going for refuge to the nightclubs, to sex and intoxicants, the suffering hit me. I spiraled into an eating disorder. I was unable to cope with the reality that there was suffering. And if there was I was going to be in control of it. But acknowledging my own suffering connected me to every other human on this planet. I was not alone. I had suffered and so had everybody else I knew.

The light bulb switched on when in the same week, I had one friend grieving the loss of her mother, and another who was grieving the loss of her dog. The latter puzzled me, why was she so distraught? As that thought arose I could see that pain was pain. Suffering was suffering, the cause of it was irrelevant.

It was insightful for me to accept that in my life, and everyone else’s that there will be suffering. And even more insightful to learn how I created more suffering. I had lived my twenties anesthetized to my suffering. I had done everything possible to avoid suffering, so I thought. But I had to learn that there was suffering, and I could make it worse or easier for my self. The first truth was plain and simple, and I could not avoid the truth. From the moment I was born I was old enough to die.

By the fact we are born, we suffer. We age, become sick, and die. This gives us pain and grief. We lament, making such statements as, She was too young to die, He wasn’t meant to die, It is so unfair that I am sick, and Why does this happen to me? Yet, as the saying goes, once we are born, we are old enough to die.

Perhaps, we are born sick at birth, with a dis-ease, and our lives are about healing this sickness. The die-ease of life can be cured by the practice of renunciation.

Yet we live our lives attached to almost everything around us, unaware that, every day, we consciously or unconsciously renounce something in our physical, mental and spiritual lives. Ironically, we never seem ready for the final renunciation of our lives. So many of us are still sick when it comes time to renounce our bodies. This is suffering. It cannot change, and it will not change; we are always changing, whether we like it or not. Thus, to die well is to die with faith, energy, awareness, wisdom, and loving kindness.

Interestingly, death in some cultures is not such a painful occurrence. Some women know that their children will die before the age of five, due to poverty and sickness. Here in the West, a child dying before their parents is considered to be a most cruel occurrence.

Modern medicine has advanced the longevity and health of the physical body, but it has stagnated the growth of the mind and heart. We have become attached to our bodies, our health and our beauty. Ironically, the only guarantees in life are that we will age, we will get sick, and we will die! We do not know when these events will strike us, but we know they will happen. Nonetheless, many of us live our lives as if we were unaware of the fact that such mundane phenomena will happen to us.

The suffering occurs when our mind and hearts are unable to accept the first truth—that there is suffering. We are unable to see that everything is impermanent, that what arises will cease. When happiness or success arises it, too, passes, and something new arises when it ceases. And when unhappiness, difficulties and tragedies arise these, too, pass and something new arises. Suffering occurs, because we want happiness to last forever. We become attached to it, and when it passes and unhappiness arises, we move into aversion and hatred, wanting to push away our unhappiness, while craving for happiness to arise again.

We refer to a sunny day as “beautiful,” thus fixing our day and, so, when it rains, it becomes an awful day and we suffer. If we could simply refer to the sun as “shining” and the clouds as “raining,” we may begin to lighten our load of suffering. By extension, we may begin to see death as merely another part of the life cycle. Thus, there is hope.

My first step in recovery was to acknowledge that this human life will bring me suffering – and suffering is okay, if I don’t move away from it. It will arise and cease.

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Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?

Women bowing to a Buddhist shrine

Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get no response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with thousands of “likes” and comments.

Recently when I idly shared a cartoon on reincarnation from speedbump.com. In it, a young boy says to his grandfather, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

It’s funny. I liked it so much I bought a signed print from the artist.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.

Also see:

But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.

I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.

I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.

Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.

First, faith in the Buddha.

The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.

Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.

Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’

I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).

The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.

Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.

So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.

I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.

Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.

For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.

The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.

Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.

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Reincarnation: The Movie

"My Incarnation" movie Poster

My Reincarnation, a film about the burden of being told that you’re a reincarnated lama, opens October 28 in New York and Los Angeles, before moving nationwide.

My Reincarnation is said to be “an epic, intimate father-son drama wrapped in a spiritual documentary — spanning 20 years and three generations.” It follows renowned reincarnate Tibetan lama Chögyal Namkhai Norbu as he struggles to save his spiritual tradition, and his Italian-born son, Yeshi, who strains against the weight of being recognized as the reincarnation of his father’s uncle.

The film of the latest work by Jennifer Fox, producer of An American Love Story, Learning to Swim, and Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.

For twenty years, Fox followed Norbu and Yeshi with her camera. The result tells the rare inside story of one of the last reincarnated teachers to be trained in Tibet and his son’s stubborn reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Norbu Rinpoche escaped Tibet in 1959 and settled in Italy, where he married an Italian woman and had two children, of which Yeshi was the first. As a boy, Yeshi was recognized as the reincarnation of a famous spiritual master who died after the Chinese invaded Tibet. But growing up in Italy, Yeshi never wanted to have anything to do with this legacy, not being convinced by the “proofs” and feeling that people knew about him but didn’t know him.

The film follows Yeshi though his spiritual explorations, and one reviewer commented that “Open-minded viewers are likely to be enthralled by interpretations of human existence and systems of belief that never play like a recruitment drive.”

“The film touches on so many topics that people don’t talk about openly in their lives,” Fox explains. “I wanted to use the film’s theatrical launch as an opportunity to create a safe space for people to share their spiritual stories and their stories of transformation, whether it be about a parent or a child, or in relation to a religious experience. I am so excited to see this web dialogue develop and grow. We’ve already had great support from wonderful people such as Robert Thurman and his son, Ganden, who have agreed to be interviewed about their spiritual stories for the site to prompt others to share.”

Earlier this year, My Reincarnation made news by breaking records as hundreds of patrons made it the number one fund-raising film of any completed film on Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding platform.

My Reincarnation won a Top 20 Audience Award at the International Film Festival of Amsterdam, screened at the Sydney Film Festival, and will soon premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival.

Variety Review praises “the intimate feel of the project,” and Hollywood Report Card says, “The amount of access into the lives of these two men over two decades gives the film an amazing depth.”

The film will open October 28 in New York (Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street), and Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica, 1332 2nd Street, Santa Monica).

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Movie Review: ‘Unmistaken Child’

Detail of Unmistaken Child poster, showing a Tibetan monk and child standing by each other, looking into the distance.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: For Tenzin Zopa, a young Nepalese monk, finding the reincarnation of his dead Tibetan master, Geshe Lama Konchog, is more important to him than his own life.

Since he was 6, Tenzin Zopa dreamed of becoming a disciple of Lama Konchog. While his parents hoped that he would marry and work someday, Tenzin envisioned a life of meditation.

As a young boy, he asked Lama Konchog to take him in, abandoned the material world and learned the rules of the monastic life from one of the most revered monks of Tibet. Twenty-one years later, the death of Lama Konchog left a glaring void in Tenzin’s heart.

In Nati Baratz’s captivating documentary “Unmistaken Child,” we follow a heartbroken Tenzin as he embarks on a four-year search to find the person who gave his life a sense of purpose and direction. How difficult such a journey must be for someone who already feels lost.

‘Unmistaken Child’
Rating: Not rated but PG in nature.
In English, Tibetan, Hindi and Nepali with English subtitles.

As Tenzin travels from village to village, looking for a child 12 to 18 months old, he is faced with disappointment, worry and joy. Presenting Lama Konchog’s rosary beads to child after child, he finally encounters one who won’t let go.

The sense of relief and contentment that follows shows that the film is not only about a journey to find a “special child,” but also about Tenzin’s ability to cope with a devastating loss. As he grows closer with the child, Tenzin is revealed as a humble, compassionate and sensitive person, ready to give the rest of his life to continue serving his long-lost master.

“Unmistaken Child” presents us with a remarkable search for spiritual balance, juxtaposed with shots of beautiful mountains and “dancing” trees.

The scenery is breathtaking but it is not enough to account for the film’s only flaw — its informational holes. For those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought, Baratz’s documentary may generate more questions than answers.

After four years, the search comes to an end, and the child is accepted as the reincarnated Lama Konchog. His parents agree to give him up and he must now live the rest of his life as a monk, in meditation and with the purpose of saving all sentient beings.

In one scene, the boy is faced with a portrait of the departed Lama Konchog and, after staring at it, he eerily says, “That is me.” The moment seems to be as surprising to Tenzin as it is to the audience. But, then again, it’s hard (and perhaps this is simply a foreign outsider’s reaction) not to see the child as any other normal young boy, wanting only to play and be held by his grandmother.

Original article no longer available.

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Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism

Detail of center of Tibetan wheel of life, showing beings ascending and descending from life to life

Buddhist author, scholar, and practitioner Nagapriya shares insights into the Tibetan view of rebirth as a spiritual practice, in this excerpt from his acclaimed book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth.

The Tibetan schools of Buddhism place great importance on the death bardo — the intermediate state between death and rebirth — because they believe it provides a precious opportunity for spiritual awakening. For this reason, a good deal of their spiritual practice is geared towards preparing for it so that the death experience can be put to best use.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death. As we approach death, images of our past deeds supposedly flash across our minds. For instance, if our life has been skillful, then skillful volitions are most likely to be present at the time of death and lead to a favorable rebirth. These schools believe that in the bardo we are confronted by the white light of reality, which is nothing other than the true nature of our mind, but instead of recognizing it as such we become frightened and fall into a swoon.

At first, we don’t even realize we have died. We then undergo a series of experiences in which we are confronted by reality in the guise of different Buddha and Bodhisattva forms. These experiences offer us a series of opportunities to wake up to reality, but without adequate preparation we are likely to misunderstand their true nature, become terrified by the appearance of the angelic figures, and scuttle towards the nearest womb.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead could be described as an instruction manual for the living so that they can help the deceased to orient themselves through the death experience and attain spiritual liberation rather than rebirth. It describes in great detail the parade of Enlightened figures that will confront us in the after-death state. Over a series of “days” we will be faced with a choice between the startling light of reality as manifested through various Buddha figures and the dull light of rebirth that emanates from each of the six realms. The light of the Buddhas is intense, so bright that it frightens us, whereas the lights emanating from each of the six realms are dull and soothing. If we have an affinity with the god realm we are likely to be drawn to its dull white light. Similarly, the angry god realm emits a dull red light, the human realm dull blue, the animal realm dull green, the preta realm dull yellow, and finally the hell realm emits a dull smoke-colored light.

If we are able to embrace the light of reality, we may gain spiritual awakening in the bardo state; if not, then we will seek re-embodiment in whichever realm we feel most affinity with. One way of preparing for our encounter with the startling light of reality is therefore through regular meditation on a Bodhisattva or Buddha figure. During the first few days, the deceased is confronted by a series of peaceful Buddha figures whose beauty and purity may be so terrifying that they swoon again. As time passes, the deities that appear become more wrathful in aspect and in conventional appearance seem demonic, though they are traditionally believed to be less frightening than the peaceful figures.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death.

It is considered important to remind the departing spirit of the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — as he or she enters the intermediate state. For this reason, it is usual to place images of Buddhas around the dying person, to recite mantras, and even to read instructions from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By doing this, the chances of the dying person recognizing what is happening to them as they enter the bardo and responding positively to the experience are greatly improved.

But the teaching of the bardo also has a more immediate, everyday relevance. Not only is death a valuable bardo; daily life also represents a continuing opportunity to embrace the light of reality. At every moment we can choose to understand and live according to truth, or reject the truth and perpetuate our delusion and evasion. At every moment we have a choice whether to embrace compassion, clarity, and equanimity or to reinforce petty selfishness, vagueness, and partiality. We don’t need to wait until the moment of death to experience the clear light of reality – it is present before us even now. It is through making this choice that we can begin to redirect the course of our lives and create a different future. Rather than be directed by what is worst in us, we can deliberately align our will with what is best and break free of the gravitational pull of unskillful habits.

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Rethinking our New Year’s resolutions

Many of us start the year with great intentions to establish healthy new habits, only to find ourselves losing steam before too long. Sunada writes about her realization that reframing our goals can help us stay on track and raise our chances of getting to where we want to be.

It’s a new year, and a time when many of us think about fresh starts – like exercising more, meditating regularly, or getting organized. But as we know all too well, just wanting something doesn’t make it so. I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when we lose steam and get bogged down. How do we get around this?

I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts… But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble.

One of the Buddha’s basic messages is that we create our own worlds with our thoughts and actions. And by “thoughts,” he wasn’t just talking about our intentional, conscious ones. Those pesky unintended and subconscious ones are just as much a part of the picture. And it’s when we leave them unacknowledged that they can really get us into trouble.

Let’s look at a few examples. When I ask people why they want to meditate more, the answer I typically get is something like, “I want to calm my busy mind.” What we’re subconsciously saying here is, “I have a busy mind.” Stop for a moment and say that sentence to yourself. How does it make you feel? Does it give you positive energy and motivation to change? I doubt it. Instead, it just reinforces that you have a busy mind. Focusing on the problem directs more of our energies toward thing we don’t want. By definition, anything we put our attention to is what fills our minds –and perpetuates in our view of the world.

Other thoughts I often hear express self-doubt and self-deprecation. “My mind is too busy to be able to meditate right.” Or “I don’t know if I can, but if I MAKE myself do it maybe it’ll work this time.” I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts. We all have insecurities, and they will come up in one form or another for all of us. We’re only human! But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble. How much are we buying into the idea that this is the way things are? The more we are, the more we’re feeding ourselves negative energy that can only pull us backward.

We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle … thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin.

A third source of backward pull is a lack of focus, discipline, or prioritization. “I tried to go to the gym this week but other things got in the way.” “My boss made me stay late so I couldn’t do it.” It’s easy to blame other people or causes for preventing us from doing what we intended. But really, I’m the only one who can choose what I do. My boss didn’t make me stay late. It’s me that chose to do it to comply with his request. Or maybe I wasn’t focused enough to get things done sooner. Whatever we do, we need to take responsibility for our own choices. Otherwise, we perpetuate a mindset of helplessness and being a victim.

I’m sure there are other kinds of thoughts that pull us in the wrong direction, but I think you get the idea. These are the kind of subconscious thoughts that we’re allowing to shape our future – one in which we’re at odds with ourselves! We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle!) thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin. No wonder we get stuck.

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY.

So what do we do? We can’t just banish negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. And they’re really hard to just “let go,” as we’re taught to do in meditation classes.

There is another way. According to the laws of physics, the only way we can move something forward is by applying more energy in that direction than what’s pulling it the other way. So then, how can we increase the energy behind our positive motivations so that they’re greater than our negative ones?

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY. What is your bigger purpose behind becoming more fit? One woman I know realized that the reason she wants to be in better shape is so she can run around with her grandchildren. To her, family is really important – something she values deeply for its own sake. It’s part of her picture of herself at her best. So when she thinks about going to the gym, she thinks of how much she loves her grandchildren’s delightful laughter, and off she goes.

We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world.

The Buddha gave us some clues about the kind of thoughts that help move us forward. He said, “If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” What is a “pure mind”? It’s the part of us that reveals our essential goodness. We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world. When we act from that place, we flow more naturally and easily. And happiness flows more easily to us.

It turns out that I want to exercise and meditate more this year, too. But those things aren’t on my list of resolutions. My intention is to continue building a well-integrated life that allows me to find more of that innate goodness within myself and others, and to share it all around. This picture includes my personal Buddhist practice, life coaching, meditation teaching, and singing. All of these things build upon my natural strengths: a love of learning and growing, an ability to connect deeply with people, and an appreciation of the aesthetic and spiritual beauty in the world. By doing what I love, I tap into an inner wellspring of motivation. Going to the gym or getting on the meditation mat is less about talking myself into it, and more about pursuing things I want because they point me toward who I am at my best.

So if you’ve got some resolutions on your list, I would urge you to spend some time reflecting on what your higher aspirations might be. And be as specific as can about what it might look like to live that way. Take your time, and do it thoughtfully. It can take months to get clarity on what you really want. And know that this is an ongoing project. As we evolve and reach new places, our ideas change too. That’s all part of the process. But most important of all, enjoy the ride. In the end, that’s really how we find joy and gratification in our lives.

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