I awoke hot and bothered by the bardo. Another dream of life after death. I’d been having these lately, maybe because I was housing a person who just came from there. It all seems so close at-hand. And it is. Pregnancy is possession, the other world living inside me, a slow crescendo into meat.
The dream showed me a book of red and orange pages. The passage being offered aloud for the deceased was about passion, how to withstand the consumptive quality of fire. Explosive relationships, lust, rage, and fire itself—as literal as fire can be as a mental projection.
I realized two things while participating. One, experiencing extreme discomfort without a body does not diminish its reality. Here and there are the same place with the same range. Two, the bardo is an endurance test. This stage of the bardo was days into the experience. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is about a hundred pages long. I guess I’d always correlated that to the length of time we spend in the bardo. But no, I’d been dying for days upon days—whatever that means in the bardo—and extreme sensations continued to arise.
We’ve done it a million times, been stripped of everything. The body’s just the first to go, along with our loved ones should we have the courage not to haunt them. Then goes our sensory register, our memories… Maybe fear is the last to go as we merge with something nameless.
Our culture (I use the term loosely) believes in the Big Bang, so it carries the idea of a beginning forward. We start and then we stop. The beginning implies an end. Birth is the start, and death is the end. My more distant ancestors lived as though existence has no such bookends. The world arises of its own accord and interacts without obligation or end. We’re always living in the middle.
When does life arise? It’s not really clear. Is it the flash of zinc when sperm meets egg, or are we transferring our belief of the Big Bang into our wombs? Some kind of bang is happening, but it seems to have more to do with friction. When do we lose our body? At the moment of death? My experience with dreaming says otherwise. So do the monks, who have devoted generations to exploring what happens after we die. Some people can meditate through the moment of death, and retain memories of previous lives. I believe them because of the evidence. I believe them because in a strange way, I remember it myself.
I love people who conceal teachings in their art. One of my most influential teachers discarded the cultural trappings of monkhood, and became a renegade Daoist priest, sort of. Unfamiliar vocabulary isolates—dharma, sanga, bardo—you’ve probably already stopped reading. Even the word impermanence has become so heavily used, it has to lug around that whole cult. The vocabulary can be very useful for understanding the interface with reality, just not if you want to talk to people. It’s a turnoff that divides us. Those Foreign Cult People, and me, which propagates the logical fallacy that we’re separate. Following this line of thinking leads to the idea that we can righteously kill one another. All violence is self-harm.
Wisdom rubs off on us when pop culture exposes us to it, whether we know it or not. I’m thinking David Bowie, Modest Mouse, Joanna Newsom. We don’t see them as spiritual paragons, and probably neither do they. But if we study their work, we will see searing insight made accessible through art. Poets have always done this. Even a casual encounter encourages sanity.
“Discarding cultural trappings” sounds a lot like colonization—just the “good parts.” As someone who has spent my life to remembering my ancestors, and metabolizing our shadowy havoc, I get that. I also believe that ancestral studies pair best with impermanence. Devote ourselves to the former, and we tend toward melodrama. Devote ourselves to the latter, and we spiral into an existential void, or become overly identified with a system that emphasizes a lack of identity. Our indigenous heritage is like a hearth fire that animates Buddhism, prevents it from being what it is not—cold, stripped of id, abolishing names in terrifying unity. Impermanence is warm and alive. Impermanence is the loyal dog at our feet. Its reductive quality focuses us, clears our head like a good shower.
Buddhism is a place that inhabits people more than land now. Many practitioners say that we should be able to practice in prison. Buddha himself became enlightened under a tree. The ritual tools are not extraneous. They are useful implements that artfully describe and impact reality. But the practical application of mindfulness avails itself to anyone anywhere. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded my graduate school, transmitted the dharma to the west by appealing to western sensibilities. To perform a successful transplant, he needed to understand the body he would be inhabiting. He knew how much we Americans value entertainment, so he made us laugh. He dressed in western attire, and encouraged the chameleon aspect of the teachings.
Recently, a monk gave me a beautiful Tibetan dress, called a chupa. It’s the second one I’d been given in recent years by people of Tibet. The first sat in my closet, like a beautiful museum piece. What do I do with it? This time, I worked up the courage to ask, “Is it ok to wear this?" as if he would have given me a forbidden gift. Is this cultural appropriation, I wondered? Would Tibetan people be mad at me? He assured me they would be flattered and delighted. He gave me the dress, and told me to wear it. Not wearing it becomes the offense, I realized. It’s the same, I think, with the teachings.