In the Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Group last night we were talking about how meditation on Precious Human Rebirth and Death and Impermanence can help us live a meaningful life and not allow our lives to become entirely engrossed by trivia. Let me explain–this is a line of thought that is Buddhist in the specifics, but actually quite common to all religions. It also has an intriguing connection with Chris Hedges’ Book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
In the Buddhist view of things we all have had many lives, actually a beginningless sequence of lives, and far from spending all of them as Cleopatra and so forth, the great majority of those lives may not have been a human being, but some kind of lowly animal, or worse (don’t ask). Those where we were a human being were quite likely not an existence that afforded much opportunity for cultivating higher (i.e., spiritual qualities). Given an acceptance of the idea of rebirth, this line of thinking is very logical and evidence based as a few minutes thinking about the animal kingdom will confirm. The point of this exercise is to realise what precious opportunity we have and not to squander it on trivia. Such meditation tends to elevate our spirits.
The meditation on death has a fairly straightforward function: to try and make sure that we understand the urgency of the situation, that while we live the assumption that we won’t die any time, we are unlikely to make use of the opportunity to cultivate our higher qualities–wisdom and compassion, but more generally the qualities that distinguish human beings from the rest of the animals. By cultivating these qualities we can avoid lower rebirths, marked by great suffering and little opportunity for spiritual development; if we cultivate these qualities sufficiently we can eventually put an end to all stupid (unwise) action, end all suffering and become a perfect vessel for helping others (think of the qualities of the great saints).
OK this is the theory. By meditating on life and death we can make our life meaningful and stop it being subverted by trivia. As I said, every religion has a variant of this. My point is a passage that quite struck me from the veteran war reporter Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an excellent elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. (p. 3)
It strikes me that this quite in agreement with the idea that awareness of death is necessary for a meaningful awareness of life, but entirely opposed to it in the insistence that it is only in the midst of conflict that we can achieve such heightened awareness. Though by no means easy, it may be that our traditional religions had a structure for achieving the same effect with a little less of the death and destruction, and horrible suffering. (Note to self: I must get round to reading Hedges’s I don’t Believe in Atheists.)