Tag Archives: reincarnation

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.


Inception_ver3Like most profound movies, Inception keeps me coming back repeatedly. I’ve already written a post on how the Theseus and minotaur myth lurk deep within the labyrinths of this film, but upon my most recent viewing a new angle caught my attention. In the first level down into Fischer’s dream, when Saito is unexpectedly shot, Eames asks Cobb, “What happens when we die?” It could be the question of a child faced with a dead pet for the first time. Of course, Eames refers to death in a dream under sedation, and limbo is the closest thing to spiritual death that a person can experience. The timing of that question, however, triggered in my head the number of resurrections that take place in the movie. I have frequently noted here that resurrection is a standard part of the tool kit for western movies, particularly American ones. We expect resurrection. So, finally, three layers down, a dream within a dream within a dream (even Poe would be proud), Saito dies. He is lost in limbo.

Limbo is a fuzzy theological construct thought up by the church for those who don’t deserve Heaven, or Hell, or even Purgatory. Some, it seems, end up in limbo. In Inception limbo is unconstructed sub-conscious, an area even Freud would fear to tread. Saito dies and goes to limbo. Fischer, meanwhile, also ends up in limbo because Mal shoots him dead in the third-level dream. Mal is already in limbo because she killed herself in real life—or was it a dream? Cobb, of course, must die to return to limbo to retrieve Saito so that he won’t be arrested when the plane lands. In limbo, three of the four escape, riding the kick back up to consciousness. Only after baptism in the first level dream, when the van plunges into the river, do the lost souls emerge. What happens after we die? Resurrection.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan planted a Christian idea in the viewers’ subconscious mind. Resurrection is part and parcel of our culture. Perhaps, however, this helps to explain the durability of some religious concepts. We long for resurrection on such a deep—maybe subconscious—level that we want to see it on the big screen. Even ghosts, we’re told, haunt because of unfinished business. It is Saito, the Japanese business mogul, however, who undergoes the most resurrections. He dies in the van underwater, in the fortified mountain hospital, and in limbo (perhaps in the elevator as well, but this is uncertain). His is a regular reincarnation of resurrections. Inception, I’m sure, will keep me coming back for more. One of the questions that none of us escapes while alive, is that uttered at the level of the dream.

Ancient of Days

I’ve never been one to deny my age. I think of myself as a rather young 50 since my brain still reacts like an 18-year old’s much of the time. I try to keep as fit as my job allows, and the only thing I really overindulge in is books. But I am 50, and that means the AARP has had me in their cross-hairs for the last couple of years. The phone rang the other day and I was foolish enough to answer it. The young man on the other end of the line asked me if I could hear him okay. I almost hung up; if someone doesn’t identify him or herself in the first sentence, I know they’re wanting me to contribute to something. Instead, I tried a new tactic: “you’re not coming in very clear,” I fibbed, hoping that he would offer to call back and I wouldn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the volume. It was the AARP calling with a survey. My hearing is still pretty keen—without it, walking across Manhattan in rush hour everyday would be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, my encounter with AARP made me think of a recent conversation I had about death.

I am not afraid of death. As long as I can remember, I have never really feared it. Not that I want to go anytime soon, but perhaps because of my childhood fears of Hell, I believe I might have contributed enough to the treasury of merit (like the AARP, or Social Security) to get me out of a few scrapes. I attended mass nearly every day for twelve years at Nashotah House—that has to count for something! My conversation partner the other day was incredulous; “how can you not be afraid of death?” I’m not sure what comes after, if anything, but I’ve always tried to keep on the good side of the divine. Those questionable things I’ve intentionally done were all executed with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. If they were truly naughty, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And if there’s nothing after life, well, I feel like I could use the good long sleep of annihilation for a while.

Several books I’ve read recently have been advocating reincarnation. I’m not sure that it makes sense, but sometimes I wonder. The idea is a bit more frightening than death itself, in many ways. So many things I don’t want to go through again—sorry Friedrich, but I guess I’m one of those who says no to exact repetition—so much physical pain and mental anguish. I can see why Buddhists want to break the cycle. Although, if I’m reincarnated as a human being, and a literate one, I might be able to get a few more books read next time around. Perhaps that’s the silver lining. Or perhaps that’s why I should just hang up the phone if the caller doesn’t tell me who it is in the first sentence.

"I'm not quite dead yet..."

“I’m not quite dead yet…”

Loaded Symbolism

Perhaps it’s all the politics in the news, or perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, but death comes to mind during the winter. One of the enduring preoccupations of religion is the issue of death. Christianities teach of wonderful rewards or horrendous punishments after the sloughing off of this mortal coil. Many eastern religions suggest the even scarier idea of reincarnation—we are doomed to repeat this sideshow over and over until we get it right. Since the universe has billions of years to go, that’s plenty of time for errors. When we finally depart, however, we leave our loved ones with the dilemma of how to handle our remains. Burial goes back to the Paleolithic Era—simple, effective, little fuss. Nature reclaims what we have borrowed for a century or less. This is the preferred Christian end, for, believing in the resurrection of the body, a body must remain. In some form. Other religions, noting the cleansing power of fire, prefer cremation. Those original Zoroastrians still prefer exposure of the dead to carnivores. It is, however, generally our religion that dictates our final disposal.

Enter the entrepreneur. The corpse becomes a commodity. You’ve got a problem and you’ll pay well for a satisfying solution. Some years back I saw ads for a company with the scientific, yet romantic concept that, as carbon, our corpses could be pressurized into diamonds. It is a costly procedure, but you could wear your beloved around your neck or on your finger as a chunk of the hardest substance on earth. A few weeks ago I found a more affordable solution on the website of Holy Smoke. Once you have made the decision to go with cremation, what do you want to do with that urn of ashes? Holy Smoke offers a solution: you can have your loved one’s remains loaded into ammunition shells. Taking care to handle the ash with profound respect, Holy Smoke will place the remains into either rifle or shotgun shells (one pound of human ash fills about 250 shotgun shells). You can then be shot toward eternity by loving relatives at their convenience. Gunpowder-propelled toward Heaven itself. Holy Smoke is located in Alabama.

Welcome to eternity

The problem of human remains is perhaps the most religious one of all. Our faiths give us the hermeneutic we need to face that great portal. As we consider the number of useless deaths brought on by Bush’s personal war in the Middle East, a kind of macabre closure can be seen through the smoke. After all, the NRA endorses the Republican Party. So does the Religious Right (unless, of course, they nominate a Mormon). Perhaps if we loaded our guns with our dead instead of live ammunition, the symbolism might finally hit its target. Holy Smoke could be offering a valuable service here to be shared between religious enemies. Instead of the kiss of peace, well, use your imagination. Perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, or perhaps it’s all the politics in the news.

Unanswered Questions

Attempting to write a blog post everyday on the single subject of religion can be a challenge when you don’t share the freedom of the Internet with most faculty. Once in a while a topic just drops in your lap like a gift from God. It helps that New York City is such a religious place. Despite the many critics who claim New York is godless and completely secular, it my experience there are a goodly number of the godly in it. It is not uncommon to see street preachers on a sunny day (apparently God has less need of saving on rainy days). On my way home from work today I was presented with a tract in which “God Answers Your Questions.” It was a little odd that the acolyte with the tracts knew what my questions were, but since the leaflet quotes extensively from the Bible it must be true. From this pamphlet I learned what my hidden question were.

The first question, rather flatteringly, states, “I am young yet, and likely to live for a long time.” Once I’ve been buttered up, the other shoe drops: “Why should I think of eternal things now?” Rather than the Bazooka Joe Bible verse, I thought I might field that one myself. I grew up thinking about eternal things on a nearly daily basis. By the time I was in high school I was somewhat creepy about it. In a college course on the psychology of death and dying, we were asked how often we thought of death. My honest answer was, “every day.” Now, a person with that kind of background may be overthinking this a bit. Death is a relatively simple matter: you need do nothing to achieve it eventually. I had been taught that if you worked to make sure you were honest and true, it would be rewarded. I was fired from my first job for being true to what I’d learned with intellectual honesty. I thought about death a lot.

Death, given its finality, is a universal religious concern. Some religions offer an afterlife—generally it is not an option—while others do not. The life well-lived is its own reward. Others suggest what seems to me a more insidious option: reincarnation. Those religions that take this approach are generally honest up front, stating outright that life is suffering. Reincarnation is goal-directed: break the cycle and achieve Nirvana. And there is no reason to flatter people with the long life yet ahead of them. The evangelist ignored my white whiskers and gave me an anonymous tip for salvation. Perhaps all I really needed was a sip of cold water. Having spent the better part of one life thinking about its end, reincarnation could be a cruel reprisal indeed. I don’t need to worry, however, because I’ve got the answers—along with the questions—right here in my pocket.