“The first stage of practice, letting go of the self that is an unenlightened being, lasts until you know your true self. At this stage, a practitioner ‘dies’ for the first time and, at the same time, is newly born.”
– Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim
Buddhists don’t talk much about being born again, and yet death and re-birth is at the core of our spiritual practices and paths, both literally and as metaphor. However, such language isn’t entirely missing and I remember a few years ago reading an excellent article in Tricycle by Clark Strand, at an earlier point in his spiritual development and within the Pure Land framework, entitled ‘Born Again Buddhist’ in which he rightly claims the term.
“For too long” he writes, in words I can identify with and which have stuck with me, “I used Buddhism to convince myself that I understood something I did not, but now I know the truth. I do not know anything at all. But then, that is precisely the kind of being that Amida Buddha saves — the one who has no choice but to surrender to a power beyond his own.” Daehaeng Sunim describes that surrendering as letting go, and that power as one’s own Buddha-nature.
Of course the giving up of the small self, the letting go of all its concerns and attachments, is the essential teaching of all Buddhist schools. Sometimes it can take dramatic ritual form, as in the Therevadan temple not far from where I live in which people literally step into coffins in order to be re-born anew, but whatever form it takes, when you entrust all your thoughts and concerns and pains and joys to something greater, then, as Daehaeng Sunim puts it, “what you have thought of as yourself dies.”
And this takes faith. Faith in Amida Buddha perhaps, or in the efficiency of the ritual, or in Juingong, the True Self. Faith and practice. Those that have been there have described this death as a return to a previous condition, back to our ‘original face’, a state before we learnt to create and operate and defend a separate and self-centered self. They describe it as a re-birth. And, like all births, it brings with it feelings of great joy and happiness.
The Christian tradition is familiar with this and familiar with the forms it can take, from sudden and dramatic born-again experiences, to something a lot more subtle. Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, tells his followers they need to take up their cross (the symbol of death) “daily”. And as anyone who has ever meditated knows, re-awakening, the re-birth of attention, awareness, and surrender, needs to be practiced even from moment to moment.
“Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, says Marcus J.Borg in ‘The Heart of Christianity’, “we can’t make it happen, either by strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs. But we can be intentional about being born again. Though we can’t make it happen, we can midwife the process.” And one way of doing that is through practice. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, “When we come to the practice, we are reborn into our spiritual life, thanks to the Buddha.”
Another way of midwifing our re-birth, as well as through faith, mindfulness and letting go, is through ritual and participation in significant markers. New Year, in my opinion, as a time when people re-consider and re-direct their lives, is such an event. Here in Bangkok I went to my favourite temple for New Year and sat and chanted with thousands of people, all linked together into one community with sacred thread. The next day thousands more visited the temple again to make merit and receive a blessing. To be, in some small way, born again.
And next week at the Seon Centre, the Bangkok Korean Buddhist community, and a small group of non-Korean Buddhists, will gather to participate in a formal refuge and precept ceremony, a truly significant communal event that marks a real moment of re-birth for all those involved. This is just the beginning of course, it will feel beautiful, blissful even, but “you must still continue to practice and go forward” Kun Sunim writes. The process of re-birth is ongoing. It is our practice.
Our heart’s garden is sown with attachment, hatred, and pride.
In us are seeds of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lies.
Our everyday deeds and words do damage.
Al these wrong actions are obstacles to our peace and joy.
Let us begin anew.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘Beginning Anew’