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December 18, 2016
By Michael Erlewine (Michael@Erlewine.net)

I have been studying Buddhist Yogacara philosophy and teachings this year and have been on a many-month (or year) mission to better understand death, dying, and rebirth. A main focus has been on what is called the Storehouse-Consciousness (Alayavijnana), the repository of our karma, karmic traces, seed impulses, and what-not. It is in the Storehouse-Consciousness that our every intent and karmic trace is stored, ripens, and eventually arises (or remains available) as karma we must work out and to direct and assist in our creating our next Persona and Self at rebirth. The Alayavijnana will accompany us through all our lives until the point when we are finally enlightened, at which time it will be empty and cease to concern us, Until then, however, it is as close to us as our Self. In fact, it is the mother of our Self in that we subliminally draw upon it.

At this point, I feel I have at least a rough grasp of the situation concerning rebirth and what of us makes it through the bardo to be born again, although I am sure that I am missing some fine points. I would like to go over this briefly with those of you interested, if that’s all right. It may be a little unfinished, but hey, that’s the way it is.

I am not a scholar by nature, but examine these things because I want to know more. Please feel free to share with me your thoughts on this topic, if you will. I am not concerning myself here with the steps or levels in the bardo, but primarily with what dies, what transmigrates, and what is reborn. Of course, I would like to start with an analogy.

The human body exists through time because of the endless replacement of cells, a process of constant renewal. Our body looks the same (aside from growth or aging), but it actually changes constantly by the replenishment of cells throughout. The cells endlessly change, but it is the same body, etc. What does this tell us?

In a similar way the Alayavijnana (Storehouse-Consciousness) moves through time from innumerable lives ago to now, and on to who-knows how many future lives. Like a floating barge (a garbage scow?), it follows us up the river of time, constantly being refreshed with our actions, good, bad, and indifferent. Like an eternal stew of our desires and karma, it is forever at a low boil, a convection-driven torus that we are constantly adding to and, subtracting from. Of course, this is below our threshold of awareness.

The scholarly discussions on the Storehouse-Consciousness say that Alaya changes, but at a slower rate than change as we are used to in this life. Because of this slower rate of change and perhaps due to the fact that, subliminally, the Alayavijnana is our constant companion, over time it appears to be the one constant in our constantly changing consciousness. Because it appears constant, it is taught that we identify with the Alayavijnana as permanent, as the very heart-depth of our Self, where everything comes from.

The Buddhist scholars make it clear that taking this substratum, the Alayavijnana, as permanent, whether as a “Soul,” center of attention, fixation, or whatever, is a mistake, since it is not permanent, but it, like everything else, is in perpetual change, just at a slower rate than what we are used to.

To give an analogy: the Alayavijnana is like a river, ever flowing onward, but always the same river. If we take a photo of it, a snapshot, and compare it to another snapshot taken later, it looks like the same river. However, if we take a movie of the river, we can see the flow and the constant change. It is changing completely every second. Perhaps the Self is like this, always there as our touchstone, but in perpetual change too, and at a rate that is slow enough, like two trains passing one another, that it appears to be standing still. And so the experts say, we take that “stillness” as a sign of permanency, something we can count on, and we do. Of course, we act like we will live forever.

This whole topic has been, for me, a trip, such as finding that the Buddhists don’t agree with the Hindus, the Christians, etc., who believe that we are an eternal Soul journeying through time, exchanging one body for another, but keeping the same Soul. The Tibetan Buddhists say that there is no such thing as a permanent “Soul” and that the Self we think we are is fluid, part of a process and, like everything else, is not something permanent that we can count on. In fact, there is nothing we can count on and yet, despite our condition, here we are. At least that is something.

I trust the Tibetan Buddhists (my teacher) to know the truth, because in every area where I am able to check them out (all the rinpoches), the dharma teachings come through clear as a bell. Thus, in this area of death, transmigration, and rebirth, where I have no quick way of checking the truth of what they say, I take their word for it. The day will come for me when I will find out for sure what the case is, if I can stay awake then.

I have such confidence that I was willing to take a deep breath, perhaps squelch a gulp or two, and live with the idea that everything I know of as “me” will be left at death’s doorstep in a heap, as who-knows-whom moves on and takes rebirth, drawing around itself (like a mask) another persona and a new Self. If death is a bitter pill, I was ready to take it. However, if it is something more, that is better.

And I am so relatively ignorant in all this, compared to the Tibetan masters, that I’m just trying to put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle until some kind of image stands out that I can understand. I have been willing to trust myself (on faith) to the inevitable (it’s not like there is a choice), yet I worry about what happens between the end of me (myself and I) in this life and some different “Me” that my karma and desires will create at a future rebirth. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet’s soliloquy:

“But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country,
From whose bourn no traveler returns,
Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?”

Folks, regardless of what I think (or you think), this whole life we are living is miraculous and amazing. However the truth finally turns out to be, the whole thing is working, and has worked since eternity, so if we ever do realize the whole enchilada, I know it will be perfect... just as it is.

And I can say that the more I learn, the more comfortable I am with it all. In other words, it might not be as stark and void as I first thought and I am comforted by the thought that, whatever the case, we each have been doing this before, and endlessly at that. And here we are right now, present, just lacking enough realization to go into that goodnight with confidence. As Dylan Thomas said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” Perhaps I don’t have to fight so hard, don’t have to rage (or fear) anymore.

And another point: As I study more deeply the whole concept of the Self, the Alayavijnana, not to mention “language” and all of the conceptual and mental processes, I begin so see that we are almost hopelessly trapped in Samsara. The picture the lamas paint is one of endless recursion, with the Alayavijnana (and language, etc.) much more than just the passive vehicle I first took it for. Instead, it seems much more incestuous than that, with everything not just being stored, but feeding on itself, reinforcing itself, and in endless self-modifying renewal, i.e. the Self tries to maintain itself at all cost! I believe in Western esotericism, this is called “The Monad.”

Perhaps, it is like an endless pot of soup, always on low boil, to which new ingredients are always being added, and the results are always being withdrawn as sustenance. However you want to spell it, the idea I now have is of a much more ingrown vehicle, wrapped (and endlessly wrapping itself) in its own process as it sails through time. It’s like the old phrase “The only constant is change itself.” I think the Buddhists make that point clear enough.

Yet another point, which I mentioned in an earlier blog, is the tendency of language, thinking, conceptualization, and mentation in general to virtualize itself, ever moving away from the reality of the senses and toward more complex conceptualization, like a set of nested Russian Matryoshka dolls, stair-stepping away from reality into the virtual. Let’s face it, if you examine all of this that I am speaking of carefully, the Self reminds me of an Egyptian mummy, but one that endlessly wraps itself up tighter. We are as virtual as can be. It’s no wonder that deep down, we want to be free of what Shakespeare calls the “Pale cast of thought.”

And, it is much more complex than I had imagined, and while I am fascinated by it all, at the same time I only need to grasp enough so that I can get a handle on it, and roughly realize the teachings. I am not a scholar and have no interest in following all this out in detail until the last dog dies. Give me just enough realization to set my sails properly, and I am off to wherever I am going. I am not a pedant.

Unfortunately, where I am going is very much dependent on how I get there, so it all circles right back around on itself to now and where I am, right here.

I have read just about all I can read and am practicing as best as I know how. It’s time to put the books aside, take hold of the steering wheel again, and let the rubber find the road.

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