Reincarnation and Everything After
I’ve heard that the Buddhists have a multi-tiered afterlife. Each tier is a hell with a punishment. One spends an indeterminate amount of time in each for the evil committed in one’s life, and once one has completed their term, they are reincarnated. A Korean movie, Along With the Gods: Two Worlds, added a bit of lore on its own, which is echoed by a grim reaper:
“Didn’t I tell you? If you get reincarnated, you get a dream visitation.”
I’ve always found the idea of reincarnation fascinating, so I consulted one of my close friends. He is Hindu, not Buddhist, mind you, with a clever sense of humor that nips at some and tickles others. In other words, he’s sharp as a whip. Though he isn’t one for deep thinking, this time, he let it slide. I started off with the most cheerful thought:
“What do you believe happens after you die?”
He explained to me the Hindu idea of reincarnation. One must live a good life, neutralize one’s karma, and then either get to spend eternity with God in bliss, or choose reincarnation.
“What if you don’t?”
“Neutralize your karma?”
“Well then, you don’t get to choose who or what you get reincarnated as. Your current situation is determined by the way you lived in the past life.”
“I guess you didn’t make it the last round, huh?”
“I suppose I didn’t.”
We dove deeper. I asked about a set of rules, courts, the weight of good deeds against bad deeds, and how they were valued. Lines blurred. Logical fallacies ran rampant. As we spoke, I toggled between an online pdf version of “Hinduism for Dummies” and our text conversation.
I proposed a theory to him:
“Assuming that Hinduism is the One True Religion and that its reality is factual, I have a theory that the place of eternal bliss is completely empty because no one has ever neutralized their karma. If everything is done to get into heaven, then there is no true altruistic act that can ever be committed, by a religious person at least. Because a good action is tainted at its root, the rest of it is immediately tainted, and doesn’t count towards your positive karma count. This is further supported by the idea that in order to receive moksha/chosen reincarnation, you need to lose the want to attain moksha, which is paradoxical and impossible for humans, who are naturally pleasure-seeking.”
“I don’t want to read that.”
“We can’t go to heaven. Everything is done for personal gain. It takes more than a lifetime to train the mind not to want good things. Either that, or only atheists get to heaven. Am I wrong or am I wrong?”
“I have no clue.”
Soon, we began asking questions that the Internet couldn’t answer. I began to receive fewer real answers, and more ‘I don’t know, I couldn’t find anything on it’ ones. I prepared to sink my teeth into some obscure archive of Sanskrit scripts, when he mused,
“Something I admire about you Christians is that ya’lls all know what you’re talking about.”
I laughed. It was true, and untrue at the same time. Sure, I knew the stories, the parables, but I’ve never been able to delve further than that. Some emerged with complex conclusions from a single verse, like pearls from a great and terrible oyster. I always surfaced from the sea of language with the same three words.
God is good.
I’m not sure if that’s oversimplified or simplistic. Similar words, different connotations, but I find it ironic that I, a Christian, find it easier to interpret other religions than to analyze my own.
I suppose a lot of being a Christian is the irony. In the church, we share our deepest secrets and insecurities to those who can and will weaponize them against us. It is a place of love, and a place of war.
It was at my first church retreat that my friends decided to abandon me. But I learned, and it is amongst Christians that I’ve found my closest friends. At my second church retreat, a boy many years older than I kissed me, after I rebutted his previous advances. But I found a shard of myself during the retreat’s spiritual heights. During Friday service, my leader proclaimed that she hoped God had grace for me, because she had no grace for me. But I learned that twenty-five really isn’t that far away from fifteen.
The church is a strange place to be.
During that conversation, I proposed another theory.
“Sheesh, you’re full of theories today.”
“I know right. Anyways, my theory. Imagine an impossibly big and complex sculpture, and it’s sitting in a dark room. Then I take a little penlight, and I shine it on this sculpture, and it makes a squiggly shadow. But then you shine your little penlight from another angle and it makes a nice square. Then we both argue about what we saw, but we technically saw the same thing right? Let’s call the sculpture ‘God, or ‘Religion’ or this big complex ‘Thing,’ and the penlights are our brains, and the shadows are our interpretations. What if we’re literally arguing over shadows? Maybe when I shine my perspective onto this ‘Thing,’ I see one God, but when you shine yours, you see multiple? And what if this big ‘Thing’ is just waiting for us to put the 2D puzzle pieces together into a 3D God?”
“Is this what you think about in your free time?”
“I see why you’re a writer now.”
I, of course, don’t believe in this theory. A problem I have is that I often struggle to bring my emotional and intellectual views to an equilibrium. When a non-Christian friend passed away, I frantically texted one of my church leaders, asking whether fifteen was past the age of accountability. I received another “I don’t know.” My gut dropped into my feet, and I wept.
That friend and I had been close in eighth grade, roped together by the capricious nature of preteen drama. At the end of eighth grade, he moved to another state. I moved to another school. We lost contact.
This past May, after a Creative Writing awards ceremony, I turned on my phone, and turned my attention to my new, high school friends. We laughed and pushed each other as we skipped across the parking lot. One of my friends had received Essayist of the Year, even though she swore that she had never written an essay in her life. An especially eloquent teammate from my spoken word poetry team held a Director’s Choice Award, the crystal statue shining in his hand. A vignette of two goddesses dangled over my head, teasing an unformed idea from my subconscious.
My phone went off.
I ignored it the first, second, third, and fourth time, before glancing at it quickly. Three missed calls. Twelve messages:
Are you okay?
I heard what happened, are you alright?
Oh my god, I’m so sorry.
I just heard. If you need to talk, I’m here.
I just want to send my support.
I know you were close to him before he moved. Can I help in any way?
The list went on. They were all from my old friends. Some I hadn’t talked to since the year before. I slipped my phone back into my pocket. I was silent the rest of the night.
I had a dream recently.
I landed in my seventh grade Language Arts class. I had a feeling that it was study hall, and I felt the nudges of students bustling around me, the murmurs of their voices prickling my skin. Yet, the room was empty and silent. I was alone, and unalone.
I faced a set of whiteboards on the left side of the room, which slid to reveal a shelf of textbooks behind them. In between me and the wall, was a single desk.
A boy rummaged through the textbooks. He wore a black t-shirt and dark sweatpants. Even from the back, I recognized him, from someplace, somewhere.
As I filtered names through my teeth one stuck, and memories blossomed between my lips and enamel. His name felt unnatural, wrong almost, but I spit it out before it soured in my mouth.
He turned around, geometry textbook resting in the crook of his arm. Its cover was blue, and on it, was a silver swirling sculpture. It reminded me of one of those impossible paintings, of the staircases that weave over each other. He smiled.
“Oh, hey. Yeah, it’s me, what’s up?”
“No it’s not. You’re dead.” The corners of his lips sagged, and his eyes turned shiny and sad, as his free hand lifted to the back of his neck. It hung there a moment, before brushing his collarbone and falling to his side.
“Aw, sheesh, I guess I am.” He put the textbook down onto the table, and weaved around the desk in front of me. His fingers stretched towards me.
“Why did you do it?” I asked. The room began to smear, and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a corner of the classroom peel from its place, darkness rippling under it. A breeze billowed through my hair, and dread filled me. I had so much to say, but the words caught in my throat. I threw my arms around him.
The words mumbled through his sternum as he slumped over me, limp and unmoving. His skin turned translucent as he dissolved, and when I breathed in, the room shivered. In every dream, I am something different. Now, I am a hurricane. The room peeled from the walls, pulled through my mouth and down my throat, and I was left in the dark to digest the apparitions of the past.
When I wake up, I decide that I don’t believe in dream visitations, but his words have settled on me like an old necklace. Every morning, I let them slip around my neck, pool in my hands. I clasp them on without noticing.