When I was 12 or 13-years-old, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was trapped in a grid or maze. I was not alone in the maze. Other people, including friends, were visible and in shouting distance, but we couldn’t move to really face one another. We were all frozen in assigned positions, some on one level, some on another, some vertical, some horizontal, some upside down. There were grooved pathways in the maze, suggesting the possibility of movement, but we could not budge. The worst part of the dream, the truly hellish part, was the heavy message that this situation could never change.
We were like butterflies pinned to a board by a giant hand. There was no hope. The dream conveyed that all hope is at bottom the hope of change. Our lives move from hope to hope—and ultimately, the hope is to move towards greater freedom, greater happiness– towards a larger, more vibrant, more real life. But in this dream I was completely thwarted—forever. I would be desperate to find a way to connect with my friends. I would shout to them that together we could find away to break through to life outside the box. But they had all given up.
We were all crushed into a miserable isolation, all consigned to living a flattened little life with all the spaciousness and possibility and hope sucked out of it. I kept trying to twist and turn and break free. I kept trying to shout to them that maybe if we all tried we could find a way. But they were just spacing out, dreaming, suffering in mute silence, telling me not to stir things up.
I couldn’t believe it when the exact same dream repeated! I knew I was dreaming but I couldn’t wake up! It was as if I was being shown the warning light blazing red on the dashboard of life. I was being shown the flaw in the mechanism, the way to hell. I couldn’t convey to my mother or anyone how horrible it was. They treated it like a consolation that I was there with others. I didn’t have the words to express how horrible it was that we were all frozen.
Later, this dream morphed into a fear of being buried alive. This was more understandably horrible to people because there was a coffin involved, and the prospect of being eaten by bugs and worms. But under the physical difference between a coffin and a maze there was the same hellish feeling of utter stagnation and hopelessness. No hope of being able to move and connect with others, with life, with God. I think that must be the essence of true despair—and why despair was considered to be a grave sin in the Christian tradition, so that suicides were not buried in sacred ground: it is loss of hope, the loss of the sense of space and movement and possibility.
I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that in Dante’s Inferno, Satan, denizen of the deepest hell, is found frozen in a block of ice, utterly unable to move. Buddhism offers similar hells.
The Buddha taught that all living beings bound by ignorance and craving (in other words, almost all of us) are subject to rebirth. In Buddhism, there is no soul to transmigrate from one life to the next, but there is an ongoing stream of consciousness which seeks a life appropriate to the desires and tendencies that dominate. In other words, our habits, including our habits of thought, live on.
According to Buddhism, you can be reborn in a number of hells, or the animal kingdom, or as a “hungry ghost” (petavisaya), a shadowy being afflicted with strong desires you can never satisfy. These three realms of rebirth —together with the asuras, titanic beings obsessed by jealously and amibition–are called the “evil destinations” (duggati) or “plane of misery” (apayabhumi). This is because of the unbroken suffering found in them. The human world, which holds a mix of happiness and misery, and the heavenly worlds of the devas, or demi-gods, are called, in contrast, the “happy destinations” (sugati) since they contain happiness—and also, more importantly the possibility of freedom.
Once you have landed in an evil destination, you can end up in a vicious circle of suffering that is very difficult to break. According to Bhikkh Bodhi (who is responsible for all the Buddhist scholarship in this and previous entries): “The Buddha says that if a yoke with a single hole was floating at random on the sea, and a blind turtle living in the sea were to surface once every hundred years — the likelihood of the turtle pushing his neck through the hole in the yoke would be greater than that of a being in the evil destinations regaining human status.” The rat race squared.
The way to a fortunate rebirth—and the way out of ignorance and misery in this life–depends on a shift in awareness and thought and action. In Buddhism, this is called karma (or kamma, in the early Buddhist dialect of Pali). Liberating karma are actions motivated by detachment, kindness, and understanding, the latter actions motivated by greed, hatred and delusion. It is important to note that detachment in Buddhism does not mean being cold—it means seeing beyond your own self-interest. To avoid rebirth in the plains of misery, we must learn to keep watch over ourselves. We must learn to be aware of our thoughts, our automatic emotional reactions, our words and deeds. Can we come to understand that we are not the center of the universe—even though we are hardwired to think so? Can we learn to live another way?
We need help to find our way out of the maze of self-centeredness. We need ideas and guidance from another level, whether it’s J.C. or Buddha or some other time-tested wisdom. And we need each other. The summer after college, I remember going out West in a VW bus. I went searching for the kind of education I hadn’t found in college. My travelling companion was Rip Westmoreland, who happened to be the son of General Westmoreland, who commanded the U.S. forces in Vietnam. In college, Rip had a band called General Malaise, a very apt term for the times, including my personal times. The war in had ended some time before, but the karmic ripples continued to spread. I thought that maybe we should go to Naropa Institute in Colorado—that perhaps there we would find a path or a way.
The engine of the VW bus blew up in a cornfield in Iowa. We were stranded in a little town. While we waited for a new engine, we hung around with some of the young locals we met at a bar café. I remember one night driving around and around and around in someone’s convertible, a six pack of beer on the seat beside us. The young driver indicated that this is what they did most nights, drove around in circles.
All around us was the vastness of the prairies. Above us, the vastness of stars, the worlds within world. I wondered what it took to feel a connection with that. Later the trip, I spoke to a few farmers and ranchers. They gave me the impression—which I later forgot—that the way to this feeling of connection with a bigger life might be found through the body and the heart and through kinds of work that remind us we are alive on the earth. Decades later, I have had the extraordinary good fortune to work at Parabola, where I get to ask these questions with others.