Through awareness, one begins to realise that birth and death are the principles of change and the vehicle of karma. We start to see the way of things and know the peril of getting caught up in mental and emotional states which disturb the natural clarity of mind.
The unborn and the born go together; one is the other. Becoming aware of these two aspects of reality simultaneously, is an important insight.
Our daily lives are full of ups and downs, twists and turns, rights and wrongs, hopes, wishes, fears, griefs, joys and sorrows. That is the way life is. Sometimes conditions are fleeting and sometimes they seem to last forever, but when we are in touch with a wider perspective, we can avoid being dragged down by any of them.
Freely, conditions arise — we can’t stop them — and freely, if we allow it, they go again. When we try to hang on to conditions, change them, or seek to be rid of them, that is when we enter the karmic cycle, become a person, create a cause and receive an effect.
Whilst we are, in a sense, born into this world, we are also unborn. Buddhism is about becoming conscious of that unborn aspect whilst not rejecting the born. Conditions are not a delusion, but thinking they are permanent or personal is.
Not only notions about the self, but also of space and time are seen as part of the delusion. Hui Neng told his disciples once that even if they were a thousand miles from him, if at the same time they realised their essence of mind, it would be as if they were in his very presence. The place he was talking about was not a spot on the map, but the vast, timeless, no-place of this moment.
He continued by saying that should people be unable to realise their own essential nature, even though they might be facing him, they would really be a thousand miles away. [The Sutra of Hui Neng, Wong Mou-Lam (trans.)]
When old friends meet after many years apart they are often heard to say, ‘It’s as if no time at all had passed.’ The face opposite looks that bit older, of course, but the two friends can discuss events even after decades as though they happened just a few hours ago.
In the conventional sense, of course, time does pass. A measure of the calendar is marked off, the hands of the clock do go round; and we call that ‘time’. The same with space. Distances are travelled, the scenery does change; and we call that ‘space’. We also identify with the face in the mirror, the picture in the passport, and the sound of that familiar name; and we call that ‘me’.
If we look at it that way, we do move from place to place, we are individual beings living in the world, and we do exist in time. But if we become aware of the actuality of the experience, the absolute truth of it, we realise that, though we are on the move, we remain where we are; and though we do answer to our name, we are unidentifiable, unlocatable, timeless, birthless and deathless.
In one sense we could say that time is just the present being reborn; we could also say that the here and now is never left even for a millisecond, and that the world is merely a moving kaleidoscope of conditions.
The feeling between old friends that ‘no time at all has passed since we last met’ hints at timelessness; the occasional doubt about really being that person in the mirror hints at the unborn; and feeling that wherever we are ‘we are still here’ hints at the recognition of one’s true nature. But unless these hints are taken seriously, unless we realise they are in fact hints of something significant, they are brushed aside as being vague feelings of no account.
When I was about ten years old, my grandmother said to me, ‘I bet you think I’m really old, don’t you?’ I answered ‘no’, thinking that was the polite thing to say. She ignored that, of course, and went on to say, ‘Well, I don’t feel any different now from when I was your age. Inside, I feel just the same.’ Clearly, there was some part of her that recognised timelessness and the unborn, awakened mind. She knew nothing of Buddhism – very few people did at that time in our western history – but that did not stop her recognising the actuality of her own experience, which just goes to show that experience is experience and has nothing to do with doctrines, religious movements and conceptual understanding.
Adapted from: Understanding Karma and Rebirth:
A Buddhist Perspective by Diana St Ruth