Back in May 1996 I had a dream in which I was murdered, or at least that was the sense I woke up with. But it wasn't me, it was someone else I knew was me. The dying itself I couldn't remember.
I joked with my friends about it being a past life. They took the notion seriously. I wrote a short story based on this character from this dream, in a way I gave form to her being. She became Clara.
I've just looked back at the journal I wrote at this time.
May 31, 1996 I keep having this image from a dream from several days ago come into consciousness. I am in a house, bare floor boards, no furniture. Front door opens into a front room and other rooms branch off. Money has been stashed here from a heist or laundered money. Stacks and stacks. I have come here with others to pick up the money. Big, dangerous men, not ones you want to cross.
Now I see me/her. She is a wispy thing, blond hair, thin, dressed in a shifty thing like a night gown. Barely more than a child, she is more like the property of one of the men than a member of the gang. She participates fully yet like a frightened muskrat, fully expecting at any moment to be hit or hurt or killed.
A week later I went on sesshin. During this time in my life I was attending just about every one I could. I wrote in a journal throughout during rest and reflection periods. I was grappling with the feeling of separateness. "How can I ever be anything but self-contained? How can I feel the truth of not-two?" I became irritated by Gyokuko in sanzen, which is a very special container created between teacher, student, and ritual that allows the dharma to surface and flow freely. I felt she was treating me like a beginner. She said I needed to find the place in myself where I was truly OK. I thought I had. She said, "I think you've touched the surface, you haven't reached the depths you can go. You're trying to be small, no, trying is judging...this is not a criticism. You're too hard on yourself. You think you don't deserve it."
I kept pressing on this question. "Do I think I've gone into that place of truly OK?" and my answer was "oh yes." (This, by the way, is an excellent example of the Soto Zen view of the koan arising in daily life.) I returned to sanzen with Gyokuko and told her about Clara. It made sense to her then. She said working on past lives was Bodhisattva work. She gave me a way to work with it, telling me past life karma work was much like this current life karma work, "unraveling the karmic threads." After that encounter, I realized she'd been right, "I haven't felt truly OK to that depth: I have to find that truly OK sense of self in past lives too." This occurred during the evening meditation.
Thursday, June 6, 1996, from quick note before bed: Then, during Vespers I sang along with and to Clara, and I felt she felt more than I ever have the compassion and acceptance of those verses. She rejoices. I cried at her rejoicing. [Om to the One Who leaps beyond all fear! Having adored Thee, may I enter into the heart of the Noble, Adored Kanzeon! Thy life is the completion of meaning; It is pure, it is that which makes all beings victorious and cleanses the path of all existence]
Friday, June 7, 1996, 1:15 pm: As she integrates I feel the presence of Clara practicing right along with me. I feel in her the pleasure of beginner's mind, feeling the soft touch of this compassionate practice. Sometimes I feel I have to say to her, "I'm doing this practice," because she is having a beginner's reaction to it, many of the reactions I've long been through: wanting to do it all; feeling irritated at having to do some things. I feel as though I've had some small very tiny glimpse into the world of a person with multiple personalities.
In the years to come, whenever someone would tell me they just loved my voice when we sang Vespers, I've always felt it was Clara they were hearing.
It is good I have looked back at this. I now have an answer to that nagging question of separateness: love. I hadn't yet experienced that love that swept away all notion of self. I have now.
It was very important to me at this time to work through this as a past life, to experience Clara as a separate self. In the years since, she has informed my understanding of multitudes of selves, no one permanent self, no unchanging self, many heaps of selves arising and falling.
When I met the man who was to become my husband, and he scoffed at the notion of past lives, I had to concede I couldn't really know if it was actually a past physical life, but that it had been useful and important to me at that time to believe it that. The karmic work I had done would not have been as powerful.
Now, with the experience even more distant, I notice I had that dream at the end of May, near the anniversary of my brother's death. He committed suicide on May 25, 1986, on the day after his own birthday. On my birthday. Six years later thanks to my Buddhist practice I began the therapeutic work of untangling that karma. In the life of dreams, Clara could very well have been the me that was still wounded by that past karma, still not OK, even while the main me felt truly OK. If she was a past life, she could very well have been a past self of this life right now.
I just don't know. I am still puzzling over my friend Rinchen's note: "...born before the beginning; has slipped out of his skin again." My good friend H. has bristled over the use of nirvana in advertising, because non-Buddhists think it means heaven, but really it means extinction of rebirth. No more rebirths, and do they really want to use extinction of self to market a sweet fru-fru? No more lives. My eyes start to cross as I try to delve into this notion of the karmic stream, not exactly a soul, but a bundle of conditions leaving the physical body and traveling on some other plane of existence to the next physical body. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about negotiating those other planes, the bardos, and is spoken to the dead to remind them not to be afraid of nirvana, of extinction. I don't understand how something whose form lacks substance can continue to exist beyond the body, and really, is exist the right word anyway?
Zen seems to worry itself much less about what happens after death, but more about this life. Yet during a Zen funeral, exhortations are read that are meant to guide the recently departed, just like the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And I wonder, is it that I am a sleepy stupid Buddha and haven't yet awakened to this understanding? or is this a religious construction that helps us who are living feel better about our eventual death?