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Lions Roar : September 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 31 school: that when you died your soul went to heaven to live with Jesus. When it comes to discussions of the afterlife, Buddhism—at least the secular, intellectual brand I’d been studying here in the West—didn’t really have any answers I thought would be reassuring to a three-year-old. (“Well, sweet- ie, it all has to do with the chain of interdependent co-origina- tion...”) Unlike some brands of Buddhism, the paths I’d stud- ied didn’t emphasize reincarnation, at least not in any literal sense, and I had trouble telling him a story I didn’t believe myself. But I wanted to tell him something that would make him feel safe. “Nothing really dies,” I told him. “It just turns into some- thing else. Everything is always changing form. Do you remem- ber the pumpkin that rotted into the earth in your garden? Tomatoes sprouted where it used to be. This bird will go back to the earth and turn into lavender flowers and butterflies.” “When you die, will you turn into a flower?” he asked, look- ing a little worried. “Maybe,” I said, patting the earth down over the hummingbird. He thought for a while, then asked, “But will the flower know that it used to be Mommy?” He’d gone right to the heart of the central koan, the question of the persistence of consciousness. This was what had always bothered me, too, about New-Agey stories that tried to gloss over the finality of death. After all, if you don’t remember that you used to be a shepherd in medieval England or a princess in ancient Egypt, what difference does it make? All I could say was what would come to be my mantra when it came to questions of the afterlife: “I don’t know.” WHEN TONI HAD BEEN ABSENT for over a month, Skye paused one evening as he was bouncing naked on my bed after his bath. “I’m going to assume that Toni’s dead,” he told me. “Oh, Skye-berry, she’s not dead.” I wrapped a towel around him and pulled him into my lap. “She’s just very sick.” “But she’s going to die.” I pressed my face against his damp hair. “She probably is.” “Will the worms eat her body?” he asked. “Yes, they probably will.” I wondered if I was a Bad Mommy. Maybe I should make up a nicer story than this: No, no, sweetie, worms don’t eat people, they just eat crows. But Skye’s dad and I had always prided ourselves on telling him the truth, as best we knew it. “But she won’t feel it,” he said thoughtfully. “Because she will be dead. How long will it take her to go back to the earth and turn into something else?” “Oh...about a month? Maybe a few months?” I felt myself getting into deeper and deeper waters. What kind of images of his beloved teacher was he creating in his head? “Oh, that’s way too long.” He shook his head. “I think maybe...a day. And then she’ll turn into a cat.” All on his own, it seemed, Skye was generating from scratch the theory of reincarnation, the story that—whether or not you