Posted by: drwbortz | April 30, 2010

Elephants and Ripples

Most television qualifies as spam, but once in a while there is a redemptive moment.  Such was the case last week, when PBS showed its special, “The Buddah,” by producer-director David Grubin.  Like many people I had a college course on the world’s comparative religions. This generated in me a positive perspective about Buddhism.  Its faith is possessed by 6% of the world’s population (Christianity is 31% Islam 20%.)

This college intro gave background for the travel experiences in which we toured Buddhist lands, including several weeks in Ladakh, the last refuge of Tibetan Buddhism, Japan, with our sojourn ending in Nepal.  In these experiences, we saw Buddhism firsthand. Its current practitioners, the persons who practice Buddhism daily, exhibit a characteristic life which represents their fundamental philosophy of generosity, suffering and patience. My most intimate encounters with Buddhism were during these travels, most specifically to the Everest base camp in the Himalayas. Our glorious guides, cooks, and porters were the Sherpas, who were practicing Buddhists.  We slept, climbed, and sweated with them, clearly the most wonderful collection of people with whom I have ever been connected. Great memories endure, but that was 30 years ago.

These memories were clearly recounted by the TV show, which was beautifully produced and executed.  It brought back the endearing caring that defines the practicing Buddhists.  The TV special told of the youth who was born to a rich Hindu king father in southern India and raised in splendor and isolation. His father sought to insulate him from the pains of the world.  He married and had a son, but then left the palace and confronted sickness, aging, and death for the first time.  He reflected deeply and renounced his luxury and family.  He went on to explore, and founded a religion.

This Buddhism is congenial to me. It is almost exclusively a moral, ethical philosophy, generous and caring. It lacks an authority figure.

However this reassertion of the fundamental beliefs and personal devotions recalled my aversion to their adoption of personal reincarnation as a core belief.  The notion that our earthly deeds, when accumulated, serve to guide our souls into a future life just couldn’t make it with me.  Rebirth in another life, in whatever shape or spirit simply stretched my imagination too far.  The TV special made prominent mention of this reincarnation tenet.

Recently however, I have been busy re-evaluating my own personal sense of life beyond death. As much as we inevitably reject the notion of personal oblivion after death, we seek alternatives, most of which we have identified in the standard religious explanations, which Thomas Szasz and Sam Harris hold accountable for the traditional religions. Explaining the afterlife is a standard obligation of classical religions.  Buddhism has its own reach.

I am immensely contented with Irv Yalom’s notion of ripples that he proposes in his fine book, “Staring at the Sun.” In it he allows that, at death, our molecules and atoms merge with the infinite dust from which we arose.  In his book, “The Fifth Miracle,” Paul Davies allows that all our bodies contain one atom of carbon from every milligram of dead organic material that is more than a thousand years old.  Deriving from this calculation is the implication that we are, each of us, host to a billion or so atoms that once belonged to Buddha or the tree under which Buddha once sat.

So,  materially we are reincarnated in a molecular sense.  I find more personal satisfaction in aggregating Yalom’s notion of ripples, which places emphasis on the energies which have come before us, rather than their material concretions.  It comforts me to presume that any goodness that I generate may, in effect, be a resonance of what the Buddha and other great teachers taught. All of us are the recipients of previous matter and of previous energy.  We are their re-incarnation.

Let us make the best of it.



  1. “Reincarnation in a molecular sense”.
    Dad you NEVER ceace to AMAZE me …. but this IS INDEED heavy stuff.
    Would also make a great new book title.
    Your “reincarnation” ….. through eternity …..

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