I could tell by her tone that she was not simply referring to pretending to be a kitty-cat or penguin or pony, animals which she frequently announces that she is: “I’m a kitty-cat!” This was something else, something which meant something to her, and I didn’t know what that was so I used one of the techniques I learned from being in therapy and from taking classes in how to be a therapist: I repeated her statement back to her. “You don’t want to be an animal anymore.”
She nodded and went on, “And I don’t want to be in my Mommy’s tummy anymore.”
“You don’t want to be in your Mommy’s tummy anymore.”
“No, because when I’m in her tummy it’s like she ate me and I don’t like that.”
I just let that hang for a minute. I was building a tower with blocks and she was rummaging around in her socks and underwear drawer for something.
“I think that when I die, after I die, I’m going to come back into my Mommy’s tummy and then be a little baby again and I don’t want to do that.”
The little grrrl is, at the time of this writing, three years and nine months of age. She’s a little clingy in strange places, but if she’s in a familiar setting – the kids’ museum, the skateboards-and-used-records store, the coffeeshop on Court Square – she’ll march right in with her elbows swinging and take over, shouting, singing, telling grown-ups how it’s supposed to be. She has blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks and is ridiculously adorable. I know, everybody thinks their kid is adorable, but I’ve had total strangers coming up to me for three years and nine months, telling me that the little girl on my shoulders is the most adorable child they’ve ever seen. Seriously. Other parents will comment on my kid’s attractiveness right in front of their ugly little grubs. It’s bizarre. Her Mommy and I considered renting her out to advertising agencies, but decided not to because we were afraid it would make her neurotic and weird.
She’s bold and vivacious and wildly alive and sometimes she wants to talk about death. She learned about death last summer. The dog died. The old, blind, deaf, spotted dog died. I buried the dog out in the George Washington National Forest and took the girl out there the next day to show her where Trudy was. We’ve gone back a few times since. We put flowers and rocks and Fig Newtons on Trudy’s grave. We talk about how the energy went out of her body. Now her body is food for plants and trees and her energy has gone on to some other place, some mysterious place. I try to be clear and concise when I answer her questions about death. I tell her that no one really knows about death, but that I have beliefs which I share with her.
She told me one day that the energy part of Trudy, which we also call the “spirit”, came back as a Dalmatian puppy, “like one of those puppies in that moooooooovie. You know what movie I mean, Daddy?”
I don’t enjoy talking about death with the little girl. I don’t think that any parent enjoys talking about death with their child. It seems wrong somehow, discussing death with a person so vividly alive, so brilliantly far away from death. I always wish we could talk about cartoon ponies or how much we love cupcakes or how funny toots are, anything but death. But it must be done. The wee’uns have to learn what death is and since I’m not going to farm it out to some preacher or priest, I’m the one who has to tell her.
For myself, I’m cool with death. I consider it to be as natural as fucking or shitting. I’m absolutely certain that there is nothing to fear about death. I do not have an opinion regarding the state of the individual’s ego/consciousness/spirit/soul/monad/atman after the death of the body. Maybe something happens, maybe not. I’m willing to wait to find out. I want to pass this along, to convey to my daughter my assurance that death is okay, but it’s difficult. She gets all serious about it and makes a sad face and it makes me think about the fact that she will die, which is unpleasant. Nevertheless, I’m the grown-up, so I respond to her as naturally and easily as I can. I don’t bullshit her or talk down to her and I admit that I don’t know all the answers.
I never told her about reincarnation. As far as I know, she came up with that herself. The idea that an old Dalmatian would be reborn as a new Dalmatian seems a bit sophisticated for a three-year-old, but the sprat is as intelligent as she is beautiful, so I wasn’t too shocked.
Then this thing today – I don’t want to be an animal anymore and I don’t want to be back in my Mommy’s tummy, to be reborn as a human baby again. Someone else might interpret that a different way, but to me it’s pretty obvious that my little girl is saying that, having lived through countless incarnations in animal forms and countless incarnations in human forms, she is ready, in this lifetime, to quit the cycle of death and rebirth, to attain to Nirvana, to become Buddha. What else?
It is, of course, her business if she wants to dissolve into Nirvana. I won’t try to talk her out of it. I will, however, do my damnedest to model for her, and explain to her when she’s old enough to understand, why I have taken the Vow of the Bodhisattva, which is, briefly, that I will not seek Nirvana for myself until all other sentient beings have gone before me, that I will reincarnate in this world, with all of its pain and suffering and sorrow, again and again and again, for as long as it takes until pain and suffering and sorrow are no more. It’s a big undertaking and I have regretted it on more than one occasion, when I looked around at all the blithering idiots and realized I was going to have to bring them all to Enlightenment, but it’s not all bad. The world has many pleasures which I get to enjoy, of which being a Daddy is one. I would like it very much if my daughter decided to take the Vow and become a Bodhisattva like her old man, but I know she must make up her own mind.
It’s so odd when children speak of things like reincarnation and their desires to stop it. They usually seem like such silly little people that one easily forgets that they, too, are manifestations of the eternal and infinite One and are already far along their own paths when they are born. We, the parents, frequently forget that we may be changing the diapers of ones who are far more spiritually advanced than we can imagine, that they may teach us far more than we can ever aspire to teach them.
If my daughter becomes a Bodhisattva, she and I will both be reincarnating again and again and again until all sentient beings are enlightened. If she becomes a Buddha, our paths won’t cross again because she will have gone before me. That’s kind of sad for me. But ‘All life is sorrowful’ and all that Noble Truth jazz.
I may have said before and will certainly say again that I’m not a Buddhist, despite my love for and appreciation of all things Buddha, especially the Zen koans and Tibetan aesthetics. The reason I am not a Buddhist is I don’t agree with the Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of Buddhism and which here follow:
- All living things suffer.
- Suffering is caused by attachment.
- Cessation of attachment is the end of suffering.
- The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of attachment.
That all living things suffer needlessly, senselessly and pointlessly in this miserable shitstorm is certainly true, no doubt about that. And said suffering can be traced back, in any and all cases, to some attachment or other, some fear or desire. After that, Gautama goes in the direction of saying “no” to life’s nightmare, which is where he loses me. I’m an alcoholic drug addict – I spent a dozen+ years saying “no” to life with the aid of every pill, powder and poison I could obtain through fair means or foul. I said enough “no” to life. Now that I’m clean and sober, I’m gonna say “yes” to it. All of it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t deplore arrogance, stupidity, cruelty, violence, malice and all the other awfulness, it means that I’m not willing to forgo the pleasures of life just to avoid the pains. The pleasures are more pleasurable than the pains are painful. Life is fucking worth it and I want it.
As we all know, Siddhartha Gautama was motivated to quit the world by seeing, on successive outings, a sick man, an old man, a corpse and a holy man. His thinking was, everyone gets sick, gets old and dies – a holy man, who has quit the world and is seeking a way to stop reincarnating, is attempting to stop reincarnating, to stop the process, to stop getting sick, aging and dying. That’s fine, but if you reincarnate, you get a new body, a new life. Why not focus on the renewal? Why not say “it’s okay that I’m going to get sick, get old and die, because when this meat-carriage is worn out, I’ll get a new one”? Why not say “I’m going to do all I can, accomplish all I can and enjoy all I can and if I don’t get everything done that I want to, I’ll just come back”?
That’s what I’m up to. I’ve got some plans and serious intentions and it’s going to take more than a few lifetimes for me to make the changes I have in mind. Actually, I’m glad Gautama is gone away to Nirvāna and isn’t here to get in my way. He was a nice enough guy, but a bit of a whiner.
So, if the girl wants to go on to Amitābha’s Pure Land or whatever, I’ll be sorry to see her go, but I’ll still be around, saying “yes” to all that life has to offer – good, bad and ugly – and building towers with blocks.