On my twelfth birthday I saw my grandmother’s body not long after she had died. I was puzzled: what had happened to her? She was alive and kicking yesterday, she could hear the ticking of that ancient grandfather clock in the living room yesterday, she was talking to people and eating her meals yesterday, but today . . . what? Now her body was just an empty shell. But where was she, the person? Where was the person that lived in that body? I couldn’t work it out!
I asked many people what death was, but no one seemed to know. Why not? Why didn’t people know? Some said what they believed, but it was all a bit airy-fairy; it was all just belief. Didn’t anyone really know what happened to someone when they died? A few months later I read a book on hypnosis and age regression and became fascinated by it. People were apparently recalling previous lives. Was it true? Did people really live more than once? Why hadn’t anyone mentioned it to me before? I didn’t realise it at the time, but my journey of discovery had begun and it was a very exciting time for me.
During my early teens I read many kinds of books on all manner of subjects to do with spirituality and religion. Somehow I came across Buddhism. Little was known of this strange Eastern religion in the 1950s and early 1960s. But I began to learn about the Buddha’s teachings and to me it was breathtaking.
Here was a religion which didn’t seem like a religion at all. There was no Creator God, and the Buddha was a man, a person just like me, just a human being who asked the questions I was asking about life and death. He diligently sought answers to those questions, first through the holy men of the day in India and then he sought answers within himself, within his own mind, and that was when he came to an amazing discovery.
At least I thought it was amazing, and I devoured every book on Buddhism I could lay my hands on. This was a man, not a god, who wanted answers about life and death, and set about finding them. And that was what I wanted as well. Gradually, over the years I realised I was a Buddhist, and my search became a spiritual journey; I discovered the Buddha’s path.
What struck me the most about the Buddha’s teachings was that life doesn’t end at the death of the physical body, and that what comes after physical death will depend on what went before it, in other words what kind of life we have led, commonly referred to in Buddhism as karma and rebirth.
It felt almost liberating to think that my present life was the result of my own actions in the forgotten past. `If the way I lived in the past has brought me to this situation,’ I thought, `then the way I live now will affect my future.’ That is how I reasoned it out and it felt empowering. It was rather a simplistic understanding, of course, as I was still very young, but it felt fundamentally right and brought a great deal of joy into my life; I just had that feeling that it was true.
I have since come to realise that karma and rebirth is all to do with our states of mind and very little to do with material gain or loss, and the best karma is to get insight into the nature of existence, that we are not the isolated, permanent individuals that we might think we are—that I now see is where our freedom lies from sorrow, and where we will find genuine happiness. And that, for me, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching.