The Wachowskis have never been short on ambition; they've been blowing minds (or trying to) ever since The Matrix put them on the map. Now they're back with Cloud Atlas, and critics are divided -- some say it's an awe-inspiring work of visual and emotional daring, while others say it's muddled, pretentious, and overlong. It's a series of interconnected vignettes that follows a variety of characters (played by, among others, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent) across centuries, as seemingly small actions and events have monumental repercussions. The pundits agree that Cloud Atlas is a singular film, but while some are thrilled by its monumental scope and big ideas, others say it's too undisciplined and disjointed to realize its outsized aims.
As a biologist intrigued by Buddhism, and who is exploring the parallels and convergences between this modern and largely Western science and that ancient and largely Eastern “wisdom tradition,” I find myself increasingly convinced that Kipling was wrong: The twain have met, and for the most part, they get along swimmingly.
Nonetheless, I and many other Buddhist sympathizers part company with traditional Buddhist beliefs when it comes to the doctrine of reincarnation. As we shall see, there is a very limited respect in which reincarnation can in fact be interpreted as consistent with modern biological science, but definitely not in the conventional sense of Buddhism or Hinduism; that is, in which individuals (as opposed to their constituent molecules) are somehow reconstituted, complete with their characteristic personalities, either dragging along or buoyed by their prior actions—i.e., their “karma.” For those of us interested in reconciling Buddhism with science in general and biology in particular, reincarnation remains a troublesome outlier.
Nonetheless, a kind of bottom-line, bare-bones reincarnation does take place in the literal recycling of atoms and molecules, fundamental to the biological (and Buddhist) acknowledgment that “individuals” do not have intrinsic existence, separated and distinct from the rest of the world. But this is a far cry from the more traditional understanding of reincarnation, East and West, whereby not just atoms and molecules but some—typically unspecified—aspect of an individual is reborn into a different body, yet mystically still constituting an ineffable, nonmaterial component derived from his or her prior life (rather, lives): a soul.
It is unthinkable for traditional Buddhists, and indeed for most followers of the Abrahamic Big Three, to deny the existence of souls. But it is equally unthinkable, I assert, for any scientist to accept the existence of something that is immaterial, eternal, immeasurable, and also complexly and indelibly associated with each of us, distinct from one another. When I die, my carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and so forth will be recycled into other creatures, other components of this planet and the universe (and ditto for you) … But I cannot accept the fairy tale that I, like some sparkly Tinkerbell, will in any meaningful holistic sense be reborn, reincarnated, inserted, or in any way incorporated into a new, temporary body, and not only that, but that the outcome—the precise kind of body “I” will next inhabit—is a direct (karmic) consequence of how well or poorly I have lived my life.
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies,” we are told by a futuristic, grammar-challenged shaman in Mitchell’s bold, time-bending-book, “an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.” I don’t believe this for a moment, and I bet that deep in your heart (notice, I didn’t write “your soul”!), I bet you don’t either. Nor should you. We all know that many “things” that are immaterial nonetheless exist: love, beauty, hate, suffering, fear, hope, etc. But the existence of a soul—mine, yours, that of the Buddha or Charles Darwin—is an extraordinary and altogether different assertion. As Carl Sagan emphasized, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and such evidence is wholly lacking.
“The” Buddhist attitude toward reincarnation is diverse and—I must add, at the risk of seeming unkind—muddled. Buddhism typically maintains an account of the soul’s rebirth that differs from the prevailing Hindu view, which posits a pervasive, worldwide, irreversible, and permanent atman. By contrast, the Buddhist perspective involves anatman, the explicit absence of any concrete “self.” Add to this the fact that according to Buddhist thinking, anitya (impermanence) is also universal, and the notion of a distinct and unchanging self that is transmitted from a dead or dying body into a new one is simply not tenable. Instead, the Buddha described a process analogous to a sequence in which successive candles are lit by the flame of a preceding one; as a result, the flames are causally linked, forming a continuing stream, but they are not identical.
Nonetheless, many Buddhists claim, for example, that especially enlightened practitioners can remember their “past lives,” and they quote various Buddhist texts (sutras) to buttress their position. But as far as I’m concerned, sutra-slinging warrants no more intellectual or scientific respect than does bible-beating.
On the other hand, I am rather partial to the notion that we “birth our future” by what we do, just as from a strictly evolutionary perspective, our present—the genetic makeup that (albeit temporarily) helps give rise to our “selves”—was birthed by what our ancestors did or didn’t do. Call it a kind of reincarnation if you must. I prefer to celebrate it as natural selection.
No one swims outside the gene pool. What each of us identifies as “our self” is only a temporary collection of genes drawn from a much vaster, shared genome, destined to dissolve back into that gargantuan, universal melting pot, and whose physical substance is shared with all matter, nonliving as well as living. Think of an eddy in a stream, not really existing independently, all by itself, but rather a temporary arrangement of “passing-through stuff,” given a name for the time being, and sometimes called “bison” or “oak tree”—or “person.” This is not news to the modern biologist, nor to the practicing Buddhist, two seemingly distinct perspectives that originate very differently yet coalesce remarkably in outlook and insight.
Just don’t confuse myth-making and poetry, à la Cloud Atlas, with scientific fact.
David Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2012).
gavesako wrote:Someone who saw the film wrote about it:
the movie is typical in that it teaches us that there is suffering, which is blatantly obvious from start to finish, but neglects the cause, the end, and the path. good guys kill bad guys and love conquers all.
it teaches us about kamma, and rebirth, but not how to break the cycle. in fact, it does the opposite. all the characters fall in love and can't wait to be reunited after death.
i do like that it showed humans being born on both earth and in other galaxies over time, that the kilesas will be cause for our destruction, and that we can become better people. i was even reminded of the Aganna Sutta, which i believe was referenced a lot.
the Mara character had a great role and so did the character overcoming him. i also enjoyed seeing the skills, and realizations, each character develops in each life continue on into future rebirths
The common theme that binds these stories together soars above and beyond the comet-shaped birthmark. It’s a story about power, domination, and the ultimate quest to rule. The stories stress on the selfishness of people, and how ultimately, this will lead to the inevitable apocalypse.
Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me.
You know the real drag about being a ghostwriter? You never get to write anything that beautiful. And even if you did, nobody would ever believe it was you.
We’re all ghostwriters, my friend. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but they’re really pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.
The above quotes illustrate another prominent aspect of the book: the role of fate, of chance, of the chain-reaction. The sheer randomness of the stories, and the way the characters inter-connect is pivotal to the novel, and keeps the reader completely engrossed. Of course, the other side is, by the time the reader actually starts relating to the narrator or nodding in agreement with their sentiments, a new narrator is introduced and the old narrator a thing of the past.
Ghostwritten: a Buddhist Novel?
David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten is a novel for the interconnected, globalised times in which we are buffeted among billions; it offers not so much an answer as a neural network of thought, not so much an argument as ideas whirring like minds, and interacting like electrons. Was it the first Dharma novel of the millennium? Why do things happen? That’s the big subject for novels.
Having lost the belief that we can ever really know the causes of an event, we have also lost faith in omniscient narrators. They peered down on the lives of their creations like spy satellites fixing their lenses, or they pried into their consciousness like a migrating spirit (both cues that Mitchell picks up). Contemporary novels tend to follow or be narrated by a character who participates in the story, who cannot know the context in which they were living (just as we can’t know the contexts of our lives). They cannot know their true motivations, nor the consequences of their actions that ripple out beyond their view.
Beneath character and plot lie the mysteries of subjective experience and causality. This is where Buddhism comes in. Or at least it could and should, because these are its abiding concerns. A Dharma novelist worthy of the name will know that things arise in dependence upon conditions: some of the conditions we know, some are mysterious – and both kinds are important.
Think of the universe of human consciousness as it exists right now: seven billion minds whirring away, trying to make sense, trying to cope: loving, fearing, desiring. Why are they the way they are? Let’s say it’s conditions (knowable, and mysterious). But you cannot separate the conditions that impinge on someone from the way those conditions are experienced. So imagine you could download into a consciousness, like a computer file downloading from the internet (and Mitchell plays with this, too) into any one of those six billion. You could know how it felt to be Chinese or Russian, you could switch sex, experience growing old or dying, and then switch out again. But could you both inhabit that subjectivity and at the same time step back to see the causes and the effects?
That is what David Mitchell attempts in Ghostwritten, and he is a candidate to be the first real Dharma novelist in the modern world. The book comprises 10 linked monologues, each character occupying a radically different set of values, drives and pre-occupations. It starts with a Japanese fanatic who has set off a subway sarin gas attack. Then come a Japanese teenager falling in love, a financial lawyer in Hong Kong whose shady dealings are catching up with him, a Chinese peasant, a St Petersburg criminal, a London musician and ghostwriter, a quantum physicist on the cusp of a breakthrough, a New York late-night chat show host. And there are two disembodied consciousnesses whose identities I shall not divulge.
Ghostwritten also shows a world shot through with Buddhism, from the millennial distortions of Aum Shinrikyu, to the giant Buddha in Hong Kong, a long-suffering Chinese devotee, a Gelugpa performing consciousness transference, a ‘sort-of-Buddhist Londoner’, and a computer called Arupadhatu (which is the sphere of no form, because we might as well say that is where a computer consciousness would exist).
Each has a wonderful story to tell, and Mitchell has a generous imagination. He could have devoted a novel to any of these characters, and a lesser writer would have hoarded the ideas that pour out of each page of Ghostwritten. ...
Establishing each voice is important because it articulates a worldview. Mitchell writes others’ lives like a ghostwriter. But, as one of the characters suggests, our lives are themselves a form of ghostwriting, scripted by forces beyond us, even though we claim to be their authors.
This was Mitchell’s first novel, and it reminded me of other first novels like Catch 22 or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.It creates a form tthat is able to express a new kind of consciousness, and a new experience of the world. This is a novel for the interconnected, globalised times in which we are buffeted among billions; it offers not so much an answer as a neural network of thought, not so much an argument as ideas whirring like minds, and interacting like electrons.
Viscid wrote:I don't really think it's important for people to romanticize these ideas any further than they already do. Also, movies like this do not make people take the idea of reincarnation/rebirth any more seriously-- they will just be more likely to associate it with fantasy fiction.