Here I read the whole poem.This I See is Certain
If I die tomorrow
in another heart attack
I’m as certain as I can be
“I” won’t be coming back.
For I see no soul or essence
this body can survive,
and death’s banal – a cliche
no escape we can contrive.
So if I’m sure I have no soul,
no basic or unchanging me
no disembodied consciousness
which can go on quite “body free.”
And if I’m sure there is no God,
no heavenly realm, no toasting Hell,
no second chance, no other life
beyond this one I know so well.
Then what is left?
For this I see is certain.
If I die tomorrow
I will live on
in those who’ve known me,
loved, hated, worked
and struggled with me.
Also those of chance acquaintance –
fellow passengers on the Tube –
all have absorbed some trace,
some resonance of me – as I of them.
And though this be but partial,
for none know all of me,
yet still it is a knowing.
one that cannot be denied,
or quite wiped out, expunged, forgotten.
Instead we flicker and play on
within each mind we meet,
caught in each other kaleidoscopically,
refracted through myriad mental mirrors,
replayed in countless variations,
performed on many different instruments.
as through each other’s lives we live –
and so are “born again.”
So who then am “I”?
I am the sum of everyone
who I have known,
of all and everything
that’s influenced me.
I am the universe become
“I” includes my parents,
wife and children,
family, loves, pupils,
the people, places, music,
images I ‘ve made,
words written and spoken
all have marked me,.
and make me who I am.
They live on in me
as “now” and “new” and “mine” –
as I live on in them.
“I” am my actions and my choices.
These resonate through time and space,
changing patterns, adding to
the happiness – or otherwise of others.
Even quirks of mind and gesture,
my nuanced meanings,
style of thinking – ways of doing,
thoughts, words, music, tone –
each becomes my own
only as passed on
to change and affect others.
So who are we?
We are made up of patterns
caught from all who we have know,
from all we have experienced.
Actions, reactions, loves and hates –
they live on in us,
leaving imprints soft or strong.
We are made up
of all the countless lives of others
who have gone before
whose struggles place us where we are.
We are made up
of an enfolding nature,
a rich and fragile sphere
of life, death, rebirth, change,
as much a part of us
as is the air we breath,
and we depend upon it.
If then I “die” tomorrow
as certain as my body is recycled,
no atom lost or wasted –
So is it with “my” mind
and those I love.
Refracted and repackaged,
each life is endlessly redistributed,
“reborn” a myriad times.
Of course the memory of me as “individual” seems to become diffuse and fade
in all these many lives,
yet all that makes up me
A personal way of understanding Buddhist teaching on
Kamma (actions and consequences)
Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth)
Anatta (not self, the Buddha’s denial of the reality of the soul)
Some years ago I heard Ajahn Sumedho a Buddhist monk I respect being asked, “Tell me Tan Ajahn, what happens to us when we die?” His reply came back sharply,
“Anyone who tells you he knows what happens to us when we die is a fool or a charlatan.”
That has ever since struck as a wise answer to give to those who seek confirmation for their beliefs in some form of “afterlife”, so when I say “I am as certain as I can be” in the first four verses what I mean is I experience no doubts about what has to be a personal opinion. I recognise in theory that I could be wrong and that perhaps there really is a heaven, a hell, or perhaps that we have some essence that can be reborn or re-incarnated in some recognisable way. However, based on the evidence or more precisely the lack of it I have come across, I doubt it. As a result I see the conventional talk of either everlasting life and hell or of many incarnations as being at best a useful way of referring to the quality of our present life by employing metaphors or a rather confusing attempt to offer hope of reward and some comfort in the face of what can seem bleak, meaningless and unfair.
What I go on to say from verse five however, I do not consider to be a matter of opinion, but an attempt to describe what I actually see happens in and around us while we live and when we die – the real, observable “afterlife,” the extension and consequences of this life. These verses then simply refer to the way things are – here in this world – and from this perspective I consider the conventional talk about “the afterlife” as being a way to try and grasp something which is actually quite simple but which easily gets obscured and confused by the introducion of talk of mythical heavens, hells souls and relocations in other bodies.
I think all such talk deflects our attention from reflecting more on the fact that all that makes up each of us is continuously changing and resonating on through time and space, so when the body dies and with it our conscious experience of individual identity, it is simply a fact that all we are made up of, physically and mentally, does not end but is subtly redistributed in time and space and that this process brings about both forseeable and many unexpected and unforseen consequences.
For me this amazing and subtle reality is enough and this website can be seen as an expression of it, for it is a chance for parts of me and my mind (which is of course not just mine) to resonatel out and effect others. This way of thinking obviously comes out of my reflections on the teachings of the Buddha regarding the insubstantial nature of the five elements he saw as constituting the self and the process of actions, cause and effect, refered to as kamma. This makes this poem my attempt to express that teaching .
My near death experience when I had a heart attack in 2006 (see Take Heart) was to feel certain that I was seconds from total wipe out – no out of body near death experiences for me. Oddly, it did not frighten me and the word “banal” came to me quite unbidden.
Five months later when I faced a triple bypass in Bristol (The CABG Patch) again I felt no fear or anxiety as I prepared for the anaesthetic knowing full well that I might never wake up. As it happens I did and for me the operation was an intense and surprisingly inspiring experience, thanks to the NHS.
Now I feel fit, but those experiences have bitten deep, giving me an added incentive to use what time I have fruitfully and sharpening my appreciation of the privilege I have of being alive and able to appreciate the present moment.
Not surprisingly I continue to reflect and seek to make sense of it all and the whole poem is the result of where I currently stand. It has over the course of several years gone through many drafts. Finally, the first four verses were added. It may not be great poetry, but I hope it makes what I think and feel reasonably clear.
John Baxter 2009