Members of my jati.


Mini-jati: my dear friend Beckett, his amazing wife Erin, and their maid of honor, the lady Amelia (all in post-wedding fatigue) on Lake Michigan.

I’m reading a wonderful book right now, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s an alternate history of the world after the Black Death wipes out the entire population of Europe in the 1300s, leaving the earth to the Chinese, Indian, (Native) American, and Muslim empires. The story is told through several characters who, over the course of their many reincarnations, realize that they’re members of a “jati,” or a core group of people who recognize each other and work together in every life. Then they reconvene in the bardo (the afterlife) and discuss their progress (or just reproach each other in amusing ways) before being reborn.

It’s rare that a book shapes the whole way I look at the world. But in the last few months, I’ve been traveling all over the U.S., visiting friends I haven’t seen in years, and having incredible hours-long retrospective conversations with all of them….and I’ve begun thinking of my friends as my jati. We’ve known each other for thirty-two years, twenty years, ten years, or five years; from Annville or Lebanon Catholic or Wellesley or NASA or MIT or DSI or NPR or Roth Lab or Clarion or Ethiopia; friends who have always been friends, friends who were once lovers, or may have been in a previous life, or will be in the next; or mothers or wives or brothers or sons. I tell them how much I’ve changed, and they smile, and gently remind me how much I haven’t.

And so there’s nothing else to do but keep climbing the mountain together, higher and higher up, and pause in pairs to look back at the view stretching farther and farther toward the horizon.

I’m so grateful for these companions. Let’s be gentle with each other, in heaven as on earth.

2 Comments on “Members of my jati.”

  1. beckettws says:

    I love this, but I also struggle with it 😛

    The dimension of reincarnation (in a Buddhist tradition) that I find most challenging personally is the aim to exit the cycle. The idea of a jati has a romantic side that shows the social dimension of enlightenment: our personal efforts to escape suffering are intimately connected to the efforts of those around us. We travel with them and can share in love and compassion with them.

    But I think it also has a decidedly unromantic side. A while back, I was trying to find a way of thinking about reincarnation and karma that didn’t require supernatural processes. Remember that what is enlightened escapes the cycle of reincarnation while everything egoistic remains. Whatever “lives on” after we die — what gets reincarnated — could well be our neuroses. We impart our habits of ego on other people, and sometimes circumstances turn out right that similar neurotic habits come together in a similar way to our own in a person born after we die. Reincarnation also means the same damn problems over and over again!

    I makes me wonder how the idea of a jati should play out as a narrative. How does Robinson address the downsides of reincarnation? Western culture emphasizes a romantic ideal of love as two souls bound together forever, spiritually when the material life ceases. But Buddhism says nothing is eternal and unchanging in this way, and that our spiritual aim should be to dissolve any ultimate distinction between ourselves and others. What does “happily ever after” mean for a jati?

    • Becquett! (The jati engages.)

      Putting aside the book–I’m still only 2/3 of the way through, so I don’t know how it ends–which sources are telling you that the aim is to exit the cycle? I remember telling Tenzin at MIT that my brother disliked the idea of exiting the world instead of remaining in service to it; Tenzin said the Buddha himself chose to re-enter the world after achieving nirvana, to guide others on the path. So I’m not sure one choice (to stay, to move on) is necessarily valued over another. It probably depends, as always, on your tradition, your experience, and your specific teachers.

      Also: I remember asking my Mom whether she and Dad would still be married in heaven, and she said no. I was very concerned about that! Granted my parents were always on the progressive side of Catholic, but I don’t think it was inconsistent with church teaching that marriages actually *don’t* continue into the afterlife, at least not in the way we think.

      More later, after I finish the book 🙂

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