Day 81 Question 81:
What are your thoughts on previous lives/afterlife?
There have been discussions about whether we ever lived previous lives or whether or not there is an afterlife for as long as I can remember. Most of you know that I do not consider myself a religious person. I am not drawn to God, The Bible, Christianity, etc. but I am absolutely a spiritual being. I do believe there is something out there that guides us all…something that makes us lead through the paths that we do. I am unsure if I really believe in coincidences. I believe things fall into place the way they are meant to. I am unsure of the reasons though. For the longest time I was in search of the answer but I have realized that the journey is the answer.
When asked if I believe in previous lives or an afterlife I do have to say yes that I do believe in both. I believe our experiences in many cases are a result of something that happened in a previous life. We may have no knowledge or remembrance of this life. We may have lived in a completely different form. I believe we can only come in touch with it when we reach a complete state of enlightenment…when our life is in perfect balance. I know not everyone is going to agree with this. I say this because this is what I feel. I would never try to twist anyone’s arm to think and believe as I do. For several years I had experienced dreadful self-doubt and had gone through a couple of full blown mental breakdowns. I was on and off medication and even with medication I still was nervous and worried. I could never pinpoint where exactly the worry and dread were coming from. I believe something in my past life was sending me a message. I believe I needed to experience those things to bring awareness and change into my life. It may seem silly to some but it makes sense to me. I am unable to except that when we die in this life that that is the end. There are too many things out there that seem to tell me otherwise.
The reason I chose this question is because I wanted to share a story I fell in love with that I read while I was at the gym last night. This question is hard to answer for me in the written word because it is something more that I feel rather than what I think. I would love to know your thoughts about the subject….I am always open to different viewpoints.
The story is as follows:
Grandma Was a Shaolin Monk
By Antonio Graceffo
I was a successful investment banker in New York City, but I quit my job to follow my dreams and live an adventure life in Asia. Over the last five and a half years, I have lived in temples, tribal villages and jungles. Through the books, CDs, DVD, and magazine articles I write I hope to share my adventures with others who feel trapped in their lives and their careers. You can take a look at my website at speakingadventure.com. You may not know it, but you are on your path already.
I was wearing an oversized white cowboy hat, boots three sizes too big, two pistols, and nothing else. The woman I was with refused to take me to the fair till I put some clothes on.
I stomped my foot and shouted, “But grandma, I don’t want to put any clothes on.”
It was the feast day of Santo Antonio, my patron saint, which for me was like a second birthday that I looked forward to all year. My grandma took me by the hand, and walked me – after I had dressed, of course – what seemed a long, long way to the festival at Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering Church.
Pink cotton candy melted on my tongue as I stood in a crowd of excited children, our noses pressed up against the fence, each waiting impatiently for our turn to ride the carousel. The carousel went round and round. Amid the flashes of red, white, and green, each of us secretly selected that horse, that perfect horse that we would mount when the time came.
For me, the choice was easy. There was a tremendous white stallion which looked identical to the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. The Lone Ranger was a major hero for me. I lived with my grandmother because my mother had died when I was a baby. I always felt small and weak. But the Lone Ranger was big and strong. I had no control over who I was or where I went, which is another reason I idolized the Lone Ranger. He was so fiercely independent and could ride his horse anywhere he wanted any time.
When the attendant raised the red velvet rope, it was like opening the starting gate at Belmont raceway. A throng of laughing, screaming children sprinted to the carousel, praying that they would get the horse they wanted. Unbelievably, no one had taken my horse. When I got close enough, I vaulted onto his back. Well actually, the attendant had to help me.
In my child’s imagination, the only thing that separated me from the Lone Ranger was my clothes and my lack of a horse. I believed that riding that horse, wearing my hat, pistols, and boots would change me into the Lone Ranger. “Hi Yo, Silver!!!” I screamed with excitement.
There was a mirror at the side of the carousel. As we came around, I fully expected to see a reflection of myself transformed into a magnificent Lone Ranger. But to my great disappointment, what I saw instead was the same small, weak boy I had been when I started. By the third time we had gone around, I was forced fully back into my sad reality by the small image in the mirror. I threw my hat on the ground in despair.
When the ride finished, my grandmother picked me up off of the horse. Seeing my profound disappointment, she encouraged me, “Anthony, no matter where you go, or what you do, no matter how far you ride on any horse, you will always be you. You are wonderful, and I love you just the way you are.”
Then she smiled and added, “but if it makes you happy to dream you’re the Lone Ranger, then do it. Don’t ever stop dreaming for the rest of your life.” She put the hat back on my head, and I fell asleep in her arms on the subway ride home.
When I woke up, I was thirty-four years old.
I was a successful investment banker working on Wall Street. Money had become the guiding principle of my life. Most of my day was spent sending out letters or calling people on the phone and asking them to buy my products. Mired in paper and consumed by visions of wealth, I had forgotten who I was. Yet I still had a picture of the Lone Ranger on the wall in my office.
The feast of Santo Antonio had just passed and rather than celebrating, I had worked twelve hours that day. But on a quiet Tuesday morning just days later, the concussion of two planes crashing into the side of the World Trade Center woke me from my slumber. Ironically, it was like awakening from my life and falling into a horrific dream.
When the buildings in Manhattan were evacuated, I joined the press of terrified humanity, wandering aimlessly through the silent and crowded streets. The air was full of a white powder, which I believed was anthrax or some other chemical or biological agent.
Thinking I had been sentenced to death, I made my way to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The pews were full, and the doors were jammed with people praying silently, tears streaming down their faces.
I would later learn that the dust that clogged my nostrils, burned my lungs, and gummed up my eyes, was not some poison, but rather the charred remains of 3,000 innocent people who lived like me, concerned only with the rise and fall of the stock market. For many, the single legacy they would leave behind was the money they had earned.
Faced with death, money means nothing. We are all mortal, which by definition means we are all faced with possibility of death every minute of every day, whether we are aware of it or not. Awakened from the slumber of what had been, I saw for the first time that money has no real meaning any moment of any day.
I vowed to change my life, to become a different person. And so, I flew to Asia in search of another path. My first stop was Taiwan, where I soon settled in with my newfound Kung Fu team. They took me in and gave me a place to sleep. They fed me. They gave me clothing. They trained me. They taught me kung fu and culture. And most especially, they taught me about their religion. My teammates here weren’t considered monks, yet as Kung Fu practitioners, they were deeply devoted to their practice of Buddhism.
In the west, when we feel indebted to someone, we can assuage our guilt by paying them. But there was nothing I could give these avowed ascetics. When I tried to give them money, they refused to accept it. This confused me, because back in New York, I didn’t know anyone who refused money.
Later, after I learned to speak their language, I talked to them about it. “Why do you always refuse when I try to give you money?” I asked. Using my Chinese name, they said, “An Dong Ni, money is a prison. The things we own wind up owning us.”
Over a period of months, as my understanding of the language, the culture and the religion grew, they explained further. The Buddhists believe that each time we die, we will be reincarnated at a higher or lower level, depending upon the balance of our good and bad deeds in our last life. Their ultimate goal is to reach the highest level, and they believe that the things we own will weigh us down and keep us from that highest goal.
They told me that if I took all of my money and possessions, wrapped my arms around them and jumped in a swimming pool, I would sink to the bottom and die. The only way to save myself would be to let go of those things. Only then would I be free. Money and possessions form golden chains, they said, which prevent the soul from soaring to the next level. The only way to get free is to cut those chains.
I determined to cut all of the chains with my old life. The first chain I had already cut when I left my country. Next, I cut my money, my job, my language, and my culture. I lived like my Chinese brothers, and I learned to love them.
The one chain I still maintained was my religion. I was still Catholic. And, as much as I loved studying with my friends, and even going to prayers with them, in my heart I just didn’t feel that I could ever give up my religion. I sought advice from my Buddhist advisor on this, “Gwo Su, you are the best person I know, serene, peaceful, kind, generous. I want to be like you. Should I become Buddhist?”
Gwo Su shook his head with a soft smile. “Have you learned nothing from us? We weren’t teaching you to become one of us. We were teaching you a lesson in tolerance. If I ask you to become like me, to take my religion, this is not tolerance.”
“Tolerance,” he said, “is learning to accept people who are different. If you can learn to accept and love people who are different, if you can learn to see their differences as beautiful, then you have achieved tolerance.”
After two years with these spiritual warriors, Gwo Su’s wise words helped me to realize that although I had been going through the motions, I had failed to learn this central lesson. They had always given me the freedom to live as an American Catholic among Chinese Buddhists without ever asking me to change. This was a truly profound lesson.
“How could I have been so stupid?” I asked.
“You Americans are so full of yourselves that it is nearly impossible for you to learn anything new,” Gwo Su said flatly. “If your glass is full of water, you cannot put something more tasty into it. You must first empty your glass that it may be filled. Only by loosing everything are we free to gain the most precious gifts.”
The Buddhists believe that each time we are reborn, we are born at just the right level – based on our accumulation of past good and bad deeds or karma – to learn the lessons that we need to learn in order to progress spiritually. So a cruel king may be reborn as a beggar in order that he may learn humility. Thus if you are born as a man, a woman, a horse, disabled, rich, or poor, it is because these are the lessons that you need to learn through taking on these roles.
These martial arts masters also believe that your race, your religion, and sometimes even your profession – the core aspects of who you are – are all carefully chosen, and you cannot change them. They feel that the way you are born is the way you should be. Yes, you can change your actions. You can change your behavior. But you cannot change the core of who you are.
Through my extraordinary journey with these people, I learned that acceptance and tolerance both of myself and of those around me opens the door to incredible new possibilities.
My next stop was Mainland China, where I lived with the monks in Shaolin Temple, the birth place of Chinese martial arts. None of us worked or went to school there. We spent all of our time learning Kung Fu and learning more lessons in Buddhism.
After departing Shaolin, I took up residence in Hong Kong where I wrote a book called The Monk from Brooklyn – a daily account of my many fascinating experiences in the presence of these masters. I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to adventure and to learning and studying. Through my writing and public speaking, I wanted to pass the valuable lessons I learned on to others.
But to do that, I would need money. And the only way I could think of to get money was to sell my books and magazine articles.
The next thing I knew, I found myself sitting in an office I had set up in Starbucks of all places, in Hong Kong. I had my computer and my cell phone, a Mocha Frapuccino and my Lone Ranger screen saver. I spent all day sending email or calling people on the phone asking them to buy my books and magazine articles.
One day, in the midst of a heavy negotiation with a publisher, I burst out laughing as it suddenly hit me. I had traveled half way around the world only to wind up back where I started! I was a salesman again, doing exactly what I had done on Wall Street. But the monks had taught me that this, too, was OK. I am a salesman, and that is who I am.
If I had just listened to my grandma all those years ago at the Feast of Santo Antonio, I could have saved myself a lot of miles and a lot of heartache. She had told me, “Anthony, no matter where you go or what you do, no matter how far you ride on any horse, you will always be you. You are wonderful, and I love you just the way you are.”
Then she smiled and she said, “but if it makes you happy to dream you are the Lone Ranger, then you do it.” I guess my grandma would be happy because sometimes, if the work gets too monotonous, I step away from my desk, put on the cowboy hat, the boots, the two pistols, and nothing else.
My grandma also told me, “don’t ever stop dreaming, for the rest of your life.” Those words reminded me of stories the monks had told me. My grandmother somehow already knew the lessons that the Shaolin monks had taught me so well. Sometimes, I believe I will wake up from this crazy dream and discover that I really am just a little boy sleeping in her arms on the subway, dreaming that I am this man. And the monks would tell me, I am truly both. It is just another form of the same person.
The one lesson that I wish to give is this: You are who you are, and that is OK. Whether you are a man or a woman, rich or poor, fat or skinny, old or young, you are fine just the way you are. It doesn’t matter if you are Black, White, Asian, Latino, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or whatever else. It is our differences that make us special. Celebrate your uniqueness! Yet allow others their uniqueness, too.
And if you make a conscious choice to change jobs, start a business, earn more money, lose weight, finish a degree, or achieve any goal or dream you have, just do it. If you believe it will serve you, go ahead and do it. But don’t ever let anyone bully you into feeling bad about who you are. You are who you are supposed to be.
Like my grandma and the Shaolin masters, I now know that you are beautiful just the way you are.