Sunday, March 20, 2005


I saw a flag fluttering in the wind on the banks of the river here in Phnom Penh. There were a bunch of flags, actually, all of them representing the various countries of the world, all of them moving swiftly, almost gracefully, with each warm, insistent push of the afternoon breeze.

"It would be a nice to be a flag," I said to my friend.


"I don't know. You'd have a kind of dignity."

"Yes, but you'd be stagnant."

I hadn't thought of that. There is a certain regal grace about flags, I think, but it's true -- for all of their ceremonial exteriors, they can't go anywhere; they can only fly in one place. And without the wind, they droop, looking forlorn and defeated.

Silly, isn't it? Ascribing these human characteristics to something as inherently lifeless as a piece of silk strung up in the sky.


Living in Cambodia, where Buddhism and reincarnation is a matter of course, I can't help but thinking: What if everybody's right? What if we do come back? And who's to say we have to come back as living, breathing, sentient beings? Why couldn't we come back as flags?

Personally, I like the idea of coming back, of returning to life again and again, only in another shape and form, in another era and place. There's a wonderful cosmic and spiritual serenity in that concept.

Of course, the part of my brain that deals in logic (a small part, true, but it's there, it exists) wonders: If reincarnation is true, how could it all have begun, this whole rebirth thing? I mean, people have been living and dying for millenium, and how did this all start? If you believe in evolution (and I do), then how does evolution come into play? How do you logically link the scientific and the spiritual? And what about this idea that if you are a bad person in your former life, you will pay for it in the next life? Rich people here use that as a means to justify their own station, their own greed; the poor are poor because their souls are unworthy, paying in this life for their sins of their previous ones.

I can't reconcile all of this; I don't know, and I will never will. (I hope.)

Makes just as much sense, though, as believing that there is a place somewhere up there that we all go when we die, where everything is goodness and light forever and ever. Not sure that I buy that, either.

No matter.

Maybe there's a heaven, or maybe there isn't. Maybe we come back again, and maybe we don't. There are still those flags, the ones that fly down by the river, and I can go and see them whenever I wish.

All the other questions, the big questions, the life-and-death questions, can wait. I can pause for a few moments in the hot and dusty stillness of a Phnom Penh afternoon, pause and watch the flags do their flag. Watch them flutter in the breeze, before the wind dies down for another day.


Muktuk said...

Being one who dabbles in Buddhism and reincarnation, I can relate to this post. One thing that I thought of when you were talking about the flags being lifeless, is that everything on the planet has a particular energy. Whether it's living or dying. For instance, maybe that flag retains the energy of the ones that made it, picked the colors, hoisted it up there, believe in all it represents. I definitely believe nonliving can attribute living energy by our connection with it.

And, yes, it's very difficult to believe in reincarnation and also be aware of all of the different happenings of life. I'll never forget, once I started learning about it and asked a friend, "But what about all the starving children in third world countries?" He smiled and said, "Well, they shouldn't have been tyrants in their last life!" I started to laugh immediately, but then stopped myself not willing to believe such a horrible thing.

I don't know the answer to the good questions you ask, but in my studies in my spare time if I come up with anything I'll let you know. For me though, it makes sense that "energy is neither created nor destroyed." So I believe it's all circulating.

bethanie_odd said...

I once caught a dharma talk about "the source" that I found interesting. Basically the thought went that there is one energy and we are all parts of it. we=everything. when we die the energy still exists and is transfered into the newness of something else. (along the lines of Jenn's thoughts) the concept of punishment for deeds done in terms of "next life time" karma is not a teaching of Buddha but rather (like all spiritual paths) an add on to make sure us simple unenlightened folk don't go raping and killing each other. The prha said used the analogy of tin recycling. you recycle a can, it comes back still metal but perhaps part of it goes to another can and part goes to ... errr.... what ever else tincans get turned into.

I think that in Thailand, the concept of "next life time" karma is what SOMETIMES creates a general lack of "this life time" ambition.

Good post Scott :)