“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awakened, and there I was myself again. Now I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”
After Dad died, some of his doctors came into the hospice room to offer their condolences. They spoke of his respiratory failure and the anatomical finale of his existence among us on this lovely yet troubled world.
Although intrigued by the medical arts and sciences I'd never studied, I was still confused by where Dad had gone. While his now silent body lay in front of us, still, quiet, in deep repose, his spirit, the flicker of a smile on his lips, the light in his green eyes, the anxious frown on his forehead, were gone.
I knew that Death had come and taken my father away. I couldn't deny that.
No longer would he either encourage or exasperate me, as he'd done, no doubt, always for my benefit, throughout my life. No longer would I hear his voice on the phone, receive his reminders of things I need to do or hug his increasingly frail body when I reached Palm Beach Gardens or he came to visit me somewhere on my family's perpetual perigrinations in this world.
So, I wondered, naturally it seemed to me, where Dad had gone.
After all, it seems unlikely, irrational, childish even, to imagine that such a powerful energy or spirit or soul or life force could simply vanish like the light of a candle.
So I asked his hospice doctor, "If you don't mind, where is my father now?"
She replied without words, only a finger pointing up, at the ceiling, although I think she meant the skies or heaven or the empryean or beyond. "There!", she seemed to be saying, beyond words, beyond description, beyond her medical school education or her years of medical practice had taught her. (I'm not sure that they have a class in medical school on this subject...)
So, when Dad's gentle and kindly Indian internist came by to offer his condolences, I asked him the same question. "Dr. H., where is my father?"
Dr. H. looked at me sceptically and slightly confused, so I quickly added, "I asked Dr. B. the same question."
"What did she say?", he asked.
"I'd rather hear your answer first.", I replied.
"Well, in the Hindu world, we believe that the soul migrates from life to life. In this way, the soul moves from one life to another until it reaches perfection and is released from the constant turning, the wheel of existence. However, it is rare to reach that stage so most people's souls continue to step from bodily form to bodily form constantly trying to improve or purify its essence."
[At least that's what I understood Dr. H. to be saying...]
"Yes", I said, "that is traditional Hindoo orthodoxy, but what do YOU believe?"
"Well, I believe the same, actually. The soul doesn't die in the same sense as the body. As the physicists have taught us, nothing that is created or exists within the material world can ever not exist in the world. It can change form, but it can't simply not exist anymore. That's impossible. Therefore, our soul must still be here, somewhere, moving toward light and liberation."
[Moksha, I believe, is what the traditional Vedantists call it.]
"Can our human souls reincarnate as non-human life?", I asked, as I know that this has been a spiritual and philosophical question for millennia -- although, for me, only in the decades since I began to gaze confusedly up at the stars...
"No", Dr. H. said. "I don't believe a human soul can migrate to a non-human form. That's quite unlikely."
Well, the point of this story isn't to hope that Dr. B. or Dr. H. can answer questions that have weighed on human consciousness since man first discovered fire and sat around it at night wondering about our relationship to the stars. Even non-verbal societies, if such existed early on, tens & tens of thousands of years ago, must have been tempted by the same thoughts. Definitely the Vedic poets, the Greek epic storytellers and Hebrew psalmistists explored such inchoate ideas more than a few thousand years ago.
Nor, do I have an easy answer to the very simple question of 'where is my father' or, my dearly beloved deceased friend and guide, Jerry Sternin (as we attended a lovely life embracing ceremony for him today in Cambridge).
I simply know that neither of these remarkable and beloved men are here any more. Everyone seems to agree on that. Death, that harvester of the living, has come and taken them away, leaving only the emblems and body of their lives for us to muse upon while we remain.
So, it was with a bit astonishment, after we took our lovely 8 year old daughter, Leah Prajna Rose, to a butterfly farm in South Deerfield, MA this morning as she so urgently, in her perpetual childlike wonder, desired, while I wandered amidst this enclosed tropical environment, with thousands of the most beautiful butterflies floating around us of such beguiling colors, patterns and forms, that I, belatedly realized both Dr. B. and Dr. H. may have been wrong.
For I think I recognized my father, a handsome, cream and black Monarch buttefly resting on a sugar cup, while, over there, too, behind a mauve bouginvillea, flittering and floating among the sweet flowers, Jerry. They appeared a bit dazed by their new incarnations, which could explain their inability to fly or, possibly, dance in a straight line.
I guess they were simply getting their beginner's butterfly wings. A bit new to the overall butterfly program.
No doubt, a bit astonished to have taken such a pristine and gentle living form.
At that moment of revelation, I realized: how perfect! What a delightful and enchanting place for a weary human soul to rest for the length of a butterfly's lifetime, in between the arduous transition from one human soul to another.
Or, if they had really perfected their human forms, maybe my father and Jerry rest for eternity, or at least as long as that lasts, in the final chrysalis of a gorgeous, nearly transparent, fragrantly innocent floating butterfly.
There, at peace, in their own refined, modest heaven among us on earth.
I know that Leah thinks it could be true...
Why not us?