View of an Imaginary City 48: The Stairway to Nowhere at Tanaliska

According to Chogya beliefs, it is possible for individual souls to reincarnate into lives chronologically antecedent to the ones that they have just lived through. This would seem to open the door to a number of potential temporal paradoxes, were it not for the fact that the soul is reborn with the memory of its previous life wiped clean. Thus, one relives the new life in exactly the same way that that particular life has already been lived every other time before. It is notable that Chogyans do not view this state of affairs as limiting one’s free will. This is because one’s own free will will have become that of the new person one now is (This can feel a bit counterintuitive to the uninitiated).

A few esoteric Chogyan sects, however, believe that it is possible to preserve some memory of one’s present life in one’s next reincarnation. Generally, these sects believe that such a feat has never yet been realized, or only very partially. However, once the person (referred to as a Manyabi, or one who is doubly living) is born into this world with a somewhat complete memory of his or her previous life, it is thought that this individual will then be able to begin consciously manipulating the settled historical order of things, reconfiguring the world into a better place. This can be accomplished either by bringing back lost knowledge from the past (if the Manyabi is born into a future era) or (if the Manyabi is born into a past era) by striving to correct or eliminate those things that the Manyabi already knows will have negative consequences on the future. Moreover, the Manyabi’s manifest ability to remember a previous life would encourage others to also devote their lives to preserving their memories for use in their next reincarnation. Thus, in due course, the world would be filled with other Manyabi, and life on Earth would eventually be completely altered, systematically transformed into a living paradise.

The methods by which these “manyabic” sects go about trying to preserve their memories differs from one community of devotees to the other. Some advocate writing down in a notebook every last detail of one’s day at the very same moment that one is living it and then rereading all these minutiae to oneself before going to sleep each night. Others seek to constantly expose themselves to a specific smell or taste. This, it is hoped, will then serve as the catalyst, upon encountering it in the next life, for the reconstruction of an entire edifice of memory. For the monks of the Tanaliska monastery (located on the small island of Tanaliska, just to the west of the larger island of Rateliska in Rejoma Bay), the key to not forgetting the life one is living now after one is reborn into the next one is to attempt to experience every moment as much as possible on two levels of consciousness: On one level, monks will try to engage with and act on their train of thoughts in what one might think of as an “ordinary” mode of consciousness. On a simultaneous second level, however, they will attempt to observe their every thought from an “outsider’s perspective,” as though their conscious thoughts were being “participated in” by another consciousness. This mental state, which is obviously extremely difficult to achieve, is thought to resemble the one that one would experience as a Manyabi.

A key element in the Tanaliska monks’ spiritual practice is the ascension of a structure in the monastery grounds popularly referred to in Sensuka as the “Stairway to Nowhere.” This stone construction is indeed a free-standing staircase. Its steps, while quite wide at the base, get progressively narrower as they go up. The last step, which faces onto a twenty-five-metre drop, is barely wider than a thumbnail. Once every week, each monk in turn will walk up the staircase, mounting as many of the steps as their confidence in their sense of balance or lack of attachment to their material self-preservation will allow, before making the decision to turn back. While making the climb, monks are at all times in a mode of extreme focus both on the present moment (maintaining their balance) and on weighing what to do next (whether or not to risk each additional, progressively more precarious step). In this manner they experience—if only temporarily—the mode of double consciousness which is their constant objective.

The stairway at Tanaliska is very famous in Sensuka. One often hears it evoked in conversation as a metaphor for a multitude of things, including life itself. As the monks are fond of saying, however, the stairway should by no means be thought of as leading to nowhere: Its ascension will, at the very least, lead to a better understanding of one’s own present limits. In the most extreme eventuality, it will precipitate one’s reincarnation into a new existence. And if one should happen to pass from this life into another in such a state of heightened awareness as is experienced just before falling off the staircase, how much greater are the chances that one’s soul will awaken into its new existence with its former consciousness still intact. In that moment, one will enter the state of grace of the Manyabi, in which an entire lifetime of experience meets the infinite possibility of a life only just begun.

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