Reincarnation: Considerations and Contemplations
By: J. Marlando
I used to be a real skeptic when it came to the theory of reincarnation and I know there are countless people who are. We need not count those who hold the existential view of being (and then) nothingness.
Reincarnation, however, is by far one of the oldest concepts of life after life on the planet. While it remains controversial if the ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation or not, they certainly believed in the existence of the soul before entering the earthly body. While it is clear that they believed that the soul, after death of the body, continued on to an afterlife. there are also other hints that there was a knowledge and understanding of reincarnation by the Egyptians too. For example, Amonenhat the first’s name meant, “He who repeats birth.” So there is no doubt that the ancient, Egyptian culture comprehended some form of reincarnation but how far back that comprehension goes is anyone’s guess.
What I have personally always found interesting is that even before subjective thinking came about, the Neanderthals seem to have comprehended a spiritual part of existence as some of their apparent rituals reveal. Certainly cave paintings of the Cro-Magnons demonstrate a very ancient spiritual awareness. In so-called civilization, however, it is often said that the Greek mystic and mathematician, Pythagoras, was first to offer the concept of reincarnation; that he claimed to have lived before as a man by the name of Hermotinus who had been burned to death 200 years before his death.
Speaking of ancient Greeks Socrates, a teacher and philosopher of ancient Greek culture taught that true knowledge was not anything passed from one to another but rather eliciting something already known in the consciousness. (This did not include “petty” facts like dates and names but rather universal wisdoms and truths).
Nearly every major religion in the old word believed in reincarnation. Indeed, in the year 101 A.D., the Jewish historian Josephus said this:
All pure and holy spirits live on in heavenly places, and in the course of time they are again sent down to inhabit righteous bodies.
Then the most beloved Jewish writer Sholem Asch (1880-1957) said:
Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of existence. If the lore of the transmigration of souls is true, then these, between their exchange of bodies, must pass through the sea of forgetfulness. According to the Jewish view we make the transition under the over-lordship of the Angel of Forgetfulness. But it sometimes happens that the Angel of Forgetfulness himself forgets to remove from our memories the record of the former world; and then our senses are haunted by fragmentary recollections of another life. They drift like torn clouds above the hills and valleys of the mind, and weave themselves into the incidences of our current existence…
Jumping back into history the great Sufi poet, Rumi, who lived during the 12th century A.D., said, “Like grass I have grown over and over again…”
What surprises a great number of Christians is to learn that the concept had always been part of Christianity’s beliefs up until 543 A.D. when the Byzantine emperor Justinian attacked the concept and finally condemned in 553 A.D. by the second council of Constantinople but Jesus himself had said, before Abraham I was. (Indeed there is some talk among Catholic scholars that officially reincarnation was never actually condemned by the church).
Certainly reincarnation is accepted in Hinduism and it is said that Buddha could recall a great many of his former existences. And, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a detailed description is given of the process of entering the womb.
Historically (and perhaps prehistorically) reincarnation is the most widely known and culturally endorsed belief on the planet. And there are strong signals of its validity. For one example there has been numerous people recalling parts and pieces of having past lives. Stephan Wagner (Abot.com) tells of one of the most fascinating cases. He states: “In 1824, a nine-year-old boy named Katsugoro, the son of a Japanese farmer, told his sister that he believed he had a past life. According to his story, which is one of the earliest cases of past life recall on record, the boy vividly recalled that he had been the son of another farmer in another village and had died from the effects of smallpox in 1810. Katsugoro could remember dozens of specific events about his past life, including details about his family and the village where they lived, even though Katsugoro had never been there. He even remembered the time of his death, his burial and the time he spent before being reborn. The facts he related were subsequently verified by an investigation.”
In regard to the above, most people have heard of the famous previous life recall by Ruth Simons who was hypnotized by her therapist, Morey Bernstein. During a session in 1952 Ruth began speaking in an Irish accent and said that her name was Bridey Murphy who, she said, lived in 19th century Belfast. Historians could not find a record of a Bridey Murphy but while regressed Ruth mention two grocers that she knew in stores she once shopped. Both were verified in a city directly for 1865-1866.
There is also quite a story that occurred in 2009: A boy whose name is James Leininger kept having nightmares about a death of a pilot. Those nightmares began when the lad was but two years old, hardly an age of awareness of war planes. As the boy grew older he talked a lot about a certain Jack Larson along with (a) Natoma and Corsair. As it turned out it was discovered through a dictionary of naval fighting ships that the Natoma Bay had supported an invasion by U.S. marines on Iwo Jima in 1945. James Hudson was on the list of 18 men killed in Natoma.
In regard to these kinds of stories, I have written before about a little Indian girl by the name of Swarmlata who had been born in 1948. At age three she was accompanying her father on a trip when they passed through a town named Katni. She began talking about her house in that village and began naming friends family in her previous life. She even recalled her “other name” as being Pathak. Eventually the story reached Sri H. N. Banerjee of the Department of Parapsychology University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. After extensive research it was agreed that the little girl in her previous life was Biya, the daughter of the Pathak family who had died in 1939.
Known and unknown stories like these evolve all the time. Indeed my wife and I have two of four grandchildren who signal past lives. The oldest has actually pointed out roads he had traveled when, as he said, “I was bigger.” Those roads were easily verified. The other grandson talks of having another mother and dad, brothers and sister and a dog. His story has stayed consistent for years. The questions are, is reincarnation real and if so, how does it occur. We’ll attempt to answer these questions next.
Is Reincarnation Real and, if so, What is it and How Does it Work
I have contemplated these questions for years now. And, I am fully aware that there are many folks who pass off youngsters talking of “other lives” as mere child’s play and accuse people who believe in a hereafter much less reincarnation as simply being afraid of death while others simply pass off such beliefs off as religious hooey.
One thing that does convince a lot of even non-believers is the thousands of near death experiences that individuals have had (as I have had) and report out of body experiences. And yes, I am well aware that there is a stable of scientists and scholars who offer that (1) the NDE is hallucination or (2) the sensation of being out of body is a trick or action of the brain shutting down and nothing more. Incidentally, I doubt if any of them ever had an actual NDE themselves so their opinion is subjective yet forever masked in objectivity).
There seems to be an amount of intellectual snobbery in atheism these days and the belief in anything beyond the reductionist’s view that tells us we are merely the sum total of our parts.
With the above aside, however, I have concluded firm beliefs on the subject based on my own experience, on the countless reports of NDEs, of stories from reincarnated persons and finally my own spiritual beliefs. In regard to all of this it is the Buddhists who have spent generations dwelling on the topics of reincarnation. Most basically it is the Buddhist offering that there is the continuity of mind. Consciousness, incidentally, is a word often used instead of “mind” but both terms imply the same thing in regard to the nature of being.
In regarding consciousness and reincarnation the Dalai Lama explains the process from the Buddhist’s point of view; it can get a little complicated but is well worth reading. He says:
“The basis on which Buddhists accept the concept of rebirth is principally the continuity of consciousness. Take the material world as an example: all the elements in our present universe, even down to the microscopic level, can be traced back, we believe, to an origin, an initial point where all the elements of the material world are condensed in what are technically know as space particles. The particles, in turn, are the state which is the result of the disintegration of a previous universe. So there is a constant cycle, in which the universe resolves and disintegrates, and then comes back into being.
“Now mind is very similar. The fact that we process something called “mind or consciousness” is quite obvious, since our experience testifies to its presence. Then it is also evident, again from our own experience, that what we call mind or consciousness is something which is subject to change when it is exposed to different conditions and circumstances. This shows us its moment to moment nature to susceptibility to change.
“Another fact that is obvious is that gross levels of mind or consciousness are intimately linked with psychological states of the body, and are in fact dependent on them. But there must be some basis, energy or source which allows mind, when interacting with material particles, to be able to produce living, conscious beings.
“Just like the material plane, this too must have its continuum in the past. So if you trace our present mind or consciousness back, then you will find that you are tracing the origin of the continuity of mind, just like the origin of the material universe into an infinite dimension; it is, as you will see, beginning-less.
“Therefore there must be successive rebirths that allow that continuum of mind to be there.
Buddhism believes in universal causation that everything is subject to change, and to causes and conditions. So there is no place given to a divine creator, nor to beings who are self-created, rather everything arise as a consequence of causes and conditions. So mind or consciousness too comes into being as a result of its previous instants.
“When we talk of causes and conditions, there are two principle types: substantial causes, the stuff from which something is produced, and cooperative factors, which contribute toward that causation. In the case of mind and body, although one can affect the other, one cannot become the substance of the other…Mind and matter, although dependent on one another, cannot serve as substantial causes for each other.
“This is the basis on which Buddhism accepts rebirth.”
Where I believe most of us confuse the idea or concept of reincarnation is that we wonder about the self going from one life to the next outside of awareness. That is, if we don’t know who we were in the last world and carry that knowledge with us through all our rebirths then what’s the point?
This is typically a Westerner’s concern but a concern for a few Asians and Orientals also because he or she desires to cling on to the ego-self. In regard to this, years and years ago when I taught a workshop I used to tell the attendees to go one full day nameless and see how nice the world feels. The truth is that our names—John or Jane Doe—symbolize all our experiences good and bad; all our regrets, our joys, our pain, pleasure and of course, our secrets. When we can actually leave our names on the wayside we simply become unencumbered by the past and are able to indulge the present moment or, in other words, the infinite now.
As a quick aside, this reminds me of one of Woody Allen’s famous lines. He said, “My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
It is probably safe to say that we have all had moments when we wish that we could escape ourselves which is what the funny line is talking about in metaphor. The truth of course is that we are not the totality of our experiences we only think that we are. What we actually are is the information gained from those experiences which is manifested in personality. It is, I believe, personality that moves between births; the subtle “I” of us.
I can only offer my conclusions after a long time of contemplation and what I believe that we are in the universe is energy and information. It is that “informed energy” that goes from one life to the next.
In this view, the Dalai Lama also gives us the following observation; an awareness well worth contemplating. He states: “The successive existences in a series of rebirths are not like the pearls in a pearly necklace, held together by a string, the ‘soul’ which passes through all the pearls; rather they are like dice piled one on top of the other. Each is separate but it supports the one above it, with which it is functionally connected. Between the dice there is no identity, but conditionality.”
There are a great many mysteries to existence that we do not, perhaps cannot understand. Yet, there is an arena of many scientists, scholars, would-be intellectuals and intellectuals who simply deny anything spiritual or mystical. For them the existential view is in vogue and, to them, only fools disagree with their dead-world conclusions. They simply cannot see or think past biology and the reductionist’s analysis of reality.
For me, mind permeates all matter and nothing that has lived can ever die at least in the common way of looking at death as finale. I think existence is a continuance of itself and obviously demonstrates spiritual meaningfulness as opposed to the purposeless and meaningless view of material realism and the mechanics of a Newtonian Universe!
This article, however, has not been written to convince anyone of anything but only to offer food for thought and an alternative way of contemplating life itself.
References and suggested further reading
Mishop, Jeffery * Roots of Consciousness * Council Oak
Rinpoche, Sogyal * The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying * Harper Collins
If you enjoyed this article you will probably want to read: Aspects of Reincarnation.