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Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

The Memory: An Essay On the Buddhist Theory of Rebirth

The following is an essay I wrote in 1996 about a past life memory I had.  Readers should note that my reference to the Buddha’s fire metaphor is in error; while the Buddha often used the concepts of fire and fuel to illustrate psychological points, he in fact never asked a question such as I pose.  Guess I’ve learned a few things since ’96…

Scratch, scratch.  The metal rake made a quick, even sound across the ground and buried itself in the leaves, pushing them along like a crowd of reluctant children.  My hands, gripping the wooden handle of the rake, swept back and forth while my bare feet plodded after the slowly gathering pile of fallen leaves and twigs. 

This incessant removal of jungle debris is an integral part of forest monks’ lives in South and Southeast Asia, mirroring on the outside what their meditations should accomplish within.  Some monks, either for exercise or lack of anything better to do, seem almost to spend the whole morning whooshing a rake around the forest.  One wonders what they’d do if the leaves stopped dropping.

It’s a job with more than a small touch of danger though.  Sharp eyes can save your life, since small cobras and other still more venomous species often curl up under the leaves, some of which are a foot and a half wide.  Scorpions, though less common, can also be a hazard; hence many monks wear sandals.  I, however, did not.

The year was 1994, and the place was Sri Lanka, the little island that hangs like a teardrop off the tip of India.  Looking back, I’d say it was the hardest, loneliest year of my life, something I should definitely have avoided.  I went there at the urging of a friend of mine, a German fellow who was a monk, and who encouraged me to become the same.  I had already been four and a half years in Asia, ostensibly to study Buddhism and get enlightened, but perhaps also because I’d not figured out anything else to do with myself.  While not spiritually mature enough to grapple with the responsibilities and implications of monkhood—should I choose to follow that course—neither was I inclined to be responsible in the way the world demanded.  In the end I chose monkhood as the lesser of two evils, and went to Sri Lanka.  About four months later I was ordained and given the Buddhist name of Sudanta. 

It was a thoroughly hermitic life.  Each monk had a small cement cottage, called a kuti, some roofed with red tiles, others with asbestos sheeting (courtesy of generous American companies who simply wanted a market, no questions asked), a dirt yard, and a cement basin for bathing that was usually in some stage of algae overgrowth.  Surrounding us all was the jungle, a high, nearly impenetrable, wet green mass that housed a remarkable showcase of wildlife.  In my time there I saw dozens of cobras (occasionally on my front door step), as well as a snake known to locals as the Thirteen Steps To Death (why thirteen I never learned), apparently so venomous that if bitten you might have time for last rites, but little else.  There were enormous, fluorescent-orange frogs that could hurtle two or three meters in the bat of an eye, scorpions, meter-long worms, lumbering lizards that looked for all the world like miniature Komodo dragons, softly hooting owls, and hordes of raucous monkeys.  These last provided the most entertainment as well as annoyance, and served also to keep you on your toes, constantly on watch for their thievery, and provided a litmus test to see just how patient and calm your meditation practice had really made you.  I tended not to be very patient—one of the possible reasons for the eventual failure of my monastic career—and had a number of run-ins with them, some humorous, others frightening.

Asia taught me a lot about the world, and about myself.  The insights tended not to be flattering, and I have since realized the depth of maturity required to be fully open to and aware of oneself, to take oneself to task, and to train mind and body—but especially mind—towards a definite end.

In the course of that training many things rear up their heads—sometimes beautiful things, sometimes ugly things, sometimes strange things, things you read or hear about but still only half believe.  When I first came to Asia I was most drawn to Zen Buddhism—my destination had been Japan—and while an enthusiast of Buddhist teachings, I felt little conviction for some of its more metaphysical claims.  Books by D. T. Suzuki, Zen’s leading promoter, don’t say much about reincarnation, or “rebirth” as Buddhists call it, nor about any other paranormal phenomena, though they are acknowledged to exist.  But they talk lots about satori, the enlightenment experience, and that’s what I liked about Zen.  I liked its straightforwardness, its lack of concern for ritual and speculation and other matters that don’t bear directly on the real work, which for me at that time was meditation.

But life in Asia has a tendency to poke and push at the bounds of personal beliefs and assumptions, of working its way under the skin, and you find yourself subjected to a seemingly inexorable process of enculturation by forced osmosis, like being in a pressure cooker and having the steam of new ideas injected into you.  Just breathing the air and eating the food, knowing they’re not your native fare, is bound to exert an effect on all but the most hidebound travelers.

That’s how it was with me and the worldview of the country in which I dwelt.  It was a vision of reality that postulated numberless beings, most invisible, and multiple planes of existence, some utter bliss, and others more hellish than the snapping of your own bones.  And the machine of this alien worldview, its raison d’être, was rebirth.

From the Hindu point of view, this process is easy to explain and understand.  It is based on a belief in an infinite number of souls in an infinite universe, each soul migrating to a higher or lower state of existence at death depending upon the thoughts, words, and deeds it committed throughout life.  A person ordinarily angry, short-tempered and inclined to violence will accordingly be reborn in a place and form that reflects agitation and violence.  A generous and loving person will take life again in a harmonious and safe environment with all of his or her needs met.  It is the force of mental states and behaviors that create the new body.  From the Hindu perspective, a soul goes from life to life as easily as changing clothes.

Contrary to popular conceptions though, there is really nothing of fatalism in this, for thoughts and actions are for the individual’s choosing, and the more choice is exercised, the more freedom is gained.  Every thought and action is a cause, and every resulting mental state and situation is an effect, and effects are the seedbeds of potential causes, and so on and so on, ad infinitum.  As all beings desire happiness and the free exercise of their power to bring happiness, so each thought, word and deed carries with it the responsibility to choose happiness, good will, love and regard for life.

Buddhism says as much when it comes to self-responsibility, but there is a difference concerning what Buddhism says is actually reborn.  The difference between Buddhism and Hinduism here is subtle but immensely significant, and upon this difference hangs what, in essence, makes Buddhism and Hinduism two very different religions. 

As Hindus see it, the basis of spiritual existence is the soul, or atman.  But in Buddhism there is the central doctrine of anatman, meaning “no-self,” or “no-soul,” and this must stand as the single most radical teaching of the Buddha, and one of the most difficult concepts in all of religious thought.  Whereas all religions assume the existence of some sort of spiritual self-essence that is the basis of personal existence, the teaching of anatman is an explicit denial of any permanent substance, being or essence that could constitute an individual.  Individuality itself, the life of the ego, is relegated to the dust heap as a psychological fantasy or delusion.  The two obvious questions that arise then—and they are so nearly the same that a single answer will suffice for both—is: What, then, is a person, and what is reborn?

The Buddha himself, when answering this question, supplied an analogy to help people conceptualize what he had in mind.  He compared the “person” (and this term is used only nominally, for there is, according to this way of thinking, actually no person as a real, self-existent thing) to a fire that is lit upon a pile of wood or grass and is allowed to burn until, just as it dies from lack of fuel, is transferred as a single hot coal to another pile of dry grass or wood.  There a second fire soon blazes hotly, but it too eventually dies.  This process is repeated again and again.  The Buddha’s question to his audience was: “Is the second or third or fourth fire the same as or different from the first?”  This query of course draws to the fore the issue of identity; specifically, is there any permanent identity or merely a constantly changing process?  Obviously, neither “yes” nor “no” is an adequate answer, simply because fire neither has nor connotes any notion of identity or individuality.  Another such simile, my own, also illustrates this point. 

Ocean waves often travel great distances.  Suppose a swell began on the coast of Africa, and then traveled some three thousand miles to crash on a beach of the eastern United States.  The question would be: Is the wave that gently lifted a fishing boat in the waters off Liberia the same wave that crashed over the walls of some kid’s sand castle on the beach at Cape Hatteras?  The answer is yes—we can track large waves as they pass over the water and so identify them individually—but also no, because the water that was under the fishing boat never made it to America.  It is still sitting off Africa.  This is because the water of a wave does not move with the wave.

Yet Hinduism asserts that it is the same soul which is born now here as a beggar, then there as a monarch.  Buddhism claims that there are only causes and effects, and that these merely follow their own, impersonal order.  The body that arises is just the effect of past thoughts—it is the water of the wave and wave’s shape—but the thoughts themselves, the intentions and choices, are the force that creates body after body, just as energy is transferred through water, creating wave after wave.  As a wave is in fact simply energy moving through water, so the thinker is the thought.  But thought itself is empty of self, soul, or substance.

I was five years in Asia before I really understood the mechanics of rebirth and accepted its implications.  For a long time I was very much the doubting Thomas.  I remember one hermitage I stayed at in Sri Lanka where the abbot said something about talking to devas—the angelic, higher spirits of Buddhism—and my friend and I had a great laugh over the remark.  (“And can they help us get a year long visa?”)  But Asia worked its slow, patient magic over me, and in the course of time I, too, became a believer.

The psychological aspects of the Buddhist theory of rebirth, what it says concerning the nature of thought and its effects, mentally and physically, can actually be seen very clearly in the course of meditation practice.  The vanishing away of the self, and the bare awareness of impersonal thoughts coming and going in a mechanical flurry, each fast on the heels of the other, are experiences that can be had by most anyone with sufficient dedication and perseverance.  They are not the results of any dogmatic belief or self-hypnosis, but of training the faculties of concentration and awareness, plain and simple.

The implications of this radical psychology for a reality paradigm, however, are harder to demonstrate, and one ordinarily has to be willing to read the appropriate books and listen to a lot of personal stories.  These stories can be heard, certainly, if one opens the ears a bit.  Just talk to people.  Relish their tales, take them seriously, and they’ll tell you all the most unbelievable things.  Unbelievable if they came from only one or two sources, yes, but after finding that every Tom, Dick and Harry has a ghost story, your doubts start to become dogma and you no longer feel on the side of the winning team.  I’ve talked to engineers, peasants, Cambridge educated geniuses and Berkeley professors, and every one of them can tell you something that standard science and philosophy texts dismiss as impossible superstition.  In the end, I was compelled to throw out my prejudices and seriously consider the possibility that the “supernatural” is, in fact, quite natural.  It is only the narrow, artificial worldview of orthodox materialism that declares such things impossible.  “He who has eyes, let him see.”

Needless to say, I was not thinking of any of these things that morning while I raked the leaves.  It was in all respects the ordinary morning of an ordinary day.  I certainly was not “on the blink,” “under the influence,” or otherwise affected in any way.  I was not in a trance.  I had not recently experienced any “altered state of consciousness.”  In fact, my meditation was pretty low-grade and unrewarding that whole year, another reason for my eventual abandonment of monk’s life. 

But on that morning sometime in mid ‘94 something happened.  My restless rake gathered the leaves, it’s every swipe propelling the pile towards a ditch at the end of the mossy yard.  I turned briefly, standing under the eaves of the kuti, removing leaves from the base of the house.  Then, very clearly, I remembered.

It’s easy to tell a thought from a memory.  You know “I am thinking” and you know “I am remembering.”  Unless you are sick, senile, on drugs, or somehow impaired, the difference is plain.  That being so, there is no question in my mind that what occurred that instant was no thought that I had constructed, even unconsciously.  It was a memory—vivid, definite and, for an instant, totally possessing me.

If one considers for a moment, it is plain that a memory is composed of two parts.  There is the image one sees, which can be clear or faint, and there is the information packet that accompanies and informs the image.  This can be sketchy or detailed.  The info-pack isn’t so much the image’s soundtrack as its introduction or header, somewhat like the big, white, supine script that heads Star Wars, filling you in on the Death Star, the Empire and Princess Leia’s mission.  It lets you know where you were, and what the situation and time were.  The only difference from the Star Wars header is that this information occurs simultaneously with the image.  The image and the information packet together constitute a memory—they are the memory—and their vividness and detail determine how “good” the memory is. 

In the moment I remembered, a certain knowledge of what I had been and done a very long time ago came to me.  What I saw was a low, rounded hill rearing up over an empty field of tall, waving grass.  There were few trees in the picture, and the hill was alone, a solitary formation not connected with any other.  The day was bright and the sky blue with only a few clouds.  I vaguely recall my outstretched right hand in front of me, waving or gesturing, perhaps as I talked, probably to point out some significant characteristic of the view.

That much, coming to me so vividly as a memory, would have been strange enough in any case, as I cannot now recall any such scene in this life.  But it was the information packet that froze me in place and halted the scratch-scratch of the rake.  Just as I saw the hill and my hand waving as if in explanation, I knew the place was somewhere in Europe—probably Britain—in the Middle Ages.  I was a military architect, searching with two or three others for an appropriate site for a fortress or castle.  The knowledge was there, immediate, certain, without any fuzziness or effort at recall.  If I remembered now this morning’s conversation with my roommate, it could not be clearer.  I knew it was I who stood there; I knew why I was there and what my role was; I knew I was accompanied by several others; I knew it was long ago and not this life.  I saw and knew all this in the course of two or three seconds.  Then the memory was gone and I was standing in the mid-morning tropical sun with the rake clenched in my now unmoving hands.

 My reaction was stunned amazement first, then excitement and a degree of elation.  I searched my mind for the memory, for some shred connecting it to something, anything, else.  I could see the picture in my mind and I could recount what it had told me, but that was the memory of a memory, not a living thing.  Whatever door that little sliver of my past had escaped from was now closed tight.

There was not then and nor is there now any doubt in my mind as to what happened that morning, for my memory of a past life as a “military architect”—and those were exactly the words that came to me in the information packet—has a curious fit with certain personal characteristics I have displayed in this life.  When I was in junior high school I had an intense fascination for medieval European castles—especially British—and often spent hours in the local library or bookstore poring over books on the subject.  Diagrams and layouts especially captivated me, and I often drew my own. 

If this “memory” was an authentic recall of a moment in some previous existence, it certainly seems reasonable that strongly held traits both physical and mental would carry over.  The profession of choice in a prior life might become an absorbing hobby or intellectual pursuit in this life, or vice versa.  As the particular character and physique of a person is entirely dependent upon what the person has thought and done previously, and like causes always give rise to like effects, we can always expect a relation of the past to the present.

My experience, though, does not constitute proof of past lives in any scientific sense.  It was entirely private and cannot be substantiated in any way.  Anyone reading this account could dismiss it as a daydream, hallucination, or just say I got carried away with myself.  I would admit such possibilities as a matter of course, though there was nothing else that morning to indicate an abnormality within myself, and the singular nature of the experience marks it off from any other I have ever had.

Furthermore, as I said above, if you run into only one or two exceptions to the rules of your reality, that is nothing to be alarmed over.  But when similarly odd cases crop up en masse, a second look is usually justified.  With this in mind it should be said that past life memories—or, more exactly, memories that have no context at all in the present life—are with surprising frequency regurgitated under hypnosis when the subject is regressed to a time before he or she was born.  There are clinical records of this, and in a few exceptional cases there has been confirmation of the information thus divulged, information the subject had no way of knowing based on experience and knowledge gained during his or her present life.  While I have not done extensive research of past life memory cases, I have read enough to know there is a sufficient number of well-documented cases to set the materialist “you’re dead and that’s it” school of thought on very shaky ground.  Liars and hoaxers abound, no doubt, but I have substantiated so many “paranormal” phenomena—including incidents relating to past lives—with personal accounts from people I’ve met and known, some intimately, that I no longer have any doubt about their existence.

(For example, I once met a Sri Lankan monk to whose native village there came a Czech man whose young son frequently referred to experiences in a life he claimed to have known before.  He even provided his name and birthplace—the monk’s home village.  It turned out that a boy from that village bearing that name had died in a traffic accident roughly a year before the Czech boy’s birth, i.e., at about the time of his conception.  Materialists, presented with such a case, would have no recourse other than to dismiss it as coincidence or fraud.  But in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country where rebirth is accepted as a matter of course, the boy was considered to be the reincarnation of the dead village boy.  This is only one of a number of cases I heard, all from reliable sources.)

This being the case—not just for myself but for millions of others as well—one has to wonder why so many people of the scientific and academic communities unhesitatingly dismiss such phenomena as superstition and fraud.  It seems to me that many people who ostensibly spend their lives in pursuit of a truer understanding of the universe are in fact running away from it.  I would guess this is because the scientific community, to whom we look—almost as high priests—to tell us what is real, what our world is about, and what we should be doing with ourselves, is like any other clique beholden to an ideology—they cannot stand to see their beliefs die.  It is much easier to decorate the interior of a house than to blow it up and start over again.

I think also the complacency, or outright hostility, with which orthodox materialists view the paranormal, is that they do not really understand the nature of scientific thought.  A scientific theory is not a set of facts.  It is a picture of the world built up on the basis of observations, observations made using equipment of inherently limited capacity, and interpreted by ordinary people filled will innumerable theoretical and personal biases and presumptions.  As new observations are made, the picture must invariably change and be refined, sometimes drastically.  Discrepancies have to be dealt with, else the picture becomes irrelevant and the people who adhere to it self-deceiving.

Moreover, the true vulnerability and fragility of any theory must be recognized.  It has been observed by the physicist Gerhard Robbins that

…strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven.  It can only be disproven.  When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong—not that we are able to show, beyond doubt, that the theory is right.

A scientific theory may stand for years, even centuries, and it may accumulate hundreds of bits of corroborating evidence to support it.  Yet a theory is always vulnerable, and a single conflicting finding is all that is required to throw the hypothesis into disarray, and call for a new theory.  One can never know when such conflicting evidence will arise.  Perhaps it will happen tomorrow, perhaps never.  But the history of science is strewn with the ruins of mighty edifices toppled by an accident, or a triviality.

Therefore, any evidence whose source is legitimate and which calls into question the prevailing theoretical view is evidence that must be considered.  As I said above, one merely has to talk to people and the stories of paranormal phenomena—the conflicting evidence—pour out of the woodwork.  Not everyone with such a story could be a nutcase, hallucinating, or a liar.  I’ve met too many intelligent, often highly educated people of respectable character who believe in such things because of personal experiences.  Superstitions are innumerable, and so are the people who quite happily use them to exploit the gullible.  The New Age movement is fraught with such chicanery.  But just because Zeus does not hold court on Mr. Olympus and a black cat never did anyone harm besides a bite or scratch, does not mean that all things found outside a test tube or equation are the creations of immature or demented minds.

My feeling is that any scientist worth the name will consider any evidence that contradicts his own views.  As his goal should be a deeper and more accurate understanding of things as they are, the unknown, the puzzling, the challenging and disturbing should be welcome entities in his world.  Any person of open mind should be ready to consider the possibility that he is wrong, and to learn from what he cannot, initially, understand.  To not do so is to freeze our perspective into a dogma and become as inflexible and irreverent of experience as those who condemn many of the most basic and well substantiated scientific theories today.  Though they hold to different “truths,” there is no real difference between a dogmatic materialist and a religious fundamentalist who rigidly adheres to Genesis.  Neither is able to grow into a larger perspective because neither is willing to embrace the unknown that lies outside his established frame of thought.  Only when we are philosophers in the true sense—lovers of truth—will we value the general human experience more than our own small points of view.

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2 thoughts on “The Memory: An Essay On the Buddhist Theory of Rebirth

  1. Pingback: The ontology of rebirth, or, Does it make sense to be a bodhisattva? | Bodhisattva Road

  2. Pingback: The ontology of rebirth, or, Does it make sense to be a bodhisattva? | Buddhist Books Blog

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