Bridging life to life
In many countries and in many cultures people believe in rebirth: that our present life is one in a series oflives. Although our present existence seems so real and so sure, it doesn’t last forever. Our lives come to an end. Death, however, doesn’t signify the end of our existence. It marks a transition in which our minds leave our present bodies and are reborn in others.
Some things, such as flowers and mountains, can be known directly through our senses: we see, hear, smell, taste and touch them. To know other things, we use logic. For example, we can’t see the fue in a distant place, but we infer its existence because we see the smoke. To know many things, we depend on the testimony of reliable people. For example, we ourselves haven’t done certain scientific experiments, but we accept the conclusions of reliable scientists who have.
The upcoming subjects-rebirth, karma and cyclic existence-can’t be known through our senses. We can’t see someone’s mind leaving one body and entering another. Nor can we see all of the long-term ramifications of a particular action. Our eyes can’t detect all the various life forms in the universe. These subjects must be examined by logic and by hearing the experiences of reliable people. Then we can make our own decision about whether or not they exist.
It takes time to investigate and think about rebirth, cause and effect, and cyclic existence. When we approach these subjects, it’s advisable to temporarily set aside whatever preconceptions we may have about how and why we came into existence. Listen, read and reflect with an open mind. Discuss these topics with others in a spirit of free inquiry that seeks to know the truth. Experiment with the theories of rebirth and karma: provisionally accept them and then see if they can explain things that previously you had no explanation for.
People who remember
Although most of us are unable to remember our previous lives, some people have that ability. To hear about their experiences can help us to understand rebirth.
The Tibetans have a system of searching for, testing, and identifying the reincarnations of realized spiritual masters. I’d like to share with you the stories of how two Tibetan spiritual masters I know personally were identified.
Just after the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the religious and po-liticalleader of Tibet, passed away in 1933, signs indicating the whereabouts of his future incarnation appeared: the head of his lifeless body turned to face northeast, a rare fungus grew on the northeast pillar in the room where his tomb was, and rainbows and auspicious cloud formations appeared on the northeast sky of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa.
The spiritual master who was then the regent of Tibet went to Lhamo Latso, a lake high in the mountains where people often see visions. On the surface of the lake he saw the appearance of the three Tibetan letters A, KA and MA and a landscape. The landscape contained a three-storied monastery with a gold and jade roof on a hill and a road leading to a house with a turquoise-colored tile fringe around the roof. A brown and white dog stood in the courtyard.
Later a search party disguised as merchants on a trading excursion was sent to Amdo in northeastern Tibet. In Tibet travelers often seek food and shelter from the local farmers, and as the party approached a certain farmhouse, a brown dog in the courtyard barked at them. They noticed that the house matched the description of the one the regent saw in the lake, and the location of the village corresponded to the letters which appeared in the lake: it was in Amdo, near Kumbum, and the local monastery was called Karma (KA and MA) Shartsong Hermitage.
When the leader of the party, disguised as a servant, went into the kitchen, a young boy climbed on his lap. The child started to play with the rosary around the leader’s neck and told him he was a teacher from Sera Monastery. The young boy also identified the government official posing as the head merchant and spoke to them in the Lhasa dialect, known by the previous Dalai Lama but not by the young child’s current family or the people of Amdo.
Later he correctly identified a walking stick, ritual implements and the glasses of the previous Dalai Lama, which had been placed among others that were similar to them. In this way, the child came to be recognized as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is the religious and political leader of Tibetans today.
Zopa Rinpoche’s story is also extraordinary. For over twenty years, in a cave in a remote area in Solokumbu, Nepal, the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe diligently pursued his spiritual practice in solitary retreat. The neighboring villagers asked him to help with the education of their children, and he promised that in the future he would build a school for the young monks of the area. However, he continued his solitary practice and passed away in meditation around 1945.
In 1946 a child was born in Thami, a village across the steep river gorge from Lawudo. When the child could barely toddle, he would repeatedly set off in the direction of Lawudo. His sister would have to run after him and bring him home before he got too far or hurt himself on the mountain paths. When he was old enough to speak, he told them, “I am the Lawudo Lama and I want to go to my cave.”
Later, he was recognized as the incarnation of the Lawudo Lama and named Zopa Rinpoche. One of his first deeds as an adult was to set up a monastery school in the Kathmandu Valley principally for the young monks of the Solokumbu area. Despite his busy life with many disciples and frequent trips to Western countries to teach, Zopa Rinpoche still gives the impression of a mountain meditator. “He carries his cave with him as he travels,” we joke, for he sleeps only one hour a night, sitting up at that, and he easily goes in and out of meditation as we talk with him.
Remembering previous lives is not confined to realized spiritual masters. Many ordinary children do as well. Francis Story did extensive research on such cases, and wrote of them in his book Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience.
For example, in 1964, Sunil Dutt of Bareilly, India, at the age of four told his parents that he was Seth Krishna, the owner of a school in Budaun, India. His parents took him there, and he at once recognized the building and knew his way around. He went to the principal’s office and was dismayed to see a stranger there. In fact, the principal Seth Krishna had appointed had been changed. The boy remarked that the sign bearing his name on the facade of the building was no longer there and indicated where it had formerly been.
On going to the Shri Krishna Oil Mill, Sunil called for an old servant by name, recognized Seth Krishna’s elder sister and brou~er-in-Iaw, and also identified Seth Krishna in a group photograph. His meeting with Seth Krishna’s widow was es-pecially poignant. He asked her about a particular religious object belonging to the family and recognized his previous wardrobe.
Many other cases of previous life recall were investigated and the information validated by Francis Story. Dr. Ian Stevenson did the same and wrote of them in his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
Another example was documented in a program by Australian public television entitled “Reincarnation.” Under hypnosis, Helen Pickering, who had never been out of Australia, remembered being Dr. James Burns of Scotland during the early nineteenth century, and she drew a picture of the medical college he had attended.
Later she traveled with the research team and two independent witnesses to the town where she remembered living. In the town records, a Dr. James Burns was mentioned as living there at the time she stated. Helen recognized the place where the pub had been, but commented how different it was now that it had been remodeled.
The researchers blindfolded her and drove to Aberdeen, the city where the medical college was. Once the blindfold was removed and Helen oriented herself, she led them without hesitation directly to the medical college. On the way, she told them where the old Seamen’s Mission had been, and when town records were checked, this was validated.
Upon entering the medical college, she had a very strange feeling-it was clearly an emotional experience. Knowing exactly where she was going, she led the others around the college. At times Helen commented that the structure of the building had been different at the time of Dr. Burns, and when they consulted the local historian, this too was confmned. The historian then asked her questions about the college and its floorplan as it had been nearly a century and a half before, and her answers were consistently correct. The witnesses and the historian, neither of whom believed in rebirth, were astonished and could only explain Helen Pickering’s knowledge by the theory of rebirth.
How does it happen?
How does rebirth happen? What is it that is reborn? To un-derstand this, we must first understand the nature of our body and mind, and what is meant by “life” in a spiritual, not bio-logical, sense.
The term, “our mind,” refers to each of our individual minds. The singular “mind” is used for stylistic purposes. Don’t get confused, for we aren’t parts of one big mind. Each of us has our own mindstream or mental continuum. Although in general “mind;’ “mindstream” and “mental continuum” are used interchangeably, the latter two terms emphasize the continuity of the mind over time.
Each of us has a body and a mind. While these two are together, we say, “I am alive.” When they separate, we call it “death.”
Our body and mind are different entities, each with its own continuum. Our body is material substance, a physical entity composed of atoms and molecules. We can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch it. We can examine sections of it under a microscope and analyze its chemical and electrical functions.
Our mind, however, is quite different. It’s not the physical organ of the brain, but is that part of us that experiences, perceives, recognizes and emotionally reacts to our environment. Thus, “mind” doesn’t refer to the intellect, but to the entire cognitive and experiential aspect of us, our consciousness. As it isn’t composed of physical matter, our mind can’t be measured by scientific instruments. We can’t see, hear, smell, taste or touch our mind. While our body is atomic and physical in nature, the mind is formless and conscious.
In Buddhism, mind is defIned as “mere clarity and awareness.” It is clear in the sense that it reflects or illuminates objects. Objects-red roses, sweet fragrances, sounds and ideascan all arise in the mind. The mind is aware in that it perceives or is involved with these objects. It knows or is aware of the world around and inside of us. The mind is this mere function of clarity and awareness, that which allows for the arisal of objects and is involved with them.
As neither psychology nor science have a concise definition of what mind or consciousness is, and since we tend to think of everything as having a molecular basis, it may seem strange at fIrst to think of our consciousness as a formless entity. But if we sit quietly and let ourselves be aware of the qualities of clarity and awareness, we’ll come to have a new understanding of what our mind is.
While we are alive, our body and mind are conjoined and affect each other. However, they are different entities. When we see a daisy, the neurons in our nervous system react in certain chemical and electrical patterns. However, neither the physical substances nor their chemical and electrical reactions is conscious of the flower. The eye sense organ, the nervous system and the brain are the physical bases allowing the mind to perceive and experience the daisy.
Our love for a dear one is a conscious experience. Although there are chemical and electronic reactions occurring in our nervous system at the time we’re feeling love, the molecules themselves aren’t experiencing that emotion. If love were only chemical functions, then we could create it in a petri dish! Thus, the chemical and electrical reactions aren’t the love, although they may be occurring at the same time the consciousness is experiencing love.
Because the mind and body are separate entities, they each have their own continuum. Because the body is material and physical, its perpetuating cause - the thing that actually transforms into our body - is physical substance. Our body is a result of the sperm and egg of our parents. Similarly, what follows from our present body after death will also be physical in nature: a corpse which decomposes.
Our body functions within the system of cause and effect. Our body as it is today is dependent on the body we had yesterday. Although it’s not made of exactly the same atoms as it was yesterday - our body took in food and eliminated waste - it still is a continuation of yesterday’s body. We can trace the origin of our present body back to the fetus in the womb and eventually to the sperm and egg of our parents. The sperm and egg each have their own continuums, being produced by causes. Science hasn’t identified a first moment of physical matter, and in fact, it’s even questionable if such a first moment exists. Matter and energy change form, yet the total of the two neither decreases nor increases.
As the mind is mere clarity and awareness and not made of atoms, its perpetuating cause is also non-atomic and of the nature of clarity and awareness. Our present mind depends on our mind from yesterday. That depends on the mind of the day before, and so on: in this way we can trace back the continuation of our mind. Because our mind is a continuum that is constantly changing, we can experience new things each moment and we can remember what has happened to us in the past.
At a certain point, we can remember no further. Still, we know that we had consciousness as a baby because we can see that other babies have minds. Our mind when we were a baby was a continuation of our mind when we were a fetus, and so on back to the time of conception, each moment of mind being a result of the previous moment of mind.
At the time of conception, when the mind entered into the union of the sperm and egg, where did it come from? As we have seen, each moment of mind is a continuation of the previous moment. In the same way, the mind that joined with the fertilized egg was also a continuation of a previous moment of mind. It wasn’t produced by the sperm and egg, because mind is a different entity from the material substances which constitute the body.
Buddhists believe that our mind was not created by another being or God, because consciousness cannot be created out of nothing. Furthermore, they say, why would a God create us? Surely there is no reason to create suffering or even create beings who have the potential to degenerate from perfection into suffering. Buddhists believe that if the cause is perfect, its result should also be; so the creation of a perfect God should be perfect. If created beings have the potential to degenerate, then they aren’t perfect.
Because each moment of mind is a product of a previous moment, the only logical cause of the mind at the instant of conception is a previous moment in that same continuum. Thus, our mind existed prior to entering into this particular body. We have had previous lives, when our mind inhabited other bodies.
After death, although the physical matter of the body decays, the mind doesn’t. The continuity of our mindstream takes rebirth in another body. Each moment of consciousness causes the next moment. Thus, because the cause (the moment of consciousness at the time of death) exists, the result (the next moment ofconsciousness) will exist. Our mindstream doesn’t cease when the body ceases to function.
At the time of death our gross sense consciousnesses which enable us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch and our gross mental consciousness that thinks and conceives dissolve into an extremely subtle mental consciousness. This extremely subtle mental consciousness leaves our present body and enters an intermediate state.
The Buddha explained that in the intermediate state we take a subtle body similar to the gross physical one we’ll take in the next rebirth. Within seven weeks all the causes and conditions for the future rebirth come together and we’re reborn in another body. In this new body, all the gross consciousnesses again appear, and we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think about our new environment.
When we’re reborn, our mindstream joins with a new body. That is, we aren’t reborn into a being that is already alive, since living beings already have mindstreams. At the beginning of this lifetime, our mind entered into the fertilized egg in our mother’s womb. It didn’t enter into a month-old baby, for that infant already had a mind.
Each person has a separate mindstream. We’re not fragments of a “universal mind,” because we each have our own experiences. That doesn’t mean we’re isolated and unrelated, for as we progress on the path we’ll come to realize our unity and interdependence. Still, we each have a mindstream that can be traced back infinitely in time.
The very subtle consciousness that goes from one body to the next, from one life to the next, is not a soul. “Soul” implies a fixed, real and independent entity that is the person. The consciousness, however, is dependent and always changing, and thus is referred to as the mindstream.
A stream or river is constantly changing - sometimes it is narrow, other times wide; sometimes it flows peacefully in a broad valley, other times it gushes down over rocks and through gorges. What form the river takes downstream depends on what it was like upstream and on the conditions in the place downstream. In spite of all the changes it goes through, a river for example, the Mississippi - is one continuous thing, having the same name throughout its length.
In the same way, the mind or consciousness continuously changes. Sometimes it is peaceful, other times restless. Sometimes it is in a human body, other times it is in other physical forms. What happens to our mind in one particular life depends on the actions it created and motivated in previous lives. Although our mind is constantly changing, like a river it is regarded as one continuous thing.
When did it all begin? From a Buddhist viewpoint, there is no initial moment of mind. Each moment of our mind arises because there is a cause for it, the previous moment of mind. There was no first moment. No one ever said there had to be a beginning, before which there was no mind. In fact, such a thing would be impossible, for how could a first moment of mind be created without the prior existence of its cause, a previous moment?
The idea of a beginningless regression may be difficult for us to grasp at first, but if we remember the numberline from math class, it’ll be easier. Is there a highest number? Is there an end to the numberline on either the positive or negative side? To whatever we may name as the first or last number, one more can always be added. There is no beginning or end. It is similar with our mental continuum.
In fact, the Buddha said that it was fruitless to try to find a first moment of mind or the origin of our ignorance. We would waste our precious life in useless speculation about something that didn’t exist. It’s more advantageous to deal with our present situation and work to improve it.
Why can’t most of us remember our previous lives? This is because our minds are obscured by ignorance and the imprints of negative actions we created in the past. But it’s not surprising that we can’t remember our previous lives: sometimes we can’t even remember where we put our keys, nor can we remember what we ate for dinner on February 5, 1970. That we can’t remember something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It simply means that our memory is obscured.
People often ask where the “new” mindstreams come from as the population of the world increases. Buddhas and accomplished meditators who have purified their minds and developed single-pointed concentration have told of the existence of other life forms in the cosmos.
When beings living in other universes die, they can be reborn on our earth. After death, we can also be reborn in their worlds. Similarly, the animals around us may be reborn as humans. In this way, our human population on earth can increase.
From a Buddhist viewpoint, plants generally don’t have minds. Although they are biologically alive in that they grow and reproduce, they generally aren’t alive in the sense of having consciousness. While plants may react to their environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have minds, for even iron filings react when a magnet is brought near them. When we’ve cleared the ignorance and obscurations from our mindstreams, then we’ll be able to distinguish directly which forms are sentient and which aren’t.
Trying it on
Although we may not be thoroughly convinced of the existence of past and future lives, we can “try it on” in the sense of examining whether or not rebirth can explain other things that we previously didn’t understand.
Parents often observe that their new-born infants have distinct personalities. One child in the family may be very quiet and content, while another is restless. One child may habitually lose his or her temper, while in the same situation another isn’t irritated.
Why do such personality traits appear even at a very early age? Why are some of our personality traits very strong and ingrained? Certainly environmental and genetic influences are present. From a Buddhist viewpoint, other influences are present as well, for we don’t seem to enter this life as blank slates. We carry with us personality characteristics and habitual behavior patterns from previous lives.
Rebirth could explain why a particular child shows aptitude from a very young age for music or math, for example. If we are familiar with a certain subject or have developed a particular talent well in past lives, then an inclination towards it could easily appear in this life. One woman told me that from a very young age her son was interested in music and knew the names of the composers of certain pieces. No one else in the family had such knowledge or interest in music, and her son’s affinity puzzled her. Perhaps the child was a musician in a previous life.
Many of us have had “deja vu” experiences when we’ve gone to a place for the first time yet strongly feel that we’ve been there before. This could be a subliminal recognition of a place we’ve been to in a previous life.
Also, we’ve probably had the experience of meeting people and feeling very drawn to them for no apparent reason. We instantly feel relaxed and find ourselves discussing personal issues with them. This could point to our having been close friends in previous lives.
Most people need time to think over the various pieces of evidence suggesting the existence of past and future lives. We won’t have a clear understanding of it at first and many questions are likely to arise. We need to learn, reflect upon and discuss the evidence for and against rebirth. For some people, it requires courage to loosen the preconceptions they’ve had since childhood and to investigate rebirth. But this is very worthwhile: through examining issues with a mind open to logic and evidence, our intelligence and understanding will expand.