This topic, first raised in Threads from the Whole, is one that really deserves more than a blog post or essay. A book would do it more justice, and indeed there is a wealth of material out there addressing the topic of rebirth, from a therapeutic standpoint, from the search for objective evidence, to numerous testimonies. Yet it remains, as stated at the Buddhist Geeks site ‘a potentially divisive topic‘ in the modern Buddhist scene. That there is so much doubt within the western dharma community on one of the core aspects of Buddhism and its teachings speaks loudly of the issues and problems still plaguing its transition and integration into the west. That so few western practitioners have come forward with any overt testimony of experience of past life impressions also speaks loudly. It’s not like there are hordes of eastern practitioners coming forward with experiential testimony either, yet as has been noted by many modern Buddhist figures there is often a cultural taboo associated with making overt claims to any accomplishment. Understandable, in the sense that it smacks of one blowing ones own horn, a seemingly unenlightened activity.
Yet, Buddhist writings of every stripe throughout the ages have never felt compelled at all to question the apparent fact of rebirth. Indeed, the entire apparatus of Tibetan Buddhism and its teachings rests on rebirth and reincarnation as being a fact in this relative reality of existence. I am sympathetic in this regard to the thoughts of David Chapman, in the Buddhist Geeks podcasts looking at Consensus Buddhism, where he bravely challenges the new consensus Buddhism in the west as being way too narrow to allow new forms to grow. Though I would rather emphasise the proper flourishing of its wider, inclusive meaning and truth. To outright deny the possibility of an experiential reality to rebirth throws the whole engine that drives the Tibetan enlightenment machine on the rubbish heap, as if it hasn’t suffered enough blows already.
More than this, it also eviscerates the deeper, experiential meaning and implications that the notion of Karma suggests. Some may argue quite convincingly to the contrary, such as the view espoused and put forward by Stephen Batchelor. In a reality that is only material, ones actions and decisions still have an impact on the world around them, and beneficial actions are therefore better. Or, as is described in A Difficult Pill, to suspect that ‘the Buddha taught on rebirth only because it was a commonly accepted idea in India at that time’. As uncomfortable as I am with the ‘slippery slope’ kind of argument, within the limited scope of a blog post, what I will say to this is that such views introduce the kind of relativism of modern rational thinking that can easily be extended to every aspect and teaching of the dharma, making it no better or any more insightful and effective than having a reasoned moral sense. That practices such as meditation are simply a way to keep the physical-chemical body-mind from being ‘unbalanced’, free from stresses, or straying into extremes of emotion. Enlightenment is nothing more than being a perfectly controlled and reasoned moral thinking animal.
Even for those who don’t subscribe to an exclusively materialist view, and entertain notions of a wider consciousness beyond our sensory reality, it is still explored and considered almost exclusively from a perspective that places our physical, individual ‘reality’ front and centre. There is either us here, as thinking animals in the material world, or there’s the emptiness of non-self that realisation confers, with nothing else in between, except perhaps a kind of material phenomenal void such that physics and quantum mechanics allows. Again, placing what can be reported by our physical-sensory outward investigation of nature, and its extensions that technology and its instruments allow, as the axis upon which everything else must turn around.
Herein lies the hidden mental conceit. In the west, we have a huge problem with separating our thinking from the experience of awareness, and the infinite possibilities that may arise from it. We think of awareness and by extension consciousness, mostly unwittingly, almost always in relation to our thinking. Even those of us who are willing to accept the possibility of rebirth, the possibility of Freedom in all the ways it has been described by the Buddha and the various traditions that have grown around his legacy. Even for those who intuit that there’s more to awareness and consciousness than what we think.
Yet this discovery, as so elegantly described by Jon Kabat-Zinn; an ‘orthogonal rotation’ of our standpoint in the brilliant Sounds True podcast: The Mindfulness Revolution, describes the core experiential hook that has the potential to open up whole new vistas of experience and discovery in the deeper depths of our consciousness and its relationship to our world. It is of a kind that is beyond the scope that ordinary mental consciousness, our thinking mind, can see or even allow on its own. One of the biggest problems is just how pervasive the thinking mind has become in its dominion of our every day life. The only reality it will acknowledge is its own (being as it is, the little ego), and it too has come, over time, to infiltrate every corner of our lives with its perspective, whether we have wanted it to or not. It is one of the unintended effects of our continued advance and material progress. It has quite literally altered our perceptual aperture, and therefore the apparent nature of the world.
We no longer understand why the records of the past, including Buddhist writings, are full of references to vast cosmic realities, teaming with other-worldly beings, higher realms populated with bodhisattvas and the gods, and their living presence witnessing the events that unfold in the numerous teachings and sutras, let alone rebirth. We consign it merely to myth and legend, or at best symbolic metaphor, simply the product of uninformed and naive minds, while at the same time revering the very teachings they reveal. We have tried our best to shoehorn the teachings into our current notions of reason, noting how Buddhism adapts to the cultures it has spread to over time, as if reason as we currently understand and employ it, is the ultimate measure of legitimacy. What then of experience? What then of the inner knowing that arises in an awareness that has been cultivated through diligent practice, quite apart from any thinking framework (itself a product of our consciousness) as the Buddha has very often referred to? What then of the writings and records left to us by countless revered masters and visionaries for centuries in every Buddhist tradition, and other traditions besides, who have never felt the need to deny rebirth or other core aspects of the buddhist cosmology in general? Are they merely having us on? Some inscrutable joke for those really in the know? Do we, with our modern thinking perspective, really know better?
Here then, we must first turn to testimony. If one is unwilling to accept the testimony of the Buddha himself, since it happened a long time ago and could very well be rationalised as symbolic, or mythological, or other various ways according to our modern thinking, we should try to find a modern and legitimate source to reference. In Threads from the Whole, I mentioned the interview with Adyashanti at Sounds True, and I have since read it. For those who may not know, Adyashanti is a very highly regarded Non-Dual teacher, and a living modern western example of deep Realisation, who trained with a Zen teacher for many years, but later stepped out of exclusive association with any particular tradition. In the interview, Adyashanti describes his experience of past life impressions arising in a similar way as they did for the Buddha, at the pointy end of Realisation, in a vast and infinite state of consciousness, the point at which the true emancipation and freedom from all conditioning is about to come to fruition:
“For the most part, what I saw was anything that was unresolved about the dream of “me” in a particular lifetime. There were certain confusions, fears, hesitations, and doubts that were unresolved in particular lifetimes. In certain lifetimes, what was unresolved was a feeling of confusion about what happened at the time of death. In one lifetime, I drowned and did not know what was happening, and there was tremendous terror and confusion as the body disappeared into the water.
Seeing this lifetime and the confusion at the moment of death, I immediately knew what I had to do. I had to rectify the confusion and explain to the dream of me that I died, that I fell off a boat and drowned. When I did this, all of a sudden the confusion from that lifetime popped like a bubble, and there was a tremendous sense of freedom. Many past-life dreams appeared and each one of them seemed to focus on something that had been in conflict, something that was unresolved from a different incarnation. I went through each one of them and unhooked the confusion.”
If you are truly interested, I highly recommend you read the whole interview, it is fascinating, insightful, and carries with it the feeling and signature of genuine, deeply profound direct experience. What is also important is the context he provides both before and after. Some of which I will include here:
“As you know, I haven’t talked much about this kind of thing. I don’t want to talk to a lot of people about past lives, especially the radical nondualists who say that there is nobody who was born, there is nobody who has past lives, there are no incarnations, and so on. Of course, that is all true; it’s all a dream, even past lives. When I talk about them at all, I talk about them as past dreams. I dreamed I was this person; I dreamed I was that person.
Personally, I’ve never tried to gather experiences of past lives and wrap them all up in some sort of metaphysical understanding. I don’t have a clear understanding about what a past life is, except that it seems clear to me that it also has the nature of a dream; it doesn’t have objective, actual existence. Nonetheless, the experience I had happened. Since it happened, I can’t say it didn’t happen.”
That someone with the depth of experience and realisation Adyashanti clearly demonstrates, must remain somewhat guarded in the face of the consensus conception of things is very telling. Some may argue; but of course, because it is all just ‘dream’ and unreality, there is no self and no world. Though merely saying so, and experiencing what Adyashanti experienced are two very different things. All the many realms of experience may well be a fantastical cosmic dream, but actually realising is entirely different to a rational denial or explanation in a one-eyed dash for the Transcendental. Adopting the view, while it may be a helpful tool for letting go, loosening attachment and reversing our investment with an identity tied up with our life and its things we hold dear, it is on its own very limited and not at all the same, and often gets bandied around in spiritual platitudes. Duncan Barford in his analytical exploration of the rebirth issue in Rebirth from the Cushion alludes to this difference:
“The key word here is ‘realize’ rather than ‘judge’. The realization of a metaphysical proposition… arises not from a truth-judgment, but from fully understanding it and having that understanding reflected in experience. In other words, it becomes a reality.”
However, his conclusions about rebirth do not extend beyond metaphysical conjecture, a product of thinking, there’s little indication of direct experience as such. Though perhaps to some degree, he’s also being guarded in his rational presentation. He allows for the possibility as an implicit metaphysical proposition; it is something that the Buddha taught from the experience of his practice, so there must be a ‘sense’ in which it is true, somewhere, to discover in our practice. While the experience of impermanence and understanding the enduring nature of the unmanifest are indeed: “part of the fundamental nature of reality, and can therefore be realized by us” in resting on metaphysical justification alone, the full scope of possibility in the experience of consciousness as apart from thinking and its rational framework, is somewhat cancelled out. As such, he gives no credit to the possible validity of the evidence that Dr. Charles T. Tart brings to the issue.
We are still here in the world, humanity is still investing itself trenchantly in this material life, the terror of death is very real for most ordinary people (and can be extremely real for the meditator suddenly losing their deepest, inner-most, and largely unseen sense of personal agency at its roots). The testimony, history, record of Buddhist and other cosmologies, abound with evidence, stories and countless apparent examples of rebirth. I am in no way saying that the Non-Dual perspective that is present in Buddhism and spiritual discourse is simply wrong, I refer you again to the quotes and interview with Adyashanti. It is that it’s particularly vulnerable to rational incursion, often unintended or unseen. That, combined with an underlying world denial in spiritual thinking, intentional or not, it plays right into the hands of a closed material and relativist thinking mentality, which wants to dispense with spiritual reality all together. It has already begun. For now it wants to change Buddhist Dharma inside and out, and do away rebirth as merely superstition.
We don’t question that it’s a worthy pursuit in our outward investigation of nature to spend billions of dollars on a massive particle accelerator, and invest huge amounts of human capital to confirm or deny a Higgs-Boson and other fundamental particles so that our theoretical model of the material universe, which has undergone numerous iterations over the last few centuries, works. Yet it doesn’t occur to us to conduct the same kind of directed investigation inwardly. It is our constant habit to think outwardly, that testing the validity of spiritual realities must be confirmed to our sensory-physical mental life, which on its own is a bit like trying to discover the nature of the ocean by turning on our bath tap. It’s possible to learn things but we lack (or have lost) the wider, hidden picture that would make the visible puzzle fall into place. Something a theoretical physicist might find familiar. In this case however, we ourselves must be the lab, we ourselves test the methods of inner inquiry and find appropriate ways, like any good scientific investigator, to direct, modify and refine them, we ourselves look at the models and find where they indicate and suggest the experience lies, and our experiences gathered over time through repeated application, form the body of evidence. For it wont be found in conjecture or speculation, or in thought, but it could well be found hidden in the deeper recesses of our being.