Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nature of the Reincarnation Conundrum - Part 2

This in turn brings forth yet another consideration of how to measure reincarnation in regards to spiritual maturity. Some in the New Age community refer to individuals as either “old souls” or “new souls,” and give those who are older an exalted status in the hierarchy of spiritual evolution, whether or not they have actually done anything in their current life to earn this regard. They have the potential of greatness because they are an "old soul," which is kind of a circular argument.

A humorous exchange occurred between two individuals at a New Age convention that I attended years ago brings to my mind two opposing ways of looking at this issue. I overheard an older man loudly bragging to a pretty young female student and her witty young companion about his supposed long lineage of life-times, “I have documented over a hundred lifetimes that I had, spanning over three thousand years!” It was almost as if he was saying that he was superior to everyone else due solely to his spiritual longevity and its recollection. His arrogance was readily thwarted by the reply of the young witty companion who completely reversed the situation. He stated that the large number of life times was probably more indicative of a continuous string of mistakes and stubborn ignorance rather than spiritual sagacity, since if he was so enlightened, why was he still being reborn?

Of course the old sage couldn’t answer the question intelligibly, and was humiliated by someone who was obviously not his spiritual equal. The rest of us found this exchange highly amusing, but it highlighted an important point. The question is, how can we objectively determine spiritual maturity if we must also take into account many lifetimes including the present one? Does it not become then simply a matter of subjective belief and possible fancy? Unless a peer group evaluates a person’s claims and forces a certain degree of objective clarity and mental discipline, then anyone could claim nearly anything, no matter how absurd. Since in most cases there is no peer group or authority to judge someone's claims, this is precisely the kind of unbridled ridiculousness that occurs in the greater New Age community.

Then there is the life story of the current Dalai Lama of Tibet who is currently living in exile in India. I became acquainted with this story through the movie Kundrun, (released 1997 - directed by Martin Scorsese) which I also later verified by examining his official written biography. (See his web page located here.) When the previous Dalai Lama died, his attendants began to search the country for his reincarnated self, and after a couple of years they discovered a young boy living in a remote village who seemed to have the memories of the old Dalai Lama. The young lad was tested, and he was able to recognize and pick out personal objects from a collection of real and fake artifacts, choosing only those that had actually belonged to the old Dalai Lama.

I have quoted Wikipedia’s entry for Dalai Lama: “When Tenzin Gyatso [the current Dalai Lama]  was about two years old a search party was sent out to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Among other omens, the head on the embalmed body of the thirteenth Dalai Lama (originally facing south) had mysteriously turned to face the northeast, indicating the direction in which the next Dalai Lama would be found. Shortly afterwards, the Regent Reting Rinpoche had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso indicating Amdo (as the place to search) and a one-story house with distinctive guttering and tiling. After extensive searching, they found that Thondup's house resembled that in Reting's vision. They presented Thondup with various relics and toys - some had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama while others had not. It was reported that Thondup correctly identified all items owned by the previous Dalai Lama, exclaiming ‘That's mine! That's mine!’”

However, even though this young boy seemed to have some of the old Dalai Lama’s memories, he still had to be taught how to read and write, trained in the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, taught the discipline of being a monk and later on, how to be a spiritual leader, not to mention that he also had to grow up and mature to become the great man that he presently became. He couldn’t just use the past memories of the previous Dalai Lama and thereby dispense with any training. So the fact that he was reincarnated didn’t also mean that he had total recall of everything from that past life.

This could be conjectured as a kind of narrative proof of reincarnation as well as its limitations, and it is something that I think about when attempting to dismiss reincarnation out of hand. There have been other anecdotal evidence presented, showing that reincarnation seems to occur, and at least in some rare occasions, could be verified. However, these anecdotal forms of proof would not be acceptable to a thorough and rigorous scientific inquiry; but they could at least demonstrate that the phenomenon of reincarnation in some form was at least possible.

Christians have a more simplistic eschatological doctrine to follow and also one that does not have so many additional considerations and qualifications in order to make it plausible. Christians believe that a person lives only one life, and when it's over they are judged for what they did during that life. Once a person's soul is judged, it is either rewarded with entry into heaven or condemned to the fiery depths of hell until the final judgment. This model is very old and was used by many ancient cultures in the past, such as the ancient Egyptians, who excelled in developing a culture devoted to a life after death.

While I concur that this model is much more efficient, backed by historical antecedents and seemingly plausible, the final judgment and the irrevocable condemnation to hell does not fit well with my spiritual sentiments of justice and redemption, nor does it lend itself to any kind of spiritual evolution. Of course, the final judgment always had an escape clause, which is a certain shady method to get past it. Whether one was an ancient Egyptian or a modern fundamentalist Christian, there was always a way to certain salvation (such as the spells of the Book of the Dead, or being saved by Jesus). I rejected this doctrine as Christian dogma a long time ago, but I also failed to fully embrace reincarnation as an alternative.

The various pros and cons about reincarnation put me into a difficult situation, since as a member of a modern earth-based spiritual movement, the tenet of reincarnation is part of the accepted doctrine. Yet this doctrine is one that I just couldn’t fully accept, since it seemed too implausible and was misused by the ignorant masses to promote all sorts of ridiculous ideas. I admit that I struggled with this problem for quite some time, and I had my own impressions and romantic notions to deal with as well.

As a teenager I had believed that I was once an Atlantean magician and high priest, and even managed to put together a magickal system that I thought was a restoration of that very ancient system of Atlantean magick and occultism. I also had memory fragments of other lives in other times and once thought that these were proof enough for reincarnation. The notion of reincarnation was pleasant to believe in, since the other available perspectives were so forbidding, namely final judgment or oblivion. But as time progressed and I became older and more mature, I began to intensely question these romantic notions and could no longer accept them even as subjective facts, since they defied any real empirical analysis. So I decided to leave these questions for other studies and practices that were more immediate to me and grounded in the present. I felt that there was little point in attempting to answer these questions or to organize my doubts into something of a sensible alternative theory.

Then over a decade ago I was reading the Winter 1997 edition of the Gnosis magazine (See the magazine Gnosis, No. 42, Winter 97 - pp. 28 - 32) and read an article that galvanized my opinions and helped me to materialize my opposition to popular reincarnation. This article not only addressed my doubts, but it also gave me an alternative perspective to explain this phenomenon in a much more plausible and logical manner. The article was entitled “The Case Against Reincarnation” and it was part of the thematic edition on “Death and the Afterlife.” It was written by Joscelyn Godwin who is an obscure writer to many occultists, but whose academic career is highly esteemed. He is reputed to be a gifted musicologist and translator, known for his work on ancient music, antique paganism and occult based music.

However, the article was concerned with translations of materials written by the equally obscure French esotericist René Guénon who, in his metaphysical examination of popular reincarnation, not only determined that it was false, but that it was also logically impossible. He also supplied a number of explanations for other related paranormal phenomena, and I found these to be both compelling and an answer to my many years of searching, not to mention my dissatisfaction with popular reincarnation. I also used the insights that this article presented as a springboard to examine the history of beliefs around reincarnation, including an examination of those beliefs as they are held in the Hindu and Buddhist religions as well as the Greek antecedents, such as metempsychosis.

I discovered some very valuable things in the process and even managed to organize my own thoughts into a theory of death and the afterlife that acts as a counter theory to the popular belief in reincarnation. I also found that the eastern definition of reincarnation, particularly the Buddhist, made more sense to me than what is being followed in western occult groups and the New Age in general.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. I personally believe in some kind of reincarnation. Mostly in some kind of continuity of existence after physical death. My current understanding is that life is like a school where we need to experience things and learn from them. And this continues not in this body only, but in other human bodies, animals, different forms and taking place in different places, at different times, different planets, or even dimensions. But having said that, I realize that this cannot be proved or disproved, and that it could easily be a figment of my imagination. I know that there is some kind of inner voice that tells me that “this feels right”, but then again this could easily be some kind of defense mechanism of my ego. So, I always end up to zero. Then I’m trying to think and conceptualize in different perspectives, like that of the typical atheist scientist who believes, that life is some kind of brain activity together with some other bodily functions, that of a Christian who believes in life in Heaven or Hell after this one, or other philosophers like Krishnamurti or Rand who believe in getting the most out of this, our only one, life. I have tried to do some kind of evaluation out of these different perspectives until I got the idea, what if they are all right? What if we have some kind of inate ability which can control the continuity (or not) of our life/s according to our will, some kind of some spiritual placebo effect? These are wild speculations, I know, but are the result of influence of some ideas of Todd Murphy on neurotheology and darwinian reincarnation and the works of Ian Lawton I do not expect to agree with their points of view (we are all speculating here after all), but at the least they provide some good food for thought.

  2. There's a psychological case that pretty trivially demonstrates that most memories are stored in the brain without any sort of "spiritual backup" that might allow for some sort of full-personality reincarnation. This is the case of the man described in the psychiatric literature as H.M. Back in the early days of brain research, surgeons removed a small structure call the hippocampus from both sides of his brain in an experimental procedure intended to cure his life-threatening epilepsy. The surgery worked, but had a terrible side effect - H.M. lost the ability to form new long-term memories, much like the fictional protagonist of the film Memento.

    It should be clear to anyone who looks at this case that if day-to-day memories were stored in some "spiritual repository," H.M. should still have been able to form new memories after the surgery. It was noted by researchers who interacted with him that he did seem to become more familiar with people and things that he saw every day, but could never explain how or why he found them familiar. It strikes me that this is kind of similar to the Tibetan story of the Dalai Lama, who was able to recognize certain items but nonetheless remembered little of his previous incarnation.