(Dharma Lecture, October 30, 1981, Haein-sa)
For hundreds, even thousands of years, man has been debating the issue of the existence of a spirit. Yet the issue is still unresolved. Many scholars, philosophers and religious people have argued for the existence of a spirit while others have argued against it. And the arguing continues even to this day.
No matter where you look in Buddhist Sutras, whether Theravadin or Mahayanin, you will find the Buddha’s words on the continuing cycle of birth and death, reincarnation. According to this teaching, which is central to Buddhist thought, death as we know it is not the end. One is reborn again in another form according to ones karma.
The question is, how valid is this teaching? In the modern academic community, many are claiming that a spirit which experiences this cycle of birth and rebirth cannot be explained. And even if a spirit could be explained, how could there be such a thing as reincarnation? Additionally, some people argue that the Buddha used this concept of reincarnation as an expedient even though there is no such thing. They consider reincarnation as an educational means to get people to modify their behavior.
On the other hand, science is becoming increasingly interested in the non-material, the world of the psyche. And with developments in this area, more scholars are beginning to believe that there is a spirit, that there is reincarnation, and that the principle of cause-and-effect works on the psychological or spiritual level.
So if there is this cycle of reincarnation, of endless cause-and-effect, how are we supposed to behave in order to be released from the cycle? I’d like to talk about this subject today. Understanding reincarnation is essential to your understanding of Buddhism, and when you come to understand this thoroughly as a follower of the Buddha, you will have the proper attitude in your own personal life, in teaching Buddhism, and in attaining your own enlightenment. Many scholars, scientists and researchers throughout the world today are trying to uncover the mysteries which surround this concept of, or belief in, reincarnation. And they are finding increasing evidence to support this. The method that is gaining the most credence through impartial observation is that of previous life recollection. One of the most interesting discoveries is that of two- or three-year-olds who volunteer information about their former lives. And research into the information given proves them right. Let me give you an example.
About 25 years ago in southern Turkey, there was a child named Ismail. His family ran a butcher shop. One evening, at the age of about a year-and-a-half, Ismail was lying down with his father when he suddenly told his father that he was going to run away. He claimed that his real home was in a neighboring village and that his name was not Ismail.
The child then told his father that he had been the owner of the orchard in that village, but that he had died at the age of 50. His wife couldn’t bear children, so he had remarried, fathered four children, and lived quite well. But one day he had had an argument with a worker in the orchard, and the worker had hit him on the head, killing him. The child said that it happened in the stable, and that when he had screamed, his wife and two of the children came running and the worker killed them, too. The child then said that he had come back to be born in that particular house so that he could go and see the other two remaining children that he missed so much.
The child continued to insist on going to the house with the orchard, but everyone just laughed. And whenever they laughed, he would talk more about his former life. Once his father brought home a watermelon for the family, and he gave the child a big slice, but the child wouldn’t eat it. He said that he wanted to take it to his daughter who used to love watermelon.
Since the village with the orchard was not far away, people from there occasionally came to Ismail’s village. One day the child spotted a man who had come from the village with the orchard and who was seiling ice cream. The child approached the man and identified himself, but the man was at a loss. The child then identified himself further, and said that the man used to sell fruit and vegetables from the orchard. He also said that he had circumcised the man when the man was a child.
Upon investigation, all the facts were proved correct, and rumors began to spread. But Turkey is an Islamic nation, and the idea of reincarnation is rejected. If someone made claims to it, he could be ostracized from the village. So as rumors spread, everyone tried to keep the child quiet. The more they did this, however, the more the child made a fuss.
Finally, when the child was three, they took him to the house with the orchard in the other village. On the way, the child who had never been to the village kept pointing the way and led everyone right up to the orchard. When they got there, the first wife of the deceased was sitting there, astounded at the sight of a child leeding a large group of people to her. The child called her by name, ran up to her and held on to her. He consoled her about having such a hard life, which baffled her even more. Then the child went on to explain that he had been her former husband, that he had been born again in the other village, and that he had come to see her.
Then the child saw the deceased man’s children, and calling them by name, ran to them and hugged them as a parent would. The people then took the child to the stable, and he asked about his favorite horse, a brown one, which was nowhere to be seen. He then inquired about the former workers, one by one and by name, and he described them exactly in terms of age, where they came from, and so forth. Everyone was astonished.
This soon became an international event of sorts, and when the child was six, in the year 1962, a team of scholars, scientists and other experts was formed for an investigation. There were so me Japanese scholars on this team, and there was something which convinced them thoroughly of the validity of the claims. Evidently before the man was killed, he had loaned some money but the borrower had never paid it back. The borrower was called in for an interview.
Upon seeing the man, the child said that on such-and-such a date he had loaned the man a certain amount of money. He wanted to know why the man hadn’t paid it back to his remaining family. Upon investigation, the date of the loan and the amount of money were both exact, and the somewhat embarrassed man paid it back on the spot. No one had known about the loan at the time except the two men involved, so there was no way that this child could have known about the loan, the date or the amount. The investigators were convinced of the validity of the case, and the final report confirmed all findings.
There are innumerable documented cases throughout the world, cases such as this story of Ismail. Let me tell you about a couple of others.
Just a few years ago in Sri Lanka, there was a set of twins aged three years and seven months, twins who kept talking about their former lives. An investigative team took the twins to the village where they claimed to have lived. A crowd of several hundred had gathered there, and the investigators had intentionally included the people who the children had claimed had been their family in a previous life. They then told the children to pick their family members out of this crowd of hundreds. And the children proceeded to pick out each family member.
There was another case where a three-year-old kept talking about having been a member of a diving team in his former life. When he was asked if he could still dive, he replied that he could, so they took him to a swimming pool where he performed like a professional diver.
There are lots of children nowadays who are geniuses, prodigies, children who are born with an immense amount of conscious knowledge. For example, there are some children who have never been taught to read but who can read just about anything. But no one has and explanation for this phenomenon. In Buddhism, however, we perceive this ability to read something as being left undisturbed from a previous life. You’ve probably had your own flashes of this type of thing―complete familiarity with a place you have never been before, instant attraction or familiarity with someone you’ve met for the first time, or even a special, unexplainable knack for doing something.
But how many people have this capability of former life recall? While most people don’t have any recollections of past lives, some people have very vague recollections and some have very clear recollections. And in recent decades a number of scholars, specialists, researchers and research organizations have been established to investigate the subject. One of the most famous of these researchers was Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia’s Medical College.
Professor Stevenson established a worldwide network so that people everywhere who claimed to have this recollection ability could be investigated and have their claims either confirmed or refuted. Having investigated over 600 people, Stevenson selected twenty representative cases, and published these in a book called Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. This book presented conclusive evidence of the validity of claims made, validity which cannot be refuted, and the book was translated into numerous foreign languages, becoming a major topic of discussion around the world.
In addition to recollection of past lives, there is a phenomenon called transmigration. One of the best known cases took place in China in 1916, with a report appearing in the Shenchon Jihpao Daily on February 2 th of that year.
According to this report, a certain Ts’ui T’ien-hsuan of Shantong-sheng died at the age 32 from an incurable disease. He was uneducated and had worked as a stone mason. On the day of the funeral, noises started coming from inside the coffin. When the family opened up the coffin, the person was alive. The family was both over-joyed and stunned at the same time. The person who came out of the coffin, however, did not recognize any of the family members, and people could not understand the language he spoke. Everyone thought he must be delirious from the tim he had spent in the coffin.
After a few days, the man had recovered considerably but he sitll did not recognize anyone, and people could not communicate with him. Completely frustrated, the man took an inkstone, ink and a brush, and began writing in beautiful Chinese caligraphy. This was man who was illiterate efore he supposedly died.
He wrote, in perfect calligraphy, that he was from Indochina. He had been ill and his mother had covered him with a heavy blanket to make him sweat. The last thing he remembered was going to sleep. And now he was there in quite unfamiliar surroundings.
The mason had in fact died, but the spirit of a man from Indochina had taken over his body. So we can see from this and other examples that forms of reincarnation are many, and they are not restricted to just rebirth from a female womb. This method of moving from one body to another is what we mean by transmigration.
After the man recovered fully, the family began to teach him spoken Chinese. The man, however, kept on insisting on returning to his home in Indochina. The family finally took the man o Beijing University where he underwent psychological examination and received some form of minor treatment, but he was judged normal. The university sent someone to Indochina to investigate the case and to confirm the existence of this man as well as other details concerning his life and death. Everything that the man had claimed was confirmed. It was concluded that in fact he had been reborn in the body of the mason, Mr. Ts’ui. And the story had a happy ending-the man was given a yearly pension from the government!
In psychotherapy, there is also a method for investigating recollections of previous incarnations. Hypnosis has proved very effective in securing informaion on previous lives. This method is called hypnotic regression, a method in which a person is gradually taken backwards in his life under hypnosis. For example, if a person is brought back to the age of ten, he will describe his activities at that time. People will sing songs from early childhood which they have no conscious recollection of, and if brought back to infancy they usually cry a lot. This hypnotic regression has received increasing recognition as a method of unveiling former lives.
In medicine, increasing support is being given to hypnosis as a form of diagnosis. Sometimes people develop diseases or afflictions for which there is no obvious cause; but under hypnotic regression, the cause can often be uncovered. This regression method has also been used in securing information from spies who refuse to give information.
How does this apply to reincarnation? A person is brought back to the age of one through the hypnotic regression method, and the person often cries and kicks a lot as a one-year-old would. The person is then asked under continued hypnosis where he was a year before he was born, and the person begins to tell an entirely different story. He takes on a different time, place, name, address, and sometimes even gender. In psychotherapy, this methodology is referred to as a return to previous existence. And often not to just one previous existence―often to two, three or more previous existences.
Western psychology, on the basis of Freud’s work, divides the human mind into three levels: the conscious, the latent or pre-conscious, and the sub- or unconscious. Freud of course pioneered theories on the unconscious, but it was Sir Alexander Cannon who really did extensive work on the subject. He was knighted in England and he was an outstanding lecturer at institutes in five European nations. Perhaps his greatest contributions were in the investigation of former lives.
Initially, as a scientist, he had denied the validity of both the spirit and reincarnation but using hypnosis as an investigative method, he consistently came across accounts of previous lives through this hypnotic regression process. He brought some people even as far back as the Roman Empire, and much of what he recorded was proved through historical evidence. On the basis of what he collected from a total of 1,382 patients, he published a book, The Power Within, in 1952.
His many findings included cases where the cause of an affliction was uncertain and where the affliction did not respond to treatment. Through hypnotic regression, he could discover the cause and consequently provide a cure. It was obvious to him that the affliction had carried over from former lives.
One interesting example was that of a man who was absolutely terrified of water. He refused to go near the ocean and he would not live near a river. Under hypnosis, the man was taken back to former lives and it was discovered that in one former life he had been an oarsman on a merchant vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. Having committed a crime against one of his mates, he was shackled and tossed into the ocean as punishment. The terror of that event cartied over even into his present life. Based on this information provided through regression, the man was cured of his phobia.
There was another case, that of acrophobia. The man was terrified of going up a high flight of stairs. Under hypnosis it was discovered that he had been a Chinese general in a former life and had fallen from a cliff to his death. So with growing evidence for the theory of reincarnation, greatly aided by the work of Sir Alexander Cannon, former-life therapy has become increasingly widespread internationally. In the October 3, 1977 issue of TlME magazine, there was an extensive article on the subject, and TlME is hardly a magazine to devote space to nonsense. So there is greatly increasing international recognition and acceptance of both reincarnation and former-life therapy.
If there is reincarnation, then, what are its principles? Can you reappear as anybody you want to reappear as? In Buddhism, the basic premise is that good actions reap good effects, and misdoings breed suffering. This law of nature is a universal law and it is a Buddhist law. Based on this law, all you have to do is to look around you: those who planted seeds of retribution in former lives are unhappy or unfortunate one way or another in this life, and those who planted seeds of good are comparatively happy in this life.
In the Lotus Sutra, we find that the Buddha said that if you want to know about your past lives, just look at your present. You are the culmination of everything you have ever been and done. And if you want to look into the future, look at your present―what you are doing now determines your future. In other words, you can tell by the situation in your present life what your past was like, and what you plant today you will reap tomorrow. This law of cause-and-effect is called karma, and the use of this word has proliferated around the world, and increasingly into academic circles.
There is another man who did a great deal in explaining and illustrating this law of cause-and-effect, an American named Edgar Cayce. Cayce did tremendous work with telepathic diagnosis. People from quite far away would send their names and addresses, and based on this information alone, Cayce could diagnose diseases. He also had tremendous healing powers, and treated over 30,000 people. He was able to diagnose people as far away as Europe. He also had such psychic power that he could tell, given a name, what a person in Europe was doing and where he was at that very moment. A simple phone call would confirm his telepathic accuracy.
Cayce knew that a great deal of disease had origins in previous forms of existence. But he was a Christian, and Christianity has refuted reincarnation since it was struck from its dogma at the council of constantinople in 553. This religious conflict was too great for Cayce, and due to his religious beliefs he ceased his work. But the people around him urged him to continue and helped him to reconcile his spiritual/religious convictions with his psycho-academic pursuits.
He finally dispensed with healing and poured himself into investigating former lives. His records cover more than 2,500 cases of former life investigation, and academicians and psychics have been studying these records ever since. Several of Cayce’s publications have been translated into most major languages.
Cayce had a lot to say about cause-and-effect in relation to former lives. One case study was about a couple who had a very unhappy marriage, and upon hypnotic regression, Cayce discovered that in a former life they had been enemies. In some instances, happily married couples were revealed to have had parent-child relationships in former lives. We find this hard to believe, but this is how cause-and-effect can work.
There would be no problem if we could just recall former lives, but the average person can’t. However, I think that as more and more scientists become involved in this field of investigation, the more likely they are to agree with the Buddha’s Teachings on cause-and-effect and reincarnation. According to the Teachings, an overly greedy person who ridicules and looks down upon others will return as an exceedingly short person. And one former life investigation confirmed this. So we have another reason to respect and to look up to other people no matter who they may be.
I think there is already sufficient evidence today to support the Buddha’s Teachings of cause-and-effect in terms of reincarnation, but we can expect the volume of material on these subjects to grow rapidly in the future. As Buddhists, however, we do not have to rely on contemporary scientific evidence for our convictions. As Buddhists, we accept the Teachings of the Buddha.
It is important for Buddhists to realize that they should not reject this or that Teaching just because they don’t quite understand it. The fact that you don’t understand it is your shortcoming, not the Buddhas. So through your own experience you should try to come to understand the meanings of the Teachings fully.