The phenomena which seem to suggest it by Filippo Liverziani
C O N T E N T S
1. The Problem: “Who” or “What” Becomes reincarnated?
2. Hypnotic Regression to “Previous Lives”
3. Spontaneous Phenomena
4. Reincarnation and Possession
5. Reincarnation of Psychic Residues
6. What about Presumed Messages from the Defunct?
7. Conclusions in the Light of Biblical, Christian, and Humanist Traditions
CHAPTER I The Problem: “Who” or “What” Becomes Reincarnated?
The question posed in the title is one of the first that seems to come spontaneously to mind when one thinks about the idea of reincarnation. The answers that are traditionally given to this question can, to all intents and purposes, be reduced to two basic types.
1) It is “somebody,” i.e. a certain individuality, that becomes reincarnated at successive moments in different personalities, each of which corresponds to a particular and distinct earthly existence.
2) What becomes reincarnated does not seem capable of being defined as a “somebody,” but rather as a “something,” as some psychic element; the nature of this element calls for further research, but it does not seem possible to identify it correctly or justifiedly with either a concrete personality, or with the essential nucleus of an individuality, or with what is commonly called a “soul.”
By way of example, one may recall the summary definition of the term “reincarnation” given by Ian Stevenson, a well-known American scholar of phenomena of the reincarnation type: “...the union of a soul with a new physical body after the death of the physical body with which it had previously been associated” (1). Stevenson, who attributes this definition very broadly to the ambit of Hinduism, supplements it with another of what he feels should preferably be called rebirth rather than reincarnation and which he attributes, just as broadly speaking, to the general context of Buddhism: “rebirth is the activation of a new physical body by effects or residues that had previously been associated with another (now deceased) physical body”(2).
It is not easy to determine exactly what Buddha himself thought about this matter, and for our immediate purposes it is more interesting and relevant to refer to particular ideas that are widely held as part of historical Buddhism. After consulting a wide variety of texts, I prefer to continue at this point by quoting a statement made with admirable clarity and concision by Radhakrishnan, an illustrious historian of Indian philosophy: “There is no such thing in Buddhism as the migration of the soul or the passage of an individual from life to life. When a man dies his physical organism, which is the basis of his psychical dissolves, and so the psychical life comes to an end. It is not the dead man who comes to rebirth but another. There is no soul to migrate. It is the character that continues” (3).
This character seems to form a single whole with the result of the previous actions, with the fruit of these actions or karrnan. The karma seems to be not only the active principle that brings about the rebirth but, indeed, the very thing that is reborn. Consciousness, which at the moment of death has its last refuge in the heart, continues to exist by virtue of the karma and, under its impulsion, transfers itself into another refuge created by this selfsame karma. There, according to the words of Buddhagosa Visuddhimagga, (4) “the former consciousness, from its passing out of existence, is called passing away, and the latter, from its being reborn into a new existence, is called rebirth. But it is to be understood that this latter consciousness did not come to the present existence from the previous one, and also that it is only to causes contained in the old existence, namely to karma or predisposition, to inclination, ...that its appearance is due” (5).
I should now like to compare these quotations with a passage to be found in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha, which many authoritative scholars consider to be one of the books that best explain the Buddhism of ancient times and bring out many of its innermost implications.(6) Before I do so, let me give a definition of skandha, a word that is going to crop up time and time again. According to a canonical text, “the fardel is made up of the five skandhas: matter, sensations, ideas, desires, knowledge; he who bears the fardel is the pugdala, the person, for example, this venerable religious of such and such a family, bearing such and such a name (7).
Notwithstanding the actual words of the text I am about to quote, this implies that the continuity of the person will never be completely denied, just as in ancient Buddhism — no matter what some particular sects may have held in this connection — there is no trace of any real solution of continuity between one incarnation and the next (8).
Having made these aspects clear, we can now take a look at the passage from the Abhidharmakosha: “The heterodox, who believed in the atman, says: ‘If you admit that the being (sattva) goes into the other world, the atman in which I believe is proven.’ To confute this doctrine, the author says: The atman does not exist. The atman in which you believe, an entity that abandons the skandhas of one existence and takes the skandhas of another existence, an interior agent, a Purusha, such an atman does not exist. Bhagavat, in fact, has said: ‘The act is; the fruit is; but there is no agent of any kind that abandons these skandhas and takes some other skandhas, independently of the causal relationship of the dharma.’ What is this causal relationship? It can be expressed as follows: since this is, that is; from the birth of this, the birth of that ( . . . ). There is, then, asks the heterodox, a kind of atman that you do not deny? The skandhas, nothing else, conditioned by the passion and the act go to become reincarnated by means of the series of intermediate existence ( . . .). We do not by any means deny an atman that exists by designation, an atman that is nothing other than a name given to the skandhas. But it is a far cry from this to the thought that the skandhas pass into the other world! They are momentary: they are incapable of transmigrating” (9).
Let us now go back to Radhakrishnan to see what appears to be his conclusion in this matter: “The man who is reborn is the heir of the action of the dead man. Yet he is a new being”(10). What survives is not the individual soul, but rather the karman. Radhakrishnan concludes; “the main tendency of Buddhism is to make karma the surviving element”(11).
The last of the factors of the personality (skandhas)“consciousness” (or viññana), which is the element that is really thought to transmigrate from one body into another, would really be better defined, as another author points out, as a “germ of consciousness” that is made up of “a life-craving set of character dispositions and latent memories which becomes attached to a new embryo to form a fresh empirical self. This system of dispositions corresponds roughly to the western concept of a ‘psychic factor’ and is, in eastern thought, viññana, ‘that which rebecomes’, not consciousness but rather a dispositional state, the karmic deposit of the past” (12).
I am not trying to establish here which particular tendency may be the one that predominates in Buddhism. All I want to do is to show that there are — and indeed always have been — many reincarnationists who deem that what is involved in transmigration is not the soul, not the nucleus of the individuality, but rather (and more limitedly) something of a psychic nature, something that formed part of this personality and subsequently became detached from it. If this is the idea of rebirth that prevails in Buddhism, one could deduce from it that its proponents constitute a strong minority among reincarnationists, for I quite agree that this is not the majority view; alternately, lest it be said that this minority is not even numerically strong, it is at least a highly qualified minority (13).
At this point one might say that Buddhists (or, at least, a goodly number of Buddhists) arrive at this idea because their starting point, as is quite general in Buddhism and typical of it, is represented by their negation of the substantiality of the soul, by their denial that the soul can have any kind of substantiality (be this something of the soul’s own or something it derives from God). I would reply to any objection of this kind by saying that what is of interest here is to show that the idea of reincarnation or transmigration or rebirth (or whatever else one may want to call it) as defined in the second of the two definitions given at the beginning is far removed from being an abstract or theoretical idea, but rather something that is concretely professed and lived by numerous people in the world or, at least, a certain number of rather well-qualified people. The theoretical foundation from which they deduce this idea is really the last thing that interests us here. When faced with such a widely accepted idea, it is surely far more interesting to see whether it can be referred to some spiritual experience. That something of a psychic nature becomes reincarnated may well have been experienced, and in a substantially concordant manner, by a multitude of different subjects through some form of clairvoyance, extrasensorial perception, spiritual sensitivity, or any other name one may give it (14).
And for this reason, even if one were to feel bound to contest the theoretical premises underlying the structure of Buddhism, even if one felt bound to contest the general metaphysical perspective of Buddhism, this fact of experience could quite possibly be capable of being transferred into a different context, into a different metaphysical and religious perspective. And, if so, why not in a biblical, Christian, monotheist and humanist perspective (to roll them all into one)? But this is a problem that we can only set ourselves at a much later stage.
For the moment let us go back to the first of our two ideas of reincarnation, according to which the quid that becomes reincarnated is a subjectivity in the proper sense of the term, a soul, the core of an individuality. This is the idea currently professed by the large majority of reincarnationists. Ordinarily, this is precisely what is understood by the term “reincarnation”. As we shall see more clearly later on, even Stevenson, when speaking of reincarnation and cases that suggest it, always has in mind a reincarnation phenomenon in the acceptance of the first of our two definitions.
The first text that expresses this reincarnation concept in a complete and extremely clear manner is the Fourth Brahmana of the Fourth Reading of the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad. Here I shall limit myself to quoting the initial passage of this text: “When that self becomes weak and unconscious, as it were, the organs gather around it. Having wholly seized these particles of light, the self comes to the heart. When the presiding deity of the eye turns back from all sides, the dying man fails to notice colour.
“The eye becomes united with the subtle body; then people say: ‘He does not see’. The nose becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not smell’. The tongue becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not taste’. The vocal organ becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not speak’. The ear becomes united with the subtle body: then they say: ‘He does not hear’. The mind becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not think’. The skin becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not touch’. The intellect becomes united with the subtle body; then they say: ‘He does not know’. The upper end of the heart lights up, and by that light the self departs, either through the eye or through the head or through any other aperture of the body. And when the self departs, the vital breath follows, and when the vital breath departs, all the organs follow. Then the self becomes endowed with specific consciousness and passes on to the body to be attained by that consciousness. Knowledge, work, and past experience follow the self.
“And just as a leech moving on a blade of grass reaches its end, takes hold of another, and draws itself together towards it, so does the self, after throwing off this body, that is to say, after making it unconscious, take hold of another support and draw itself together towards it” (15).
Koshelya Walli, an Indian scholar and author of a book about the doctrine of the karma in Indian thought, (16) notes that in this upanishad “we have a clear statement that the soul leaves one body and enters into another” (17). That “the soul assumes a body due to its past karma, as Walli goes on to say, is one of the notions which “in India we generally believe,” it is one of the ideas that “reflect the usual trend of Indian thought, though in one of its features only” (18).
According to this idea, which seems to be far and away the most widely held among reincarnationists, be they Indian or non-Indian, eastern or western, it is a certain individuality that becomes reincarnated: it is a certain individuality that has to become reincarnated, or stands in need of, endeavours to, or is in some way involved in becoming reincarnated, in order to be able to have certain experiences. But, as one may ask, for what reason? Many different motivations can be suggested in answer to this question: expiating some fault, purifying itself, making certain kinds of new experiences for its own spiritual development, or even satisfying some caprice or giving expression to some impulse of passion or — gradually rising to higher levels — giving vent to ambitions, exercising talents, fulfilling missions.
It is well known, moreover, that believers in transmigration of the soul also seek to insert reincarnation in a theoretical and doctrinal framework: reincarnation, they generally say, is the only thing capable of explaining the reality of evil and disparity among men, the only thing that can explain why some men are fortunate and blessed with talents, while others seem less favoured by fate, less evolved and less capable of evolution, sometimes tainted psychically with predispositions that compel them to act in an immoral and even criminal manner, placed at a disadvantage in many different ways, or condemned to suffer far more than others.
However one views it, reincarnation is always seen as involving a soul, an individual that desires or has to become reincarnated in a particular condition either because he merits such reincarnation or because he has to undergo some punishment or to purify himself, and so on. What becomes reincarnated is always a subject in the sense of the first definition, i.e. a subject that survives because he has a permanent essence of his own and therefore does not merely survive but is, indeed, immortal.
At this point there arises the problem of trying to see whether such a “substantiality” of the human subject finds some confirmation in experience. As we shall see in Chapter V, Emilio Servadio, to name but one, denies this: what we learn to know in the course of experience is our empirical ego; but — either for pathological reasons or even as a result of simple ageing — our “sense of the ego” can undergo an infinite range of modifications, distortions, or diminutions. Even psychoanalysis itself shows us that the life of the ego is characterized by a situation of continuous dependence, weakness, variability, instability. What, indeed, is there in our empirical ego that is truly substantial and authorizes us to identify it with the “soul” that is thought to survive and to become reincarnated, maintaining a continuous or, rather, perennial identity with itself?
It is quite true that this problem could be reformulated in somewhat different terms. Even if it were to be admitted that there are no elements that enable us to affirm the reality of a substantial ego as such, an originary substantial ego on its own account, there still remains an open problem that could be stated more or less as follows: whether or not, though devoid of an originary substantiality of its own, the ego could possess a substantiality that derives from God. In that case the empirical ego would derive its substantiality solely and exclusively from the fact that God himself is present deep down in the intimacy of this ego, and is present there in a very particular manner. Seen in this perspective, man here on earth would be a privileged dwelling-place of divine presence and manifestation. This is the perspective of a God who creates man in his image and likeness, and even incarnates himself in this man, so that each one of us might become a tiny potential absolute, something lofty in a horizon of infinite possibilities that include, for each one of us, personal immortality. This is the perspective of a human kind not only substantial and immortal but potentially infinite, and this not in se or by its own merits, but rather as the derivation of a divine Source that springs deep down within each one of us and is more intimately “us” than our own self.
How could a perspective of this kind be convalidated? Certainly not as a result of scientific proof, but rather and exclusively through the deepening of a certain type of religious experience. As things stand today, we are here clearly concerned with something that is not equally within reach of us all, because each one of us carries within him a different degree of maturation. It is therefore a perspective that, as far as our immediate purposes are concerned, we can do no more than mention very briefly as a possible reference point, as a possibility of salvation for a human individuality that would otherwise seem wholly labile and ephemeral.
If we want to maintain our discussion at levels that seem capable of a more objective approach, it seems desirable, at least at the beginning, to ask ourselves to what extent we may be justified in speaking of an individuality that becomes reincarnated and yet maintains itself one and the same all the time, a determined and substantial individuality that remains coherent with itself, somewhat in the manner of the string of a pearl necklace that, behind the outward dissimilarity of the individual pearls, maintains its unity in continuity with itself. In that case our terms of reference can be nothing other than the facts, that is to say, the sum total of all the phenomena that suggest reincarnation. We have to take a close look to see whether and to what extent the various phenomena of the reincarnation type confirm the reality of a reincarnation conceived on the model of our first definition.
But even if this model were to enter into crisis and become untenable, this would not automatically mean that we would have to exclude all possibility of reincarnation, no matter how it might be conceived; indeed, if an examination of these phenomena were to lead us to conclude that there nevertheless exists some form of reincarnation, we would still have to consider the model deriving from our second definition.
And there we would have to ask ourselves whether this model is necessarily bound up with a Buddhist perspective or, alternatively, whether it could be integrated into a different perspective and outlook. Indeed, it may well be that such a different perspective could be given a better foundation, a greater and deeper “content of truth”. But these are problems that we should not pose ourselves until a much later stage, because it is best to take things in order and to proceed step by step.