Copyright © 1965 by Theosophical University Press.
Question — In our discussions the idea of rebirth has come up. At first I thought it fantastic that after I died I would come back again. But the more I toss it around and the more my brain works out all sorts of arguments against it, the more I feel there is something to it. When and how did this idea of reincarnation get started?
Comment — I could no more tell you when reincarnation got started than I could tell you when the sun and the moon and the stars began their orderly and harmonious courses. All I can say is that the principle of ebb and flux appears to be one of nature's "eternal ways," for the law of cyclic progression is as old as the world. It was in process when the solar system came into being; and again, still farther removed in space and time, it was a habit when our home-universe, with its numberless galaxies and solar systems, first burst forth from the darkness of Space. On our earth its expressions are manifold: day and night, light and darkness, activity and rest — all different and individual modes of the ebb and flux of life in movement. Everything in nature is thus subject to this one law of renewal of form, birth and death, death and birth, in order to provide fresh vehicles for the indwelling spirit. Reincarnation refers to the rebirth of the soul here on earth — a specific application of the general law of renewal or reimbodiment.
Question — But the idea of reincarnation is new to so many of us. Of course I remember from my college days that Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson, and Goethe too, spoke of other worlds from which they had come, and that they "had been here before." I thought it mere poetic fancy. I loved the beauty of their creations, but it never occurred to me they might really mean it literally. As I get older, I'm not so certain. Was this belief known in other ages?
Comment — It was indeed; in fact, if we peruse the writings of the Orient, of Asia Minor and of Greece and Persia, we find clear indications of a belief, in one form or another, in the idea of rebirth. For sacred tradition maintains that you and I are truly gods in essence, potential divinities, in ceaseless activity, striving to find our way; and in that striving, whether we are conscious of it or not, we, as human beings, have been moving in and out of this earth for countless ages, because the basic habit of nature is to evolve in spiral fashion — action followed by reaction, cause by effect. Therefore the idea of rebirth was always linked up with the concept of justice: that what a man sows now, he will have to reap later as the round of the cycle of cause and effect turns on itself, whether in this life or some future existence. However, let me warn you that there are many wrong ideas in regard to reincarnation.
For example, some of the Eastern beliefs lead one to suppose that if you live an evil life you may return as an animal. But that is because their presentations have become in certain respects as dogmatic as ours. I do not believe the original Hindu and Buddhist doctrine implied the transmigration of the soul into animal bodies after death, though in their texts you will find passages that seem to uphold this view. But these have reference merely to the temporary transmigration of certain of the lower elements of "the man that was" into the bodies of the lower kingdoms. As said, this has nothing whatever to do with the reincarnating soul.
Question — You mean there's no chance of our returning as an animal, even by mistake?
Comment — No chance whatever, for it would be absolutely contrary to nature's forward moving processes for the human soul to retrograde into a vehicle less than human. That is not reincarnation or reimbodiment as the sages of every land and of all ages have taught it, but is a degenerated belief which is false, utterly out of harmony with the facts.
The true and original doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation emphasizes this one point: "Once a man, always a man" — until you become something greater. Think for a moment of the enormous injustice to the soul of man if, by some feat of dark magic, it were forced to incarnate in the body of an animal, with no outlet of expression for the divine-human qualities. Just try to imagine yourself, with your degree of self-consciousness and intelligence, looking at a glorious sunset out of the eyes of your pet dog, and feel the torture and the agony of imprisonment that experience would be.
No! Once we with the help of our divine spark have earned human expression, we will not retrogress; unless — and this is the one exception — by willful evil-doing over a long series of lives the soul deliberately breaks the link with its Father within. Then, in its self-determined retrogression, it becomes truly a "lost" soul — having lost its right to participate in the forward evolutionary current. Fortunately, such a "break" from divine contact is rare indeed; if it does occur, then the individual atomic elements formerly governed by the "lost" soul, because of being so impregnated with subhuman tendencies, may find outlet in forms of life lower than the human, in animal and even in plant vehicles. But this is not the destiny of the aspiring human soul which, linked with its divinity, is seeking expansion of understanding and consciousness with each new rebirth on earth.
Question — That's quite a picture. But why aren't we taught about reincarnation in church?
Comment — That's a long story, and I wouldn't attempt to give the reason why the early Church Fathers in handling the texts of the Christian scriptures either eliminated or at least excluded certain relevant teachings which touched not only on the concept of rebirth, but on other matters dealing with the soul's relation to the whole solar system. These ideas would have provided a much broader and more universal philosophy than is now contained in the Creed. In fact, the very teaching of the soul's need for repetitive experiences on earth was publicly anathematized in one of the early Church Councils. In other words, it was formally stricken from the required belief of the Christian Church — an event which marked one of the stages in the crystallization and hence the decline of the true Christianity. For once the message of Jesus no longer represented to the peoples of the day a vital and growing search for truth, but had settled down into a well-defined and organized belief, then the Creed of the Church rather than man's own inner guide became his monitor. Yet, even in the Scriptures as they are today, you can find references to the idea of rebirth. You have to dig for them, because they are casual rather than direct; nevertheless they point to the then popular acceptance of rebirth by the peoples of Asia Minor.
Question — Where can we find such references in the Bible?
Comment — The first one that comes to mind is in Matthew, I believe, where Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?" And they replied: "Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets." Now why would Jesus have tossed a question like that to his disciples, unless the idea of rebirth was commonly accepted? He didn't ask whether or not people thought he might have lived before, but taking that for granted he asked simply who they thought he might have been.
And what about the story of the blind man in the Gospel of St. John? We all know it, where Jesus passed by a man blind from birth, and his disciples asked him: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" And do you remember Jesus' answer? — "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." Note again that Jesus did not bother to expatiate on whether the man had or had not lived before — the question asked by the disciples takes that for granted, for the man could not have sinned in this life if he was blind from birth. The significant point here is that Jesus lifts the whole concept of action and reaction, cause and effect, from a mere "eye for an eye" atmosphere into the larger, the more compassionate view, that karma is not punitive, not necessarily a retributive experience, but always the soul's opportunity for growth. Thus he showed the blindness not as a punishment, but as an avenue of experience whereby the "works of God [one's inner god] might be made manifest"; whereby the Law, or the working out of the blind man's inherent destiny, might be fulfilled.
Question — Of course, we're all familiar with St. Paul's statement that "God is not mocked," and that whatsoever we sow we shall one day reap. But how can we possibly reconcile the terrible injustices in life with an all-loving God?
Comment — That's just the point. We can't reconcile them, if we limit the experience of the soul to one short span of seventy-odd years — for how could we then reap the effects of our sowing? No, the idea of rebirth is essentially one of hope, because it assures the inevitability of justice — in the course of time.
Question — I'd like to ask a question that has always troubled me. When we die, do we lose our personality? For example, will I recognize myself when I come back again?
Comment — You had no difficulty in recognizing your individuality this time, did you? No, you take yourself as you are, with all your strengths and all your weaknesses — they are as familiar to you as the very air you breathe, for the reason that you have grown through the ages with yourself. Still, the personality is not the real you, but only a mask you wear, and that mask has changed thousands and thousands of times as you have played your different roles in the long drama of experience. Thus when we die, we lose everything connected with the particular mask we have just worn; in other words, we lose our physical brain and body that we have used as Mary Brown or Joe Smith. However, the reincarnating element that uses Mary Brown or Joe Smith in any one lifetime will return again and again, each time taking on a new personality, a new brain and physical body, fresh and revitalized and exactly fitted by karma, through which to grow and learn the lessons of the new life. Why do you suppose it was said: "Ye are the temple of the living God" — a living God, working in and through our personalities?
Question — Just what is it that reincarnates then? Is it the divine spark or the living God?
Comment — The divine spark itself does not reincarnate, any more than the sun leaves its orbit of duty. Nevertheless, just as its warmth and light penetrate all layers of the atmospheres between the sun and the earth, so is it with man. The spark of godhood remains transcendent in its own divine orbit, yet its light or vital essence permeates our whole nature, focusing its force through the spiritual soul that it may illumine the highest mental or truly human part, our higher self. It is that immortal element in us, therefore, which endures from life to life, incarnating in a new personality with each birth on earth. But the divinity per se must have intermediaries or "transformers" to step down its higher potency, and hence does not reincarnate directly. Still, the reincarnating element could no more exist or function apart from its divine parent than a sunbeam could exist or function apart from its solar parent, from which it streams to give life and substance, not alone to earth and all its creatures, but to the entire dominion of the solar system.
Question — For most of us the thought of developing a nearness to the Father within seems extremely remote. If we do reap what we sow, and I for one feel this to be true, then by inference we must have been reaping and sowing over a very long time. This in itself seems like a load that is almost too hard to bear — that for thousands of ages we have had to struggle on alone, making countless errors, sowing field upon field of "wild oats," without the strength and the knowledge to guide us.
Comment — But we haven't been alone, and we aren't alone now. When the divine spark within each one of us led us from the Garden of Eden, and said in essence: You have gone a long way up to this point, now you can earn the right to work out your destiny yourselves — that divinity did not leave us. It retired deep within our souls, and remains there today. Every day of our lives it is saying to us, if only we will listen: You are my prodigal son. Go your way, through what pain and suffering and joy you make for yourself. But remember from now on you must by your own free will travel the cycles of experience. Then when you win your way back to me, you will be strong and enriched — in fact, you will be a god like unto me.
That divine spark has never forsaken us, and never will; for its very nature is to radiate its influence until not only do we recognize its presence, but determine henceforth to work with and become like unto it.
No, we have never been alone, nor do we carry the whole load of past error in one lifetime; moreover, in our thousands of lifetimes, have we not also sown beautiful flowers and not merely tares in the garden of our soul? We need never feel that we cannot meet the pressures of ourselves: "God fits the burden to the shoulders" — which does not mean that the Divine Intelligence measures each one of us with a yardstick and gives us just so much and no more of a burden for today and tomorrow and the next day. It does not have to, because within each one of us is its individual representative, a spark of that all-encompassing Divinity which is our own immortal self, with whom ultimately we shall become fully acquainted. Thus it is in very truth our Father who acts as our protector, and allows us to handle only that portion of karma that we in our strength and immaturity are able to carry.
We can take courage in the knowledge that when our troubles seem more than we can bear, there is within us that guardianship that assures us the power and the wisdom to meet the challenge. The very fact that we are living today on earth is a proof, a magnificent proof, that we have not lost touch with our inner god — else we would not be here as learning, aspiring human souls.
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