Letter on Reincarnation

By Gerald Schueler
Maryland, November 22, 1971

We need a morality and a sense of divinity that we can believe in as a unified whole throughout the world. Religion will have to come of age. We will no longer have religious faith and the divine purposes for our lives in a little bucket; we can no longer be loyal to one of a thousand compelling sects. We must have a world-wide faith that is not infallible, but is capable of change and growth when new aspects of truth are discovered by great individuals. We must have a new Bible containing the best of the old ones — Judean, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhist and others. There are parts in all of them that are ageless and yet ever new in their value; but we must go beyond any that we now have.

As Gandhi tried to bring all the religious sects of India together, so we must have a world-wide faith with an ethical content which we can teach our children. We can learn from the peoples of every continent and they can learn from us. All of us together will gradually grow into truth. Too gradually for some of us impatient ones. But may we not help shapes the future? December 20, 1971 in the December issue of Sunrise one of your readers posed some rather thoughtful questions about the ideas of reincarnation and karma. I felt the urge to put some of my reactions down on paper.

Many more people today are beginning to believe in reincarnation but, because they too often stop at the outer shell of the concept, they are left with doubts and unanswered questions. Why can't we remember former lives? How can we benefit by suffering for past wrongs when we don't know what those wrongs were? Such questions are quite natural because we do not fully grasp the life or spirit behind the principle as it is not only difficult to put into words but also because it requires a viewpoint which is foreign to most of us.

Reincarnation has been taught by the great spiritual sages throughout the centuries in both a simple and a more penetrating form. The familiar idea is that we throw off the physical body at death, much like taking off an old suit, and go through various experiences "on the other side"; then, when conditions are right, we enter a new body at birth to continue where we left off. In this way we grow mentally and spiritually by continual experiences and lessons gained through karma, the law of cause and effect so closely associated with reincarnation. Earth is sometimes compared to a school where we come to acquire knowledge. If we do not learn as much or as fast as we should, we need another opportunity, like a year repeated in school, until we are sufficiently prepared to advance to a higher grade. This concept, while true as far as it goes, is simplified to the point where many questions remain unresolved, and incomplete enough to lead us at times to erroneous conclusions.

The fuller picture of the doctrine of reimbodiment is by its very nature more complex but, on the other hand, it helps to avoid jumping too quickly to assumptions because it goes much deeper into the mysteries of life. One of the basic principles of the ancient wisdom religion is that all things including man are aggregates, compounds, and that all aggregates as such are transitory and constantly developing. This means that our soul or ego is not a fixed unchanging entity, but a collection or bundle of lesser beings much as our body is composed of a host of tiny cells — an idea which can be found in the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or "non-self."

A Zen master was once asked where we go after death. He replied by asking where our fist goes when we open our hand. In other words, the ego or "I" is not what it seems but, like a fist, is a temporary appearance of something more fundamental. When we open our hand the fist disappears, but the hand, which was actually present all the time, remains.

Spiritual teachers of all ages carefully distinguished between what we may call the personality and the individuality. They taught that the personality, which we usually refer to as "I" is a vehicle, an aggregate constantly changing and growing, whereas the individuality in relation to the personality is in essence monadic, spiritual and unchanging. From this viewpoint man, through reincarnation, does not slowly accumulate experiences and lessons, but his spiritual individuality or monad gradually unfolds or expresses itself from within outwards — from potential to kinetic — in our personality and body. How much of this expression takes place is regulated by karrna, which need not be seen merely as a carefully controlled system of justice, of rewards and punishments. An old maxim states that not a blade of grass moves but for karma. Every occurrence takes place under this law of cause and effect, no matter how subtle the effect produced. Sometimes karma is seen as a flow of events through time, each the result of a previous happening and each in turn the cause of a succeeding event — all following one another in regular succession throughout Duration, whether we are conscious of them or not.

To say that we are punished in one incarnation for some evil deed committed in a past life, while true in a way, can be misleading. If a student drops out of high school and years later can't find a good job, is this a retribution for his failure to graduate? In a sense, perhaps. But his limitations are a natural result of the sequence of past events. As far as each single instance is concerned, there is neither reward nor punishment — only an impartial flow from one incident to the next. In addition, the remembrance of his failure in high school brings him little solace and may even contribute to a sense of guilt and inferiority. We may also ask ourselves if the boy who dropped out of school is the same person as the man who years later cannot find a satisfactory position. At first we probably would say yes. We tend to think that the man is the boy with a certain amount of experience and knowledge added on. Yet in reality we are not the same person we were twenty years ago, one year ago, or even one second ago. The body changes and the personality likewise, although the sense of egoity is continuous during the entire lifetime. Actually, we are not quite correct in saying, "I did something wrong in a past life," when the "I" refers to the present personality.

If the personal ego doesn't continue from death to rebirth, what does? Some thinkers have suggested that reincarnation occurs as a karmic process analogous to the lighting of one candle from another. Does the same flame pass from the first candle to the second? The two flames are not the same, but the second is a direct effect of the first, while the essential nature of fire is expressed by both.

We can see that according to this view all of our past karma is with us now, and it is not necessary to try to look into former lives in order to find the causes of our present problems. Some philosophical systems go even farther and say that the human ego is not an entity bound by karma but is karma itself; that as a ray from the monadic individuality (itself a ray from the realms of divinity) it passes through and enlightens each bundle of karma, giving it a sense of self-awareness, while death is but a return of this ray back into its own essence.

These aspects of reincarnation are new to most of us and at first appear strange and incomprehensible. But as we listen to the message that has been handed down to mankind, we begin to reorient our thinking to a degree which enables us to come to a deeper comprehension. The doctrines of reincarnation and karma are the foundation blocks of the esoteric tradition, but perhaps we need to understand them in a more intuitive way if they are to appeal to our hearts as well as our minds.

 (From Sunrise magazine, January 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

 


Back Issues Menu