A recent trial at the Old Bailey has once more brought back into general conversation the periodic question, "Is it true that the "dear departed" communicate with the living through self-appointed mediums?" The answer, as to so many questions of this kind, is Yes and No. It all depends on what it is which manifests, for though there is a great deal of fraud in spiritualistic circles, there is a vast body of evidence that "ectoplasm" and various manifestations are genuine phenomena.
Of spiritualism in general two things at least must be pointed out, first that it is not in the least spiritual, secondly, that it is not new. It is in no sense a religion, contains nothing worthy to be called a philosophy, has no bearing on morality, and cannot ennoble its devotees. In the East it has long been scorned by educated people as "bhuta worship," the worship of bhutas, which the Sanskrit dictionary defines as ghosts or goblins, in the sense of "the gross elements of which the body is supposed to be composed and into which it is dissolved." To the Eastern mind such a practice is revolting, for it is akin to spending one's time amidst the decaying remnants of dead bodies, as indeed the appearances of the seance room most truly are, being only of one degree less density than the body which we far too often bury and far too rarely burn.
The exact nature of the "constituent" elements of the self which, while slowly dissolving, are available for temporary revivification by a medium is a matter of no doubt, so far as Eastern wisdom is concerned, but difficult to explain in Western terminology. Each world philosophy has its own description of the constituents of self, from the "body" to that undifferentiated Unity which is the property of no man, being the Noumenon behind all phenomena. The Buddhist classification into skandhas and various grades of vinnana, consciousness, though helpful to the student, may be no more acceptable to Western minds than the "body, soul and spirit" of St. Paul. What matters is the nature of self, not the labels we apply to its manifold ingredients. But there are other reasons why the modern Buddhist, if he seeks to know more of spiritualism, must needs enquire beyond the Buddhist Canon, either of the Northern or Southern School. For that which is known already to his audience will never be the subject of a teacher's "talk" or sermon. Just as there is little in the Buddhist Canon about the doctrine of karman and rebirth, for all the Buddha's audience would know of it already, so there is little about such a loathsome habit as bhuta worship, or necromancy, the cult of oracular responses from the dead, for no man striving for deliverance from self would stoop to such degraded practices. We must therefore look elsewhere for details of entities which haunt the seance room, and find them best in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, who was trained by Buddhist Arhats in Tibet. These details will be found in her Key to Theosophy, by those who will take the trouble to read it, but those who get an emotional and psychic "kick" out of seance-room attendance will not wish to learn what happens in that twilight, wherein deliberate or unintended fraud is the keynote of the "mystery."
In brief, when a man dies his physical body, its life-breath or Prana, and the latter's vehicle, the astral double of the man, which is the Egyptian "ka," alike begin to dissolve, and leave the man forever. He is left with his three highest "principles" and the fourth, or the lower mind, which moves, according to the tenor of its desires, upward to the spiritual planes of consciousness, or downward to a self-created but temporary "hell" of suffering, when the desire exists but not the physical means for its satisfaction. In due course the higher trinity of principles, the Atma-Buddhi-Manas, pass into Devachan, the nearest truth to "heaven," to await rebirth when all the lessons of the last birth have been learned. The higher trinity do not here concern us, for Atma, the "Essence of Pure Mind," the property of no one vehicle of life, Buddhi, the vehicle "body" of Pure Mind, the highest human principle, and Manas, the higher part of "mind" are alike unreachable by man or medium, save on their own high plane, and never grace the seance-room. What does appear, to the great excitement of beholders, if it is human at all and not some elemental sprite enjoying itself, is the dying kama-rupa, the lower desire-body, which, bereft of its own higher counterpart and all its spiritual side, is sometimes drawn into the magnetic field of a negative medium, and is disgustingly revivified for a while. It cannot reason, can "communicate" nothing which the brain did not know in life, and is no more the name it is made to bear than the skin which the snake abandons is itself. But all this is well described in classical Theosophy, if one may call it so to distinguish it from the rubbish taught by many Theosophists today, and it is no part of Buddhism. Yet according to the press this cult of spiritualism is becoming daily more "respectable," and in countless minds is taking the place of religion and philosophy. If only those who go to seances could be made to understand how the medium is damaged by opening her bodies to such evil influences they would, on the score of compassion alone, avoid such injury. But ignorant they go and ignorant they still remain. The Buddhist pities them, offers them wisdom where it seems acceptable, and for the rest, "mind-ful and self-possessed," pursues the Middle Way.
1. Reprinted from The Middle Way, May-June, 1944. (return to text)