When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, reincarnation was something weird, a notion derided as naive or heretical, or mentioned in kind but condescending terms as an unprovable "religious" doctrine of the Orient. Not having thought much about it, I presumed these opinions were probably true, unconsciously adopting a common prejudice. But once it dawned on me that reincarnation offered logical solutions to the human dilemma, and a beautiful concept of life's purpose, I was off at full gallop to evangelize family, friends, and acquaintances — assuming they, too, would surely want to see the light.
In one unforgettable conversation, I brought up the subject with an older neighbor and friend. His career as a management consultant and his silence on religious matters made me think he was not a promising candidate for metaphysical renewal, but the few remarks I put to him left me in blushing astonishment. Reincarnation, it turned out, was not foreign to him at all; in fact, it had been a cornerstone of his thinking for many years. Here was the first sensible person I had met who could speak about reincarnation intelligently, who could buttress his remarks with philosophic and scientific considerations as well as respond to spiritual concerns. I asked him how and when he first started thinking seriously along these lines. He said he could pinpoint the day and circumstance.
It was in the early 1950s, not more than a year or so after the birth of his first daughter, when business commitments took him to Bombay. As he was walking into his hotel, having just disembarked, he caught sight of a "spider child." No ordinary beggar like the thousands who inhabit the city streets of India — but not unique — this little boy was perched low on the sidewalk, shifting about every few moments as he tried to find a comfortable position. These must have been futile gestures, though, because of his grotesque deformity: each bone of his arms and legs had been deliberately broken and reset at an odd angle — the total effect calculated to wrench the almsgiver's heart and open his billfold.
My neighbor was stunned by the sight. A torrent of emotion swept through him as he pictured his daughter in California, safe and happy, with every opportunity. And here at his feet, this pathetic, tormented creature — emaciated, maimed, hungry, bereft. The contrast was overwhelming, evoking a single, but demanding question: Where is the justice?
If there ever was an awakening vision in his life, this was it — "day one," he said, of his own personal odyssey. How could he reconcile the haunting reality of the spider child with a notion of universal fair play; or was life, after all, "a very bad cosmic joke"? Was this miserable little boy simply the unfortunate by-product of blind evolution? Or the nightmare of a divine tyrant who for unknown reasons predestined him to atrocity, while others were born advantaged in every way? Or was there an alternative explanation? He didn't know, except to realize that here was a problem which couldn't be turned away and which he had to solve — a problem which eventually led him to reconsider theosophical views on reincarnation.
Reflecting on that conversation, and on how others have been confronted by the ultimate questions, I am reminded of a point about readiness made long ago. In the opening scene of the Republic, Plato's masterpiece on justice, Socrates is asked: "But how can you persuade us, if we will not listen?" The thought is apt. Life seems to have its methods of preparing and persuading us to listen, for built into the unfolding drama of our experience are the great moments — sometimes jolting, like the spider child — which seize our attention and demand that we reassess our notions of reality. Then opens a path of inquiry that Socrates would admire. For him, simply to ask a question implied a readiness to listen, a commencement of the living process of giving birth to self-knowledge and understanding.
Where is justice — what is justice? These questions have moved the loftiest minds of every age. Among the philosophers of historical times, Plato and Gautama Buddha are preeminent examples because they focused on the issue more directly and comprehensively than most other thinkers. The whole of the Platonic dialogues turns on the question of justice, and the same may be said about the Buddha's dharma — the word dharma denoting not only justice as an expression of cosmic law, but also righteousness, duty, virtue, and other related concepts. Moreover, both Plato and Buddha began their philosophic journeys when profoundly moved by injustice and suffering, and both eventually came to behold "justice" at the heart of life — as the axis on which the wheel of cosmos turns.
Although the outer presentation of their philosophies differs, tempered to the background and needs of their respective cultures, Buddha and Plato held closely similar views of life's purpose and the innate potential of human nature. Man, they taught, is born into material soil so that the seeds of enlightenment in him can germinate, mature, and bear fruit. These potentials are cultivated by perfecting virtue through lifetimes of sustained effort, guided by intuition and checked or tested by karma or "destiny" (in Plato's sense of the term). In other words, man reaps what he sows in the field of imbodied existence; he is what he has made of himself, and he becomes what he wills himself to be.
It is important to bear in mind that neither philosopher taught reincarnation as a dogma to be blindly believed — nor did they attempt to so immobilize any of their other doctrines, as many later interpreters have done. They taught that true knowledge, unlike opinion, arises from direct experience and becomes self-evident to an awakened mind, a "philosopher" or lover of wisdom. "Be lamps unto yourselves," said Buddha. "Know thyself" wrote Plato, echoing the god's commandment at Delphi. But these injunctions were not meant to imply that truth was achieved by isolated self-sufficiency. In their concept of life, man — like the universe — is a composite being: a republic periodically reconstituted for the good of all creatures, ideally each contributing to each for one another's growth. The lamp of our "buddha nature," and the Self to be known (the "founder of the state"), we may interpret as the divine essence residing within every individual. It is this inner mentor which regulates the growth of the lesser constituents of our being through each cycle of imbodiment.
Yet, choice is necessary to the unfolding human consciousness, and must be if man is to be held accountable for his actions; for what better way — what other way — to learn and know than by experiencing the consequences of our thinking and doing? We can see that justice (Gk. dikaiosune) in this context means something beyond legal definitions of equity, recompense, and fairness. For Plato and Buddha, justice or dharma also implied "rightdoing," attending to one's own duties, and much more. To be just was to act in accord with the law of life, to live in concert with nature's symphony — a composition ever in progress which each of us is writing, and in which each performs his unique part. In this view, it is not God, gods, or nature which punishes and rewards; man does so by his choices — to work for or against the evolutionary purpose.
Obviously, neither perfect justice and knowledge, nor the perfection of harmonious living can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Some are discouraged by this prospect, but needlessly so. Consider the opportunities and ennobling possibilities that are afforded when we are freed from the prison of a one-life perspective. How many times have we tried to crowd our notions of justice into a "you-only-live-once" scheme, only to see death transformed into a thief which frustrates every attempt to reconcile fairness with life's manifest inequities?
Is the universe really to be robbed of so precious a quality — justice — for which we yearn so deeply and which our higher humanity has sacrificed so greatly to protect? Or is brute power rather than virtue, after all, the true measure of right? No philosophers or sages worthy of their calling thought so; eternal justice is never thwarted by the dissolution of the physical body. The consequences of our actions unresolved in this life will catch up to us in future incarnations. Yet death of another sort was held to be a real possibility, one to be taken seriously since it pertained to the human soul: either it triumphs over ignorance and selfishness, or perishes. For these reasons did the ancient philosophers and arhats constantly exhort everyone within reach of their message to attend to virtue, to love one another and allow the higher law to restore beneficent justice to the whole of life.
Justice is no less an issue today than it was in olden times. The grim reality of the spider child is a vivid reminder. But the ideas of karma and cyclic reimbodiment are not put forward only because a satisfying concept of universal justice requires them. Deeper concerns are involved: those relating to the deformities of character which can inflict such horrors, and what each of us realistically can do to ameliorate the causes of tragedy. Making these ideas more readily accessible and demonstrating their appealing logic, however helpful, is not enough. The spider child illustrates the perverse irony that even where reincarnation and karma are widely accepted, they can just as easily be ignored or misunderstood as they can help to illumine life. Perhaps this explains, in part, why many sages hesitated to speak openly on these subjects, and often deliberately veiled their teachings from the public with parable and myth. Not only was it requisite for the student to be able to understand a teaching but, more importantly, he or she had to be able to apply that knowledge responsibly for the universal welfare.
A sublime path opens to those who are moved by the noble truth of suffering, who hearken to the cry for real justice in life — not vengeance. When we begin to recognize the continuity of our existence through many lifetimes and do our best to live for one another's well-being, justice transfigures: no longer is it seen only as impersonal compensation for right- and wrongdoing — that is secondary; it becomes a numinous light which refines and elevates all humanity, all nature, as the cosmic law is more fully expressed. In individual terms, we begin to see our role in the cosmic pattern, and gain an ever-clearer insight as to what our duties are and how best to fulfill them.
Our perceptions of suffering alter significantly, too, as we come to realize that not all pain is the consequence of previously committed evil, but is often the mark of a strong soul electing to work in difficult circumstances for the greater good. Carefully and compassionately, then, should we reserve our judgments of those in travail, for who of us is fully aware of the inner causes being expressed? Far better to relieve suffering, as far as it is in our power to do so.
According to the philosophers, the deepest insights about justice can be achieved only by applying a concept of learning that is well-expressed by the ancient schools: "discipline [from which we get the word disciple] precedes the mysteries." To understand the heart of life, the student is enjoined to become the truth he or she seeks. Simply put, if we would truly know justice, we must become just. Intellectualizing alone will destine certain failure:
For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued interchange between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. — Plato, Letter VII, 341 c
Where the search for justice leads . . . each must answer for oneself, for we can really know only our own experience, no one else's. Yet, we may learn from those who have persevered wholeheartedly on this well-traveled pathway, who have achieved insight, and returned with the selfsame tale of intelligent wonder and confidence in the grand design of life — a stimulus and encouragement for us all.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1985; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)
It is Plato's doctrine, and none more defensible, that the soul before it entered the realm of Becoming existed in the universe of Being. Released from the region of time and space, it returns to its former abode, "the Sabbath, or rest of souls," into communion with itself. After a season of quiet "alone with the Alone," of assimilation of its earthly experiences and memories, refreshed and invigorated, it is seized again by the desire for further trials of its strength, further knowledge of the universe, the companionship of former friends, by the desire to keep in step and on the march with the moving world. There it seeks out and once more animates a body, the medium of communication with its fellow travelers, and sails forth in that vessel upon a new venture in the ocean of Becoming.
Many, no doubt, will be its ventures, many its voyages. For not until all the possibilities of Being have been manifested in Becoming, not until all the good, beauty and happiness of which existence allows have, by the wayfaring soul, been experienced, not until it has become all that it is capable of becoming — and who can tell to what heights of power and vision it may climb? — is it fitted to choose for itself the state and society which best meets its many requirements, as its natural or enduring habitation. — W. Macneille Dixon, The Human Situation