Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. — Chuang Tzu, c. 450 BC
At the springtime of the year thoughts turn more directly to the beauty of creation and the dynamic force of renewal. In our joyous response to the season, with its symphony of color and sound, we say confidently that there is divinity at the heart of life, working its magic and uniting all beings.
It is reassuring to feel this kinship with nature and realize there are universal laws which contribute to the synchrony of all the kingdoms. Of particular importance are the dependable operations of cycles, karma, and rebirth in the course of evolutionary development. With knowledge of these laws we need not fear death, nor allow ourselves to believe we will remain in one state forever after we die, for all life is a steady pulse beat of change and growth, involving an unbroken continuity of action, inner and outer. Nothing is ever dead in the sense of total cessation of existence, even though on the surface it may appear to be. The transition from winter to the vibrant season of spring illustrates this truth.
The pattern of life includes the need for rests and pauses. In a 24-hour period there is light and darkness, waking and sleeping, activity and repose. Actually, what we call birth and death are phases of activity on different planes of being — mental, emotional, physical, as well as spiritual. Atoms, too, go through their short cycles continuously, while on a much larger scale, ideas, races, and civilizations experience their peaks and valleys, only to rise to heights again. In the plant kingdom we have always the assurance, as we observe nature, that bare trees will be green with new leaves again, bulbs will push up through the soil when nourished by sun and rain — once again faith in immortality is renewed.
It is strange that only a certain percentage of the world's population recognizes that human beings are souls that survive the demise of the body, in spite of the testimony of the wise through the ages, the additional confirmation of near-death experiences, and increased interest in reincarnation. When we recognize repeated cycles in the changing seasons, in the various kingdoms below man and in the cosmic spheres, what about poor orphaned humanity? Since human beings are also very much a part of nature, why should we be left out of this universal drama of cyclic unfoldment?
Our very presence here on earth indicates to many that we have been here before. There is every sign that we are seasoned travelers in and out of incarnation on this earth, self-aware beings with much karma to work out. How else can we logically account for the wide variations in character, abilities, relationships, and circumstances except from causes previously set in motion? We need time, space, and opportunity to express our vast, still unfulfilled human potential.
Leonardo da Vinci made a perceptive comment when he said, "Nature never breaks her own laws"; and Benjamin Franklin infuses the subject with his touch of objectivity and humor:
When I see nothing annihilated and not a drop of water wasted, I cannot suspect the annihilation of souls, or believe that He will suffer the daily waste of millions of minds ready made that now exist, and put Himself to the continual trouble of making new ones. Thus, finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist; and, with all the inconveniences human life is liable to, I shall not object to a new edition of mine, hoping, however, that the errata of the last may be corrected.
As part of nature's operations, we have undergone our human cycles of death and rebirth for countless ages, and will continue for ages more on this odyssey of self-discovery. We do not have ordinary remembrance of these incarnations because the brain dies at death, but we have what Plato refers to as soul reminiscence. Within us is all the wisdom we have thus far gained on our perpetual journey.
This continual cycle in and out of incarnation has always been known, and has been recorded by various cultures from ancient times. There were, for example, extensive catacombs in the subterranean crypts of Thebes and Memphis, known as the Serpent's catacombs or passages. "It was there that were performed the sacred mysteries of the kuklos anagkes, the 'Unavoidable Cycle,' more generally known as 'the circle of necessity'. . ." (The Secret Doctrine 2:379).
A connection can be observed between this Circle of Necessity and the circulatory system in trees, where the sap flows up the tree one way, and returns by a different route. In our bodies also, valves prevent the blood from returning to the heart the way it left it. This principle is known as the systole and diastole, double motion or alternate vibration. W. Q. Judge explains: "The valve in the circulation represents the abyss behind us that we cannot repass. We are in the great general circulation and compelled, whether we like it or not, to obey its forward impulse" (Essays on the Gita, p. 131).
It is vital that sooner rather than later we come to realize that because we are human — which means self-conscious beings — we have the responsibility of this awakened state, and are therefore accountable for everything that happens to us. The challenge ever before us is to deepen our grasp of the meaning and purpose of life, which involves the round of births and deaths. Every phase of experience here on earth, and what we can understand of our after-death experience, allows us to become more aware of the obligations and opportunities of our human status.
The interrelation of life on earth and after death fortifies the ancient concept that all we undergo is for the purpose of soul learning. To begin with, sleep is a natural preparation for death. We have concerns about what happens to us after death, but what about sleep? So often we fall asleep without analyzing that we lose our waking consciousness, just as in death. We are aware of our identity in this state, though, and observe our dreams, or participate in them. There can also be a closer connection with the higher self at this time, just as after death; and when we waken if there have been problems, solutions often occur before the active brain dims the impression.
This connection between sleep and death is a question of degree. Nature prepares us in sleep for the longer sleep that is death — an interval of rest between lives. But we can be assured that in this process we always maintain our identity. After death the higher mind or soul goes through learning experiences which relate to the most real and enduring aspects of ourselves, for the soul is then freed from the encumbrances of the body. In the state called devachan, the soul realizes fulfillment of its highest dreams, all the while traveling with the real self among the stars, which path is self-consciously followed by those who are fully awakened spiritually, such as Jesus and the Buddha. One day we will be qualified to self-consciously undertake this ourselves.
The process of soul-learning is aided by the illumination received after death from all three panoramic visions impersonally evaluated by the higher self: the first, immediately after death is a rerun of the life just led; the second, before the soul enters the devachanic state; the third, just before reincarnating again. In this last panoramic review the soul is alerted to the challenges in the forthcoming incarnation, thereby leaving an impress on the soul memory during the life to come.
It is as though there is a recycling process after death, a reevaluation of the life just lived through the panoramic visions which undoubtedly will make an impression of needed amendments in our character. In every event that happens to us here on earth, there are actually no surprises or shocks deep within, for the soul knows, and is inwardly prepared. Such is the compassion of nature. The majestic sweep of creation, from the birth of worlds, large to infinitesimal, to all the various grades of births within the human consciousness — all are part of the enterprise of continual becoming through trials, growth, struggle, and joy.
Everything in nature has universal connections. On his first summer in the Sierras, John Muir observed the adventures of the raindrops as they fell on mountains and rock crevices, meadows, and waterfalls, "every drop . . . a silvery newborn star with lake and river, garden and grove, valley and mountain, all that the landscape holds reflected in its crystal depths . . ." What a beautiful image of the divine oneness of life, of the great mirrored in the small! And he concluded: "From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are . . . singing with the stars the eternal song of creation."
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)