The Afterlife - Part 1
"We have shown that it is important for a would-be practitioner of the Dharma to understand that rebirth exists, that it is nonsense to claim the Buddha did not teach it, and that there is much evidence, some of it of a high scientific standard, that it is a fact. Reviewing the attempts to prove the existence of rebirth by Buddhist scholastic logic, we found that some rested on superstitious beliefs disproved by modern observations, and others on sweeping, dogmatic assumptions that must appear doubtful to many and are denied by materialists.
Materialism is now very strong and by no means easy to rebut. Modern materialism is founded on the mechanistic ideas of nineteenth-century Science, which although superseded in the most fundamental of sciences, Physics, yet thrives at the heart of Biology and also lingers on in scientific ideologies such as Marxism. It is urged that Western Buddhists should neither ignore Science nor beat a headlong retreat before it, but work towards a new synthesis.
In the past, whenever the Buddhadharma has been newly introduced to a country, it has been adapted by a judicious assimilation of indigenous traditions. In Tibet, for example, elements of the Bon religion were absorbed, and Bon in turn was transformed in response to the Buddhist critique. It cannot be claimed that the Dharma has been established in the West until it is possible for anyone to accept Buddhist teachings without feeling that they conflict with scientific truth. At present, any educated person in the West automatically rejects many traditional Buddhist teachings as superstitious. All reject doctrines such as the flat Earth and the spontaneous generation of insects, but many extend the rejection not only to all forms of ritual, monasticism, and deity practices, but also to the teachings on rebirth, and thus can accept most of Buddhist doctrine only in terms of weak, symbolic interpretations. It is therefore necessary that scientific method should be absorbed into the Dharma, and Buddhist doctrines be submitted to scientific test where possible. While many picturesque theories will certainly have to be discarded or modified as a result, the Dharma can only gain in strength and universality by open-minded, impartial research - research which is neither dogmatic, nor dogmatically skeptical.
We have seen that rebirth is a fact of experience, now open to scientific investigation. The beginnings of such investigation show that we should not reject out of hand the possibility that we can be reborn in non-human states, even if it is less likely than traditionally taught. And that by using hypnotic regression, we should be able to build up a more realistic picture of what we experience in the intermediate existence between human lives. Buddhists surely cannot neglect this technique, which promises to be so valuable not merely as a means of research into areas formerly accessible only to accomplished yogins, but as a direct aid to individual practice.
Whether Buddhists participate or not, scientific research into rebirth and such related areas as parapsychology, religious experience, out-of-the-body experiences and near-death experiences, is bound to continue and grow into a body of religious science acceptable to people the world over, as Physics and Chemistry are today. It will certainly contribute to the great blossoming of spiritual awareness, which is gradually gathering momentum. May this article too play its part in this awakening."
The text above is the brief conclusion from: "Rebirth and the Western Buddhist", by Martin Willson (Wisdom Publications, Boston. 1984), which was inspired by an unfinished and earlier compilation, "Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience", by Francis Story (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka), which was published posthumously after the author's untimely death in 1971.
Francis Story (Anagarika Sugatananda) was a British-born Theravada Buddhist monk who lived in Asia for twenty-five years, and first became interested in the subject of rebirth when he was living in Burma in the early 1950's. In 1957 he moved to Sri Lanka, where he began to collaborate with the late Dr Ian Stevenson of Virginia University in investigating case studies of rebirth in Sri Lanka, India, Burma and Thailand. These case studies mainly involved the memories carried over by young children of their most recent past lives, along with the physical birthmarks that are frequently carried over from an accidental or violent death along with these memories. In some cases these 'birthmarks' are deliberate, for in these Buddhist and Hindu countries the belief in reincarnation was so strong that it was then common practice to mark the body of a recently deceased child with pigment or charcoal, so that the family would be able to recognize the reincarnation of their child when it was reborn in the near vicinity a year or so later.
I myself know two individuals who have deliberately marked the corpse of their young child in this manner, and have subsequently both been 'reunited' with the reincarnating spirit of their son and daughter. This practice is still common amongst the Druze communities of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, who are often described by their Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors as 'heretical monotheists and mountain dwellers, who believe in reincarnation and the eternal existence of the soul'.
Ian Stevenson investigated several thousand cases of memories and birthmarks carried over through rebirth, and the overwhelming 'body of evidence' of this research is simply phenomenal. However, although dozens of Buddhist books on 'Death and Dying' have been published in recent years, virtually all of them tend to approach the subject of the 'afterlife' through the vehicle of doctrine rather than through 'direct experience', even though they seem to be couched in the authoritative certainty of direct experiences that are derived from traditional textual and oral sources. And I know of no other books apart from those of Story and Willson that approach the subject of death, afterlife and rebirth in the same open spirit of free enquiry that now characterizes the contemporary evolution of Buddhist-scientism in the 21st Century. And as we approach the end of this century's first decade I feel that many of us are questioning the validity and survival of any belief system whatsoever, even those concerning the very existence of any rational scientific observer or 'self'.
So the vehicle of this Afterlife Blog provides me with an opportunity to explore the big questions in life according to my ever-developing understanding, which I now have come to trust with every cell of my being. All of these questions - "Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is the self or soul? What is my real purpose in life? - are enormous questions, and enormous questions require enormous answers. So I will begin where Francis Story and Martin Willson left off, and close this first section today with a poignant NDE account that appears in Dr Kenneth Ring's book, "Lessons from the Light" (page 260).
"Ann had her NDE at the age of twenty-two when delivering her second child, Tari. In her NDE, she found herself drawn by a great force towards a bright light, and eventually, emerging from it, was a radiant figure. Of him, Ann said,
"When he took hold of my hand, I immediately knew him to be the greatest friend I had. I also knew I was a very special person to him. The thrill of this touch of hands exceeded anything I have ever experienced on Earth."
But then Ann learns from the being some news that would be expected to cause any new mother the worst dread possible:
"Without vocal communication he 'told me' that he had come for my child. "My child?" I asked, scarcely able to contain my joy and happiness over the news that one of my own children would be going back with him! It was, I knew, a very high honor to be selected for this. I had the honor of being the mother of a very extra special child, and I was so proud that he had picked my child, and it never occurred to me to refuse to give my child to this man."
The light being told Ann that he would be back for Tari in four days, and although Tari seemed to be fine when born, she soon sickened, and exactly four days after her birth, as Ann had been forewarned, her baby died. Ann's nurse, feeling compelled to tell her this news, was devastated.
"Oh, God!" she wailed. "Your doctor should have been here by now! I'm, not supposed to tell you, but I can't let you go on believing Tari is alive. She died this morning." Then the nurse asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I told her, much too calmly under the circumstances. "This is the fourth day!" (I felt joy)
In the weeks following I felt no grief of my own loss, but I felt sorry for my friends and relatives who didn't know where Tari was, and couldn't believe - really believe - that my experience was anything more than a vivid dream.
Ann concluded her letter to me with these comments:
"It would have been easier for me, I think, to try to forget my own name, than to forget that wonderful feeling, that surge of sheer joy I had felt when he took my hand, and told me that he had come for my child. That was the greatest moment I have ever known.
Well, I soon realized that my acceptance back into this world depended upon pretending to forget, and 'pretending' to grieve the loss of my baby. So I did this for everyone else's sake - except my husband, who believed me, and gained some comfort from it, secondhand.
I had three more children after Tari's birth. My beloved husband died in my arms at home sixteen years later. My firstborn son lived to be twenty-five and was killed in a car accident (instantly - no time for pain or suffering) seven years after the death of my husband. My grief was softened and shortened each time. People said, 'She's in shock now, she'll grieve more later.' Later they said, 'She must be a very strong person to live through what she's had to live through so calmly.'
Neither statement was true. They aren't dead. They are all alive, busy and waiting for me. Our separation is only temporary and very short, compared to all of eternity."