Index to Current Series
“Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”
For many Westerners, for instance, most educated Americans and many with upbringing in religions that reject the possibility of this phenomenon, rebirth as literally understood belongs in the same category as the efficacy of Tarot readings, abductions by extraterrestrials and the healing powers of crystals. In short Rebirth is commonly regarded as a product of active imaginations with no possible support in modern science. On the other hand, Rebirth is a foundational concept in Buddhism, at least in the way Buddhist doctrine has been traditionally presented. There are a variety of ways in which the concept can be appropriated or interpreted, as we will see next week, but here I would like to consider the case that rebirth in its quite literal sense actually might be true, and verifiable, … scientifically. The case is far from conclusive, but it is stronger than many readers might initially suppose. Given that Rebirth has an important pragmatic function in Buddhism, it would be most satisfying if it actually turned out to be factually true. Let’s see if it is so.
Who believes in Rebirth? In many Buddhist countries rebirth is almost as commonplace as paternity. In Burma a large percentage of the population seems to know, or claim to know, who they were in the previous life, commonly a family member or a friend of the family who died a year or so before the person in question was born. Generally the identity is established by a dream the mother or another family member had, by personality traits that emerge in the youngster, and or by physical characteristics such as birth marks. Often ghosts, assumed in Buddhist terms to be pretas, or hungry ghosts, of the newly departed are spotted near some associated location.
An example, as revealed to me, concerns a Burmese immigrant I know, whom I will call Ma, who lives in Minnesota. Two years ago her husband died after having received a liver transplant. One night she had a dream in which he spoke to her about returning to her. The same night a younger Burmese woman, I think a relative, who was staying in her house had a dream about him. Subsequently this other woman became pregnant. Later on Ma had a second dream in which her lost husband told her the exact day he would return to her and the younger woman happened to give birth on the stated day. The baby had a birth mark resembling the scar Ma’s husband had from his liver transplant. Ma is not fully convinced that this little baby boy is really her husband, actually she seems a little embarrassed at the prospect, but many of her friends and relatives accept it without question. For most Burmese rebirth is simply a fact of life and rebirth into the range of friends and family is commonly witnessed in this way.
I’ve noticed that belief in the reality rebirth is very common among Western Buddhists who have been practicing seriously for many decades, many of whom are highly educated monks and nuns. Some claim that it is a reality that simply makes more and more sense as one’s practice deepens, though I am not aware that any of this group have actual memories of previous lives. This and the everyday experience of the reality of rebirth among Burmese and other populations might, however, be dismissed as the kind of tangibility that develops when one’s habitual behavior and thinking presupposes something as reality, as we saw two lunar phases ago, with regard to belief in God or in money. The commonness worldwide of some kind of belief in reincarnation can also be dismissed as wishful thinking.
Rebirth and Science. The reason rebirth seems far-fetched to many Westerners is that it seems to certain metaphysical and methodological assumptions that are commonly accepted in popular science. In particular Rebirth would seem to require the transmission or copying of a karmic snapshot, a set of habit patterns and other karmic factors, from the point where it is associated with a dying physical body to the point where it becomes associated with a newly conceived physical being. This raises two red flags: First, what could the medium or mechanism of transmission possibly be? Second, how could mental factors possibly be disassociated from the living material brain from which they arise for long enough for transmission to occur?
As for mechanism of transmission, I am aware of no substantive proposal. However, this by no means constitutes a disproof. One hundred and fifty years ago there would have been no possible way a radio or a cell phone could possibly work. The mechanism of transmission was simply unknown. There was for a long time no apparent causal mechanism to explain the spread of disease from one individual to another, leading to the postulation of some kind of evil presence that could transmit itself to a proximate individual, a postulation that turned out to be substantially and observably correct. When Isaac Newton proposed the force of gravity, which keeps us anchored to the floor and keeps the moon from flying out even further into space, eyebrows were raised: What is the mechanism? There is no rope or any other observable substance to causally connect the earth and moon or glue to connect the floor and my shoes in the intended way, and the incipient scientific community initially balked. It was only two hundred years later that Einstein discovered a causal mechanism in the curvature of space, which, ironically, if presented at the time of Newton would have raised eyebrows through the roof! Fortunately well before Einstein’s time the invisible force had been widely accepted anyway for its explanatory efficacy.
As for disassociating mind from brain, the materialist assumption that the mind exists only as an emergent property of the brain or some other material substance might well be wrong. Materialism is indeed a dominant metaphysical assumption of science, but we need to be careful not to confuse Science with Scientism. Scientism is the faith that the current state of scientific consensus is absolutely true, even while science evolves quickly, continuously and often radically. Actually Scientism often it seems to take as its basis Nineteenth Century understanding, when there was much more confidence in scientific results. Science itself is something that is at the same time highly conservative and critical of radical ideas—it has to be, there are a lot of wacky ideas to filter out—but also ever evolving in radical ways as the merit of a radical idea is eventually recognized.
As a matter of fact, no one has every convincingly suggested how mind emerges as a property of the material world. The relationship of mind to matter has been debated since antiquity and continues to be debated to this day, with not only philosophers but increasingly with scientists and now physicists falling on both sides of the debate. As a metaphysical assumption materialism has served science well; that does not mean it will always do so.
Evidence of Previous Lives. One man, more than anyone else, seems to have brought rebirth into the realm of objective scientific investigation: the late Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His results have never been widely accepted in the scientific community for they suggest radical conclusions, but his methods seem to meet the highest standards and the data he and his colleagues have accumulated over forty years is voluminous. What also impresses me is that he also seemed to have absolutely no interest in the popular appeal his work could have had from an early date outside of the scientific community; he worked rather obscurely and single-mindedly pursuing a sound scientific case for Rebirth, as well as Out-of-Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences, which similarly challenge materialist assumptions. Out of thousands of cases of Rebirth in his records, making every effort to find some potential basis for discounting each one, he has isolated a body of cases which seem to defy any reasonable explanation except as genuine cases of Rebirth. At the same time his stated claims are rather modest, regarding his results as “highly suggestive” of the reality of rebirth. By the way, he debunks hypnosis as a source of evidence for Rebirth, as the large number of people who have been Cleopatra or Napoleon in previous lives would suggest.
Here is what a typical case of Rebirth looks like: First, from the earliest stages of her speaking career, a child will describe events and places that should be unfamiliar to the child, giving herself a role in the narrative, and often referring to some unfamiliar people as mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, best friend, and so on. The apparent memories are often quite detailed, including specific names of people and places and physical descriptions. The memories of these circumstance almost always fade by the age of about eight. In 70% of all cases there is a description of an unnatural death, generally by accident or even by murder. Very commonly the child will have a phobia in the present life, such as fear of water, that correlates with the reported cause of death, and sometimes even birthmarks or birth defects in the present life that correlate with injuries that would have been sustained in such a death.
Second, at some point, through investigation or accident, a place or family matching the child’s description is discovered and found to match the child’s description in almost every detail. Sometimes Dr. Stevenson is actually present by this time. The child is brought into the matching environment and displays a clear familiarity with her surroundings, recognizing people by appearance, being able to navigate through the house effortlessly or to describe rooms before entering them. Being in the environment evokes additional memories and the child is able to tell people things that the correlated deceased would know, sometimes even things like where some money or important documents are hidden that the family in this environment was unaware of. Sometimes autopsy or eye witness reports reveal that injuries sustained by the deceased at the time of death indeed match, sometimes in uncanny detail, birthmarks found on the child. A particularly interesting correlation made in examining Dr. Stevenson’s data, is that degree of “saintliness” (I don’t know how this is measured) in the previous life tends to correlate strongly with economic status in the current life and significantly with social status.
The case for Rebirth can only be made to the extent that it can be established that the child’s alleged memories were not communicated through a more conventional means. For instance, is there any way the child could have known about the deceased’s environment by being told? Are the witnesses to the child’s memories reliable in memory and character? Did they embellish what the child described, perhaps after the deceased’s environment had been observed? Did they prompt or feed the child with information that they were already aware of? Do the parents of the child have an ulterior motive, such as wishing for a breakthrough appearance on Oprah as a way to tapdancing stardom? Is the whole thing a hoax or a fraud concocted by the child’s family into which the child was recruited?
Stevenson’s method is establish or discredit the credibility of the account at every stage. For most cases in his files the case cannot be made convincingly. Perhaps the rebirth happened within the same village or immediate family as the previous death, leaving too many channels by which information about the previous life could have been communicated to the child, or some immediate family member was familiar with the previous life situation in a remote village. However, there are cases in which the connection with the previous life circumstances is made only after the researcher, Dr. Stevenson or one of his heirs, is on the spot before the deceased’s identity or environment is investigated, so that the researcher can directly solicit data to try to match the child’s memories, or better yet if the researcher is able to solicit a substantial portion of the child’s memories himself. However, there are cases where data is deemed highly reliable because of the number of witnesses involved, or because someone actually took written notes of the child’s early memories. Possible motives for hoax were closely scrutinized; in no case did the researcher offer a reward or reimburse the family for their assistance in collecting data. In most cases a hoax or a fraud would have been difficult to pull off because of the large number of conspirators that would have to be involved, and because of a young child’s limited ability to sustain an elaborate lie.
The upshot is that Dr. Stevenson’s data includes a substantial set of cases that absolutely defy any non-parapsychological explanation, in which every possibility of conventional communication to the child about the circumstances of the previous life or subsequent distortion of the child’s account by others can reasonably be excluded, and in which the number of details and accuracy of the memories and matching situation cannot rationally be attributed to pure chance.
If the University of Virginia research is compelling, it does not provide evidence for the complete Buddhist model of rebirth. First it does not suggest rebirth is a widespread phenomenon, only that it does occur. Memories of rebirth are rare, but that does not mean rebirth is necessarily rare; memories may be lost in most cases just as most early childhood memories are lost with age. It is intriguing that the vast majority of remembered previous lives end unnaturally, which might indicate a disruption of the tendency to forget memories of previous lives, but might also suggest that rebirth only occurs when a life has not run its natural course. It says little about the six traditional realms of rebirth and but does provide a bit of evidence of the Law of Karma spanning multiple lives.
Being Rational. At some point in the accumulation of evidence belief in a far-fetched notion will stop being irrational, and at some later point not to believe it will start being irrational. Usually in between you can only raise your eyebrows and shrug your shoulders. For instance, a “poltergeist” was a frequent visitor to my house in Austin some years ago over a couple of months. Its M.O. was to ring the doorbell spontaneously. I would answer the door, but no one would be there. After conclusively excluding colluding teenage pranksters, I hypothesized an intermittent electrical short. I investigated the likely doorbell button, leaving only the very unusual possibility of a short in the wires somewhere in the wall. It was a clear case; that was the only possible explanation, though the actual trigger for the intermittent short was still a mystery; I could not correlate it with weather, for instance.
However, then came the last visit of the poltergeist: In this case I happened to be standing about eight feet, just a couple of steps, from the front door talking to my seated daughter, so there were two witnesses to this event. Also in this case I reached the door in about one second under the impression that it involved someone in utmost distress rather than a poltergeist. Not only had the doorbell rung but at the very same time what seemed to be a heavy fist had pounded twice on the door quite clearly and loudly. I took the two steps to the door, swung it open and … no one was there! I’ve been in this space of eyebrow raising and shoulder shrugging, and even jaw dropping, ever since. I just don’t know what to make of it. It befuddles anything I would take to be a rational explanation. All I can say is that I no longer discount others’ accounts of poltergeists.