Books on Rebirth

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, Sept. 9, 2012

What do we do with this “Rebirth Thing”? Commonly, perhaps typically, Western Buddhists have trouble with the this aspect of Buddhism and reject the whole notion out of hand as unscientific, premodern balderdash. This might be said of much in the Buddha’s discourses, such as many factually inaccurate geographical claims. However rebirth is different because it was clearly a systemic part of the Buddha’s thought, eveh to the extend that he could proclaim the final goal of the Path to be escape from the beginningless round of rebirths. Moreover while no one as far as I know claims that the truth of the Buddha’s geographical understanding makes any difference one way or the other with repect to Buddhist life or practice, a large number of emminent Western practitioners — particularly many monastics with strong backgrounds in science, I notice — come around to endorsing the “Rebirth Thing” most emphatically.

My own feeling is that rebirth cannot be dismissed without losing something vital in the Buddha’s thought.What is vital yet sacrificed in dismissing rebirth out of hand is our responsibility to the future, the sense that  that our practice in this life brings great ongoing benefit that outlives us. Without this this practice cannot be something bigger than this fathom long body and few decades of life; while we can dedicate our practice to making this one life more comfortable, the basis for dedicating our lives to practice is absent. As Bhikkhu Bodhi fears, Buddhism collapses into a kind of psychotherapy. Notice that this is an argument for the need for rebirth, not for its actual veracity. However I believe there are a range of modern ways of interpreting rebirth that are rarely considered that differ from the literal ancient account of a linear process that follows directly from a single death to a single birth. I’ve discussed this in my essay From Thought to Destiny.

Here at the Sitagu monastery in Austin, TX we have moved our books into our new library building. They only sparsely occupy the many shelves available to them, but that is a good thing, an open-ended opportunity for expansion. I with the aid of volunteers have been cataloging our books, using the Library of Congress system, for many months, accepting many donations of books and having books purchased to begin to fill the many gaps in our collection. One of the things I’ve been eager to read more about is how “the Rebirth Thing” might actually, contrary to almost everyone’s wildest expectations, be supported by science. Accordingly I’m glad that we now offer some books on this topic.

A number of these books are based on the pioneering research begun by Ian Stevenson at the University of Virgina which over many decades has given us some astonishing case studies of early childhood memories that seem to defy any explanation other than personal experience of the verifiable details of previous lives. I’ll be darned if I can find anything unsound in his methods. Some of the books in question are:

Ian Stevenson, Children Who Remember Previous Lives.

Jim Tucker, Life Before Life.

Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation

In spite of such evidence, “the Rebirth Thing” is generally dismissed out of hand in scientific circles because getting from an old to a new body implies a degree of independence of mind from the physical universe. It is interesting that the pretheoretical assumption underlying this dismissal is being increasingly challenged within science, even within physics. I’ve begun reading a rather thick book that we have acquired from the perspective of cognitive science that arrays arguments against the assumption of the primacy of matter over mind (of course in Buddhism mind has always been primary):

Edward Kelly, et al., Irreducible Mind.

5 Responses to “Books on Rebirth”

  1. josesiem Says:

    Dear Bhante,
    I’d add “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences” by Jeffrey Long. It’s pretty convincing. It’s also worth noting that scientific materialism has a large unacknowledged assumption, and that is: “all reality and all truth can be known via our five senses. And anything that is worth knowing or worth believing falls within this category.”

    This assumption is the materialist’s leap of faith. Even though we know that our human perspective is necessarily, severely limited by our senses and cognition, yet many of us persist on insisting that what is known imperfectly via these senses is all that we can know and all that is worth knowing. Such a view the Buddha would correctly call “unskillful”; for if we only rely on this criterion for determining what is true, we’ll be handicapped in our navigation of this world, i.e., we will not be able to believe in and practice the dhamma.

    My own idea is that without belief in rebirth and kamma, the will and motivation to practice will be, in almost all cases, be largely thwarted, if not completely snuffed out. Steven Batchelor has seemingly managed to pull it off, but I think most of us need that extra motivation.

  2. Visakha Says:

    Reposting what I wrote on Sujato’s blog some time ago.

    We attended a lecture by Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, of the University of Iceland, here in Kandy a few years back. He was quite an impressive speaker, by impressive I mean he seemed quite rigorous about his methodology and limited in his claims. The case that struck us as the most compelling was one from Lebanon, a Druze boy who was unshakable in his conviction that his parents were not his real parents but that he had been the bodyguard of a Druze leader and died protecting him. The detailed evidence included identifying his wife and picking out his prize possession from that life, the very gun. Read it and see for yourself. If we really respect the Kalama Sutta, we won’t be satisfied with other’s prejudices or preconceptions.
    and the following …. if it is of interest. Agree or disagree, but don’t prejudge.
    Erlendur Haraldsson is a professor of psychology at the University of Iceland. Studied philosophy at the universities of Iceland, Edinburg and Freiburg 1955-58. Writer and journalist 1959-63. Studied psychology at the University of Freiburg and University of Munich where he obtained the Dipl. Psych. in 1969. Research fellow at the Institute of Parapsychology in Durham, N. C. 1969-70, internship in clinical psychology at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Virginia in Charlottesville 1970-71. Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Freiburg in 1972. Research associate at the American Society for Psychical Research 1972-74. After that in the Department of Psychology at the University of Iceland. Visiting professor at the University of Virginia, 1982-83, and at the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg 1993-95. Dr. Haraldsson has published numerous scientific articles and book chapters, and is the author of four books, two of which have appeared in English, At the Hour of Death (with Karlis Osis) and Miracles Are My Visiting Cards (US edition Modern Miracles).
    Children who speak of memories of a previous life, case studies and psychological characteristics
    Erlendur Haraldsson (1991). Children claiming past-life memories: Four cases in Sri Lanka. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 5(2), 233-262.
    Erlendur Haraldsson. (1997). Psychological comparison between ordinary children and those who claim previous-life memories. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 323-335.
    Erlendur Haraldsson and Godwin Samararatne (1999). Children who speak of memories of a previous life as a Buddhist monk: Three new cases. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 63(857), 268-291.
    Erlendur Haraldsson (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous life memories I. The case of Purnima Ekanayake. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64(858), 16-25.
    Erlendur Haraldsson (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous life memories II. The case of Chatura Karunaratne. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. 64 (859), 82-92.
    Erlendur Haraldsson, Patrick Fowler & Vimala Periyannanpillai (2000). Psychological Characteristics of Children Who Speak of a Previous Life: A Further Field Study in Sri Lanka Transcultural Psychiatry, 37, 525-544.
    Erlendur Haraldsson and Majd Abu-Izzeddin (2002). Development of Certainty about the Correct Deceased Person in a Case of the Reincarnation Type: The Case of Nazih Al-Danaf. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 16(3), 363-380.
    Erlendur Haraldsson (in press). Children who speak of past-life experiences: Is there a psychological explanation? Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice.
    – – – – –
    and this, for what it is worth ….
    Evidence of Reincarnation
    Elizabeth Fenwick
    Reincarnation – the transmigration of the soul after death to another living body – is one of the oldest and most widely held of mankind’s spiritual beliefs and still forms a central part of the doctrines of Eastern religion. In its most primitive form the concept was independent of any moral teaching, but in more modern times, the idea of reincarnation is associated with reward and punishment, and with a continuity of moral consequences in successive lives. In Hinduism for example, reincarnation is associated with retribution and the law of karma. In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the cycle of death and rebirth continues until earthly desires are extinguished and enlightenment is achieved. The term ‘rebirth’ rather than reincarnation is often used in Buddhist religion, to imply only the continuation of life without the continuation of personal identity.
    Even among cultures which accept reincarnation, beliefs about it differ. It is, for example, important for the Tlingit of Alaska to be reborn into the family of one’s mother, but for the Igbo of Nigeria to be reborn into one’s father’s family. In some cultures birthmarks are attributed to some injury in a previous life and may help to identify a baby’s previous personality. Not surprisingly, when cases of supposed reincarnation do occur, they reflect these differing beliefs.
    The idea of reincarnation is attractive to many people either because the concept of karma seems to offer an explanation for the inequalities of life or because it suggests that there is a meaning and purpose to life. For others, the idea of a ‘past life’ feels intuitively right because it helps to explain feelings, empathies, abilities, which seem to have sprung from some quite inexplicable source and for which there seems to be no logical explanation.
    Belief in reincarnation does not require that previous existences can be remembered. However a few people do claim to have such memories, and past-life memories seem to occur regardless of any cultural or religious belief.. Typically, a child may start to talk about a past life when they are very young, as soon as they are able to talk. Usually the memories seem to fade between the ages of five and eight although some adults do retain these childhood memories. Others have spontaneous flashes of such memories for the first time in adulthood, sometimes triggered by a place or a person who seems unaccountably familiar. Under hypnotic regression most people seem able to recover apparent past-life memories.
    Attempts to ‘prove’ the validity of a past life are very seldom successful, largely because such memories are usually so scanty or non-specific that it is impossible either to prove or to disprove them. A few researchers, notably Professor Ian Stevenson and Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, have reported some persuasive and well documented cases. A more fruitful approach to past-life research may be that of Professor Haraldsson; to try to find common characteristics amongst children who have such memories.
    For most past-life memories, especially those retrieved under hypnosis, there are rational explanations, for example cryptomnesia (the emergence of forgotten memories) suggestibility, fantasy or imagination, hysterical dissociation, wishful thinking or self-delusion. A few, especially those of very young children, seem to defy rational explanation. Whether reincarnation provides that explanation remains debatable. The fact remains that a few such cases do seem to offer evidence for the transfer of information independently of a brain. The search for a mechanism for such extra-cerebral information transfer continues.
    Key texts
    Stevenson, Ian., Children who Remember Previous Lives University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. 1987. ISBN 0 8139 1154 0.
    Probably the best scientifically argued account of the case for reincarnation. Stevenson reviews the history and world-wide extent of belief in reincarnation and presents summaries of 12 of the most compelling cases he has studied, the majority Asian, but including a few Western examples. Stevenson sometimes fails to give enough weight to the cultural and social factors which may be involved in ‘proving’ a past life, but many of his cases are convincingly argued and all make interesting reading.
    Stevenson, Ian. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiolgoy of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. (Two volumes). Praeger Publishers, Westport CTO6881, USA 1997. ISBN 0 275 95282 7 and,
    Stevenson, Ian, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect Praeger Publishers, Westport CTO6881, USA 1997. ISBN 0 275 95188 X
    The latter book is an abbreviated version of the former, which is Ian Stevenson’s impressive two volume work on reincarnation. In many of the cases he has studied, violent death has played a part, and the main thrust of this work is to establish a correlation between birthmarks and birth defects in children and marks of violent death in a supposed previous life. Stevenson is a conscientious and meticulous researcher; all of his data is interesting and much is very persuasive. He is, however, no more successful than anyone else in suggesting a credible mechanism for the transfer of memories in apparent reincarnation, or in explaining how physical characteristics of a dead person could become imprinted on an unborn fetus. Essential reading for anyone interested in reincarnation.
    Stevenson, Ian. Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy University Press of Virginia. 1984.
    Xenoglossy, the ability to speak and understand a language that has apparently never been learnt, is one of the most fascinating, and unusual phenomena of apparent reincarnation. In this book Stevenson explores two of the most interesting and well documented such cases on record; Dolores Jay, who under hypnosis manifested as ‘Gretchen’, a German speaking personality, and Uttara Haddur, who over a fifteen year period of her life, was repeatedly taken over by the personality of ‘Sharada’ a young 19th Century Bengali – and Bengali speaking – woman.
    Fenwick, Peter and Elizabeth. Past Lives Headline, 1999. ISBN 0 7472 1841 2.
    A good overview of the topic, it re-examines many of the most interesting and best-attested cases on record, and also analyses over a hundred first hand British accounts given to the authors by people who believe they have memories of a past life. The Fenwicks discuss how far a Western scientific framework can explain these memories, and where we might look for answers outside such a framework.
    Cockell, Jenny, Yesterday’s Children. London, Piatkus Books, 1993. ISBN 0 7499 1246 4.
    Throughout an unhappy childhood Jenny Cockell was haunted by dream memories of an Irish woman called Mary, her death in her mid-thirties, and the eight children she left behind. As an adult she underwent a hypnotic regression in which she seemed to recover sufficient details about her family and her circumstances to try to trace them. The book is a personal account, describing her successful search for the family she felt she had abandoned in a previous life. Jenny’s transparent honesty and her total conviction make her story worth reading, whether or not one accepts it in its entirety. Her later book, Past Lives, Future Lives (Piatkus, 1996) extends her story.
    Pasricha, S. 1990 Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India. Harman Publishing House, New Delhi.
    Satwant Pasricha is an associate of Ian Stevenson’s,. and has independently investigated Indian cases of children than any other Indian researcher. She describes 45 such cases and compares them with cases studied in other countries. The main weakness of her cases is one that applies to many such cases – the child’s statements are seldom recorded at the time they are made, and have often been contaminated by the passage of time and the rewriting of history that tends to happen when a family makes its own attempts to ‘solve’ a case.
    Rogo, D. Scott The Search for Yesterday, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1985.
    The first book by a parapsychologist to examine the evidence for reincarnation. A popular, journalistic, rather than an academic book, it identifies the few good hypnotic regression cases, but under-estimates and sometimes misjudges Ian Stevenson’s work in the field.
    TenDam, Hans Exploring Reincarnation, London, Arkana, 1987. ISBN 0 14 019204 2.
    An excellent book for the serious student. Comprehensive and dispassionate, it begins with a consideration of the hypothesis and its history, moving on to experiences, including spontaneous recall, prebirth memories, regression and experiences around death. The third section is an extensive philosophical discussion of various possible views of the topic.
    Woolger, Roger Other Lives, Other Selves, London, Crucible, 1987. ISBN 1 85274 084 1.
    One of the best books on hypnotic regression and its implications for psychotherapy. The author, originally a sceptic, is trained in Jungian analysis. Here he expands Jungian theory beyond childhood events and offers a holistic approach to altering destructive emotional patterns. With the help of case histories, he explores the connection between past life illness and current life fitness – both emotional and physical. He documents a number of psychological conditions that have responded to this approach.
    Bowman, Carol Childrens’ Past Lives, Shaftesbury, Element, 1997. ISBN 1 86204 149 0.
    Extends Woolger’s work into children. The author recounts the discovery of the ostensible past life source of her own children’s phobias – her son’s phobia of loud noises completely disappeared after remembering an experience from the Civil War. The first part reports many new cases, the second gives guidance to parents and the third reports on children’s insights into the nature of life and death.
    Weiss, Brian L. Many Lives, Many Masters, London, Piatkus, 1994. ISBN 0 7499 1378 9.
    The first in a series of three books by psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss, in which he documents his own astonishment when he tried hypnosis on a young patient and she began to channel messages about his own life that only made sense within a larger metaphysical framework than that acquired in medical schools. These are followed up by Through Time to Healing (Piatkus, 1992) and Only Love is Real (Piatkus, 1996), which are also well worth reading.
    Leggett, D.M.A. and Payne, Max A Forgotten Truth, Pilgrim Books, 1986. ISBN 0 946259 14 3.
    The title refers to the hypothesis of serial existence and the book is a rigorous and scholarly treatment of the theme. Part 1 looks at the question of evidence and scriptural references, framing a hypothesis that life can be likened to a school. Some fascinating philosophical reflections follow from an alleged discarnate Teacher. Part 2 considers the implications for science, religion and society. A searching study.
    Head, Joseph and Cranston, Sylvia Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York, Julian Press, 1977. ISBN 0 517 528932.
    A comprehensive historical anthology bringing together thoughts about reincarnation across cultures and history. A sourcebook that should be in every library. Cranston’s follow-up book Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion and Society (with Carey Williams, Julian Press, 1984) gives further material from scientists and religious teachers, while also taking a look at some perennial social issues from a reincarnation viewpoint. Both books advocate a reincarnation view and do not consider possible objections. For a critical discussion from a Christian angle, see Hick, John, Death and Eternal Life (Collins, 1976), chapters 16-19. Geddes McGregor’s book Reincarnation in Christianity (Theosophical Publishing House, 1978).

  3. Ben J. Says:

    Hello Bhante,

    One book that might be a good addition to the library on this topic is Nagapriya’s ‘Karma and Rebith.’

    Ben J. Wales, U.K.

  4. James Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I’ve also found the book “Many Lives, Many Masters” by Brian Weiss to be very helpful.

    It’s not a scholarly work, but a firsthand account from a modern, scientifically-minded person.

  5. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi Says:

    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. The is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth of Spiritual Head Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”. – .

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