Past Lives and their spiritual meaning

What does my past life say about me now?

Katinka Hesselink, 2006

Reincarnation has become a household word. Everybody has some idea of what it means. Roughly it means that 'I' have been something/someone else in a previous lifetime. What does that say about who I am now? That depends. 

In theosophical and Buddhist thought there is no implication that my personality reincarnates. Katinka Hesselink (with red cheeks and a website) is a one-time occurance. Still in both philosophies and in Hindu-thought as well, reincarnation is a given. So what is it that reincarnates? Again Buddhism and theosophy agree: the skandhas reincarnate (roughly).

The skandhas, agents of reincarnation

The Five Skandhas are:

  1. "form" (sa., pi. rūpa):
    the body and the six sense organs and their objects - 18 Dhatus. rūpa is created by four components (sa., pi. mahābhūta): earth, wind, fire and water.
  2. "sensation" or feeling, NOT emotion (sa., pi. vedanā):
    sensing only, without differentiating pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  3. "perception" or "cognition" (sa. saṃjā, pi. saā):
    registers whether sense data is recognized or not (ie sound of a bell or shape of a tree). - (from samyutta-ana, conditioned knowledge) perception, recognition. It is ordinarily conditioned by one's past sankhara, and therefore conveys a coloured image of reality. In the practice of Vipassana, saa is changed into paa, the understanding of reality as it is. It becomes anicca-saa, dukkha-saa, anatta-saa, asubha-saa--that is, the perception of impermanence, suffering, egolessness, and of the illusory nature of physical beauty.
  4. "mental formations", "volition" (sa. saṃskāra, pi. saṅkhāra - see Samskara) :
    all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, compulsions, and decisions that arised after having saṃjā. Saṃskāras are the source of karma.
  5. "consciousness" (sa. vijāna, pi. viāṇa): conscious base that support all experience. (ie not asleep, knocked out or unconscious).
[ Wikipedia on the skandhas - found april 2006]

These five skandhas are together roughly our personalities. We have a form (our bodies), we have the sensation, we have perception, we have thought and habits, and we have consciousness. How we use those aspects of ourselves is karma. What we do, think and speak creates habits - and those habits bundled up together reincarnate (i.e. the fourth and fifth skandha) .

Theosophy ads that our higher insights are also going to reincarnate, and Blavatsky called this our higher self. This is implicit in Buddhism as well, as it is generally assumed that those who strive for perfection will keep gaining wisdom throughout their lives. It is not clear to me how that combines with the skandhas, but it does combine with the general law of karma. 

Karma means that what we do, say and think has consequences not only in the moment, but also for ourselves in the long run. One way in which it has consequences is in forming habits. If you have the habit of being generous, that habit (a mental formation, the fourth skandha) will reincarnate. Another way in which karma works is more direct: good actions reap good consequences. If I have been generous, it is likely the universe will be generous to me, though there is no specification that this means I will be rich. It does mean that I'm likely to get what I need. 

What does this have to do with my past lives?

Patience, reincarnation isn't an easy subject to understand, there are many nuances... Still I think the following can be said:

Wait - what did you say?

Your personality in this life is a logical outgrowth of the karmic consequences of your past lives.

In other words: your present personality is a new development. Your present personality is based to a large extent on your present circumstances, your education, country of birth, parents and generally your experiences, choices you made in this life and genetics. 

Your past life did have something to do with it: All of the above causes can in themselves be karmic. It is very likely that your parents were the people you deserved (on some level) to grow up with. Your choices are determined not just by your circumstances and genes, but also by the type of choices you made in previous lives - and your insights then and now. 

Karmic consequences come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: based on what you need to learn, based on what you have deserved, based on the kinds of parents available etc. Your mental habits - ultimately the most powerful aspect in this whole story - are what make you 'you'. They decide how hard it is for you to live right. Your mental habits, and this includes emotional tendencies, determine whether the challenge of your life is to stay out of jail, to overcome laziness, greed, pride, jealousy etc. 

So what does your past life say about you? It is the blueprint of where you came from, what your starting-point in life is. But you do not need to know your past life - for most of us it is irrelevant. We can see where we came from looking a bit closer to home: who we were as kids, who are parents are, what neighborhoods we grew up with, what challenges we faced and face every day.

Ultimately what matters is the choices we make today. Do I face my issues today, or do I let myself go on in the routine of everything being 'good enough'. If I face up to who I am today, each day - where I came from isn't as important as where I'm headed.