Reincarnation of the personality?

If they can find reincarnated lamas, why can't I find my reincarnated father?

Katinka Hesselink (September 2006)

This is a complicated question, that relates to the question: what is it that reincarnates? In itself this question is related to the doctrine of Anatma in Buddhism. 

First let's look at what it is that is thought to reincarnate when they find the reincarnation of a high Tibetan Buddhist Lama, like the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are thought to have three bodies: 

Of these the nirmanakaya is the physical body of the Buddha, which can't reincarnate, because it dies. The dharmakaya is so ethereal that it doesn't have any finite characteristics. In other words: it can't be defined as being a specific 'person' or 'consciousness'. The sambhogakaya is the level at which one can say that there is an individuality it of sorts: its the repository of the wisdom of the Buddha or Bodhisattva. This sambhogakaya of the Tibetan Buddhist lamas are said to reincarnate into new bodies. Since these are Bodhisattvas and therefore spiritual teachers, there is great interest in finding them again. Still, the Dalai Lama himself notes that though he feels a connection to the previous Dalai Lama's, he also considers himself his own person. 

A normal person who isn't a Bodhisattva, let alone a Buddha doesn't have these three bodies. We do have a physical body of course, but on a spiritual level we haven't evolved the sambhagakaya yet, nor have we gained the Absolute Wisdom necessary to 'reach' or 'activate' (or something) the dharmakaya. Therefore there isn't a spiritual body to reincarnate that has enough individuality to be connected to the previous personality. 

In other words: what reincarnates in normal people is the karmic consequences, according to Buddhist teachers, not so much the personality. Theosophy does teach that each of us has a spiritual essence that learns in each incarnation. Still, this essence (Buddhi-Atma) isn't the personality, nor is it developed into a sambhogakaya yet - that only happens in full blown Bodhisattvas. So this spiritual essence is more like the germ of the future sambhogakaya, if that individuality ever develops into a Bodhisattva. 

So why can't you find your father's reincarnation? The most immediate answer is that the personality of your father is lost forever. His reincarnation will have his karma, but not his specific personality traits. He will not like all the same things, wear any of the same clothes, identify with the same nation, know the same language etc. His karma will be the karma resulting from the life you knew him in, as well as the lives before that. But karma is more than action, it is also thought, and words. Each of us only sees part of the others in our lives. We don't know the hidden kindnesses even our closest relatives perform, nor any hidden cruelty. But those add up to the total karma of a person as much as what we do see. 

A secondary answer is that for there is no need for you to meet your father in his new incarnation. If there was, you would find him. If your father died of natural causes, his time on this earth was over and he is on his way though whatever states of consciousness precede a new incarnation - to his new fate. There is a reason we don't remember previous lives, and that reason is (in short) that it would be a tremendous burden if we remembered them all... ( more on reasons we don't remember our past lives )