from The Theosophist March 1993

Thinking about Reincarnation

Hugh Shearman

Did we get it right about reincarnations? When the writer first became aware of the traditions and reputation of the Theosophical Society early in the 1920's, the Society seemed to be represented to the public at large as a sort of reincarnationist sect. On later and closer acquaintance, it proved to be not quite like that; but reincarnation was in those days such a novel doctrine in western countries that for a long time this idea of recurrent lives seemed to most people to be the Society's most notable mark of identity and its most interesting contribution to thought.

Reincarnations also seemed to many to be dangerously or excitingly anti-Christian. In 1924 a book appeared, entitled Modern Religious Movements in India, by a Dr. J. N. Farquhar. This work gave special attention to the Theosophical Society, representing it as promulgating a system of belief built largely on a doctrine of reincarnation. To show that reincarnation was anti-Christian and untrue, Farquhar quoted from the New Testament: "It is appointed unto men once to die; but after this the judgement" (Hebrews, 9:27). So far as Theosophy was concerned, Farquhar warned his readers that "Every Christian teacher and minister ought to inform himself of the true nature of this poisonous anti-Christian system".

Theosophists were, however, able to respond with other quotations from Christian scriptures which seemed to support a reincarnationist view, notably the assertion of the Christ Himself that John the Baptist was a return visit to earth by the prophet Elijah. What failed to emerge was that these two views of reincarnation are by no means incompatible.

Already, somewhat similarly, two views of reincarnation had seemed to find a place in HPB's writings. In Isis Unveiled she had seemed to treat reincarnation dismissively and even to deny it, while in The Secret Doctrine there is expressed a fundamental reincarnationist philosophy of recurrent forthgoing and return. Yet within that philosophy there is also ground to both accept and reject specific understandings of what reincarnation implies.

What seems to matter is, in our discourse on the subject of reincarnation, whether we are discussing it from the point of view of present personality or from that of the whole of human nature. One hears people talking about "my" past lives or "my" next life; but who is "me"? Very often the "me" that says these things has surely never had a past life and will never have a future one.

The message of Theosophy is that all this world that confronts us every day, and our personal selves within it, is only a secondary effect and that our life and circumstances can never be understood as a harmonious whole until they are seen in the light of the primary reality which underlies them and brought them into being. Human personality is only a part of this secondary effect, and behind it also there is a primary source.

Our difficulty lies in the fact that when, as human personalities, we discuss these things, we do it only as personalities and in a language which has been created to serve the uses and limitations of personality. In some of our theosophical books we try to express our view of life in diagrams. In such diagrams we can put a "higher" self at the top and a "lower" self at the bottom, but the words we use are often wrong. How could a lower self "have" a higher self? And what right has a lower self or personality to talk possessively of "my" higher self, as if it was "my" bicycle or "me breakfast?

A major ingredient, quite a core ingredient, of human personality is a mind which is oriented or fixated to assessing everything, including selfhood, as separate from everything else. This mind can perform many ingenious operations by analysis and comparison. But there is an undertone of antithesis in all that it does. It is dualistic and separative, like one of those electronic computers which can work up large factual structures from a basis of "1" and "0"

It is this mode of functioning that makes the personal mind the "slayer of the Real", since the Real is pronounced by the wise to be one and whole and therefor not amenable to dualistic or antithetical operations of perception nor capable of being interpreted in terms of such perception.

If we may then permit ourselves for the moment to speak of reincarnation after the dualistic personal way of thinking and speech, the "higher: self, grounded in oneness and wholeness, projects into this secondary world of duality and separateness a personality or "lower" self. This is done for a purpose. In due course the personality is withdrawn again through the process of death. The personal mind, which interpreted everything in terms of a "me" or of some personally defined starting point, is dissolved and as Faquahar and the New Testament have agreed, after death comes judgement.

The judgement at the close of an incarnation will be an assessment of how far the personal self has fulfilled its function as an instrument or projection extended by the higher self. In so far as it has succeeded in discovering and expressing qualities and capacities that can be subsumed into the life of the higher self, it can be said to have achieved a measure of "salvation". In so far as it has failed to do this it represents something of a loss and is discarded.

A somewhat morbid view of the death of personality grew up among Christians. Outside Jerusalem, at a place called Gehenna, municipal rubbish was disposed of by lighting fires. From metaphors based on this, various ingenious but not very credible images of a hell were developed. In our own less morbid thinking we my be content to dispose of the undeveloped remnants of personality on a compost heap rather than on a bonfire. This would probably come closer to indicating what happens, for there is no waste in the larger economy of things.

The death of a personality seems to dispose of it finally so far as our kind of time concerned, though it must be rarely that nothing is salvaged or saved by the higher self. The fact that the higher self may soon embark on another enterprise does not necessarily mean that this new personality is in any obvious way a continuation of the one preceding it. The new personality is to be a reincarnation of the higher self and not of the previous personality.

It happens to many of us that from time to time we catch glimpses of previous lives and of ourselves dressed in the garments of some past incarnation. Unfortunately so much of the interest that is found in such glimpses is expressed only in terms of current personality values - status in some past civilization, love affairs in ancient Egypt - that we take little note and get very little information about what such an experience is really like or how that other past personality differs from the present one.

Quite clearly there is a feeling that this is indeed "I", the same "I" that dwells somewhere in the inner life of our present personality. But that other past personality is immensely different in its values and thinking, perhaps in its age or sex, and certainly in its relational environment. It is virtually somebody else, though we ourselves probably feel better equipped to sympathize with it than is anybody else. The fact that that other personality possibly speaks a language quite different from ours and thinks in terms of the values imposes by that language is also a curiously baffling or even alienating factor.

But in all this we are even now using the language and values of our present personal thinking and conditioning. To talk about higher or lower self, as we do, involves illusion. These are not opposite nor antithetical. At the present evolutionary stage of common humanity, the separative and dualistic mind tends to be the guiding factor. It has shaped our language and we cannot avoid talking in this way; but, in the inclusive values of primary reality, the processes we are observing are all one "thing".

It is in The Voice of the Silence that we are told that the mind is "the great slayer of the Real". It does not necessarily destroy reality when we put it to some mechanical task within its own scope, such as counting money, darning socks or flying to the moon. But mind in us is focused through its personal dualistic mode of operation and so is incapable of knowing the intrinsic wholeness of primary reality. Primary reality cannot be meditated or translated intellectually into terms of its own secondary expression. True wisdom or Theosophy cannot be merely an explanation, subject to comparison, analysis and the other specific functions of the separative personal mind.

Something of the limitations of this mind can be appreciated if we consider the factor of time. For our practical purposes in this material world, time in our way of thinking is a comparison between or among two or more recurrent processes. Some of this comparison is almost unconscious. One of the standards to judge time is by the metabolism of the body, with the result that time seems to move more slowly when that metabolism is speeded up, as in childhood or when our bodily temperature is raised in some feverish ailment. But once the personality is dissolved, that kind of comparison is no longer available and time certainly becomes something different. We too shall be different and surely less likely to use time to "look before and after, and pine for what is not " or to entertain prudential hopes and fears.

Though it may give a sort of courtesy recognition to a "higher" self, which is harmonious, unitive and guided by a mind which, to quote again The Voice of The Silence , "like a becalmed and boundless ocean spreadeth out in shoreless space", the personal mind, by its dualistic thinking, understands life in separative terms. Concerned basically with a separative "me" , it thinks in terms of self and not-self , myself and the rest. It thinks confrontationally and produces conflict, exploitation, selfishness and violence.

Though thoughtful people feel trapped in the turbulent and painful world that is created by this way of thinking, they cannot "think" any way our of it. When religion tells of a primary reality, a perfect wholeness, those accustomed to dualistic thinking, indeed incapable of anything else, have perverted the notion of wholeness into a thing among things, an opposite of something else, sometimes even making primary reality or wholeness into an old gentleman with a beard.

So reincarnation, like so many other topics we discuss in the Theosophical Society, has a truth varying according to the quality of mind we bring to it. Only an awareness that enters us from some level closer to primary reality can liberate us from this troubled secondary existence which we dip into each time we incarnate. May it not be that the altered perception which such considerations may evoke in us can in the end prove much more valuable than any extension of our ideas about the supposed machinery of reincarnation? And does not the TS exist, not to present the mind with theories, images or opinions, but rather to elicit that intuition of wholeness which can free us from such things?


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