If you don't like Ken Wilber, Integral theory, or the contents of Buddhism you probably won't like this article.
Some type of reincarnation doctrine is found in virtually every mystical religious tradition the world over. Even Christianity accepted it until around the fourth century CE, when, for largely political reasons, it was made anathema. Many Christian mystics today now accept the idea. As the Christian theologian John Hick pointed out in his important work Death and Eternal Life, the consensus of the world religions, including Christianity, is that some sort of reincarnation occurs.
Of course, the fact that many people believe something does not rank it true. And it is very difficult to support the idea of reincarnation appealing to "evidence" in the form of alleged past-life memories, because in most cases these can be shown to be only a revival of subconscious memory trace from this life.
Yet this problem is not as serious as it might at first appear, because the doctrine of reincarnation, as used by the great mystical traditions, is a very specific notion: It does not mean that the mind travels through successive lives and therefore that under special conditions—for example, hypnosis—the mind can recall all of its past lives. On the contrary, it is the soul, not the mind, that transmigrates. Hence, the fact that reincarnation cannot be proven by appeal to memories of past lives is exactly what we should expect: Specific memories, ideas, knowledge, and so on, belong to the mind and do not generally transmigrate. All of that left behind, with the body, at death. (Perhaps a few specific memories can sneak through every now and then, as the cases recorded by professor Ian Stevenson and others suggest, but these would be the exception rather than the rule.) What transmigrates is the soul, and the soul is not a set of memories or ideas or beliefs.
Rather, according to most branches of the perennial philosophy, the soul has two basic defining characteristics: First, it is the repository of one's "virtue" (or lack thereof)—that is, of one's karma, both good and bad; second, it is one's "strength" of awareness, or one's capacity to "witness" the phenomenal world without attachment or aversion. This capacity is also known as "wisdom." The accumulation of these two—virtue and wisdom—constitutes the soul, which is the only thing that transmigrates. So, when people claim to be "remembering" a past life—where they lived, what they did for a living, and so on—they are probably not, according to any major religion or branch of the perennial philosophy, remembering any actual past lives. Only Buddhas (or tulkus), it is said, can usually remember past lives—the major exception to the rule. Even the Dalai Lama has said he cannot remember his past lives, which should perhaps serve as a reminder to those who think they can.
But if ostensible past-life memories are not good evidence for reincarnation, what other type of evidence could there be to support the doctrine? Here we should remember that the perennial philosophy in general allows three major and different types of knowledge and its verification: sensory or empirical knowledge; mental or logical knowledge; and spiritual or contemplative knowledge. Reincarnation is not primarily a sensory or a mental hypothesis; it cannot easily be explained or verified using sensory data or logical deduction. It is a spiritual hypothesis, which is to be tested with the eye of contemplation, not with the eye of flesh or the eye of mind. So, although we will find little ordinary evidence to convince us about reincarnation, once we take up contemplation and become fairly proficient at it, we will start to notice certain obvious facts—for example, that the witnessing position, the soul position, begins to partake of eternity, of infinity.
There is a timeless nature about the soul that becomes perfectly obvious and unmistakable: one actually begins to "taste" the immortality of the soul, to intuit that the soul is to some extent above time, above history, above life and death. In this way one becomes gradually convinced that the soul does not die with the body or the mind, that the soul has existed before and will exist again. But this usually has nothing to do with specific memories of past lives. Rather, it is a recollection of that aspect of the soul that touches spirit and is therefore radically and perfectly timeless. In fact, from this angle it becomes obvious that, as the great Vedantic seer Shankara put it, "The one and only transmigrant is the Lord," or absolute Spirit itself. It is ultimately Buddha-mind itself: the One and Only, that is appearing as all these forms, manifesting itself as all these appearances, transmigrating as all these souls. In the deeper stages of contemplation, this realization of eternity, of spirit as undying and indestructible, becomes quite palpable.
Yet, according to the perennial teachings, it is not merely the Absolute that transmigrates. If the soul awakens, or dissolves in spirit, then it no longer transmigrates; it is "liberated," or it realizes that, as spirit, it reincarnated everywhere, as all things. But, if the soul does not awaken to spirit, if it is not enlightened, then it is reincarnated, taking with it the accumulation of its virtue and wisdom, rather than specific recollections of its mind. And this chain of rebirths continues until these two accumulations—virtue and wisdom—finally reach a critical point, whereupon the soul becomes enlightened, or dissolved and released in spirit, thus bringing individual transmigration to an end.
Even Buddhism, which denies the absolute existence of the soul, acknowledges that the soul has a relative, or conventional, existence, and that this relatively or conventionally existing soul does transmigrate, When the Absolute, or shunyata, is directly experienced, the relative transmigration—and the separate soul—comes to an end. One might think, however, that a Buddhist would object to our use of the word soul in this context, since this term generally has the connotation of something that is indestructible or everlasting—a connotation that seems to be incompatible with the Buddhist idea that the soul has only a relative and temporary existence. A closer look at the teachings of the perennial philosophy, however, will resolve this apparent contradiction.
According to the perennial tradition, the soul is indeed indestructible, but when it fully discovers spirit, its own sense of separateness is dissolved or transcended. The soul still remains as the individuality, or expression of the particular person, but its being or center shifts to spirit, thus dissolving its illusion of separateness. And this doctrine accords almost exactly with the highest teachings of Buddhism—the anuttaratantra yoga, or "highest Tantra teaching"—according to which there exists at the very center of the heart chakra, in each and every individual, what is technically called "the indestructible drop" (or luminosity). As the Vajrayana teaches, it is this indestructible drop that transmigrates. Further, it is indestructible; even Buddhas are said to possess it. The destructible drop is said to be the seat of the very subtle "wind" (rLung) that supports the "very subtle [or causal] mind," the mind of enlightenment, or one's spiritual essence. Hence, Buddhism agrees with the perennial philosophy: The indestructible drop is the soul, the continuum, as I have defined it.
STAGES OF THE DYING PROCESS: DISSOLUTION OF THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
The various branches of the perennial philosophy agree, in a general way, about the stages of the dying process and the experiences that accompany these stages: Death is a process in which the Great Chain of Being "dissolves," for the individual, "from the bottom up," so to speak. That is, upon death, the body dissolves into mind, then mind dissolves to soul, then soul dissolves into spirit, with each of these dissolutions marked by a specific set of events. For example, body dissolving into mind is the actual process of physical death. Mind dissolving into soul is experienced as a review and "judgment" of one's life. Soul dissolving into spirit is a radical release and transcendence. Then the process "reverses," so to speak, and based upon one's accumulated karmic tendencies, one generates a soul out of spirit, then a mind out of soul, then a body out of mind—whereupon one forgets all the previous steps and finds oneself reborn in a physical body. According to the Tibetans, the whole process takes about forty-nine days.
The Tibetan tradition contains the richest, most detailed phenomenological description of the stages of the dissolution of the Great Chain during the dying process. According to the Tibetans, the subjective experiences that accompany each of what are said to be eight stages of the dissolution are known technically as: "mirage," "smoke-like," "fireflies," "butter lamp," "white appearance," "red increase," "black near-attainment," and "clear light." In order to understand these terms, we need a somewhat more precise and detailed version of the Great Chain. So, instead of our simplified version of body, mind, soul, and spirit, we will use a slightly expanded version: matter, sensation, perception, intention, cognition, psychic, subtle, causal (or formless unmanifest), and spirit (or ultimate).
The first stage of the dying process occurs when the aggregate of form, or matter—the lowest level of the great chain—dissolves. There are said to be five external signs of this: the body loses its physical power; one's vision becomes unclear and blurred; the body become heavy and feels like it is "sinking"; life goes out of the eyes; and the body's complexion loses its luster. The internal sign, which occurs spontaneously with these outer signs, is a "mirage-like appearance," a type of shimmering, watery image, such as appears in a desert on a hot day. This is said to occur because, technically, the "wind" (rLung) of the "earth" element has dissolved in the "central channel" and the "water" element thus predominates—hence, the watery or mirage-like appearance.
Next, the second aggregate, that of sensation, dissolves. Again there are five external signs: One ceases to have bodily sensations, pleasant or unpleasant; mental sensations cease; bodily fluids dry up (the tongue becomes very dry, for example); one no longer perceives external sounds; and inner sounds (buzzing in the ears, for example) also cease. The internal sign associated with this second dissolution is a "smoke-like appearance," which is like a fog. Technically, this is said to occur because the "water" element, which caused the mirage-like appearance, is dissolving into the "fire" element-hence the smoky appearance.
The third stage is the dissolution of the third level or aggregate, that of perception or discernment. The five external signs: One can no longer recognize or discern objects; one can no longer recognize friends or family; the warmth of the body is lost (the body becomes cold); one's inhalation becomes very weak and shallow; and one can no longer detect smells. The internal sign spontaneously accompanying this stage is called "fireflies," which is described as an appearance like a bunch of fireflies or cinder sparks from a fire. Technically, this is said to occur because the "fire" element has dissolved and the "wind" element n predominates.
The fourth stage is the dissolution of the fourth level or aggregate, that of intention (or "intentional formations"). The five external signs of this dissolution: One can no longer move (because there are no impulses); one can no longer recollect actions or their purposes; all breathing stops; the tongue becomes thick and blue and one can no longer speak clearly; and one can no longer experience tastes. The internal sign of this is a "butter-lamp appearance," described as looking like a steady, clear, bright light. (At this point we can start to see similarities with the near-death experience, which I will discuss further below).
To understand the fifth and subsequent stages of the dissolution process, it is necessary to know a little Tantric physiology. According to Vajrayana, all mental states—gross, subtle, and very subtle (or causal)bare supported by corresponding "winds," or energies, or life forces, (prana in Sanskrit, rLung in Tibetan). When these winds dissolve, their corresponding minds also dissolve. Stage five is the dissolution of the fifth level or aggregate, that of cognition, or gross consciousness itself. As the Vajrayana teachings make clear, however, there are many levels of consciousness. These levels are divided into what are called the gross mind, the subtle mind, and the very subtle mind, each of which dissolves in order, producing specific signs and experiences. So, stage five is the dissolution of the gross mind, along with the "wind" that supports it. There is then no gross conceptualization, no ordinary mind, left.
During this fifth stage, after the last of the gross mind dies away and the first of the subtle mind emerges, one experiences a state called "white appearance." This is said to be a very bright, very clear white light, like a clear autumn night brilliantly lit by a shimmering full moon. To understand the cause of this white appearance, however, we have to introduce the Tibetan notion of thig-le, which means, roughly, "drops" or "essence." According to Vajrayana, there are four drops, or essences, that are particularly important. One, the white drop, is said to be located at the crown of the head; one receives it from one's father, and it is said to represent (or to actually be) bodhichitta, or enlightenment-mind. The second, the red drop, one receives from one's mother; it is located at the naval center. (The white drop is also said to be connected with semen, the red drop with [menstrual] blood, but the point is that men and women have both, equally.) The third, which is called "the drop that is indestructible for this life," is located at the very center of the heart chakra. This drop is, so to speak, the essence of this particular lifetime of the individual; it is one's "continuum," which stores all the impressions and understandings of this particular life. And inside this "drop that is indestructible for life" is the fourth drop, "the drop that is eternally indestructible or forever indestructible." This is the indestructible drop that remains forever—that is, it is indestructible through this life, indestructible through death and the dying process, indestructible through the bardo, or intermediate state between death and rebirth, and through rebirth itself. This drop even remains through enlightenment and is in fact, the very subtle wind that serves as the "mount," or basis, of enlightenment being. As mentioned before, even Buddhas are said to possess this eternally indestructible drop.
So, what we have seen so far is the dissolution of all the gross winds and the gross minds associated with them. The first subtle mind has thus emerged—that of "white appearance"—and it is "riding" a correspondingly subtle wind, or subtle energy. Now, the actual cause of this mind of white appearance is said to be the descent of the white drop, or bodhichitta, from the crown to the heart chakra. Usually, it is said, the white drop is held at the crown chakra by constricting knots and winds of ignorance and gross-level clinging and grasping. But at this stage of the dying process, the gross mind has dissolved, so the knots around the crown chakra naturally loosen, and the white drop descends to the indestructible drop at the heart chakra. When it reaches it, the mind of white appearance spontaneously arises.
Incidentally, if these Tibetan explanations of the phenomena in question sound a bit far-fetched, we should remember that there is a tremendous amount of contemplative evidence supporting the existence of the various experiences said to occur during the dying process. The experiences themselves are real and seem largely incontrovertible, but there is plenty of room to argue with the traditional Tibetan account of what actually causes them. (I'll return to this point shortly.) Here I am merely describing the straight Tibetan version as a point of departure.
Nevertheless, we should also keep in mind that, unlike our own Western culture, traditional cultures like the Tibetan live with death constantly; people die in their homes, surrounded by family and friends. The actual stages of the dying process have thus been observed thousands, even millions of times. And when we add the further fact that the Tibetans possess a rather sophisticated understanding of the spiritual dimension and its development, the result is an incredibly rich store of knowledge and wisdom about the actual dying process and how it relates to the spiritual dimension, to spiritual development, to karma and rebirth, and so on. Clearly, it would be foolish for an investigator to toss out the massive data that this tradition has accumulated.
But, to continue with the stages of the dying process. At stage six, the subtle mind and its wind dissolve, and an even subtler mind, called "red increase," emerges. Red increase is also an experience of brilliant light; but in this case, it is an experience like a clear autumn day pervaded by bright sunlight. Technically, this is said to occur because the gross life-supporting winds have dissolved, and thus all the knots and constrictions around the navel, which were holding the red bodhichitta, or red drop at the navel, are released or unloosened, and the red drop rises up to the indestructible drop at the heart. When it reaches it, the mind of red increase spontaneously arises.
Stage seven is said to be the dissolution of the subtle mind of red increase and the emergence of an even subtler mind and wind, called "the mind of black near-attainment." In this state, all consciousness ceases, all manifestation dissolves. Further, there is a cessation of all of the specific consciousnesses and energies that were developed in this life. The experience is said to be one of a completely black night, with no stars, no light. It is called "near-attainment" because it is "nearing" the final attainment, so to speak; it is nearing the clear light void. This level, in other words, can be thought of as the highest of the subtle or the lowest of the causal, or as the unmanifest dimension of spirit itself. Technically, this "blackness" is said to occur because the white drop from above and the red drop from below now surround the indestructible drop, thus cutting off all awareness.
In the next and final stage, however—in stage eight—the white drop continues downward and the red drop continues upward, thus freeing or opening the indestructible drop. Then, it is said, a period of extraordinary clarity and brilliant awareness results, which is experienced like an extremely clear, bright, and radiant sky, free from any type of blemish, any clouds, any obstructions. This is the clear light.
Now, the mind of clear light is said to be not a subtle mind, but a very subtle mind, and it mounts a correspondingly very subtle wind or energy. This very subtle or "causal" mind and energy are, in fact, the mind and energy of the eternally indestructible drop. This is the causal body, or the ultimate spiritual mind and energy, the Dharmakaya. At this point, the eternally indestructible drop sheds the lifetime indestructible drop, all consciousness ceases, and the soul, the eternally indestructible drop, commences the bardo experience, or the intermediate states that will eventually lead to rebirth. The white drop continues downward and appears as a drop of semen on the sexual organ, and the red drop continues upward and appears as a drop of blood at the nostrils. Death, finally, has occurred, and the body can be disposed of. To do so before this has occurred makes one karmically guilty of murder, because the body is still alive.