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Reincarnation or eternal recurrence?
What are your thoughts?

This page was commented on at StumbleUpon as follows:
"I recommend this discussion of reincarnation and eternal recurrence because it opens into many viewpoints, and it also invites comments. It turns the mind inside out by such statements as, 'We have technology making the vast libraries of earth available at the tap of a key, yet of all the topics we might bring up, the mystery of birth and death, of coming into existence and passing away, lies at the heart of everything we do.'"

Bulletin: This photograph caption has previously been: "Photographer unknown." We have been contacted by the photographer, and here is his credit: ©Photo by and courtesy of  Frank Kee  ~ Location, the Temblor Range near the Carrizo Plain National Monument in California. Flowers are largely Phacelia, Blazing Star, and Tidy Tips. ~ October 9, 2013

If you have returned to this essay from a previous visit, you will appreciate the 2014 update at the conclusion.

Introduction: A look at philosophical investigation into what lies beyond

When awake during the night...when sitting at dawn...or when everything is so topsy-turvy that reason and logic fly out the door, here are glances into this significant topic as they arise for us. Why would anyone want to be incarnate or reincarnate in this cesspool of suffering, in samsara, in this earthly realm? Some spiritual traditions hold personal enlightenment as the highest level, to lay the burden down, to be released. In other traditions--the Buddhist Mahayana school, for one--such an egoistic orientation is transcended by having the supreme examples of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra held as the highest vow and goal for all practitioners.

Bodhisattvas, while advancing toward buddhahood through skillful means handed down through Tantric traditions by a ten-stage path, vow not to accept departure from the cycle of rebirths until all beings have been liberated. They appear in myriads of forms as showers of the way, leaders on the path to liberation.

Explore the angles of paradox

Philosophical investigation into reincarnation and eternal recurrence can be approached from many angles. From time to time we explore these. Some insights appear on this page, with further contributions from visitors to our site posted on the Wisdom Forum page. As we continue to go beyond conventional thinking, it is helpful to keep in mind the interconnectedness of all beings, and therefore the profound need for us to get over escapism; to nurture compassion and altruism; to recognize the possibility that reincarnating for the benefit of all beings may be the highest option.

From another angle, Bob Stephen reminds us that "sentient beings only exist in the mind--so who or what reoccurs or reincarnates to liberate all beings? To liberate who or what from what?" He quotes from Shunryu Suzuki: "Our true nature is beyond our conscious experience."

So we discover questions entering into such an investigation, enlarging the picture into more than words on paper or screen about whether or not human life, as we experience it, cycles into other lifetimes--human or not. In the September, 2005 issue of Shambhala Sun just received, for example, we find Suzuki's pronouncement expanded upon through a comprehensive report on dialogue between two sciences of mind; central to this is His Holiness the Dalai Lama's "Studying Mind from the Inside," excerpted from his book The Universe in a Single Atom (Morgan Road Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2005).

Here His Holiness addresses a crucial concept to our consideration of reincarnation's possibilities: "The experience of consciousness is entirely subjective. The paradox, however, is that despite the indubitable reality of our subjectivity and thousands of years of philosophical examination, there is little consensus on what consciousness is....The problem of describing the subjective experiences of consciousness is complex indeed. For we risk objectivizing what is essentially an internal set of experiences and excluding the necessary presence of the experiencer."

It may be helpful, relative to taking up the question about reincarnation or eternal recurrence, to read about mind's nature as reported on by His Holiness and others, in Shambhala Sun, Vol. 13 No. 6, September, 2005.

Lily G. Stephen - August 20, 2005


Finding the beginning in this cycle?

This essay is meant to provide information more than conclusions, and to provoke dialogue. To preface, here’s what appears to be remarkable: it’s not that any of the concepts mentioned here are new. When we look into ancient wisdom schools and investigate divine writings – the Bhagavad Gita, the Kalachakra Tantra, Christian mysticism and scriptures, if any of the foregoing haven’t fallen prey to the ignorance of interpreters and translators – all that appears to be thinking “outside the box” has always existed in the annals of human thought, all along. What’s remarkable is that so many members of humankind are waking up, asking questions, testing and crossing boundaries all at once. We certainly aren’t the only ones addressing profound topics such as this, and that’s a source of affirmation about this unusual era.

We have technology making the vast libraries of earth available at the tap of a key, yet of all the topics we might bring up, the mystery of birth and death, of coming into existence and passing away, lies at the heart of everything we do. All our activity is surrounded by and interwoven with humans being born, humans dying, and each day seems one more passage farther away from our own birth toward our death. Yet with all the lives having been lived on earth possibly rivaling the sum of all the grains of sand on all the earthly shores, never has humankind been able to come to agreement about what came before, what occurs after, nor can we get enough of a handle on the question to even find the beginning; to know where to start.

Throughout rising and falling civilizations with their diverse yet interconnected belief systems, humans have rejected accepting that at death a being merely disappears for good.

Fitting in the time concept

The riddle of time itself is bound up with the question of what brings about a new life and what becomes of it at the close of life. We’re handicapped in consideration of this until we can free ourselves from thinking in terms of linear time.

There are two expressions that help to begin with. In P. D. Ouspensky’s view about the word “eternity”, a term commonly held to denote time into infinity, Ouspensky offers that “eternity” is time in another dimension. (A New Model of the Universe, 1946 reprint, Knopf, p. 408) Spinoza held that “eternity cannot be defined by time or have any relation to it.” The Pythagorean view of time was summed up in the words of Eudemus, a disciple of Aristotle: “Some people accept and some people deny that time repeats itself. Repetition is understood in different senses. One kind of repetition may be in the natural order of things, like repetition of summers and winters….But if we are to believe the Pythagoreans there is another kind of repetition. That means that I shall talk to you and sit exactly like this and I shall have in my hand the same stick, and everything will be the same as it is now and time, as it can be supposed, will be the same. Because if movements (of heavenly bodies) and many other things are the same, what occurred before and what will occur afterwards are also the same. This applies also to repetition, which is always the same. Everything is the same and therefore time is the same.”

A crucial question is posed by Maurice Nicoll (Living Time and the Integration of the Life, London, Stuart & Watkins, 1952): While many writers have commented on this passage from Eudemus, what we might ponder is rather than taking this to mean endless repetition in linear fashion, comprehend the possibility that it is a re-entering of the same time. A poetic phrase was offered for this concept by Sir William Ramsay, a scientist published in the late 1800’s: “recurrence in alwaysness”. The encouragement one receives from commentaries on Ramsey’s experiments and observations is the insight that we all have the ability to get beyond “the state”, the state of mind, so that we are not in the grasp of these states.

Here we have the conscious awakening which is evolution, and this dovetails with the psychological insights of William Blake, who said: "I see the Past, Present, and Future existing all at once before me." (Jerusalem 1.15) Of his Los, his personification of time, Blake envisioned a hall of sculptures which were the states that humans continually identify with so subjectively that they become these states rather than to allow the "ideas" of higher wisdom to assist in weakening bondage to daily preoccupations, difficulties, and dramas -- to become more than that.

The relationships between humankind and time seem as mechanical as the ticking of a clock, but they are complex. Taking a more cosmic perspective than customary, look at how we assume that because we’ve all agreed to perceive time in a linear fashion, then there’s nothing more to it. We think and act in terms of past, present, and future. World languages are built upon this assumption.

Referring to the great philosophers

The Greeks had a cyclical cosmology, like the Indians of the Orient. And like the Indians, Parmenides asserted that the world of time and duality is an illusion. (J. B. Priestley, Man and Time, New York, Doubleday, 1964) We are brought to the question that perhaps reality is not a process of “becoming” with past and future, but reality is only now, is only “being”.

To consider the observations of Nicolle, Ramsey, and Blake, what about the ordinary daily life routine we are immersed in? Inner awakening is understandable to us, but transformation of the ordinary state of existence with its problems and frustrations requires a redirection of the energy habitually absorbed by these petty, transient affairs. Here’s the crux, or a crux, of the matter: through our life path we gradually learn to redirect our thinking and responses out of our ordinary states into higher levels. This is empowering ideas about eternity, time, and the true nature of existence to ultimately transform – raise up, evolve – ordinary existence.

Plato granted that the seemingly transient span of a lifetime discourages the individual from coming into what was thought of during his period as mastery and what is otherwise expressed by Shakyamuni Buddha as awakening to our true nature, realization of the view, that which has always been there but which we in our ignorance have slept through. What may help is the idea of life and time bending into a circle so that we meet our life as our practice, our spiritual path of transformation.

Those who allow the daunting appearance of things to cause them to become so bound, blindered, and boggled by apparency that they will not awaken are, as Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (As It Is, Vol. II, Kathmandu, Rangjung Yeshe, 2000) said, as numerous as the stars of night. Daytime stars are precious and rare. Daytime stars heed those teachers who urge them to recognize that once they have encountered special realization, there are few lives left in which to utilize through intense work this special knowledge. They must live with this realization. Delay has the potential of turning the upward spiral into the downward spiral, a plunging fall into no further opportunity. This is emphasized throughout Buddhist schools, and is stressed by Plato in his Myth of Er, by Rodney Collins, and P. D. Ouspensky, among others.

Fusing Reincarnation and Recurrence?

Reincarnation in its common modern definition – same souls periodically reappearing on earth – cannot be rejected out of hand, even though it appears to be linked to linear time, whether forward-impelled or “past-ward” events of incarnation. One can then say that a discussion of whether we reincarnate in the customary understanding of that word, a progression of lives, or whether we are bound to a cycle of eternal recurrence may not be an either/or matter. The two concepts may each be reflections of the other. Wei Wu Wei, of whom it’s been said that his nonsense contains sense of the infinite, was of the opinion that as mythology is a system of symbology for fundamental truth, “reincarnation” is a myth within which is found the reality of “recurrence”. (Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958)

Further, to become so immersed in the debate would be another delay. Better to shine in the daytime, to wake up.

Lily G. Stephen

2014 UPDATE

With life experience comes our recognition that the other side of our interconnectedness is its multi-level nature. We have commonality; but we don't each operate at the same level. The older one gets, the more apparent this is, because we can observe the various levels of our understanding  during this lifetime that impelled our journey through the next level, and the next.

What if ... there are those who have evolved so high that they are able to comprehend our true nature? If there are such high beings, do they hold onto secrets of existence through mystery schools? At this time when secrets and mysteries are breaking out of their shells, yes, there are certain avatars who offer guidance that has long been known in certain quarters.

Recommended reading that shines a light from formerly arcane systems:

Mind Beyond Death, by Dzogchen Ponlop. Snow Lion Publications, 2006. Recommended by, among others, Robert Thurman and Francesca Freemantle. This eminent teacher's birth was prophesied by none other than the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, and is the seventh in the line of Dzogchen Ponlop incarnations, yet well-versed in Western culture and technology.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. There was once a highway robber who became a champion for combating warring aggression from without and factions within his country of Tibet. This was Terton Sogyal. Before his death in 1926, he said to his disciples that he would come back as two simultaneous reincarnations. One would be as a lion's roar, the other as a "turquoise dragon holding up a jewel for all to see." Sogyal Rinpoche's book has reached 56 countries in 30 languages, according to a 2002 statistic. His spiritual brother is Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok, who founded the Larung Encampment in a desolate valley of eastern Tibet that became home to more than 8,000 monks and nuns. (Quotation and narrative from In the Shadow of the Buddha, by Matteo Pistono.)

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