Mar 10, 2009

Remembering Past Lives

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Do you know what the karma is?

"Unimaginable, bhikkhus[monks], is a beginning to the round of births . . . It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who has not formerly been one's mother . . . been one's father . . . one's brother . . . sister . . . son . . . daughter during this long, long time."

The Buddha: Samyutta-Nikaya: An Anthology, BPS,(abbreviated)

If we have really lived before, why do we not remember having done so? Surely a whole string of lives would not slip our memories! Well, some say they do remember. The Buddha made no secret of the fact that he could remember past lives:

"Thus with the mind composed, quite purified ... I directed my mind to the knowledge and recollection of former habitations. I remembered a variety of former habitations, thus: one birth, two births, three . . . four ... a hundred thousand births, and many an aeon of integration and many an aeon of disintegration and many an aeon of integration-disintegration; such a one was I by name, having such and such a clan, such and such a colour, so was I nourished, such and such pleasant and painful experiences were mine, so did the span of life end. Passing from this, I came to be in another state where such a one was I by name . . . Passing from this, I arose here. Thus I remember divers former habitations in all their modes and detail."

Majjhima-Nikaya, PTS,(abbreviated)

The majority of us, however, cannot even remember being born, or the first few years of our lives, let alone previous existences. But memory is a strange thing. Sometimes it works for us and sometimes it does not. Thousands of people have ' lost' hours, days, months, even years because of accidents or traumatic experiences. Those events have just been wiped from their memories. Others have lost their memories completely, not being able to remember who they are or where they have come from. Just because they could not remember their past, of course, does not mean they did not have a past. In the same way, the inability to remember past lives is no indication that those lives did not take place.

Irrespective of whether we remember past lives or not, however, many of us sense that we have lived before. We may experience sensations which feel like memories, but which refuse to form themselves into anything as concrete as actual memories. These unaccountable feelings or sensations may not, of course, be the left-over experiences of past lives. Nevertheless, to most Buddhists at least, only the accuracy of one's memory would be in question, not rebirth itself, because rebirth is apparent here and now in this life.


Rebirth is inseparable from cause and effect which in Buddhism is called karma.

Karma is regarded as an infallible law in which there is no provision for chance. What happens to us and what we have in life has come about as a result of past causes. Like rebirth, cause and effect (karma) is not a theory; it is something we can easily recognise. We can see that our present behaviour determines how we shall feel in a moment's time. If we are angry, even for a moment, we are instantly unhappy. That unhappiness, which can last for a long time, is a reaction to being angry and is therefore the karmic result of being angry. If we hate something, we are filled with hatred — hatred is the karmic result. If we are patient, then we are serene and tranquil, serenity and tranquillity being the karmic results of patience. If we live selfishly, pushing people around in order to get our own way, we shall, sooner or later, experience being pushed around by others. If, on the other hand, we are kind, people will be kind to us. Such karmic results do not necessarily come via the same people. We may give something to someone out of generosity and then some entirely different person may be generous to us. These things we shall become aware of if we become aware of our actions and reactions, the processes of karma, in our daily lives.

Sometimes karmic reactions occur remarkably quickly. At other times, years or perhaps lives are needed for karma to unfold itself.

"All beings are the owners of their deeds, the heirs of their deeds: their deeds are the womb from which they sprang, with their deeds they are bound up, their deeds are their refuge. Whatever deeds they do — good or evil — of such they will be the heirs."

The Buddha: Anguttara-Nikaya, The Word of the Buddha.

Karma can be likened to throwing sand against the wind. The sand blows back in the face of the one who throws it. Whatever we put out into the world, mentally or physically, will return in kind — mentally or physically.

How we live, therefore, has a direct bearing upon the events in our lives and the way life appears to us. We all occupy the same world, but our experiences of that world can be vastly different. It seems that the world is like a mirror which reflects our inner natures. How things appear to us outside is dependent upon how we are inside. 'We' and our world are reborn from moment to moment in accord with our actions and attitudes of mind.

There is no 'real' state anywhere to be found, as such. Whatever state or condition we find ourselves in is real to us at the time. Even the weirdest experiences that we have in dreams are rarely questioned by us in those dreams. We can read people's thoughts, meet old friends who are dead or who live on the other side of the world, fly through the air, play musical instruments that we cannot play in our waking lives and perform all sorts of wondrous actions, and yet it does not occur to us that anything is wrong or strange about what is taking place.

Life in a dream is real at the time. Whatever we experience, in a dream or otherwise, is real to us as it is happening. Because everything is transitory and subject to change, reality is in this moment and not beyond it. And this moment can be any state or condition. Therefore our 'world' can be heaven or hell or anything, because we create it by our actions in body, speech and thought.

The Buddha claimed that he could see the course that brought beings to the states of existence they were experiencing:

"I comprehend that beings are mean, excellent, comely, ugly, well-going, ill-going, according to the consequences of their deeds, and I think: Indeed these worthy beings who were possessed of wrong conduct in body . . . speech . . . thought . . . incurring deeds consequent on a wrong view — these, at the breaking up of the body after dying, have arisen in a sorrowful state . . . But these worthy beings who were possessed of good conduct in body . . . speech . . . thought . . . incurring deeds consequent on a right view — these, at the breaking up of the body after dying, have arisen in a good bourn [state] ..."

Majihima-Nikaya, PTS, (abbreviated)

If the transitoriness of life is borne in mind, if karma and rebirth are observed as living truths, then we shall naturally do the wisest thing in our lives and when we do, there will be no need to fear life now or in the future.