Ken Wilber: Death, Rebirth and Meditation

Grey-Dying500A classic Ken Wilber essay, covering what the great traditions have said about the process of death and reincarnation.

This information page gives an overview of Kenneth Smith, links to many resources, and posts scans of his classic run of TCJ columns. The scans contain his most essential writing, but there is a Tumblr blog and a Gaim library that provide quotes from longer pieces. Here are some choice fragments.

via Integral Life:

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.

Read more at Integral Life.

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  • Noah_Nine

    i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation….i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation….i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation….i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation….i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation….i believe in reincarnation…. i do not believe in reincarnation…. etc…. etc… ad infinitum…. ad nauseum…

    • Angelobg

      DOES NOT COMPUTE

    • Patrick Wu

      LOGICAL PARADOX.

  • AManCalledDa-da

    Reincarnation is a myth, per se, as what you see around you this isn’t really real. What you might experience is, in effect, an imaginary reincarnation. Recommended reading:

    http://www.amazon.com/Disappearance-Universe-Straight-Illusions-Forgiveness/dp/1401905668/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372137748&sr=1-1&keywords=gary+renard

    Break on through to the other side.

  • Adamas Macalz

    I got a past life reading before in Nola and a couple times on my own… the overall feeling of the reading(s) was I was some treacherous asshole that either killed or backstabbed my way to an early grave… eh, if that’s the case, apparently karma isn’t all that bad because I’m doing pretty good all things considered

  • mannyfurious

    There is no “you” to be reincarnated. Someone as “enlightened” as Wilber should understand this.

  • Amacai Zerand

    The “soul”. Another faith based concept. The orgins of which mystify me. Why postulate something other than “self” that progresses through the ages? Something…something…control.
    Agreed, not well thought out.
    I could go on, but I’m even boring myself here. No need to inflict my ramblings on the poor souls here. ;-)