The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
August 2001 Vol. 4 Issue 6
Reincarnation, the Key to History
Reincarnation is the idea that we live many lives on earth and that in any life we are what we have made ourselves in former lives – under the law of cause and effect or karma. Our blemishes we have indulged and made a part of our personal self, our strengths and talents we have earned and unfolded. Similarly, what happens to us in life – if we believe in law and not in chance – is also of our own making. In other words, we are ourselves, and from day to day and from life to life we are making ourselves into what we will one day become, in this and in future lives.
There are rather telling arguments against the notion that we inherit ourselves from our parents. Souls are attracted to parents with whom they have karma to work out, previous associations, deep, intimate, wonderful relationships. Incoming souls select from the gene potentials of their parents-to-be that which is necessary to express what their selves already are, modified by karma. There is no chance involved.
All this presupposes that there is an enduring part that lives in each person, something that survives and gradually unfolds through repeated reimbodiments, something within – a higher self or reincarnating ego – in which is stored the wisdom of experience. Evolution, thus, is the process by which the potentials of this divine essence may unfold. We humans have unfolded that which makes us human; we are at the human stage of our evolution. The animals have unfolded that which makes them animals, and so forth.
Human cultures are like streams. The individuals composing the whole are coming and going constantly – being born and dying – yet the group retains its stamp, its marked characteristics. While it may change slowly, rise to power and sink into obscurity, it retains a certain individuality.
Every stage in the unfoldment of a civilization offers opportunities for the development or expression of the souls coming into incarnation. In each era people express what they are, and thus each age assumes the tone and characteristics of the people in it who are expressing what they are. If the preponderance of souls is primitive, it will be a primitive age, and so forth. An age is the people living in it, and the destinies or karma they are working out.
Civilizations simply cannot continue to rise and rise, for very good reasons. Relatively large numbers of the human race may have been willingly involved in violent and cruel acts; they may have sowed seeds of violence. Now these human souls will reincarnate, and when they do, they bring with them their karma. If civilizations continued to rise and rise, where would be the place for these types of souls with different brands of karma? That is why the world is fragmented at times: here a more peaceful civilization, there more violent types expending themselves.
Reincarnation sheds a wonderful light on this subject, because at every stage in the development of a nation the souls come in whose destiny is such as to fulfill the destiny of the nation at that point. This applies also to its decline.
It is my understanding that although there is a finite number of human souls belonging to the human family, only a relatively small number is in incarnation at any one time. The vast majority are undergoing their after-death states, which may last many, many times longer than the years spent in incarnation. From age to age the population of earth varies considerably, though within certain limits. At present, souls appear to be crowding in, which may continue for a while. At other times large portions of the earth may lie fallow and mankind be reduced in numbers.
Each human being is a deathless entity which, over the course of many thousands of years, has been building for itself more stately mansions. The substance of history is the souls of mankind that appear again and again, reaping and sowing from life to life, from age to age. The future of mankind is to become more truly human. Even more: for each person to bring into his life the wise influence of his innate divinity. The examples of the Christs and Buddhas illustrate what we too may one day become. – John P. Van Mater
This month "Is Life Fair?" is our subject. What causes things to happen in our lives? Who is responsible – God, chance, ourselves, nobody, everybody? What would a "fair" life be? Is there meaning to suffering, inequities, poverty, disabilities, abilities, luck? What does justice mean and entail? What is the purpose of life, and how can we realize it? Come and share your ideas!
Open to the public, unsectarian, non-political, no charge.
The topics for the monthly discussion group for the next few months are:
The recent electrocution of a prison inmate whose crime had been committed under the influence of drugs was particularly disturbing. The young man had been, before and after his tragic encounter, outgoing, concerned, and intelligent. When sanity returned, and every day of the nine years he spent on death row, he suffered the agony he had inflicted not only on his victim but also on the victim's family and on his own family and friends.
The anguish of shame, and the anger and blame directed at those who had supplied him with drugs, would have been devastating had he not come to realize, from books he had read about karma and rebirth, that he was responsible even though his memory of his crime was a blank. In some past incarnations he, and his victim, must have set up the conditions that had brought them together in tragedy. In a sense, both were victims, but both could, he believed, be gainers if he could now make amends.
He resolved to do so. His long incarceration and his death would not be sufficient, he felt, to break the chain of causation; he must completely change himself and the karma involved. He set about reshaping himself inwardly, changing his attitude and thoughts so that he might, to the degree his confinement allowed, help others. In this way he would atone for the suffering he had caused and prepare himself for future incarnations in which he hoped he would be born in situations where he could benefit in larger measure those he had injured. The consistency of his effort worked wonders. Prison guards and officials later admitted they missed this young man: there had been something about him they had seen in no other.
Such an example helps us recognize how involved we become with others by our thoughts and acts, even when unintentional. It makes us examine our lives, our motives, desires, and their possible consequences. Nutritionists claim we are what we eat; Buddhists that we are what we think: "All beings are led by thought, are controlled by thought, are made up of thought."
Under the inexorable law of karma, each individual is what he is and where he is because of his actions in the past. What he will be in the future is what he is making himself today. Positive, compassionate action once begun becomes habitual. Its beneficial effects continue through life and death experiences and, if it be our karma, bring us back into situations where we can more effectively help others. Understanding this, the incidents in our lives take on new meaning. Fear of the unknown and of karmic disasters dissolves, for, knowing we have the power to rectify past error, we transform the avenging demons we have created. Strengthened by knowledge and the intent to do good, we bring to these foes of our past a measure of peace. Tensions relax. People (and situations) we had dreaded we come to see as friends – as possibly they were lifetimes ago before we had alienated them.
Following the karmic action-reaction-action sequence back to causes that the prisoner may have set in motion lifetimes ago, we wonder at the power of the initial thought that had energized the long chain reaction that culminated in so tragic a climax. Furthermore, our thoughts are never gone and done with. Once energized they take on a life of their own and travel from mind to mind where, if not rejected, they incite to action and in this way contribute to the elevation or degeneration of the consciousness of the world.
By cause-and-effect repeated over lifetimes, greatness can be achieved. As the Sutta-Nipata tells us: One becomes a Brahmin by (one's) action; one becomes a non-Brahmin by (one's) action" (3.9.57, R. W. Neufeldt translation). But can one so easily "become a Brahmin"? Could our prison inmate, by kind thoughts and deeds, transform the karma of lifetimes? This certainly would not easily be accomplished. What he attempted, and succeeded in doing to a degree, was to completely change his thought and action patterns. This took tremendous effort and consistent control of his mental, emotional, and physical nature. He did not "escape" past karma: no one can do that. He did, however, change his character, raise himself to a higher level so that when the "demons" of his past will again confront him, he will be able to deal with them impersonally and with understanding take the appropriate action to harmonize discordant elements.