It's a question everyone eventually asks
themselves at some point in their life. It transcends racial,
social, political, economic and gender lines, making it the one
question common to all human beings whether we like it or not.
The rationalist answers this query by proclaiming that since we are nothing more than a collection of cells and our brains simply tissue encased within a mantle of bone, nothing can happen to us when we die.
The essence, personality, mind - soul - or whatever we wish to call our consciousness, ceases to exist, endowing our time on this planet with no more meaning than that which we choose to give it during our brief sojourn here.
This is, of course, the position of the
atheist, which is what makes atheism, in my opinion, so easy. It
requires nothing because it offers nothing, which strikes me as a
It suggests that we are little more than
some great cosmic accident and that, consequently, our life has no
ultimate purpose, forcing us to contemplate an existence without
meaning in a universe that, despite all its beauty and splendor, has
no more significance - or ultimate permanence - than a flower that
briefly blooms in the spring only to wither and die after a few
short days of vibrant life.
It does, after all, tidy things up and make life simply a little game we sentient beings like to play for no particularly good reason other than because we have no choice.
Yet something deep within the human heart knows better.
We instinctively understand that we are more than the sum of our parts, which is why most people believe their personalities will survive their physical demise in some form and will continue on long after their bones have turned to dust.
This, of course, brings us to our second option, which is that the personality/ego/true self/whatever you want to call it does survive the demise of the body to exist - at least for a time - as a separate disembodied consciousness.
If this is the case, however, the next question that logically follows is,
Some believe, for example, that we become ghosts - little more than disembodied spirits aimlessly wandering the Earth, capable of perceiving the physical realm but unable to interact with it in any meaningful way.
They can even point to various evidences
to support this contention, from reported haunting to automatic
writing, séances, and apparent disembodied spirits caught on film.
Ghosts always struck me as being transitory; beings stuck on the Earth plane for a time only to ultimately move on and so essentially vanish from our physical realm.
As such, even if we are to become
ghosts, it will be, at least for the vast majority of us, a brief
experience and not our eternity. I suspect we all eventually
move on to 'greener pastures', so to speak.
Heaven is the favored destination for most; a place where our conscious personality, no longer shackled to the limitations and burdens of physical existence, survives within a perpetual state of bliss and joy throughout eternity.
Some add to this by also embracing a
belief in hell; a perpetual state of torment for those who
turn to evil and so are doomed to exist forever within a conscious
state of agony, regret, and fear.
Unfortunately, this reduces the physical
world to little more than a cosmic hatchery that exists only to
birth new souls, each of which will spend a short time in it before
winging - or, potentially, plunging - to their ultimate destiny.
If the physical universe exists merely as a vehicle for our creation,
In such a context, physical existence seems not only pointless but, in many ways, even hazardous.
There is a third position to consider.
It is one that until recently has been largely ignored in the West but has been embraced by literally billions of people around the world for thousands of years.
It is the belief that this physical existence is neither insignificant nor transient, but instead is perpetually ongoing. It is the concept that our soul lives on not in some ethereal Eden - or Hades - somewhere, but realizes perpetual existence through a process of continual rebirths into the physical realm, making our time on this planet not one single, brief experience, but a repetitive process realized through literally hundreds of lifetimes.
It is a timeless belief - one that
predates both Christianity and Islam by many centuries - and one
that is known by many names in many cultures. It's been called
rebirth, regeneration, transmigration of the soul, even
metempsychosis, but is perhaps best known to us today as
It is something for Hindu holy men to
ponder, or New Agers to embrace, but nothing that seems particularly
relevant to most Westerners today.
And the truth be told, it is an Eastern concept - one in vogue more than four millennia before Christ was born and a belief held to by nearly two billion of the world's population today - making it one of the oldest and most enduring belief systems known to man.
In fact, it may be the original post-mortem belief among early humans who probably considered the idea when they began noticing strong similarities between recently born offspring and their deceased ancestors.
Perhaps the mannerisms or interests a
child displayed reminded one of a deceased loved one or a birthmark
mimicked that found on a long-dead grandparent, leading village
elders to imagine that the dead ancestor had returned a second time
- a not unreasonable assumption in cultures that naturally assumed
the soul to be inherently immortal.
However, this perception appears to be slowly changing as reincarnationist beliefs have become more prevalent in the West, especially in the last fifty years, and is becoming increasingly popular to ever growing numbers of people.
The prospect that the soul repeatedly returns to the flesh flourished in ancient Greece almost three thousand years ago and may have played a far more important role in our development as a civilization than traditional histories have led us to believe.
...all taught and believed in some form of rebirth, the foundations of which were later adopted by the great Roman philosophers,
...along with a host of other great
thinkers of antiquity.
Reincarnation, then, far from being a
purely foreign concept was, in fact, widespread and may have
strongly influenced the shape and thrust of Greek and Roman
In fact, at times it virtually flourished and, especially in the case of Christianity, almost became the predominant belief system during the first few centuries of the Church's existence until it was forced underground by the more traditional, non-reincarnationist branches of Christianity.
Its proponent's writings declared
heretical and burned, the concept was so successfully suppressed by
the Church of Rome that few Christians today even realize
it was ever a part of their own faith.
Western religion is largely dependent upon the belief that man is destined to "die once and then be judged" to maintain control. In promising multiple rebirths, however, reincarnation renders the proclamations of the Pope or the Grand Mufti or whomever was the ruling head at the time transitory and, the truth be told, irrelevant.
As such, reincarnation threatened the Church's very livelihood, making it a very dangerous idea that had to be either suppressed or labeled as heretical in order for the Church to maintain its power base.
As a result, the concept remained
largely unknown outside of Asia for probably seventeen of the last
Once the long forgotten writings of the ancient Greeks again became available and one could hold to previously forbidden ideas without forfeiting their lives, such once forbidden concepts as reincarnation became increasingly popular, especially among the intellectual elite of the era.
Amongst those who held to some form of multiple rebirths are such notables as,
It is no longer the unending "cycle of life" wheel taught by the Hindus and Buddhists, but has become a "school of higher education" designed to bring us to ever greater levels of spiritual enlightenment.
This is why when a Hindu or a Buddhist
and their fellow Western reincarnationist talk about the
subject, it often appears as though they are speaking two different
languages. This is because in some ways they are, which is where the
confusion comes in.
In effect, with each incarnation into the flesh, the human personality - a by-product of the underlying soul that birthed it - accumulates a degree of 'bad' karma that must be worked off in order to restore balance to itself.
Some of this karma can be worked off in
life in the form of good works, but this is seldom sufficient to
work off the entire debt, which must be accounted for in the next
life by having the soul take on an incarnation that may be more
difficult so the ongoing karmic debt can be worked off.
(Of course, if one accumulates too much
bad karma, they may not be reborn as a person at all, but
could come back as an animal or even, in some teachings, an
inanimate object such as a stone. This belief is called
"transmigration of the soul" and is also a major element of Hindu
In sharp contrast, to many Western reincarnationists, the purpose of rebirth is to learn the lessons we need to learn in each incarnation in order to advance to the next spiritual level which, while having some similarities to the Buddhist concept of slowly achieving enlightenment over a number of incarnations by practicing the Buddha's Eightfold Path,
...is actually quite different.
To the Western mindset, attachment is
not seen as the source of the problem (though it does generally
acknowledge that an obsessive attachment to things can be
detrimental to spiritual growth).
The Hindu sees the soul - the divine
essence of God - as being the generator of each incarnation,
with the individual personality or ego a transient expression of
To the Buddhist, we are all a part of a larger, divine consciousness that has simply taken on the very brief "illusion" that it is separate.
The Buddhists compare our sense of
existence to the waves upon the ocean; just as a wave is a temporary
phenomena caused by wind and currents, our personality is equally as
transient and is, upon death, absorbed back into the divine
consciousness in the same way that a wave upon the ocean is
eventually swallowed up by the ocean itself.
To many, the soul and the personality are considered essentially synonymous, so as a result, when we die, our basic personality - complete with all its memories, life experiences, knowledge, and traits - returns in another body to continue its existence.
It may not have a direct memory of its
past life - though some people claim to be possess the ability to
consciously remember their previous incarnations - but it is
essentially the same personality starting life over again in another
Of course, the experiences and environment it finds itself in through each subsequent incarnation will affect the base personality in both subtle and sometimes substantial ways, but this too is a part of the process.
This is why the Westerner sees reincarnation in the context of "lessons."
After all, the Indian girl was able to
experience and learn only so much in her short time on Earth,
mandating that she return again - this time as a Spanish male - to
learn those things she either neglected to learn or hadn't the
opportunity to learn in her previous incarnation.
(What happens after that is equally open to speculation among Westerners:
Apparently, the options available to the
enlightened soul are extensive.)
Clearly the Eastern concepts of a parent soul that births each and every individual personality has merit, as does the Buddhist belief in the transient, temporary nature of the ego that is birthed.
And the Western concept that we
reincarnate until we learn what we need to know also has some
validity and seems to parallel in some ways the Buddhist idea that
the cycle of rebirth ends upon achieving enlightenment - however one
chooses to define the term.
I suspect our understanding of the purpose for reincarnation is lacking in many ways and may never be entirely complete, though I also believe we are making progress in coming to a fuller appreciation for its complexity and sophistication.
Perhaps one day East and West will come
together and merge their different perceptions and in so doing, form
a complete whole that answers everyone's questions.
After all, how can there be a soul and yet not a soul, and how can the ego be immortal and yet transient?
To combine both Western and Eastern concepts of reincarnation would seem to embrace paradox, but I have found it is often within the complexities of paradox that the truth exists.
In fact, it is only our limited ability
to understand that makes these apparent contradictions paradoxes in
the first place.
On the other hand, perhaps understanding
these concepts is not done at a mind level, but on a spiritual
level, which is a difficult place for many people to go.
Were he to but look up and see the treasure that shimmers all around him, he would realize how silly his fervent quest had been all along.
Perhaps we need only do the same...