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Sorting out Reincarnation
Michael: Dear Ram, when you have time please comment with reference to the bodies – subtle, causal, etc. – about the question of reincarnation. Here are my questions about it.
Is it because “I” am identified with this daydream and the mind that in the next moment or next day the “I” seen as the body-mind is reincarnated?
Ram: The question does not make sense to me. Let me try to explain the reincarnation business again. I prefer to use the word “reincarnation” to refer to the process of identification with the body and mind. This is not the traditional usage. When you identify with your subtle or gross body you are “born into” it. You “incarnate.” Incarnate means to become “flesh.” Traditionally reincarnation means that the subtle body and the vasanas generate or “take up” a new body sometime after the old body has died. Thus there is a continuity of experience from one birth to the next. The only value of such a teaching is that it can reassure a person striving for moksa that the “progress” he or she has made in developing the subtle body, making it qualified for moksa, will not be “lost” at death. From the non-dual position there is no reincarnation, either psychological or transmigratory.
Michael: At the moment of physical death, what happens to the subtle body in the cases of a “jnani” and “ajnani”?
Ram: There are two theories. One is that it just goes out like a light. The other is that it may be reborn as a “reincarnation,” someone who is already enlightened – like a rebirth lama or yogi.
The whole question is not of much practical importance, because the subtle body does not recall who he or she was in previous births, enlightened or not. And therefore even rebirth lamas and yogis have to go through the whole process of life once more. Even if there is a memory of a previous life, it serves no useful purpose.
Michael: The ego is the center of the mind and the subtle body isn’t a thinker needed to wrap around the I?
Ram: Again, the question is not clear to me, but I will ask you this: Needed from whose point of view? From the point of view of the “I” nothing is needed. The thinker, however, cannot think without awareness. The self is actually the thinker. It is quite capable of thought although it need not think. So the question of the thinker only revolves around knowledge or ignorance. When the thinker is unaware of its nature it is called a subtle body, or a mind. When it knows what it is, it is called the self.
Michael: But is not the thinker “dead,” so to speak, after the moment of death?
Ram: Yes, in general. However, it seems that some subtle bodies, those of some lamas and yogis, have developed the power to stay aware when the physical body drops – so they are able to report what happens between incarnations. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is based on this kind of knowledge. In practice, however, it is basically useless knowledge since karma causes rebirth and it will determine the next birth, not an act of will, nor the experience of the bardo. This is always a fascinating question to those who do not know the self.
Michael: How then can an entity like a subtle body “do” anything, since there is no belief around a central “I” anymore after death?
Ram: You’re right. It can’t. It can’t do anything when it is associated with a living body either. There is no individual “doer.” The vasanas are the doer.
Michael: People are mostly unconscious during physical death. Is there something like conscious death?
Ram: Yes, but it is exceedingly rare and it is no more important what happens to a given subtle body after death than when it is alive. There is a different experience after death, either non-experience or the experience of the bardo, the interface between death and life, but what use is this experience or the knowledge that comes from it? It doesn’t change one’s karma nor does it affect the self.
Michael: Or does it mean that the whole point is the unshaken knowing that only awareness IS?
Ram: This knowledge is only good in life. It has no use after death.
Michael: And how does one know that in the moment of physical death something like the subtle body is still “alive,” going on, since nobody ever returned from death, nobody recalled death?
Ram: The knowledge is inferential, which is a valid means of knowledge. Actually, the subtle body is not “alive” even when the physical body is alive. (The purpose of the “three bodies” teaching is to aid discrimination between the self and its instruments.) It just seems to be alive because it is reflecting awareness. There is actually no “moment” of death. Death is an ongoing process that is taking place throughout life. We are all “living dead.” Failure to understand this is the cause of much suffering. Some people do recall the bardo, the transition. But the way we know of past life is through the rare exceptions in nature. Usually the continuity of memory is broken for good with the death of the physical body, but occasionally it is not and a person remembers who he or she was in a previous birth. I just saw a program on the TV about this precise phenomenon. A young boy claimed he was somebody else and that he was killed as a fighter pilot in World War II. After refusing to take his claims seriously for many years, the parents began to do research based on the info the boy gave them and after much careful checking every detail of his story checked out. I’m not sure what your interest in this topic is since, as I have mentioned twice already it doesn’t make any practical difference who you were or who you will be if you take yourself to be a body-mind entity. It is all still maya. And in maya you have to go through what you have to go through.
Michael: People have a memory of an experience of an NDE, but an NDE is still NDE and not “A” (after) DE. There is nobody to experience.
Ram: NDEs are not physical death experiences. This is why they are “near.” You are right, it is not “people” who experience death. It is the self. In NDEs there is a continuity of memory from the point of view of the individual to the point of view of the total, the self. There is a “shift” that is known.
Michael: From SELF’s point of view there is no reincarnation, obviously. As long we are not firm in the knowledge of the SELF the question of rebirth comes up. Is that the answer?
Ram: Yes. This is the point. People can’t stand the idea that everything they work for here is going to be taken away at some point. If you understood that you were already “dead,” would you be suffering this extreme attachment to wife and children? Would you be afraid of “losing” them? The whole point of the spiritual life is to “die” while living. There is a great symbol of this in Tibetan culture, the dancing skeleton. This fear you have of “losing” your children is foolish. You never had them in the first place. You have always been “dead” to them and they to you. Do you think it really matters to you who they are? You may think it does, but it does not. It is for the sake of yourself that you are attached to the idea of children. You have been “born into” this dream of fatherhood and you have accepted it without thinking. Conversely, do you think it really matters to them who you are? It does not. They haven’t a clue to who you are and what you are going through. They would accept anyone who gave them what they wanted, made them feel good. When you aggress against them they immediately “die” to you. If this is true, then what kind of love is it on both sides? Love means that you accept people as they are. It means that you understand that they are as they are by no fault of their own. So you do not try to change them or possess them. But not knowing this you meddle in their lives behind an ill-conceived notions of “love” or “duty.” I define “death” and “life” spiritually. Both are just different ways to see yourself and the world around you. “Life” means attachment, born of ignorance. “Death” to me means dispassion, clear seeing. These are basically the only two responses you can take in maya. One is suffering, the other liberation. From the self’s point of view neither life nor death are real. When you mistake a snake for a rope you do not take the time to figure out what kind of snake it is. If you did you would find out that it wasn’t a snake at all. Life is never what you think it is.
~ Love, Ram