SIX Evolution, Karma, and Rebirth ON THAT MOMENTOUS NIGHT when the Buddha attained enlightenment, it is said that he went through several different stages of awakening. In the first, with his mind "collected and purified, without blemish, free of defilements, grown soft, workable, fixed and immovable," he turned his attention to the recollection of his previous lives. This is what he tells us of that experience: / remembered many, many former existences I had passed through: one, two births, three, four, five ... fifty, one hundred... a hundred thousand, in various world-periods. I knew everything about these various births: where they had taken place, what my name had been, which family I had been bom into, and what I had done. I lived through again the good and bad fortune of each life and my death in each life, and came to life again and again. In this way I recalled innumerable previous existences with their exact characteristic features and circumstances. This knowledge I gained in the first watch of the night} Since the dawn of history, reincarnation and a firm faith in life after death have occupied an essential place in nearly all the world's religions. Belief in rebirth existed amidst Christians in the early history of Christianity, and persisted in various forms well into the Middle Ages. Origen, one of the most influential of the church fathers, believed in the "pre-existence of souls" and wrote in the third century: "Each soul comes to this world reinforced by the victories or enfeebled by the defeats of its previous lives." Although Christianity eventually rejected the belief in reincarnation, traces of it can be found throughout Renaissance thought, in the writings of major romantic poets like Blake and Shelley, and even in so unlikely a figure as the novelist Balzac. Since the advent of interest in Eastern religions that 86
EVOLUTION, KARMA, AND REBIRTH 87 began at the end of the nineteenth century, a remarkable number of Westerners have come to accept the Hindu and Buddhist knowledge of rebirth. One of them, the great American industrialist and philanthropist Henry Ford, wrote: I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next When I discovered reincarnation ... time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock.... I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us. 2 A Gallup poll taken in 1982 showed that nearly one in four Americans believe in reincarnation. 3 This is an astonishing statistic considering how dominant the materialist and scientific philosophy is in almost every aspect of life. However, most people still have only the most shadowy idea about life after death, and no idea of what it might be like. Again and again, people tell me they cannot bring themselves to believe in something for which there is no evidence. But that is hardly proof, is it, that it does not exist? As Voltaire said: "After all, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once." "If we have lived before," I'm often asked, "why don't we remember it?" But why should the fact that we cannot remember our past lives mean that we have never lived before? After all, experiences of our childhood, or of yesterday, or even of what we were thinking an hour ago were vivid as they occurred, but the memory of them has almost totally eroded, as though they had never taken place. If we cannot remember what we were doing or thinking last Monday, how on earth do we imagine it would be easy, or normal, to remember what we were doing in a previous lifetime? Sometimes I tease people and ask: "What makes you so adamant that there's no life after death? What proof do you have? What if you found there was a life after this one, having died denying its existence? What would you do then? Aren't you limiting yourself with your conviction that it doesn't exist? Doesn't it make more sense to give the possibility of a life after death the benefit of the doubt, or at least be open to it, even if there is not what you would call 'concrete evidence'? What would constitute concrete evidence for life after death?"