THE GROWTH OF THE SOUL
CHAPTER 3: RE-INCARNATION.
The root idea of evolution The nature of the proof offered The only theory that suits the facts The true doctrine cleared of misrepresentation The law of Karma Heredity and assimilation Necessary exhaustion of ordinary memory Logical certainties of pre-existence Inequalities of life accounted for No "accidents of birth" The world-wide acceptance of the doctrine Buddhist teaching on the subject Absurd misunderstanding thereof by many Western writers Some Buddhist symbolism explained Re-incarnation recognised in Christianity References to it in the Gospels The certain knowledge concerning Re-incarnation of the occult disciple.
No purpose worth speaking of can be served by studying the teachings which constitute in their entirety the Esoteric Doctrine until the student is in the first instance completely saturated with the conception that the growth and development of the human soul is accomplished by means of successive returns to physical life (with intervening periods of spiritual rest) which, regarded in the aggregate as a process of Nature, make up what is generally called the theory of Re-incarnation. It is equally true, however, that the subject cannot be studied quite apart from other branches of the great body of knowledge to which it belongs. A general appreciation of the perfect harmony of the Esoteric Doctrine in its various ramifications is often required for the proper comprehension of its fundamental conceptions. Esoteric teaching is not in that respect quite like Euclid's geometry, of which one may learn a little and no more and yet have that little firmly established in the understanding. It is like Euclid's geometry in the sense that the later propositions cannot be accepted unless the earlier propositions have been realised and appreciated first; but to get at that realisation it may often be necessary to sweep on far ahead and realise how necessary the earlier propositions are to an appreciation of the grander spiritual ideas with which its later exposition may be concerned. Then the student, recommencing the examination of the whole teaching, will begin, perhaps, to see the fundamental principles in a new light, and may finally get them embedded in his permanent conviction. Then he finds himself at last in possession of a foundation whereon he can build a structure of knowledge which it is possible to ascend with confidence.
In dealing at the outset with the question whether the doctrine of human evolution summed up in the term " Re-incarnation " can be " proved " or not, in the sense that you can prove a new discovery in physics, we have to recognise that, of course, such proof is impossible. All we can do is to show that it would be profoundly unphilosophical to believe anything else anything, that is to say, at variance with that doctrine; that Re-incarnation will satisfactorily account for all the phenomena of human life (which the idea can have any relations with), and that these would be chaotic and unintelligible otherwise; that without bringing in this all-important interpretation of its conditions the world around us would be a creation of malevolence and injustice, rather than one of wisdom and goodness; that only by recognising Re-incarnation can we account for one man being a Newton and another an ignorant blockhead; finally, that although the majority of human beings at the present stage of evolution for reasons that esoteric teaching renders abundantly clear do not remember their past lives, some people whose spiritual development has passed certain limits, actually do remember theirs not merely in a vague and shadowy fashion, but with complete precision and even a fuller grasp of detail than untrained memory will afford in dealing with the earlier periods of a current life. I shall amplify these and other considerations directly, but what I want to emphasise for the moment is that in admitting the doctrine of Reincarnation to be insusceptible of proof in the absolute, physical sense of the word I claim for it all the while that it can be so nearly proved by reasoning, that no intelligent man who correctly apprehends the idea, and who applies it with adequate patience to the experience of existence whether in or out of the body, can possibly fail to believe it as fully, for example, as the modern scientific world believes in the undulatory theory of light. That theory is not argued about any more in these days. It is the only theory that will explain all the facts. And so with Re-incarnation in the domain of spiritual science; it is the only theory which will explain all the facts, and it is luminous with a truly scientific aspect; that is to say, it is in harmony with the uniformities of Nature, affording indeed the only way out of supposing that the uniformities of Nature are rudely violated in the laws which govern the evolution of humanity. Thus, in progress of time, cultivated thinkers will certainly cease to argue about Re-incarnation, even before the development in ordinary mankind of those higher faculties to which the concatenation of successive lives will ultimately become as plainly perceptible, no doubt, as the identity of the sun is obvious to us, on his rising every day.
The first step towards realising the truth of the doctrine of Re-incarnation is to obtain a clear comprehension of the views really held by people who recognise that doctrine as explaining the actual process of the soul's evolution. We possess a considerable mass of writing on the subject now, which students of Oriental philosophy generally would recognise as setting forth the teaching of the most cultivated exponents of that philosophy, and we find, to begin with, that a good many popular notions on the subject which have floated about the world at various periods may be pared away from the central idea. The esoteric doctrine of Re-incarnation, for example, does not contemplate the descent of human souls, under any circumstances, into animal bodies. In the crudest presentation of the idea, that has been treated as part of the scheme, but I do not believe it has ever been suggested except as a symbol of moral deterioration following on bad lives, or as a disguise of the true teaching. The only theory that I am anxious to support is that according to which the drift of successive Re-incarnations must always be progressive. Never mind for the moment from what phases of existence in the remote past human beings may have ascended: once on the human level they remain on that level, or, at all events continue to advance on that level.
We may start, in order to explain the real teaching of occultists on the subject of Re-incarnation, at a point in human evolution when the human condition has already been fully attained and when life is going on under the circumstances with which we are familiar. The doctrine is that when a man of our kind dies as regards the physical manifestation of his consciousness that consciousness passes first of all into spiritual or relatively spiritual conditions of existence, which are calculated to endure for a long time, and are immensely important. From some of these conditions it is undoubtedly possible that touch may be maintained with the consciousness of people still in the earth life. And though there are some spiritual conditions into which the soul may pass which are too exalted to permit anything resembling what is ordinarily meant by intercourse with friends still in earth life, I imagine that the experience of many Spiritualists would go far to confirm rather than to conflict with that view. Broadly, therefore, it will be seen that the theory of Re-incarnation does not enter into competition with any estimate of the probabilities of spirit life except in so far as some of those estimates will be satisfied with nothing less than eternity as the duration of the conditions they predict. The theory of Re-incarnation contemplates, with the progress of ages, so great an advance and improvement in the type of humanity, both as regards earthly body and soul consciousness, that it would certainly shrink from supposing that any human being of an imperfect type should be doomed to preserve to all eternity any single personality which would perpetuate its imperfections. But that theory, let it always be remembered, is in no hurry to obliterate personalities. The spiritual existence following the release of the soul from any particular body may be prolonged, if the experiences of life in that body have been of a peculiarly vivid and inspiring character, for prodigious periods. But the contention of esoteric philosophy is that finite causes must have finite effects. The earthly experience of any human being between birth and death is an accumulation of finite causes, summed up within the experience, the emotions, the thoughts of the life in question. Grant those subjective energies any range of amplification we please, a time will come, according to the doctrine I am now describing, when they are all distilled as it were into the essence of life. The soul has then absorbed into its permanent or truly spiritual nature all the capacities of emotion and knowledge, which its last life invested it with. It is once more a colourless, pure centre of abstract consciousness, and in that capacity, under the affinities of its nature, it once again seeks a vehicle for the activity of its latent capacities. It finds that vehicle not consciously, but under the operation of a comprehensive natural law, just as the appropriate molecules of matter from the atmosphere are drawn into the composition of a plant in a newly developing human form.
So far we have just a bare outline of the theory of Re-incarnation. We start with a soul in physical life we follow it through the experiences of life which develop all those innumerable memories and affections and associations of thought which make up the person or personality in question (a something quite distinct, of course, from the body which is its vehicle). We perceive that personality proceeding next to enjoy a spiritual existence (for periods enormously outrunning the span of physical life), and then we find it returning to a new earth life to gather in fresh experience, and develop fresh capacity for knowledge, and perhaps to make that all-important moral progress which can only be accomplished in the midst of the temptations, the struggles, and the internal victories of the physical plane.
But to understand the doctrine aright, it is above all things necessary to keep in view the law under which the soul, at the expiration of its spiritual rest, is drawn back into earth life. That law is known to Oriental philosophy as the law of Karma, and it is the essential complement of the doctrine of Re-incarnation. In its broad outlines this law is very easy of comprehension. The literal meaning of the word is simply "doing" or " action." But the law without which the whole scheme of human life would be chaotic, enacts that action of whatever kind must give rise to consequences; that on the moral plane the effect follows the cause as inevitably as in the laboratory. The word seems sometimes to puzzle readers unfamiliar with occult literature, but need never do so although used sometimes in different senses, because the context of any sentence must always show in what sense it is used. The law of Karma is, as just described, the great principle that effect follows cause, that as we sow so shall we reap, that good deeds give rise to happiness in some form or another, and evil deeds to the reverse. Then, as a substantive, Karma is often spoken of as the action itself which gives rise to a result, and thus we come to speak of bad karma or good karma as phrases indicating the kind of action productive of good or evil. Again Karma may be spoken of as the force which explains any actual condition of things, and is thus associated especially with the teaching concerning Re-incarnation, with which we are now concerned. It shows us that the bodily form to which the soul is drawn back is not selected at random as in a certain sense the raindrops may be said to fall at random on the shore or the sea, on the desert or the fruitful plain. Governed by the all-sufficient discernment of Nature, the soul ripe for Re-incarnation finds its expression in a body which affords it the exact conditions of life which* Karma in this sense its desert requires. The circumstances of life to which that body introduces its tenant, the destiny of happiness or suffering which its leading characteristics provide for, its intellectual capacities as an instrument on which the soul can play, are all determined (with an infinite variety of other conditions) by the Karma of the re-incarnating soul, or, to use what is, perhaps, a more scientific expression, of the re-incarnating Ego. No one need here for an instant be embarrassed by the familiar phenomena in human life of what is called heredity. Physical forms are transmitted on the plane of physical evolution from father to son with sometimes remarkable resemblances; in such cases heredity is not the cause, but the concomitant of the attributes manifested by the son. His independent soul Karma has required such a vehicle as the man who becomes his father was physically qualified to engender. Many illustrations might be taken from Nature to show her various forces and powers playing in this way into one another's hands. Assimilation is the law by which Re-incarnation and Karma reconcile themselves with heredity.
Now this statement of the view really held by adherents of Oriental philosophy in respect to Re-incarnation should go far to answer by anticipation many objections to the idea often urged by people who acquire an inaccurate or incomplete notion of the teaching. The suggestion, for instance, that we cannot have passed former lives on earth because we do not remember them, might be an objection to some totally different theory, but it is no objection to the theory I have reviewed. For manifestly, by the hypothesis, it is impossible for any one returning to the incarnate life to remember that which he must wear out. completely distil, and forget, as regards its specific details, before he is qualified to re-incarnate. If it is alleged, as has, indeed, sometimes been alleged with great force in reference to particular cases, that some rarely organised persons have maintained recollections of a former life of no very remote period, all we need point out is that few of the standing rules of natural growth in any of the kingdoms of Nature are beyond the reach of occasional abnormal exceptions. It is the rule, for instance, that men of our race live to about threescore years and ten, but there are many examples in which that rule is violated, and we may conceive in the same way that people sometimes die prematurely from the spiritual planes of Nature and return before their time to the earth life. Nor in venturing that guess need we assume that accidents like those which terminate life abruptly sometimes amongst us, are liable to befall the released souls of the higher levels. Premature returns to earth life in the rare cases where they occur, may be due to Karmic complications too elaborate to inquire into now. The important point is that the regular course of events must necessarily clear the Ego of all specific recollections of one life before it is ready for another. It might be desirable that this should be done in the interest of the soul's progress, if for no other reason, Life would perhaps hardly be bearable for human beings still in a humble phase of evolution, if the long and weary procession of uninteresting existences through which they had passed lay within sight behind them, before an enlightened spirituality of consciousness had shown them the ultimate possibilities of progress in future. And each life in turn would not, perhaps, be fraught with its own lessons unless these were learned separately, as it were, and one by one. But above all the forgetfulness of each life is plainly due to that provision of Nature already referred to which ensures for each of us after death the maximum fruition of all our spiritual aspirations in the corresponding and appropriate realms of consciousness. It would be unjust to the soul that it should remember, before it is exalted enough to exercise faculties far transcending those of the present average mankind. Memories are apt to be tinged either with sad longing or regret. For a man to remember some long vanished happiness of a former incarnation would mean one of two things: either he would have been unfairly deprived of the spiritual complement of that happiness, turned out too soon from the Heaven in which it would naturally be protracted, or supposing his new conditions of physical life owing to bad Karma i.e., to evil-doing on his part in the former life to be the painful penalty of such misdoing, he would be doubly punished if allowed the tantalising memory of what he had lost. Finally, as regards this point, though I have here been endeavouring to justify the law of Nature in question, it is not always to be expected that we can do this completely, and even if some critics remain inclined to dispute the wisdom of Nature in providing a draught of Lethe, "on slipping through from state to state," I would answer that the first thing we have to do in studying these mysteries is to find out what is, leaving to a more advanced period of our knowledge the task of ascertaining why it is.
At all events, the fact that we do not remember former incarnations, taken in conjunction with the merciful arrangement that provides us after each physical life a long and, in most cases, highly enjoyable and refreshing expansion of our existence on the spiritual planes, is no impediment whatever to the acceptance of the Re-incarnation theory, if we find it recommended to acceptance on independent grounds.
Coming now to some of those independent grounds, I would call attention to a somewhat recondite but extremely important argument, which is this: Ex nihilo nihil fit. That is a rule which commands our respect as much on the spiritual as on the physical plane of Nature. Now, independently of the broad teachings of religion, there is plenty of evidence around us for inquirers who are not too much prejudiced to avail themselves of it, to show that the human soul is a real entity -even when apart from and independent of the body with which it is associated during physical life. The experiences of spiritualism afford us this evidence. In spite of all the fraud and trickery with which the practice of spiritualism is surrounded, and in spite of the insufficiency of its most genuine experiences to establish the theories which many spiritualists have hastily built up, nothing but wilful ignorance of these experiences can blind the world at large to the proof it affords of one all-important fact, viz., that intelligences, formerly those of living persons on earth, do in some cases show themselves still actively functioning on another plane of Nature. To take that much as established by the investigations of spiritualists at large, is like taking from astronomy nothing more than an assurance that the earth is round. It is a simple and elementary assurance to which, of course, I am aware that many people do not help themselves as indeed there are other persons, or some among these who do not help themselves to the demonstrations of the earth's rotundity. There will come a time when disbelievers in the occasional reality of spiritualistic phenomena persons who refer all such alleged occurrences to fraud and delusion will be to a future generation what the few surviving " flat earth men " are to our own. But this is not an opportunity which I need take for the full discussion of that matter with detailed reference to trustworthy observations and records. The argument I am concerned with is merely one among many converging on the doctrine of Re-incarnation, and is specially addressed to persons who recognise either on religious grounds, or from the experience of spiritualism that the human soul is an entity apart from the body.
Now where has that soul come from when we first begin to see it flutter in a young child? It is a something independent of the body, therefore it has had an origin independently of the body. It has not come out of nothingness it is essentially of the nature of the spiritual plane to which we find abundant reason for feeling sure it will flit off whenever the body is destroyed. Is it not obvious, therefore, that it has emerged from the spiritual plane coming into manifestation on the physical? " But," someone may urge, " what we see in the young child in the nature of a soul is something very different from that which we can follow to a certain extent on its departure from the worn-out body of a person dying in mature life.
It may be that we have to recognise it as coming into the child's body, an entity already, but it looks very much like a freshly created entity. It is merely a centre of potentialities, a consciousness that may be taught, may acquire experience, may become a man, clearly not the trained soul of a man from the first moment of birth." Let me show how that objection is met. Firstly, for the purpose of the argument I am setting forth, all that matters is to establish that [the soul is a continuous entity which was in existence before and remains in existence after the physical life. That which we see before us, in the physical life of a man, is a bead, so to speak, upon the thread of life. When we fully appreciate the fact that the thread stretches into darkness in both directions, we realise that the process of birth is, at all events, the coming of a soul into incarnation, an emergence into physical manifestation from a spiritual state; and when we once realise that, we are, at all events, a very long way on the road towards recognising the doctrine of Re-incarnation in its scientific completeness. But secondly, the vacuity of the child's mind, the emptiness of the soul on coming into incarnation, is exactly the condition of things which, on the doctrine of Re-incarnation, as I have explained it, we are bound to expect. All its specific states of consciousness, its definite possessions of knowledge and stores of emotional experience, have vibrated to their utmost capacity for vibration on the spiritual plane of being before Re-incarnation claimed it for earth once more. As a re-incarnating entity it can only be a centre of potentialities, a focus of consciousness replete with the power of acquiring knowledge and the power of developing thought, as soon as the new instrument, the new body, with which it is thrown into relations by its Karmic affinities, shall have grown into perfection sufficiently to give it free play.
To the mind's eye of the occult student the cycles of human progress which are worked out in this way are as intelligible, as coherent, and as obviously fulfilling the natural idea in view, as the cycles of destiny governing the drops of water that fall on the earth from clouds that flow over the land in streams and are lost for a time in the ocean, to be redrawn back into the atmosphere at last and so fall again on the earth reincarnated in the new raindrops of to-day after centuries or millenniums of existence, perhaps, in other conditions of Nature.
But passing on now from subtle considerations which guide us to the discovery of the principle of Re-incarnation, let us consider for a moment the immensely powerful argument for its acceptance embodied in the condition of the world around us. On the hypothesis that each physical life is the only earth life of each soul in actual incarnation, could any cruelty and injustice be worse than that which the inequalities of life would exhibit in operation? We have not merely to consider the stupendous inequalities in the lot of the rich and the poor; we see these inequalities emphasised by all imaginable differences of health and physique, and by the terrible differences of moral surrounding. We see some members of the human family strong and robust, and gifted with brilliant faculties of intelligence; prosperous, carefully guarded in youth from evil, brought up in innocence and purity, drifted, as naturally as a river flows, into lives of benevolence and usefulness, and passing on into whatever spiritual existence may await them beyond the grave, with every advantage which the utmost development of their loftier aspirations may bestow. Others we see crippled, deformed, miserable; steeped in poverty and, perhaps, painful disease; nurtured in crime, and fed on evil of every sort; living a curse to their companions, and destroyed at last perhaps by the human justice they have offended. With unfeeling foolishness some unintelligent defenders of the one life hypothesis will sometimes attempt to argue that beneath all the apparent inequalities of life, the relief the miserable and suffering may sometimes experience, during transitory moments, when their hard lot may be a little ameliorated, is so great that it may be set against their habitual misery, with the result that all may roughly be said to have the same share of happiness on the whole. Words would fail me if I sought to characterise the grovelling and ignoble nonsense of this theory. Earthly happiness varies with different people in the proportion in which lakes vary in size; in which streams vary in length. There are boundless differences in the wellbeing of different men and women on earth, and these differences are of a nature that could not be equalised on the spiritual plane of life, in the way sometimes suggested. For if the poor and suffering on earth were translated to a Heaven superior to that provided for those who had been happy in earth life, that would simply be translating the injustice of Providence to the realms in which its justice ought to be especially operative. The persons wronged would then be those who had been, without reference to themselves, cheated of a blissful eternity at the poor price of transitory delusions here.
It is only by realising the long succession of earth lives which make up the individuality of each soul that we can discern order, harmony, and justice reigning in the destinies of man. By this interpretation of the phenomena of life we not alone restore justice to the government of the world, but discover the working of natural law in human evolution to be precise and unerring in its exactitude. The good and bad deeds of men are of a mixed and complex character. Some are spiritual in their colouring; others appertain to the earth life. These last find their fruition in the earth life when the soul returns to it. They in their boundless variety account for the boundless diversities of human lot. Such diversities are not the sport of brainless chance the outcome of what by an absurd phrase the expression of the world's ignorance in these matters is sometimes called the accident of birth. There is no " accident " in the supreme act of Divine justice guiding human evolution. With the same inevitable certainty that force on the physical plane governs the combination of the molecules of matter though the bewildering complexity of even that aspect of force dazzles the mind as we attempt to follow out its workings so does the far more exalted force which gives effect to the primary laws of Nature in the moral world operate with an exactitude that no chemical reactions can eclipse. The outward circumstances of each life into which we may be born are the mathematical result of the causes we have ourselves set in motion in former lives. The causes we are setting in motion now the effort of our own free* will within the narrowest hedge of circumstances we can possibly imagine as confining it will be the all-powerful, determining influence in the creation of the conditions under which we shall live on earth next time.
And these conditions, let it be remembered, are not merely a response to the moral requirements of the situation; meting out happiness or suffering in accordance with the karma of the individual Ego at the time of each Re-incarnation, they are the expression, as well, of his intellectual and psychic progress. No human effort is wasted and resultless in the regions of such progress any more than in those of the great moral law. If a man labours, for example, during a whole life at some branch of science, at some art, or at some special department of study, the specific acquirements he may possess at the end of his life are not passed over, it is true, to the next life exactly as he lays them down. They would probably be of very little use to him in the altered circumstances of the world when he comes back, if they were. But they are thrown into manifestation again at his Re-incarnation in the appropriate form of highly developed aptitudes for the line of acquisition he has formerly been concerned with. Do we not observe, for instance, in such a very earthly matter as the power of learning languages, great gulfs of difference between the aptitudes of different people? Some will learn a dozen languages with less difficulty than others will learn one. "They have an inborn faculty," says the careless commonplace critic, content as usual to libel Nature by setting down to the accident of birth the symmetrical outcome of exquisitely adjusted law. So with the glaring examples of re-incarnating acquirements presented to us by the case of people who show extraordinary genius for music at an age when less "gifted" contemporaries can barely distinguish a tune. There is no gift in the matter there is acquirement faithfully preserved in the karmic affinities of the Ego and in its true individuality.
Surely no one who appreciates, even imperfectly, the fulness with which the doctrines of Re-incarnation satisfy the problem of life and human evolution, will be surprised to remember that it has always, as far as philosophical history can look back, been accepted as the keynote of spiritual science by the vast majority of mankind. Buddhism finds it established as the corner-stone of Brahminical teaching and takes it over as a matter of course. This is a consideration which should not be too lightly put aside by European thinkers over prone to assume that their own age, which has been glorified by an extraordinary advance in knowledge and intelligence relating to the physical plane of Nature, is entitled to a monopoly of our intellectual respect. Modern scholarship which is only now beginning to unlock the mysteries of Sanscrit literature may well stand aghast at its discoveries. Not for the moment to raise any question about the real age of this literature; it is established at all events, that far back behind the beginning of European philosophy, there lies a complete literature exhibiting profound sagacity and subtlety on the part of its authors in regard to the problems of the mind and the speculations of metaphysics. Take the Bhagavat Gita for example at all events an existent literary work or, as occultists and native Indian scholars maintain, already a work of profound antiquity when Britain was a savage island, and the race destined to commence its civilisation, only beginning its own struggle for existence among the warring tribes of Italy. Now that the boundlessly elaborate meaning of the allegory embodied in that poem is shining forth for us by degrees, it is plain at least that its authors were deep students already of the mysteries of human life and death, that they were filled with spiritual aspiration of the purest kind, that their conception of the relations between the finite embodied and the infinite consciousness have left nothing for later theologians to refine upon. And the stupendous epic in which the Bhagavat Gita is embedded, is no less remarkable for the finished delicacy of its poetic feeling, for the loftiness of its ethical code, for the intricate abundance of its symbology, for all the characteristics which mark the literary work of a highly cultured race. Europeans are children in metaphysical speculation beside the Hindus of old, and if we could imagine an impartial inquirer from another sphere, acquainted with the intellectual history of these two races, and informed that the Hindus of old believed in Re-incarnation while the modern Europeans rejected it, he would certainly smile at the anti-climax involved in such a statement. Modern theology should show some credentials more effective than its ignorance of ancient records and its obliquity of vision in regard to the bearings of its own sacred writings to which I will come directly before it can justly claim to impose its own negations on the minds of people who are now beginning to look around them in an inquiring spirit.
I have just said that Buddhism took over the Brahminical doctrines of Re-incarnation as a matter of' course and this is the case. But Buddha's teaching on all vital points connected with spiritual growth Has been so wildly caricatured and distorted by commentators who have approached it without any interior illumination as to its meaning, that I may fairly ask the reader's attention for a little while to the true significance on this subject of the Buddhist scriptures.
The sacred books of Eastern religions are written, for the most part, in a style which is rather a disguise than an expression of the meaning they are intended to convey. Figurative phraseology and intricate symbols are, at all events, so little in harmony with Western habits of thought, that such vehicles of philosophic teaching may easily be mistaken by readers accustomed to a more lucid treatment of religious doctrine, for the wild conceptions of a crude superstition. And even when simpler topics than the avatars of Vishnu are under treatment, the same habits of speech which veil cosmological theories with narratives of Divine incarnations in animal forms, lead Oriental writers to describe even such events as Buddha's death and cremation in the circuitous language of symbols, rather than in plain and matter-of-fact prose. Thus, in one of the Pali "Sutta's," or Buddhist Gospels the Maha-parinibbana "Sutta" for the English version of which we are indebted to the admirable scholarship of Dr. Rhys David, we are told how "the Blessed One" died from an illness which supervened upon a meal of dried boar's flesh," served to him by a certain Kunda, a worker in metals at Pava. A prosaic interpretation of this narrative has passed into all epitomes of Buddhism current in European literature. Mr. Alabaster, for instance, in his "Wheel of the Law," calmly quotes a missionary authority for the statement that Buddha died "of dysentery caused by eating roast pork"; and even Dr. Rhys David himself gives further currency of this ludicrous misconception in his well-known treatise on Buddhism, published by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. One might have supposed that students of the subject, even without a clue to the meaning of the "dried boar's flesh" in the legend, would have been startled at the notion of finding the simple diet of so confirmed a vegetarian as we must suppose any Indian religious teacher to have been, invaded by so gross an article of food as roast pork. But one after another, European writers on Buddhism are content to echo this absurdly materialistic version of the figurative Eastern story. If they had sought to check their interpretation of it by reference to living exponents of the Buddhist faith, they would have fallen easily on the track of the right explanation. The boar is an Oriental symbol for esoteric knowledge, derived from the boar avatar, of Vishnu that in which the incarnate god lifted up the earth out of the waters in which it was immersed. In other words, according to Wilson's translation of the Vishnu Purana, the avatar in question "allegorically represents the extrication of the world from a deluge of iniquity by the rites of religion." In the Ramayana we may find another version of the same allegory, Brahma in this case assuming the form of a boar to hoist up the earth out of primal chaos. Boar's flesh thus comes to symbolise the secret doctrine of the esoteric initiates, those who possessed the inner science of Brahma, and dried boar's flesh would be such esoteric wisdom prepared for food; reduced, that is to say, to a form in which it could be taught to the multitude. It was through the too daring use of such dried boar's flesh through his attempt to bring the multitude, to a greater degree than they were prepared for it, within the area of esoteric teaching that Buddha died; that is to say, that his great enterprise came to an end. That is the meaning of the story so painfully debased by European writers; and that meaning once assigned to its central idea, will be followed through many variations in the details of the Pali narrative, even as translated by Dr. Rhys David, apparently without any suspicion on his part of its true intention. Buddha, for instance, before the feast, directs that he only should be served with the dried boar's flesh, while " the Brethren," his disciples, are to be served with cakes and rice; also, that whatever dried boar's flesh may be left over after he has done, shall be buried, for none but himself, he says, can digest such food a strange remark for him to have made, according to the materialistic interpretation of the story, which represents him as not able to digest such food. The meaning of the injunction plainly is that after him none of the Brethren shall attempt the task of giving out esoteric secrets to the world.
Buddhist doctrine has fared but little better than Buddhist gospel narrative in the hands of the distinguished scholars who have rendered the Western world the service of translating a good many of the writings in which it is enshrined, without conferring on us the additional benefit of elucidating the spiritual science which that doctrine cautiously sets forth. Indeed, the plain fact of the matter is that two leading ideas concerning Buddhist doctrine have been presented to the world by the principal writers on the subject, and that both these ideas are on a level with the roast pork theory. These ideas are that Buddhism does not recognise any future conscious life of the individual man beyond the grave, and that in exhorting us to tread the path which leads to Nirvana, it proceeds on the ultra-pessimistic view that all conscious life must be misery; so that the only wise course for us to pursue is to court its extinction in profound and dreamless slumber, in utter oblivion of all things, in that Nirvana which we are told to regard as identical with absolute annihilation. Spence Hardy, Max Muller, Rhys David, Alabaster, Bigandet, Bournouf, and others, might be shown by reference to unequivocal passages to entertain this idea, perhaps most grotesquely emphasised by an American caricaturist of Buddhist doctrine, Dr. S. H. Kellogg. The German commentator on Buddhism, Dr. Oldenberg, is honourably distinguished by combating the theory that the Buddhist Nirvana is equivalent to annihilation; but though he argues the question in an elaborate and painstaking way, he does not put his finger on available passages in Buddhist scriptures that would settle the matter decisively. Barth, also, in his "Religions of India," "takes leave to doubt" whether the intention of Buddhism was to preach that there is no survival of the individual consciousness from one incarnate existence to another, but even he thinks that "this vaguely apprehended and feebly postulated ego" cannot be compared with the "simple and imperishable soul of the Sankhya philosophy." And as a whole, European Buddhistic exegesis may be held to rest chiefly on the two ideas above referred to no future life, and annihilation in Nirvana.
Now, the reconciliation of these two commanding misapprehensions has given critics of Buddhism no little trouble. For, on the face of things, if man's consciousness is merely a matter of this life, he need not go through the self denial and privations of the candidate for Nirvana to accomplish the annihilation that must await him anyhow. And again, Buddhist teaching is saturated with references to Karma, which, as the sum total of merit and demerit that determines the conditions of a man's next rebirth, seems to presuppose the persistence of the soul-consciousness which those conditions are apparently designed either to reward or punish. But the embarrassment is got over by help of the theory for the ingenuity of which Dr. Rhys David appears to deserve the credit that Karma does not follow an individual soul from one incarnation to the other, but causes the birth of an entirely new individuality, which becomes the independent heir, for good or evil, of its predecessor. The motive which each person thus has for making a sacrifice of himself to achieve Nirvana, is altogether altruistic. His Karma being extinguished in the total annihilation of Nirvana, no other being is born along that line of influence to suffer the pain and sorrow of existence. The inventor of this idea admits that the motive does not seem a strong one, as a fundamental rule of human conduct; but its insufficiency does not present itself to his mind as a ground for distrusting the former conclusions out of which it grows.
All this misdirection of thought appears to have been started by forgetfulness on the part of the first interpreters of Buddhism to the modern West Bournouf and Spence Hardy especially of the broad fact that Buddha was a religious reformer rather than a person who made any profession of re-codifying the whole body of religious truth from A to Z. Roughly speaking he takes the entire block of Hindu faith, or Brahminical philosophy, for granted, and builds upon that, the higher teaching he has to offer from his store of "dried boar's flesh of esoteric wisdom, adapted to the understanding of the multitude. "The simple and imperishable soul of Sankhya philosophy" is the property of the Buddhist, just as fully as of the earlier Brahmin or later Hindu. Current religious instruction before Buddha took up his task had familiarised the people with the idea that good men went to Heaven and bad men to hell. But Buddha did not put that fundamental idea in the forefront of his teaching. It was unnecessary to do so. Indian theology was already stocked to over-flowing with ideas concerning the life after death in the numerous heavens and hells which its doctrines recognised. And it was also fully possessed with the conviction that in each case, after the appropriate period of spiritual enjoyment or suffering, the soul would return to earthly incarnation. Buddha's reform started from these assumptions. The fact is acknowledged by modern writers, but not its force. Professor Sir Monier Williams, in his treatise on Hinduism for the S. P. C. K., says: "About five centuries before our era, the reformer Buddha appeared, and about contemporaneously with him various Brahmin sages, stimulated by his example and perhaps by that of others who preceded him, thought out what are called the orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy." What did such thought amount to? Sir Monier Williams sums it up a$ including these articles of faith, amongst others: The eternity of the soul, prospectively and retrospectively; the periodical removal of the soul to places of reward or punishment; the subsequent return of the soul to corporeal existence. Buddha, from the standpoint of these conceptions, addressed himself especially to the task of showing men that, beyond spiritual conditions and rebirth, there lay possibilities of human evolution which, in their transcendent excellence, rendered the familiar alternations of corporeal and ethereal existence relatively unworthy of acceptance. A state of blessedness which would come to a definite end was, for his exalted perception, no state of blessedness at all. Human life on earth, though such as men might esteem as happy, was subject to manifold perils and to decay. It was a state for the wise man to avoid by making the stupendous effort that would emancipate his desires from all the objects of sense, and thus cut off the attractions that would otherwise inevitably bring him back again, after a period of heavenly existence, to physical incarnation.
Buddha's sermons and lessons became thus almost altogether concerned with the contemplation of that transcendent spiritual condition described by the term Nirvana, but never defined with any degree of precision, simply because its attributes were by the hypothesis insusceptible of exact definition in terms of the physical intellect. That which men in the flesh can imagine as attractive must necessarily be tainted with the limitations and sense of separateness inherent in the incarnate imagination. Nirvana could only be described by negatives which ruled it off from any state of being which individual aspirations for happiness would be capable of picturing in the mind. And while the attempt would have been fruitless, it was, at the same time, unnecessary for Buddha to define Nirvana, because the idea to be dealt with was no novelty for Hindu audiences. Referring again to Sir Monier Williams' epitome of Hindu faith, we find that system of thought, quite independently of Buddha's teaching, to recognise that the supreme state of bliss involved an escape from all sense of individual personality complete absorption into the Supreme and only existing Being who is wholly unfettered by action, without qualities of any kind pure life, pure thought, pure joy. No one, from the physical plane of existence, can understand such a condition; but this impossibility does not justify us in the absurdity of pretending on that account to understand it as equivalent to annihilation. We are not even called upon, for the purposes of the present argument, to consider whether or not, Buddha himself understood it. It is enough to realise that undeniably Buddha treated it as a state of being which was supremely desirable by reason of its exaltation in the scale of Nature above all other states of being, and that in doing this he had no antagonistic opinion on that point to combat. Brahminism already recognised Nirvana, under various names the ultimate absorption into the Supreme -- as the most glorious goal to which humanity could turn. The failure of modern Western thinkers to recognise the splendour of such an ideal is plainly due to our deeper immersion in material habits of thought, in which the sense of separateness that Oriental philosophy, at all events, already perceived to be a defect of the incarnate imagination, has been elevated into the sine qua non of all conditions to be desired. We may be able to conceive a high degree of spiritualisation in consciousness. We may contemplate an existence as free from. all lower passions, and yet attractive; but we find it hard to realise that ultimate exemption from the fetters of Self, which finds its most glorious fulfilment in complete identification with the universal consciousness. However, without professing to realise this, we may, at any rate, intellectually comprehend that men of abnormal spirituality, who have declared such a desire, are not on that account declaring a desire for extinction of consciousness. For them, at all events, the higher kind of consciousness embraces the lower, supersedes it and triumphs over it.
If Buddha thus said nothing to break down existing beliefs in the normal progress of man through successive rebirths, intercalated with successive periods of heavenly enjoyment, and if Hindu philosophy had already acknowledged that the highest state of human evolution would carry men into Nirvana, what was it that he did teach? The answer will be readily substantiated by the sermons and teachings of Buddhist literature, as already translated for Western reference, and will in half-a-dozen words afford the clue to the comprehension of his whole position. He taught the way to Nirvana. This teaching had previously been esoteric. He sought to show all men the way to Nirvana, and the rules of life with which almost all his recorded utterances are thus concerned, did not constitute an everyday code of morality for ordinary people. They were the prescriptions laid down for those whose spiritual aspirations were already so highly awakened that they desired Nirvana; or, at all events, were so near the threshold of that desire that a little stimulus to their spirituality might suffice to lead them across it. The proof of this view will be supplied most readily, not by quoting at length from the language which Buddha addressed to his monks, to "the brethren," who were avowedly candidates for Nirvana, but by showing that all the while he recognised a totally different sort of morality for men who were still in the fetters of separateness, and whose highest aspirations were for individual spiritual happiness in Heaven. Let us take, for example, the following passage from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, as translated by Dr. Rhys David (Sacred Books of the East, vol. xi., page 16), by no means the only one of the kind that could be produced, but sufficient in itself for our present purpose. The sentences quoted constitute a short address to certain "householders," followers of his teaching, but persons who were not engaged in the arduous struggles of arhatship, that candidature for Nirvana of which we have already spoken. Here there are no ambiguous metaphysics to lead astray the minds of later readers out of sympathy with the subtle selflessness of Nirvanic aspirations. The passage runs:
Then the Blessed one addressed the Pataligama disciples, and said: Fivefold, oh householders, is the loss of the wrongdoer through this want of rectitude. In the first place, the wrong-doer, devoid of rectitude, falls into great poverty through sloth; in the next place, his evil repute gets noised abroad; thirdly, whatever society he enters, whether of Brahmans, nobles, heads of houses, or Samanas, he enters shyly and confused; fourthly, he is full of anxiety when he dies; and lastly, on the dissolution of the body after death, he is reborn into some unhappy state of suffering or woe.
Fivefold, oh householders, is the gain of the well-doer through the practice of rectitude. In the first place, the well-doer, strong in rectitude, acquires great wealth through his industry; in the next place, good reports of him are spread abroad; thirdly, whatever society he enters, whether of nobles, Brahmans, heads of houses, or members of the order, he enters confident and self-possessed; fourthly, he dies without anxiety; and lastly, on the dissolution of the body after death, he is reborn into some happy state in Heaven.
Certainly it might be argued that this address does not contain a complete code of even worldly morality, but if the question were to judge the ethics of Buddha's teaching we may find plenty of other material to work with. The very simplicity of the appeal here made to selfishness as a motive for well doing gives the present quotation its value, as showing how fully Buddha recognised the persistent existence of the soul as an individual entity after the death of the body in regard to the great bulk of mankind at large, in regard to whom there might be no question of treading the path to Nirvana.
Coming now "to the teaching of Christianity in reference to which the Western world has so long denied itself the advantage of comparative theosophy we find the later faith really taking Re-incarnation for granted, just as this was done by the earlier Buddhist reform.
One of the most striking of the passages in the New Testament that recognises Re-incarnation is that in which Jesus refers to the prophecy in Malachi that Elijah or Elias would return to earth. The prophecy itself occurs in the last verse but one of the Old Testament, " Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." Jesus refers to this, according to the eleventh chapter of Matthew, as follows: " But what went ye out for to see? a man clothed in soft raiment? . . . But wherefore went ye out? To see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist . . . And if ye are willing to receive it this is Elijah which is to come. He that hath ears to hear let him hear/'
The same idea is expressed in the ninth chapter of Mark, as follows:
"And they asked him, saying, The scribes say that Elijah must first come. And he said unto them, Elijah indeed cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be set at nought? But I say unto you, that Elijah is come, and they have also done unto him whatsoever they listed, even as it is written of him."
Again, in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we read:
"And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elijah must come first? And he answered and said, Elijah indeed cometh, and shall restore all things; but I say unto you that Elijah is come already and they knew him not, but did unto him whatsoever they listed. Even so shall the Son of man also suffer of them. Then understood the disciples that he spake to them of John the Baptist."
In what sense these words can be taken except as meaning that John the Baptist was a Re-incarnation of Elijah it would be difficult to say. The remarkable words above quoted, " He that hath ears let him hear," show that the information was given out rather for the use of the enlightened than of the common multitude, who might be expected not to understand its full significance; but it is evident, from another passage, that Jesus assumed a widespread knowledge around Him of the principle of Re-incarnation, for in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew we read:
"Now, when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, saying: Who do men say that the Son of man is? And they said, Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."
Jesus then goes on to repudiate any such specific individuality for Himself, but none the less does the conversation show that the idea of Re-incarnation was a familiar and accepted principle with those whom he addressed; while far from rebuking that belief as a principle, He explicitly affirms it in the case of John the Baptist.
That the principle in question was a generally accepted belief among the disciples is plainly shown by the passage in John ix., relating to the man who was blind from his birth:
"And as he passed by he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying. Rabbi, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
It would be a digression if I went into an analysis of the answer which Jesus here gives " Neither did this man sin nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." The value of the passage for my present purpose lies in the significance of the question. The man had been blind from his birth, and yet the disciples asked did he earn that affliction by sin? The question was either nonsense, or it meant did he sin in his last incarnation?
The truth appears to be that it is only among the modern generations of the Western world, when the inner science of spiritual nature has been so deeply obscured by the acquirements of material civilisation, that people have lost touch with the all-important tenet that true Theosophists, students of Divine Wisdom, are at last struggling to restore. It has been forgotten so long that people who have constructed a fanciful scheme of human destinies for themselves, are sometimes in the present day inconquerably loth to welcome back the truth. They find it uncomfortable, and regard that as a sufficient ground for its rejection, unaware of the fact that the other alternative the perpetuation ad infinitum of the miserable personalities that so many men are doomed to bear, or, as I should rather say, have built up for themselves by the sad misuse they have hitherto made of their opportunities would be for the majority of the present race the most profoundly uncomfortable fate that could well be imagined. And it is but a short-sighted aspiration, indeed, which would lead even the most lofty-minded and cultivated members of that race to prefer the infinite perpetuation of their own personalities to the infinite improvement of these which the principles of Re-incarnation hold out to them. I am not unaware of the hypothesis which some thinkers may vaguely cling to, according to which they hope for improvement along some unknown channels of progress in spiritual realms external to the life of this planet. Such unphilosophical expectations ought not to be maintained by a generation for whom it has been clearly shown if they have eyes to see that the spiritual planes of Nature are closely linked with that on which humanity is manifest in the flesh.
Such hopes ought not to be the refuge of those whose experience, far transcending that of the common-place world at large, renders them familiar with the idea just expressed. The simple creed that we shall go to Heaven if we are good, and there be taken care of and helped along somehow, may be a good working creed for men in an early stage of spiritual development who are drifting along from one unintelligent life to another, remitting to later opportunities the commencement of their higher evolution. But it is not a creed that can long suffice for people who begin to realise the intimate manner in which various states of existence in this highly complicated world around us are blended together. It converts the visible world for one thing, as I have said into a seething cauldron of injustice, and further than this, it degrades it into playing an almost useless part in the evolution of humanity for by the hypothesis I speak of all that would be really important in that evolution would have to be performed elsewhere. We need not, however, disinherit the earth and deny it the fruition of its own suffering. As far as the human family, as manifested on earth, has already advanced beyond the condition of the lowliest savages and further will that family advance in the future. To question or doubt this would be an insult to the majesty of the Divine principle in Nature, with which most surely the human family must be in close relations. As we grow in moral stature and wisdom and in all the higher capacities, as we work our way on through the sometimes painful schooling of physical life, our souls grow gradually fitted to inhabit the physical organisms of the future which the progressive forces of the material plane will evolve for us as we successively return to them. We shall all of us see the world again, under those greatly ameliorated conditions, and looking back then to this period will smile to think that it was ever possible for men to regard the present conditions of this now current race as a fitting platform from which to part company for ever from the sphere of incarnate experience.
So far I have dealt with a mass of reflections bearing on the doctrine of Re-incarnation. The subject, however, may be handled in a different way as soon as we get touch with the thought that at certain stages of advancement in occult study people whose faculties have undergone adequate development are enabled to recover a full and complete recollection of their former lives a recollection far more complete indeed than that which enables ordinary people in mature life to remember the events of their youth. Clairvoyant faculties, indeed, that are susceptible of exercise on the spiritual plane as well as on the astral of which more anon will enable their possessor to do more than remember his own past lives. It will enable him to get into magnetic relations with the imperishable records of other lives as well, and to track back the previous existences on the physical plane of almost anyone with whom he may be acquainted. And in the same way the adepts of occult science know by their own personal observation, not merely that Re-incarnation is the law of human evolution, but the exact way in which it works, I should be arranging my explanations, however, in the wrong order if I tried to elucidate the science of the matter before treating fully of the "higher self" of man, which is the true Re-incarnating Ego. So this department of the subject must be picked up again a little later on.