This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

10.9. Reincarnation and Transmigration

The importance of this discussion

We feel compelled to deal with the subject of reincarnation for the same reason that we must deal competently with the subject of race, astrology, or alchemy, which is that it is so profoundly misunderstood by most people today and usually relegated to the status of either ancient superstition or new age hocus pocus. But we must also guard it against new age hocus pocus, because it has indeed been appropriated by many and given an interpretation which, although not dismissive, is still destructive, and instead of denying the truth of doctrine, perverts it beyond recognition. When it comes to reincarnation, we must say that the notion of it shared by both of the aforementioned groups is false, but that there is truth in it still. It is this truth which we must rescue from them, providing an explanation of the subject that is as definitive as possible, without doing injustice to the traditions that have dealt with it before us.

The term itself, as it has been used by those groups who have adopted it, can mean any number of things. We will outline the commonest meanings, and when it is possible, we will clear away the confusion simply by providing a more exact term for what is meant.

Reincarnation as commonly understood

When we speak of reincarnation, taking for its meaning the way in which it is most commonly used and understood, we have in mind the idea of a being passing through the same state twice–namely the state of being embodied. Such a being is embodied, passes away, shedding this body, and takes on a new one within the same cycle in order to repeat the state over again, subject to the same conditions in the same world. Thus, a person could legitimately claim to have lived numerous ‘earthly lives’ (whether or not they remember them) as so many links in a chain of incarnations from ancient Athens to modern America.

Moreover, we should stress that this notion assumes that it is the same complete being that is ‘reincarnated’ into the embodied state each time, and not merely certain residual (subtle) elements that happened to remain behind after the previous being’s departure.

These conditions taken together form the idea of ‘reincarnation’ as commonly understood, even if the conditions are not usually enunciated in this kind of detail. It is this idea that we deny, while allowing that certain elements involved in this understanding have truth to them, and it is the confusion of truth and error that we intend to remedy here.

Metempsychosis

The first concept that ought to be distinguished from the confused collection of ideas called ‘reincarnation’ is metempsychosis. Metempsychosis is a legitimate concept easily reconciled with a proper metaphysics and a traditional cosmology, and it is metempsychosis that can easily account for most of the ‘supernatural’ phenomena claimed by reincarnationists as ‘evidence’ of their theories.

As we’ve explained in our discussions elsewhere, the living (embodied) being possesses a psychic component above and beyond the physical elements that make up the body. Metempsychosis concerns these psychic elements of the individual that are mortal and are therefore dispersed upon death (memory being just one of these ‘mortal’ elements). Much in the same way that the corporeal elements of the human body are dispersed back into the earth, an individual’s psychic elements are disbursed back into the ‘subtle environment’. In the same way that the matter that formed the body is taken up by other bodies, the psychic elements, disintegrated at death, are made available to the manifest world and can then be taken up and utilized by another individuality as it forms and develops.

In this context, it is conceivable that the residual psychic elements of a deceased personality could persist without being completely disintegrated, and in this state, without being completely dispersed, they might come to be incorporated (we might even say ‘absorbed’) into a new individuality. Such an occurrence would lead to the possession of semi-intact memories from the previous individuality, which is to say that the memories would be obtained only in a partial and fragmentary manner. We could also say here that this probably occurs more often than we realize and is to some extent a normal aspect of what we call ‘heredity’. We would not expect these memories to become consciously accessible to the individual who, by whatever circumstances, comes into possession of them. They would only become ‘accessible’ either accidentally, as a result of certain conditions that bring them to the fore, or in cases of persons who are extremely sensitive to the psychic order.

This, in a nutshell, is metempsychosis, and it reconciles well with the traditional cosmology. It also explains most of what occurs in a séance, but we will comment further on that below.

Metempsychosis further distinguished from reincarnation

In cases of metempsychosis where an individual ‘remembers’ a previous life due to the incorporation of psychic material from a deceased person, we are obviously not dealing with a ‘reincarnation’ of that deceased person. This is true for the same reason that we don’t say that a person becomes reincarnated when the matter that composed their physical body is incorporated by plants or animals or people.  We are too well aware of the fact that the matter that went to form the physical body is not immortal—we just tend to forget that the same principle applies to memory, belonging as it does to the psychic and therefore mortal part of man. Cases of metempsychosis, even when they are valid (many times they are not), do not involve the true being of the deceased, and these account for most of phenomena that occultists would attribute, due to their incomprehension, to the actions or communications of deceased beings. Hauntings, for example, are nothing more than the prolongations of the psychic part of a human individuality, and this is why reports of hauntings always seem to indicate that the ‘ghost’ involved shows no signs of consciousness of anything or anyone, but merely ‘persists’ as a blind force engaged in some activity or repeating some performance over and over to the dismay of the witnesses.

Metempsychosis and heredity

Heredity itself involves the transference of psychic elements from parent to child. That which is received in the form of the psychic seed from one’s parents goes to form much of what is called the unconscious. The psychic and the corporeal (bodily) orders are in fact inseparable, being but two modalities of a single state of existence. This psychic seed should be imagined as analogous to the physiological seed provided by parents to all of their children, as all individual beings have both a psychic and a physiological aspect. Under normal circumstances, this does not result in any conscious experience of ancestral memory since the psychic material broken down before it is passed to new being in the womb of the mother, just as food is broken down before it can nourish a growing fetus. This explains much of what psychoanalysis has attributed to the ‘unconscious,’ and insofar as the unconscious is a valid concept we can say that it refers precisely to this ‘hereditary psychic storehouse,’ which might be compared to a computer hard drive that, having been used previously, contains remnants of old data from all previous deployments, and this data is retained even if it remains for the most part inaccessible.[1] This does away with the idea of memories of ‘previous lives,’ despite the sincerity of those who experience these illusions. Such memories may truly belong to previous lives, but this does not imply that the individual who ‘recalls’ them is the same being who experienced them originally. He simply came into possession of them, which is something very different.

[1] This imagery is of course over-simplistic. It serves well to illustrate the point, but it does not do justice to the unconscious itself and the psychic material it maintains, which is ‘effective’ in ways that would not be helpful to explain in this section.

Psychics, séances, and hauntings

Everything that has been said above should be kept in mind when dealing with spiritist or pseudo-spiritual fads like psychic readings, séances, and in cases where grieving family members look to ‘mediums’ for information about the posthumous desires of deceased loved ones. In these cases the individual providing the service may be acting, or they may be delusional themselves. Nonetheless, we do have to admit that some ‘mediums’ seem to possess the ability to acquire information in these contexts that cannot be explained by dishonesty and simple delusion. What can we say in these cases?

If an individual possess an exceptional sensitivity to the psychic order, and if this person learns how to lay themselves open to contacts with the subtle forces of that order, it is possible that they would be able to express to onlookers what they experience, whether this is after the fact of the ‘encounter’ with the subtle dimension, or whether this is conveyed on-the-fly as a demonstration of ‘channeling.’ Again, this has nothing to do with ‘communication with the deceased’ in any real sense, since the psychic order is not the same as the spiritual order, and we only associate the psychic and the spiritual due to a confused understanding of the distinction between these levels.

Taking the case of the séance, we can say that the medium in this context would utilize his or her sensitivity to psychic realities and in this way would come into contact with the emotions and memories, not of the deceased, but of the group of participants, often aided by actual physical contact during this process (holding hands around a table). Having access to these memories and feelings, the psychic can passively channel them and vocalize them for the group, and while this would, understandably, give the impression of access to the personality of the deceased, what is usually expressed is merely the emotions, actual memories, or imagined opinions, of the participants themselves. In the case of hauntings, a similar technique would be employed, and while this would not allow any kind of actual communication with the dead, it could shed light on the nature of the phenomena and its reason for persisting, and in this sense we could, with some reservations, say that the medium can perceive the ‘will of the deceased,’ since a haunting can sometimes be described as the ‘crystallization of a desire,’ although the will itself and certainly the consciousness has long-since departed.

The legitimacy of burial rights

Considering the reality of metempsychosis, we can begin to see the very real purpose of burial rights, and the reason that even savages insist adamantly on their observance, stating explicitly that to ignore them may result in psychic disturbances and hauntings. If the purpose of burial rights is to deal specifically with the neutralization of these psychic survivals, they are not nearly as superstitious as it may seem.

Transmigration

Having at some length set aside some ideas that are not ‘reincarnation,’ and having made the claim that reincarnation, as envisaged by modern Westerners, is actually not possible, we can move on to a discussion of transmigration, which is so central to Hindu and Buddhism cosmology. Transmigration pertains to the spiritual order, and not the psychic domain wherein the process of metempsychosis takes place. Transmigration deals with the real being and its journey after the cessation of earthly life. The first point to emphasize, however, is that we are not here dealing with a repetition of another human life, or a re-embodiment, and this is why we must insist that transmigration is not reincarnation. As the term itself implies, it refers to a ‘change of state,’ hence trans-migration and not simply a ‘migration’ whereby the same state is cycled through again. It can be said to describe one’s rebirth after death, but this rebirth ‘is not of this world,’ and the deceased Christian who enters paradise upon death is undergoing a ‘transmigration’ in the strict sense. In other words, transmigration implies a passage to another state, and not a second passage through a state already traversed.

Transmigration and the doctrine of samsara

The idea of transmigration springs from the doctrine of samsara, the ‘round of births and deaths’ which is presented by Hindus and is a basic doctrine of the Buddhists. In its symbolic form, it is depicted as a circle divided into sectors, these being heavens and hells followed by the human and animal realms. But what is too often overlooked in doctrinal expositions and debates about reincarnation and transmigration is that samsara is itself indefinite and not susceptible to technical exposition. This is the nature of symbolism in general and the doctrines symbolically conveyed. It is a sad fact that even those who contributed so much to this conversation—we are thinking here of Rene Guenon—have made the mistake of ‘systematizing’ ideas that cannot be systematized. Add to this the fact that transmigration is in a sense secondary to samsarama: samsara is the thing itself, while transmigration is a way of describing its processes. That is to say, samsara is the whole of which transmigration only describes a part, and it is folly to try and work out in too much detail the positive and negative limits of the transitional process when we must base ourselves on what is in the end only a symbolic schematic. We cannot say with any precision what form a ‘birth’ will take for this or that being, just as we cannot describe with any rational precision what it means for the Catholic to die and then travel through purgatory and, at some point, enter into Heaven. Such a journey is truly ‘transmigration,’ but all of the terms involved are schematic presentations only. We must keep this in mind, less we fall victim to ‘systematization mania.’

Samsara and the multiple states of the being

Having driven home our warning about technical overreach in doctrinal exposition, we can give credit where credit is due by referring to Guenon’s presentation of the multiple states of the being as a demonstration of why the repetition of the human state is a metaphysical impossibility. And here we should emphasize that despite the minor criticism of Guenon mentioned above, we must agree with him that there can be no repetition in the arising and existence of beings, and therefore no ‘reincarnation’ in the sense of a being retracing its journey through the same state twice. Guenon’s representation was this: that the round of births and deaths signifying the ascending states of the being could also be depicted via a vertical spiral, or rather a vertical double-helix. Viewed from above, this representation would resemble a circle or wheel, and this circle is samsara. Envisaged from the side, however, the various revolutions of the spiral become evident, and what previously appeared to be a single plane now appears as an indefinite number of revolutions. Guenon, this device was a good way of demonstrating that the round, or samsara, was not truly a ‘closed revolution’ forming a single flat plane, but rather, like the double-helix viewed from the side, it could be envisioned as being composed of an indefinite number of revolutions. The important and useful point about his device is that is emphasizes how one could begin at a particular point on the spiral and travel around the axis several times, and while viewed from above this traveler would apparently be retracing their steps and ‘going in circles,’ but when viewed from the aspect of the spiral it becomes clear that the traveler is actually ascending, albeit in revolutions, in an upward direction. No matter how many ‘rounds’ he makes, he will never be forced to cover the same ground at the same level. This device is perhaps as precise as the symbolism permits us to get, and it demonstrates quite well the truth of samsara while making clear the ‘ascending’ and non-repetitive nature of the journey itself without offending the traditional symbolism. The completion of a revolution is equivalent to a ‘graduation’ onto a new plane, and is what we could describe as a death to one world and a rebirth into another.

Modern ideology as a possible explanation for reincarnationist confusions

We suggested that reincarnation is a modern invention, but we have not suggested why the modern world would invent it. If it was invented, it was as a result of a certain need, which is the driving force of so many modern ideas. Taking an honest look at the justifications offered for reincarnation, the motivation becomes quite easy to see. Most of the time its apologists cite the inequality of human beings. How could God create such a social order, rife with inequality, and still be just? Therefore, the idea of inequality as a consequences of actions taken in a previous life is introduced in order for these people to justify their idea of God to themselves and their followers. The very statement of the problem–that inequality between individuals is manifestly unjust–is nonsense. There are animals born unequal before us at all times, and this does not cause us to question the justice of the creator. The fact that we see some inequalities as unjust while others are not shows the emotional need to see everywhere that false doctrine which the modern world so worships: equality. It is the fever for equality which gives birth to reincarnation, and the energies spent justifying the theory seem far too often to boil down to the idea that all souls must necessarily be considered absolutely equal, at least originally, and all inequalities found in the world must be a result of actions taken by those souls in previous lives. That is to say, inequality is a moral outcome, and not simply a fact of the universe as it is. This insistence that all souls be equal in every way is simply the spiritual projection of the equality so sought by modern men in the social sphere, an inability to accept hierarchy in any form. At any rate, the theories of reincarnationists, which vary all too drastically between one another, all fall flat when subjected to basic reason. If all were equal at some theoretical point, when was this point? And there is further the difficulty that if moral failing were possible, then it was possible, even if only potentially, from the very beginning of the soul’s existence. If one man sins ‘in act,’ this possibility was present ‘in potency,’ from the beginning, which again leaves us with a situation of ‘original inequality.’ The whole subject turns out to be but another confusion created simply by the fact of a metaphysical question being formulated from a purely moral standpoint, making it truly insoluble. And once the metaphysical standpoint is adopted, it becomes clear that reincarnation is an absurdity. The question comes down to asking why a being is itself and not another, and when an answer is not found it is claimed that this variation is an outrage. But the alternative, the absolute equality of beings, were to be realized, then there would not be multiple beings but only one, since absolutely equality between two things amounts to identity, and so you have not two but one only.

Confusions and clarity

One might complain that the texts ought to have been more precise or straightforward if they wished to avoid confusion; but that is like complaining that reality itself ought to become simplified so that its observers can better understand its underlying principles. This is simply not possible nor should simplicity be demanded of any conception having to do with metaphysical truth. The scriptures are not concerned with popularization, nor with being ‘easily understood’ by all and everyone. Christ said, let them hear who have ears to hear, and he let the rest walk away. The difficulty, of course, is that those who do not have ears often take with them a partial or distorted understanding of what they have heard, which them becomes a half-baked theory that is reduced to the level of the understanding of that individual. It is all too easy to take words at their face value, discarding the fruit and retain the husk. Reincarnation, as understood today and attributed to the Hindus and the Buddhists, is a husk. May we discard it as such and continue to search out the fruit that was withheld.

Simultaneity

All states of the being are simultaneous in the total harmony. This total simultaneity only translates into succession in corporeal state. For the being, this means that duration is a condition limited to the individual human state.

Passing through all stages

Some suggest that each being simply passes through all stages of development, from mineral to vegetable to animal to human and then beyond. This seems to us again to be an idea stemming from the need to see all paths as uniform, equal, and linear according to the paradigm of materialistic evolution. But again, this would be absurd, especially if we imagine all beings as unique, and that to truly pass through all of these modalities would be a process that could continue indefinitely. Yet at the same time, we can see that the human being comprises in himself all of these possibilities, and does in fact pass through them in each single lifetime, as embryology suggests.