What Is It
According to Buddhist tradition, all people must suffer illness, aging, and death. Yet the universe is seen as a vast living entity, in which cycles of individual life and death are repeated without cease. Therefore death is a necessary part of the process of life, making renewal and new growth possible. So what does this view mean about the eternality of the self? Is there a single subject or consciousness that persists through all the cycles of death and rebirth? What are the karmic consequences of one’s moral acts for future lives? And how can the view of endless death and rebirth lead to greater compassion for all life? John and Ken revisit their past with Robert Thurman from Columbia University, author of Infinite Life: Awakening to Bliss Within.
Part of our series Visions of Immortality.
John opens the show with some figures about how widely the theory of reincarnation is accepted worldwide. Ken is puzzled about what reincarnation even means, and John brings up the Dalai Lama’s definition, where one person dies, another is born. What makes the second person a reincarnation of the first one rather than simply a new being, asks Ken? Well, asks John, what makes a person 10 years ago the same person they are today? Sharing the same body is not a necessity; having the same consciousness is. Ken has a hard time accepting that he is a reincarnation of another life given that he doesn’t have any recollection of the experiences of a past life. And why should we believe people’s claims of remembering past experiences? John brings up the concept of karma, and the duo discusses this further, with John saying we should not outright dismiss the concept of reincarnation.
John and Ken introduce Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University and author of Infinite Life: Awakening to Bliss Within. John asks Robert when and why he came to believe in reincarnation. Robert explains that he never believed in the incoherent concept of an uncaused cause; he was not at all a theist, and so the idea of there being a previous causal process of consciousness seemed appealing. In his 50s, while on a visit to Tibet, he had memories of previous lives. He explains it was almost like a joke taking place at a sacred place – he heard voices in his mind holding a conversation, explaining their desire to be in this holy location. Since then he’s had other memories of that type. John asks Robert whether reincarnation means that you are the very same person that you are a reincarnation of, or whether it is more nuanced than that; Robert explains the nuances.
John, Ken, and Robert continue the discussion of what exactly it means to be a reincarnated being with the example of Ken being a reincarnation of Hume; Ken surely would not have the same perspective or thoughts as Hume, but some remnant of Hume’s consciousness would remain in Ken. John asks Robert if there is an awaiting science of consciousness that will help us understand how these forces go through time, to which Robert explains that there is. Then, if nothing comes from nothing, says John, how do souls and beings keep increasing? Robert explains that reincarnation extends not only to human beings but also to animals and to consciousness from other planets. Ken is still unconvinced – aside from hope - about why his consciousness couldn’t simply have a beginning and an end. Also, if he doesn’t remember previous lives, doesn’t that negate the theory? The remainder of the discussion centers on clarifying these two points.
John and Ken welcome audience participation, answering questions related to impermanent, constant change, why one should or shouldn’t be more skeptical about the theory – to which Robert explains that in Buddhist science all descriptions of relative reality are considered hypothetical, with no absolute truth stipulated – and they discuss cases of children who remember past lives and the scientists who study said children.
- Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:00): Shuka Kalantari talks to Dr. Jim Tucker, a child psychologist at the University of Virginia who chronicles the claimed memories of children who seem to remember past lives. The story of a child named Ryan who claimed to in a past life have been a particular man in a hat is explored.
- 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 44:12): Ian Shoales reflects on what selfhood is, the changes we undergo throughout our lives, and the titles we hold.