On the Recollection of Former Lives
March 31, 2004
By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)
Recalling previous lifetimes is an interesting and valuable subject for a Buddhist, because the Buddha frequently said it was important for contemplatives in his tradition to discover the "future-lifetime linking" or reasons why one is propelled from lifetime to lifetime, so that we could then relinquish the grasping that propels us from lifetime to lifetime.
When I was first introduced to vipassana meditation it was at a 10 day retreat led by Robert Hover here in Tucson, Arizona, in 1975. At that retreat he articulated vipassana within a context of the personal growth and development movement that was so popular at that time. He used Gestaltian, Reikien and Rolfian concepts to reveal the principals of the Buddha's meditation practices understood at that time as vipassana. And Mr. Hover placed his description of those contemplative practices within a psycho soma (nama-rupa) rhetorical framework. He said one could expose the causes and conditions for one's migration from one lifetime to the next through examining the somatic residue through precision in tactile field observation.
It was within this theoretical construct of somatic psychology that I entered into observing the tactile field with precision and resolution. Since I had already accomplished samadhic depth in my daily practice regimen it was not difficult for me to penetrate quickly and easily into the psychosomatic storage and to retrieve the memory of the causes and conditions of future behavior that extended deep into past lifetimes.
It was late on the 3rd day of the retreat that he introduced us to the body scanning technique of U Ba Khin that was his method of vipassana meditation. And, Mr. Hover mentioned the possibility of revealing previous lifetimes through the practice of this technique. I have a feeling he expected it would take numerous retreats to penetrate the psycho soma to the depth of previous lifetimes, however by the end of the next day I had already revealed all of the layers of psychosomatic memory for this lifetime back to birth, and by that evening I had begun to move backwards through my lifetimes.
When penetrating the psycho soma from absorption (samadhi) the recollection of a previous lifetime can be rather visceral and even lucid. Thus these experiences can illicit rather vocal responses from people who might be reliving a rather brutal death or moment in a lifetime. I recall that at first, while we were engaged in breath meditation (Anapana) there was a great deal of silence at that retreat. We were in a ranch buried deep into a mountain canyon far from city and traffic noise, and there were no neighbors, just us and we were in silent retreat. However as people began to expose their psychosomatic layers (nama-rupa) vocalizations began to emerge within the silence of the meditation hall. I recall a humorous moment by the 7th day when there was such a continuous din of emotive outbursts that suddenly everyone noticed and there was a rather pregnant silence of recognition, then a releasing laughter at ourselves, before we all returned to silent introspection once again.
By this time I had already traverse many, many lifetimes already and was immersed in recollection of a Tang Dynasty period lifetime in which I was a middle ranked monk in a temple that was resisting the Tang proscription of Buddhism, and I was being hacked apart by the royal guard defending the temple walls.
Early the next morning I began the sit, as always, with the deepest samadhi I could penetrate. Then while mindful of the four cornerstones of awareness, the pantheon of my lives began to open up before me as a parade of faces. At first there was just one that passed slowly by and through me. Through insight the whole of that lifetime streamed into me in moments, then there was a brief pause, then there was another face and revelation of a lifetime, then another, and as that meditation progressed the faces come quicker and closer together until there was a great crowd of faces and lifetimes from every culture and time period of human history, as if I was standing outside a stadium just as the game ended and people by the tens of thousands were streaming out in a great throng.
I just sat there clinging to nothing allowing the whole experience to flood through me as if the history of the human species was a great river flooding through me. Then after what seemed like a long time the crowed began to slow and thin, then it became one at a time with greater and greater intervals, until there was a long period of silence, and stillness, and I sat before a luminous screen of scintillating emptiness, then after another long pause there came one last face, a Neanderthal, then as that face dissolved into my face the remnant of outer world awareness disolved into a scintillating shower of luminosity and sound, as I entered into the arupa jhana of infinite space and time, in which my awareness domain seemed to extend to the edges of the physical universe both dimensionally and temporally.
There is of course much, much more that can be revealed about penetrating one's previous lifetimes through meditation, but I am afraid this message is already much too long. I am sure have already taken up too much of everyone's time.
Lohicca Sutta (DN 12)(Recollection of Past Lives)"With his mind thus concentrated, purified, & bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, he directs & inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives (lit: previous homes). He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction & expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes & details. Just as if a man were to go from his home village to another village, and then from that village to yet another village, and then from that village back to his home village. The thought would occur to him, 'I went from my home village to that village over there. There I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I went to that village over there, and there I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I came back home.' In the same way -- with his mind thus concentrated, purified, & bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability -- the monk directs & inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives... in their modes & details. When a disciple of a teacher attains this sort of grand distinction, Lohicca, that is a teacher not worthy of criticism in the world, and if anyone were to criticize this sort of teacher, the criticism would be false, unfactual, unrighteous, & blameworthy."
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