Is There a Compelling Case for Reincarnation—and Does It Matter?
It is generally held, sometimes even by those who profess to believe in it, that reincarnation is a matter of “faith”—meaning, in context, that this belief is not supported by compelling empirical evidence. In fact, there is a growing corpus of research seeking to document the existence of past lives, primarily through case studies of children who purport to remember them. The primary purpose of this essay is to examine some of the more compelling evidence of this kind, as well as related testimony (e.g., the testimony of the Dalai Lama), and to determine whether any of it rises to the level of “compelling evidence.” The secondary purpose of this essay, perhaps even more interesting than the first, is to situate the reincarnation question in a broader sociological and epistemological context.
- Provisional Definition of Reincarnation
This paper uses the term “reincarnation” to denote a continuity of consciousness across lifetimes. The reader’s own intuitive understanding of the term will suffice for our present purposes, i.e., the examination of whether or not there is credible evidence of a process like reincarnation. However, there are subtle, but important differences in what people mean when they use the term “reincarnation,” and Buddhists generally prefer the more technical term “rebirth.” According to Walshe, reincarnation is the “doctrine that there is a transmigrating soul or spirit that passes on from life to life,” but in the Buddhist view, “that is merely what appears to happen, though in reality no such soul or spirit passes on in this way” (Walshe 37). In the Buddhist view, the experience of being an individuated, separate self is spurious and unnecessary in this lifetime, let alone across lifetimes.
However, according to Ian Stevenson, the grandfather of Reincarnation Studies whose research findings are examined in this paper:
Reincarnation, briefly defined, includes the idea that men consist of physical bodies and minds. At a person’s death, his physical body perishes, but his mind may persist and later become associated with another physical body in the process called reincarnation. Some persons may find the word “mind” in this definition unclear or otherwise unattractive […]. I intend only to indicate a component of human beings not comprised in our present understanding of their physical bodies, which component may persist after physical death. (Stevenson, “Explanatory Value” 305)
Stevenson’s conception of reincarnation here resembles the popular or Hindu view more than the Buddhist view, but that is not problematic for our present purposes; evidence of continued consciousness should not be different in either case.
- Who Believes in Reincarnation?
If truth were a popularity contest, belief in reincarnation would win. Of possible beliefs concerning what happens when people die, belief in reincarnation would appear to have been the most common thus far. Although individual belief is another matter, two of the world’s five major religions profess near universal belief in reincarnation, and the other three either do or have included sects that espouse it. For example, both Hassidic and Orthodox Jews have believed in reincarnation based on their interpretations of scripture. As Simcha Raphael explains (admittedly to the surprise of my Jewish mother) in Jewish Views of the Afterlife, “Reincarnation is as kosher […] as Mogen David wine” (Raphael 314). Reincarnation also appears in contemporary Christianity in the form of the Rosicrucians (Heindel) and in contemporary Islam in the form of the Druze (Bennett 87). Some have quite logically and credibly interpreted the New Testament verse John 9:2 as indicative of the questioner’s interest in reincarnation: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (To spell it out, the only way one could be born blind because of one’s own sins is in the case that one had existed before one’s present birth—i.e., if one were in fact reincarnated. Thus the question is tacitly asking about reincarnation, though the distinguished rabbi’s complex answer is at least superficially in the negative.)
Reincarnation also has been the dominant cultural belief among, to name but a few, the Ancient Greeks, Druids, Norse, Gauls, Trobriand Islanders, Japanese Ainu, West Africans and Native Americans, including Aleuts and Tlingits (Tucker 4) (Stevenson 30). Moreover, according to a Gallup survey, 20 percent of Americans claim to believe in reincarnation (Gallup). And, finally, based on what has been said, it will be realized that individuals who have believed in reincarnation probably number in the billions, but known examples include Plato, Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Ford, Goethe, Voltaire, Carl Jung, George Harrison, and Shirley MacLean (www.reincarnation.ws/famous_people).
IV. Who Doesn’t Believe In Reincarnation?
Of course, that’s not the big picture. As it’s generally practiced, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition does not subscribe to the theory of Reincarnation. Nor does the popular secular mind, which is currently dominated by the philosophical presumption that might be described as “scientific materialism” (Thurman, Inner Revolution). What is the nature of scientific materialism? According to Free John:
Science is commonly described as a way of observing the natural world, a method of excluding or abstracting the viewer from the process of observation, so that what is observed is a “reality” untainted by the presence of the viewer […]. Yet, if we become sensitive to the real Condition of our existence, can we truly say that we ever experience […] an objective world? Do we ever contact anything objective or independent of ourselves? (Free John, Transmission 81)
According to Free John, this artificial, if unquestionably useful method of science tends to have unintended consequences for the human psyche:
Science presumes to seek direct knowledge about a world that is independent of Man. In doing so it has created other effects that have cultural, psychological, and even spiritual significance. Science has become the dominant point of view of our society and thus has established a way of life wherein human beings universally presume that the “real world” is the physical world, and that the world of the self, the so-called internal realm, is unreal or merely caused by the external world. (Free John, Transmission 82)
Thus, as temporal beings, we come to this exploration of the question of reincarnation within a framework of spiritual materialism, a framework that already presumes life and consciousness to be the bastard progeny of inert matter. Not surprisingly, apostles of scientific materialism make short shrift of the theory of reincarnation, since the latter posits the possibility of life and consciousness independent of gross material processes. For example, one of the would-be voices of science, Paul Edwards, has recently written a book purporting to debunk reincarnation on these grounds. Because Edwards’ critique of reincarnation is so representative of the scientific materialistic perspective, it will be useful to quote at length:
There are other more basic reasons for rejecting reincarnation. One of these concerns personal identity […]. There is also the altogether fatal problem of specifying a credible way in which a person can come to inhabit another body after its original body has died. Reincarnationists are committed to the absurd notion of an astral or “spiritual” body and the even more absurd view that such a body invades the prospective mother’s womb […]. Finally, we have enormous evidence that the mind or consciousness cannot exist without the brain. Reincarnationists and other friends of the occult get extremely irritated and defensive when the brain-mind dependence facts are mentioned, but their irritation will not make these disturbing facts go away. (Edwards 7)
Unfortunately, examined at all, this is a rhetorical conclusion, not a reasoned argument. It is simply the statement, made repeatedly, that “I don’t believe in reincarnation because I don’t believe that anything can exist independent of observable physical processes… which is why I don’t’ believe in reincarnation.” But our minds, our simple thoughts, already constitute a dimension of existence that transcends the observable brain, whether or not they are an epiphenomenon of the brain. Experiences do not exist literally, physically in the brain. Sweet, blue, loud, and orgasmic are all subjective experiences, like reading this essay, and all other human experiences, whether or not they have necessary objective correlates in the brain. In other words, there unquestionably is a dimension of experience—experience itself!—that is not wholly reducible to an objective dimension. The question is whether or not our subjective experience in its entirety is wholly dependent on this presumed, objective physical dimension. Edwards merely states that he believes that it is, over and over again. Moreover, in so doing, he shows that he is not really interested in the scientific, empirical investigation. (And, for one writing a book on the subject, he also shows himself to be ignorant of the Buddhist literature that distinguishes rebirth from reincarnation and specifies the mechanism that he says has been “fatally unspecified.”)
V. So Why Don’t We Remember Our Past Lives?
The above question is frequently raised as an objection to the theory of reincarnation. An immediate retort is that some people, including an unknown, but sizeable percentage of young children, do appear to remember their past lives. In fact, according to Buddhist doctrine, remembering past lives is a necessary signpost; knowledge of one’s past lives should necessarily arise spontaneously and effortlessly in the penultimate stage of spiritual development. Commenting on Buddha’s experiences under the Boddhi tree, Powers writes:
During the second watch of the night, he acquired the three “knowledges” (rig pa, vidya): he was able to know all of his previous births, he understood how beings transmigrate in accordance with their karma, and he comprehended the “four noble truths” which became the cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice. (Powers 49)
The contemporary American Zen master, “Adyashanti,” describes this moment in the autobiographical Emptiness Dancing:
All in the step of a foot, everything disappeared. What arose was an image of what seemed like an infinite number of past incarnations, as if heads were lined up one behind another as far back as I could see. Awareness realized something like, “My God, I’ve been identified with various forms for umpteen lifetimes.” At that moment, consciousness—spirit—realized it had been so identified with all these forms that it really thought it was a form right up to this lifetime. (Adyashanti 3)
Young children under six also appear to remember previous lifetimes with some regularity (Stevenson), and various meditation teachers claim that the facility to remember past lives can be developed just as other facilities related to memory (Yuttadhammo). Finally, on purely logical grounds, the lack of memories from previous lifetimes should no more be seen as disproving them than the lack of memory of infancy or prenatal experience should be seen as disproving those stages of life. Much of the research on reincarnation suggests that recollection of past lives may be facilitated by hypnosis (Shroder 16), but others within the field of Reincarnation Studies consider these reports unreliable (Stevenson 47).
There is some common testimony within the spiritual traditions that one reason for the relative lack of past life memory is related to fear and trauma. In the Tibetan view of rebirth, ego-bound beings are thought, as a general rule, to endure profound sufferings in the “between state,” and just as trauma from the present life may be obscured in consciousness as an ego protective measure, so too with traumatic past-life and between-life content. Tibetan Buddhists even say a common prayer for “Refuge from All Terrors of the Between” (Karma Lingpa 112).
Free John observes, “Obviously fear is a fundamental obstruction to memory, even memory of the present lifetime […]. Likewise, in order to recapture memories of past lifetimes, we must […] transcend our fear” (Free John, Easy Death 186)
VI. Related Phenomena – NDEs and OOBs
Before moving on to discuss evidence of reincarnation, it’s worth mentioning the stepping stone question—“Can consciousness exist independently of the physical body?” For it would seem that, for consciousness to be continuous across bodies, it first would have to continue between bodies. Thus, although it is not the purpose of this paper to discuss these phenomena at great length, there is arguably stronger evidence of “out-of-body” experience—
approximately one in five people report having had such experiences (Blackmore)—than for reincarnation per se.
Carl Jung had an out-of-body experience near the end of his life and describes a similar event in one of his patients. Because this passage provides clear, reputable evidence of the ability of consciousness to separate from the body without loss of clarity, I here include a fair amount (but not all) of Jung’s source material:
I would like to give an example from my own medical experience. A woman patient whose reliability and truthfulness I have no reason to doubt, told me that her first birth was very difficult. After thirty hours of fruitless labor the doctor considered that a forceps delivery was indicated […]. When the doctor, her mother, and her husband had gone, and everything was cleared up, the nurse wanted to eat, and the patient saw her turn round at the door and ask, “Do you want anything before I go to supper?” She tried to answer, but couldn’t. She had the feeling that she was sinking through the bed into a bottomless void. She saw the nurse hurry to the bedside and seize her hand in order to take her pulse. From the way she moved her fingers to and fro the patient thought it must be almost imperceptible. Yet she herself felt quite all right, and was slightly amused at the nurse’s alarm. She was not in the least frightened. The next thing she was aware of was that, without feeling her body and its position, she was looking down from a point in the ceiling and could see everything going on in the room below her: she saw herself lying in the bed, deadly pale, with closed eyes. Beside her stood the nurse. The doctor paced up and down the room excitedly, and it seemed to her that he had lost his head and didn’t know what to do […]. All this time she knew that behind her was a glorious, park-like landscape shining in the brightest
colors, and in particular an emerald green meadow with short grass which sloped gently upwards beyond a wrought–iron gate leading into the park. (Jung 267)
The next day, the woman made a remark to the nurse about the doctor’s incompetent and hysterical behavior. The nurse “energetically denied the criticism,” believing that the patient could not have been privy to what had transpired. “Only when she described in full detail what had happened during the coma was the nurse obliged to admit that the patient had perceive the events exactly as they happened in reality” (Jung 269).
- Evidence of Reincarnation
1. Children’s Memories…
The primary evidence of reincarnation presented in this essay comes from case studies of children who have purported to remember their past lives. There is also some discussion of the Tibetan “tulku claim,” a claim made by the Dalai Lama and others in the Tibetan tulku tradition. These two classes of data simply seem to provide the strongest evidence of reincarnation that is currently available. With respect to the former, Cockburn—who remains a skeptic—describes the general characteristics of the children’s reports as follows:
There are significant numbers of well-documented cases of the following general kind. At the age of 3 or 4 a child starts to make claims about his past which clearly do not correspond to anything that has happened in his present life. He claims to remember living in a certain place, doing certain things, being with certain people, and so on. It is then found that these memory claims fit the life of a person who died shortly before the child was born. The accuracy of the memory claims is striking and there seems to be no possible normal explanation of this. The child also has certain character traits interests and skills which correspond closely to those of the one who died; and, perhaps, a physical characteristic, such as a birthmark or wound, which closely resembles a characteristic of the earlier individual. (Cockburn 199)
The lion’s share of research in this nascent field has been conducted by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, founder of the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. Stevenson, a valedictorian of McGill Medical School, began his work as the head of UVA’s Department of Psychiatry in 1957. However, after publishing a paper on reincarnation, Stevenson was invited to India to observe children who reported remembering their previous lives. Convinced that many of these children’s memories were authentic, Stevenson founded DOPS in 1967 with help from patron Chester Carlson, inventor of the Xerox machine.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Stevenson logged several million miles of travel over four decades in the process of investigating over 3,000 cases of possible reincarnation (The Daily Telegraph). Stevenson wrote about his research in numerous peer-reviewed journals, medical monographs, and books, including Children Who Remember Previous Lives and Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. The former title includes “Fourteen Typical Cases of Children Who Remember Previous Lives,” the first of which (“Gopal Gupta”) is summarized below. (Four additional examples are provided in “Appendix A.” These boiled-down versions of Stevenson’s reports are suggestive, but the reader is encouraged to consult the source material. That said, it seemed appropriate to provide more than Cockburn’s general description above.)
Gopal Gupta was born in Delhi in 1956. When Gopal was two and a half, Gopal’s father asked him to move a water glass, whereupon Gopal replied, “I won’t pick it up. I am a Sharma” (i.e., member of a higher caste). Gopal then related purported details from a previous life that he had lived in Mathura, 160 kilometers away. He claimed that he had owned a
pharmaceutical company named “Sukh Shancharak,” had had a large house with many servants, had had a wife, and had been shot dead by one of his two brothers.
Gopal’s father eventually went to Mathura (in 1964 for a religious festival), and while there found the Sukh Shancharak Company. He learned from the sales manager there that details of his son’s account were consistent with village history. Gopal later met with his purported previous family, appearing to recognize persons and places known to the deceased—“Shaktipal Sharma”—who died in 1948. Shaktipal’s family thereupon invited Gopal to visit them in Mathura. At these meetings, Gopal made additional statements indicating knowledge of Shaktipal’s affairs, including the circumstances of his death. Gopal’s knowledge of events persauded the Sharma family that he was indeed Shaktipal Sharma’s reincarnation (Stevenson 56).
Whether or not this represents an authentic case of remembered reincarnation, unfortunately it is not particularly compelling. One can well imagine a motive within Indian society for the development of an apocryphal reincarnation account—in this case, a lower-caste Indian family wishing to insinuate itself upon a higher caste family with skeletons in its closet.
Stevenson’s heir apparent is his former protégé, Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist who now heads up UVA’s DOPS. Tucker’s 2005 book, Life Before Life, which is in part a tribute to and description of his mentor’s work, seems to present more compelling cases from the DOPS files. Tucker’s book also includes a discussion of the reincarnation debate.
Life Before Life begins with the case of Kemal Atasoy, a six-year-old Turkish boy who recalls living as an adult in Istanbul, some 500 miles away. Speaking to an Australian psychologist, Kemal gives his former family name as Karakas, notes that he had been a rich Armenian Christian, and explains that he lived in a large, three-story house on a waterfront next to a well-known woman named Aysegul who had to leave the country because of legal problems. Kemal says that his former wife and children had Greek names, that he often carried a large leather bag, and that he only lived at home for part of the year. Although Kemal’s parents are Alevi Muslims, a sect that believes in reincarnation (Tucker xii), they are not sure if Kemal’s account is true and do not know anyone in Istanbul.
In Istanbul, the Australian psychologist locates Aysegul’s residence, next to which is an empty three-story house by a waterfront that matches Kemal’s description. It takes the psychologist some time to locate a local historian who can corroborate the rest of Kemal’s account, but he does: according to the historian, a rich Armenian Christian named “Karakas” lived in the house—though only during the summer months—with his Greek Orthodox wife. The Karakas clan lived elsewhere in Istanbul and dealt in leather goods (Tucker xi).
Perhaps the most compelling account of DOPS cases can be found in journalist Tom Shroder’s Old Souls, which describes his travels with Stevenson while documenting 15 new cases of children who purport to remember past lives. (Unfortunately, these accounts are too lengthy and nuanced to be meaningfully summarized in the present essay.) Three other works reviewed for this paper concern the details of individual cases of reincarnation: The Girl Who Was Reborn, I am Sarah, and Soul Survivor.
The Girl Who Was Reborn provides purported documentation of a Sri Lankan girl’s—“Gnanathilaka”—memories of an earlier lifetime in a nearby village (Nissanka). Although the tone of the work is sincere, there are no claims here that would give pause to the skeptic; the case played out in articles written for Sri Lanka’s main Sunday newspaper, Silumina, so that there was both motive and opportunity for details to be manipulated (whether or not they were is another matter).
I am Sarah is attorney Phoebe Lauren’s narrative describing her purported discovery of her prior lifetime as Sarah, a Jewish girl who lived in Paris and perished in the Holocaust (Lauren). Although this book is not written with the skeptic in mind, some of the details, including how much of Lauren’s present life lines up with her past life, seem intuitively plausible and uncontrived.
By contrast, the best-selling Soul Survivor is written to make a strong case for reincarnation. Soul Survivor recounts unfolding events in the life of James Leininger, an American boy thought by his parents, and perhaps most who read the book, to be the reincarnation of James Huston, a fighter pilot shot down by the Japanese during World War II. The Leiningers’ journey begins in 2003, when two-year-old James begins having nightmares and repeating phrases in his sleep, such as “Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!” (Leininger 317). James remembers names and events from his purported previous lifetime, including his predecessor’s name, the type of plane he flew, the name of his aircraft carrier, and other verifiable facts that allow him to be reunited with people from his previous lifetime. The book ends with an account of eight-year-old James’ return to Japan to the spot where his plane was shot down:
He put his head down in his mother’s lap and broke into tears […]. He sobbed and wept for fifteen minutes. Everyone else on the boat was silent and awestruck by the sight of a little boy in such deep grief. He seemed to be weeping for himself and for James Huston—and for all the world of woe that he had ever seen or felt. (Kindle Locations 3942-3949)
2. Tibetan Tulku Claims…
Another source of possible empirical evidence of reincarnation comes from the Tibetan “tulku” tradition. In his autobiography, the current Dalai Lama, recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, says that it is not true that the Dalai Lamas are “living Buddhas.” Rather, he explains, they are beings who have attained to the status of a tulku, or spiritually developed teacher, and so “can choose the manner of their rebirth” (Gyatso 2). In Powers’ words, “It is believed by Buddhists that those who have reached a high level of development can choose their own life situations, including their parents and the time and place of birth” (Powers 37).
Powers describes the tulku system thus:
It stands to reason that some beings will continually reincarnate themselves in a distinguishable lineage in a particular place for a particular group of people. Among Tibetans, such people are called tulkus, and they are greatly revered because Tibetans believe that their rebirths are motivated by compassion. Tibetan Buddhism has developed elaborate systems for detecting and testing candidates in order to ensure that the person recognized as a tulku is actually the reincarnation of a previous teacher. The most rigorous of these tests are those used to find a new Dalai Lama. (189)
When the thirteenth Dalai Lama had committed to reincarnating, he told his disciples to look for his reappearance in eastern Tibet. The search party, which considers various signs when locating a tulku’s successor, found on two occasions that the head of the corpse of the thirteenth Dalai Lama had twice turned to fact East, apparently confirming that this was the correct direction for the search. Reting Rinpoche, the regent in charge of locating the new Dalai Lama, had a vision as he was approaching one of Tibet’s revered “sacred lakes”: the Tibetan letters a, ka, and ma, followed by a three-tiered monastery, and a “road leading from the monastery toward the east and passing by a house near a small hill” (190 Powers). The house in Reting Rinpoche’s vision had turquoise-colored tiles around the roof, and a brown and white dog in the yard.
Concerned that the gravitas of their party would telegraph their intentions, the monks disguised themselves as merchants. Approaching the village of Taktse, they passed the Shartsong Temple of Tsong Khapa, and, also matching the vision, identified a house with turquoise tiles and a brown and white dog in the yard. The party asked the woman of the house if they could stay for tea, and she showed him into the house. Kutsang Rinpoche entered the kitchen and began to make tea. He was soon greeted by a two-year-old boy who sat in his lap and began to play with the Kutsang Rinpoche’s concealed prayer beads, which had belonged to the thirteen Dalai Lama. Kutsang offered the beads to the boy on the condition that he could guess his true identity. The child, Hlamo Dondrup, replied, “You are a lama of Sera.” Hlamo also is reported to have correctly identified the remaining members of the party either by name or simply as additional “lamas of Sera.”
The members of the party still did not disclose their identities or their intentions. As they were preparing to leave, the boy insisted that they take him with them. The party did not take him, but promised to return, which they did. On their return, they disclosed their purpose, and asked to speak with the boy alone in order to test him without possible interference or coaching from the parents:
The key test involved placing a number of articles in front of the boy and asking him to choose from among them. Some were personal articles belonging to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and others were duplicates. Some were exact duplicates, and others were better-made and more aesthetically appealing. Among the objects were the former Dalai Lama’s eyeglasses, a bowl, a silver pencil, his prayer beads, a small hand drum, and his walking stick. (Powers 192)
The Present Dalai Lama passed all six tests. It is perhaps worth noting that, even without the misdirection of the more appealing items, the mathematical probability of passing such a test by random guessing would be one in sixty-four.
On his website, the Dalai Lama himself describes procedures for locating a tulku:
Some of the most important “[procedures] involve the predecessor’s predictive letter and other instructions and indications that might occur; the reincarnation’s reliably recounting his previous life and speaking about it; identifying possessions belonging to the predecessor and recognizing people who had been close to him. Apart from these, additional methods include asking reliable spiritual masters for their divination as well as seeking the predictions of mundane oracles, who appear through mediums in trance, and observing the visions that manifest in sacred lakes of protectors like Lhamoi Latso, a sacred lake south of Lhasa. (Dalailama.com)
A perhaps impressive detail not included in this account, but appearing in the Dalai Lama’s mother’s memoirs, is that the monks spoke with the boy in their Lhasa dialect, a dialect that Hlama had not heard before, and yet he had replied without difficulty. (www.reincarnationexperiment.org)
- Views of the Evidence
So what to say about the case for reincarnation? It is probably best to let the reader decide the matter for himself, as s/he will in any event. Intuitively, in this author’s opinion, the collective evidence (as presented in this paper) rises to the level of a “smoking gun,” but certainly not to strong proof. A remark by the late Carl Sagan seems apropos. Sagan, who had read Stevenson’s monograph Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation wrote “[…] there are three claims in the [parapsychology] field that deserve serious study,” one of which is the phenomenon of “young children [who] report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation” (Shroder, Washington Post).
Considering that Sagan was writing as the ascendant high priest of scientific materialism at the time, his words are striking and honest. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to slow down someone like Edwards:
The belief in reincarnation and Karma has been steadily gaining support in recent decades. This is no doubt due to the decline of Christianity, but it is also, very regrettably, one aspect of the tide of irrationalism that has been flooding the Western World, especially the United States. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive and systematic evaluation of reincarnation and Karma and the present volume is designed to fill this gap. (Edwards 7)
On the other hand, there seems to be a similar call for reflection posed to the reincarnation believers. As Free John remarks to a student who seems impressed by the weight of evidence of reincarnation:
Reading those studies, you might conclude that reincarnation is a probability, but you cannot presume reincarnation to be true until you have remembered your own past lives with the certainty that your memories are real. You must prove or demonstrate reincarnation to yourself through the exercise of your own consciousness. (Free John, Easy Death 185)
And, finally, what would be the meaning of reincarnation even it were “proven” through some kind of gnosis? Again, according to Free John, “The real fact of one’s existence is not that one is a reincarnated individual, but that one is identical to everything and everyone altogether and is actually existing as all beings […]. To talk about reincarnation prior to such Awakening tends to be deluding. (Free John, Easy Death 192)
The case of Corliss Chotkin, Jr. begins with the prediction of an elderly Tlingit (Alaskan) fisherman who tells his niece that he will be reborn as her son: “He showed her two scars from minor operations, one near the bridge of his nose and one on his upper back; and as he did so he said that she would recognize him (in his next incarnation) by birthmarks on his body corresponding to these scars” (Stevenson 58). The fisherman, Victor Vincent, died in 1946. Eighteen months later, the niece, Irene Chotkin, gave birth to a boy, Corliss Chotkin, Jr., who had birthmarks at the sites of the scars to which Victor Vincent had drawn her attention.
When Corliss was still an infant, and his mother was trying to teach him his name, he said: “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Kahkody” (59), referring to Victor’s tribal name. When Corliss was between two and three years old, he recognized several persons whom Victor Vincent had known, including Victor Vincent’s widow. Irene Chotkin said that he mentioned two events in the life of Victor Vincent about which she did not think he could have obtained information “normally.” Corliss also shared many behavioral traits with Victor Vincent, including the fact that both stuttered; had a strong interest in boats; had strong religious propensities, and were left-handed (60).
Ma Tin Aung Myo was born in Nathul, Upper Burma, in 1953. When her mother (Daw Aye Tin) was pregnant with Ma, she repeatedly dreamed “that a stocky Japanese soldier, shirtless and wearing short pants, was following her and saying that he would come to stay with her and her husband” (60). After she was born, MA displayed a phobia of airplanes, weeping when they flew over Nathul. She gradually spoke of having been a Japanese soldier stationed in Nathul during the Japanese occupation. Furthermore, she said that she had been a cook when an (Allied) plane strafed the village. Ma, then a man, had been struck in the groin and died shortly thereafter (62).
Ma’s mother recalled that a cook in the Japanese army had been stationed in Nathul, but she did not know whether the cook had been killed. Ma’s behavior was unusual for a Burmese child but consistent with that of a Japanese soldier. Also, she did not like Upper Burma’s hot climate and would lie on her stomach and cry from (what she said was) homesickness for Japan. She also expressed anger toward British and American people.
Ma’s “most remarkable behavior was her extreme boyishness,” as she insisted on dressing in men’s clothes (63). This led to clashes with school authorities who ordered her to wear dresses, prompting Ma to drop out of school at age eleven. As Ma grew older, she “remained masculine in her sexual orientation” and told Stevenson and his assistant that they could kill her if they could guarantee that she would be reborn as a man. Ma’s family accepted that her sexual orientation derived from her previous life as a man.
Stevenson refers to Ma’s case as “unsolved,” meaning that he cannot connect it with a verifiable previous lifetime. He includes it in his fourteen cases based on strong circumstantial evidence and what he reckons as the implausibility of such bizarre behavior developing from “obscure motives” in the parents.
Bongkuch Promsin was born in Don Kha village, Thailand, in 1962. In early childhood, he made the claim that he came from the neighboring village, Hua Tanon, giving the name of his previous incarnation (“Chamrat”) and the names of Chamrat’s parents. He also described Chamrat’s possessions, including a knife, bicycle, and two cows (owned by the family). “Above all, he described how two men had murdered him at a fair in the village of Hua Tanon. The murderers had stabbed him in several places, taken his wristwatch and neck chain, and afterwards dragged his body into a field” (71).
Bongkuch said that, after Chamrat’s death, he had “stayed on a tree” near the murder for seven years. One day when it was raining he had seen his present father and accompanied him home on a bus. (Bongkuch’s father recalled that he had been in Hua Tanon about the time that his wife became pregnant, and that it had been raining.)
Stevenson observes that news of a murder in a nearby village probably would have reached Don Kha, but the “the area had a high rate of murder […]. Moreover, Chamrat had been murdered more than ten years before Bongkuch talked about him” (79). Later, Bongkuch’s father went to Hua Tanon and verified Bongkuch’s claims. Policemen interviewed by Stevenson also could confirm some of Bongkuch’s statements, including the names of the suspected murderers.
According to his family, Bongkuch exhibited a number of Laotian customs—Chamrat was Laotian—and spoke some Laotian, though he had not been exposed to Laotian by his family. Until he was ten, Bongkuch “practiced beating on a post with a small stick that served as his imaginary weapon, while the post represented Chamrat’s murderers, whose names he would call out” (80).
Susan Eastland. In 1968, Stevenson received a letter from Charlotte Eastland, who had read about his research in a magazine. The letter suggested that Charlotte’s daughter Susan had fragmentary memories of the life of her deceased older sister, Winnie, who had been fatally struck by a car in 1961. (In other words, the premise was that Susan was Winnie’s reincarnation.) When Susan was about two years old, she made statements that seemed like references to the life of Winnie, and when anyone asked her how old she was, she would answer that she was six, the age Winnie had been when she was killed.
Susan expressed interest in two photographs of Winnie and said of them: “That was me.” During this period, she frequently used the phrase “When I went to school” and talked about playing on the swings at school though she had not yet been to school.
During Winnie’s lifetime, Charlotte Eastland had a cookie jar with a cat on its lid. She used to play a game with her children in which, when one of them wanted a cookie, she would ask the cat how many cookies the child could have. She would imitate a cat by replying in a squeaky voice: ‘Meow, you may have one.’ (The number allowed varied.) Based on Charlotte’s input, Stevenson reports: “After Winnie’s death, Charlotte Eastland put the cookie jar away and forgot it; the jar remained packed away for several years. When Susan was about four, Charlotte Eastland brought it out and again filled it with cookies. Susan asked for a cookie. Without realizing that Susan would not know about the game, Charlotte unthinkingly asked her: ‘Well, what does the kitty say?’ Susan startled her by replying: “Meow, you may have one.”
Susan spoke of many other events in which Winnie had participated, describing, for example, an occasion when Winnie and other members of the family had gone to the beach and caught a crab, and naming family members who had been present at this outing.
Susan also referred to playing in a pasture with horses with her sister, Sharon; she said that she had been unafraid of the horses and even had walked under one. Winnie had played with Sharon in a pasture, was unafraid of horses, and had walked under a horse. Charlotte asked Susan whether she remembered “Gregory,” who had lived across the street from them. Susan replied, “Yes, I remember Greggy. I used to play with him.” “Greggy” had been Gregory’s short name, but Charlotte had not mentioned it.
Finally, Susan had a small birthmark on her left hip, an area of increased pigmentation (nevus) the location of which corresponded with the site of the most serious injury Winnie had received when she was fatally struck by the automobile. (Stevenson obtained a copy of Winnie’s medical records from the hospital where Winnie died.) This suggestive dysmorphism is common in Stevenson’s studies (83).
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