This site describes one person's practice of the Jivamala, a process of purification where the individual embarks on a spiritual journey to remember past lives in order to be free of the bondage of those lives.
One of the fundamental elements of Buddhism is the doctrine of reincarnation. Human beings die and are reborn over and over again because they fail to see things clearly and wake up to the spiritual emptiness which lies behind the phenomenal world. It is this false perception of the nature of things that leads to wrong thinking and wrong behavior, which in turn causes this painful cycle of death and rebirth.
In the sixth century BCE, when prince Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) began his process of awakening, tradition has it that his first stage of meditation involved remembering his past lives.
The Jivamala practice maintains that a similar process can be revealed to and practiced by others who are on the spiritual path. This site contains detailed biographies of many lives, and documents the initiatory Jivamala practice showing how it works. It also contains descriptions of many deaths and many afterlives, where several of the past lives or personalities describe where their actions and experiences in life led them after death.
The Jivamala practice is ideally performed by renunciants (monks or nuns) initiated into a Vajrayana Buddhist lineage, but is sometimes also practiced by householders. The Jivamala practice should only be performed under the direction of an inner guide, a dakini, or bhairava, or bodhisattva acting as a yidam (spiritual guide or tutelary deity). In this instance, the practice of the Jivamala was revealed to a householder by a bhairava. Although the practitioner had been initiated into the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the specific practice was not begun in a traditional way, since the practice and the associated guide or Yidam were not handed down to a disciple by a living teacher in a recognized spiritual lineage.
This is a description of a meditative practice based on the life of the earthly Buddha.
The Purpose of Remembering Past Lives
Many people have used memories of past lives to bask in the reflected glory of their former selves, thus increasing egotism and ignorance, and even causing confusion of identity in the present life. Past lives have been treated like ancestors, with the individual claiming glory and fame as a kind of inheritance from their previous selves. This use of past lives is unacceptable for the Jivamala practice, and is in direct opposition to the Buddhist notion that the individual's current life and problems are a direct result of mistakes in past lives. Had past lives been lived correctly, the individual would not have required another incarnation.
From a Buddhist perspective, we can ask the questions:Why be proud of the mistakes, confusion, and ignorance of past selves that have led to the prison of one's current circumstances in life? Why take pride in a disability like spiritual blindness? Why be proud of wealth and power that have been misused, leading to rebirth?The purpose of remembering past lives is not to increase pride, but rather to increase detachment and purify the individual of residual karma from those past personalities (jivas). Knowledge of past lives should bring humility, recognition of the universality of suffering, and spiritual wisdom. The jivamala practice also permits an expansion of personal identity where the self grows beyond the bounds of an individual ego to encompass a broader identity which has knowledge of many past selves.
During such experience, one individual temporarily gains intimate knowledge of a string of individual selves, and as identity widens, compassion tends to increase. This compassion, because it derives from direct experience, can be more powerful than more common notions of compassion, which are based on sympathy for the suffering of others. The basis for these more common feelings of sympathy is limited because it falls short of the intuitive knowledge of individual suffering that can come from the experience of past lives.
The Jivamala deconstructs identity by examining past pain. This leads to the discovery that one's old identity was grounded in pain. This is a prelude to the development of a new self grounded in compassion and recogniton of the pain in others. This is important because this new self which is aware of the universality of suffering is needed to counterbalance the vanity that often accompanies the increasing awareness, knowledge, and power that comes with spiritual development.
The First Stage of the Buddha's Enlightenment
The Jivamala meditation is the first of a set of four practices based on the Buddha's four watches of the night. The later three practices are described at a separate site, and all four practices are known collectively as the Bodhi-Tree Meditation which is located at Wisdom-tree.com.
The basis for the Jivamala practice may be seen in a description of the Buddha's enlightenment in the Buddhacarita, written by Asvaghosha in the second century CE. As the Buddha's enlightenment progressed through various stages, so it is appropriate for a modern day disciple to pass through those same stages. The Buddha's stages of liberation are an example for all who seek liberation.
According to the Buddhacarita, while the Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi Tree, he first gained mastery over all degrees and kinds of trance states. Then, during the first watch of the night, he experienced all his past lives:In the first watch of the night he recollected the successive series of his former births. 'There was I so and so; that was my name; deceased from there I came here' - in this way he remembered thousands of births, as though living them over again. When he recalled all his own births and deaths in all these previous lives of his, the Sage, full of pity, turned his compassionate mind towards other living beings, and he thought to himself: 'Again and again they must leave the people they regard as their own, and must go on elsewhere, and that without ever stopping. Surely this world is unprotected and helpless, and like a wheel it turns round and round.' As he continued steadily to recollect his past thus, he came to the definite conviction that the world of samsara is as unsubstantial as the pith of a plantain tree.At this point, the Buddha proceeded to the second watch of the night in which he acquired the "supreme heavenly eye" which allowed him to see further into the nature of samsara, and explore the six worlds of rebirth.
(From the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosha, cited in Ninian Smart, Sacred Texts of the World, (Crossroad, 1982), p. 234. Original translation from E. Conze, Buddhists Texts Through the Ages, (London, Faber, 1954))
The Jivamala - The Necklace of Souls
In the meditative practice of the Jivamala, the past lives or personalities of the individual are threaded together like beads on a string in the shape of a necklace. Each individual life with its karma or jiva** is visualized as a pearl, shining and in the shape of perfection.
The dark pearls represent lives that contain destructive karma that acts like a millstone, limiting the individual in various ways even in the present life.
The white pearls represent the lives that have been purified by memory, realization, and atonement. Past passions must be realized and understood as delusion. Past sins must be realized as wrong or destructive actions. Past lives must be understood as combinations of good and bad intentions, as wise choices and errors. The person must be liberated from unconscious bondage to those lives and their passions.
The process of remembering one life after another is like going from bead to bead using a rosary. Each bead contains a mosaic of memories from a previous incarnation.
To understand the Jivamala practice, it is important to understand the role of the guide. Please click on the [ NEXT ] link below to continue.
[ NEXT ] The Guide or Spiritual Director of the Jivamala Practice
** Note: The term jiva (or jivatman) is normally used in the Hindu tradition to denote a single separate soul which reincarnates many times. In the context of the Jivamala practice, it refers to the organization of karma which forms the basis for the individual personality developed over a single lifetime.
Introduction | The Bhairava or Spiritual Guide | Lives of Spiritual Weakness | Lives of Spiritual Awakening | Conclusion