Conclusion - What the Jivamala Tells Us About Past Lives
The purpose of the Jivamala beyond the purification of past selves is the expansion of individual identity to include these past selves. It represents the insight that the earthly Buddha gained during the first watch of the night when he became aware of his own past lives. The Jivamala practice also precipitates the gradual erosion of the personal identity as a step toward developing the more transpersonal identity of the Bodhisattva.
Once the individual becomes aware of other lives, the hard shell of individuality that surrounds and isolates the ego begins to crack and dissolve. Developing true compassion requires intimate knowledge of and identification with many beings in countless situations of difficulty, conflict, and pain on one hand, and pleasure, creativity, and learning on the other. The individual moves towards a more universal identity where he or she starts to understand a collective identity that spans multiple past selves.
The second stage of the meditation which follows the Jivamala represents a further expansion of identity outside the human realm to include identification with the larger sphere of life. This and the final two steps in the process will be presented in a future set of meditations which focus on the Buddha's final three watches of his night of liberation.
There are a wide variety of conclusions that can be drawn from the Jivamala practice, and the material presented at this site. The most obvious one is that human beings are much more complex, and able to know much more about their past than is assumed by most educated people living today.
The practice also raises many questions. Let us discuss some of these questions and conclusions.
East Versus West
The Jivamala practice assumes a view of life which differs radically from Western views. In the West, on one hand we have the humanist/evolutionary biology view where human beings are animals in a biological system without soul or spiritual essence. On the other, we have the dominant religious approach in which individuals only live once, and then go on to some heaven or hell where they stay for eternity.
The view assumed here is that human beings live many lives, and evolve from gross to subtle, from material to spiritual, and from lives of instinct and conflict to lives of spiritual awakening and compassion.
In addition, there is the assumption that lives which are lived wrongly result in painful afterlives, and painful subsequent incarnations. This is a basic assumption of Buddhism (and Hinduism) in virtually all of its forms, and the Jivamala is in accord with this belief.
Is Understanding Karma a Distraction
From the Spiritual Path In Buddhism?
Some may question the validity of the Jivamala practice because of the Buddha's burning house metaphor which is sometimes interpreted to be a warning to avoid any attempt to understand philosophical issues.
The Buddha said that it is more important to "leave the burning house" of a life filled with desire (samsara) than to try and find out how the fire started. This is usually taken to mean that changing one's life to follow the dharma or Buddhist law is more important than understanding the subtleties of Buddhist philosophy on one hand, and the chain of causal relationships in one's life (karma) on the other. Put differently, it is more important to escape a dangerous situation than to understand how one got into that situation in the first place.
The Buddha's parable about the burning house certainly rings true. However, the Buddha never said that the knowledge of one's karma was unattainable. The Buddha stated that any human being could do what he had done in his spiritual life, and he re-lived his former lives. On that basis, the Jivamala can be viewed as an unusual practice, though not one that runs counter to the spirit of Buddhist philosophy or practice.
Is the Use of the Term "Jiva" Appropriate in Buddhism?
The use and meaning of the term jiva in the Jivamala practice may also seem problematic when examined in the context of Buddhist philosophy. For those with an interest in how the Jivamala practice relates to the philosophical doctrine of anatta or "no-soul", the discussion on the Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Doctrine of Anatta page may be of interest. This page also contains additional information on the Bhairava's view of jivas.
The Acceptance of Nonphysical Buddhas and Gurus
The existence of inner guides, Buddhas, and deities is problematic for many religious practitioners outside the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Even if the existence of such helpful beings is accepted, there is the problem of religious authority. Many conservative Christians maintain the view that any spiritual presence which is not Christian must be demonic. Other traditions (monotheistic or otherwise) are suspicious of entities not sanctioned by their leaders and sacred texts. However, much can still be leaned from the biographies presented at this site, even if there are some doubts concerning the source of this information.
The Problem of the Complexity of Karma
Most people who try to understand karma and its subtleties conclude that understanding even the causal relationships in one individual's life would be impossible. The complexity would seem to far outweigh the most difficult and complex mathematical problems.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept is that there are "karma specialists" like the Bhairava who using intuitive perception can manage and deal with this complexity. The notion that one individual's karmic problems can be managed and slowly straightened out so that the individual can be systematically liberated from destructive past actions seems ideal. However, this is precisely what the Jivamala practice and its director, the Bhairava, demonstrate are possible.
The Concept of the "Split Soul"
In addition, there is the uncommon notion (which is not supported by mainstream Buddhist belief) that the individual's karma can be split, with a minor part of the self staying in a painful afterlife following death, while the primary part goes on to a new incarnation in one of the six realms of rebirth. This is not mentioned in the Buddha's process of remembering his past lives. For the Buddha, the memory of past lives seemed to be important because in addition to illustrating the workings of karma, it gave him compassion for all beings because he had played so many roles in his past lives that he could truly identify with all beings and their suffering.
This notion of split souls from the past that need to be freed may be an esoteric side of the process of remembering past lives which one usually learns about only when doing the actual practice.
The Complexity of the Self
In the Jivamala practice, we see a concept of reincarnation which is more complex than the linear or sequential concept usually presented by Eastern traditions.
The Jivamala practice presents a picture of multiple interconnected selves or jivas existing in different states of consciousness at the same time. The jivas are of two types, partial and full (as explained on the Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Doctrine of Anatta page). In addition, a jiva following its death can be either bound (trapped in an afterlife) or unbound (free to change and accepted into the afterlife).
These many selves or jivas are normally completely unaware of each other. However, these jivas can communicate during the Jivamala practice, and even help each other in their collective spiritual evolution.
The broken or bound jivas, once they are freed from their prison in the afterlife may live out their lives in the asura worlds, but are limited in various ways after death due to their lack of a full or complete soul.
The spiritually developed souls appear to gain a full soul in the afterlife (at least in some instances) which maintains a parallel existence with the reincarnating soul. This reincarnating (or complete) soul carries the negative karma which must be balanced while the spiritually developed souls watch, and wait for it to evolve.
The Bhairava describes the various possibilities for the jiva in the afterlife in the following way:Jivas are linked together into a garland [or necklace] of souls. A common thread of karma runs through all of them, like the essence of a tree appears in branches, leaves, and fruit.In the Jivamala practice, one thing seems likely. It is necessary that all these separate souls or selves first be unified in some way before the individual can become a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Just as psychologists claim that integrating the various conflicting pieces of one personality leads to personal sanity and metal stability, so does integration of the various souls or personalities from different lifetimes bring about spiritual sanity and detachment, and increased awareness of higher states of being.
The dark pearl is like an unfertilized fruit - it cannot grow or change. It is in a sense paralyzed. When you purify and cleanse these souls, they gain the ability to change. When karma is unspoken and unrecognized, it is bound. When it is discussed and examined, it can be rearranged, and even freed. For example, when people are bound by family secrets, they are fearful and cannot do many things because the secret might be revealed. But when the secret is opened to the light, the traumas and anxieties around it are lifted, and the secret self can be revealed. Inner freedom is gained.
The jiva is bound by unexamined karma. The unexamined life is not only not worth living, but after life is over, it is not able to be reborn properly into the afterlife. It is frozen into position at death, and can only be changed by acceptance into an afterlife world, or reincarnation.
If the jiva is not bound but instead is accepted into an afterlife, it will probably remain satisfied with its current form, and stay in that particular jiva even when there is reincarnation of the full soul and only a partial jiva remains.
If the jiva [in the afterlife] is bound and the full soul reincarnates, it will leave that old jiva behind and generate a new one. The old bound jiva will probably be dissatisfied, but unable to change unless there is afterlife communication and purification [as in the Jivamala practice], which allows for change. The fragment of spirit within the old jiva if it is not bound can in rare cases reincarnate separately, or it can worship a deity and become a part of the deity's energies. It can also adapt to a new supernatural world. In some cases, the old jiva may give up individual identity altogether and become part of something greater.
"Liberating the sparks" allows the jiva some choice in its future rather than being bound in physical or astral matter. There is no one future for all jivas in the afterlife.
Such integration involves carrying memories and spiritual abilities from the spiritual past lives (or white pearls) forward and bringing them into awareness during the present incarnation. It also involves freeing past personalities (dark pearls) who are bound by examining their lives and learning from them. As with so many practices in Buddhism, the Jivamala practice depends on awareness and, in particular, the development of a special form of awareness that brings past lives into focus. The Jivamala brings about a distinct form of liberation through this new form of awareness as a step towards the more universal form of liberation known as enlightenment.
The practice of the Jivamala is not necessarily the only way to achieve such integration but may be one way among many to accomplish this goal.
The "Eternal" Afterlife
Western religions such as Christianity and Islam speak of an eternal afterlife. Buddhism and Hinduism both believe in reincarnation. How can these two opposing views be reconciled in light of the Jivamala practice?
One way is to note that many of the trapped souls in the past life biographies subjectively felt their suffering to be eternal. Each personality saw their suffering as lasting forever. One personality was told he would be rescued at some future time but the rest were not sure their suffering would ever end.
This kind of subjective experience may account for the common Western view that pain and suffering are eternal for sinners in the afterlife.
The lives of spiritual awakening provide yet another way to reconcile these two views. Here, the dying soul splits off a second self from the primary soul which reincarnates. This second self gains a "full soul" as a result of a powerful bond with a deity that was developed during life. This second self then goes on to a paradise world which appears to be eternal (although this may not be the case). This form of transition where one soul becomes two interconnected souls (one in a paradise and one that reincarnates) may also account for the concept of an eternal afterlife in Western religious traditions. The Western approach simply concentrates on the soul that enters the heavenly state while ignoring the portion which reincarnates.
In both of the above situations, the individual continues to incarnate and thus continues to learn and grow.
However, a third option exists which closely resembles the notions of heaven common in the Western Traditions. In this situation, there is no splitting of the jiva, and the individual enters into an "eternal" paradise. This is the kind of afterlife that is idealized in Christianity and Islam in the West, and Pure Land Buddhism in the East. This approach does not split off a part of the soul into an afterlife while the dominant soul which carries the karma reincarnates. Instead, it stores and isolates the individual's karma in a separate area in the paradise, which permits the jiva to enjoy the paradise fully but essentially halts the jiva's evolution and learning.
The tendency to split is based primarily on the complexity of the soul. The Bhairava describes simpler souls as being inclined to enter completely into paradises without splitting. More complex souls who seek knowledge and experience, or those with complex karmic histories are souls with a stronger tendency to split following death.
We should note that none of the past life biographies at this site illustrate this option where the soul stays unified following death. However, the approach requires additional explanation because so many Westerners are exposed to religions that are devotional and emphasize salvation which seeks a heavenly world in the afterlife.
The Bhairava gives his opinion on these kinds of paradise worlds on the page titled Salvation Versus Liberation, The Limitations of Paradise Worlds.
The three options show that the concept of an eternal afterlife of heaven or hell in Western traditions is not entirely false, and that this position is justified if the afterlife is looked at from a slightly narrowed perspective. The view that there is reincarnation does not completely invalidate the concept of an eternal afterlife in these Western traditions.
Karma and Its Influence Across Lives
One of the problems of reviewing a selected group of past life biographies and then presenting only a portion of those reviewed is that it is difficult to see how events in one life influence events and experiences in later lives. For instance, when a later life is shown to be cursed, it would be helpful to first review the life in which the curse was created. If certain negative habit patterns are created during one life, it would be instructive to see how these habits were echoed in later lives, and then eliminated or overcome. If the individual is treated brutality by others in one life, it would help to describe the life or lives in which he or she intentionally harmed others thus tracing the reason for such brutal treatment.
Unfortunately, demonstrating this interconnectedness of events across many lives would require dozens of past life biographies, as well as a special effort by the author to delineate these connections when they are recognized. Beyond the more obvious causal connections are the many subtle ones, which are far more difficult to discern. The small sample set of biographies included at this site cannot really provide enough data to show how different lives are interconnected karmicly.
There are occasional references to past and future lives in the biographies, and the Bhairava sometimes mentions causal relationships between events and circumstances in different lives. Though the references are few, hopefully they will suffice to give the reader a taste for the way in which karma and causality work across lives.
Fortunately, the purifying value of the Jivamala practice does not seem to depend upon the practitioner gaining precise understanding of these causal connections. The accounts of the Buddha remembering his past lives that I am aware of also do not dwell on his realization of these causal relationships. It seems that the detailed understanding of these relationships is more of a matter of abstract interest rather than a practical means of the practicianer gaining freedom from his or her past.
Some important lessons that can be learned from the Jivamala practice are that lives follow one after another, and that these lives are causally connected in such a way that the ethical balance of the cosmos is maintained. Another thing the Jivamala shows is that individuals can be trapped in hells in the afterlife, and also trapped in repeating patterns where they are stuck doing similar things and playing similar roles in incarnation after incarnation. A process of spiritual purification such as the Jivamala practice needs to address both these forms of bondage.
The Problem of Evil
The information contained at this site supports the idea that the cosmos is ethically in balance and that there is justice. This universal justice is echoed in the individual's world which is a microcosm of the ethical balance found in the macrocosm. This pattern of justice thus also applies to individuals. The information also shows that there are forces both individual and universal that work to maintain such balance. However, this balancing or enforcement of the rules of justice takes place over a period of lifetimes. Thus the problems of evil and injustice where it seems impossible to explain why an innocent child is murdered or dies of cancer are more readily explained by Eastern traditions by tracing the cause of such events to the actions of these children in their previous lives.
Christianity and Judaism try to deal with injustice by first claiming that God's injustice tests man's faith (as with the prophet Job), and second by quoting Exodus 20:5 where God says he will "punish the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations". The notion of intergenerational family or group justice seems inadequate and inappropriate for the modern world since people do not identify as strongly with a family or culture as they have in the past. The logic of creating a just world by punishing a family member for the crimes of a relative that were committed several generations ago is therefore incomprehensible to modern people.
The Book of Job does not really provide an explanation for injustice but instead makes the political claim that since God is all-powerful, his actions (unjust or otherwise) cannot or should not be questioned. Such an approach does not really attempt to address the issues of personal suffering and injustice.
In the author's opinion, these Western religions have a difficult time explaining unjust events. A common approach is to propose a dualistic system where God opposes the devil, and then make the devil responsible for injustice. This is problematic since it is almost always claimed that God created the devil, and the creator of a powerful being who is the source of evil and injustice is at least partly responsible for such evil, even if the devil is acting because of free will. Since God is unconditionally good in these traditions, we have a contradiction which seems to have no resolution. God freely gave the devil both the power and the freedom to create evil in the world. It should be a simple matter to take back such freedom and eradicate evil. Since God clearly does not wish to do this, he must be held partly responsible for such evil.
An explanation of why evil and injustice occur in our lives is important because this failure to adequately address the problem of evil is one of the major critiques of Western religion by philosophers of religion. It is also the basis of a rejection of a religious world view by many people.
However, many others are able to ignore these problems and accept the common explanation that the problem of evil is a mystery, and thus continue their religious practice. For those that find this approach unsatisfactory, the belief in reincarnation provides one possible explanation for the existence of evil and injustice in our lives.
For those who have been victims of abuse, poverty, and other difficult situations, believing or even knowing that there is justice in the long run certainly does not heal them immediately since they can still be trapped by the material and psychological results of those traumatic situations. However, even for these individuals, believing there is justice ultimately seems much more comforting and beneficial than believing there is no justice at all.
On the positive side of the justice equation, no kind or compassionate act is ever lost but the results of such action follows the individual through his or her deaths and rebirths. These actions act like a raft to separate the individual from the dangerous currents of existence permitting rebirths where creativity, service, compassion, and spiritual growth are an integral part of life.
The Bhairava Describes the Value
of Knowledge of the Jivamala
Knowledge of the Jivamala practice has the same use as knowledge of psychotherapy - it studies trauma across lives rather than trauma within lives. There are a variety of understandings of Buddhist psychology. Those used by the bhairavas, dakinis, and bodhisattvas involve the organizations, knottings, and breakdowns of karma, and the effects of these upon awareness. The practice studies primarily those organizations of karma intense enough to continue over a span of lives, and create repeated patterns of problems or roles for incarnating beings.
Symbolically, the Jivamala bonds together the many incarnations of each person. As the spinal column of light or sushumna links together the chakras of Kundalini yoga, so the garland [or necklace] of souls unites the great unconscious layers of each person. It is a rope that is anchored in the Void, but holds many worlds within its knots.
Those who would be interested in these stories [or biographies] are people interested in individual lives and experiences. The process is neither statistical nor comparative. The focus is on the individual rather than the group. Their use is to understand the workings of karma, and the means of purification.
For survival, and for accomplishment in the world, one should only work with one life at a time. More than that would disrupt accomplishing the goals of life. However, for those who are contemplative, and for whom the paths of spirit are important, past lives are a part of the evolution of the person which cannot be avoided. Unless the person follows a path in which the intermediate realms are negated (such as Zen), the worlds of creation are known through the return of the spirit to its source.
Gods and buddhas wear malas [or necklaces] to show the realms of their creation and control. But for human practitioners, malas draw them into the planes of awareness where lives and worlds pass through their hands, greased by mantras and blessings of bodhisattvas and gods.
The Jivamala - A Work In Progress
No final conclusions about the Jivamala practice can be drawn because it is part of a larger set of practices of which it is only the first component. This and the three later practices, which collectively are known as the Bodhi-Tree or Wisdom-Tree, are based on the Buddha's stages of realization during the four watches of his night of liberation. They create the larger context for the Jivamala practice. The reference to the Bodhi-Tree practice is listed below.
We hope that this site has provided the reader with a new and unique perspective on reincarnation by showing how it works in the life of a single practitioner who has done considerable exploration in this area. This information may also encourage others to understand and purify their past as part of a spiritual search. Understanding karma and reincarnation will hopefully give other seekers the kind of knowledge that will make the recurring process of life, death, and rebirth less mysterious. Such understanding may also motivate ethical and compassionate action since it shows how life is a circle, and the way we treat others now determines the way we will be treated in the future.
Greater knowledge can, in turn, lead to less fear and anxiety as the dying person enters into the realms of the afterlife. The afterlife states are given considerable attention in the Vajrayana tradition, as are the subjects of karma and the role of cause and effect in the life of an individual. The lives presented here illustrate these concepts in a way that will hopefully make them accessible to the Western reader.
This concludes the practice of the First Watch of the Night (or Jivamala practice).
The Jivamala practice is the first stage of a four stage set of Buddhist meditations. The four stages taken collectively are called the wisdom-tree (or Bodhi-tree) meditation. The introduction to the Bodhi-Tree practice is available at the link Introduction to the Bodhi-Tree meditation (www.wisdom-tree.com).
To continue with the practice of the Second Watch of the Night at the wisdom-tree site (the practice that follows the Jivamala Practice) click on the NEXT link below.
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