Spiritualism and the Occult
While Buddhism certainly does not encourage too much preoccupation with these matters, it does not of course deny the existence of various classes of “discarnate” beings. They dwell in various realms and on various planes, some higher and happier than this world, others, such as the so-called “hungry ghosts” (petas), more miserable. They are relatively real — i.e., no less “real” than we ourselves in this world. They all, without exception, belong to the realm of sa.msaara or “birth-and-death,” and their stay in any of the realms they inhabit is therefore temporary, though in some cases it may be fantastically long-lasting by human standards. There is no contradiction here with the idea of rebirth on earth, since the realm one is born in depends on one’s kamma, the human condition being only one of the various possibilities (though a specifically important one, since Enlightenment from any other realm is held to be virtually impossible). Therefore, human rebirth is considered to be as desirable as it is rare — a precious opportunity which it is a folly to waste. It is also stated in the scriptures that man has a “mind-made body, complete in all its parts,” which would seem to correspond to the “astral” or “etheric” body referred to by occultists.
Responsible occultists — of whom there are many — are themselves, of course, thoroughly well aware of the dangers of incautious involvement with these matters, which they often stress. The inhabitants of the various realms are not enlightened beings, and while some are undoubtedly much wiser and more advanced than the average human, others are not, and can even exert a definitely malevolent power.
It is not in the province of Buddhist monks to practice any of the occult arts — it is in fact forbidden them in terms — although it is not infrequently done in the East. Western Buddhists should actually also not concern themselves with such matters.
If they nevertheless do so (as many will, whatever is said to the contrary), they should at least be extremely careful to consult only responsible and conscientious practitioners, with a high moral standard. Such people are not hard to find, and are often very fine characters. But it should always be borne in mind that even quite genuine messages from the departed can be misleading, since they are still, in varying degrees, ignorant. For this reason, too, the well-known triviality of so many “spirit” messages proves nothing about their genuineness.
The beings of higher worlds are known in Buddhism as devas, and it seems certain that many of them are truly concerned to help mankind as far as lies in their power. It might even be suggested that there is perhaps no essential difference between the higher devas and the bodhisattvas of the Mahaayaana tradition.
Some people are naturally psychic, and some even develop psychic powers as a result, or by-product, of meditation. Such powers are perfectly real, but should not be sought after or clung to, if attained. If they are gained without sufficient insight or moral purification, they can be disastrous. It is another of the many illusions of the modern liberal humanist that such things as “witchcraft” do not exist. Righteous indignation at the cruel treatment of real or alleged witches in the past should not lead us to imagine that the whole thing was completely mythical. So we should be very wary of seeking contact with the psychic planes, not because they do not exist (if that were the case, comparatively little harm would be done), but because they do.
What Is Death?
We now come to the Buddhist definition of death. According to the Ven. Nyanatiloka, it is ordinarily called “the disappearance of the vital faculty confined to a single life-time, and therewith of the psycho-physical life-process conventionally called ‘Man, Animal, Personality, Ego’ etc. Strictly speaking, however, death is the continually repeated dissolution and vanishing of each momentary physical-mental combination, and thus it takes place every moment.”
This definition is very important. Each moment (i.e., millions of times a second) “I” die and “I” am reborn, in other words, a new “I” takes over from the old which has vanished forever. At the end of “my” physical life there is at the same time a severing of the link between this mental process and the body, which quickly decays in consequence.
But rebirth in exactly the same way is instantaneous in some sphere, whether as conception in a fresh womb or elsewhere.
Death, then, except in the case of the arahant (to which we shall briefly refer), is in the Buddhist view inseparable from rebirth. But two kinds of rebirth are distinguished: rebirth from life to life, and rebirth from moment to moment, as indicated in the above definition. Some people today maintain that the Buddha taught only the latter. This is nonsense. There are many hundreds of references to rebirth throughout the Buddhist scriptures of all schools, and they cannot be simply explained away as either “symbolic” (whatever that means) or as “concessions to popular beliefs” (it is not true, incidentally, that in the Buddha’s day “everybody believed in rebirth”). Nor is there any need for such explanations, since there is plenty of convincing evidence for the reality of the process (see Appendix).