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This manuscript was self-published in 1982 as Occult Wereldbeeld ("The Occult Worldview") and republished in 1995 as Zeven Sferen ("Seven Spheres") by the Dutch Theosophical Publishing House. It contains my summary of the perennialist tradition, as it can be found in the writings of Theosophical authors such as Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, I.K. Taimni and others. It provides the background of the articles on perennialism I have written for IW.


Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.



Seven Spheres: Chapter 5

Frank Visser

Does the subject of reincarnation have anything to do with the spheres? In this chapter we will see that there is difference of opinion as to the spheres that are actually involved in the process of reincarnation. The scheme of the seven spheres can therefore be used to compare and contrast different versions of the reincarnation hypothesis. For an excellent treatment of the subject of reincarnation I can recommend John Algeo's Reincarnation Explored. In this book he surveys the most often asked questions about reincarnation, and discusses the available evidence. What is more, he offers a theoretical explanation, based on Theosophy, to make sense of the phenomena of reincarnation.

Instead of going over this territory again, I would like to draw attention to some issues related to reincarnation, that deserve more attention. Is there a self that reincarnates? Or does reincarnation occur without an enduring self that reincarnates, as most Buddhist schools proclaim? What to make of the complex view of reincarnation that is presented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is becoming more and more popular in the Western world thanks to the efforts of Tibetan lamas such as Chögyam Trunpga and Sogyal Rinpoche? In the absence of any comprehensive view of life after death, the Tibetan view seems to hold the day. The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers a view of the reincarnation process -- nothing less, and nothing more. How probable is the Tibetan view? What alternatives exist to understand reincarnation?

The return to earth

Let us first continue our story of the previous chapter, that ended at the moment when the spiritual Ego has reached its true home on the causal plane. What will happen next? The spirituel Ego has dis-entangled itself from the bodies of the personality: physical, astral and mental. During the whole period of the hereafter, this personality gradually disintegrated and faded away. Once the world of the Ego is reached, the personality is no longer necessary and we are for a short moment completely ourselves, in our individuality. Most people will rest in this state in some sort of peaceful slumber. Nevertheless, everyone will pass this heights, howsoever short, before returning to earthly life. The duration of our stay on the causal plane can vary, from a few hours to many years of conscious activity.

In the long run, every human being will start to feel the need again to receive impressions from the lower worlds, to be able to feel alive. This need of a world in which the Ego can find expression, and from which impressions can be received -- in Buddhism referred to as trishna or tanha -- is the driving force behind the reincarnation process. We are not sent back to earch against our will; we return because we feel the need to do so. For the one who has conquered this need, and so does not have to return, the wish to help others find liberation may be the motivation to return to earth.

It is a bit like our need for food. If we have eaten and stilled our hunger, for some time we will not care for food at all. But sooner of later the feeling of hunger will return, and this will motivate us to find food. The process of reincarnation functions more or less in the same manner. The need for physical life is satisfied during life -- untill we may be 'fed up' with life -- is diminished during our stay in the hereafter, and will return on the causal planes, when the time for the next incarnation has arrived. Only if we are spiritually conscious, and therefore can function consiously on the spiritual levels, does the need for physical incarnation stay away. The process of reincarnation will then come to an end in a natural way.

The clearest picture of the process of reincarnation can be gained by looking at it as it were from above, from the standpoint of the spiritual Ego. This forms a new personality with every new incarnation -- i.e. a new mental and astral body -- before connecting itself to a physcial embryo. This process of incarnation starts when the Ego turns its attention outwards again, after its restfull slumber on the causal plane. Subtle matter from the mental plane will be gathered, so that a rudimentary mental body can be formed. In this stage it is more a covering than a body proper. The process is repeated on the astral plane: when the Ego turns its attention to that level, a rudimentary astral body is formed. The etheric body is not formed in this way, as some clairvoyants have noted. This is formed by the help of certain non-human entities, called elementals. And we all know how the physical body is formed...

Around this process of incarnation several ethical issues have gathered. In New Age circles it has been said that we all choose our incarnation, and therefore are more or less responsible for our life and fate on earth, but this is highly doubtful. According to Powell, who has summarizes the results of clairvoyant research in a number of volumes, the average person can in no way choose a new physical body in a conscious way. More often, by an interplay of many factors -- desire, karma, personal ties -- we will be drawn into incarnation. Of course, in some rare cases, the level of consciousness of a certain individual can be such, that the future parents can be chosen consciously. This requires the capacity to retain consciousness during the whole of the incarnation process, to keep the goal of the next incarnation in mind.

Another delicate issue with respect to the process of incarnation is the exact moment the spiritual Ego connects itself to the physical embryo. This may vary, from the moment of conception to some time befor the process of birth, or even after physical birth has occurred, so it is hard to make general statements here. The issue of abortion can not be answered in a clear way on the basis of this information. If the Ego has incarnated itself early in the process, abortion would amount to the killing of an individual. If however the Ego remains aloof from the growing foetus, then abortion would mean 'nothing more' than the destruction of a building in progress. Individual conscience remains our guide here to decide.

The new mental and astral bodies that are present at birth are by no means fully formed instruments for the use of the Ego. During the first decade of life, the child will gradually learn to gain control over its emotional and mental life, during which the corresponding subtle bodies will be built.

Some metaphors for reincarnation

Every new incarnation is in a way a gamble for the spiritual Ego. Will this life yield enough in terms of spiritual growth? Or will character traits be developed that actually hinder spiritual development? This has been compared to an investment, that can be profitable or bring loss. Although it may sound a bit clumsy, we also may picture the process of incarnation such that the Ego lends a 'part' of itself to the new personality, in the hope he can get it back enriched after that lifetime is over.

The Ego on its own plane contains much more than can be expressed in physical incarnation in one single personality. The personality that has developed to a certain extent in a spiritual sense, will therefore carry a sense of inner richness, that is striving for expression. The development of the Ego and its powers of will, love-intuition and thought is the only goal of the process of incarnation. For this development we are responsible. With everything we do, we should consider if it helps or hinders de development or expression of our higher Self. Although the Ego has many different powers, it is rather impractible to develop them all in one and the same life. In one life we may be primarily an intellectual, while a next life could be coloured more by the emotions. These 'onesided' lives all contribute to the allround development of the Ego.

The descent of the spiritual Ego into incarnation has been compared to a pearl diver, who dives into the water to find the pearl of experience, but who cannot remain there for a very long time. Every now and then, he has to resurface, to breath fresh air. This image shows nicely that we actually come from the spiritual worlds and belong there, where we can breath freely.

Another striking analogue is between reincarnation and respiration. We breathe continuously, in a repetitive pattern of inhaling and exhaling, with-out any effort of our will. We can compare inhalation to the process of incarnation and exhalation to the process of 'excarnation'. After every inhalation we feel vital, active, charged and ready to undertake anything. After every exhalation we rather feel quiet, silent, passive and reflective. Someone who is afraid of death and attached to life is like some-one who only wants to inhale. The best preparation for death is therefore to learn to exhale consciously and to let go. In a normal way, the need for this will come up all by itself. After an active and

stressful life, it is natural to long for rest and silence. So, the wish to die need not be pathological. Reincarnation is a kind of spiritual respiration.

Ego and personality revisited

A correct understanding of the relationship between the spiritual Ego and the personality is of crucial importance, so let us pay attention to it here. There is much talk of our 'higher Self' nowadays, but very little exact information is available.

Of course there are no two -- or three or more -- 'selves' in one human being. Essentially there is only one core-self: the monad. This monad has the capacity to identify with something outside of itself, or it can break this identification again, disidentify from it. This identification can be so strong, that the monad loses sight of itself, so to speak, and forgets itself. The spiritual Ego will then be the centre of our consciousness. The same can happen when the Ego identifies itself with the personality to such an extent that the personality becomes the centre of consciousness. This is the situation in which we find ourselfves in everyday life.

We hear a lot these days of a 'higher Self', that is supposed to exist somewhere above our heads and with which we can come into contact through meditation. Now this leads to a rather strange situation: who is coming into contact with whom? In fact language creates the problem here. What actually happens when a person finds his or her higher Self is that this higher Self breaks the identification with its personality, and remembers itself as it is. The centre of consciousness then shifts naturally from the level of the personality to the level of the higher Self. Strictly speaking, we can not identify ourselves with our higher Self, as is sometimes suggested. It is the Self that identifies, not the other way round. We can only try to live and look from the level of the Self.

The problem of the self

In the view of reincarnation given above, there is talk of a self that reincarnates -- a very rational conception that can be found in Hinduism, among other sources. In the Buddhist view of reincarnation, that is gaining popularity more and more, the existence of a reincarnating self is denied. This leads us to a wholly different view of reincarnation.

This is known as the anatta-doctrine, i.e. the doctrine that teaches that 'there is no self'. This makes the process of reincarnation a rather mysterious phenomenon. If there is not a self that reincarnates, then what does? Buddhist commentators take great pains to show that reincarnation-

without-a-self can actually happen. Some say it is the karma that lives on, and not the person that produced it; others point to the highest skandha, or structure of human nature, the one that is associated with consciousness, as the reincarnating factor -- what is very much like saying it is a self that reincarnates.


Fig. 5.1 - The Buddhist View of Human Nature

In the Buddhist view of human nature, a human being is made up of several different 'heaps' or skandha's, with no central guiding principle in them at all (see fig. 5.1). However, in my opinion, it is highly questionable however to suppose that any 'structure', howsoever subtle, can in and by itself produce the phenomena of consciousness. A skandha is a material structure, analogous to a subtle body, that functions as an instrument of consciousness, but that itself is unconscious. Translating the highest of the skandha's (vijnana) with 'consciousness', as is often done, is therefore misleading. Consciousness can not be derived from the skandha's, or any other material structure.

Buddhist commentators prefer to speak of 'rebirth' instead of reincarnation, for where reincarnation has the suggestion of a self that reincarnates, rebirth has a more impersonal flavour. Rebirth can be likened to the situation when two billiard balls clash. The second ball is not the reincarnation of the first, but still the momentum of the first is passed on to the second. So in this view it is the karma (i.e. the effect of one's actions) that is passed on, not an immortal soul. However, it is questionable if this interpretation is in accordance with what the Buddha actually taught.

If we consult Buddhist text that speak of the issue of the self (or actually no-self), the situation is not at all clear. In one of his first sermons after his Enlightenment the Buddha told his followers that the self can not be found in any of the five skandha's -- a simple and rational statement of the fact that the self is different from its bodies. Nowhere it is said that in itself the self does not exist. What is said, is that the self can not be found in its bodies. And the implication of all this is that the self can be found by breaking the identification with these bodies one by one.

This is wat the Buddha said:

The body (rupa), oh monks, is not the self.

If the body, oh monks, was the self, then the body would not be subject to disease, and we could say: 'Let my body be like this, let my body be not like this.'

But because the body, oh monks, is not the self, the body is subject to disease, and we can not say 'Let my body be like this, let my body not be like this.'

Sensation (vedana), oh monks, is not the self... [the same argument is repeated].

Perception (sanna) is not the self... [ibid.]

The samkhara's are not the self... [ibid.]

Consciousness (vinnana) is not the self... [ibid.]

-- Mahavagga, I, 6, 38

This sutra can be found in vol. XIII of the Sacred Books of the East, edited by Max Müller. The note of the translators Rhys Davids and Olderberg is in this respect of utmost importance:

'The self (atta) that, if it exists at all, must be enduring and imperishable, can not be found in any of these five classes, that are all subject to origin and decay. This sermon of the Buddha, that is called the Anattalakkhana Sutra, shows that the five skandha's are perishable and that the skandha's are not the self. But it does not enter the question whether this self exists, in any manner.'

Further support for the opinion that the Buddha did not deny the existence of the self can be found with the German buddologist George Grimm. He demonstrated convincingly that the conclusion that Buddha denied the self is not very strong and is not supported by early Buddhist texts. According to Grimm, the Buddha only taught a certain method to find the self: one who rejects everything that is not the self will ultimately find the self. Edward Conze, himself a great expert on Buddhism, said of Grimm: 'The more I occupy myself with these matters, the more I am convinced, that Georg Grimm's interpretation of the Buddhist anatta-theory is closest to the original doctrine of the Buddha'.

Put differently, the self can, as subject, never be reduced to an object of consciousness. Whatever can be made an object of consciousness can not be the self. In this respect, the Buddha's teaching is completely in line with the tenets of Hinduism, in which the distinction between the self and the not-self is considered to be of the highest importance. For example, in his Yoga Sutras (vs. II-5) Patanjali defines ignorance (avidya) as follows:

Avidya is taking the non-eternal, the impure, the evil and the not-self for the eternal, pure, good and self.

Buddhism and Hinduism can be reconciled on this important issue to one understandable spiritual doctrine: the self is not an object; drop all objects and you will find the self. We may state that the conclusion that the Buddha denied the self is at least a little hasty. If we picture a human being as a self or spirit that is embodied in several bodies, structures or skandha's, and that the way to the self or spirit consists of the breaking of the identification with these bodies, then we have a balanced view on this difficult issue, that can help us in our spiritual life.

Arthur Powell, echoing the views of Leadbeater and Besant, summarizes this issue in a masterly manner:

A correct view of the relationship between the Ego and his successive personalities should suffice to clear up the misunderstandings which have arisen regarding the teachings of the Lord Buddha. The Buddha preached constantly against the idea, which was evidently prevalent in his time, of the continuation of the personality. But while he taught that nothing of all that with which men generally identify themselves lasts forever, he made most unequivocal statements about the successive lives of men. He gave examples of preceding lives, and compared successive incarnations to days that one may have spent in this village and that.

Nevertheless, the Southern Church of Buddhism now teaches that only karma persists, not an ego; as though a man in one life made a certain amount of karma, and then died, and nothing was left of him, but another person was born, and had to bear the karma which that person did not make.

With curious illogicality, however, in spite of the formal teaching to the contrary, a practical belief in the continued existence of the individual persists, because, for example, Buddhist monks speak of attaining nirvana, and recognize that this will take many lives.

The real significance of this teaching of the Buddha lies in the great emphasis he laid on the external temporary part of man which does not endure, and the implication that the parts of man which are not temporary or external, do survive as the enduring ego, the real man.

The impressive last words of the Buddha, to the effect that all composite things are perishable and we should work out our own salvation diligently, are in accordance with this interpretation. Immortality is not te be found in our bodies, but resides in our self. One who gives up the identification with these bodies, will find the immortal self.

Sometimes the -- rather weak -- objection is encountered in Buddhist writings that the Buddha did not so much deny the self, as the absolute and eternal nature of the self. If this is the meaning of the anatta-doctrine, we can live with that. Whether the self is absolute and eternal, is not a question that has much practical importance for the moment. For the relatively small scale situation we live in it is sufficient to state that there is an inner self in human beings that reincarnates.

Conspiracy against the self?

Both in Western philosophy and in modern, materialistic psychology 'Buddhist' arguments for the non-existence of the self can be found. For example, philosopher David Hume stated, in a passage that has become classical for this position, that there is no self, because during introspection he could find only floating feelings and thoughts:

Every time I turn inside, I always find some sort of sensation, heat or cold, light or shadow, pain or pleasure. At no time do I find myself without a sensation.

A rather elementary question is in order here: who is it then that perceives these sensations? That which perceives is of course... the self! In my judgement, we simply cannot do without the idea of a self to find a satisfactory explanation for human consciousness.

In Wester psychology too the subject of the self is more or less tabu. The standard reason for this is that the hypothesis of a self would lead us to circular arguments of the form: we are aware because we are a self that is aware. But if the only alternative to this is a materialistic explanation of consciousness, we are still further from home... Developmental psychology speaks of several structures in consciousness, that develop one after the other, but not of a self that makes use of these structures. The same misunderstanding of the phenomenon of the self is rampant in the field of artificial intelligence, where one tries to see the human being as a machine like a personal computer. In fact, a computer is a perfect example of a Buddhist skanda, a collection of loose components, that gives the impression to possess consciousness, but lacks an inner life.

There are important similarities between Buddhism and modern psychology. Both deny a self, and analyze the human being as a set of material structures. There seems to be a conspiracy against the self, that points to Buddhism and psychology alike, as if the highest insight into human nature has been reached here. Exact science and Eastern wisdom seem to meet here again! We should not rejoice too early, however. This denial of the self is highly quesionable.

For as no material piece of machinery, like a personal computer, can produce consciousness all by its own -- a conclusion that gradually dawns on the world of artificial intelligence -- no set of skan-dha's can by itself produce consciousness. In fact, artificial intelligence could teach us a human being is more than a machine, as the differences between people and computers come to light. The highest of the five Buddhist skandha's, that is often translated as 'consciousness', in reality has to do with a faculty of the self, cognition. It should not be identified with the self itself, that is above its functions.

If psychology talks about a self at all, it is mostly in the form of the self-image -- something completely different. The self-image is formed by the self, but is not the same as the self. It can be compared to the 'ego' talked of in many spiritual schools as something that has to be 'dropped'. The ego, the thought about oneself, is only one of the many thoughts that exist in human consciousness, and therefore indeed relatively unreal. But the question remains: who or what has formed the self-image in the first place? This can only be a self!

The thinker is not a thought itself, but the source of thoughts. No thought can produce another thought. Now, one can object that human thought is for the most part an associative process; one thought leads to another. But does this mean that behind this associative network of thoughts no thinking self exists? Not at all. No thought can take the place of the self, which is aware of this train of thoughts. With every thought there is always something that sees this thought.

So much for the Buddhist no-self doctrine.

Reincarnation and the spheres

In this book we try to illustrate the value of the sphere model for a great many problems of life and mind. With respect to reincarnation, the following question is pertinent: what spheres of existence are actually involved in the process of reincarnation? To which spheres do we go after death, and from which spheres do we return? Different answers have been given to this question.

The World of the Gods
The World of the Demi-Gods
The World of Human Beings
The World of Animals
The World of the Spirits
The World of Hell

Fig. 5.2 - The Buddhist Worldview (two versions)

Popular Buddhism has it that a human being can go to six different worlds after death. He can be reborn als hell-being, hungry ghost, animal, human, half-god and god (see fig. 5.2). A rebirth as hell-being, hungry ghost or animal is -- understandably -- seen as a 'bad' rebirth; a rebirth as human, half-god or god as a 'good' one. In a bad incarnation we are too dominated by strong emotions like envy or rage to be open to the spiritual dimension. The human incarnation is seen as the most favorable for a spiritual way of life.

This suggests that a return to the world of human beings is an exception and that these worlds exists apart from each other. Theosophical tradition teaches something else: we always return as human beings, and always return to the physical world. The process of reincarnation as a whole takes place only in these 'three worlds': the physical, the astral and the mental (including the causal) worlds, as we have seen in the last chapter. These spheres are inhabited by numerous entities, some human, some non-human, some artificial (see chapter 3).


Fig. 5.3 - Reincarnation and the Spheres

According to Theosophy, reincarnation has nothing whatsoever to do with the spiritual spheres. These lie above the three worlds, as fig. 5.3 shows. There, totally different processes of development take place, like initiations and stages of spiritual growth, to be discussed in chapter 7. However, there are views of the process of reincarnation that give it a distinctive spiritual flavour. The most authorative of these is the view that can be found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Let us have a look at this famous treatise on life after (and before) death.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a text from the eighth century, which is attributed to Padmasambhava, a major spiritual figure of early Tibetan Buddhism. It forms part of a body of scriptures that are meant to lead the soul to Liberation from the circle of rebirths. Its full title is: 'The Great Liberation through hearing in the bardo'. Which view of reincarnation is set forth in the Tibetan Book of the Dead? And how does this relate to the views we have described in the last chapters?

One who tries to understand what the Tibetan Book of the Dead has to teach us on the subject of life after death, will have to start with the word bardo, meaning 'transition' or 'intermediary period'. The Tibetans distinguish four such bardo's: (1) the 'natural' bardo of this life, (2) the 'painful' bardo of dying, (3) the 'radiant' bardo of life after death, and (4) the 'karmic' bardo of the next incarnation. Let us follow the Tibetan view closely.

According to the Tibetan view, at the moment of death the dying person can have a brief glimpse of the Clear Light, the Tibetan name for the Absolute. To reach this highest state of consciousness, no less than eight stages have to be passed through, four outer and four inner stages, that have been given poetic names (see fig. 5.4). This whole process culminates in the experience of the Clear Light. At that moment, the Tibetans say, the spirit will leave the body permanently.

Fig. 5.4 - The Tibetan View of Reincarnation

However, if one has not prepared for this event during life by intense meditation, the Tibetans say, one will miss this opportunity at Liberation and sink into unconsciousness. A new phase follows, full of colourful visions. Numerous gods and spiritual figures appear to the inner eye of the soul, commonly called peaceful and wrathful deities. The Book of the Dead tells the deceased again and again not to be disturbed by this, for they are to be considered as projections of his own mind. If these are recognized as such, there is another chance to attain Liberation.

But more often than not, the soul is swept away to the lower spheres. In this third phase, the earthly world comes into view again, and the moment of the next incarnation is close. The Book of the Dead gives all kinds of practical instructions on how to prevent being born again, or if this is inevitable, at least to ensure a human birth. That we return as a human being is not at all sure in this school of Buddhism. If one does not controll oneself sufficiently at this critical moment, and lets one be carried away by courser emotions like anger or fear, one will incarnate as a hungry ghost, or an animal. This is the teaching of the so called 'six realms'.

This view of reincarnation shows a threefold structure, which ultimately is based on the Northern Buddhist view of the Absolute. Although Buddhism does not explicitly acknowledge a God, it definitely has its own 'Trinity': the so called trikaya-doctrine of the three bodies of the (metaphysical) Buddha. Dharmakaya (or Body of Truth), the highest aspect, Sambhogyakaya (or Body of Bliss), the middle one, and Nirmanakaya (or the Body of Appearance), the lowest aspect, are the three 'Persons' of this Trinity. According to this view, during the period between two lives -- the 'interlife' one could say -- we experience all three aspects of the Absolute, one after the other, starting with the highest. The glimpse of the Clear Light corresponds to the Dharmakaya, the visions of the deities to the Sambhogyakaya, and the phase of incarnation to the Nirmanakaya. (In chapter 2 we explained the threefold nature of spirit, according to the theosophical view, which is reminiscent of this Buddhist doctrine, but a little bit simpler in its terminology.

There are remarkable differences between the view of reincarnation we have described in the last chapter and the Tibetan view. In the Tibetan view, there is a quick rising through the spheres, which culminates in the experience of the Clear Light, followed by a relatively slow descent through the spheres, leading to the next birth. According to the Book of the Dead the process of ascent takes place during the actual process of dying -- so in a couple of hours. The process of descent takes, according to this source, several weeks, to be exact: 49 days. If we have to interprete this as earthly days is not sure, but the many rituals which those left behind have to perform for the reincarnating soul reckon with our time system.

Fig. 5.5 - The Theosophical View of Reincarnation

A different view of reincarnation

Theosophy, to quote another major source on reincarnation, sees these matters quite differently (see fig. 5.5):

  1. The process of rising through the spheres takes a much longer time in this view (for here we have to absorb the experiences of the previous lifetime), while the descent to earth takes place rather swiftly.
  2. By no means does the soul reach such a lofty level (the Clear Light) as the Tibetan Book suggests. The highest point is reach-ed when the spiritual Ego arrives on (i.e. becomes conscious of) the causal plane.
  3. In the theosophical view of reincarnation a rebirth other than as a human being is out of the question. We simply are not capable any more to function as an animal or a plant, for we have a spiritual Ego.
  4. The time spent between two lives varies much more than the Tibetan Book allows, from a few hours in the case of quick returns to earth, to many, many centuries.

The view of reincarnation that can be found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is only one of many possible alternatives. Certainly we should not accept it uncritically, only because it comes from ancient Tibet. The drift of the Tibetan Book is typically Eastern, in that it tries to persuade the soul to escape from the cycle of rebirth or prevent an unfavorable birth. The theosophical view of reincarnation is more life affirming. Theosophy understands reincarnation as something that is guided from within. We reincarnate because we want to. Someone who has not outgrown the need for physical incarnation, gains nothing by denying this need in a forced attempt at Liberation. Someone who has satisfied his need for physical incarnation in a natural way, will be able to let it go spontaneously, when the time has come to do so. For everybody the moment of Liberation will come, when his psychological ripeness is sufficiently developed.

This does not mean that a quick rising throught the planes is not possible once in a while. For as we explained in chapter 4, the experiences of the afterlife are very much dependent on the measure in which we have detached ourselves during life from body and personality. If before death one has, through spiritual practices, experienced the spiritual Ego, and has shifted one's centre of consciousness to that level, the intermediary phases will be passed through very quickly, and the soul will awaken from its slumber on the spiritual level. But this only holds for someone who is very close to the moment of Liberation -- not for the ordinary man or woman.

But what about us?

Now what happens to people who are a yet nowhere near the moment of Liberation? In my opinion, the Tibetan Book of the Dead has not much to offer to them. Sogyal Rinpoche, a modern day exponent of the tradition to which the Tibetan Book of the Dead belongs, writes that they will pass through the whole process practically unconsciously. Only shortly before the moment of incarnation has come, they will awaken in a 'mental' body, that looks like the body they had in their previous life, is in a continuous movement, can go through walls and is clairvoyant. Compared to the theosophical knowledge of the subtle bodies, this information is somewhat meagre. This information seems more relevant to the situation on the astral plane, shortly after death, when we live in our astral body -- which indeed looks much like the body whe had in our previous lifetime.

Is a rational choice possible between the Tibetan and the theosophical views of reincarnation? If we consult the reincarnation handbook Reincarnation Explored of the Dutch reincarnation expert Hans Ten Dam, who has analyzed practically every possible Eastern and Western view of reincarnation, most of the evidence seems to point to a gradual and slow rising through the spheres after death. The Tibetan view does not seem to be cross-culturally valid. Ten Dam bases himself on the research of Robert Crookall, who has described the post-mortem states in great detail, based on a great mass of experimental data -- from psychical research, spiritualism, clairvoyants, etc. -- in his many books on life after death. The Tibetan view may boast of a respectable age, it does not seem to be supported by more recent findings.

With all due respect for the depth and wisdom of the Tibetan tradition, we still have to ask ourselves if Westerners are helped by such an exotic scripture as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The spiritual vacuum of the West is filled now by Eastern views; especially the Tibetan Buddhists are articulate on this point. But where is the Christian theologian who has any idea of higher spheres? Most of them seem to subscribe to the idea that life after death is no longer an item for the modern world. It would seem to me that Westerners would benefit more from a view of life after death, which makes use of images that are derived from their own culture. As we saw earlier, the Christian concepts of purgatory and heaven are not very far from the truth, if we follow the the theosophical evidence. The astral world functions really like a kind of purgatory, in which our emotional life is purified, and the mental world is a real heaven, in which we find a blissful period of rest. We need a 'Western Book of the Dead'.

The near-death-experience (NDE)

In such a 'Western Book of the Dead' room should be made for the research into memories of past lives, especially in the cases investigated by Ian Stevenson, the foremost researcher into the evidence for reincarnation. Also, the huge literature on near-death-experiences (notable of Raymond Moo-dy, Kenneth Ring and others) should be included. In the typical near-death-experience, the soul leaves the body, enters a black tunnel and sees a bright light, or some angel-like figure. This being tells us that the time to leave earthly life has not yet come, and a return to the body is necessary.

Some have tried to use the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a framework for these experiences. It also speaks of a Light, that is experienced through a stage called 'black near-attainment' -- an echo of the black tunnel reported by those having an NDE? Sogyal Rinpoche however has warned us not to equate these lofty stages of spiritual growth with the near-death-experiences ordinary people go through. He suggests the near-death-experience is still very much an experience of a living human being, and not of the true bardo after death. Someone who has a near-death-experience only roams about in the spheres, Sogyal has been told by one of his Masters, but has not entered the actual bardo of dying.

Apart from the fact that according to the Book of the Dead itself, the first stage of the process of dying is experienced by someone who has not yet left his body, and so is in the same situation as the one having a near-death-experience -- both are technically speaking not yet 'dead' -- I do not think such an ideological move is wise. Hans Küng too, as we saw in chapter 4, rejected these experiences because they did not fit his theological preferences.

In the theosophical view, these near death experiences do indeed have to do with the first stages of the hereafter. We can compare the near-death-experience very well with an out-of-body-experience, in which there is a short entry of the next plane beyond the physical: the astral world. This has nothing to do with any mystical experience or Clear Light experience. The feelings of elation, peace and light can all be explained from the characteristics of the astral plane itself. Compared to the often painful body related conditions of the physical world -- pain, disease, fatigue -- the astral plane is reported by clairvoyants to be a place where a great sense of relief is felt and feelings of pain and disease are totally absent.

So it would seem rather premature to give the near-death-experience a too mystical or spiritual flavour. People that have gone through such an experience often report a dramatic change in their outlook on life in general, and a shift of attention to non-materialistic values. Someone who has experienced himself apart from his body is of course not so afraid of dead any more as he used to be, and can live life more freely and more lovingly than before. This does not make the near-death-experience a transforming mystical experience, that leads to lasting changes. We have to be on our guard for mystification.

The greatest drawback of the research into the nature of the near-death-experience is that is does not have a metaphysical context. The scheme of the seven spheres outlined in this book is offered as such a framework. Knowledge of the seven spheres enables us to see all extraordinary experiences in their true proportion. This sense of proportion can only come from a study of the seven spheres in their totality.

The 'near-birth-experience' (NBE)

In recent times, consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof has written on the subject of life after death and Books of the Dead, based on his life-long research into non-ordinary states of consiousness. Grof is a modern day 'Rankian', for he has taken from the psychiatrist Otto Rank his central notion of the birth trauma. According to Rank, the experience of birth is traumatic, because we go from a peaceful situation in the womb, to a hostile world outside the womb. Grof has differentiated the birth process into four sub stages, to show that the birth trauma also comes from the actual process of birth, that is a kind of death-and-rebirth struggle.

Grof has suggested that by reliving this birth trauma -- having what we may call a 'near-birth-experience' -- we can a lead better and more spiritual life. He has devised breathing techniques (called 'holotropic breathwork') to make people actually regress to the experiences of birth. His subjects report a great many transformative experiences in that state. Grof considers this area of human experience -- which he terms the 'perinatal' -- as the gate to the spiritual dimension. Grof is credited with inventing the term 'transpersonal', and is seen as one of the leading figures in this field. It comes as no small shock to me therefore to learn that he relates the mystical experience of oneness to the peaceful state in the womb. Freud certainly would have loved such a regressive treatment of spirituality!

What is more, Grof also is an important exponent of holism, discussed in chapter 1, which believes we are on the verge of a global transformation, and a new way of looking at reality, often called a new 'paradigm'. He contrasts so called 'old paradigm' thinking, based on a Newtonian and Cartesian worldview, with 'new paradigm' thinking, which is based on quantum physics. And where the old paradigm could not explain the many strange phenomena of consciousness, Grof claims, the new paradigm can indeed do this. In his own words:

While the nature of transpersonal experiences is clearly fundamentally incompatible with mechanistic science, it can be integrated with the revolutionary developments in various scientific disciplines that have been referred to as the emerging paradigm. Among the disciplines and concepts that have significantly contributed to this drastic change in the scientific worldview are quantum-relativistic physics (Capra), astrophysics (Davies), cybernetics, information and systems theory (Bateson, Maturana and Varela), Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance, Prigogine's study of dissipative structures and order fluctuation (with Stengers), David Bohm's theory of holomovement, Karl Pribram's holographic model of the brain, and Arthur Young's theory of process.

The sad thing is, that this type of new paradigm thinking has, as we have tried to show in chapter 1, has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of consciousness, especially in its subjective aspects. So called New Science only wanders about in the physical world, and gets carried away by the discoveries that the most advanced researchers have done in this area. But quantum physics is silent on the issue of the nature of consciousness and the stages of its development.

What we need therefore is a clear statement of the nature of the seven spheres, so we can put all these truly exciting developments in science in perspective. In my opinion, the tendency to mystify the experiences that are possible in intense crisis situations -- be it of the near-death or the near-birth variety -- should be resisted. Even if these may sometimes cause reverberations from the spiritual planes, they are essentially experiences of the astral world, the one most close to the physical world in the scheme of spheres. Mystical experience, let alone enduring spiritual development, is quite something else, as we will see in one of the next chapters.


We have described the process of incarnation as it is observed by clairvoyant investigators. Also, we have raised questions as to the validity of the Buddhist view of the self and of life after death. Theosophy sees no reason to deny the existence of a self; human inner life becomes completely incomprehensible without a subjective centre of consciousness. And finally, we opted for the view that reincarnation is limited to the three worlds of existence -- physical, astral, mental/causal. Reincarnation is our way of life as long as we have not become conscious of our spiritual selves.

© Frank Visser, 1995, 2006

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