by Hans Ten Dam
In 1980, the University of California published a reader of twelve contributions about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and classical Indian philosophies under the title Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Thought, edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. These contributions were the result of two conferences in 1976 and 1978. What have scholarly articles about the theology of classical India to offer to modern past-life therapists? Next to nothing or a lot, depending on our point of view. Anyway, these essays demolish the assumption by many enthusiasts that the Indians shared a straightforward vision on karma and reincarnation. This article submits what Hans learned from this book.
Sometimes people do exciting discoveries that appear to be more than a thousand years old. I did. My experiences in past-life therapy led me to conclude that karma and dharma (or negative and positive karma) were energetic – or as theosophists would call it: etheric – realities. Like financial accounting is about debit and credit in money terms – and about capital formation – so dharma and karma are concepts of a kind of energetic or spiritual accounting. Soul growth is spiritual capital formation; soul decline is spiritual capital loss. We may think differently about the possibility of spiritual bankruptcy. If there is a destiny like that, we don’t find it in our therapy practice.
In a karmic or dharmic encounter between people, apparently energies are exchanged. I called this karmic transaction and in reading Wendiger, I found out this concept was used already in ancient Indian texts. And it has an interesting place in Indian theology and philosophy.
When karma and dharma, merit and sin are considered to be substances, they are alienable and so transferable. Old Indian religious thinking, even before the Vedas and Brahmanism, contains, like many other religions, the concept of merit transfer. Merit transfer means that moral qualities may be transferred from one person to another. Such moral qualities are considered to be immaterial substances that can be transferred from one soul to an other. Pre-karmic examples of merit transfer are many. In merit transfer, one gives willingly or accidentally a quality like a power, a talent, a virtue or religious credit to others, often to offset some negative qualities they have. In Indian philosophy, merit transfer happens especially in transactions involving food and sex, more specifically within the family: between husbands and wives, parents and children and brothers and sisters (Wendiger p.29).
Merit transfer is also the reasoning behind sacrifices. A belief in merit substance is needed to explain the lack of immediate results after both penances and sacrifices. One of the oldest ideas is that the deceased may be hungry and feel bad and may prejudice the living. We want to keep them happy, to avoid them pestering us. We want also good things happening to our dear deceased relatives. Because we love them, because they may protect us from evil influences or to avert any anger they may have towards us. Other sacrifices are directly to placate evil spirits. The simplest sacrifice is offering food, called merit food. Sacrifices tend to branch out into other valuable, usually perishable stuff, like perfumes and ointments. Think of incense and myrrh. Simple food sacrifice may be extended into sacrificing live animals and ultimately in live people: slaves, prisoners, virgins, infants.
All this only happens when sacrifice becomes business, priest-business. Whatever the result of a sacrifice, it is intangible. So we need priests who can ensure that the sacrifice is working. One of the major rituals in Hinduism is the death rite of a deceased relative. To work well, it needs to be done by a proper priest, a Brahman, who is paid and fed properly. Before Brahmanism, sacrifices were supposed to achieve heaven. With Brahmanism, they ensure more mundane things.
Merit transfer is almost a universal concept. Subjects can take away karma of kings. In Japanese culture, as in many other cultures, subordinates did penance to release blemishes of their superiors. When an officer did some wrong, one of his subordinates was to be punished. The West also knew merit transfer. Roman-Catholicism knew letters of indulgence. The ultimate in sacrifice is a core belief in Christianity: Christ suffered and died to take away our sins – though this apparently only helps when we believe in him.
The idea that virtues, talents and powers are energetic relaties who can be willingly or unwillingly transferred, often leads priests of all kinds to monopolize such transactions, and so become part of spiritual, political and financial power games.
The big change comes when merit and sin are seen as primarily the consequences of how we lived before: how we thought, how we felt, what we wanted and what we actually did. Merit becomes dharma and sin becomes karma. Karma can be seen as the collection of all negative residues from our acts and dharma as the collection of all positive residues. Others speak of good and bad karma, or meritorious karmic residues (dharma) or unmeritorious residues (adharma).
The doctrine of karma assumes that merit – or lack of it – is primarily the consequence of living and acting well, both in this life and in previous lifetimes. Then, of course, the question is if we still can give or get merit. To what extent are proper rites important, to what extent penance and other religious practices may help? So Indian philosophy has many considerations about the relationship between karma and fulfilling religious duties, not unlike the old Christian polarity between the importance of belief versus good works. To play it safe, it was goof to do both: ora et labora. Understandably, Brahmans don’t like the idea that karma and dharma imprints decide our afterdeath state and our next life, not the proper death rites.
Moral, deterministic and religious karma doctrines
Past-life karma can be seen as determining our present life. Or it provides only the basis, and our moral behavior may lighten or darken it. And third, religious practices may lighten it. We could talk about deterministic, moral and religious karma doctrines. Brahmanism tends to downplay the effects of past lives and moral behavior, with the exception of caste birth, by assuming that proper religious behavior can offset karma. Karma can be expiated by pilgrimages, ascetism and munificence. Later writers assert that meditation can do the same.
Surprisingly often, classical Indian writers counter fatalistic interpretations. “By effort men obtain the fruit that they seek; men who have no manly energy believe in fate.” Karma is here equated with what do, not with what is done to us. By means of karma we may overcome fate. The voluntaristic karma doctrine seems to be as old as the fatalistic one.
Especially actions out of passion and wrath may create karma. Such actions influence, but not determine future experience. According to the Puranas, there is strong fate and weak fate. Weak fate can be changed by our actions, strong fate cannot (Wendiger, p.91). So karma in no way stifles our freedom of will. A certain act in some past life does not determine a certain event in this one; it rather leads to a desire to restore karmic balance. Much may interfere. And much depends our spiritual development.
Right actions, minimizing transactions, mental discipline, religious duties
There seem to have been from very early on in India two different traditions – the transactional and the philosophical. The more we understand the tensions between the two traditions – transactional versus philosophical, dharma versus moksha – the more we will understand the development of Indian thought. The dharma tradition focusses on living right. The moksha tradition is directed toward liberation from this life. Adding liberation (moksha) to the triad of dharma, artha, and kama seems an attempt to synthesize the two traditions. Probably the karma theory did arise from the philosophical one: karma is what binds us. We have to overcome it to leave the burden and mental prison of earthly existence. It is, in a way our natural enemy. Our best bet is to minimize interactions and to free our mind. Patanjali understands yoga as liberation from karma.
The other tradition is about living well. When this is combined with the karma doctrine, karma becomes a teacher, sometimes a harsh task master, who teaches us right action by rewarding good actions and punishing bad actions. Karma-yoga is leading a life of right action:
maximize transactions from which we benefit, without prejudicing;
maximize transactions from which others benefit, even at prejudice to ourselves;
maximize transactions from with both parties benefit.
Can we soften karma? The religious answers, though never shared by all, are: by repentance and by sacrifice. Repentance or penance for a sin unintentionally committed, sacrifice for sins intentionally committed. And can we repent or sacrifice for another (merit transfer)? The older view and the main direction seems that karma and dharma are not only stored in, but inalienably belong to by those who act karmically or dharmically. We are responsible for our actions, we bear the consequences as traces in our own soul; transfer between people, willingly or unwillingly, is impossible.
Hindus, Buddhists, Tibetans, Jains, Tamils, Ajivika, Advaita, Yoga, Tantra
Samsara, the doctrine of transmigration and karma, comprises everything “from Brahma to the tufts of grass”. Jains, Buddhists and later Hindus have an ethical karmic doctrine: rebirth is determined in part by how good or bad we were. This doctrine resembles that of Pythagoras, who lived at the same time. We can escape from rebirth either by minimizing action, especially avoiding karmic transactions (Jains, Ajivikas, Hindu ascetism) or by liberating insight (Upanishads, Buddhism). The Tamils believe that only the grace of God can release us. No action or devotion will do. They resemble our Calvinists.
The way of proper contemplation is teached in spiritual communities. The way of proper action is teached to people in general. The main difference is between ritual action (penance, sacrifice and other proper religious conduct) and moral action (doing good and avoid doing bad). Intended and unintended bad deeds differ in karma.
Buddhism teaches anatta (we have no individual, reincarnating soul) to draw us away from egoistic attachment. Anatta precludes karma-yoga: liberation by acting well. Buddhism also denounces the use of prayer or self-mortification. Tibetan Buddhists, true intellectuals, see karma as the result of wrong thinking. Wrong emotions are secondary. A consciousness that is not liberated, wanders in the bardo and either chooses or falls into a particular rebirth. Anyway, karma decides the choice of parents.
Older Buddhists and Jains emphasize karma vs. the Brahmans. Maybe this idea is not Aryan in origin, but comes from older Ganges traditions. Hindus believe in the value of sacrifice and ritual, as well as in divine intervention. Buddhists believe in boon-granting bodhisattvas. Only the Jains refuse merit transfer completely. The tenth-century Amitagati writes:
Whatever karma a soul has acquired through its own prior deeds,
it will obtain the good and bad results thereof.
If one could obtain results from the deeds of others,
then surely his own deeds would be meaningless.
Except for karma earned for oneself by oneself,
no one gives anything to anyone.
Reflecting upon this fact, therefore,
let every person, unwaveringly,
abandon the perverse notion that
another being can provide him with anything at all.
The most widely accepted Brahmanic doctrine of rebirth is strongly biological. After severing its connection with our body, our soul dwells for some twelve days in limbo. Then, freed from this limbo through ritual offerings by the son of the deceased, it travels upward to the “realm of the father”, there to remain for an indeterminate period. Eventually it is brought back to earth with the rain, is absorbed by a plant, and finally associates with the seed of a male who has eaten the fruit of that plant. By intercourse this soul enters the womb where its new body will grow. Karma determines which potential father will eat which plant.
Given their emphasis on the importance of the body, we might expect the Jains to provide an account of rebirth even more physiological than the Brahman one. But to the contrary, Jain texts do not mention how a soul enters the mother-to-be. They only say that the soul enters a new embryo immediately after the death of the previous body.
The Ajivikas are in many respects close to the Jains. They assume 8,400,000 eons before we can reach moksha. They think however, in complete opposition to both the Jain and the Buddhists, that knowledge and insight don’t help attaining moksha.
Yoga and Advaita have the most elaborated theories of karma and rebirth in classical Indian philosophy. Advaita Vedanta, based on the Upanishads on, resembles Yoga, but diverges from it in important respects. Yoga and Advaita, like all Indian philosophies, are about liberation, release from rebirth through rendering karma inoperative. In Yoga this means following practices that avoid making karma. In Advaita we discover that we don’t really act at all. In Advaita the true Self is never really bound, never really acts, but through ignorance only appears to do so. This discovery “burns the seeds” of the past, and since we no longer act, we acquire no new residues.
Yoga focuses on the karmic mechanism, Advaita on how we die and are reborn. Yoga denies an intermediate state between death and the next birth, while Advaita explains what happens during this time. Advaita, therefore, postulates certain items absent in Yoga, like the subtle body.
Both Yoga and Advaita do not allow for transfer of karma. Karmic residues are considered non-transferable substances. We store the residues of our acts (samskaras) during our lifetime, as well as residues of acts in previous lives that have not yet “matured”. These karmic residues are of three kinds:
Residues determined at birth that work themselves out during the present life.
Residues produced by acts in previous lives, which remain latent during this present life.
Results of acts during our present life that will mature in some later lifetime.
Opposed to traditions like Yoga and Vedanta, and the darana literature, who teach the non-transference of karma, transference views are found in Manu and similar traditions, in Vedic traditions, in the epics, the Puranas and later in Bhakti traditions. These two opposed perspectives represent traditions that coexisted in South Asia over many centuries.
Several efforts habe been made to reconcile them, for example in the Gita. Also the Sankhya philosophy offers a conceptual framework that integrates the two viewpoints. Sankhya, one of the oldest conceptual systems in South Asia, maintains both a transference and a non-transference perspective. Its influence is evident in the epics and the Puranas at one side and the darana literature at the other side.
Tantra believes that our karma decides where we will be reborn, though Tantric ceremonies may alter karma. We see the erotic delights of our future mother and father, we feel them touching. If we will be male, we see ourselves as a baby boy and we lust for our mother and hate our father. (Apparently, Freud was just a modern-day European tantrist.) So we will feel both bliss and suffering. If we will be born male, our mind enters our father’s head and goes to the semen. There we lust for our mother. We go from the father’s genitalia into the womb. If we are to be born a girl, we will lust for the father and hate our mother. Our mind goes from the mother’s head to her genitalia and blends with the father’s semen.
Present insights from psychical research and regression work
The Brahmanic picture of the rebirth process is, as usual, priest fantasy. If the Brahman writers would be right, all non-Hindus and all Hindus without sons would remain forever in limbo and Eskimo’s would never father children. Also, the twelve days in limbo is completely at variance with regression experiences, OOB-experiences and near-death experiences.
The Tantra description of the rebirth process is similar fantasy. Why would we hate our father when we love our mother, especially when they together share their ‘erotic delight’? What about rape? What about artificial insemination? Maybe we lust for the doctor or for the laboratory assistant? Of course, in regressions we find nothing of the kind. Presence at the conception is the exception anyway.
And what do we find about karma and dharma? We find lots of energetic residues, both assets and liabilities, of different kinds, created in different ways. The main difference seems to me in consequences of reflection (life evaluation and life planning), in consequences of unreflected emotional and mental responses to undigested experiences (grief, anger, guilt, envy, remorse, etc.) and in the consequences of experiences forgotten, with those that fall asleep after death. And there are many gradations and interactions between the emotional responses and the truly reflected responses: like in not listening to advice or in overly ambitious lifeplans. And there are many gradations and interactions between falling asleep and emotional responses: simply wanting to forget, to avoid the mirror and to enter in peaceful state of mental blankness. Often, our suppressed actions and experiences come back to us in strange ways, from boomerang karma to helplessly witnessing the kind of things we did before.
And we find even merit transfer in which we copy the qualities from others or, more common, in which two people exchange energies, like the victim assuming the blame of the unrepentant perpetrator, and the perpetrator assuming the lost self-confidence of the victim, just to mention one example. We may adore someone and get a physical complaint back. Popular celebrities bask in the attention of others, charismatic leaders feed on the trust their followers have in them, teachers feed on their pupils, dominating people feed on their weaker fellows. The audience absorbs the shadow of the star, the followers absorb the shadow of the guru. And so stars and gurus become larger than life, truly impressing us with their very special presence. Casanovas do the same, with another kind of energy. There seems to be merit transfer and sin transfer all the time. Some of that, or much of that, or all of that, remains after death, depending on how we day and how we look back at our life. Those residues really propel us back into a new life.
Even if people do not strive to liberate themselves from reincarnation, they will feel much better if they lessen the liabilities they have toward others and others have to them. I don’t think we need to become clean. There is no cleanliness in the universe, nor is there cleanliness meant to be. But uncleanliness is an experience to learn from, not to get stuck in. Past-life therapists may help in this. Not only because they may help their clients to clean up their psychic current accounts, but also because they may help them to understand the process better.
Looking back to ancient India, we find much confusion, much theological bickering, much priest manipulation, but surprisingly many insights that stand up to modern experience. Possibly more than in Christian theology.
An example of the forth approach is the oldest known form of regression therapy: dianetics of L. Ron Hubbard (1950). All episodes of lessened consciousness, physical or emotional pain lead to engrams, as he calls them. Identifying and repeated reliving of those engrams leads to discharge. His ideas resemble those of Columbus: obstinate misconceptions, but epoch-making results. Like many pioneers, his significance is more in opening new territory than in developing a handy conceptual framework. His methods are rigid, probably effective, but inefficient. Intense opposition against his approach has led to a self-contained empire of cleared people, maintaining itself with the ample proceeds of the time-consuming clearing of others. Out of dianetics came scientology, operating under duress. Scientology is a bastion, formed by a religious denomination, by copyrights on each sentence, and a tenacity resembling Jehovah’s Witnesses. Scientologists don’t canvass at your doorstep, but harass you by mail. Let’s describe briefly the therapy of Ron Hubbard without the jargon, and without fully justifying his methodology.
The remigrant or patient holds in his hands two tin cans or other electrodes connected to an E-meter, measuring skin resistance. The therapist, called auditor, keeps track of the meter. The auditor counts back in time, till he hits a traumatic episode, indicated by the E-meter showing lower skin resistance. He dates this period precisely and establishes its duration precisely. By questioning, he clarifies the initial situation. He asks the remigrant what he sees. From an often insignificant detail he develops the situation in full. Then he asks the remigrant to go over the whole episode in his mind. The E-meter shows to what extent this is done effectively. Then he asks to tell the experience. Usually, emotions have lessened somewhat in the telling, but did not discharge completely. He has the agony traversed many times till the remigrant remains completely calm. The auditor then asks if there is another situation linked to this one, which has to be traversed. If the E-meter shows a reaction (similar to the use of finger signals), he searches for those other episodes and processes them likewise.
Often the remigrant blocks. He prefers to avoid an experience, doesn’t see anything, impressions remain vague or he glosses over things. So the engram is not released. Questions that open the engram are: ‘what can you sense? What precisely do you see? What can you confront? What can you be responsible for?’
Many engrams are anchored in postulates: the conclusions and decisions we used to deal with the situation. Examples are: “It isn’t really happening.” Or: “I will nevermore show how I feel.” Remigrants can recount an episode in four or five versions before they recount what really happened, what they really did. Even then, processing may be incomplete because the embedded postulates still have to be resolved.
Hubbard’s procedures are strict. The auditor has the remigrant recount a traumatic episode till the E-meter shows no reflections anymore. Hubbard gives several examples of the tenacity of scientologists, including one case of forty hours working at one situation (Hubbard 1958).
Later approaches that connect past-life therapy to behavioral therapy, are in one respect even more primitive: discharge is sought by mere repetition, while scientology stresses confronting the situation and taking responsibility, be it in a mechanical way.
Stanislav Grof is an example of the fifth, cathartic approach. Typical for Grof’s approach is strongly somatic induction (forced breathing) and strongly somatic processing. Other therapists stress mental processing: understanding and reinterpreting. Often a therapy has positive effects, but takes long or leads to inconclusive results, because mental processing was neglected, or the reverse: because somatic processing was neglected. Occasionally, mental processing and somatic processing have both been done while the emotions have been neglected. Lasting catharsis presupposes that work has been done and results have been booked on four levels: mental, sensory, emotional and physical. Well-known examples of this fifth school are Morris Netherton, Roger Woolger and Hans TenDam.
According to Ron Hubbard (1958) 82% of people clearly improve psychologically and physically after past-life therapy. General belief or disbelief in reincarnation has no influence on its success. The only condition is that apparent experiences from other times are accepted as meaningful subjective material, without continuously wondering about their objective truth. Several studies show that past-life regressions diminished psychotism scores, and enhanced the reality perception scores of patients. Also extraversion increases, another indication that reality orientation improves.
Rabia Clark writes that therapists report most often success with relationship problems and phobias, and the least success with obesity, addictions and depression. Brian Weiss found (1993) the success rate increasing from 50% to 70% by careful intake and by carefully connecting past-life experiences to (childhood) experiences in this lifetime.
Success certainly is not only a question of the right methods. Past-life therapy, like most psychotherapy, is more than applying skills; it also depends on the person of the therapist. A good therapist is weathered and mild, all friendliness and scars.
Early works. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics (1950), a thick and controversial book of somebody who became even more controversial since. For the practicing professional, study of this work is a must, despite the prolixity and obstinacy that seem to be inherent in pioneering works. Hubbard’s later book about past-life regressions (1958) is the opposite of prolix, but unfortunately badly organized and presented.
One of the first books about the relationship between past lives and therapy, from Inácio Ferreira (1955) is interesting to read, but at the same time disappointing, Mediums identify the causes of eleven psychiatric cases in past lives. The cases seem valid and the restimulations in the present life are interesting and credible. What is being done with that? Absolutely nothing. This is no precursor of past-life therapy. Karl Muller (1970) later gives many examples of spiritist past-life therapy, mainly about karmic obsessors.
Another early book is that of Denys Kelsey and Joan Grant (1967), but they do not give examples from sessions. Kelsey’s new book, posthumously published, does (Kelsey 2007).
Works in English. Past-life therapy really starts in 1978 with the now classical works of Edith Fiore and Morris Netherton. Another good read is the book by Glenn Williston & Judith Johnstone (1983). Florence Wagner McClain (1986) wrote a practical and informative brochure, an almost ideal introduction to regression therapy for potential clients. The only objection is that she suggests that anybody can experiment with regressions and that guidance is just knowing what questions to ask. Joel Whitton (1986) is interesting and illuminating, especially about the intermission period, but uses classical hypnotic induction and classical psychiatry and hardly offers specific methodology.
Past-Life Therapy in Action by Dick Sutphen and Lauren Taylor (1987) is the best presentation of Sutphen’s way of working.
Roger Woolger wrote one of the best books on past-life therapy (1987). He makes it crystal clear that regression is only the beginning of therapy.
The first, already mentioned, book by Brian Weiss (1988) was the report of a psychiatrist that stumbled into past lives. His second book (1993) is already much more interesting. His colleague Robert Jarmon is a psychiatrist who likewise discovered past lives by accident. Though the regression techniques and insights in the whole process remain somewhat superficial, we have her a true, professional therapist at work. Also interesting is that he intersperses regression cases with other cases from his practice as a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, like near-death experiences and psychic experiences of non-psychic people. Good stories, well told (Jarmon 1997). A third American psychiatrist, who stumbled into past lives and wrote about her findings, is Shakuntala Modi. She gives interesting statistics of her therapy practice (1997).
Garrett Oppenheim gives good examples of therapies (1990). Winafred Lucas wrote and edited two volumes in which she has ten therapists explain their way of working (1993). A must for the practicing therapist!
Rabia Lynn Clark wrote her doctoral thesis on past-life therapy (1995). She inventorizes how past-life therapists work, what they work on, how long and with what results. Hans TenDam wrote Deep Healing (1996) and Andy Tomlinson recently described his therapy work and its consequences (2006).
Works in German. The first German past-life therapist who published, was Thorvald Dethlefsen (1976). Werner Koch is an other therapist, apparently experienced, but posturing as if he invented past-life therapy (1992). Far better are the books by the Swede Jan-Erik Sigdell (1993, 2006) who worked many years from Switzerland and now in Slovenia. Good reads are the books by Ulrich Kramer (2006). Marianne Carolus explains past-life therapy in anthroposophical terms (2006).
This text is an abbreviation and an update of chapter 16 in Hans TenDam’s Exploring Reincarn ation (2003).