Archive for August, 2009



Based on a talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso to lay people at the Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre, Nollamara, Western Australia, on 19th of October 2001

Remembering Past Lives

Buddhism is founded on meditation,
and meditation can reveal many, many things, especially deep memories from the
past. Monks, nuns, and ordinary meditators can reach such deep meditations
that they can not only levitate, but they can remember previous lives! Many
people can actually do this. When you come out of a deep meditation you have
incredible energy. Afterwards you won’t be able to go to sleep, nor will you
be able to go and watch TV, because the mind will be too full of its own joy
and happiness. Moreover, the mind is so empowered that you can make suggestions
to it, suggestions that you would not normally be able to fulfil. But
empowered by deep meditation, you can follow the suggestions. I’ve actually taught
this special meditation to people on meditation retreats, because on meditation
retreats some get deep results. People sometimes get memories of when they
were babies, and then of being in their mother’s womb. If they are lucky they
get memories of when they were a very old person, i.e. memories from a past life!
One of the important things with those past life memories is that they are very
real to the person experiencing them. It’s as if you are back there
experiencing it. Anyone who has had a memory like that has no doubt in their mind
about past lives. It’s not a theory any more. Such memories are like remembering
where you were this morning when you had breakfast. You have no doubts that
that was you this morning, having that breakfast. You didn’t imagine it. With
the same clarity, or even greater clarity, you remember that that very old
person was you, only it wasn’t a few hours ago, it was many decades ago. It
was a different time, a different body and a different life. Now if people can
do that on nine day meditation retreats, imagine what you would do if you were
a monk or a nun, who meditates not just for a weekend, or for nine days, but
nine years, twenty-nine, thirty-nine, or fifty-nine years. Imagine how much
power you could generate in that meditation. Now imagine how much more power
you could generate if you were a Buddha with an Enlightened mind.

Now you know what to do to discover
for yourself if you’ve lived before. Meditate. I don’t mean just meditating
to get rid of stress and make your self calm. I mean really meditate, deeply.
Meditate to get your mind into what we call the Jhānas. Those are
deep states of absorption, where the body disappears. You don’t feel. You
can’t see. You can’t hear. You’re absolutely inside the mind. You have no
thoughts but you are perfectly aware. You are blissed out. The method, the
instructions for the experiment, are very clearly laid down. Even in my little
book "The Basic Method of Meditation" all the steps are there. Follow
them, and invest the resources necessary for doing that experiment not just
one weekend retreat, but many weekend retreats, and sometimes many years of
meditating. If you want to follow that ‘scientific method’, you have to enter
into a Jhāna. And then, after you emerge from that state, you ask
yourself, "What is my earliest memory?" You can keep going back in your mind,
and eventually you will remember. You will see for yourself the experience of
past lives. Then you know. Yes, it is true! You have had the experience
for yourself.

The Buddha said he did remember
past lives, many past lives, many aeons of past lives. He said specifically that
he remembered ninety-one aeons. That’s ninety big bangs, the time before and
the time afterwards, huge spaces of time. That’s why the Buddha said there was
not just one universe, but many universes. We are not talking about parallel
universes as some scientists say. We are talking about sequential universes,
with what the Buddha called sanvattati vivattati. This is Pāli, meaning
the unfolding of the universe and the infolding of it, beginnings and endings.

The suttas even give a
measure for the lifetime of a universe. When I was a theoretical physicist, my
areas of expertise were the very small and the very large; fundamental particle
physics and astrophysics. They were the two aspects that I liked the most, the
big and the small. So I knew what was meant by the age of a universe and what
a ‘big bang’ was all about. The age of a universe, the last time I looked in
the journals, was somewhere about seventeen thousand million years. In the
Buddhist suttas they say that about thirty seven thousand million years
is a complete age. When I told that to the state astronomer he said yes, that
estimate was in the ball park, it was acceptable. The person who was the
convener of the Our Place in Space seminar made a joke about the fact that a
hundred or two hundred years ago, Christianity said the universe was about
seven thousand years old. That estimate certainly isn’t acceptable, the
Buddhist one is!

It is remarkable that there was a
cosmology in Buddhism twenty-five centuries ago that doesn’t conflict with
modern physics. Even what astronomers say are galaxies, the Buddha called wheel
systems. If any of you have ever seen a galaxy, you will know there are two
types of galaxy. First, there is the spiral galaxy. The Milky Way is one of
those. Have you seen a spiral galaxy? It is like a wheel! The other type is
the globular cluster, which looks like a wheel with a big hub in the middle. ‘Wheels’
is a very accurate way of describing galaxies. This was explained by someone
twenty five centuries ago, when they did not have telescopes! They didn’t need
them, they could go there themselves!

There is a lot of interesting
stuff in the old suttas, even for those of you who like weird stuff.
Some times people ask this question, "Do Buddhists believe in extra terrestrial
beings, in aliens?" Would an alien landing here upset the very foundation of
Buddhism? When I was reading through these old suttas I actually found a
reference to aliens! It’s only a very small sutta, which said that
there are other world systems with other suns, other planets, and other beings
on them. That’s directly from the Anguttara Nikāya. (AN
X, 29)

Following Beliefs Blindly

This method that we take as science
in the universities, in the labs, and in the hospitals often suffers from
the same disease as religion dogmatism. You know what religious dogmatism is
like. We have a belief and whether it fits with experience or not, whether
it’s useful or not, whether it’s conducive to people’s happiness, harmony, and peace
in the world or not, we follow it just because that’s our belief. But
following beliefs blindly, dogmatically, is just a recipe for violence and suffering.

One of the beautiful things about
Buddhism that encouraged me to become a Buddhist when I was young, and which
keeps me as a Buddhist now, is that questioning is always encouraged. You do
not need to believe
. In one of the tales from the ancient texts the Buddha
gave a teaching to his chief monk, Venerable Sariputta. After giving the
teaching, the Buddha asked his chief monk, "Sariputta, do you believe what I just
taught?" Sariputta, without any hesitation, said "No I don’t believe it,
because I haven’t experienced it yet". The Buddha said, "Well done! Well done!
Well done!" That is the attitude to encourage in all disciples, either of
religion or science. Not to believe, but to keep an open mind until they’ve had
the true experience. This attitude goes against dogmatism, it runs counter to fundamentalism,
which one doesn’t only see in religion, but which one also sees in science.

‘The eminence of a great
scientist’, the old saying goes, ‘is measured by the length of time they
obstruct progress in their field’.

The more famous the scientist,
the more prominent they are, the more their views are taken to be gospel truth.
Their fame stops other people challenging them; it delays the arrival of a
better ‘truth’. In Buddhism when you find a better truth, use it at once.

The Problem with Dogmatism

There is an old story, from the
time of the Buddha, about two friends who went looking for treasure in a town
that had been abandoned. (DN 23.29) First they found some hemp and decided to
make two bundles of that hemp and carry it away. They would be able to sell it
when they got back home. Soon after they had made these big bundles of hemp
they came across some hempen cloth. One of the men said, "What do I need the
hemp for? The cloth is better". The other man said, "No this is already well
bound up, I’ve carried it for so long already, I’ll keep my load of hemp".
Then they found some flax, some flaxen cloth, some cotton, and some cotton
cloth, and each time the man carrying the hemp said, "No, the hemp is okay for
me", while his friend changed his load for that which was more valuable. Later
on they found some silver, and then some gold. Each time one man would always
change what he was carrying for something better, but the other man stubbornly kept
his bundle of hemp. When they got home the man who carried the gold was very
popular with his family. As for the man who carried the hemp, his family was not
happy with him at all! Why don’t we change our views, our ideas, when we see
something better? The reason we don’t do that is because of attachment. This
is my view. We are comfortable with the old views, even though we know
they are wrong. We don’t really want to change. Sometimes our self image is
bound up with those views. Like the scientist who is bound up with his achievements,
bound up with what he’s seen so far, he or she resists new ideas.

This is the problem called
dogmatism. Sometimes when I talk about levitation, people say levitation
doesn’t exist, it’s just myth. Wait until you see someone levitate! If you saw
someone levitate, if the three monks here rose up about two or three feet,
wouldn’t that be challenging?

Sorry, we can’t do that in
public. It’s against our rules. One of the reasons we can’t demonstrate
psychic powers in front of people is that if we did, someone would probably record
it on a video camera and send it to a television channel. Then everybody, even
from overseas, would come to Perth. Not to listen to the Dhamma, not to
hear about Buddhism, but just to see the monks do their tricks. Then we would be
pressured into giving demonstrations all the time. It would be like a circus,
not a temple. The point is that monks are not here to demonstrate tricks.

Even if a monk did perform a
miracle, many people would say: "This is just a trick. It’s done with special
effects. They are not really levitating". If you don’t want to believe it,
you won’t. This is the problem with dogmatism. What you don’t want to see,
you do not see. When you don’t want to believe it, you go into denial. This is
why I say that many scientists are in denial about the nature of the mind.