The Past Lives of My Father
If we could see ourselves... as we really are, we should see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures, our community which neither began at birth nor will end with the death of the body. —Immanuel Kant
As we live through thousands of dreams in our present life, so is our present life only one of many thousands of such lives which we enter from the other more real life and then return after death. Our life is but one of the dreams of that more real life, and so it is endlessly, until the very last one, the very real life of God. —Leo Tolstoy
It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterward return again. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
I could well imagine that I might have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer; that I had been born again because I had not fulfilled the task given to me. —Carl Jung
Whether or not we believe in survival of consciousness after death, reincarnation, and karma, it has very serious implications for our behavior. —Stanislav Grof
As I keep saying over the years, I had a weird father who was a major influence on my mind when I was growing up, and who helped me to become a Buddhist monk—not deliberately, as he felt I had taken a rather extreme and unnecessary step in life, but nevertheless, he was a major inspiration in my search for a reality higher than worldly “normality.”
A few posts ago I included the first chapter of his “occult” autobiography, mentioning spirits, a friend with some sort of psychic powers, and getting his skull broken twice (he had it broken again in his adulthood, not mentioned in that chapter). In this post, because I am still thinking of him, I will mention the past lives he claimed to remember, mainly through hypnotic regression.
He himself was an amateur hypnotist among other things, and he occasionally sought ought some other hypnotist to put him into a hypnotic state (he was never very good at hypnotizing himself, though he taught others, especially female spirit mediums, or channelers, to do it). I was brought up on these stories, including past life regressions and astral traveling, as well as experiments in witchcraft and ESP, seances, communications with the dead, and on and on. He also had some exciting war stories from World War Two, some of which also included shades of the “occult.” One of these stories recounted his experience in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, during the Allied invasion of Europe. He was a combat medic at the time, and he and another medic were helping a wounded soldier move eastwards with their unit; and because they were helping a wounded man to keep up they fell well behind the main unit. They were walking through snow, at night, in a forest interspersed with clearings. At one point they arrived at a clearing that the rest of the unit had already entered. My father froze, feeling a deep foreboding about that clearing; he looked at the other medic and he also seemed to agree. So, they began edging around the clearing through the trees. But after a few steps my father felt the warning again, so he, the other medic, and the wounded man began moving around the clearing in the other direction. Shortly after this a man in the clearing stepped on a Bouncing Betsy anti-personnel mine, which shot into the air, exploded in mid-air, and wiped out a number of the men there. The clearing was a minefield.
Anyway, largely because of his memories under hypnosis, though for other reasons also, my father was a firm believer in rebirth, in life after life. In fact he was persuaded that I am a reincarnation of his own father, thereby making me my own grandfather—though I have no memory of being my own grandfather, and many of our resemblances may simply be genetic.
As for myself, I accept some kind of rebirth as a working hypothesis, even though I could not prove the case one way or the other. There are certain cultures and certain times in history that call to me, with which I have a deep interest and “resonance,” while other cultures and times do not appeal to me at all. I suppose I’ve mentioned some of my hypothetical past lives at one point or another (possibly several times) over the courses of this blog and various YouTube videos. I think I may have been a prehistoric shaman on the outskirts of the Indus Valley Civilization who worshipped cobras and took psychoactive substances to induce mystical states. I could well have been a Greek living around Naples/Neapolis during the late Roman Republic or early Empire. I may have been a corrupt Catholic friar or monk in 14th-century England, and I may have met my current fiancée then. I suspect also I may have been Japanese back around the 17th century, possibly of the Samurai class but not a warrior, possibly just a peaceful school teacher. But this post is supposed to be about my father’s past lives, so I move on.
The most recent past life my father knew anything about was as a “crazy Frenchman” with a name like Henri Moreau, who was hanged by the neck at a young age in early Montana Territory, for branding cattle that were not his own. He first heard about this one from his “spirit guide” or “guardian angel,” a dead Vietnamese Buddhist monk with a name like Tai Sing, who was channeled through my father’s second wife, a talented psychic, and not my mother. He had a strange story related to this life, dating back to the birth of my younger brother. While my mother was in labor my father was walking down a corridor at the hospital, and saw a young nurse walking towards him down the hall. She seemed very familiar to him, he was struck by this, and he stopped in his tracks. As she approached he asked her, “Have we met somewhere before?” She said, “Not in this lifetime.” So my father replied, “Then where?” And she said “How about Montana?” This could be some kind of coincidence, but my father clearly considered it to be significant. Even so, he had scarcely any memory of his life as a mentally unstable cattle rustler.
The one life my father claimed to remember most vividly was a Scotsman named Jason Haskell, who lived around the late 18th century. Under hypnosis he had a number of memories regarding this life, all of them emotionally intense. (I have read that the memories that are easiest to remember from past lives, possibly because they are more “karmic,” are the most emotionally intense ones.) One of his first memories from this life involve him lying on a cot or bed in an abandoned hut or cottage. He was very ill with smallpox, and everyone around him fled and left him to his fate, out of fear of the disease. He lay there raging against the people who abandoned him, and swearing revenge. He had a pock-marked face for the rest of this life.
He survived the smallpox, and his next memory is of lying on a grave, crying his heart out. It was the grave of his sweetheart, and my father thought that it was Jason Haskell who killed her, possibly because of the previous abandonment. This has struck me as somewhat in violation of the Buddhist conception of karma and rebirth, as a murderer would presumably go to hell due to such weighty karma. But my father always had a strong mixture of good and bad karma, and went through life like a bull in an ethical china shop; and after all, in the next life after that, presumably, he was hanged for cattle rustling while still a very young man. Much of the retribution for his misdeeds have apparently been fulfilled over the course of a very rough life. In his life as my father, when he was in his thirties he had had a broken bone for every year of his life, including three skull fractures. He was a bar brawler and womanizer who killed enemy soldiers during wartime, but he had a deep, sensitive nature, and did much good in his life also. But back to Jason Haskell.
Haskell became a professional sailor, and this is a recurring theme in my father’s past lives, including his most recent one as my father: a thirst for adventure, exotic lands, and exploring frontiers, inward or outward. His next memory involved a storm at sea on a wooden sailing ship. Some large blocks of marble were being used as ballast (plus maybe they were intended to be sold somewhere), and during the storm one of them had broken free of its moorings and was sliding back and forth in the hold of the ship. The men were desperately trying to secure it again, down in the dark hold, before it beat a hole through the hull of the ship. One man was pinned, possibly crushed, by the block of stone catching him against the side, and my father remembered Jason bellowing “Bring aft a light!!!” over and over, in an attempt to help the crushed man and secure the ballast.
His final memory as Jason Haskell involved Haskell taking part in some sort of exploring or surveying party somewhere in the southern Himalaya mountains, like northern India, Bhutan, or Nepal. He remembered vividly the velveteen breaches that Haskell wore, his shirt, and so on. They were riding on horseback through obscure mountain paths, and Haskell happened to see a small brass bowl sitting by the side of the trail. He remember that vividly as well, and said it was a plain brass bowl with two lines inscribed around the brim on the outside. He wanted to take it as a souvenir, but a local guide sternly warned him not to touch it, as some shaman had put it there to collect rainwater or some such, and it would be a grave offense to mess with it. Haskell, my pre-father, was unimpressed by the warning and picked it up anyway. Later that day, as they were stopping to set up camp, Haskell was bending over to put his horse’s saddle on a stump or rock, when an arrow came shooting out of the bushes and caught him under the shoulder blade, with the head of the arrow emerging from the front of his neck. His hypnotic regression would always end at this point, with him being jolted out of trance, coughing and choking.
At one point my father, in the presence of another hypnotist, wanted to know what was the turning point in his lives: the one life or even moment that set him upon the path of becoming who he was that day, John Reynolds of Aberdeen, Washington. So with that in mind, he was hypnotized, and he regressed back to ancient times. He was apparently a Roman soldier, armed with a little sword about a foot and a half long, and he and the rest of the army had been ordered to essentially slaughter an entire barbarian village. (This sort of thing happened rather a lot in ancient times.)
My father described the barbarians as mostly blond, with the men having long hair, so I assume they were some Germanic tribe, one of the arch-enemies of the Romans in the west. Like the rest of the soldiers he dutifully went about butchering the people of the village, slashing and stabbing. Eventually he had a teenage boy by the hair and was raising his sword to finish him off…when he noticed that the boy wasn’t screaming and struggling like the rest. He had a world of sorrow in his eyes, and he had simply given up in heart-broken despair. This moved the soldier’s heart to mercy, possibly for the first time, and he spared him. He let go of the boy’s hair and waved him off towards the nearby forest. The boy’s eyes widened at the realization that his life might be spared, and he took off running for the safety of the forest. My father would say that after this moment of compassion the hardened heart of an ancient legionary returned, and the soldier felt actual guilt for disobeying the order and letting the boy go free; and he went out into the forest looking for him to do his duty of killing him, but he never found him. So I suppose this was the first inkling of compassion, the first glimpse of “opening the heart chakra” in the evolution of my father’s spirit, so to speak.
I think it was on the same day, with the same other hypnotist, that my father also wanted to go back as far as he could, and remember the earliest memory from a previous life still accessible. He was regressed to a shady, green past: my father remembers feeling very small and looking up through fern fronds at the play of sunlight on the forest greenery. That was all there was to it, and there’s no telling how long ago it may have been.
So anyway, those are the past life memories that I was raised on as a boy, sitting on my father’s lap. I personally am not a good hypnotic subject (which helps to explain why I was never very good at certain types of meditation), and have never had past life regressions through meditation, and so all I have are intuitions regarding my own previous existences. But even with regard to my father’s sometimes vivid memories, who knows if they are real memories or just figments of an imagination in trance? Possibly both at the same time, even? Who knows. But still, as a Buddhist, and having read plenty of literature on the subject, and on related subjects, I continue to use the idea of rebirth as a convenient and even plausible working hypothesis. Besides, if the First Noble Truth is true, and to exist is to suffer, and if there is nothing but endless Void after death, with no afterlife at all, then the logical thing for all of us to do would simply be to commit mass suicide, and escape from unease for once and all. I’m certainly not encouraging that. Be happy.