A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AFTERLIFE
A soul’s journey through the afterlife was taken very seriously in the ancient world. It was a journey that required skilful navigation and so it was something that a person should prepare for in their physical life.
Ancient Egyptians believed in the Afterlife, and the rebirth of the soul, which they saw as eternal. The souls who had lived their life well were shown by Osiris the path to be born again. In order to achieve an ideal afterlife, one had to perform many practices during life on Earth. The Pyramid texts inscribed in one’s tomb, first reserved for Pharaohs, were quickly taken on by politicians and the elite. These would explain to the deceased the directions they needed to follow to complete their journey through the afterlife. The first book describing how to traverse the afterlife was taken from instructions found in coffins dating back to 2100BCE, which became known as the Book of Two Ways; it describes the transmigration of the BA (Personality) and AKH (Soul) and describes the land of the dead, the landscape and its inhabitants. Here we find the now familiar Field of Peace (Sekhet Hotep) which the deceased finds after they travel through the classic “dark tunnel”, the paths of Rostau; to finally arrive at the abode of Osiris.
To prepare for this odyssey the Egyptian Book of the Dead states:
The practice of spirituality involved discovering that which transcends the body, as well as learning how to become attached to that transcendent reality as the truth, rather than remaining attached to the physical body and its desires and impulses, as well as to one’s emotions throughout the ups and downs of human existence…The problem of human existence is the forgetfulness of the Divine Essence of the Self and the identification with the body as the Self…Salvation is the freeing of the soul from its bodily fetters, becoming a God through knowledge and wisdom, controlling the forces of the cosmos instead of being a slave to them, subduing the lower nature and through awakening the Higher Self, ending the cycle of rebirth and dwelling with the netters who direct and control the Great Plan.
THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD
It is not only in Ancient Egypt where we find manuals that guide a soul’s journey through the afterlife. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, known as the Bardo Thodol (The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane) is formally known to be the “Great Doctrine of Liberation by Hearing and By Seeing.” It is called this way because it teaches how to traverse the afterlife and reach the state of “Reality” after many journeys through an “Intermediate Dream State”. The Book teaches us that during our passing we shall see visualizations and memories “like a wonder-struck child watching pictures cast upon a screen”, which reminds me of classic descriptions of near-death experiences where individuals are shown their life review.
The Tibetan Book Of the Dead is quite an extensive read to the uninitiated, but I am avid to have readers understand its instructions as they speak to the collective NDE experiences but are truly exhaustive in their how-to manner; I have found that the best way to transcribe these is to preserve the synopsis in The Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia which explains the three stages of the afterlife or Bardo:
The First Bardo
Following this [death], the person’s experience of the first bardo of the afterlife commences. However, for most individuals, it passes by in a split second and goes unnoticed. Only those who have undergone training in and practiced meditation, contemplative prayer, and similar spiritual disciplines will likely even be aware of the first bardo state. For some of those fortunate souls, there will be several opportunities to meet with spiritual beings and enter the realms of enlightened beings. One description of the kind of meditation done by advanced practitioners consists of a conscious effort to “dissolve space into light”, which if successful will propel the dying soul into a state of light and bliss beyond the continual cycles of birth and death to which most souls are subject. For those less familiar with such formal meditation practices, the act of remembering very bright light (such as, for example, remembering an experience of staring into the sun) and seeing that light as a source of pure awareness or divine love could produce a similar effect. A series of meditations and understandings that can be helpful as one enters the bardo can be found on our Death Meditations page. The spiritual aperture that opens briefly at the time of death presents a wonderful opportunity to those who can control their thoughts as the first bardo begins. This is probably why there is a common folk belief in the Hindu tradition which puts much emphasis on controlling and directing the last thought of the dying person. If this thought is strong, clear, and of a spiritual nature, it may permit the person to enter through this doorway into a spiritual world immediately at the time of death, and thus avoid the confusion of the second bardo.
The Second Bardo
If the first bardo passes and attempts to access spiritual states were unsuccessful, the next bardo begins. The second bardo or the “bardo of becoming” is a stage in which the desires of the individual are said to carry the largely helpless soul through a great variety of intense emotional states. Good thoughts bring great bliss and pleasure, and hateful or negative thoughts bring great pain and desolation. The soul bounces from thought to thought as a torrent of thoughts and feelings come like a waterfall. Existing thought habits and desires are said to define the experience of the soul during the afterlife in this way.
The soul experienced in spiritual travel is less likely to be disoriented by this inner torrent of psychic experience. To put it another way, while the spiritual traveler or yogi swims through the ocean of consciousness, the inexperienced soul may feel more like it is drowning in that ocean. But as with a drowning person, the most important thing is to have a direction in which to swim to safety. The point of orientation or goal for the person in the second bardo may be a deity, a mantra, a prayer, a heaven, a guide, or some similar spiritual goal but the spiritual traveler must be able to focus and move towards that goal using meditative techniques learned and practiced during their former life in the physical world. This is the active approach of the spiritual traveler.
The greatest problems of the soul in the second bardo are negative emotions like guilt and fear (which results from a lack of familiarity with the inner worlds), and lack of conscious control over its own experience. Fear is particularly harmful because it fragments the self, making concentration on one thing difficult or impossible, and this can lead to confusion and loss of conscious control.
The soul in the second bardo is many times caught in a dream state sometimes unaware that it has died, and incapable of taking action to raise its state of consciousness to a threshold level of awareness where it can direct its attention towards spiritual states.. For those fortunate enough to be more conscious in these bardo states, a petition to a god, guru, guide, saint, or intercessor can be made in hopes that the individual will be lifted or guided out of the bardo worlds by one of those entities. But here again, the call must be concentrated and the ability to ignore the surrounding chaos somewhat developed. When such grace is given, it is a form of salvation where the individual is saved from the discomfort and confusion of the “outer darkness” of the bardo by a powerful entity – usually one that individuals formed a bond with in their former life. To use the swimming analogy, here the individual calls out to a lifeguard in hopes of being rescued from the turbulent waters of the bardo state. This is the more passive approach of the devotee.
This is one of the reasons it is important to do a regular spiritual practice during life. Doing meditation or prayer every day establishes a pattern of spiritual activity. It then becomes automatic and the habit of seeking after the divine reality continues during the after-death state where it can have powerful results.
We should also note that souls in this bardo are thought to be very sensitive to the thoughts and attitudes of those they knew during life. The Tibetans therefore put great effort into doing chanting, reading of sacred texts, and other religious rituals to help the dying soul on its journey in the afterlife. Praying for the peace and happiness of the dying person therefore has great value and provides a benefit to both the living and the dead. This process of sending good wishes to those who have recently died can create a positive spiritual atmosphere which can orient and bring peace to the person in the bardo realm, and can also counter some of the sorrow and upset that accompanies the loss of a loved one.
The Third Bardo
The third and last bardo consists of the stage of reincarnation where the soul is pulled into another body to start a new life, often but not always in the physical world Tibetan Buddhists believe that the most desirable world to be born in is the physical world, since it affords the most opportunity for spiritual growth and realization. The third bardo consists of a series of images determined by the soul’s karma that lead to psychic vortices that draw the soul into a womb. The soul’s reaction to the images (attraction or repulsion) determines which vortex the soul enters and in which womb the soul ends up. The Tibetan tradition gives detailed advice on which representations to choose and which to avoid in order to gain a desirable rebirth. Once reborn, the karma of impulse manifests to influence the person’s actions and reactions in their new life.
This ability to choose a good incarnation requires discrimination, and a certain degree of conscious awareness. The new age approach to reincarnation which claims we choose our new incarnation is idealistic and not always true from this vantage point. Many souls desperate to escape the confusion of the second bardo will grab on to the first opportunity that presents itself like a swimmer who grasps a log in dangerous rapids in hopes of making it to calmer waters. Choosing the first object (or incarnation) that comes along may not be the wisest choice.
The average person is said to spend a period of about forty-five days in the second bardo. However, passionate souls with strong desires or those responsible for evil acts in their most recent life are said to reincarnate almost immediately. In exceptional cases, the individual can stay in the bardo state for longer periods, and be drawn into its currents awaiting rebirth.
If the individual does not reincarnate in the physical world, he or she will go to one of the other five worlds of rebirth. These are the heaven worlds, the hell worlds, the world of hungry ghosts, the asura (demigod) worlds, and the animal worlds. Each of these is believed to be limited and inferior to obtaining another body in the material world. This is because they exist mostly to receive good or bad karma (the results of previous actions), and are not considered places to create new karma. – The Chinese-Buddhist Encyclopedia
The Tibetan Book of The Dead explains that whether a Hindu, a Moslem, or Christian, the Bardo experiences would be appropriately different thought-forms in the dream-state. Common to both the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of The Dead, is that the deceased will be presented in front of a deity (Dharma-Raja and Osiris respectively) who will place before them the Scales of Life and weight their heart (conscience) against a feather (truth/righteousness). Just as in the recounted story of Er by Plato seen in Part One of this research article, describes a similar judgement, they both speak of two paths once judged: one leading to Heaven and one leading to a place of punishment. Many chiefly learned Tibetan lamas, following the instructions of the Buddha on how to relive their previous incarnations on earth, through the deep state of meditation they can experience the natural process of life, death and rebirth.
WHAT CAME BEFORE: CHILD REINCARNATION STORIES
Before looking into more ancient accounts of near death experiences, I’d like to take a look at childhood reincarnation stories. There have been hundreds of thousands of cases, all documented by professional doctors, of children remembering their past lives. A typical story is that a child between the age of 2 to 7 years old will begin telling family members of their past life, sometimes not far from where they live now, complete with a description of their name, their old family members and what they did for a living, all spoken in the first person e.g., “I worked as a blacksmith…”. Accompanied by doctors, they visit their old “home” and incredibly all the facts check out.
How can this be? It is odd to note that the majority of children forget everything about their past life by the age of six or seven. To some children this knowledge is available to them all the time while others it only comes when triggered by a memory in their environment.
In Life Before Life: A Scientific Explanation, Dr Stevenson painstakingly attempts to test alternate theories as to why this might be happening: fraud, faulty memory of the informants, fantasy, even genetic memory…but they all meet dead ends. In fact, in almost all cases, the information the child produces, describes places, people and things from the past that no child or the family could have had previous knowledge…in this life at least.
Many children find that their birthmarks on their body match wounds caused in their previous life. In Life Before Life, Dr Stevenson reports the following:
One case that Dr Keil and I investigated can serve as a good example. Kloy Matwiset is a boy who was born in Thailand in 1990. Eleven months before he was born, his maternal grandmother died of diabetes. Before she died, she told her daughter-in-law that she would like to be reborn as a male so that she could have a mistress as her husband did. The day after she died, her daughter-in-law used white paste to make a mark down the back of her neck so that she could recognize her mother-in-law when she was reborn. Kloy’s mother had an announcing dream when she was three months pregnant in which the grandmother said that she wanted to be reborn to her. His mother had seen the mark made on the grandmother’s body. When Kloy was born, she noticed that he had a birthmark on the back of his neck in the same place where the mark had been made. We met him and saw a very noticeable vertical pale discoloration on the back of his neck that had a shape that matched a finger making a mark down his neck. The marker confirmed that this unusual birthmark was in the same place that she had marked his grandmother’s body.
Some of the children who claim to remember events between lives do occasionally make philosophical statements. When Kenny, a boy I mentioned in Chapter 1, was nine years old, he learned that a playmate had died, and told his mother, “I know that it’s not good that Greg died, but it’s not so bad either. I just wish that his mother knew that it’s only Greg’s body that is gone. Besides, God expects everyone to go to heaven sooner or later.”
The evidence supporting the reincarnation explanation indicates that more than just memories may be able to survive from one life to the next. “Emotions, attachments, fears, addictions, likes and dislikes, and even identification with a particular country and with a gender may be able to carry over from one life to the next. If reincarnation does occur, emotions, as well as memories, survive,” says Dr Stevenson.
Purnima Ekanayake said that after her fatal accident, she “floated in the air in semi-darkness for several days. She saw people crying for her and saw her body at the funeral. She said that many people were floating around as she was. She then saw some light, went to it, and came to her new family.”
In other case studies, people described experiences in another realm during the interval between death and rebirth. Dr Stevenson continues, “a boy named Lee said he remembered deciding to be reborn. He said that other beings helped him with his decision to come down to Earth. He also said that his previous mother was prettier than his current one, who accepted the comparison with good humor. William, the boy in Chapter 1, said that he floated up after dying, and he talked about being in heaven, where he saw God as well as animals.”
“Similarly, Patrick Christenson, the boy in Chapter 4 with three birthmarks that matched lesions on his deceased half-brother, spoke of talking in heaven with a relative named “Billy the Pirate,” who he said told him about being shot at close range and dying while up in the mountains. Patrick’s mother reported that she had never heard of such a relative, but when she called her mother to ask about Patrick’s statements, she learned that a cousin with the nickname Billy the Pirate had in fact died that way.”
Other particularly vivid descriptions of another realm include those of Disna Samarasinghe, a girl in Sri Lanka who made numerous statements about the life of an elderly woman who died in a village three miles away. She described being “lifted up, even though her body was buried, and flying like a bird. She talked of meeting a king or governor whose reddish clothes and beautiful pointed shoes were never taken off, never dirty, and never washed. The same was true for her own clothes except that they were golden. She said that she played at the king’s home, which was made of glass and had beautiful red beds. She said that when she got hungry there, she simply thought of food and it appeared. The sight of the food satisfied her appetite, so she did not need to eat it. She said that the king took her to the home of her new family after asking her to go there.”
Dr Stevenson explains, “on the other hand, cases in which the previous personality died suddenly are less likely to include statements by the children about an existence in another realm than ones are where the person did not die suddenly—12 per cent versus 22 per cent. This analysis suggests that how the previous personality dies or how suddenly he or she dies does not change the likelihood that the child in the case will talk later about earthly events that took place between that death and the child’s birth. On the other hand, cases in which the previous personality’s death occurred by natural means or was expected are somewhat more likely to include subjects and statements about an existence in another realm between the time of the previous personality’s death and the child’s birth. In addition, none of them affects the likelihood of memories of another realm except for one—being a meditator. We only have information on whether the previous personality meditated in thirty-three of the 1,100 cases in the database, so these results are preliminary in the extreme, but nonetheless statistically significant. The more the previous personality meditated, the more likely the child was to describe memories from another realm.”
INDIGENOUS BELIEF OF THE AFTERLIFE
As we have seen, there is a rich history of NDE experiences throughout the world and across time. Whom better to seek out further answers from than the Indigenous Peoples of the World who preserve some of the oldest untouched teachings on the afterlife.
My Indigenous teacher at Sir Sanford Fleming College recently explained to us that The Indigenous Peoples of Canada have a long standing belief passed down even before the imposed Christian stories: it says we all have chosen our lives before coming here. Even if they seem like bad lives, we are living them as lessons that we ourselves, our souls, in fact, have chosen for us previously in the afterlife.
The Anishnabe (Ojibway) Perspective on Life and Death is:
The Circle of Life ! In order to understand death, first, we must embrace the circle of life ! Four stages in the journey of the human spirit: ! Birth ! Life ! Death ! Afterlife
Each of us is born with ! A spirit ! Sacred name ! Clan or nation ! Gifts or talents ! Destiny in which we will face many challenges
Each person’s challenge is to find the Creator, celebrate the Creator and be of service with one’s gifts to one’s people, to all of humankind and to all life in Creation
Afterlife ! Spirit can be seen and felt leaving the body ! It travels westward across the prairie grass, over a river and into the mountains ! It ascends the mountains to the high clouds where a bright light guides it to the place where loved ones wait to embrace it ! The spirit lives forever ! It takes its place in the spirit world according to deeds completed on earth ! The Cycle of Life is complete when spirit returns to its place of origin – In a Sacred Manner We Died: Native American Near-Death Experiences Jenny Wade, PhD. Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
Captain John Smith, in his “Generall Historie of Virginia”, published in 1623 chronicled what would appear to be the first recorded NDEs in the New World:
Palowahtiva was rising easily from his sickbed when a wrinkled, little old man “dressed in the most ancient costume” of the Zunis and with his hair done in a “strange old-fashioned knot” appeared in the room as though he had walked through one of the walls (Kalweit, 1988, p. 40). Despite his ancient appearance and great age, he moved gracefully and majestically. The old man told the uncle that it was not time for Palowahtiva to go, but the uncle disputed with him. Their conflict was loving but decisive; the old man prevailed, and the uncle left through the door. The old man then turned toward Palowahtiva as he lay there and told him it was not his time: One sometimes learns wisdom through great illness. Therefore you have been ill…. You will not go, no. … You will become old, even as I am, before you go. … Were you to go now, one fewer would be those in the world where so many once dwelt who give us those attentions which we cherish, who sacrifice plumes of worship to us, as was directed in ancient times, who pray to us and greet us, and show that our children among men have not forgotten us…. Live, my child! … A few days and your flesh will begin to gather upon your bones, and as you were, so will you become again. And although it may not be pleasant to you to think that you must endure illness and suffering, and many unhappinesses, yet know it is best that this should be so… When the time has come for you to go, it will be said, ‘Yes,’ and we will come for you. Farewell. Be it even as I have said. (Cushing, cited in Kalweit, 1988, pp. 40-41)
I present Smith’s report in its entirety:
They (The Indigenous Peoples) believe the immortalitie of the Soule, when life departing from the body, according to the good or bad workes it hath done, it is carried up to the Tabernacles of the gods, to perpetuall happinesse, or to Popogusso, a great pit:
To confirme this they told me of two men that had beene lately dead, and revived againe; the one hapned but few yeares before our coming into the country; of a bad man, which being dead and buried, the next day the earth over him being seene to move, was taken up, who told them his soule was very neare entering into Popogusso, had not one of the gods saved him and gave him leave to returne again, to teach his friends what they should doe to avoyd such torment. The other hapned the same yeare we were there, but sixtie myles from us, which they told me for news, that one being dead, buried, and taken up as the first, shewed, that although his body had layne dead in the grave, yet his soule lived, and had travailed far in a long broad way, on both sides whereof grew more sweet, fayre, and delicate trees and fruits, then ever he had seene before; at length he came to the most brave [fine] and fayre houses, neare which he met his Father, that was dead long agoe, who gave him charge to goe backe, to shew his friends what good there was to doe, to injoy the pleasures of that place; which when hee had done hee should come againe.(Smith, 1623, Book I, folio 11, in Barbour, 1983, p. 79).
The soul was saved from entering into Popugosso, the great pit, which in The Tibetan Book of the Dead we see as the tormented dream state which, just as in this story, may be saved by a deity from this place.
AFRICAN STORIES OF NDE
From “Death person return to life” an article wrote in Nigeria in 2001:
Daniel Ekechukwu died through injuries he sustained in a fatal car accident on 30 November 2001 in Owerri in southeast Nigeria. Two different medical practitioners confirmed him dead, and his corpse was taken to the mortuary where a mortician applied the necessary chemicals to be embalmed. Daniel’s wife insisted that her husband’s dead body be taken out of the mortuary to a Christian crusade ground where the popular German Evangelist Reinhardt Bonnke was preaching with thousands of his followers listening. The deceased body was kept in another room in the crusade venue so as not to distract the attention of the huge audience on the crusade ground. Whilst the evangelist was praying for the entire audience, to the surprise of many, Daniel’s corpse shivered and was raised to life whilst the injuries on his body disappeared immediately. Daniel claimed that, during his 48 hours of near-death experience, he came across hell, heaven, people he knew, beautiful edifices and angels (De Ruiter 2001).
To many Africans, death means a transition from one level of existence to a supreme (ancestral) level of existence, particularly when burial rites are observed or when the deceased died at an old age (Lawuyi 1988:372). Opoku taught that, in Africa, life is not perceived as the opposite of death just as death is not the opposite of life, but death is perceived as a continuation of life in a different existence. Opoku (1989) adds the following:
The dead have an independent existence. They do not continue to live merely because they are remembered by those who are living, for the fact of life and non-life is not dependent on the memory of human beings, for human memory does not create life. (p. 19)
The Yorubas, for example, believe that the ancestors are charged with the responsibility of overseeing that the living live out their life span as allotted to them by the gods. Opoku (1989) sums it up when he notes that death is a stage of life: “The terms ‘this life,’ ‘next life,’ ‘afterlife,’ ‘eternal life’ are terms borrowed from European Christian philosophies [philosophy] which are foreign to African system of thought. Life is one continuous stretch of existence and is not split up into ‘this life’ and ‘the next life.’ What happens after death is not the terminal, definitive stage of man’s life; it is only a phase in the continuing round of human existence … The spirit land is not a place of eternal repose and happiness. It is rather a transit camp for those awaiting reincarnation to continue the life cycle.(p. 22)
The Yorubas believe that there are five constituent parts of the human body. These are:
(1) Ara or physical body and
(2) Oka(n) or heart or heart-soul (The Oka(n) possesses both material and spiritual qualities. It is grouped under material constituents of the human body because of its uniqueness of possessing both characteristics). The spiritual consists of
(3) Ojiji or shadow,
(4) Iye or mental mind or mental body and
(5) Emi(n) or spiritual body or spiritual soul.
Another core element of NDE is passage into another realm through a border. Some say the border is a body of water, a fence, a door or a cloudy matter (Moody 1975:93). The Yorubas regard these kinds of border as a river or a mountain that the deceased is expected to cross or climb. They believe that a ferryman has to be paid in order to allow the deceased to pass through these borders (Awolalu 1979:57-58).
In my showing the reader the accounts of NDEs from different parts of the world and both far back in history to just recent history, I am hopefully letting these “travelers” paint a picture that shows all the similarities and points, if only in a correlational way, to the proof of an afterlife and its landscape…the greatest unknown and the hardest thing to prove empirically. In fact, I leave you with a historical NDE closest to our time, with all the hallmarks of a dip in the Life After Life.
AN 18TH CENTURY NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE: THE CASE OF GEORGE DE BENNEVILLE
George de Benneville, an 18th-century physician and lay minister, wrote an autobiographical account that seems to have all the markers of a classic NDE. The recounting of his experience has been left in its original form:
I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body, and saw the people occupied in washing it, according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed from the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed. I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees, agreeable to behold, and which sent forth such fragrant odours that all the air was filled as with incense.
You must be prepared to pass through the seven habitations of the damned; be of good courage and prepare yourself to feel something of their sufferings, but be turned inward deeply during the time, and you shall thereby be preserved.
After that, my guardian conducted me into five celestial habitations, where I discovered many wonders. Some had greater brightness, glory, and majesty than others, and, as the places were, so were the inhabitants; some were clothed in garments whiter than snow; others had transparent bodies, and others again had white bodies resembling crystal. It is impossible to express these things. They were moved by boundless burning love, rising up and then plunging themselves into the deepest humility; all their motions were penetrating, being filled with love and friendship. … Their actions and manners are strengthened and animated with brightness, being filled with light as with the rays of the sun; it was the fire of heavenly love, which by inflaming all their hearts, causes them all to burn in the same spirit. They have no need of any way of speaking there, but the language and motions of eternal and universal love without words for their actions, their motions speak more than all words. I was then conducted into five habitations of the elect.
Then my guardian took me up, and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, where I perceived the people assembled, and discovering my body in the coffin, I was reunited with the same, and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle, and coming to myself, I knew my dear brother Marsey, and many others, who gave me an account of my being twenty-five hours in the coffin, and seventeen hours before they put me in the coffin, which altogether made forty-two hours; to me, they seemed as many years.
Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon, in which we will look at how NDEs are investigated scientifically today and how past-life regression therapists have collected personal accounts of the afterlife between their patient’s lives.
— Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives by Jim B. Tucker
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