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Born Again

An article by Sanitsude Ekachai in
Bangkok Post, September 28th, 1998


Ood was a chatty little girl, but when she started talking about events that happened before she was born, her parents were shocked.

The girl's mother, Mrs Sam-ang Mungkerd recalls "We were stricken by fear. Back in my home village in Khon Kaen, we believe that a child who remembers a past life will be taken away by the spirit of her old mother."

To suppress such "weird" behaviour, they threatened the baby that if she did not stop talking nonsense, they would stop taking her out. "It worked, at least at home," she recalls.

Later, kindergarten teachers visited Mrs Sam-ang and asked if the child talked about strange things at home like she did at school. Now Ood is 16 and remembers nothing of her childhood quirkiness.

"Suppression is the typical reaction of parents when children talk of a previous life," says Sutdya Vajrabhaya, 54, who has spent six years investigating and documenting the paranormal phenomenon. Some distraught parents, he adds, even go so far as burning the child with lit incense or throwing him or her from an upper floor as "shock therapy" to stop the child's eerie behaviour.

Although he believes baby Ood's story, it remains just a weak case without the testimonies or documentation. And, like most past-life memory stories that float around, it will end up merely a family fable of no scientific bearing.

Systematic investigation and documentation, he says, can change that.

"Rebirth is an important Buddhist teaching. Believers, however, embrace it out of faith while many Thais today wrongly dismiss it as irrelevant to one's spiritual pursuits," he explains. "But if we investigate and document the phenomenon systematically, strong empirical data on past life memories can scientifically confirm the Buddhist teachings on rebirth," he says.

Buddhism sees rebirth as part of Samsara, or the Wheel of Existence. It teaches that this unbroken chain of lifetimes driven by greed, anger and delusion is the root cause of human beings' sufferings.

An understanding of rebirth is also central to the Buddhist doctrine of compassion, since it teaches that every being - whether human and animal - is related in one way or another as spouses, children, siblings, or relatives at a certain point in time across the inconceivable continuum of lifetimes.

Mr Sutdya wants to return respectability to the belief in rebirth. That is why he joined the research team of Prof Ian Stevenson, a world-famous US-based scholar in paranormal science, six years ago.

Mr Sutdya's task is to scout for Thai children who claim to remember previous lives. Then with Dr Jurgen Keil and Dr Jim Tucker, the team investigate the cases through methodical interviews with the subjects and primary witnesses, followed by cross-checking with the family of the deceased whom the child claims to remember. They also obtain evidence such as post-mortem and medical documents where necessary.

The case is considered to be verified when the child's statements - often involving family secrets - match unmistakably with the life of the deceased, and when there is strong evidences that the child could not have obtained the information from others.

The Thai research is part of Prof Stevenson's worldwide study that he has been conducting for more than 30 years. To date, he has found over 2,600 rebirth cases in different cultures across the globe.

As a psychiatrist and the director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, Prof Stevenson's interest in rebirth did not come from religious interests but from his dissatisfaction with modern theories of human personality.

He believes that genetics and environmental influences often cannot explain many personality abnormalities that happen early in life. Some children, for example, show phobias in early infancy without having had any traumatic experiences, and with no history of similar abnormalities in their family. He also points out that some one-egg twins are also markedly different from each other.

Furthermore, there is little in conventional theories that can explain the existence of transsexuality or birthmarks. Why are some boys and girls born with the belief that they are trapped inside the wrong body? And why are some children born with certain birthmarks or birth defects affecting particular parts of the body and not other parts?

Three decades of rigorous research has convinced him that rebirth is often a better explanation for a child's unusual behaviour. While most see past-life memory as a rare and bizarre phenomenon, Prof Stevenson's growing database has found similar behavioural patterns across cultures among children who claim to remember a past life.

For example, these children start talking about a past life early in life, usually between the ages of two and four. They generally stop doing so between five and eight. They forget it all when they are adults. About one-third of them have phobias which are related to the manner of death of the person whose life they remember. More than half of these deaths are violent, or tai hong in Thai. Interestingly, over one-third of these children have birthmarks (moles or nevi) or birth defects that correspond to wounds, mostly fatal, on the deceased person.

According to Mr Sutdya, up to eighty percent of cases are reborn as the same sex. For those who were reborn as the different sex, Prof Stevenson reports that many of them become transsexuals.

The research also claims that the time gap between death and rebirth of a child who remembers a past life is, on average, 10 years, says Mr Sutdya.

With an eye for detail, the rebirth researchers look for the distance between the location of death and rebirth, the relationship between old and new families, the mother's dreams and cravings while pregnant, and the child's idiosyncrasies which correspond to the person whose life he or she remembers.

Thai Findings

After six years of playing detective in the world of the supernatural, Mr Sutdya has found 50 rebirth cases. Among them:

Tukata: At five, she stunned her parents by telling them that in her previous life, she died from dengue fever at the age of ten. Typical of most rebirth cases, Tukata insisted that her parents take her to see her old family. As in most strong rebirth cases, the two families lived far apart and never knew each other before.

To see if the girl's claims were true or not, her parents dropped her in front of her old village. She ran unaided to her old house, jumped up to hug her old mother who was completely caught by surprise, called her brothers and sisters by their nicknames, and asked for the amulet which she wanted to have back.

Guy: The boy was born with an infected wound on his head and a scar-like birthmark on his right hand. At about the age of three, he told his parents that in his past life he was named Sawat and worked as a spy for Communist guerrillas. He said he was shot while taking a nap with his right hand resting over his head; the bullet cut through his hand and forehead and killed him instantly.

The boy insisted that he go to see his old parents who happened to be in the same extended family. Once there, he correctly identified family members and belongings. The boy refused, however, to talk to Sawat's estranged wife, saying he still hated her. He also became angry when he saw that his possessions had been moved, typical behaviour in rebirth cases.

Relatives say the boy has the same tough-guy traits as the man whose life he remembers. Sawat used to kill buffaloes and eat the meat raw. When pregnant, Guy's mother had strong cravings for raw meat which stopped after delivery. The memory of slaughter, however, distressed Guy so much that he decided never to touch beef again.

Bow: She was born with a deformed sternum, and from the age of about 17 months, she screamed in fright every time she saw a collapsible table. Now four years old, she told Mr Sutdya that in her previous life, she was named Or and died by being crushed by a collapsible table while playing under it at the age of six.

Pao: The boy was born with ring-like marks around his ankles and fingers, and a scar on his nose. At three, he began talking in detail about how he died in his past life. He said he was looting the house of a villager named Tong who used a long sharp knife to kill him. He said his fingers were cut and his ankles were tied. He expressed the wish to get revenge on his killer.

Tum: The boy was born with a black naevus on his right chest and only one testicle. At 14 months old, he started talking bout his past life as Ee, a relative who had died in a motorcycle accident. Ee's parents were convinced that Tum used to be their son due to the wounds he sustained in the accident: Ee's corpse only had one testicle left. His parents had also dabbed soot on the dead boy's right chest, telling his spirit to bring the sign back in his next life.

When taken to his old family's house, Tum rightly identified Ee's picture, called his siblings by their nicknames and knew of the personal problems of other relatives.

Om: Her mother has an "announcing dream" in which a young relative named Lek asked to live with her. Lek had died from head wounds sustained in a motorcycle accident, and consequent brain surgery could not save him. When Om was born, four people saw blood gush from her head.

The girl insisted on going to see her old family who lived in another district. She correctly commented on the refurnishing of the house and asked for her personal belongings, a watch and a bank savings book. The girl also told one relative that he still owed Lek nine baht. That relative admitted that it was true.

As for phobias, Om showed a great fear of needles. Her old parents said an undertaker had used needles to sew up Lek's mouth, a death ritual believed to prevent the spirit of a person who died young and in a violent manner from haunting the living.

Om also refused to climb trees, explaining that she fell from a tree and broke her arm in her previous life. Lek's family confirmed it. Om and Lek also shared similar tastes in food.

Experimental Birthmarks

Given the Christian belief that there is no life after death and the prevalent scepticism towards the paranormal, rebirth research and findings are looked upon with suspicion in the West. In Thailand, however, Prof Stevenson's research has strengthened the belief in rebirth, which is already part of Buddhist teachings.

Substantial data also helps return respect to some old beliefs in the paranormal - such as announcing dreams, strange cravings and the rebirth of ancestors into the same family - which young people often dismiss as fantasies.

In addition, Thailand also has a unique death ritual which has become an important indicator to rebirth researchers - that of applying soot or red lime to the corpse to identify the person when he or she is reborn.

Research data shows that this experimental marking does, in fact, work. Out of 28 rebirth cases Mr Sutdya found this year, 17 were born with these markings. Those made with soot become black nevi which stays for life, he says, while those made with red lime become red nevi which fade in adulthood.

Elsewhere, birthmarks or birth defects in rebirth cases generally correspond to the fatal wounds of the deceased. The death ritual of experimental marking only exists in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, says Mr Sutdya.

Rebirth Questions

In many of Mr Sutdya's rebirth cases, the reborn Person does not seem to pay for their past bad deeds. Does that mean the law of karma is not true?

-- As far as the law of karma is concerned, he says the two lifetimes under scrutiny - namely, the present and the immediate past - constitute only a tiny fraction of a long, unbroken chain of rebirths. And while one can never escape the consequences of one's actions, the debt is not necessarily paid right away in the immediate next life.

How long is the continuum of lifetimes exactly? Buddha one said to his disciples: "Long time have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And while you were thus suffering, you have, verily, shed more tears upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans."

Since it is believed that fatal wounds can carry over into the next life in the form of birthmarks and defects, does it also mean that one should not donate organs after death?

-- As for organ donations, Buddhism focuses on one's intentions. Since donating organs comes from a virtuous intention, donors will certainly receive virtuous consequences in return, he reassures.

How can you tell a rebirth hoax from the real thing?

-- In cases involving children with past-life memories, rigorous investigation can help detect frauds, says Mr Sutdya.

As for adults who advertise past-life memories, his suggestion is take them as frauds first, particularly those who claim to be grand personalities of the past.

"If they do not want to make money, they are most likely mentally-ill patients suffering from delusions of grandeur," he says.

Although adults can recollect past lives under deep hypnosis, he warns against it because most of the images are historically incorrect.

As for the images of past lives one sees during meditation sessions, most meditation masters say the images are illusions created by one's mind.

This means genuine cases of adults who can recollect past lives are extremely small. According to Buddhism, only those who attain high levels of meditation can recollect past lives. But then again, Buddha forbids his followers from advertising these powers. Those who do are then questionable.

End of Rebirth

Mr Sutdya refuses to use the word "reincarnation" as often used in Prof Stevenson's studies because reincarnation implies a Hindu belief in immortal soul and self.

Buddhism, however, teaches anatta, or no-self. And the word rebirth in Buddhism implies there can be an end to it.

"Buddha teaches that we can stop the Wheel of Existence and break the chain of rebirth if we work hard to deal with our likes and dislikes and to transcend our cravings, anger and delusions." Says Mr Sutdya, who is also a devout Buddhist.

Before taking on rebirth research, Mr Sutdya admits that he did not totally believe in life after death. "Now I am one hundred percent convinced," he says.

The cases he encountered confirmed over and over again the futility of clinging, either to material possessions or to a beloved person. Which is why he now devotes himself to serious meditation practice in order to overcome those attachments.

He hopes that scientific research on rebirth can help convince others of the reality of the Wheel of Existence and prompt them to overcome the causes of suffering in order to break the chain of rebirth.

"If that is the case, then I have done my duty in this lifetime as a good Buddhist," he says.

I have edited this article where I felt it would be of benefit, but have been careful not to use anything out of context or to alter the original meaning. -- Joyce Sinclair

Source: Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Newsletter, August-November 1999.

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