Forgetting past lives

Venerables & Friends,

The aim of this thread is to better my understanding in relation to past lives & rebirth using your help. I will be dividing it into a main question, and a set of subsequent points that have to do with underlying assumptions relevant to the main question as well as cosmological implications.

The main question is: why forgetting past lives is presented as the standard in the suttas?

Subsequent points relevant to the main question:

1- The suttas do not mention explicitly that forgetting past lives is the standard, but often refer to the ordinary person (puthujjana) as a standard of some sort. The mark of a puthujjana is not “forgetting past lives” but rather “not seeing the noble ones”. In DN1, there are instances of ascetics who develop concentration to remember past lives, but they are still subject to wrong view, which makes the point of remembering past lives unclear, and yet, supports the underlying assumption that forgetting past lives is the standard.

2- We often encounter accounts of people remembering past lives as some sort of evidence that the Buddha’s teachings on past lives is true and can be supported by scientific evidence. What is common to these accounts in is that it includes details of corporeal existence, where the barrier of physical birth (or the blank slate) was broken. To refer to DN1 again, remembering past lives conditioned by contact seems to be as insignificant as not remembering them. Also there seems to be no obvious utility, neither spiritual nor worldly, as to remembering corporeal existences.

3- The act of forgetting seems to go beyond corporeality. In MN49. Baka forgot his previous abodes, of which the sutta indicates that it was higher than the first Jhana. If Brahmas who are beyond contact with the sensual realm are still subject to forgetting, then whats the point of remembering past lives, and what guarantees do ariyas have that they wont be subject to forgetting?

4- If remembering past lives can lead to wrong view as per DN1, and is subject to impermanence as per MN49, then why it is considered an abhiññā - one of three insights the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree?

Thank you for your help :pray:

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The six ‘higher powers’ (abhinna) consist of five mundane and one supermundane of penetrating insight. 4-6 appear frequently under the name of the ‘threefold higher knowledge,’ but are not a necessary condition for the attainment of sainthood, that being the province of the sixth abhinna exclusively (Nyanatiloka).

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I thought asavakhaya is the attainment of sainthood, which are preceded by pubbe-nivāsanussati and dibba-cakkhu. The logic of sequence, at least in the case of sammasambuddha, makes them connected.

Are there any sources which state that pubbe-nivāsanussati and dibba-cakkhu establishes the lineage for each Buddha dispensation, of which any subsequent remembering of ariyahood is a reflection of the Buddha’s psychic powers under the Bodhi tree?

Probably forgetting past lives allows for soul transference without personal identity.

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Hi. I have not read in the suttas that dibba-cakkhu is related to pubbe-nivāsanussati. I only read the dibba-cakkhu used to see the kamma-results of others.

SN 22.79 may answer the above question. :saluting_face:

I do not know if being born in a womb results in a loss of identity, to be reformulated once again through nama-rupa. Humans and many animals are born in the womb, which supplies devas and asuras with soldiers for the ongoing war - which could be a reason why most humans forget their past lives.

Devas and Maras knowledge of rebirth do not make them less deluded. Maybe remembering past lives in the case of humans would allow them to see the dangers of the sensual realm, hence it is uncommon.

Well, as a Westerner, I recognize that kind of eschatology makes for many long franchises of bad Hollywood movies, but if you wish to believe in it, you go right ahead. Myself, I’m satisfied to consider that kind of stuff low culture. It also sounds a lot more Zoroastrian than Buddhist.

In MN19, they are connected under the themes of “first watch of the night” and “second watch of the night”.

It does not, in the sense that it does not differentiates between kama-loka and rupa loka, and how memory or remembering past lives is relevant to each. I understand DN1 to be referring to kama loka as a net of views, whereas rupa loka should be going beyond the sensual realm and the associated net of views. This is where MN49 comes in to reveal that rupa loka, while a supramundane attainment beyond sensual knowledge, memory still has a function and subject to instability. The point i was trying to make is: why remembering past lives - in contrast of memory contextualized through a one-life model - is significant.

Worldly - modern theories can provide answers, but they are not based on Buddhist cosmology. For example, one could argue that remembering past lives has no evolutionary advantage, beyond the infant taking his/her mother breast. Other theories i encountered by Ven. Sona is that human birth is traumatic, and humans take long time before becoming self-dependent, hence they forget past lives. I do not know if the Ajahn base this interpretation on his personal analysis or on Buddhist scripture.

I appreciate your contribution. I hesitated to post my question on the discussion section or watercooler. I chose the former with the hope of receiving answers that are more aligned with the tradition, or connecting different suttas to provide a better cosmological understanding of how remembering past lives fits in Buddhist practice, beyond being extraordinary of going against the grain.

It’s a common miracle shared by at least the Dharmasastra and Yoga Sutra, not to mention Western traditions derived from Plato.

The main difference in my view is that the Buddha taught anatta. One could easily think of corporeal existence as a form of lower self, of which the act of remembering past lives is connected to discovering a higher/truer self. Taking anatta into consideration, the significance of remembering past lives in the Buddha’s teachings becomes illusive - unless connected to a wider cosmological view of which no self can be found, and yet memory has a utility of some sort.

Obviously memory has utility, but typically we are not able to access the total range of (instances of) memory that potentially could be available. Accordingly, Buddha remembered thousands of past lives as well as the life cycles of others. To me this sounds like a claim that Buddha attained (and surpassed) the kevala jnana of the Jains.

What i am focusing on is its utility in relation to the Buddha’s teachings. In M19, remembering past lives is followed by the claim that ignorance is destroyed. If the true supramundane knowledge is āsavakkhaya, then why would the Buddha associated remembering his past lives as true knowledge, if it is accessible to other sects, jains or otherwise.

Well the Jains believed that omniscience was latent (inherent potentiality) and that it emerged once all karmas had been burnt off. I don’t think this is much different than Buddhists purifying themselves of asavas and such as the sole means to nibbana.

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In modern research on past life memories, most children with the memories (many of which are confirmable and offer compelling data) lose their memories at the same time that children lose normal memories of early childhood. In other words, the brain or something does a kind of recycling process at some point as a child grows and it dumps a bunch of early memories. This correspondence makes a lot of sense.

There is also an extremely high correspondence between past life memories in children and previous traumatic deaths, backed up even by corresponding physical birth marks in many cases. Many cases report a time in between (sometimes even verifiable from external evidence); they often are related to grieving, moving on, watching their family, picking a new family, moving, etc. It seems that hard trauma leaves a strong mark on our psyche / consciousness; otherwise we mostly move on by the time we are reborn after spending some time after death to ‘pack our things’ and change lives. The time in the womb may also be a major transition/cleaning stage—it seems many don’t remember much about this and just have a gap in memory, or if they do it’s a strange dream-like state or room or something. Hope that helps.

EDIT: As to why this is a higher knowledge. Briefly, it allows the Buddha to see what constitutes existence on all scales (the aggregates), impermanence on a cosmological scale, the four noble truths and our existential predicament, the meaningless and vast cyclical nature of samsāra (and thus the dukkha inherent in it), and the principles of kamma which drive it and allow us to have a say in our lives. Paired with his knowledge of the noble truths, anattā, etc. he can make use of it and it fulfills his enlightenment to find a way out by understanding the causes and conditions at play.

Mettā

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In MN 19, dibba-cakkhu was used in the 2nd watch of the night but not in the 1st watch of the night.

SN 22.79 says each pubbe-nivāsanussati is viewed as not-self. This is how it is related to enlightenment. Where as in DN 1, the non-Buddhists viewed pubbe-nivāsanussati as self. It seems the 1st watch of the night was related to dependent arising.

I think this is unlikely. The brain is still developing after parturition, which is why infants must have a high fat diet. And we know such things, even, as that they do not see colour when they are born, only black and white. (Early) childhood development is a very high level area of practice across certain disciplines and it has a bad history, mainly because it was lacking in 1) respect for human beings, 2)women and 3) observational studies and especially observational studies that work with primary caregivers (moms, usually) and their children.

Interesting take on Stevenson’s recording of things like parents believing that a daughter born without a leg was the reincarnation of a girl run over by a train, which was believed to have chopped her leg off as it killed her, that someone believed he was born with a deformed hand and chest because he stabbed his wife in her breast (who was stabbed in her back and underarm) with that hand in a previous life, or that someone remembered her past life once she was installed in the environment where she believed it occurred …

Myself, I don’t think evidence of beliefs in rebirth can be taken as indirect proof of rebirth itself. That would be to ignore confirmation bias and circular reasoning. And it just ain’t in the cards.

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Well this is why I think there could be a major transition stage for consciousness in the womb and in early childhood. Maybe very strong trauma on the level of PTSD essentially can make it through, but otherwise it seems that it really wipes itself fresh for the development of a new organism / life. Dark womb; parturition; new environment; new developing senses; etc. I’m using very agentive terminology just to try and verbalize the basics of the speculation, but it may be very non-volitional.

I agree. The point is that it is not merely belief; there are cases with inexplicable information, such as the boy in Louisiana who could recall the name of the boat his plane deployed from in WW2, the place, the other pilots’ names, etc. all without having ever heard them. I understand skepticism, but the point of the ‘compelling’ or ‘suggestive’ cases is that they are not mere hearsay, they present data which must be explained somehow, and rebirth is a possible explanation and the one favoured by the people presenting the supposed memories. The birth mark cases can be especially suggestive because there are often strong correspondences between real life events and highly identifiable marks on the child, paired with reported information about the past personality that would otherwise be hard to know.

Either way, it’s up to every individual whether or not they accept the cases at the end of the day.

Mettā

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His work is unsupported. I think it’s simply a matter of being able to recognize poor science when you see it.

  1. Realising you had past lives on an embodied level, not a mental level (rather than remembering the detailed contents of those lives) is I believe what is important and is a revelatory milestone along this path of attainment which lets one know one has arrived at a certain level. The contents are not necessary