Is recollection of past lives necessary?

[quote=“daverupa, post:14, topic:2987”]“one aspect of cultivating the six types of superknowledge is gaining knowledge of one’s past lives.”
…but of these six, how many are necessary for final liberation? How many must a noble disciple attain?

Necessary schmessasary. The better question is, what’s useful?

Say someone asks a question about why the mass of objects increases as they approach the speed of light. If I’m Albert Einstein, no worries, I immediately give them a pithy and accurate answer. Einstein worked out questions of the fundamental nature of the universe just with thought experiments; he needed relatively little information to reach his conclusions.

But if I’m Sujato, I stumble and umm and err, and try to give some sort of answer. Even though I’ve known the general ideas of relativity since high school, I still don’t have a really clear and firm understanding of them. I’d probably need to check an article and brush up on details before I could answer reasonably.

But perhaps I’ve never heard of the theory of relativity, and have no knowledge of modern science at all. I have to go away and study physics for a long time before I can even understand the question.

The point is, what’s “necessary” to answer such a question is not a given or a universal. It depends.

Now, if we are to generalize, we could say there are two main factors:

  1. Innate intelligence.
  2. Knowledge and experience.

Obviously these things are not entirely separate, but that’s good enough.

Suppose I have a great deal of intelligence. With only a little learning, I can quickly grasp a difficult concept. Just a quick explanation of the principles is enough.

If my intelligence is not so great, I can still understand, but I need to work harder. I have to look at, not just the abstract principles, but at many real life examples. I have to work through the problems, again and again, until before I really get it.

So think of dependent origination as the abstract principle. An advanced meditator, with a high degree of wisdom like Sāriputta, can investigate and understand this principle, and they know how rebirth works.

But a meditator with less wisdom can’t really grok the problem based just on the principles of causality. They have to go over real world examples, again and again, for example by reflecting on their past lives. There they will see the principles of dependent origination playing themselves out. They will see how they get attached and crave, and how the cravings and desires of one life will manifest over and over in subsequent lives.

How often must they do this? Well, it depends. The deeper your samadhi, and the deeper your wisdom, the less information you need. You only really know how much is “enough” when you let go. And that process is different for everyone.

The Buddha taught the recollection of past lives and the power of clairvoyance on dozens, probably hundreds, of occasions, and made them into core parts of essential teachings. He didn’t do that just on a whim. He did it because they’re incredibly useful for attaining awakening. Are they absolutely 100% necessary for everyone? Well, if you’re an Einstein of meditation, probably not. But for the rest us, we need all the help we can get.


What a delightful picture of Einstein!

There is also the emotional side of recollecting one’s past lives. You can only fully comprehend the horrors of saṃsāra when you see it face-to-face. This then leads to the nibbidā, the repulsion from saṃsāra, which is a very powerful aid in ending craving for existence. Craving for existence is underpinned by our sense of self, which is so dear to us that we need all the help we can get to see through it.


Hi Bhantes,

Would it be correct to place the recollection of past lives at the proximate causality (upanisa) linkage between samadhi and insight elements of the co-dependent origination of liberation as present in the SN12.23?

If so, is this maybe the reason the term used to frame the right experience of insight involves both knowledge and vision of the process of being (yathā­-bhūta-­ñāṇa-das­sana)?

If that proceed. Is there any usual description in the suttas of this reflective exercise / task that is performed at the return from samadhi?

What should be the role of the meditator’s choices in that process? Is it as easy as just inclining the mind to that topic at the beginning of a meditation session?

How frequent is for this sort of insight to arise among full-time contemplatives nowadays?

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Hi Gabriel,

Yes, indeed, I think it is quite right that the recollection of past lives comes after samādhi, and it is a very important aspect of insight. Insight can take many forms, but it is rarely mentioned that one of those is the recollection of past lives. This then leads to nibbidā and the rest of the sequence of dependent liberation.

Knowledge and vision are usually used as synonyms in the suttas, and I suspect this is also true in the present case. When you see your past lives, you also know what is going on. One possible reason why both words are used together is that they complement each other, and thus give a more complete picture of the experience of deep insight. Or it could just be a feature of the oral origin of the suttas, such as the use of synonyms to create stability of the text or simply because it flows better when spoken.

And yes, there are numerous descriptions in the suttas of how to cultivate insight after samādhi. The standard description is that found in the gradual training, where the recollection of past lives comes straight after sammāsamādhi, see e.g. MN 27. Another is the description found in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118), where the contemplation of the impermanence and cessation of the khandhas (the personality groups affected by grasping) comes straight after the attainment of jhāna (here called the liberation of mind). The description of insight at MN 52 and MN 64 is similar to that of MN 118.

Yes, I think this is pretty much it. Or you could just incline the mind after the meditation. Or most likely a bit of both.

I believe it is very rare. It is rare enough for anyone to get consistently good samādhi, let alone the insights that are based on that samādhi. It is easy to underestimate the commitment and perseverance that is needed to practice the Buddhist path to its end. This why monasticism is so useful.


Wonderful Bhante.

Would it be accurate to say that, at least from the perspective of the suttas, samma samadhi in the context of the noble eightfold path has the very crucial role of facilitating the transformation of “theoretical” right view into insight-based right view? And this should to some extent, involve a realization through a vision-like experience of how painful the very process of continued existence has been to the point?

Moreover, do the three visions (tevijja) occur as well in the northern canonical parallels of the Tibetan and Chinese Tripitakas?

Last, but not least, is there any sutta which links the samma-samadhi-driven vision and knowledge to the transforming cooling down of the fetters (samyojanas), which mark the gradual attainments along the path to liberation (stream-entry -> arahantship)?

With reverence and respect,



Yes, but the nature of the vision can vary considerably. By recollecting your past lives you get a very real and vivid experience of this. By seeing the five personality groups affected by grasping (khandhas) as subject to the three characteristics, you see the nature of the khandhas in the present moment, and by inference you know they have always been the same. This inference includes an understanding of rebirth, through seeing the direct causal relationship between craving and continued existence.

Yes, the three occur in the Āgamas translated into Chinese. But whereas in the Pali all three invariably occur at the end of the gradual training, in the Chinese the ending of the āsavas is often the only one of the three mentioned. It seems likely to me that where the Pali has all three while the Chinese only one of them, the version in Chinese is more likely to be the authentic one, since the uniformity of the Pali tradition would seem to the outcome of a process of normalisation.

There is MN 64, which says that it is impossible to eliminate the five lower fetters without jhāna. Then there is MN 2, which relates the elimination of the three first fetters (that is, stream-entry) to insight.


Ven Bodhi analyses the indispensability of jhana for attaining noble levels in his essay

The Jhānas and the Lay Disciple According to the Pāli Suttas

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