Memories, Dreams, Reflections Publisher: Vintage; Revised Edition edition

[Carl Jung on Life After Death]

One widespread myth of the hereafter is formed by the ideas and images centering on reincarnation.

In one country whose intellectual culture is highly complex and much older than ours I am, of course,
referring to India the idea of reincarnation is as much taken for granted as, among us, the idea that God created the world, or that there is a spiritus rector.

Cultivated Hindus know that we do not share their ideas about this, but that does not trouble them.

In keeping with the spirit of the East, the succession of birth and death is viewed as an endless continuity, as an eternal wheel rolling on forever without a goal, Man lives and attains knowledge and dies and begins again from the beginning.

Only with the Buddha does the idea of a goal emerge, namely, the overcoming of earthly existence.

The mythic needs of the Occidental call for an evolutionary cosmogony with a beginning and a goal.

The Occidental rebels against a cosmogony with a beginning and mere end, just as he cannot accept the idea of a static, self-contained, eternal cycle of events.

The Oriental, on the other hand, seems able to come to terms with this idea.

Apparently there is no unanimous feeling about the nature of the world, any more than there is general agreement among contemporary astronomers on this question.

To Western man, the meaninglessness of a merely static universe is unbearable.

He must assume that it has meaning.

The Oriental does not need to make this assumption; rather, he himself embodies it.

Whereas the Occidental feels the need to complete the meaning of the world, the Oriental strives for the fulfillment of meaning in man, stripping the world and existence from himself (Buddha).

I would say that both are right.

Western man seems predominantly extraverted, Eastern man predominantly introverted.

The former projects the meaning and considers that it exists in objects; the latter feels the meaning in himself. But the meaning is both without and within.

The idea of rebirth is inseparable from that of karma.

The crucial question is whether a man’s karma is personal or not.

If it is, then the preordained destiny with which a man enters life represents an achievement of previous lives, and a personal continuity therefore exists.

If, however, this is not so, and an impersonal karma is seized upon in the act of birth, then that karma is incarnated again without there being any personal continuity.

Buddha was twice asked by his disciples whether man’s karma is personal or not.

Each time he fended off the question, and did not go into the matter; to know this, he said, would not contribute to liberating oneself from the illusion of existence.

Buddha considered it far more useful for his disciples to meditate upon the Nidana chain, that is, upon birth, life, old age, and death, and upon the cause and effect of suffering.

I know no answer to the question of whether the karma which I live is the outcome of my past lives, or whether it is not rather the achievement of my ancestors, whose heritage comes together in me.

Am I a combination of the lives of these ancestors and do I embody these lives again? Have I lived before in the past as a specific personality, and did I progress so far in that life that I am now able to seek a solution? I do not know.

Buddha left the question open, and I like to assume that he himself did not know with certainty.

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 to be born again because I had not fulfilled the task that was given
to me.

When I die, my deeds will follow along with me that is how I imagine it.

I will bring with me what I have done.

In the meantime it is important to insure that I do not stand at the end with empty hands.

Buddha, too, seems to have had this thought when he tried to keep his disciples from wasting time on useless speculation.

The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me.

Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate my answer, for otherwise I am dependent upon the world’s answer.

That is a supra-personal life task, which I accomplish only by effort and with difficulty.

Perhaps it is a question which preoccupied my ancestors, and which they could not answer.

Could that be why I am so impressed by the fact that the conclusion of Faust contains no solution?

Or by the problem on which Nietzsche foundered: the Dionysian side of life, to which the Christian seems to have lost the way?

Or is it the restless Wotan-Hermes of my Alemannic and Prankish ancestors who poses challenging riddles?

What I feel to be the resultant of my ancestors’ lives, or a karma acquired in a previous personal life, might perhaps equally well be an impersonal archetype which today presses hard on everyone and has taken a particular hold upon me an archetype such as, for example, the development over the centuries of the divine triad and its confrontation with the feminine principle; or the still pending answer to the Gnostic question as to the origin of evil, or, to put it another way, the incompleteness of the Christian God-image.

I also think of the possibility that through the achievement of an individual a question enters the world, to which he must provide some kind of answer.

For example, my way of posing the question as well as my answer may be unsatisfactory.

That being so, someone who has my karma or I myself would have to be reborn in order to give a more complete answer.

It might happen that I would not be reborn again so long as the world needed no such answer, and that I would be entitled to several hundred years of peace until someone was once more needed who took an interest in these matters and could profitably tackle the task anew.

I imagine that for a while a period of rest could ensue, until the stint I had done in my lifetime needed to be taken up again.

The question of karma is obscure to me, as is also the problem of personal rebirth or of the transmigration of souls.

“With a free and open mind” I listen attentively to the Indian doctrine of rebirth, and look around in the world of my own experience to see whether somewhere and somehow there is some authentic sign pointing toward reincarnation.

Naturally, I do not count the relatively numerous testimonies, here in the West, to the belief in reincarnation.

A belief proves to me only the phenomenon of belief, not the content of the belief.

This I must see revealed empirically in order to accept it.

Until a few years ago I could not discover anything convincing in this respect, although I kept a sharp lookout for any such signs.

Recently, however, I observed in myself a series of dreams which would seem to describe the process of reincarnation in a deceased person of my acquaintance.

But I have never come across any such dreams in other persons, and therefore have no basis for comparison.

Since this observation is subjective and unique, I prefer only to mention its existence and not to go into it any further.

I must confess, however, that after this experience I view the problem of reincarnation with somewhat different eyes, though without being in a position to assert a definite opinion.

If we assume that life continues “there,” we cannot conceive of any other form of existence except a psychic one; for the life of the psyche requires no space and no time.

Psychic existence, and above all the inner images with which we are here concerned, supply the material for all mythic speculations about a life in the hereafter, and I imagine that life as a continuance in the world of images.

Thus the psyche might be that existence in which the hereafter or the land of the dead is located.

From the psychological point of view, life in the hereafter would seem to be a logical continuation of the psychic life of old age.

With increasing age, contemplation, and reflection, the inner images naturally play an ever greater part in man’s life. “Your old men shall dream dreams”.

That, to be sure, presupposes that the psyches of the old men have not become wooden, or entirely petrified sero medicina paratur cum mala per longas convaluere moras.

In old age one begins to let memories unroll before the mind’s eye and, musing, to recognize oneself in the inner and outer images of the past.

This is like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter, just as, in Plato’s view, philosophy is a preparation for death. ~Carl Jung, Memories Dreams and Reflections