Rebirth and the Stream of Life

A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics

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Mikel Burley
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mikel Burley has written a profound and intriguing study of reincarnation and its relation to karma and ethics using his depth of knowledge of religious traditions and discussions by philosophers, religious studies experts, and anthropologists  of the ethical and experiential meaning of rebirth. After initially immersing the reader in Wittgenstein’s thought on “the stream of life,” enhanced by the picture of a waterfall on the front cover, Burley says on page 4 that “the purpose of this book is to investigate philosophically the belief in rebirth in its abundant diversity. Inevitably, Buddhist and Hindu versions of the belief feature prominently … but examples are also drawn from … Native American and African traditions, ancient Greek philosophy and … some strands of New Age and Neo-Pagan thought.” Indeed, Burley describes all these strands of reincarnation, immersing the reader in the depth of philosophical considerations of the meaning and variety of its manifestations through the seven chapters. 

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the depth of “The Varieties of Rebirth,” while in chapter 2, “Remembering Having Lived Before,” Burley depicts two specific cases of rebirth as recorded and described by Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who recorded aspects of over two thousand cases of past life memory around the world. The Swarnlata Mishra case Burley cites includes her memory of two previous lives, and her ability to sing in another language. The Sri Lankan Wijeratne Hami case includes an unusual major birth defect of a withered right arm and hand that Wijeratne said were caused by his having used that arm to kill his wife in his former life (as described in Stevenson’s Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, v. 2, Praeger, 1997, 1372). Hami’s case was exceptional, as most of the major birthmarks and birth defects reported by Stevenson and others are noted as being the result of being the reincarnation of the person who received such injuries. Although not mentioned again, the Hami Wijeratne case sets the stage for Burley’s profound discussion of karma and evil in chapter 7.  This chapter also includes in-depth depictions of the Tibetan Buddhist “warrior nun” Ani Pachen who was tortured while a prisoner yet nonetheless forgave her tormentors. Burley raises the issue of whether one perceives what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps or the Chinese takeover of Tibet as morally justified/deserved as perceived by some Buddhists, including Pachen in her memoir Sorrow Mountain (with Adelaide Donnelley, Kodansha, 2000). Interestingly, Burley does not ask or state whether the perpetrators of the concentration camps or Pachen’s torturers would or should be thought of living possible future lives in which they reap karmic consequences for their behavior. 

Early in the book Burley presents the “thought experiment” of philosopher Bernard Williams,  positing the impossibility of the same person and their identity existing more than once because the features of that person only exist in them. But rather than dwelling on the reality or fallibility of Williams’s thought experiment, Burley elaborates on the variety and “the meanings that people find in rebirth beliefs in spite of philosophical objections to their very intelligibility” (60). Burley skillfully raises the issue of Williams’s “thought experiment” again in the third chapter, “Finding Meaning in Multiple Lives,” in which he describes indigenous concepts of simultaneous rebirth in Africa and North America, citing Ake Hultkrantz’s Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians: A Study in Religious Ethnology (Stockholm, 1953)Indeed, Burley notes (73n9) that Jacques Gernet  “remarks upon the need that Hultkrantz discovered to apply ‘finer divisions, definitions and labels’ to accommodate the ‘subtle conceptual nuances among certain groups.’” After all, the fact that Williams’s world view has no room for multiple simultaneous rebirth does not mean that others do not experience it. 

Burley not only shares an immense knowledge of Western, Hindu, and Buddhist scholarship on all dimensions of rebirth, he also uses his words very artfully and insightfully. I had an a-ha moment when I read Burley’s words regarding the topic of multiple simultaneous rebirth where, quoting me, Burley says, “‘The logic the Gitksan use in no way makes it impossible for person A to “be” person B’, writes Mills (1994 a:234). The scare quotes around ‘be’ could be taken to indicate some uncertainty on Mills’ part over whether this is quite the right way of putting the point” (74). I realized in reading this that the “scare quotes” represented my uncertainty about stating that some of the multiple examples of children said to be a particular person reborn represent strong evidence of the rebirth of that person, while others seem to simply represent wishful thinking. I hope to clarify this equivocation in future writing on the topic. 

About halfway through reading the book, I read Burley’s acknowledgements at the beginning. The acknowledgements end by saying, “Finally, Sue Richardson has, as always, been a constant source of love, reassurance and advice throughout this project; even given many lifetimes I could not thank her enough” (viii). The sweetness with which Burley uses the concept of rebirth here reverberates in the depth of scholarship and depth of philosophical thought represented throughout this impressive tome. No matter what ones’ perspective on the topic, the reader will be edified in reading it. 

Readers may also want to reflect on how the important philosophical concepts of the stream of life in Burley’s book were changed when Christianity expunged the concept of rebirth at the Second Council of Nicea in 553 CE. We need to appreciate and understand the changes in this stream of thought with the same philosophical and religious studies acumen present throughout Burley’s significant work on reincarnation, karma, and ethics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Antonia Mills is Professor of Emerita o First Nation Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. He is the author of three previous books, including Contemplating Religious Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and D. Z. Phillips (2012). He is also a co-editor of Language, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond (2012).



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