Reincarnation is a dance. It’s a movement of life to the rhythm of the universe. The idea is simple. There is spirit and there is matter, and they join together—one as one dancing partner and one as the other. The two together make a dance. They’re together for a time while they’re on the dance floor, and then they separate and go their individual ways for a while. And then they come together and dance again, and it goes on forever.

The spirit, the eternal part of our being, is indescribable and limitless. We are eternal spirits. As spirits we have always existed in a generalized form, since we are all part of the universe, the spirit of the universe. As individual spirits, we’ve existed for a timeless time. And in that time, we have participated in the dance of reincarnation. Reincarnation means simply that we have lived before, we live now and we’ll live again, that there is no end to life and that death is only a brief pause in our journey. It’s a rest. When we have reached the end of a lifetime, we rest. The dancers take a break. And then off we go again, with a new partner, with a new body, with a new life.

Reincarnation is a cyclic process. The idea is that there are endless levels of creation, different universes, you might say, or dimensions. And in each one, something similar is taking place, evolution, the evolution of spirit through matter. Now, to say that matter and spirit are different is a way of talking. It’s a way of trying to discuss something. They’re not necessarily different in that they both come from the eternal light. And the samsara, the world of experience, temporal experience, and nirvana, the world of enlightenment, are really one. That’s an apprehension that you will have some day in the world of enlightened experience. But for discussion purposes, it’s certainly a lot easier to separate them.

Reincarnation is a process that’s going on in endless dimensions. But let’s just look at our own because, while the forms differ, the process is the same. If we can understand how one city works, while it won’t tell us how all cities are or all about them, it’ll give us a central understanding that’s probably applicable in most situations.

In this universe, meaning the world of the earth that we live on, people are at different levels of evolution. They may all have human bodies, but the souls are different. Some souls are more advanced. Some souls are less advanced—advanced in the sense that they are more aware of their possibilities. Advanced souls seek enlightenment. Souls that are not as advanced seek happiness and pleasure in sensorial experience. The more advanced soul has learned that happiness, that fulfillment, doesn’t really come from simply leading a physical life. It can be enjoyable. It can be painful. It can be a combination of both. But real happiness comes from absorption in the world of spirit, in the world of light, in the worlds of enlightenment.

The advanced soul is really the discussion point in our journey through reincarnation. Your interest in the subject would suggest that you are more advanced than most individuals because most individuals on earth are not drawn to the higher light at this time. That doesn’t in any way make you, or anyone who’s interested in such things, superior to anyone else. If you’re in eighth grade, you’re not better than someone who’s in the fourth grade. You were in fourth grade, now you are in eighth. The people in fourth will one day be in eighth. It’s a progression.

But what’s interesting about reincarnation, from the point of view of the more advanced soul, let’s say, is how the process works, that is, “Where am I? What are my possibilities? Is there some way that I can know this system better so that I can gain more out of it?” That’s the perspective of the more advanced soul. And our concerns are really twofold. One is the experience of this life, and the other is the experience between lifetimes. The experience of the next life is too far away to really be concerned with, and it will be an outgrowth of this incarnation and what happens between birth and death.

There’s not much we can do about past lives. They’re done. There is not much we can do about our future life in that it hasn’t occurred yet. But our knowledge and our experience, our wisdom, can assist us in gaining more from this life, which will correctly set up our next life. And of course, it can also assist us during the intermediate stage of the bardo plane, when we’re between lives, between birth, death and rebirth, in between all things.

If in this life you have a sense that you have lived before—it’s a feeling, it’s an understanding, a knowing, a silent knowing—this is a very helpful thing because it enables you to deal happily with our day-to-day lives, with your day-to-day life. If you know that you’ve lived before, that you’ve had many, many lives, countless lives, then what happens in this life is not quite as traumatic. If this is the only life that you lead, then everything assumes a great importance, perhaps too great an importance. We have to get everything out of life and perhaps we overdo it. If today you’re alive and you suspect you’ll be alive tomorrow, we enjoy today but there will be a tomorrow, and we don’t have to fit everything into today. We don’t have to have every experience today. We don’t have to know every happiness or have every piece of knowledge today because there is tomorrow.

When you know that there are future lives, it’s not necessary for you to cram everything into this lifetime. You can enjoy this lifetime, follow your interests, go with the flow of your life and know that it will lead you to a better life in your next incarnation. Reincarnation is the journey of hope because in each lifetime, we move forward to a place that’s better than our last lifetime, a place inside of ourselves, an awareness. Think of reincarnation as school. When you go to school you’re in first grade, and then there’s the summer vacation. Then there’s second grade and the summer vacation. You don’t go back to the previous grade, of course, unless you failed the course. And if you do, you take those courses again and then move on. In summer vacation is a respite. It’s a chance just to relax, to have fun, to do something different because you just can’t keep learning all the time. You don’t learn much. After a while you burn out.

Reincarnation works something like that. In this lifetime, you are at the level of your current awareness. That’s your subject. The subject you are studying today is your life, and what can you do with the fabric of the life that you have, to become happier, to become more knowledgeable, to become more balanced, to become more free. How can you use that fiber, that texture? How can you change it? How can you interact with it, to get to a better place, a place you enjoy more, inside your mind?

If you do well with this life, then that knowledge, that awareness, will be held within you, within the causal structure, the part of us that lives from one lifetime to another. And it will be available to you in your next life and in future lives, not necessarily at the moment of birth. But if you meditate, it will come back to you. If, in this lifetime, you don’t meet the challenge, you don’t learn anything new, if you just kind of veg-out in this lifetime, in this incarnation, then you’ll be right back in the same place in your next life. Then you can take another shot at it.

Knowing about reincarnation helps us relax, in other words. It helps us enjoy what we enjoy, and it assists us with an understanding of death and dying. When we see someone that we love dying, it’s not an ending. It’s just another step, or maybe a new beginning. And while we’re sad to see our friends go away for summer vacation, there’s a sense that we can be with them again—if that is something we would like to do. And certainly, there is no sense of loss at death. Death is not an ending. Death is not the end, quite the contrary. Knowing this makes the journey through life—dealing with our own death and the deaths of those we love—much easier.

We can be alive and overcome this fear of death that seems to haunt so many people, particularly older people. Also, there is something we can do. We can gain more knowledge and more power in this lifetime. And even if sometimes in an incarnation you get a feeling of frustration—it’s just not turning out the way you want it to on a physical level—if you pull your power together, if you meditate deeply, if you learn from life, if you study it, then no matter what happens to you physically—if your situation is good or bad—you will have gained from this life.

No lifetime is a loss if you’ve learned something, because that learning stays with you. And if you find yourself in very difficult or painful circumstances, if you can look on the bright side and if you can learn from these things, then there’s no sense of loss. There’s no such thing as a wasted life, if you’ve learned.

Reincarnation is the evolution of spirit through matter. Over thousands and millions of lifetimes, the soul evolves. It comes into light. The growth is slow. The progression is steady. All souls, however, do not reach enlightenment. Enlightenment exists within all souls and all things. But some souls reach a plateau, a certain peak, and then they stay there. Some souls actually decline at a certain point and go into different cycles. In other words, some people have the idea that reincarnation means, or the theory of reincarnation is, that the soul starts in a state of ignorance and eventually progresses to enlightenment, and that all beings eventually reach enlightenment—sentient beings, living beings. That’s not true. That’s a simplistic way of looking at it.

Life does not necessarily have a fixed purpose. It just is. It’s an expression that’s unknowable, beautifully unknowable. And for us to superimpose human points of view and try to shape it and format it so that we’re comfortable with it, is interesting, but it’s not necessarily accurate—nor does that imply that the knowledge of life is an uncomfortable thing to have. It’s neither.

Some souls in their progression through incarnations reach a plateau, and that’s a fine place to be. They stay there, you might say. They reach—after many, many lifetimes—a certain level of knowingness, and they just continue through lifetimes that are on that level. Life after life is about the same, but they like it that way.

Some beings do go down. That is to say, they forget. The soul falls into an eclipse of itself, and there is a downward progression for a time. Some souls attain enlightenment. They actually continue to go up into the highest gradients of light. No one knows why. You could say it’s individual inclination. I’m not convinced that that’s the case. It’s just how the universe works.

But if we get above the individualized view of life, if we get above the individualized soul’s journey, you will see that we’re all one. We’re all one light. We’re all one essentiality. We’re all one beautiful, perfect, essence. And in that sense, we are all enlightened. We are all one. We are all perfect perception. And yet in the outer manifestation of life, we take on different roles, we perform different tasks.

Souls have different journeys. The best thing to know is not what everybody else does but what you do. Self-discovery essentially is about finding your own dharma, your own rhythm—knowing that and pursuing it. And if you seek enlightenment, then what you need to know is there is a definite way to progress. There’s a definite way to store and amass power, to re-awaken past life power, to continue your journey. And there’s also a way to use the moment of death and the experience of the after-death plane to advance.

I’m not big, you might say, on the after-death experience. If you’ve done a very good job in your current lifetime, if you’ve put your time in, then your next lifetime will be set up for you. Think of it like school. At the university, if you study all semester and you do a good job, finals—if they’re a cumulative exam—are not a big deal. You just have to lightly review because you’ve studied all along. When everybody else is stressing out and studying countless hours and getting mediocre grades, you’ll get an A with a light review because you’ve been progressively on the case. That’s the best way to be. It is possible to cram for a final exam, certainly. If you just have not gotten around to studying, you just might pull off a slightly better grade by doing a lot of work at the last minute. And that’s essentially what the after-death experience is. That is to say, the yoga of the bardo plane, yoga of the after-death experience, is a way to try and slightly improve your grade because you haven’t done everything that you should have done.

The best thing to do is—just do a good job in the first place. If you meditate, if you lead a clean life, if in spite of the egotism and vanity and jealousy and all the weird thoughts that pass through the mind and the personality; if in spite of these things you continue to have fun with yoga and with Buddhism; if you continue to be bright and positive and hopeful and to continually—no matter how many times you wander away from it—follow the pathway to enlightenment, then you will learn a great deal. You will amass more knowledge, and you will move to a higher incarnation. That is to say, in your next lifetime, you’ll be much wiser than you were in this one, much happier, and you won’t have to go through as much suffering. Or if you do go through suffering, you will be able to use it to advance yourself even further.

On the other hand, it’s possible, as I said, if at the last moment you had not done perhaps all that you could have with your life, if you haven’t really been on the case as much as you could be, it is possible at the last moment to make a tremendous transition—to go much higher, to experience eternity more directly and more completely by joining yourself in the bardo plane with the higher fields of enlightenment.

There is a book called The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And that book is really an instruction guide, it’s a TripTik for the after-death experience. To a certain extent, it’s very hard to understand in that it’s written mainly in symbols, and if you have advanced quite far in the practice of yoga, you might be able to understand those symbols. But essentially, it’s an instruction guide to recognize and pass—through a series of meditation practices at the time of death and after death—the bardo plane so that your next incarnation will be a higher incarnation. It’s a difficult yoga to practice, to be honest with you, and it’s something that only someone fairly adept in yogic practice to begin with can really pull off.

It’s an interesting book to read, and I think actually a lot of knowledge of The Tibetan Book of the Dead is useful for the living because the experience of the bardo plane is not something that you’re limited to at the time of death. Life is the bardo. I mean the experience of death is the experience of life, in a certain sense. The planes of consciousness that are available at the time of death are also available to the living, and the transmutations that can occur at the time of death can also occur while you’re alive. It’s useful in that sense both for the living and for the dead.

But as I have said before, the best thing to do is to do a good job with this life. If you have a sense of the timeliness of life, if you feel that, “Yes, I will be in another incarnation,” and, “Yes, it does matter what I do in this incarnation,” I think that’s the best attitude. If you feel that you are under some tremendous pressure to do everything perfectly in this lifetime so you won’t have a horrible incarnation in your next life—I think that’s a little much, personally. I think that life is not that finicky, and I think that that type of fear is unnecessary.

Some people don’t enjoy their life because they feel they’re working hard and assiduously and reaping lots of good karma for their next lifetime. And I don’t think that’s an accurate understanding of the reincarnation process. It seems to me that happiness is something that you don’t postpone. And if you’re postponing happiness, it’s something that you’ll probably never experience much of.

Happiness is something that comes from creating good karma, and the monk or the individual who feels that, “Well, I’m working so hard for everybody else and for the salvation of everyone, and that’s going to give me a great life in my next lifetime,” and they have a sense that it’s unpleasant to do what they’re doing, is not really creating any good karma and will not really have a better lifetime than their current lifetime.

A better lifetime comes from not some karmic scale but from inner knowledge. And inner knowledge makes you happy. In other words, it’s not as if someone is checking. There’s the thought, among many yogis or practitioners, that there is some giant balance scale or record where someone is keeping track, like Santa Claus is supposed to do for Christmas, and it will determine the allotment of your presents according to how good or bad you were. And that’s absurd. That’s a very exoteric understanding of reincarnation. The esoteric understanding is that what you will be in your next life is the sum total of the realizations that you’ve had in this lifetime. And the realizations that you have in this lifetime are cumulative in that they increase as you grow older, if you keep practicing yoga. And if you are happier every day, that means you’re practicing yoga. Your yoga, your Buddhism, is successful. And if you’re not happier every day, if you don’t feel better, if you don’t see a progression of development from day to day, month to month and year to year in your life, then, well, you’re certainly not practicing yoga or Buddhism—and therefore you can’t be amassing any positive karma. Positive karma is a better mental state.

Self-honesty is absolutely necessary in the practice of Buddhism. And the main point of self-honesty that you need is to ask yourself, “Am I really practicing Buddhism? Am I really practicing yoga? Am I really happier? Do I feel better about my life? Do I feel more relaxed?” Even though the circumstances of life are sometimes pressured and chaotic, aside from that, just “Do I personally feel better? Have I reached a mental state this year that’s vastly superior to the mental state I had last year?” If the answer is no, then you’ve got to start your yoga and your Buddhism over. You’re not doing it right, and certainly your practice will not lend to a better incarnation or whatever you want to call it.

In other words, I think all incarnations are this incarnation. And the primary purpose of reincarnation, the knowledge of it, is that it assures us that life is worth living, that all this is not vain and futile, and that the spiritual practice that we do in any given life is not a waste of time. Life is not a one-shot deal. It is forever, and things do count. But to be so simplistic as to think that you can just go out and help a lot of people and somehow get a better life, that’s not reincarnation as I know it. That’s fantasy. A better life comes from being happy and from inner realizations. Now if helping others adds to that, well then, it’s great. But postponing happiness—suffering, in other words, intentional suffering and the postponement of happiness—is not yoga or Buddhism, and it will not lead to a better incarnation.

If you’d like to have a better incarnation, then have one now. And if that’s your attitude and you just let go and meditate and try to be as wise and compassionate, as understanding as you can—learn patience and the higher virtues, and if you enjoy them, if you have fun with it, that’s yoga. That’s Buddhism as I know it. And then the process simply gets more and more exciting, and the ecstasy gets deeper and that’s what will go into your next life. That’s who you will be born as—the person who’s happy. While all the other babies are in the cribs in the delivery room, crying, you’ll be smiling, I guess. Well, I don’t know about that, but something like that. Have a sense of humor.

Reincarnation is not what a lot of people think. Yes, we are eternal. No, everyone does not attain enlightenment. It’s not necessary. Life is smarter than we are. Whatever is supposed to happen, happens. We’re dealing with the cosmos, and it has its own ways. To observe those ways and be in touch with them—that’s wisdom. But to try and make it fit into a neat mental package—that’s very unwise because you’ll be very surprised when you discover that it doesn’t work out that way, that that wasn’t true. Your illusions will be painful for you.

The best use of reincarnation, the best knowledge of it, is the knowledge that gives us a better life today, now—a sense that death is not the end so we’re not afraid of it, a sense that it does make sense to do a good job with our life because we have a happier life now and we’ll be happier in the next life. To be afraid of our next life because, you know, we don’t feel we’ve done a good job with this life, is not wise. It creates unhappiness now.

Your next life is another opportunity to learn what you didn’t learn in this lifetime. In other words, the knowledge of reincarnation should relax you a little bit. At the same time, it should tell you that it is worth pursuing inner knowledge because that inner knowledge will make your next life more pleasant than this one was, certainly. But the knowledge of reincarnation is not a fearful thing. It’s something that inspires you to be happy today, and it also, of course, shows you that through the practice of meditation and entering into the planes of light, you can pull all the past life realizations you’ve had into this life—or the ones that you need to make you strong and to give you the insight to go even further into higher bliss and into higher ecstasy, into greater laughter. That’s the essence of reincarnation.

The essence of all reincarnation is to have the best lifetime now that you’ve ever had, no matter what’s going on, on the earth or wherever you happen to be, and to not worry about your future life—to simply have a wonderful life now and to be as happy as possible. And happiness, of course, will come through the practice of yoga and Buddhism, by stilling the mind in meditation and by allowing the spirit to unfold. That happiness is not something you’ll lose at the end of this lifetime. It will stay with you, and in your next lifetime you will be that much further ahead. It will be easier to get back to that place than it was this time, and you’ll go further ahead.

Reincarnation is a hopeful understanding of life. It’s an accurate understanding of life. In each lifetime we grow, develop and evolve. And as long as you continue to practice meditation and yoga, you will eventually reach the world of enlightened mind and be totally free and perfectly happy and knowledgeable.

Reincarnation is the happy news, the good news. Life is eternal, and it’s worth living, and what we do in this life is not futile. Death is not the end. And our practice in this life will assist us in our next life, and if we don’t come to a perfect understanding in this lifetime, it’s not a problem. That’s what the next life is for. And yes, you can cram for exams. You can read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and if you skipped it in this lifetime, if you didn’t do the job, you can try to pick it up at the end. But that’s not our discussion point today.