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spacer Ian Stevenson, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1978
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Ian Stevenson, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1978

Although I endeavor to meditate on a daily basis and have studied Buddhism since I was a philosophy student at Georgetown, I have never been able to embrace Buddhism’s fundamental concept of reincarnation, perhaps because of – or despite – this man who wrote what is generally considered the definitive work of Western research on the subject, “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” Suggestive is obviously the key concept here, and the author steadfastly refused to reveal to me whether he believed in the matter at hand – although it’s hard to imagine anyone, even a scientist, devoting his life to something he finds dubious. If you want to approach reincarnation scientifically, Ian Stevenson said, “you have to make up your mind on the basis of available evidence while I keep my stance in the background.” How suggestive. Stevenson was the first person in the United States to hold an endowed chair to study these things, specifically heading up the Division of Parapsychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. After attending medical school at McGill University in his native Montreal he became a psychiatrist, but ultimately grew frustrated because “so many features of human behavior aren’t adequately explained by psychological theories.” Stevenson is particularly interested in studying children, because he considers it too difficult to filter out the subconscious influences that impact adults. He’s also convinced that children, Western kids specifically, bear the toughest brunt of these experiences. “In the West, life begins at conception, the collision of ovum and sperm.” Then there’s the social environment. Personality is assembled like a Ford on the line: it has no antecedents. “This concept generates a tremendous amount of guilt. If the child is physically or psychically malformed, guilt is ascribed, just as society judges Ford guilty for defective brakes and 100,00 cars are recalled. Whereas in India, children are just people who spend a certain amount of time with the parents. The children can’t blame the parents, and vice versa, and things are more open and less judgmental.” One of Stevenson’s more controversial theories: homosexuals are people reincarnated into a body of the opposite gender. “There’s an extraordinary case of a woman in Burma who says she was once a Japanese pilot shot down during the war. She refuses to wear men’s clothing and actually refers to herself as a man trapped in the body of a woman.”

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