Francis Story and the Case for Rebirth

For the fiftieth anniversary of Francis Story’s death, Randy Rosenthal looks back at the life and work of the lesser-known Buddhist thinker

Randy Rosenthal
27 April 2021
Francis Story, as pictured in “The Buddhist Outlook,” published by the Buddhist Publication Society, 1973.

So much that happens to us in life seems to be the result of random factors out of our control. Some people are born into wealth, while others are born into poverty. Some have streaks of good luck, and others can’t catch a break. It often seems it’s all up to chance. But as the Buddhist thinker Francis Story wrote: “There is nothing that happens by chance. There are causes for everything, seen or unseen, known or not known. They may be spiritual or mental causes, or they may be physical; or they may be a combination of both.” He’s of course referring to karma — and you can’t have karma without rebirth.

Many contemporary Buddhist scholars and practitioners are uncomfortable talking about the concepts of karma and rebirth. The theory seems at odds with a scientific understanding of the world. We don’t like the idea of blaming someone’s karma for their own misfortune, but this law of karma is what the Buddha taught in “The Shorter Exposition of Kamma.” As Buddhist scholar and translator Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in In the Buddha’s Words, “It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that for Early Buddhism an understanding and acceptance of this principle of kamma and its fruit is an essential component of right view.” That is, right view entails “a firm conviction in the validity of the law of kamma and its unfolding through the process of rebirths.”

There is nothing that happens by chance. There are causes for everything, seen or unseen, known or not known. —Francis Story

Even so, many Buddhist scholars and practitioners don’t consider rebirth essential to their right view. My own mentor, Charles Hallisey, once asked his teacher in Sri Lanka if he believed in rebirth. His teacher thought for a moment and then answered delicately: “There is nothing in my life that I need it to explain.” We, too, might feel there’s nothing in our lives we need rebirth to explain. We might even think the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth, or that his teachings on rebirth were merely a remnant of the archaic Brahmanic world view the Buddha inherited.

When I began to seriously study Buddhism and meditation, I considered the idea of rebirth to be irrelevant. Intellectually speaking, it just didn’t make sense. Then, in my mid-twenties, I came across Francis Story’s Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, a collection of essays originally published in The Wheel and Bodhi Leaves serials. Everything changed.

It surprises me that most people have never heard of Francis Story. His book was so influential to my understanding of Buddhism, yet he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. His contribution to modern Buddhism has been long neglected, but now, in a world when we struggle to find some sense of understanding, we could use his words more than ever.

Francis Story was born in 1910 in Croydon, England. At age sixteen, he read about comparative religions and began to call himself a Buddhist. He married in 1933, studied medicine, and during served in the Medical Corps in India during World War II. There, he visited Sarnath and became a member of the Maha Bodhi Society. Tragically, his wife died while he was abroad. Distressed by this loss and the misery he’d witnessed in India, Story resolved to devote his life to studying and spreading the Buddha’s teachings.

After a brief return to England, he went back to India in 1948 and ordained as an anagarika (a lay renunciant), and took the name Priyadarshi Sugatananda. In 1950, he moved to Burma (known today as Myanmar) and founded the Burma Buddhist World-Mission. In 1954, he joined the board of The Light of Dhamma, a Buddhist quarterly. When the political violence in Burma made his work untenable, Story moved to Sri Lanka, where in 1957 he wrote essays for the Bodhi Leaves and The Wheel pamphlets of the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS). During the last decade of his life, Story focused on researching rebirth. He frequently visited the Forest Hermitage in Kandy, working closely with the German-born monk and BPS co-founder Nyanaponika Thera, who Story referred to as his “Dhamma guide” and “greatest friend.”

Story died of bone cancer in 1971 at age 61. Following his death, Venerable Nyanaponika edited three volumes of his writings, which BPS published in the mid-seventies. When I read them three decades later, these books completely changed my understanding of the world — or, rather, of the world-systems.

Illustration by Francis Story, via the Buddhist Publication Society

In a letter to a friend, Herman Hesse wrote that “Buddhism adopts a rational attitude toward the world without gods.” However, anyone familiar with the Pali Canon nikāyas knows that gods are abundant in the Buddha’s discourses. These devas, or radiant ones, are joined by a plethora of other invisible beings: petas, asuras, yakkhas, brahmās, nāgas, gandhabbas, and māras. When I took my first Vipassana course, I wasn’t familiar with the nikāyas, and whenever S.N. Goenka mentioned these beings, as he frequently does during his taped discourses and chanting, I had no idea what he was talking about. It wasn’t until I read Story’s essays, particularly “Of Gods and Men” and “Gods and Their Place in Buddhism,” that I not only began to accept their existence, but the theologies of all other religions suddenly made sense. The Greek and Roman gods, deities of the Hindu pantheon, spirits of the Native Americans, djinns, demons, seraphim, cherubim, Yahweh, and Allah — they all fit within Buddhist cosmology as beings in one of the thirty-one planes of existence in which rebirth takes place. As Story reasons, “It is probable that the more primitive religions originated from contact with the lower Devas, while the higher religions, or the higher forms that evolved from the primitive, owe their inspiration to yogic experience of the Brahma worlds.”

More than his essays, however, I remember being affected by Story’s “dialogues on the dhamma.” These are essentially amateur attempts at fiction, a genre in which Story wasn’t particularly talented. And yet, his dialogues are profoundly illuminating. Like The Milindapañha (The Questions of King Milinda), they elucidate the common questions that arise when one studies Buddhist doctrine. In “Dhamma Talks at the Shwe Dagon,” the dialogue is between an “Old Bhikkhu” and a Westerner called “the Stranger.” At one point, after learning that Buddhists don’t believe in a soul, the Stranger asks, “What is it that is reborn?” “There is nothing that is reborn,” the Old Bhikkhu answers. “It is only the continuity-principle of cause and effect that brings about rebirth, or re-arising.” He elaborates that rebirth is the same from one life to another as it is from one moment to another — the perpetual birth and death of moments of consciousness.

In his essay “Rebirth and the Western Thinker,” Story attempts a precise description of the process of rebirth. “This is in fact what happens,” he writes:

The thought-energy, an impersonal force carrying with it only its craving-impulse and the potentialities it has generated (its kamma) is released at death, the last thought-moment it generates conditioning the rebirth-consciousness. Like any other form of energy, it is attracted to a suitable medium for its new physical manifestation, and the nature of that medium is determined by the quality of the dominant mental impulse, or in other words, its Kamma-formation (Sankhāra). Just as the electric current can manifest under suitable conditions as heat, light, sound or power, so the thought-energy being drawn to a suitable combination of genetic conditions, works upon them to produce a new manifestation according to its peculiar nature. If its past characteristics, revivified in the last thought-moment are of a low order, it finds its new sphere of manifestation in a low order of being; that is to say in the realms of suffering or the animal world. If of a high order, it produces its effect (the new life), in one of the heavenly or spiritual realms. If it is neither more nor less than human it produces a human rebirth. By law of attraction it gravitates towards the conditions to which it has been attuned by past volitional activity.

Similarly, the Old Bhikkhu in the dialogue clarifies that rebirth does not only happen on this earth, or in human form. “People are reborn here sometimes after long periods — and by that I mean eons — of life or successive lives in other realms. The memory of such lives only persists, if at all, in vague impressions.”

If a previous life was in one of the lower forms, where consciousness is dim, people can rarely remember it. Those most likely to recall memories of past lives, the Old Bhikkhu explains, “are beings reborn from the human state into the human state again. Particularly if they had in the previous life some strong impression — which means in effect something associated with a strong urge or craving-impulse — to carry forward. They are the people who tend to remember, and who also can provide actual proof of their former lives.”

It was these people and this “actual proof” that interested Francis Story in his later years, during which he wrote a number of essays and case studies on the subject. Venerable Nyanaponika collected, edited, and published these pieces in Rebirth: as Doctrine and Experience.

Photo via the Buddhist Publication Society

Story began investigating rebirth cases in Burma in 1952. He heard rebirth stories from his acquaintances, many of whom were judges, doctors, and government officials. As they were people of a certain social standing and seemed trustworthy, he started taking notes. But he was not able to carry out a serious investigation in Burma. He was too occupied with his editorial work for the magazine The Light of the Dhamma, and many of rebirth cases were in parts of the country occupied by insurgents, where it was impossible for him to visit and collect evidence. Then in the sixties, he collaborated on rebirth research with psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and was able to conduct more thorough field work on the subject in India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

Cases, field work, evidence, investigations — Story’s terminology indicates the academic rigor he took in understanding rebirth. For him, his research was about discovering truth, not proving doctrine. “The ideal rebirth investigator,” he wrote, “would in fact be a combination of a private detective, examining magistrate, psychologist, philosopher and newspaper editor.” He aimed to collect as many well-attested facts as possible, scrutinize them, discover points of agreement and disagreement among cases, and then present an unbiased picture of the results, without committing himself to any final interpretation.

But what does Story mean when he refers to “facts” and “evidence”? Interviewing witnesses for testimony, and then checking their statements against records and statements from other witnesses, much in the same way a lawyer, historian, or psychiatrist will try to reconstruct as nearly as possible to what happened during particular past events. Most cases described in Rebirth are of spontaneous recall in early childhood, when memories of previous lives are still fresh. Some cases often include evidence in the form of birthmarks or deformities believed to be derived from injuries in a previous life — as the German-born scholar Bhikkhu Anālayo explains in a talk on his book Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research, the people most likely to remember their previous lives are those who died a violent death. All these factors come together in the case of Thai Sergeant Thiang San Kla, which is a telling example of Story’s research.

In 1963, Story was in Surin, in central Thailand, investigating the case of a Buddhist monk who was said to remember his past lives. Sergeant Thiang heard about Story’s work and went to meet him. Thiang had a large birthmark that spread from above his left ear to the base of his skull. Dark red, puckered, and hairless, it looked like clotted blood. He also had birthmarks resembling tattoos on both his hands and feet, and a deformed right toe. At age four, Thiang told his parents he was his father’s brother reborn. He insisted his name was Mr. Phoh, the name of his uncle, who had died three months before Thiang was born.

Accepting rebirth raises the stakes. It makes us aware we’re always on the edge of an abyss.

As soon as he could talk, Thiang told his parents about the most important events in Phoh’s life, as well as his death. He claimed he was wrongly accused of stealing cattle and attacked by some villagers. One of them threw a knife from close range, penetrating Phoh’s skull. The stabbing was at the exact spot of Thiang’s birthmark. Also, for several months before his death, Phoh suffered from a wound on his right toe, and he had protective tattoos — magical symbols believed to give immunity from weapons — on both his hands and feet, in the exact places as the markings on the hands and feet of Thiang.

Thiang also remembered seeing Phoh’s body lying on the ground and wanting to return to it. But he saw blood oozing from the wound, and his body was surrounded by people, and so he was afraid to approach. In his disembodied form, he thought of his brother and wanted to be with him. At once, he found himself in his brother’s house. There, he was drawn to his brother’s pregnant wife, and felt himself irresistibly impelled to enter her body. As a child, when Thiang told his mother about this memory, she told him that before his birth she had a dream in which Phoh appeared to her, saying that he wanted to be reborn as her son.

I’m not sure what to make of Thiang’s story, but part of it reminds me of an experience I had during my first Vipassana course. Previous to this retreat, my earliest memory was from when I was three years old. At the time, my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my younger sister, and I remember being in my parents’ room, making their bed with my older sister. Toward the end of the course, during a particularly focused meditation, I saw this memory of me and my sister making my parents’ bed. As I continued to meditate, the memory began to spread out, with more images from it than I had previously recalled. Then I saw images from before this time. Memories from when I was two. And then from when I was one. And then memories that weren’t images but feelings, sensations of being held, warmth … my memories went back and back until I was suddenly overwhelmed with a rush of bliss as I remembered being held by my mother after I was born. Then everything went black, in the darkness of the womb. And soon I was somewhere else, floating above the body of an old man. As I drifted up I could see an agrarian mountain landscape. At this point, I became too aware of what was going on, lost my concentration, and the image vanished. I’ve never had an experience like that again, but that “memory” has stuck with me ever since.

Like Story’s case studies, I don’t consider my experience to be “proof” of rebirth. When asked if there was scientific proof for rebirth, Story said the question was naïve. He thought proof was too much to expect. “Actual conviction,” he wrote, “lies only with those who have the subjective experience of remembering a previous life, and a purely subjective experience can never carry absolute authority with those who have not shared it.”

Story never wrote about his own experience with rebirth, if he had any, but his personal acceptance of it certainly altered how he viewed his own death. After his cancer progressed and he returned to England for treatment in 1971, he wrote several moving letters to Ven. Nyanaponika — copies of which Bhikkhu Bodhi helped me obtain from BPS in Kandy. In one letter, Story calmly explained that from his doctors’ perspective, “all that can be done is to give me pain-killing drugs until the time for my rebirth — which by all the signs will not be long.” Reframing death as rebirth changes how we can think about our own passing — not as an end but as a new beginning. While that may be comforting, this view can also be terrifying. After visiting a cancer clinic in Colombo, about six months before he died, Story wrote to Ven. Nyanaponika, “What a horror it is to contemplate being born again, and at the same time to know all too well that one has not eradicated the cause of rebirth.”

In any case, accepting rebirth raises the stakes. It makes us aware we’re always on the edge of an abyss, where each action we take can have long term consequences. It reminds us that every action is meaningful. “A single life,” Story mused, “meaningless in isolation, becomes charged with meaning when seen against the continuing pattern of rebirth. By it we come to know why we are what we are, and how we may become what we wish to be.” From this perspective — when our beginning is fathomless, and we’ll likely be around for many more lifetimes — I often wonder what’s the most important thing to do, in this life.

Doing good is important, for sure, as ethical values are intrinsic to the law of cause and effect. That’s why moral conduct and generosity are said to lead to rebirth in the heavenly realms. Chasing after money for money’s sake is a waste of life, but generously using one’s wealth for charitable purposes is merit, action that will have beneficial results — so long as you don’t obtain wealth through unwholesome deeds. Similarly, standing up for justice is also an act of generosity and therefore merit, but so long as you don’t get all riled up and angry in doing so. Because the most important thing, in the long run, is the purity of your own mind.

After all, your mind is what you’ll take with you. And so meditation is the greatest good. That’s why Francis Story has his Old Bhikkhu say, “The only real way to improve the world is to improve ourselves. All the rest is futility, misguided activity.” Today, when the world needs so much improvement, this is important wisdom to remember.

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he focused on Buddhist Studies, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.