This question is really very specifically for David and Nancy Reigle, our resident Tibetan Buddhism experts, though of course anybody else who wants to chime in is welcome as well.
I've been getting my baptism in TIbetan Buddhism recently (took refuge, followed a two week FPMT course, expect to be active in the Gelugpa movement a LOT from now on).
Of course this leaves me with the issue of how to combine what I learned in theosophy with what I'm now learning from Tibetan Buddhist teachers. There are clear discrepancies.
The main issue, given the importance of the topic, is karma and rebirth.
On the one hand the discrepancy doesn't appear as large as commonly reported, because these teachers insist that while there is no constant, unchanging something that is born again and again, they do insist that there is a stream of consciousness that goes from one life to the next. This is good enough for me, though fitting it on top of our theosophical terminology is perhaps hard. Still, our 'atma-buddhi-higher-manas' is not unchanging either, so perhaps the discrepancy really is only imaginary. Even 'atma-buddhi' isn't unchanging. It's only when we get to atma-proper that the suggestion of something unchanging starts to appear. But if you look at how Blavatsky talks about that, it's definitely at least an option to interpret even atma as changing.
Anyhow - that's not my question for today.
When it comes to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it's well known that rebirth is thought to take place within 49 days. What's less well known is that this rebirth is thought to usually NOT take place in the human realm. This is stressed as a stimulus for spiritual practice. After all, as theosophy too agrees, a human rebirth is the desirable kind.
This rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism can take place in countless heavens, a few hells, as a human being and as an animal. The only disadvantage to those heavens is, as I understand it, (but I'm no expert just yet) that the stay there isn't endless. What if the stay there is generally a few thousand years? Doesn't that make the term of staying there a lot like our devachan?
In theosophy rebirth (as a human) is said to often taken thousands of years too - because we spend most of our time contemplating the good of our last life (my interpretation of devachan). In short: a sort of self-created heaven.
Blavatsky too stresses that it would be preferable to, as the real practitioners do, skip or shorten devachan and simply be reborn as quickly as possible - to not take a break, to go on working for the benefit of humanity.
I wonder - does putting it like that put too much strain on theosophy or Tibetan Buddhism, or is it really a way to bring together two seemingly conflicting accounts of what happens after death?
If I may, here are three contributions regarding the life as animals:
- First, our lower upadhis decay after death, and in several steps. They are in a constant process of diffusing to other beings which is already active during our life, and this process continues after death. Science talks about dynamic equilibrium or flux balance - a concept that may be very helpful for many problems.
- Second, we have many animal monads in us that help maintaining our body (bodies), and when they are released they can begin another life. And why should not some of them then live a life as an animal instead of serving a human being.
- Third, the six realms of beings as represented in the bhavachakra could (as a thought) in analogy be applied to the human state, too. The animal realm would represent humans that begin to train their will by trying to achieve happiness and avoid pain with their regard mainly directed to maintaining own and familiar survival, and so on.
An HPB factoid (Editorial comment on W.W.Westcott's Alchemy, Lucifer, Dec. 1889, p. 294):
"The cycle of the 46 Fires, the period between death and new rebirth, on Devachan. The cycle of the 49 Fires is the period between two manvantaras".