A Rebirth Case Study: The Case of the Siamese Sergeant Thiang San Kla
by Francis Story
The Siamese army sergeant was a small, wiry man with rugged features and nothing remarkable about him except the large disfiguring birthmark, a capillary naevus, which spread from above his left ear towards the base of the skull. The dark red, puckered skin, on which no hair grew, looked like clotted blood.
I met him at the Military Camp at Surin, central Thailand, in 1963, when I was investigating the case of a Buddhist monk who was said to remember his previous life. The sergeant, Thiang San Kla, was sent to me by his company commander, Capt. Nit Vallasiri, as another example of a man who remembered his former life.
Cases of persons who believe that they can remember having lived before are not unknown in the West, but in the East they are much more common. This is to be expected, for ordinarily we recall most easily the things we are predisposed to remember, and the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism creates a favourable atmosphere for this kind of memory. In Western societies, children who create so-called fantasy worlds usually are discouraged at the outset. But in Asia a child’s mental creations are taken seriously as possible memories of a former life, particularly if they seem to contain material outside the child’s normal range of knowledge. Recently some of these claims have been investigated by Western parapsychologists.
During the past eighteen years, which I have spent in various Asian countries, I have come across a number of such spontaneous cases, mostly in India, Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon. They seemed to me worth methodical investigation, but only recently, thanks to financial backing from the Parapsychology Research Fund of the University of Virginia, have I been able to make detailed on-the-spot studies of them.
The case of Sgt. Thiang belongs to a most interesting category, that in which birthmarks or congenital deformities correspond to injuries remembered to have been sustained in the previous life. Briefly, this is his story:
Born in October 1924 at Ru Sai village, Surin Province, he had marks resembling tattooing on both hands and feet, in addition to the birthmark on his head. Also, his right big toe was slightly deformed, with a thickened nail and skin puckered like scar tissue.
At the age of about four he told his parents, in halting, childish speech, that he was his father’s brother reborn, and that he remembered perfectly his previous life and death. He insisted that his real name was “Mr. Phoh,” and became angry when people addressed him as “A-pong” (Baby). Phoh had been the name of his father’s brother, who had died in July 1924, three months before Thiang’s birth. As soon as he could talk, Thiang related to his parents all the most important incidents of Phoh’s life. He had been wrongly suspected of cattle stealing and was set upon by some villagers. One of them threw a knife at close range and it penetrated his skull, causing almost instantaneous death. The stabbing was at the exact spot where Thiang’s capillary naevus is situated and its position corresponds to the downward motion of the blade as it struck.
For several months before his death, Phoh had been suffering from a suppurating wound on his right big toe, and he had “protective” tattooings (magical symbols believed to give immunity from weapons) on both hands and feet, in the same places as the congenital markings now appear on the hands and feet of Thiang.
Thiang remembered seeing his own body lying on the ground, and wanting to return to it. But it was surrounded by people, and he was afraid to approach. He saw the blood oozing from the wound. His description of this part of his after-death experience is reminiscent of the accounts given by people who have had experiences of being “out of the body” while under anaesthetics or at the critical point of an illness.
In his disembodied form he then visited all his relations and friends, but felt grieved that they could not see him. He thought of his brother with affection, and wanted to be with him. At once he found himself in his brother’s house.
There he felt in some way drawn to his brother’s wife, who was having her breakfast. She was pregnant, and in Thiang’s own words he felt himself irresistibly impelled to enter her body. During the remaining months of her pregnancy he retained his consciousness, being aware sometimes of being outside her body. Later when he told his mother this, she remembered that before his birth she had a dream in which her husband’s brother, Phoh, appeared to her saying that he wanted to be reborn as her child.
Thiang’s father died about two months after the child began to talk, but he had heard enough to convince him that the little boy was indeed his brother returned from the grave. Not only had he related events of Phoh’s life which were known to them but had related things they did not know but had been able to verify from others. He knew the names of all the members of both families, and was able to recognize and identify the deceased Phoh’s friends.
When he was about fifteen, Thiang’s mother died. He was then placed in the care of an uncle, who ordered him not to talk about his previous life. When the boy disobeyed him he punished him by inflicting burns on his chest. Opening his shirt, Sgt. Thiang showed two scars where he had been burned in this way.
The late Mr. Phoh, who had been about forty at the time of his murder, had a wife, Pai, who died in 1962 at the age of 76. When Thiang was about five years old she came from her home in the village of Ar Vud, where Phoh had been living and where he had met his death, to find out whether the stories she had heard of Thiang being her husband reborn were true. Ar Vud is approximately 25 km from Thiang’s birthplace, Ru Sai, and even today there is not much communication between the two places. She brought with her a number of articles that had belonged to her late husband, mixed up with other things. Thiang easily identified the objects that had belonged to him when he was Phoh; he also proved his identity to her by relating intimate matters of their family life. When Pai became convinced that her husband indeed was reborn she became a Buddhist nun. She felt that as she was not a married woman, yet could not consider herself a widow, she had no alternative. Thiang showed me a photograph of her in nun’s robes which he evidently cherished.
Two witnesses to the story, which was well known all over the neighbourhood, had come along with Sgt. Thiang to see me. One was Sgt. Manoon Rungreung, of the same army division. He said that he had been familiar with this story of Phoh and his rebirth from childhood, and was convinced of its truth. Physically there was no resemblance between Phoh and Thiang, he said; Phoh had been “tall, fair, and handsome,” whereas Thiang is the reverse.
The second witness was a man of 72, Nai Pramaun, of the Municipality Office, Surin. He had been formerly Assistant District Officer, and was a young man at the time of Phoh’s murder. He had known the late Phoh, and had known Thiang from childhood. He told me Phoh actually was a cattle-thief and a notorious character in his lifetime. Nai Pramaun had investigated the case of the cattle theft and the murder in the course of his duties. On hearing the rumours concerning the rebirth of Phoh he had gone to see the child who was then between four and five years old. Thiang had recognized him and had addressed him by his name. He also had given correctly all the names of the people concerned in the affair. Nai Pramaun had examined the birthmarks and found they corresponded exactly with Phoh’s death wound and with the other marks he had had on his body. He found also that Thiang remembered the man who had killed him, a villager named Chang, and wanted to take revenge. Fortunately, Thiang never met Chang, who died while he was still a boy. Nai Pramaun confirmed all the other facts of the case as being precisely as Thiang had related them. He added that the story is well known throughout the district and nobody doubts it.
The interesting feature of the man’s evidence was that it completely demolished poor Thiang’s attempt to whitewash the character of his previous personality, who according to his version had been “wrongly suspected” of cattle stealing. Nai Pramaun, despite his age, appeared to be vigorous and alert, with a clear memory. He gave his evidence with assurance, replying promptly to all my questions. He was obviously a good type of old-time provincial government officer, a man thoroughly reliable and accustomed to responsibility.
The day following my interview with Sgt. Thiang, I had a visit from Capt. Nit Vallasiri, Company Commander, C Company, Military Camp, Surin. He had come to volunteer further information and to learn my opinion of the case. He said that he had long been familiar with the story of Sgt. Thiang’s previous life and confirmed everything I had already been told. He added that some years ago Sgt. Thiang had laid claim to some land adjacent to the army camp, on the grounds that it had belonged to him in his previous life as Phoh. He gave up the claim only on being assured that no court would uphold it. This incident had earned Thiang the army nickname of “The Landlord,” by which he is known to everyone. It appears that he had recognized the land as having belonged to him when he was Phoh, without being informed of this fact and, in making his claim to it, he had given correctly the circumstances in which Phoh had acquired it.
Asked about Thiang’s character and intelligence, Capt. Nit Vallasiri said he was emotionally stable, a good soldier, and had shown a high level of intelligence in army tests. His ambition and intent were to take his discharge from the Royal Thai Army and take up the post of headman of his village.
I investigated this case on January 22–24, 1963, at Changwad Surin, and my interpreter was Dr. Thavil Soon Tharaksa, Provincial Health Officer of Surin District. Two American Peace Corps workers then stationed in the locality were present during the interviews by my invitation. This very pleasant young couple afterwards confessed that Thailand had given them a new and utterly unexpected experience.
The transference of physical marks from one body to another in the process of rebirth—or rather their reproduction in a new body—is a recurring feature of many of these cases. It can be explained, I think, only on the assumption that there is a psychosomatic interaction brought about by a strong mental impression during the previous life or at the time of death. It seems to belong to the same order of mind-body relationships that can cause a weal to appear on the arm of a hypnotized person who, being told he is going to be burned, then is touched with a cold object. Thus, apart from the question of survival, the scientific study of cases of persons who claim to remember previous lives suggests the alluring possibility that by this means we may be able to throw more light on a subject of great importance in the treatment of disease—the connection between the psychic and physical aspects of personality.
© Buddhist Publication Society
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The book contains Story’s essays on the theme of rebirth as well as case studies that he undertook in collaboration with Professor Stevenson.
Offered with kind permission from the publisher.
Header image: © Luca Galuzzi 2006: Young Monk in Shalu Monastery Shigatse Tibet.
FRANCIS STORY (Anagarika Sugatananda) was born in England in 1910 and became familiar with Buddhist teachings early in his life. For 25 years he lived in Asian countries (India, Burma, and Sri Lanka) and studied diligently Buddhist philosophy. Story had a special interest in the subject of rebirth, which grew keener during his time in Burma, where he met individuals who could recall their previous lives.
Francis Story’s interest in cases of rebirth memories finally led him to assist Prof. Dr. Ian Stevenson, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, who has been actively engaged in research in this field from 1957–2002. Stevenson was frequently accompanied on his field research by Story.
He wrote prolifically on the doctrinal side of the Buddhist rebirth teaching and on its correlate, the doctrine of karma. His writings were published in three volumes by the Buddhist Publication Society. In 1971 he passed away at a London hospital after a severe case of bone cancer.
IAN STEVENSON, MD, (October 31, 1918–February 8, 2007) was a Canadian-born psychiatrist and biochemist. He was Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Parapsychology at the same University and faculty.
His interest in cases of rebirth memory and the subject of rebirth, his numerous field trips to investigate such cases in Asia and other parts of the world, and the publication of the results of his research made him a well known expert in that field.
Among the publications of Stevenson’s work related to the topic of rebirth there are: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, University of Virginia Press, 1966, four volumes of Case Studies:
- Cases of the Reincarnation Type Vol. I: Ten Cases in India, University of Virginia Press, 1975.
- Cases of the Reincarnation Type Vol. II: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka, University of Virginia Press, 1978.
- Cases of the Reincarnation Type Vol. III: Twelve Cases in Lebanon and Turkey, University of Virginia Press, 1980.
- Cases of the Reincarnation Type Vol. IV: Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma, University of Virginia Press, 1983.
- Children Who Remember Previous Lives (1987),
- Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect (1997),
- Reincarnation and Biology (1997), and
- European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003).
Papers, Essays and Debates
- “Is Enlightenment Possible? An Analysis of the Pramanavarttika by Dharmakirti with special attention to the Pramanasiddhi Chapter” by Roger Reid Jackson
- “Is Enlightenment Possible?: Dharmakirti and Rgyal Tshab Rje on Knowledge, Rebirth, No-Self and Liberation” by Roger Reid Jackson (includes a translation of Gyaltsab Je’s commentary on the Pramanasiddhi Chapter of Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika, as well as an extensive contextualization of Indian and Western philosophy and the background of Dharmakirti’s works)
- Faith In Awakening by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- A Difficult Pill: The Problem with Stephen Batchelor and Buddhism’s New Rationalists by Dennis Hunter
- Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist by B. Alan Wallace
- The Truth of Rebirth: And Why It Matters for Buddhist Practice. A short treatise explaining that the Buddha did not teach the doctrine of rebirth because he was blindly following the cultural norms of his time.