Reincarnation is on my mind a lot these days; following a weekend retreat with Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and having studied various writings of Dogen, and the Soto Zen sect; where it is quite obvious that in traditional Zen a faith in reincarnation was considered an essential, fundamental belief of their Zen practice. Now, I can understand why it would mean something to the Theravada, but it took me a while to relate the necessity of the belief to the Mahayana.
One thing that struck me was the whole point behind the Bodhisattva Vow. I did my research, and despite whatever your modern-day Zen teacher may tell you, the whole vow centers around reincarnation. In fact, the vow is pointless without it.
Both the Theravada and the Mahayana believe in Right Action, compassion, kindness… your general do-gooding. To the Theravada it was just expected—it is expected that as a Buddhist, monk, enlightened being, you will become more compassionate towards others. The Mahayana took the whole thing a step further and stated that they were going to take a vow that although they will reach enlightenment, they will not let themselves reach the point where they become Non-Returners. Non-Returning being the point where if they die they will reach Nirvana, instead of continuing in the cycle of rebirth. The goal is to purposefully deny Nirvana (although enlightened) so that they may be reborn as a human being (or bodhisattva) again and again, in order to help others find the Way as well.
Cool concept. I can understand it. However, it makes no sense to take such a vow if you are a modern-day Mahayanan who shuns the concept of reincarnation. I cannot think of one Zen practitioner that I know, or have met, who believes in reincarnation, but some of them have taken the vow, and others believe in it—that it puts them above the Theravada. I also know some Zen monks and priests who say that they do not believe in reincarnation either, but they flaunt the vow.
Think about it though.
The whole point of the vow is that even though you hit enlightenment you vow to not become a Non-Returner (as in, this being your last life), but IF you do not believe in reincarnation, then are you not a Non-Returner anyway? This life being your last (and only life). It’s a moot point.
If there is no reincarnation then this is your last life, you ARE a Non-Returner anyway, so a vow to deny yourself rebirth is pointless. And if you are denying yourself some certain level of enlightenment to fulfill the vow, but do not believe in reincarnation anyway, then it was all for nothing.
Tonight I had the chance to bring this up to some elders in the Zen community and they said that they cannot deny that this was the initial purpose of the vow. They then added though, that although they do not believe in reincarnation, they feel that the vow is just a really good metaphor, or reminder that they have to be loving, kind, compassionate, and put the needs of others above themselves.
I asked them though, “So to boil it down some… you are all basically promising to be really, really, cool to people?” That is what the vow means to you now?
Look, I don’t know where I am going with this, but personally… if there was such a thing as full-enlightenment in my reach I would like to experience that. If the only thing stopping me from doing so was some vow concerning reincarnation, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, then why would that stop me either?
It is obvious that reincarnation is a fundamental to both traditions, and to say otherwise is just self-denial. If we are going to do away with it, in our Westernization of the practice, then fine… but then we should do away with all of it… vows included.
On the other hand, I am not saying that there is no reincarnation. I don’t know. I am undecided. I do know though that what we seem to be preaching these days is pretty darn inconsistent. I could drive a bus through some of these holes.
Today a Mahayana told me that what seperated them from the Theravada was the Bodhisattva vow, but then that they did not believe in reincarnation anway–then admitting that really it was just a vow reminding them to be good to people. Do we really believe that nowhere in the 43 volumes of the Pail Canon do they have verses telling them to be nice to people? Really? Come on. Of course they do.
For more heresy please join me on my new blog at www.evolitionist.com