Following on from my post about rebirth, it seems necessary to comment on the very great differences between Western ideas of “reincarnation,” in which coming back again & again into samsara is seen as an endless amusement park ride, and the Eastern view (which is not at all monolithic, it should be noted), in which the whole point of rebirth & the accompanying theories of the functioning of karma is to get off the wheel of samsara & enter nirvana. (These are subtle ideas & come in many variations across Asia & now the globalized West as well.) Zen, specifically, drives up the level of difficulty by asserting that samsara & nirvana are one & the same thing. (The hell realms are right here with us, as well as the paradise of the gods & the animal realm, etc. Moment by moment we choose which realm to inhabit.) There is also a split within Buddhism itself as to the desirability of nirvana, or extinction, as the final goal of religious practice. The split is both historical & philosophical & manifests along the Theravada / Mahayana fault line in the history of Buddhism, with the Theravada emphasizing extinction & the Mahayana emphasizing the Bodhisattva ideal of continuing rebirths for an enlightened being until all beings are liberated. This is the Zen way & it involves being deeply engaged with the world as it is as part of one’s practice. The reality of actual conditions needs to be confronted in a spontaneous moment by moment experiencing of the various realms of existence as we traverse them in our lives.
Extinction, then, in my practice, has not been central, has not been a motivating factor; rather, it has been the bodhisattva ideal of helpfulness that has motivated my practice. Neither has my practice been worried about tracing out my “past lives”–if such things can even be said to exist.1 If the Buddha experienced his past lives at the moment of liberation, it was clearly not in narrative form. He may well have come through his enlightenment experience with the sense of his eternal aliveness, but just going over the narratives would have taken much too long, & he had other things to work out that were far more important to the initial turning of the wheel of the dharma he was about to undertake than whether he had been a lion in a previous existence, or a snake. (See the post on Reincarnation.) As for future lives, I have no senses that another “life” awaits me, as I have already said, though I leave room for the possibility of some bardo state I cannot even conceive of here in my human form.
So if nirvana is now & samsara is now, how should we comport ourselves in carrying out the Four Bodhisattva Vows? The Five Remembrances might be a good place to start. As of today I am incorporating them into my daily liturgy along with the Heart Sutra. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s version:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
These are not morbid unless reality itself if morbid. They stand as a reminder for everyone–not just sick folk & old folk. You can recite them in sunlight & in a driving rain. They stand up to scrutiny either way. What I particularly value here is the way the Remembrances reinforce the simultaneousness of nirvana & samsara. They are equally of use in sunshine & in rain, in suffering & in pleasure. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.2 I do not know how extinction will happen or if anything follows it. I know that it follows naturally from all that has gone before it, that it should be met with equanimity. And that is my practice now, to go down into the cave of despair without despairing.
- The Buddha is said to have experienced all his past lives at the moment of awakening, but the narratives of those lives are clearly a later addition to the canon. ↩
- This is a famous koan in both Soto & Renzai schools of Zen. Here is one taisho on the koan. There are many others on the internet, including one by my own teacher, Shugen Sensei. ↩