The ontology of rebirth, or, Does it make sense to be a bodhisattva?
If one wants to be a bodhisattva, the first question one has to ask is, Does this project really make sense? The whole basis of the bodhisattva ideal is that one should dedicate a long time to perfecting certain mental characteristics to render one the most perfect possible vehicle of teaching for the liberation of suffering beings. This is all sounds very heroic and altruistic, but there are several problems with this notion.
- The first problem is that this is not what the historical Buddha taught his disciples to do. Forget the teaching of “provisional vehicles” in the Mahayana sutras: modern scholarship is emphatic these texts didn’t issue from the Buddha’s mouth but were later creations credited to him. (This sort of after-the-fact, alleged authorship happened all the time in the ancient world. Consider, e.g., the deutero-Pauline and pastoral epistles, all of which are dubiously attributed to Paul.) The Buddha urged his disciples to guarantee their liberation as fast possible, to practice meditation like their hair was on fire. He did not encourage anyone to hang around and wait for years, not to mention lifetimes, to perfect themselves so they could do a better job getting enlightened and teaching later on. So anyone taking the route of the bodhisattva is not following what the historical Buddha taught.
- Let’s face it: our characters are, to an extent, determined by our genes. This can be seen in the dispositions of infants and how they develop later as adults. (Note: there’s a very strong correlation!) This means fundamentally changing ourselves, training our characters, is a very difficult if not impossible task. When you start studying bodhisattva literature (one of the main points of this blog) you will realize that very few people are equipped for this task, which is to say they are not ripe for becoming Buddha’s. We can admire people like Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela for their mental toughness, their ability to sacrifice present pleasures for later, worthy gains, to demonstrate compassion and care for others. But as extraordinary as any of them is/was, none of them had all the “requisites of enlightenment” (bodhisambhara) essential for the complete awakening of a Buddha. (I’m stating this per the orthodox opinion. In later posts I want to explore whether or not this orthodoxy is meaningful from a practical standpoint.) What I’m getting at is that this project has to extend past this particular life–unless of course you already are a bodhisattva and this is your last birth. Which begs the question: Is there any good reason to believe in rebirth? I happen to think there is, but of course, I may be wrong. (See here for one of my reasons.) If there is rebirth, then you have all the time in the world; actually, you have much more time than that–you have all the time in the universe, through every cycle of creation and destruction, and in multiple universes to boot. (Scientific opinion seems to be converging on the idea of a multiverse. See, e.g., the eye-opening article “Starting Point” by Steve Nadis on the work of Tufts University cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin in the September 2013 issue of Discover.) If rebirth is not the case, then in this one fleeting life you’ve thrown away the opportunity to experience what a liberated human mind is like.
- Let us assume rebirth is a fact and you’ve determined on the bodhisattva career (despite the Buddha’s advice). What is the guarantee you’ll have any recollection of this decision in a later life? In fact, what’s to stop you from going senile in this life and forgetting who your spouse is, not to mention all your valiant resolutions (like giving up porn or cigarettes or whatever)? Remembering that you wanted to become a Buddha may be really tough when you’re reborn as a sponge or even just as a regular bloke hauling fish for a living.
- Even if you manage to remember the awe-inspiring decision you made 100,000 lifetimes ago, how can you be sure you’ll feel like sticking with it? I mean, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a paleontologist; I didn’t become a paleontologist. Then I wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; I didn’t do that either. For most of the past fifteen years I wanted to be a best selling novelist, but, needless to say, that didn’t pan out. Now… Hell, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Given the fickleness of thought, how can anyone expect to make up their mind for a lifetime, not to mention for uncounted cosmic cycles.
- Actually, when I said “uncounted cosmic cycles” I was being rather vague. The texts (e.g. Acaryiya Dhammapala’s A Treatise On the Paramis) cite eight incalculables (asankheyya) and a hundred thousand great eons (mahakappa) as the median length of time required for the task, but it could take as long as twice that! How long, exactly, are eight incalculables and a hundred thousand great eons? Well, by definition their length is incalculable and if you look about online for definitions and specs you’ll see that after a certain point the length of time in countable years stops meaning anything. It might as well be forever. A job that takes forever or almost forever is a job best not started.
These are just a few of the problems I’m noticing with the bodhisattva project. I’m sure there are other problems people more astute than I am could think up. That said, I still think it is not such a bad idea to dedicate oneself to being a bodhisattva. In fact, it probably is the best thing you could possibly do. More on this in my next post, where I will proceed to refute everything I said in this post.