Sunday, July 24, 2011

Do Bodhisattvas Go To Heaven?

Twenty-Five Bodhisattvas Descending from Heaven  -  Japanese painting c. 1300
In the legal business we say there are two times you should never speculate: when you need to, and when you don't need to. I'm pretty sure some of this post falls into the second category. 

Once again I feel liberated by my profound ignorance about the subject matter.

I can hear the Christian and Buddhist scholars getting up to leave, so I'll skip right to the last page.  My answer to the question, meant in the nicest possible way, is "At the moment, I don't see why I should care." Not just about the fate of bodhisattvas, but about the whole question of what will happen to me after death.

In my limited understanding, a bodhisattva is a being who has chosen to become awakened just to relieve the suffering of all other beings, forgoing buddhahood, whatever that may mean, until everyone else gets there first. Sounds very heroic and celestial, but I would focus on the words "has chosen" and "relieve the suffering," so that the term can include the likes of you and me. With no authority whatsoever, I would say that a frilly cloud to stand on and almost-perfect enlightenment are not prerequisites - just an intention to put others first.

Then what? For me, I tend to favour a ‘need to know’ approach. Although I’m very curious about a lot of things, at the moment, Buddhist and Christian cosmologies aren’t high on my list. Being part scientist, I’m reluctant to take anyone’s word for things like reincarnation and heaven, hell, purgatory and the recently abolished limbo. When I know that I need to know, then I’ll try to find someone who’s been there and lived to tell the tale.

In any discussion about these concepts, my only question is, “What would I do differently at this moment if there really is reincarnation and/or heaven and hell?” I’m hard pressed to think of anything. This may have something to do with choosing the bodhisattva path.

Assuming that going to heaven is desirable and going to hell is not, and assuming that being reincarnated as a lower life form or as a more miserable person is to be avoided, and assuming further that virtuous or selfless actions will land you in heaven rather than hell, or cause you to be reborn as a more evolved being, or even not be reborn at all, then knowing all this, would we not choose to act compassionately, for the benefit of all beings?

Wait a minute – this sounds like the qualities of a bodhisattva.

So the upshot seems to be, once we put our feet on the bodhisattva path, the afterlife becomes less relevant.  Who knows – perhaps going to heaven may not be desirable, as there is probably a lot more suffering in hell.

If I may make an exhortation:  May we just practice hard, whatever our practice is, take aim at the next thing that needs our kind attention, and let our arrows fly!


  1. such a wonderful post. I was talking very recently with a friend as we were hiking through the woods and she rescued a tiny insect from sure death. She likes to rescue at least one creature a day: an insect, a lizard, a bird, whatever. Because, she says, it's the right thing to do. We spoke about whether or not our good acts would land us in a good place in the afterlife, but she doesn't believe in an afterlife and I just don't know. So we agreed that to do the good and right thing here and now, on this earth, just feels right. Doesn't matter if it leads to anything other than the outcome of the immediate event.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the afterlife becomes less relevant for those on a true path. It is what it is, as they say!

    And, by the way, very cool painting.

  2. "Let the arrows fly!" I love your summation of it all! Only kindness matters - Thank you for this post.

  3. Made me think! I'm of the persuasion that being such an expert at creating Hell, I would do best going into the hell realms as a consultant. Of course, I would have to get rid of all those Hell Realm Managers who are totally ineffective at running the departments that I would likely be turned into a double agent for Bodhicitta. Such a conundrum. ;-)

  4. Thanks, Tara. I love those critter rescue stories! It's such a mystery and a miracle that we seem to know when something is the right thing to do. Actually doing it can be another thing....

    Bea, thank you for your kind words. BTW I love your avatar!

    Oh Genju, I think you just invented a new mystery genre - cosmic espionage. I'll keep an eye out for your first book!

  5. I saw your post here and on this subject on the authentic Buddhist site,

    As a neophyte, I had to check on dhammapada.
    It is interesting to note, you do not consider Buddhist scripture necessarily worth discussing.
    This would be analgolous to a a "Bible-beliving Christian" not considering the Bible (as interpreted by literalists) worth discussing.

    If you get my drift.

    Of course I am also just a student but I recognize logic the Mystical and the Transcendent. And from a logical perspective, it takes this recognition to do what boddhisatvas have done, although from an-authentic-Buddhist perspective, better.

    Which kind of answers your question. Other than to point out you probably would not even be attempting to function in even "secular" "Buddhist" terminology were it not for the Tradition and the texts, just Classical Music, no jazz derivative offshoot.

    But perhaps your secular impulse to tacitly emulate in some small manner the boddhisattva speaks to a stirring, an as yet unawakened spark, which might or might not continue to be attenuated.

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful post. To pursue your analogy, I didn't intend to imply that I was a "scripture-believing Buddhist" - in my post on The Zennist, I said I only use the label Buddhist because it seems the best fit. I also didn't intend to imply that I think all Buddhist scripture is not worth discussing - on this post, I expressed a disinclination to explore the concepts of heaven and hell and reincarnation; on the Zennist, a disinclination to explore the "world beyond", the "worlds of the gods."

    In my Zen practice, there are sutras I feel drawn to, e.g. the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, but not because of who said them, but because they ring true.

    Your last paragraph is delightful! May we always remain beginners!

  7. Well, let's get the right tone to complete the analogy, which if employed might depict more truth.

    A self-identified Unitarian, overtly denying basic Chistian doctrine derived from the New Testament, posts on an orthodox Christian blog.

    He precociously claims "although I'm a Unitarian
    who does not accept the New Testament's basics, I do like sections of same which I wrench (he might say select) from the whole and use on my own terms. I also insist on calling myself a "Christian layman" with a "Christian practise" while I wonder 'aloud' on authentic Christian sites, why you folks waste time and energy exploring and believing in the Atonement, the Resurrection, etc."

  8. OK let's keep the analogy and the analysis accurate. In your example, the Unitarian was "overtly denying basic Christian doctrine" and "does not accept the New Testament's basics"; I merely said, "While open to the existence of infinite dimensions and interpenetrating worlds beyond, I haven't grasped the point of discussing them." Hardly analogous.

    Secondly, your Unitarian wonders why Christians "waste time and energy exploring and believing in the Atonement, the Resurrection, etc."; I simply said I have trouble with the cerebration required to analyze the subject of that blog post, which was "The World Beyond", including the "worlds of the gods".

    If you stand by your analogy, then surely you are saying that the concept of the world beyond is as central a tenet of Buddhism as the atonement and resurrection are of Christianity.

    If that is the case, then I have to respectfully disagree with you. I would say the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels and the Precepts, all of which I can relate to, are far more central to Buddhism than belief in the "world beyond" or even reincarnation.

    Just as there is a wide range of Christian denominations interpreting the Bible more or less literally, having differing beliefs about the historicity of the events which it relates, and even the validity of various apocryphal chapters, surely there is a similarly wide range of Buddhist 'denominations' with equally varied emphases.

    My question for you is this: "What denomination of Buddhism assigns belief in the 'world beyond' to as central a place as almost all denominations of Christianity assign belief in the atonement and resurrection?"

  9. Hi there! I am really interested in one thing, could you be so kind and please tell us your place of origin?


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