I was a bad boy at sesshin today, although I did complete 6 1/2 hours of zazen.
During dokusan (one-on-one interview with the roshi), I expounded on my views on reincarnation. He said that the Buddha did not teach reincarnation (transmigrating souls), but rather taught rebirth, and went on a long, long dissertation about the scriptures on the topic (such as the Buddha recalling his millions of past lives). But I held my ground and threw the cold water of science on the scriptures - human beings have only been on this planet about 2 million years; the Buddha couldn't possibly have had a million prior incarnations (unless each one only lasted 2 years).
He conceded that the teachings on rebirth, like all dharmas, are just upaya - a skillful means of encouraging practice. I argued that it may have been skillful in 500 B.C., but now it's just plain, well, embarrassing, sort of like "Intelligent Design" or creationism.
How else though, he asked me, can one account for the unfortunate things that happen to good people, if not bad karma in prior lives?
There's no need for prior lives to enter the picture. The Buddha's First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering - even the most devout, sincere practioner is not exempt from the First Noble Truth. It may appear unfair at times, but those are the consequences of existence. It's not the karma from past lives, it's the karma from living this life.
If I die, it has nothing to do with someone else being born later, and it's silly to think so. I pointed to a tree out the window. If I cut that tree down, that doesn't mean that a new tree will suddenly appear somewhere in, say, the Pacific Northwest.
"True," the roshi said, "but the tree drops seeds, and those seeds will become new trees."
Your humble narrator agreed, but I have seed to, and I've spent significant years of my life trying to spread it around as best I could - plant it in as much soil as I could plow. But if and when my seed encounters the right conditions, specifically a fertile womb and an egg, a new life arises. And as the cells of that new life subdivide and develop, the whole chain of dependent co-origination is recapitulated: form gives rise to senses, senses give rise to sensation, sensation gives rise to craving and so on and so forth to becoming, birth, and eventually old age and death.
And as for karma, it is also passed down from parent to child - the crack whore's bad karma, for example, is manifested in a future life by the bad luck of being the child of a crack whore.
"But that's just parenting . . ." he protested.
"Exactly," I agreed. "Don't overlook its miraculous and significant nature."
We finally agreed to disagree, although he admitted he could see the logic of my position.
But that wasn't being a bad boy. That's just the honest, intimate dialog of dokusan. I was a bad boy because I walked out on the oryoki meal.
Oryoki, if you don't know, is a very ritualized Japanese eating style - all bowls-in-bowls, utensils held just so and precisely folded napkins, culminating in drinking the rinse water (tea actually) from each bowl to return everything "clean" for the next meal.
It was all getting just too precious and stylized for me. There are those who say that oryoki brings awareness to the eating process, but if you need all that ritual to raise your awareness, I suggest more practice, not more ritual.
Look, if I were living in feudal Japan, say in a monastery without running water, I could see it. But let's not pretend there aren't knives and forks in the next room, and a sink and water in which to wash the dishes (not to mention a dozen or so sesshin attendees looking for work to do during samu period). We don't need to lick our bowls "clean." Life is complicated enough without having to worry whether I should be lifting the left fold of the third napkin with my right hand or left.
So instead I went home, nuked some lasagna, raked the leaves off my driveway, and went back to the zendo at 3 p.m. for the next sitting period.
Okay - I'm not interested in pretending that I'm Japanese and eating oryoki - does this mean that I will be reincarnated as a crack whore?