There’s a lot of magical reincarnation stuff in this interview with Tenzin Palmo that strikes me the way it usually does: tantalizing and interesting but not exactly convincing. My tendency is to just leave that stuff be and appreciate the luminous faith behind it. But one question and answer in here stopped me cold with its compelling logic:
How is the dharma’s understanding of merit different from thinking that if I’m a good girl in this life, then I will go to heaven?
But we don’t want to go to heaven. We want to be reborn so that we can keep going and realize the dharma so as to benefit other beings endlessly. It’s a very different thing. We’re not collecting merit scores for ourselves. We’re making merit so that we can be reborn in a situation where we can really live to benefit others, and ourselves, again and again and again, more and more and more every time. We are in a position to deepen our understanding to be of genuine benefit to other beings.
This is what it sounds like to take the Bodhisattva vow seriously. It’s a much better argument than heaven, if your goal is to settle the rational mind and orient it toward being a good person.
Rather than staking everything on Pascal’s wager in one shot, karmic merit in this life is an intermediate step. But earning merit in this life is necessary to be reborn well and keep earning merit. And you have to do that, because there’s an infinite number of beings to help, and an infinite amount of benefit one can bring them. Admitting that one lifetime is not enough enables sanity. Accepting that one still must do one’s best each time keeps one oriented toward the good.