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Promising Across Lives to Save Non-Existent Beings: Identity, Rebirth and the Bodhisattva’s Vow
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1 Promising Across Lives to Save Non-Existent Beings: Identity, Rebirth and the Bodhisattva’s Vow Stephen E. Harris Institute for Philosophy, Leiden University Perhaps the most striking feature of the Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist moral tradition is its conception of the bodhisattva who vows with infinite compassion to remain in saṃsāra for endless lives to work for the benefit of sentient beings.1 There is a sense in which this Buddhist saint‘s commitment transcends his theistic counterparts, who after all will shortly enter heaven and receive their eternal reward. The bodhisattva has no such respite; in fact many of his rebirths are fraught with sacrifice, including giving up limbs and even his life during the development of full Buddhahood. His vow is among the most remarkable ethical aspirations in the history of human thought. It is also, upon a bit of reflection, apparently inconsistent on a couple of fronts. First, there is the perennial tension between the ethical activity of persons and the Buddhist denial of self. How can a bodhisattva vow to liberate all sentient beings when neither he nor those beings exist? Although some Buddhist texts delight in this paradox,2 a frequent philosophical response is to claim that sentient beings exist conventionally, as conceptual imputations upon causally connected but discrete streams of mental and physical events. These conventionally existing persons possess sufficiently robust existence to liberate beings, as well as to be targets worthy of liberation. In this essay, I worry about the distinct, though related question of whether it is coherent for Buddhists to attribute continuity of identity across lives. In particular, can the bodhisattva in 2 one lifetime promise that he will continue the path in the next? Buddhists posit causal and karmic continuity between lives, but also accept complete physical dissolution as well as radical psychological discontinuity, including loss of all memory, between the one who dies and the one who is reborn. This does not stop Śāntideva, and other proponents of the Bodhisattva way, from expressing their commitment as a multi-life aspiration: For as long as space endures and for as long as the world lasts, may I live dispelling the miseries of the world. (Śāntideva 10:55) But for at least many of the bodhisattva‘s lives, although the one reborn will be karmically influenced by the vow-taker‘s actions, he will not remember making this aspiration, or indeed doing any previous bodhisattva deeds. Why, then, should we describe their relation using the language of identity, rather than causally connected difference? Consider the difference between a young man promising to do something in his old age, and a father promising his son will accomplish something after the father has died. Both are intelligible, but it would be unnatural to describe the second in terms of the first. Another way of making the point is to distinguish between a promise and a vow. One can promise, in certain circumstances, on others‘ behalf: a parent for their child, an employer for her workers and so on. A vow is taken only for oneself. Therefore, I am asking whether the bodhisattva‘s commitment can intelligibly be viewed as a vow. One way to resolve this question would be to reconstruct a Buddhist theory of personal identity, in the sense of determining which factors are necessary for continuity of identity. If these factors hold between lives, Buddhists should claim identity spans the gap between birth and death. It is not clear to me that Buddhists provide a theory of continuity of identity in this sense, however. Buddhist authors are concerned to show causal and in particular karmic continuity connects lives, but generally they pay little attention to the question of whether these 3 alone are sufficient to ascribe continuity of identity across lives. Below I argue that doing so is incompatible with other Buddhist presuppositions. In this essay, I take a different approach. In the first section, I develop the tension between the Buddhist rejection of an enduring self (anātman) and their claim that continuity of identity spans lives. I then argue that even without reconstructing a Buddhist theory of personal identity...