|Twenty-Five Bodhisattvas Descending from Heaven - Japanese painting c. 1300|
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!