Derek's Private Study
"Derek," Professor Swanson asked, "what is the official Tao perspective on reincarnation?"
We were sitting in his office and sipping tea. The professor taught a class on world religions and wanted me to give his class a presentation on the Tao. We just got done discussing the class schedule when he asked the question.
"It's a bit different in the Tao I follow," I replied. "There aren't necessarily 'official' positions on reincarnation or other potentially controversial issues. Tao cultivators have to think for themselves, make up their own minds, and not fall back on some sort of moral authority that tells them what to believe. They may seek guidance, but ultimately each Tao cultivator is his or her own authority."
"Quit dodging," the professor smiled. "You must believe in something."
"Sure, and I would be glad to talk about it, but it would be my personal belief only. I can't talk about the 'official' position of the Tao because no such thing exists. One can cultivate the Tao quite well without believing in reincarnation."
"So that's your position? You don't believe in reincarnation?"
"I do. Personally, I believe we have lived many times before and will live many times again. Or, to be more precise, I believe an immortal soul like yours or mine engages in physical manifestations in the material world many times over the span of human history."
"That's where you and I differ," the professor said. "As a Christian, I believe this existence, this life as we know it, is the only chance we have. After this it's either Heaven or Hell. That's why we have to make this one chance count."
"Oh, we're not so different," I countered. "At least we both believe in the existence of the immortal soul."
"Granted, but as far as reincarnation goes, we are polar opposites."
"Professor, I'm curious," I said. "Suppose you are right that when this existence is over we – hopefully – go to Heaven. What happens after that? Life everlasting, forever and ever amen?"
"Something like that."
"Is it possible that, while enjoying this heavenly existence, you or I or someone else will want to check on loved ones who are still living in the mortal realm from time to time? Perhaps the surviving spouse? Children? Grandchildren? A favorite niece or nephew? A close friend?"
"Sure," he shrugged. "Why not?"
"What will happen if you see such loved ones in danger, or in trouble? Will you not wish to help them in some way?"
"Maybe," the professor was no fool and became wary. "Where exactly are you going with this?"
"I'm thinking about guardian angels," I said. "You know, heavenly spirits taking on physical form, working for good, helping or protecting loved ones. If it is possible for some people to have been helped by angels in the past, then it is also possible that you will render assistance to others as an angel at some point in the future."
"Okay, I can see that," he said. "So what's the point you're trying to make?"
"Well, if it's possible to do it once, then it's also possible to do it more than once. It doesn't have to be for helping people either. For instance, if I were in Heaven, I would want to visit this world from time to time, just to see how things are moving along."
"Why would you want to, when Heaven by definition offers everything you can possibly want?"
"If indeed it offers everything I want, then it would certainly offer freedom as well – the freedom to visit this world whenever I wish – otherwise it would be a prison and not Heaven, right?"
"Fine, fine." He didn't know why, but he didn't like the direction this was headed. "I don't see what any of this has to do with reincarnation."
"Well, I just find it interesting that we are using nothing but familiar Christian concepts and yet we find ourselves talking about, hmm, immortal souls engaging in physical manifestations in the material world many times over the span of…"
"Wait a minute," he raised his voice. "That's hardly the same thing as reincarnation!"
"Perhaps not," I said. "But it does look as if we went from polar opposites to next door neighbors… in only a few minutes."
The reason I want to highlight this exchange is to point out that "oneness" isn't just an empty rhetoric or a spiritual slogan. It is something that Tao cultivators take literally.
"Tao" is the label we use to represent the divine essence that inspires religions, so despite the stylistic disparities between different belief systems, the underlying essence remains one and the same. As humanity continues to evolve, our understanding of the divine essence will gradually converge.
A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who, out of compassion, re-enters into the material world in order to save others. See the remarkable similarity between this and the concept of guardian angels? We may not have connected the dots before, but once it is pointed out to us, it seems plain as day: "bodhisattva" and "angel" are but different labels pointing to the same compassionate heart.
It may be easy for many to assume that because things look different on the surface, they must be fundamentally, intractably different through and through. This leads to the mindset of separation, which may in turn lead to intolerance and conflict. If two things are irreconcilably different then one of them must be superior and the other inferior; since it is my way versus your way, obviously mine must be the one that is correct and righteous; therefore, you must be converted to see the light, for your own good; and so on.
I hope I have demonstrated with my example that this is illusory. A most powerful and persistent illusion is that we have to form separate groups to clash over our differences; the infinitely more powerful truth… is that we are one heart and one spirit.