What About Rebirth?
Q: My question concerns the concept of rebirth which, in my experience with the Theravadan and Tibetan gruops quite clearly accepts as part of the Buddha's teachings. To my surprise, Thich Nhat Hanh avoids the matter, and always seems to answer questions on the topic by reference to the "recycling" of the
matter that makes up our physical bodies and avoids an explanation with regard to the consciousness. My recent exploration of Soto Zen also appears to reveal the same avoidance. Why is there an apparent disparity between the Traditions, or is it that the deep practice of Zen reveals a truth that surpasses the
"doctrine" of rebirth that is taught in those other traditions?
A: The apparent discrepancy you describe can be attributed to what is emphasized by the various teachers/traditions you mention. If we remember that karma and rebirth are part of the realm of conditioned existence, it is easy to see why Ch'an and Zen don't emphasize it all that much. If Ch'an/Zen is "beyond words and letters," then why be so concerned with forms? We recognize that forms do indeed point at ultimate truth and we are grateful to the teachers and teachings which preceded us, but at some point they must be released. Ch'an/Zen starts right at this "release point," although there are certainly a number of pointers to get those who have difficulty letting go to arrive at that point.
The Zen viewpoint would be simply that since inherently there is no one to experience karma and no karma to experience, we should not be too caught up in the teaching of karma. If form is emptiness and emptiness is form as is stated in the Heart Sutra, there is neither karma nor not-karma....there is neither karmic generator not not-karmic generator. Mind itself is beyond karma and not-karma. When this understanding is actualized, boundless Compassion and Wisdom are manifest and whatever is done is entirely appropriate for the situation. Since we're trying to get beyond the mundane understanding of birth-and-death anyway, Ch'an and Zen seem like very reasonable paths to the direct realization/actualization of Mind itself.
I encourage you to continue to strenghten and deepen your practice so that you will see this for yourself.