A monk was wandering down a path and came upon the Master, who was poking at the earth with a stick.
The young monk spoke first. “Master, I don’t know if I should stay at the temple anymore. I just can’t bring myself to believe the rebirth is true.”
The Master continued to poke at the ground.
“If there is no self, what comes back? How could someone come back as a hell-being if there is no hell to be in? How could my mother come back as a worm? I just don’t believe it. I’m sorry.”
The Master poked at the ground some more, then looked up a the monk.
“Young monk, you ask some very interesting questions. Let me ask you one: what have I taught about birth and death?”
“That there is no birth and no death.”
“You are half right. I also teach there is birth and death, and we should spend our time wisely between them. Which is correct? Birth or no-birth?”
The young monk looked on quizzically.
“The Buddha said all beings are no-beings, and that anyone who refers to himself as a Bodhisattva is not a Bodhisattva. But what do we recite every day?”
“Er, the Bodhisattva Vows?”
“Yes. So are we fools and showing our ignorance by vowing to save all sentient beings? And if there are no bings, how may they be numberless?”
“I don’t know.”
“But Master, that still doesn’t convince me that rebirth is true!”
The Master regarded the young monk with a raised eyebrow.
“Young monk, do you see this maple leaf?”
“Good. Now do you see this pile next to it?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Well, it looks like it’s bits of leaves that have dried up and crumbled.”
“Were those crumbled things leaves? Are they leaves now?”
“They were, but aren’t anymore.”
“When did the leaves cease to be leaves?”
The young monk thought for a minute, but couldn’t answer.
“Now the crumbled bits of former leaves, do they stay as crumbled leaves forever?”
“No, they become mulch and compost and part of soil, I suppose.”
“Very good young monk. Now, consider this maple tree. Is it alive?”
“Yes, as much as a tree is alive.”
“Does it grow in the air, all branches and no roots? Are the leaves on the tree alive, and when they fall off, are they dead? At what point does the fallen leaf go from alive to dead? What line divides leaf to crumbled leaf to compost to soil to tree root.”
The Master pulled a loose root from the ground.
“Young monk, do you see these tiny hairs on this root? Do you see the bits of dirt hanging from the hairs? Do you suppose that a live leaf turns into a dead leaf, then compost, then soil, and then only ever becomes a tree?”
“I can see where you’re headed, Master, none of this is still convincing me that I will be reborn as a Deva or a Hungry Ghost, or a woman or a worm.”
“Young monk, I have one final thing to say to you.”
The Master stood straight up and leaned close to the young monk, then shouted directly into the monk’s face:
“WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU ARE MORE SPECIAL THAN THAT LEAF?”
The young monk walked away hanging his head.
- Are you more special than a leaf?
- What is rebirth?