Before he became the Buddha, the Buddha is said to have had 500 lives as a Bodhisattva.
Originally the word ‘bodhisattva’ was only used for these previous lives.
But here’s the thing: a Buddha is someone who fully understands the nature of interdependence—the fact that there is no fixed, immutable self.
And that is a clue about how we might think about reincarnation, because to think about it seriously is not to think about it literally.
Ordinarily, reincarnation is thought of as there being a self or a soul that goes from one life to another. That’s obviously un-Buddhist in the sense that Buddhists deny that there is a fixed self.
But also in a more subtle way. If this life, this existence, is simply one in a series of ongoing linked threads, then the fabric of all beings can never be woven.
So we oppose reincarnation in this sense, not because it’s implausible, but because it is banal, and it separates that which should not be separated.
And it does that by leaving unexamined the idea of this person. Almost the whole point of Buddhism is to claim that when we look seriously at our experience, it is very difficult for us to say there is a single, fixed, indivisible self. Rather, it is as if there is a multitude inside us: certainly in my case a good number of idiots; some kind and wise people; lots and lots of beings, as it were.
The point of practice is not to elevate some of those beings and to exile others, but to actualize the vast compassionate space which holds all beings.
When we practise, we’re practising within this small space—traditionally this 12 foot square space. Within this space everything matters and everything is interconnected. Nothing is background.
Through this practice, one which is not a practice of the self, those walls can become fluid, pellucid. And so, even although the room remains tiny, no beings are excluded.