The Web of Life

We think we exist as some kind of solid independent reality.  Funeral ceremonies of loved ones have always served to remind me of the dream-like quality of life.  Recently, a beloved aunt of mine passed away.  Her husband, children, and grandchildren all eulogized her in a profound way.  Her grandchildren played music, sang, and offered their own poetry.  Her children offered the back story of my Swedish-born aunt.  My uncle filled in the blanks about her coming to America and how they initially met.  The ceremony was a crescendo of beauty.  Everyone’s attention was held rapt all the way through.  Though it was called, “A Celebration of Life,” I also felt the opportunity to grieve in the presence of family.  After all, a life came to an end.  I was glad to be a part of this monumental transition.


From a Zen Buddhist perspective, life and death are not an individual matter.  It’s not that a person is born into the world and then dies out of this world.  It’s that the whole of the universe is born into existence through an individual, and the entire universe dies when that person no longer is.


The Zen worldview has no room at a table where, as a culture, religious or not, we have as our assumption that the earth is separate from us, has been around for a long time, and will continue on for a long time after us.  From a religious perspective, God created the earth, animals, plants and humans, and there is a hierarchy of relationship:  God on top, then angels, then humans, then animals, then plants, and finally the earth.  Even in a secular worldview this hierarchy remains if we just delete God and angels.  Or for some, maybe replace God and Angels with a sense of mystery.


Buddhism is offering the west a remarkable departure from this hierarchical view of life if we are open to seeing it.  It’s not that the Western religious and secular view are wrong or bad, by any means.  It has served us well in understanding our place in the world, and finding meaning to our lives.  For many people, it is sufficient.


I would like to engage, however, those who find the western view not working for them, and yet don’t have an adequate framework upon which to conceive of something else, nor a set of lenses with which to re-imagine themselves, their place in the universe, and their purpose.




Imagine a spider web.  The threads crisscross each other creating points along the web – nodules, nodes, nexuses.  The distances between each of the nodules vary.  Some are shorter, and some are longer.  Now, imagine taking that web and stretching it out without damaging it so that it’s as large as the universe.  From a Buddhist perspective, each of the nodes along the web is occupied by one being.  All the beings in the universe each have their own nodule on the web.  This is a huge web with billions of billions of intersecting points.  There is no hierarchy of existence.  Instead, there is a network of relationships.  What happens to one node has an immediate effect on the surrounding nodes, and the vibrations emitted from any particular happening in the web is sent out along all the threads into infinity, including past and future.


Again, imagine what happens when an insect gets caught in a spider’s web.  The whole thing moves.  In our daily life there is constant pulsing along the strands in the web, almost like nerve cells receiving signals, and then adding its own frequency to the signal and sending it on.  Each one of us is like a nerve cell of the body of the universe, continually responding to our environment – being informed by what comes in, and also putting our own vibration out there.  What goes out is necessarily informed by what comes in.  The incoming and outgoing messages are not separate.




Or perhaps a more relevant example is in driving.  Say you were to be going on a road trip about 60 miles away.  If the speed limit is 60 mph, then you could get there in about an hour.  But what if, when you were about 30 miles away from your destination, there happened to be an accident?  You would see red brake lights and cars slowing down.  Your car might come to a holt.  You may have no idea what happened ahead.  But, if one car in a stream of cars stops or gets into a wreck, it has a reverberating effect on all the cars behind it.    In traffic we have the opportunity to remember how inter-connected we are even with the people in the cars around us that we’ve never met.




The universe is filled with invisible threads that run between us all.  We can’t see them, but if we are attentive enough we can certainly feel them.  What happens to one of us happens to all of us.  Moreover, in the Buddhist scheme of the universe, there is no need for a creator to have started it all, or put it into motion.  Unlike the spider web, the spider is absent.  Buddhists take the universe as a given.  There is no need to assume a creator that put it all into action at some point.  Contemporaries of the Buddha wished to engage him in debate about the origins of the universe and what would happen upon death.  His response was, “I teach one thing and one thing only:  That there is suffering and there is the end of suffering.”  How is knowledge of how life came to be or of what will happen after death help us live a good life right now?  How will that knowledge end suffering?

In contrast, in the web model of life each action has an effect on everything else.  Just simply breathing has an effect on everything else.  To sink into despair or succumb to anxiety is to ignore or be unaware of this constant interpenetration of beings and doings.  Awareness of the web of life requires that we consider the impact of our actions moment after moment.

Practices to try either on or off the meditation seat:

1. When you are feeling anxious for whatever reason, imagine yourself as one of the nodules in a spider web, connected to all the other nodes, ad infinitum.  You can imagine invisible strands connecting you to everything and everyone around you.  Get a sense of not being separate from your surroundings, and even having an influence on what’s around you.  I find when I do this exercise, my anxiety level lowers.  Even as you read this there is an invisible thread connecting you and me.  We influence each other.


2.  When you are feeling lethargic for whatever reason, imagine yourself as one of the nerves in a long train of nerve cells, constantly receiving and emitting energy from the cells around you. What and who we surround our self with has an effect on us.  Consider changing your environment for a little while or getting some exercise.  Sometimes even a 5-minute change of space can make a world of difference.


3.  The next time you are on the road, imagine invisible threads connecting you to all the other drivers on the road. Your body-mind is constantly evaluating how to move based on your immediate surroundings.  Are you simply a separate driver trying to get to your destination, or are you a part of a larger organism that has a bigger plan that you may not recognize?  Consider this quote from Zen Master Dogen: “That you go forth and experience they myriad things is delusion.  That the myriad things go forth and experience themselves is awakening.”



The Tree of Life


In light of yet another round of shootings, this time at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11, and in the African American community in Jeffersontown, Kentucky killing 2, what is a Buddhist response?  How do we make sense of the level of hate that we are witnessing in our country?  What should we do about it?

I don’t have the answer to these questions.  I don’t know the right way forward.  I don’t know what the Buddhist response is.  I do know what I’m feeling inside about it, and what my response looks like.  If it’s helpful to anyone, I am grateful to be of service.  If it is not, please discard what you read here.

Three normal responses that I am feeling are anger, numbness, and denial.  By “normal” I mean that these may be the initial impulses that I feel when first encountering the news.  There is nothing inherently bad or good about any of these three.  They are the first steps in a process that helps me make sense out of what’s happening.

Anger and outrage are totally appropriate feelings to have at this time.  I want to do something to rectify things.  Anger is filled with a lot of energy toward action.  This is its positive aspect.  The negative aspect of anger is that it is short-lived, like the boost that comes from a sugar-high.  You have a lot of energy for a short time and then you crash.  In the short-term anger may help to get me motivated to do something, but if the energy of anger does not get regulated properly it will lead to crash and burn.  Then it transforms into a kind of despair.  I may feel helpless to respond effectively, one, because I don’t have the energy to act, and two, because I don’t see what would actually solve the situation.

From a Buddhist practice perspective, I look at anger as an energy that courses through me.  It can initially help me to remember why it’s so important to take my life seriously.  People are dying unjustly around us.  I could be next.  I must do everything I can to orient my life toward social justice.  This can be manifested in the way I think, speak, and act.

Zen Master Dogen, from the 13th century, implores me to practice as though my head was on fire.  If your head were on fire, wouldn’t you act to put it out as soon as possible?  This is the kind of energy that’s needed in our practice when we are suffering acutely.

My thinking needs to be directed toward benefiting others.   A constant question I keep in mind is, “how can I be of benefit to others?  How can I serve others better?  How can I be more considerate to the needs of others?”  I don’t have to answer these questions, but it’s essential that I ask them and keep asking them, and do my best to respond to those in need.

My words, or my speech can help me to open conversations that help to publicly acknowledge the suffering – in places like our families, in our work, and in our worship spaces – and to lead us to positive action as a community, not just as individuals.

My livelihood directs my life energy.  How does my particular job help or hinder the suffering of the families involved – either directly or indirectly?  To what degree does my work lead to creating a more loving society?  Am I doing the work I am being called to do?  Am I asking for help from my higher power – Buddha, God, the Universe?  These are also questions I need to keep asking myself.  There is no right/wrong answer to them.  Again, it’s the asking of the questions that I find important.

When I look at anger more closely there is also a certain degree of grief that resides underneath.  It’s hard to see the grief when I am in the midst of anger and rage.  But it’s there nonetheless.  For some, anger is absent and grief is the more present emotion.  In some ways, the presence of grief is helpful in facilitating healing in ways that anger cannot.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7:3, says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.”  This is not to say that we should go around looking for grief, but when it comes there is the potential of this kind of growth to take place.

Numbness is another response I have had to these hate crimes.  I have a physical sensation in my heart, but I can’t quite name it nor can I feel it fully.  I think that I should feel something, but I don’t feel anything in particular.  Numbness, at its best, brings me to start questioning what’s going on.  How did something like this happen?  Numbness helps me to look at all the circumstances that led up to this.  The persons we blame for these shootings are only a small part of the equation, from a Buddhist perspective.  They pulled the trigger, but what about all the things in their life that led up to this?  This is not to get them off the hook, but it gets me to see that I can’t point the finger at one person, nor only at their mental illness.  A whole society has allowed this event to happen.  We are all to blame on some level.  We live in a culture that has virulent strains of antisemitism and racism in it.  It’s not only the United States that has this, it is in other countries as well.  I consider how the holocaust happened.  The United States government turned away Jews during the holocaust, forcing them back to Germany.

If we take seriously our inter-relatedness to everyone, then how can we not look at the perhaps more subtle ways that we have existed with and condoned racism and antisemitism?  We may not have pulled the trigger, but what have we done to acknowledge and speak out about the deep seeds of antisemitism and racism in our families, local communities, and country?  Keeping our mouth closed in the sight of injustice, however small, allows for a culture that supports ongoing injustice.  We can’t undo what’s been done, but we can align ourselves with the life-work, the work of generations, to build a more just society.

These strains of hate bubble up from down deep.  They leave for a while, and then resurface.  When I understand the recent shootings in this way, I double down on my work to end racism and antisemitism.  I’m lucky that I have a job where I teach about World Religions.  I take students in my community college class to the local Mosque, to the Gurdwara, to the Temple.  I see all the more the need to educate our youth about diversity, discrimination, as well as standing up for justice.  I also see the importance of going to the polls this and every election season to put forth my vote as a means of supporting those politicians who are sensitive, one, to our country’s history of racism, and, two, to the power of rhetoric to either diminish it or exacerbate it.

Denial is a third response.  I pretend like everything is still fine in my world because these things are not happening directly to me or to anyone I know.  The roof is not on fire in my home, so why should I worry about something that’s going on way over “there.”  Media is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand it prevents me from staying in denial.  I see images and sounds that I cannot ignore easily.  They are unpleasant and they wake me out of my slumber.  I remember that my sister-n-law, niece, and nephews are Jewish and are in this grieving process.  I begin to feel their pain.  I grieve with them.  I send them a note saying my heart goes out to the Tree of Life community.  My sister-n-law responded, “This is a tragedy for all.”

On the other hand, with regards to media, I get so inundated with repeat messages about what has happened that I want to shut it all out.  I just can’t take it all in.  It seems there is nothing I can do about it, so might as well get on with business as usual.  Denial prevents me from any deep looking at myself.  Some people may have to do that for a while – shut it out – especially if they lack a supportive environment in which to process what has happened.

My practice, however, is to take in the media in small doses.  I don’t need to sit in front of a screen for more than a couple of minutes before I’m fully caught up on the news.  It makes no sense to me to rehash the event again and again.  This would lead me to despair and apathy.  I need to have the energy to take good care of those things that I can take good care of – family and work.

Sacred spaces are places that create a safe container to look at these events.  Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, are all places – potentially – where healing can begin.  In the meditation hall, we are encouraged to open our hearts to what we are actually experiencing in our bodies.  We are asked to remember the people that were killed, and to remember their families.  We offer our prayers in ceremony.  Ceremony creates the space for us to begin the process of making meaning about these events.  Ceremony puts lines around something that is too big for us to comprehend with our limited intelligence.  Ceremony gives voice to something larger than ourselves, but that something that lives also within us and needs to be heard.

My Zen colleague and friend, Hozan Alan Senauke, himself from Jewish origins, and Vice-Abbott of the Berkeley Zen Center, recently offered the following poem in light of the shootings:

Near the Tree of Life

We pass as refugees

The east gate of Eden is guarded

By cherubim with flaming swords

We can see the tree through the gates

But we cannot approach it

Nearby is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

And we are still choking on its fruit

Grasping for a life of kindness

That today seems

Far beyond our reach


Tree of Life guarded by two angels