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.”