Often in reading philosophy and wisdom teachings, one has a kind of repeating experience. We see many common phrases or statements by wise teachers. Perhaps we see the same or similar notions from a variety of traditions. And, the first time we see them, we may think we understand them; agreeing or disagreeing. Then we go off, read and learn more, experience life a little more, and before long we come upon the statement again. Only then do we realize that some of the words in it didn’t mean what we thought they did, and that the teaching was more profound than we thought. A little more life experience happens and we may have the experience yet again with that teaching, and this may go on an unknown number of times. Here we see a world of complexity, subtlety, and nuance behind the teaching, and we are never really sure if we’ve fully understood it. As our confidence in our understanding diminishes, our wisdom yet improves and our appreciation for the teaching grows.
One thing we often hear is that “death is a part of life”. On the surface, this seems to be a rather obvious statement. When we look at life as a series of events, it quite plainly includes being born, a bunch of stuff happening, and then – inevitably – our death. So, death is a part of life, learning to walk is a part of life, getting a job is a part of life, and so on. As a comfort for the grieving, this seems about as effective as telling someone to “get over it” or “walk it off”. We might look at this a little more deeply, and see that learning to accept death is a part of a happier life. But even this does not fully unpack the meaning of this teaching.
Most people look at life and death as opposites. But it seems this isn’t exactly right. Rather, the opposite of life is lifelessness. Both of these are conditions or states. But death is an event. It is one half of a cyclical process – the other being birth. And, it is this cyclical process of birth and death that we call life. So, quite literally, death is a part of the process we call life, just as is birth. To imagine death the opposite of life would be as nonsensical as to imagine birth the opposite of life.
This works not just in terms of human or animal life, but life everywhere, in all systems, and on all scales. Even as I sit here, writing this, I cannot do so without death. My typing hands are living tissue made up of cells that are continually dying and being replaced by the birth of new cells. This is only possible because of the sustenance I consumed. Even vegetarians require the death of the organic materials they ingest in order to live. The similarity of these things to the death of our loved ones and ourselves is not merely analogy. They happen for the same reasons and because of the same universal process of all life.
But now consider what we really mean by ‘birth’ and what we really mean by ‘death’? What is really happening? Let us begin by considering the Sloan Great Wall…
At the time I first learned of it, the Sloan Great Wall was considered to be the “largest object in the universe”*. It is a giant wall of galaxies 1.38 billion light-years in length. My first thought on reading this was that the statement was a cheat! This “wall” wasn’t an object at all – it was simply a bunch of galaxies that happened to line up into something we can draw an imaginary line around and give a name to. Sure, they influence one another gravitationally, but to consider them an object? And, what of the surrounding galaxies? They must surely influence the galaxies of the SGW gravitationally, but they arbitrarily don’t get to be a part of this ‘object’? Earth and Mars influence one another. Can I just draw an imaginary line around the two and give the group a name and now it’s an object? It all seemed very fishy to me. It seemed that this name said more about the brains of those who imagined it than about some objective reality in the universe – about as ‘real’ as the constellations we draw heroic figures over in our night sky.
But if the Sloan Great Wall wasn’t the largest object, then what was? Isn’t a galaxy just a collection of star systems? And, a star system seems pretty close to my example of drawing a line around Earth and Mars. The recent hubbub about whether Pluto was a planet was more of a philosophical debate than about any of the objective data.
And so it is with all of existence. Our tiny size compared to the Sloan Great Wall might make its true nature more obvious, but in truth all objects in our world are of this same nature. Everything you’ve ever anticipated getting your hands on, every food you’ve ever desired, every person you’ve ever loved, and you yourself are different conglomerations of particles. And these globs of particles are surrounded by the same kinds of particles, which move into and out of the named glob. That glob further reaches out and manipulates other globs in a manner not unlike it manipulates its own parts. The more we think about this, the more arbitrary that borderline at the edge of each of these forms we’ve given a label to seem – just like drawing a large crab or a hunter around a group of stars in the night sky.
And now consider that none of these structures are permanent. They have all come into their current form for a short time, and as their parts continue moving by natural law, will eventually lose their form, much like seeing Mickey Mouse in the shape of a cloud. You could almost say these forms are somewhat illusory – a helpful habit our brains evolved.
And this is the nature of birth and death.
As we can see, ‘birth’ is a much broader concept of the ‘coming into being’ of various forms, and ‘death’ is the movement of aggregates to the point where we no longer recognize or label a form (or perhaps now label other forms).
Thus, ‘death’ includes the dissolution of, not only things we call life forms, but storms, jobs, relationships, planets, nations, and so on. ‘Birth’ is the coming into being of all of these forms and more, including baby humans. So, in a sense, if these forms are illusory then it begins to look like death (and birth) are illusory. They say more about when our brains identify something than they say about the objective nature of it.
The Buddhists call this realization ‘emptiness’. Understanding death in it’s broadest sense makes us realize how integral all kinds of loss really are to the entire magnificent processes in the universe that make everything possible.
Understanding that our ego, our very self, is also illusory – and the implications of that – is a whole other matter!
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
*In January of this year, the Huge Large Quasar Group broke this record; a chain of 73 quasars 4 billion light-years across.