My basic and surely flawed understanding of Buddhism is the following: all of existence has its source in emptiness. Emptiness is a field of potential energy and form, and the universe and everything in it (throughout time) is an interaction between being and nonbeing. Things show up out of nothingness and then they disappear into nothingness as other things show up.
We humans are an energy signal that takes on the form of a body on this earthly plane from time to time. Coming here involves suffering because of ego attachment to our bodies, our possessions, to our desires. Once we truly see that we are just a flux in a field of energy and that there is no “Me” in any special sense, we are freed. Our energy signal changes, or ceases to exist, and we are no longer required to return to this planet in the form of men and women. Our individual pulse of being is subsumed into the great field of emptiness.
I have never found this comforting. I am still attached to Me. I’m not sure I’m ready to let my identity go, erase my existence, and return to nothingness. I can’t get to the point where I tell the kids as we sit before a cozy fire on a wintry evening with cups of hot chocolate in hand that my sincere desire is to find a way to permanently annihilate Me, and that I fondly wish that my wife, son and daughter, their future spouses and my grandchildren will escape the wheel of karma once and for all and just let bygones be good and gone.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic and have trouble accepting Christianity’s story of faith, that if I believe in the right things and follow the right rules my eternal life has already been set up for me. The priests sometimes seemed like insurance agents advising that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stuck closely to the terms of my heaven sent policy…So where do I go if I’ve evolved into a reluctant agnostic who finds Buddhism a little too chilly?
I just came across a few thoughts from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor (161-180 AD), that I found helpful:
Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.
Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. —The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
The first part reminds me of Buddhism, but the last line gives me a different perspective. In a sense we are nothing but the extensions of everything that has come before, and our presence, influence and actions will collectively lead to everything that will be in the future. I, as an individual, am the product of an act of procreation that occurred in May, 1958. I’m also the result of tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, the evolutionary whims of primates, and the specific teaching of the Catholic Church that prevented my father from using a condom on a romantic evening in spring. I’m not a special case, obviously, but I wouldn’t exist in my current form if the Big Bang hadn’t banged, the stars hadn’t formed when and where they formed, and if the gravitational constant of the universe was another number.
Our influence on the future, on the other hand, while not immediately significant in any measurable way, will still continue after our deaths. We will collectively make the years that follow us better or worse whether we like it or not. We are immortal in that whatever comes next will spring forth from the spent husks of our lives.
My kindness will lead to other kindnesses, and my short temper will lead to new offenses and hurt feelings. My faults, virtues, weaknesses and strengths will continue to echo forward after I cease to exist whether I like it or not. We are all connected in a web of influence and consequence that extends in all directions for all time.
This immortality business can seem like a burden, a huge responsibility. I’m human and highly fallible. I’m not always going to play nice. My best hope for a decent legacy, for the future of my immortality in this realm, is to bat for a fairly high average. The goal is to be decent, helpful and loving more often than I am selfish, vindictive and cold-hearted.
And the stakes are high even if there isn’t a Big Man In The Sky hiding behind the Crab Nebulae (or the outer rim of the multi-universe) busy keeping track of my sins and thinking up punishments with which to torture me for eternity. Even if there is no God out there to look after me and to care about my existence, I will still matter. I, you and we will all matter now and forever in that we are the source “of that which will be.”
I have no idea what will happen to me after I die. My sister and grandfather appeared to me in dreams shortly after their deaths and gave me messages of reassurance. They told me that they are all right, much better than all right. But they didn’t order me to follow one creed or explain what it’s like on the other side. (I doubt if that’s communicable.) So I’m left to stumble along as best I can without really knowing if there is a point to being an honorable human being. Kindness and decency may have nothing to do with my eventual destination, if there is one. But I do hope that my legacy in this world is mostly positive as it’s going to last for a long, long time.