The Continuum of Life

To see Life, as Darwin did, and as many of his numerous admirers continue to do, only as unceasing competition between different organisms is completely to miss the greater picture, namely that there is only one kind of Life, and that all the different, separate kinds of Life, regardless of their form, are merely particular manifestations of this One Life that has innumerable different faces, shapes, sizes, appearances, and features. We humans dimly understand this important fact when we extend the privileges that we accord to those persons who are like us to those who are not like us. But most of us arbitrarily limit this recognition only to members of our particular group, species, or genus, such as primates or mammals, while we consider all other life forms as more or less alien to us.

St Francis of Assisi understood this fundamental Unity of Life. So too did the mystics and the so-called primitive peoples who show, or formerly showed, great respect for all forms of life, a respect that we degenerate inhabitants of modern society have lost because we live artificial lives that are almost wholly divorced from Nature, even while we continue to depend for our survival on that same Nature which we desecrate, destroy, and diminish by our extremely selfish and profligate way of living. Those religions that we derisively call animistic are in fact the ones that best understand this fundamental Unity of all Life.

There are few more sincere and meaningful acts, an act that unfortunately a great many of us “civilized” people have lost, than the act of giving thanks before one eats, that is, before one partakes of the bodies of formerly living creatures, whether plant or animal, in order that one may be nourished and thereby prolong one’s existence a little longer. The Inuit, for example, asked for forgiveness from the spirits of the animals they killed in order to survive in the harsh Arctic climate.

“To live,” in Wendell Berry’s words,

we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.[1]

This is another of the many deficiencies of highly-processed foods and drinks – that they conceal from us the formerly living nature of the things we consume. For who would think that a soft drink or potato chip, a chocolate bar or hamburger, a candy or chicken finger, a French fry or soufflé, a pizza or popcorn, or the vegetable oil or animal fat that we use to cook our foods were once part of a living organism?

It is not at all surprising that the more a living organism is modified by artificial human processes and chemical transformations from its original living state, the less nourishing it becomes. For these artificial processes adulterate and debase, pollute and contaminate, and lessen and impoverish the nourishing fruits of the Earth, which are rendered less nourishing than they are in their natural, unadulterated, unpolluted, and uncontaminated state.

The Buddha failed to understand the essential Unity of Life when he said that Life is only pain and suffering, and that the highest goal of Life is therefore non-existence. He was right about the eternal cycle of rebirth and death, but he was wrong in believing that Life is inherently bad and evil and therefore it is better not to exist. In fact, seeking non-existence is contrary to the most basic principle of Life, which consists of continual, vital rebirth in different forms. By doing so, he made the mistake that so many people make when they regard themselves as a discrete entity that is separate from all other life forms, for this view fails to recognize that Life cannot exist without Life, and when there is an abundance of different forms of Life, it is enriched rather than diminished.

Even in the Buddha’s assumed life cycle, he manifested his misunderstanding of the Continuum of Life, for this includes plants, which are the most basic stage of Life, since only they are able to convert the Sun’s energy into organic matter that, in turn, nourishes other life forms. Thus, a human being may directly nourish other animals if one is eaten by them, but one may instead nourish plants after one’s bodily remains are decomposed into a more digestible form by bacteria, fungi, and other small organisms. Although the Buddha understood the eternal and unending nature of Life, as well as its interconnectedness, his mistaken conception of rebirth was that what we call the ego survives death intact and is reincarnated in another living body. But this conception is wrong, for the ego is dissolved along with the body at the moment of death.

If the Buddha erred in advocating non-existence as the ultimate goal of life, it was because he didn’t understand the true nature of reincarnation: that it is not the intact ego, spirit, soul, or mind that survives death and is reborn, but rather Life itself that is constantly reborn and endures, of which we and all the other living organisms in existence are merely its numerous, particular manifestations. The great privilege of being alive is the privilege of participating, however briefly or long, in the great and eternal Mystery of Life.

Seen from this perspective, the desire for immortality – the desire that this discrete, particular life form that we call “I”, which, in the grand scheme of things, is utterly insignificant, should endure forever – is merely another example of our immaturity and our pitifully limited understanding. If we are alive at this moment in time, it is because a great many other living creatures, both plant and animal, have given their lives, which lives were ended prematurely, so that we might be nourished and thus enabled to live on. But instead of being grateful for these sacrifices, as we should be, we view them as no more than our due, because we believe that we humans are the masters of the world. In behaving thus, we demonstrate our profound ingratitude, for, having received in such abundance the sacrifice of other living creatures, we should be willing to give so that new Life may be born. And it is precisely in the act of dying that we achieve this last act of generosity, when we return to the fertile and ever-renewing Void from which all Life is born. But instead, most of us “civilized” people have a horror of the idea of worms or other creatures consuming our dead bodies – bodies, be it remembered, for which we have absolutely no more need or use when we are dead.

Other animals who stoically accept their fate understand the Continuum of Life far better than we ignorant humans do. Their apparent lack of the fear of death is not a sign that they are less intelligent than we are; it is a sign that they understand, in a way that we do not, that the death of the individual organism is part of the great Cycle or Continuum of Life. Although every individual creature will eventually die, the great Continuum of Life, in which each individual participates by being born and later dying, continues unabated. If one understands the Unity of all Life, no matter its form, then one’s fear of death disappears in the glorious and profound recognition that one’s death is merely the prelude for new Life to be born.

Life is not a circle. It is a never-ending continuum that goes on and on, as it has for billions of years, while it constantly changes its particular manifestations. Even each discrete packet of life displays this constant change as it grows and develops, from seed or egg to embryo, infant, mature individual, and then to old age, before finally succumbing to death.[2] Life does not stand still – it is constantly changing, developing, and evolving. Heraclitus was right when he said that the only constant thing in life is change. Viewed and understood rightly, death is not even the last stage of Life: it is a necessary part of all Life, since every living organism is made up of elements that were assembled together, in the act of birth and the gradual, transformative processes of growth, from other former living organisms, and, in dying, will go to nourish and create new life forms.

The liberation that the Buddha and many other religious figures have sought, which variously has been called Nirvana, Heaven, Jannah, Paradise, Elysium, Valhalla, and so on, is in reality the liberation from the fear of death. And this liberation can only be achieved when one recognizes one’s essential unity with all Life – the fact that nothing that is alive is alien to oneself, because all life forms arise from and are nourished and kept alive during their brief time on Earth by other life forms. Understood rightly, the dissolution of the self is nothing to be feared, for it is only the eternal and necessary prelude to the creation of new Life, just as the self was formed from the elements that composed previously existing life forms. This is the true and only meaningful kind of immortality: that we living creatures have the immense privilege to partake, in our very limited and humble way, in the Eternal Mystery and the Glorious Miracle that is All Life on Earth.

[1] Hope is an Imperative: The Essential David Orr by David W. Orr, p. 177. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2011.

[2] Of course, these observations apply primarily to large, multicellular organisms, and not to single-celled organisms like bacteria, which are already fully-formed once the parent cell divides in two.