In his book, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about individuals as being like waves on the ocean of reality, made of the stuff of reality. Waves emerge from and disappear back into the water, but the water itself never dies. It seems to me that this analogy is like a rubber band – it can be stretched quite a bit. Since I hate to miss opportunities to take things to ridiculous extremes, I thought I’d explore the idea in a bit more detail, because the comparison becomes richer the deeper you look at it.
To begin with, although everyone who watches a wave knows that they are watching something that seems to have shape and substance, no one thinks of a particular wave as a permanent thing. In fact, I don’t think many people would be surprised to hear me say that a wave is a process, not a thing. If you take a picture of the wave, it freezes a certain image in time, but if you look at the “same” wave after you have taken the picture, it has a different shape and location. The idea of wave is just the concept of a process that occurs in the ocean.
In fact, the water in a wave is never the same, either. You might imagine that a wave is a particular mound of water that moves along on the ocean, but this is incorrect. In fact, the molecules of water in a wave move in circular paths. The water does not move forward with the wave, but each column of water imparts energy to the next column as the wave moves along. So the actual water in the wave is constantly changing. When the wave moves closer to shore, the bottom of the ocean begins to drag on this circular motion and the wave begins to break over the top of itself, similar to your motion when you are running along and you trip on something. Suddenly, your top half is going faster than your bottom half and you tip forward. The curl of waves so sought after by surfers is a result of the water moving in this circular motion and falling forward over itself.
So part of the energy that gets transferred is within the water itself, but that’s not the only place it comes from. It can also come from the wind. Most ocean waves would die down to nearly nothing if the wind didn’t keep pushing against the water and thereby adding energy into the system. The wave train continues because of this energy. Another type of ocean wave depends on the massive energy released by underwater earthquakes, resulting in the devastating tsunamis that we see in the news. Either way, waves are dependent on the water itself, the configuration of the ocean bottom, and a source of energy. The energy source, of course, is dependent on other forces such as the earth’s rotational energy, the thermodynamic energy that drives climate patterns, the dynamic forces in the earth’s mantle that can drive earthquakes, and so forth. In other words, waves exist as a concept, but they do not exist as an entity separate from the world around them. And they are not a thing, but a dynamic pattern of shifting molecules and energy transfer mechanisms that come together to create a shape in the ocean that exists for a split second and then is gone as the energy passes along to create another pattern.
So what does that have to do with us? Well, let’s start with our bodies. In the first place, every atom in your body is from somewhere else. Not only did that material itself come from stars and galaxies billions of miles away, but it has been reshaped many times as well. You may have atoms in your body from a bit of celery that your mother ate, or molecules made of that chocolate ice cream she craved while she carried you in her body. Bits of genetic material that you carry today could have come from algae, fish, or primates that existed millions of years ago. Even today, the material that makes up your body is constantly shifting. Cells are born and die within your body every moment. Most of the cells inside your body are replaced over a seven-year period. Most of the cells in your pancreas are replaced every day, and the cells that make up the lining of your stomach are replaced every three days. But then there are the bacteria in your gut that allow you to digest food. You would die without them. And what about that molecule of air that once occupied the lungs of Julias Caesar, the Buddha, or Jesus of Nazarath? Or the water that once flowed in the Nile, fell as rain during hurricane Sandy or was belched up from the depths of the earth by Mount Pinatubo? The fact is that 90% of your body consists of elements that don’t even contain your genetic material. Your body is not a thing, but a dynamic pattern of shifting molecules and energy transfer mechanisms that come together to create a shape in the universe that exists for a few years and then is gone as the energy passes along to create another pattern. You might have noticed that this is virtually the same sentence that I used to describe an ocean wave.
But that is simply your physical body. What about your thoughts and ideas? What about your consciousness itself? Do your ideas and thoughts stay the same, or do they shift and change moment by moment? Where does your consciousness come from, and where does it go when you body no longer exists? Are you made of consciousness the way a wave in the ocean is made of water, and when the particular physical pattern that is your body ceases to exist, does that consciousness return to become another form of the thing it was always made of? Science tells us that energy can never be created or destroyed, but is merely converted to another form. If consciousness is a form of energy, once it is no longer trapped in your body, does it flow through reality the same way the water molecules in a wave flow through the ocean once again?
If so, when your body no longer exists, you have not died, you are simply waiting to catch the next wave.