Yes you are… I am… we are! That bold claim needs proof, which I can give you, and you will probably accept if you buy Buddha’s view of what ‘you, I and we‘ truly are. In other words, if you don’t accept Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as being true, at least in principle, this post may not be your cup of tea.
This view of our immortality is linked to Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth in particular. Note the underlined comments about our illusion of self:
The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
I’ve been reviewing Buddha’s Truths during my morning headstand for decades, and it’s taken that long to fathom completely this connection between my self and my holdings. Why? Surely, this supports the ‘we only understand what we know‘ hypothesis. Also interesting is how this morning review is never boring, as long as I ‘own it’ intuitively — not by rote.
About 10 years ago(1) I really started taking particular notice of this “illusion of self” aspect, and began feeling how entwined my sense of self and my possessions were. By possessions, I mean no matter what I value, be they material things, ideals, or beliefs. The holding-on-to, regardless of what, produces and maintains the illusion of self — the ego.
The Immortal Illusion
The more deeply I can connect myself, my ego, to just the holding-on-to experience, the more universal “I am” feels. In other words, it is not the particular object or ideal to which I cling, but the clinging experience that connects me to the immortal. On the other hand, the more I cling to particular objects or ideals the more intensely mortal I am guaranteed to feel.
The profound sameness inherent in the overall clinging experience never dies when a particular individual’s body dies. The clinging continues by all those who live out their lives, generation after generation. The illusion of “I” is maintained, ad infinitum…
… Or until our Sun bloats up into a red giant, expanding until it consumes the Earth’s orbit. The heating Sun will evaporate the Earth’s oceans away, and then solar radiation will blast away the hydrogen from the water. The Earth will never have oceans again. It will eventually become molten again.
… Or perhaps not until even then. Even then, ‘The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things‘ process will continue to play itself out in other sentient creatures somewhere else in the universe.
… Or perhaps, ad infinitum will end if the universe just peters out as it expands into its cold dark future. On the other hand, perhaps the universe will fold back onto itself, implode as it were, and presto, initiate the next Big Bang. Then immortality will truly continue forever.
Retuning to Earth
Mind you, not only are you immortal going forward. Such immortality flows backward in time as well. Embracing a firmer sense of the illusion-of-self’s origin, also connects you to all those who have gone before. Simply said, you are now living through the same essential experience as all those long dead and gone experienced before you. Life’s struggle continues through your life currently. Essentially, you are them; this is just Tvat Tvam Asi from another angle.
Naturally, this all comes down to a matter of perspective. Other animals have no thought of their mortality and thus no longing for immortality. Our unique cognitive ability (thinking) burdens us with the “illusion of self”. This can really mess with intuitive knowing; yet it can also help liberate us from this predicament. The first step is just realizing one simple fact: ‘it’ is mind only. For a full serving of ‘mind only’, see The meaning of “mind-only” (wei-hsin): An analysis of a).
(1) I remembered writing something about 10 years ago on the subject of immortality; I searched and found this post on Immortality. It looks like I have a subtler sense of it now, but I was heading in the right direction. One notable difference is how I associated immortality with “giving it all up”. To be honest, “giving it all up” is not possible; holding on is entwined with life itself. I suppose “giving up” the “giving up” is what I’m suggesting today.
Or perhaps it is just a matter of trading one’s personal, self centered agenda for a more transpersonal one. Knowing that ‘holding on’ is a universal aspect of all life imparts a deep sense of the universal. Your life’s flow = our life’s flow = all life’s flow. All living things are in the same boat and that boat continues to float onward regardless of who is onboard (alive).
Another way to consider this is by recognizing what happens within our own body. Each cell strives on, holds on, and pursues its purpose. Cells only live for 7 years on average, yet your life span will be many times longer than that. The striving continues even though every cell dies eventually. Striving is the immortal flow of life. Self-identifying with striving (work) rather than with outcomes (reward) can give you a sense of immortality. Striving continues even after your individual body dies.
As Buddha was dying, his disciples begged him to tell them how they should cope with his passing. He said, “Strive on diligently“. That is as close to immortality as I’m going to get while I’m alive, and after that who cares. 😉
Finally, the Bhagavad Gita speaks to this self-identifying with the work instead of the reward dynamic. Here are a few passages:
2:47 Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward: but never cease to do thy work. (Note: This yogic view parallels the Taoist “wei wu wei” [为无为] “Do without doing”. See also, Enjoy What You Do – or – Do What You Enjoy?)
2:49 Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Seek salvation in the wisdom of reason. How poor those who work for a reward!
5:12 This man of harmony surrenders the reward of his work and thus attains final peace: the man of disharmony, urged by desire, is attached to his reward and remains in bondage.
17:11 A sacrifice is pure when it is an offering of adoration in harmony with the holy law, with no expectation of a reward, and with the heart saying ‘it is my duty’. (It is interesting to note how Buddha reiterates this view in his Fourth Noble Truth, i.e., “Let your sole desire be the performance of your duty”).
18:12 When work is done for a reward, the work brings pleasure, or pain, or both, in its time; but when a man does work in Eternity, then Eternity is his reward.