The excerpts below are from the book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. It’s about the concept of no birth, no death, and a piece of paper.
In our minds, when we think of death, we think of suddenly becoming no one. We cease to be. We cease to exist. That is our understanding. In the same way, we think of birth as our beginning. What does it mean to be born? We think that to be born means that we arrive here from nothing. That from nothing you suddenly become something. From no-one, you suddenly become someone. That is our definition of birth and death. Because of these notions, there is always fear deep within us. But the Buddha discovered something different.
There are many non-Buddhists who have discovered the reality of no-birth and no-death. Let us talk about, for instance, the French scientist Lavoisier. He was called the father of modern chemistry. He looked deeply into the nature of things and he declared that nothing is born and nothing can die: Rien ne se crée, rien ne se perd.
Suppose we try to practice this idea of no-birth and no-death with a sheet of paper, because a sheet of paper is what we call a thing… You may think that this sheet of paper had a birthday — that one day it was produced from nothing, and it suddenly became something, a sheet of paper. Is it possible?
Look into the true nature of the paper. What do you see? You see – in a very tangible, scientific way – the paper is made of non-paper elements: When I touch the paper, I touch the tree, the forest, because I know that deep inside there is the existence of a tree, the forest. I also touch the sunshine. Even at midnight touching the sheet of paper, I touch sunshine. Because sunshine is another element that has made up the paper. Another non-paper element… I touch the cloud. There is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. You don’t have to be a poet to see the cloud. Because without a cloud, there would be no rain and no forest could grow. So the cloud is in there. The trees are in there. The sunshine, the minerals from the earth, the earth itself, time, space, people, insects – everything in the cosmos seems to be existing in this sheet of paper. It is very important to see that a sheet of paper is made of – only of – non-paper elements. Our body is like that also.
So it is possible to say that from nothing, something has come into existence? From nothing, you can have something? No… the paper hasn’t come from nothing: Rien ne se crée. Nothing has been born.
Our birth certificate is misleading. It was certified that we were born on that day from such and such hospital or city. But you know very well that you had been there in the womb of your mother long before that. Even before the day of your conception, you had been there – in your mother, in your father, in your ancestors, and everywhere else, also. So if you try to go back, you cannot find a beginning of you.
Let us now try to eliminate this sheet of paper. Let us burn it to see whether we are capable of making it into nothing. [Thay strikes a match and sets the sheet of paper on fire, holding it up as it burns in his hand.] Observe to see if it is possible to reduce something to nothing. Ash is what you can see now. You also see that some smoke has risen. The smoke is a continuation of the sheet of paper. Now the sheet of paper has become a part of a cloud in the sky. You may meet it again tomorrow in the form of a rain drop on your forehead. But maybe you will not be mindful and you will not know that this is a meeting. You may think that the raindrop is foreign to you, but maybe it is the sheet of paper into which you have practiced looking deeply. So, can you say that the paper is now nothing? No, I don’t think you can. Part of it has become the cloud. You can say, Good-bye, see you again one day in one form or another.
The sheet of paper continues to be there, present. It is difficult for our conceptual eyes to see and discern, but we know that it is always there and everywhere, also. And this little amount of ash may be returned to the earth later on. Maybe next year you will see it in the form of a new leaf on a tree. We don’t know. But we do know that nothing died.
We are assailed by so many ideas about birth and death that we get scared. Because of that fear, true happiness is not possible. Deep looking helps us to remove the fear.
Personally, I have struggled with death and fear of death my entire life.
It has always felt like a waiting game for me; who is going to be next?
It began in grade 6 with the death of Grandma Beatrice. It felt like a normal experience. To me, being 10 years old, it seemed normal for someone older to die. She had a funeral in a church. There was a casket that was brought to a cemetery. I felt very much sheltered from the sadness of what my family was experiencing.
Two years later, my experience with death felt very different.
I was in grade 8. We received a phone call in the middle of the night to say that there had been a fire at my Uncle Kel’s house. My Auntie Lyd and four cousins had died in the fire. This experience of death changed things for me. I learned that a person could die at any age; it was not reserved for the elderly. You could lose people that you just saw a few weeks ago at a birthday party. People could die for unexplained reasons.
In high school there was a bus accident. A man driving a truck on the highway did not fully secure a metal pole to his truck. When he drove over the tracks, it flew off and went directly into the windshield of the school bus behind him (a bus that was traveling behind the one bringing my brother and I home from school).
The piece of metal traveled through the bus to the back seats. It injured multiple kids, one of which I knew from elementary school. It also killed a girl, Jennifer, who was from our hometown and skated in our figure skating club. She was a few years older than me.
My last year of high school, before going away to university, a close family friend committed suicide. He had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone treatments.
Four months later, I arrived home for Christmas, after being away for my first year of university. I had been told that my Auntie Carolyn was sick. I didn’t know that she was fighting for her life. She died on Christmas Eve. Leaving behind a devastated family.
Who is going to be next?
In a span of 9 years, 11 people I knew had died (I didn’t include a few other stories).
My relationship with death? I was not a fan. He felt cruel and relentless in taking away people I knew and cared about, and for reasons that seemed so unfair and explainable.
And then the biggest worry of all became losing my Grandma Lainie. Since high school, I worried about losing her. She passed away three months before we had our first baby, Tate. Death still felt cruel and unjust.
I now find myself worrying about losing my parents. I can’t imagine my life without my mom. I’ve noticed that since losing my gram, I’ve stopped telling my mom that I love her at the end of phone conversations (something I have done my entire life). I think I am afraid of being too attached for knowing how painful it will be when she’s gone.
So when I was lying in bed one night, reading Broken Open, the passage I shared above hit me.
I found it incredibly comforting to think that there is no end or beginning. Life and death are so intertwined and impossible to distinguish. Nature is all connected. There’s still a lot I need to wrap my head around and I think it’s just the beginning of me mending a very strained relationship with death. It’s time to rewrite that story.