I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on emptiness and impermanence lately. They are concepts that I understand intellectually, but I don’t feel that I have internalised them or understand them experientially yet.
At the Triratna centre for Sangha Night last night, I saw an unintended but interesting object lesson in impermanence and emptiness.
As we all headed into the shrine room for meditation and puja, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air that was markedly different from the usual scent of incense. A candle on the shrine had fallen over and actually ignited the wooden Buddha rupa (statue of the Buddha).
The rupa wasn’t in flames, but a small part of it was glowing red as it burned. Luckily, the fire was doused with water before it could spread, and we were able to carry on with the evening as usual.
Seeing that reminded me that nothing has a permanent, inherent, unchanging existence. That which we call a Buddha rupa was once a tree, and now a small part of it has become smoke and gases. One day the rest of it will have been changed too, to the point where it will no longer be identifiable as a Buddha rupa. As with the rupa, so with our bodies. We don’t have any inherent existence either; we only exist in our present form for a little while, before the components that make up our bodies disperse.
The other side of the coin is that the bit of the rupa that burned last night and became smoke and carbon dioxide will go on to fulfil other temporary roles. The carbon dioxide that was formed may well be absorbed by a plant and incorporated into its structure for a time, until that plant too ceases to exist. Then it will go on to become a part of something else.
When we die, and also many times before that as the cells that make up our bodies die and are replaced, our component molecules and atoms go on to become integral parts of other temporary phenomena. The universe, it turns out, is supremely good at recycling!
I plan on being cremated when I die, so there will be no need for a headstone. However, if I did have one, I find it amusing to think that it might say: “Here lies the body of Barry Taylor, currently being recycled.”