These days I’m a primary school teacher. I have a box of Lego in my classroom, so every now and then when the children have finished their tasks on a Friday afternoon, I let them get out the Lego and play with it. It’s great to see children enjoying the exact same thing that I used to enjoy when I was their age.
Usually, when one of the children has finished making something out of Lego, they either bring it to show me or ask me to come and see it. I always ask them what it is, and the answers I get back can be endlessly varied.
“It’s a spaceship!”
“It’s a house!”
“It’s a big palace for my dog to live in!”
“It’s a snake!”
You get the idea.
Then, when the school day is almost over, the spaceship, house, palace and snake all get dismantled, and the Lego is packed back into its box until next time.
The question is this: where did the spaceship go when the Lego was packed away? Where did the house, the palace, the snake go?
Of course, we understand that the question itself makes little sense, because the spaceship was never really a spaceship and the house was never really a house. They were simply temporary collections of individual blocks that served a particular purpose for a short while before reverting to what they had been before: a pile of discrete plastic bricks. The components that made a spaceship this time might well end up as part of a robot or a plane next time.
The inherent emptiness of existence is obvious to us when we look at it in terms of Lego models. Why is it harder to grasp when we look at ourselves?
Just like a Lego model, I am made up of many different components. Some of them fit together well, and some perhaps less so. The various molecules that make up my body serve a particular purpose now, but a time will come when they are put back in the box (or rather, a coffin) and the construction that is my body, my very self, will be broken down into its component parts again. Those parts will then go on to be part of the composition of other structures.
In other words, I am no different to a Lego model. Neither are you. We exist only as a temporary collection of causes and components; we will all one day revert to our component parts.
Where do we go when we die? The question makes no more sense than asking where the Lego spaceship goes when it is dismantled. It just continues to be what it always was: a collection of molecules. It’s just that the conditions that caused those molecules to be held together in a particular way that constituted a human being have changed, and now the molecules are arranged differently. The truth about the Lego spaceship is that it hasn’t gone anywhere, because it was never actually real in the first place. It was only ever a collection of Lego bricks, and they just happened to be given a particular purpose for a short time.
In the same way, when we die we don’t “go” anywhere, as far as I can see. There is no reason to believe in a soul. As I understand it, the Buddhist concept of rebirth isn’t that a person’s “soul” or “spirit” is reincarnated, but that their karma is passed on to another being. That is the sense in which a person is “reborn”. I have problems with the concept of rebirth (and I’m not the only Buddhist in that position), but whether or not it is true, the fact remains that I will die and that will be the end of the temporary arrangement of molecules that I think of as myself. And that’s okay, because “I” don’t have any inherent existence in the first place.
All of us are just part of a huge box of Lego bricks, temporarily arranged as living beings before we once more go back into the box. That’s one of the great truths of existence – but it’s also one of the hardest to accept.