Change and Phantoms, Suffering and Dreams


Is the river the same river one moment to the next?

Change is the basis for everything that is. In Buddhism this is referred to as “impermanence.”  In Sanskrit the word is anitya (anicca in Pali, wuchang in Chinese, mujo in Japanese).

Anything that has component parts, that came together as aggregates in time and space as a result of some set of causes or conditions, presumably following the laws of science, is impermanent.

Nothing lasts forever. It all comes apart.

Causes and conditions will change, in part due to what they caused. Once something has been caused, it has changed the universe. Feedback loops; wheels within wheels. And when the causes and conditions change, all that they caused and all that is dependent on the conditions change as well.

Impermanence is considered one of the “three marks of existence” in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (dukha) and non-self (anatman). The insight that change is fundamental and its relationship to suffering is at the heart of the story of how a sheltered prince became the Buddha.

The Buddha is not an Asian God. Buddha means one who is awake. You might say Buddha is one who does not make chimeras or pursue phantoms as a way to cope with impermanence.

Gautama of the Shakya clan lived in what is now Northern India and Nepal about 2,500 years ago. Tradition has it that when he was born it was foretold that he would be either a great king or great spiritual leader. His father, the king, had the opinion that his son becoming a great king was the preferable outcome. The prince was coddled and protected from life’s harsh realities, and that worked for a while to distract him, keeping Gautama focused on having a good time and being a prince destined to rule. This changed when Gautama was traveling with a servant, kind of slumming it in town outside the palace gates. There he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. Gautama was shaken up much like Gilgamesh was at the death of his friend.

That will happen to me, he asked. Yes, his servant, also a friend, answered, it will happen to everybody. Nobody, not even a king, can stop change.

The prince then saw a yogi, a spiritual seeker, who seemed to be at peace. How is it possible that the yogi was not totally crazed by all of this?

Great yogis can achieve wisdom and not be threatened by change, his companion replied. They can transcend the limitations of life and death.

What was a prince to do? Like Gilgamesh he set off on a quest, but for a different kind of immortality. It was not a permanent body or personality he sought, but the timelessness of enlightenment.

Stealing away at night, Gautama cut his long perfumed hair and gave away his princely clothes. For six years he took up yogic practices. He was very good at it, and his teachers wanted him to become a teacher and carry on their traditions, but while he had achieved great accomplishments in meditation, he knew that he wasn’t enlightened. He had not come to terms with change, with death. He was driven to go deeper, and took up such severe yogic austerities that he almost died and had to be revived by a drink of milk given to him by a young woman. He used his new energy to meditate and became enlightened.

His fellow yogis thought he had sold out by drinking that milk, so at first they wanted no part of him. But then they saw he was transformed. They asked him to teach them about what he had found and he laid out the Four Truths.

The first truth is the truth of suffering. At best, you can find bliss and have wonderful, ecstatic experiences, achieving prolonged periods of happiness. You can live that life of Gilgamesh, enjoying the things of your world. It isn’t all that bad for most of us most of the time. But somewhere along the line, no matter how hard you try, no matter how sincere and good and kind you are, there will be suffering. It may be no more than a small disappointment, some slight frustration, existential ennui, maybe just boredom, or it could be horrible and devastating pain, but suffering is inevitable. Look at everything you want to have. You either can’t get it, or if you can, you will lose it all someday, when you die if not before. Look at everybody you love. Either you will die first or those you love will die first. Which is better?

The second truth is the cause of suffering. Mistaking what is impermanent as being permanent is one of the traditional Buddhist “inverted views” (Sanskrit viparayasa, Pali vipallasa, Chinese diandao, Japanese tendo) that leads to suffering. The Chinese word literally means upside down; it is a matter of upside down thinking.

We only see our separate lives, our limitations and the world of change, beginnings and endings, birth and death, so we live in fear. We are afraid of change; it means loss. The loss of what we love, what we possess, the loss of our bodies and identities in the long run. Our lives, who and what we seem to be, are a lesson in impermanence. Everything changes by the second. Actually everything changes in incredibly small fractions of a second. So we attach to the bits and pieces of our lives, making up stories that help us stitch together chimeras, projections of our desire to hold on, endowing them in our minds with substance and continuity where there is really vast and uncompromising change. We suffer because we cling to the illusion that if we can stop the flow, stop evolving, just get our lives where we want them to be, we can get it right, keep things static, and live happily ever after.

That won’t happen.

The third truth is that there is a way out of suffering. And the fourth Truth is that way, the practice. It comes down to living in awareness, awake. Surf the wave of change, don’t fight it, don’t grasp at what can’t be grasped, trying to hold on to what won’t be held. Evolve. Live life based on love and compassion, not fears and desires and hidden agendas.

When I was in medical school I had some appreciation of this essential role of change in Buddhist terms, but it would also turn out to be the first means by which science entered my life in a deep way. Despite my earlier harsh judgments about science and progress, I surprised myself by enjoying my pre-med and medical school science courses. I applied myself, worked hard, and graduated at the top of my medical school class. Nonetheless, I was goal oriented, learning what I was told was required to be good doctor; I didn’t give much thought to science beyond the curriculum until I had a conversation with my cousin.

Warren is my first cousin, but he is older than I am and I didn’t really get to know him until I was in medical school. Warren is a medical doctor who didn’t practice clinical medicine after a stint in the Navy as a flight surgeon, but instead got a PhD and went into research. He was on a research team whose senior members won a Nobel Prize for their research on viruses, genes and cancer in the 1970s. His passion is teaching; Warren has taught microbiology to medical students in San Francisco and around the country for over 40 years and has been given many awards and accolades as a teacher.

Warren told me that evolution was critical to understanding anything about modern biology, and so to understanding life. Of course I understood evolution was important with implications, for example, for such practical issues like antibiotic resistance or the development of the immune system. I hadn’t thought about it as deeply as Warren was inviting me to before. Warren was very patient with me and he introduced me to a scientific view of the world.

I saw that evolution embraces a vision of change that is exquisitely fair and just. Evolution is fair because it is not something that judges at all. It is not about divine punishments for our sins or rewards for following a prescribed series of rituals, believing the right dogmas and thinking the right thoughts. Evolution is like the statue of justice with a blindfold. You can’t charm it, you can’t suck up to it, and you can’t bribe it or con it. Evolution is about what works, meaning in this context what makes more life. Change will happen, and when it does, and it works, that is what you get more of because that is what working means, surviving to have more babies. A bit of a tautology really, simple but effective.

Biologic evolution is not about creatures realizing some standard of perfection. It is not about nature striving to achieve the final perfect organism. It is a freeform dance, not a march toward some Platonic ideal, the perfect horse or the perfect beetle. It is life oozing and changing wherever it can, however it can, whenever it can.

It isn’t about us as humans, we are not the ultimate goal. Chimpanzees and bonobos are not small, powerful, dumb people. They are not losers who missed out in the race to be humans. From the biologic point of view we are being very arrogant when we think like that. Personally, in a world with no humans to destroy habitats or hunt apes down for meat, I think I’d rather be a bonobo. The females run their societies and they say hello with oral sex. That can’t be all bad.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are not our ancestors, but are our forest dwelling cousins. We all evolved from some ape that lived over 6 million years ago. A river separated chimp and bonobo ancestors almost two million years ago.  The genetics and fossils are compelling. But just look at chimps and Bonobos and you don’t even really need molecular biology or ancient stone fossilized skulls. It’s that obvious.


This image is from Huxley’s “Evidence of Man’s Place in Nature” (1863). It has often been changed to show the evolutionary  progression from sea creatures  to land  animals, then to us walking upright, but this original is about comparative anatomy. There weren’t  many fossils or any genomes (and no real idea about genetics at all, for that matter) to go by back then, but the brilliant Darwin and Huxley grasped the relationship between us and our closest cousins, and the evolutionary implications of this relationship.

The slug on the lawn has also evolved for exactly as long as we have from the first living cell to the day we cross paths after a good rain. That slug is a distant cousin, and is clearly is a success story because there it is, slugging along living its slug life after 4 billion years of evolution. Slugs evolved into slugs long before we evolved into intellectual giants, and they may outlast us. Our big brains dedicated to the service of fear and greed may turn out to be a failed evolutionary experiment rather than the crown of creation!

There was even more to this biologic view of the world for me, above and beyond this value neutral, harsh but fair view of nature. Evolution explains so much about who and what we are in a way many of our religious traditions do not. Lets take sex as an example. Gonads and sexual desires are easy to explain from the point of view of evolution. They create diversity and keep life going. It isn’t a question of shame and blame, of a God who gives us raging hormones but judges and damns us for eternity if we use them in other than the acceptable fashion, that is, with no imagination and only to procreate. Sexuality is not intelligently designed to be a test of our will power, our ability to suppress desire, and success in life is not a matter of achieving some arbitrary state of purity. Sexuality is a question of what worked starting half a billion years ago to allow for a bit of variety in our offspring by mixing mom’s and dad’s genes and to drive us to make more of us, starting way back, before we were even fish.

It is up to us to deal with our sexuality in ways that don’t cause suffering for us as creatures that evolved for sophisticated social interactions and a need for loyalty in order to cooperate in raising our helpless slow-growing offspring. It’s a tall order in and of itself, and remains one of our greatest challenges, but it isn’t about being judged by some external standard of good and bad.

There was also the sublime vision of all life as one life in the scientific view of evolution. As Darwin wrote at the end of “The Origin of Species”:

“…there is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or onto one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

To say “we are all one” may be new-age spiritual, but it is also an unadulterated scientific fact. There are the vast and elegant webs within webs that we are embedded in, that we all share. The laws of physics, the state of the universe, the solar system, the earth and all life together create what we are as living breathing, eating and secreting, reproducing organisms. There is the complex ecology of the earth we depend on and the ecology inside our bodies; we have 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies, and they are necessary for us to survive. We can’t live outside of these external and internal ecologies, these wheels within wheels.

But it is even much more fundamental than that. All life on Earth is truly one living organism. Every cell is the same cell. Savor that. Every cell that ever was or is now, is the same cell morphing over time. No creature, large or small, makes a single cell from scratch. Every cell came from another cell.

We are each of us derived from a single cell: our mother’s ovum. The ovum is a big juicy cell that is released from the ovary in the middle of the woman’s monthly cycle between menses, whose job is to be fertilized by sperm. When the ovum is fertilized it triggers a cascade of events. The ovum changes and, then starts dividing, and chemical signals released from the altered ovum and then from the daughter cells initiates the development of differences between those cells. If it didn’t we’d just be a ball of cells, and not a very big ball or one that would last very long. This ball of cells grabs onto the inner uterine wall, sucking life from the mother’s tissues. This starts a cascade of signals and cellular interactions that leads to other cascades, an exquisitely timed series that keeps going throughout life. We ARE our mother’s ovum writ large. This is not a metaphor. Sure dad sprinkled a bit of genetic diversity into the cell, but that wasn’t really necessary. We need that first cell; we can’t make ourselves without a starter, like sourdough bread. In fact, there are some animals that can easily do without dad. Mom’s ova just start dividing and presto: babies happen. Look it up if you want to impress your friends, it’s called parthenogenesis.

Just as every one of our cells came from our mother’s ovum, with its cell membranes and other cell parts making up our first cell, that ovum came from her mother’s ovum and cell membranes and other cell parts, on back, mother to mother, to before there were ova, to way before we slithered out of the sea. And even further back, to before there were mothers and daughters, to our single cell ancestors and then back again to the first cell or group of proto-cells, whatever we were in deep, deep times past. We’re talking 4 billion years past.  All creatures alive today are at the base of an inverted mountain whose peak is that first replicating, living cell, in total continuity, with no break in the lineage. It is the same cell membrane for four billion years, just expanded and replenished with new atoms. It is the same DNA, also constantly replenished, but with just a bit of variation here and there, a little wiggle in the genes. When the wiggle works to make the organism better able to survive and multiply, then it persists. This is evolution.

You are at the same time the tip of a mountain of all living things. All life throughout history led to you. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great great-grandparents, on and on, a geometric progression going back through time to before there were parents and grandparents. Doing the math (trust me, or do it yourself: 2 to the power of how many generations you want to look back times the average time per generation) it doesn’t take long before you have more ancestors than people who ever lived. About a thousand years should do it. Of course, that is a bit misleading, as it assumes no duplications, cousins marrying cousins, or dead ends, so you may have to go back over a hundred thousand years to find a common ancestor if you are looking at a specific gene. But for the most part, you don’t have to go back very far at all. Each one of us is the great, great … great, great-grandchild of slaves and sovereigns, saints and sinners, sages and simpletons.

Even if you have to go back as far as one or two hundred thousand years to find a human ancestor that you share with every person alive today, that is not all that long ago in the history of life or by geologic standards of time.

In fact, geologic time is the time frame of life. Life is geological. Not only because the drifting and shape-shifting continents crash into each other or tear each other apart and meteors colliding with earth change the environment, sometimes gradually and sometimes catastrophically fast, setting the scene for mass extinctions and subsequent spurts of evolution.

And not only because the elements and the flows of fluids and gases we rely on to make and maintain our bodies are all part of the geologic system, earth and atmosphere as Gaia, herself a living breathing, weeping, flowing, secreting, belching, entity. It is because we, and all living things, ARE the earth, little moving clumps of earth stuff, mini-mountains that wiggle and squirm and slither.  Spontaneous generation. Life came from non-life in the view of evolutionary science, chemistry and physics. There is no other valid materialistic scientific viewpoint.

Where can we draw an unimpeachable dividing line between life and non-life, between us and geology, geology and the universe?

We can define life as some subset of things in the universe.  We are fond of dividing, classifying and reifying, so that whatever we are thinking about is easier to grasp and fit into our limited notions of how it should and could be. Scientists who search for life on other planets have to have something to work with, so they think and write about how to define life. We can decide life is, say, those things that replicate. Are computer programs alive? What about a code that replicates itself, a computer virus or artificial computer life? Perhaps in a sense they are alive. What about defining life as things that have carbon based DNA? That leaves out the computer program, but why should we set that limit? Maybe there are such life forms on other planets or their moons that use different molecules to encode the information life needs to function.

What if we invent robots that are carbon based, can make more of themselves, and even use DNA for information storage? In these days of nanotechnology and 3-D printers and the first glimmering of quantum computation, it isn’t totally out of the question that we could achieve this in the near future.

In fact scientists do have a hard time defining life, and there is no universally accepted definition. A recent book, “What is Life,” references 40 different definitions.  The author’s starting point is the observation that life emerges from non-life. That seems obvious, but it is a critical premise. How are we, how can we be, in any way separate, outside, different, from the universe itself?

Some religious idealists don’t like the idea of spontaneous generation because it seems to fly in the face of a unique creation of life by a God outside of creation. Spontaneous generation, as conceived of before Pasteur, proved it wrong, was exemplified by the “spontaneous” appearance of maggots on rotting meat. The maggots were really hatched from flies’ eggs that were too small to be seen on the meat. That wasn’t considered proven until Pasteur in the late 19th century performed an experiment in which glass flasks with long elegantly curved necks were filled with a nutrient broth and found to remain sterile even when the end of the elegantly curved flasks’ necks were open to the air. You can still see the flasks in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. We might think Pasteur was challenging the delusions of foolish superstitious people who believed in the supernatural emergence of flies on meat, but that wasn’t what he was up to at all. Some biologists at the time thought that may be how life and evolution works, with new primitive forms being generated again and again as earlier ones evolved and became more complex. Pasteur was a devout Catholic and was not fond of the idea of spontaneous generation that was taken to imply that God didn’t have an original active role in a one time only, biblically mandated unique creation.


“Emu Story in the Milky Way” by Gavan Urandali Flick of Kamilaroi (Australia) in which Emu becomes the Pleiades (the seven sisters) and Bundar the kangaroo sings to the wind to create changes to the waters and the dingo becomes the star Orion, howling to create storms .

Yet certainly every scientist believes ultimately in spontaneous generation, that life, the first cells, came from atoms of metals, minerals and water found in the clay of the early earth, in its oceans and in the gases of its atmosphere.

What else could we be but the product of those earth atoms, smaller atoms that were formed when the universe cooled enough for subatomic particles to congeal into atoms almost 14 billion years ago, and larger atoms forged later in supernovae, the massive explosions of large dying stars?

So while biologic time is geologic time, it is also cosmic time. And before 14 billion years ago, these subatomic particles came from the energy resulting from the birth of our universe that came from the infinite energy that …

And so where are we? What is this really all about? What is more fundamental even than energy?

I suggest we have come to the dreams stuff is made of, the source of phantoms, the fire that gives life to the equations, to what is not limited by “is” and “is not,” or to “changing” and “permanent.”  We come to Mind.

Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

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