I like starting my meditations by remembering impermanence ‘cos it focuses my mind very efficiently. First I ask myself: “If I die today, where will I be tomorrow?” Or where do I WANT to be tomorrow? That straightens me out because, if I die today, I would like to be in the Pure Land tomorrow, so getting there has to be a priority today. Then I think about how I’ve had countless lives and, like last night’s dream, every single one of them has disappeared. I was so invested in each life – my body, my companions, my jobs, my environment – yet now they’re all gone. How is this life any more significant than any of the others?
This issue of meaning given a plurality of possible lives is one of the themes in the new movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once. A bit like the Matrix back in the day, this movie has clearly hit a nerve – it is the highest grossing and most awarded movie of all time, no other movies really getting much of a look in at the Oscars. Why? It did touch on some deep concepts and got people thinking, including me — I think we can see the truth of Buddha’s teachings in anything if we look hard enough, and this movie did that for me. So here we go … I’m going to attempt a Buddhist take on it.
What makes life meaningful?
I watched this movie a few weeks ago in Manhattan, a place that is practically a multiverse in its own right – with millions of people experiencing so many different realities on what is really quite a tiny island (how come it doesn’t sink?!) Even one short individual life seems to straddle different universes – for example I am now back up a mountain looking after 3 dogs and 2 cats, and this looks VERY different to the vast city I left just yesterday. This is not even factoring in all the alternate realities we inhabit every day on our gadgets.
And in Everything Everywhere All at Once, the characters have to make sense of not just one but many parallel lives simultaneously. Yet, if we think that must be overwhelming, it’s nothing compared with what is actually going on. In samsara, we too have had many, in fact countless, previous lives – and how are we supposed to make sense of these? Evelyn Wang, the main protagonist, had countless lifetimes in space – she is just one in a multiverse of Evelyns — but we have had countless lifetimes in time. It’s the same principle.
We can be born as anything (according to this movie, even as a rock.) There are six realms of samsara, and each of those is vast – 500 million species of animal on Planet Earth, alone, for a start. If you weighed all the termites, apparently, they’d weigh more than all the human beings. And we are not inherently human – we can be born in any life form, including as one of those termites, due to our karma.
If this vanishingly brief life we have right now is simply one of countless, in what way is it more significant than all the others? The answer is, it is not. It is a mere pinprick in the tapestry of time or, as I’ve taken to saying lately, a mere pixel in the movie of time – and how is it one pixel more significant than all the others? It is not … unless we use it for something significant.
I read that a companion book to the movie is titled “A Vast, Pointless Gyration of Radioactive Rocks and Gas In Which You Happen to Occur.” The main “baddy” in the movie, Jobu Tupaki, is already “everywhere all at once”, verse-jumping simultaneously between all her lives, and she has come to the terrible nihilistic conclusion therefore that nothing matters, that nothing means anything – including our identity, relationships, and choices. Jobu has therefore taken every possible eventuality in the infinite universes and put it all on a black-hole-like Everything Bagel, planning to use this to annihilate everyone who doesn’t also see how absurd everything is. Along with annihilating herself, for life is simply too unbearable.
She’s right, everything is absurd if we cannot find the meaning in it – living does become utterly senseless, meaningless, irrational, and unbearable. Given all this, how do we make our life meaningful? As one of the movie directors put it, this is an important consideration:
We need that right now because everyone is staring at everything and seeing no meaning at all. This movie’s almost us trying to fight that by saying, “Look, rocks can make you cry!” There’s beauty and meaning in everything. ~ Daniel Kwan
The role of karma
In the movie, Evelyn grapples with the consequences of her actions across multiple parallel universes. And it is the case that every choice we’ve ever made has rippled us along completely different pathways in different life times. Every intention or action, no matter how small, has had far-reaching consequences in multiple universes; and no action has ever been wasted. We have created karmic potentials for everything and we don’t really know what is going to ripen for us next in this or in our future lives, for good or for bad.
From this point of view we need to create the best possible intentions because these are what create our experiences. Everything is mere karmic appearance of mind. Therefore, it is a grave error to be nihilistic and harm others – we will actually end up being overpowered by more and more hell realmish appearances, isolated and suffering very deeply, like Jobu.
Everything in samsara ends up its opposite
Like a pixel on an infinite screen, we’ve had countless rebirths already and will have to endure countless more unless we attain liberation from uncontrolled rebirth and enlightenment. We’ve been everywhere and done everything, even learned everything – just like Evelyn in the movie. There is literally no tee-shirt in the universe large enough to fit all the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done.
Everything in samsara ends up its opposite. If we’re cold, we’ll end up hot. If we’re young, we’ll end up old. If we’re old, we’ll end up young. If we’re human, we’ll end up non-human. If we’re happy, we’ll end up sad.
And so on. My mind was blown by that. There is no certainty in samsara – it is one of its so-called “general sufferings”, along with having no satisfaction, having to leave our body over and over again, having to take rebirth over and over again, having to lose status over and over again, and having no companionship. You can read about all these in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
Breaking free from these and helping others to break free is surely the deepest significance of this life we have right now? This really is our opportunity. We don’t often have the chance to get our lives into this kind of perspective because we are simply caught up in the perspective of that life, we tend to default to it – just as Evelyn was originally imagining her whole existence to be a laundromat owner with money and marriage problems. But it is crucial that we think about these things every day, as Evelyn had to, if we are to break free from the endless uncontrolled cycle of suffering.
There is more to life than its speed.
Do you ever feel that you’re just hurrying up to go nowhere? I stayed in New Jersey for a few days overlooking the tunnel into Manhattan – with those endless vehicles going backwards and forwards night and day, I was asking myself, “Where’s everyone so busy coming from? Where are they going?” Everyone has a destination, but if this is just another destination in this dreamlike multiverse of samsara, what’s the real point? It doesn’t matter how materially successful or famous we are — even the fastest car on the samsaric road is going nowhere. Society has sped up beyond recognition in the last decades — but if a hamster speeds up on her wheel, she just ends up going nowhere faster.
All this is not even to mention the rapid advancements in the world of artificial intelligence taking place at the moment. As of today, for example, Gen-2 software can create full videos entirely from text descriptions, a mere week after the old-fashioned Gen-1 software needed text and video images. And I wonder what we are going to use that for?!
Now that I’ve been lucky enough to encounter Buddha, his teachings (Dharma), and others interested in these teachings (Sangha), I try to take time out each day to meditate on their deeper meanings. I mean, watching mind-expanding movies and creating unique images from text on AI is one thing – but the books I currently have access too are all portals to extraordinary peaceful sane universes beyond all samsaric dystopias, so why not have several of those on the go at any given time?!
Interconnection and kindness
The need for kindness due to the interconnectedness of all beings was a huge theme in the movie. The protagonists (spoiler alert) ultimately make sense of the confusion of countless appearances and avoid falling into nihilism by remembering their bonds and connection and understanding the importance of kindness. This is a wonderful conclusion as far as it went, and I am glad for it.
Because all our actions have a ripple effect, what renders life sane and bearable is choosing kindness, acting intentionally out of kindness, as Evelyn’s husband Waymond implores. What karma we creates depends on our intentions – it is not so much what we do but why we do it that brings about good or bad results. The best karma we can create is that motivated by loving-kindness and bodhichitta (and ideally also informed by wisdom, more in Part Two of this article).
Kind intentions have always been and are important for the health of all our lives because these are what create healthy, happy lives. And kindness is also vital right away for navigating the challenges of this life and connecting with others in a meaningful way. Kindness is an imperative in every present moment because everything depends upon our mutual cooperation. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang explains so beautifully in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all cells in the vast body of life, distinct but bound up in a web of interconnection from which it is impossible to extract ourselves.
We can develop the mind that cherishes others and is kind in return by contemplating this interconnection of all beings, which goes very deep. Our body comes from others, our skills come from others, any intellectual and spiritual prowess comes from others. Using pixels in a different analogy – every pixel depends on the others, no one pixel can survive or function on its own, and nor can any living being, including us. We are totally interdependent. Without others we are nothing, literally — if we were to give away everything everyone has given us, we would not survive a minute. We are made up of others.
The other day someone was asking me whether or not our very subtle mind also depends on others. I think that it does. Our very subtle mind only travels from body to body, life to life, in dependence upon bodies produced by others, for example, as well as the karma we have created with others as our objects. Moreover, once our very subtle mind is fully purified (in dependence on compassion for others and so on), and we attain enlightenment, it will manifest form bodies only for the sake of others. Which is to say that even the very subtle mind doesn’t exist from its own side but depends upon many factors. We cannot put a ring around it, point to it saying, “This is my own very subtle mind, which exists from its own side, and has nothing to do with anyone or anything else. This is a fundamental building block of the universe.” We cannot say this for any phenomenon at all.
Also, given that we have had countless past lives, we’ve had every conceivable relationship with everyone multiple times – mothers, lovers, enemies, food. In the movie Evelyn has very different relationships with the “same” people — Deirdre Beaubeirdre is her IRS auditor in her laundromat life, for example, and her lover in the universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers. (I liked that detail because I had coincidentally been musing, waiting at Newark airport a day or two earlier, how weird arms are, just hanging off people like they do. How weird bodies are, to be quite frank.)
“There are not parallel concurrent universes but countless lifetimes spun out in time rather than in space. Our past lives involve infinitely iterating selves interacting with others in endless relational recombination. The implication of this is that we have all been everybody’s parent, child, sibling, partner, friend, enemy, in every possible arrangement. In both the time (rebirth) and space (multiverse) visions of the infinite, individuality is blasted into fractal interconnection. The individual self was empty to begin with—empty of permanence, empty of the conditions for lasting satisfaction, empty of any solid basis for the narratives we spin around ourselves like spider silk. But the narratives are also real—actions have real impact in the world—and beings who are empty are also real. This is the insight that keeps us on the path, and makes true freedom possible.”
Here is the next installment: You do you — including thoughts on impermanence, the journey of self-transformation, and a conversation I had with a neuroscientist who specializes in the changing brains of infants born today. And coming up in Everything Everywhere All at Once Part Three – emptiness, the union of the two truths, and enlightenment! (That’s all!) Meantime, if you’ve read this far, I would love your comments and feedback in the Comments box below.