between birth and death: the value of life

empty concrete desert road at birth of day and death of night
Photo by Kevin Bosc on Unsplash

Have you ever asked yourself the question: does life have value? Why am I here? Is there a point to everything, and if there is, what is it? And if there isn’t – what are we doing here in this short space between birth and death?

Have you ever desperately searched for meaning in everything, thinking about the holocaust, the war, the famine, all the people who live such miserable lives just struggling to survive – in view of all this, does human life have value? Is it worth living?

Or if you want to go further, ask about all life – think of the billions and trillions of beings – all the fish in the ocean, the insects that fly in the air, those that crawl in the earth and on it – all the uncountable numbers of them that, every day, are being born and dying, being born and dying, getting sick, getting old, getting killed, getting eaten, and being replaced by others.

All of them want to live, just like you. All of them love life as you do. All of them fear death as you do. (If you doubt me, look a stranded fish in the eyes on the beach. Watch how a spider runs away in an utter panic as you step into the bathtub.)

All of them have hunger, cold, thirst, pain; all of them suffer and all of them, without any exception, without any escaping, die.

Pick any random life out of all this endless stream of living beings, any life that arises and falls away into nothing afterwards – what value does this life have? What meaning is in it? Does the life of the ant on which you stood yesterday have a meaning? If it has, what is it? What is its value?

Much as we would like to see meaning in life, it’s hard to find when considered in this way.

Then why does almost anyone, when asked the question, “Does YOUR life have value?” reply without hesitation, “Absolutely, yes it does. My life is worth living.”

So what makes you so special? What makes you so different from the ant, or the crocodile, or the mosquito, or the fish? Why is your life meaningful, but you don’t see meaning in the life of any other being?


Birth not for the first time, death not for the last time

Suppose that before you were born, and before you appeared in the womb of your mother, you were living another life somewhere else, with a different body, and a different mind. And that after this life ends and you die, after the body breaks down and the mind with it, there will be another life after it; and after that another one.

 And another one.

The cycle of continually going through birth and death, the system of all the possible ways to be reborn and all the lives one can have, is called Samsara.

(Having surely now lost over half of our readers, we invite the other half to continue!)

It’s important to understand that this cycle of birth and death is not the same as Reincarnation. Reincarnation implies that each being has a soul: an essential, permanent self, which is carried over from one life to the next, always staying the same. Rebirth is different: both mind and body die, and what is carried from one life to the next is one’s karma, one’s good and bad qualities, and the spark of consciousness, which is carried from one body and mind to another in the same way that as a candle burns very low, you can transfer its flame to a new one; such that while both wax and wick are lost and gone, the flame continues.

For those of us who are brought up in Western society, which is mostly either Christian or agnostic, the notion of continuous birth and death in Samsara might sound alien, bizarre; difficult to accept at first glance. Yet for people who are brought up being told about this – which includes pretty much all of Asia, that is, the majority of the population of the world – it is common knowledge, a truth that everybody understands and accepts. We who do not know about it, do not accept it, are in a small minority.

“Yes, but it’s fantastical, it’s a religious belief, it’s against science. And how can we know about something that we have no memory of, that we have never experienced?”

Let me ask you this, then: How far back does your memory go? Age four, age three? A couple of little flashes of earlier memories perhaps?

And what about happened before that? Where did you come from before you were born? You don’t remember that, do you?

Who remembers being an infant growing in their mother’s womb?

Yet I “know” as well as I know anything that before I was born, I was an infant growing in the womb of my mother.

How do I know I was in my mother’s womb before I was born?

Everybody tells me so. My parents tell me, I was shown pictures of a scan taken of my mother when she was pregnant; I learn about the process of human reproduction and birth in school. All this hearing about it from others around me, all this general acceptance of it all throughout my society, adds up to what I call knowledge – of something of which I have zero memory. None whatsoever. I trust that it’s correct.

If I were to lose trust in such basic information, it would be like pulling the rug from under my feet, undoing every faith I have in my society and what it tells me.

I am not asking you to doubt the fact that you were once a growing child in the womb of your mother. I am simply trying to point out that here is a part of your own life of which you have no memory, no experience that you can recall. Yet you know about it, you know it happened – why? Because you have been told by many people.

See how much of what we know and understand of life comes from what we hear from others – what we learn in school, what we see on television, what we are taught is normal, what we are told is the truth. In fact it is relatively rare that our memory, our own direct and personal experience, is the source of our knowledge.

You “know” that before you were born, you were growing in your mother’s womb. So where were you before that again? Did you appear into existence from nowhere, or did you come from somewhere? There’s another part of life of which we have no memory. And we don’t know about it, why? Because we have never been told about it, never heard about it.

Whether you are open to this idea or not, the point of this article is not to convince you to accept the idea of Samsara, but rather to take a look at the implications of it. What does it mean to be stuck in an endless loop of birth and death, birth and death, birth and death?


The endless loop of Samsara

Before I was born, I came not from nowhere, but from somewhere. I lived many, many other lives in the past that I do not remember.

I was born before.

I cried, I spit out food, I learned to walk, learned to talk, learned to read; I went to school, grew up, had mood swings in puberty, suffered, became old, did who knows what useless acts, what terrible acts, maybe managed to do some good actions, thought I was important, thought I was the centre of the universe, enjoyed eating and drinking, romance, sex – felt happy, felt sad, felt ashamed, looked for answers and didn’t find them, looked for an aim, looked for meaning, didn’t find it, got sick, got old, lost eyesight and hearing, couldn’t walk properly, lost the people I loved one by one, lost everything I had built one by one, had grandparents and siblings and parents die –

Lived a whole life trying to help myself and maybe to help others, trying to build something, trying to do something good – a house, a garden, a family, a job –

Only to lose it all, to die uselessly with everything gone, everything vanished, everything sunk under the ground. Not even a memory left of it.

And before that, another life. Before that, another one again. And another, and another, back through tens of lives, hundreds of lives, thousands and even millions and BILLIONS of lives I have lived.

All equally pointless. All lives with no meaning.

And here I am again, doing the same thing again. And the same thing will happen again this life. And then I will have another one where I do not remember this life, and another one after that.

What is this ridiculous system, what is this trapped world of running the same circles again and again, never really growing, never progressing; running after what we love and running away from what we hate, like the character of Mario in the video game eternally running after the princess?

If Mario could see his situation as it is, wake up and realise the endless game he is playing – what would he do? Would he want to continue?

Our situation is no better than his, but because we are so ignorant about reality, and so attached to the little pleasure we have; so in love with our comfort zone, we can’t see outside to anything else, and we don’t realise how our stickiness to our pleasure is what is chaining us to suffering. We think our lives are worthwhile, we think we are well-off, but this is blindness, our eyes are shut to how things really are. We don’t know how much we suffer.

We are like factory hens – those that are born in a factory, raised in a factory, and live all their lives in a tiny cage: their life serving no purpose whatsoever other than to be killed one day so that their meat can be wrapped in plastic and sold in a cheap supermarket. What is the value, where is the meaning in her life? One can scarcely imagine a sadder fate than to be born as one of these factory hens; it’s hard to think of a more pitiful way to pass between birth and death.

And yet – a factory hen that’s lived all her life in her tiny cage does not understand how much she suffers. Her eyes are closed to the possibility of anything other than what she has, anything that might exist beyond her miserable little world.

One reason for her blindness is that of course she has never known anything else, but the main reason is that she has a source of enjoyment, something that is agreeable to her: she likes the chicken feed she is given every day.

It’s good, it’s tasty.

Her mind is fixated on this source of pleasure, on her greed for the food. Even if she eats the same grain every day, still she wants more of it the next day; still it’s good, still it’s tasty. She is totally ignorant of the fact that this grain, her main source of enjoyment, is given to her by the hand of an enemy, all to make her fat for killing.

If she were to see this, and understand this, surely she would renounce her “pleasure;” turn away in disgust from the wheat and corn she is given, shut her beak, go on hunger strike, and start calculating a way to escape. But as she does not see this, it’s almost impossible that she will give up the only thing that brings pleasure and enjoyment to her life; why should she?

The teaching of the Buddha explains that we are exactly like that factory-raised hen, always suffering, stuck in this cycle of birth and death, birth and death. Yet we don’t see it, and until we see it, it’s not as easy for us to renounce the thing that we call pleasure and happiness.

It’s because it’s so difficult to see our situation for what it is that so few people take the  aim of actually getting out of this system; so few people are capable of total renunciation of their comfort zone, their source of pleasure, what they know as happiness. Trying to explain how things really are to one who does not see, is like trying to make a factory hen understand that she is caged, that her food she loves so much is just preparing her for the butcher’s knife.


Seeing as it is

As a starting point for understanding the reality of my condition, I can start to attempt to simply observe myself and my world as it really is: not as I imagine it to be, not as I have heard it or as I have learned it, but as I see it is.

Forget for a moment about the grand question of the meaning of life. I will ask a simpler one, one that should be easy to answer by simple observation. What is this thing that I call happiness? What is joy? What is the best moment I can imagine, what is the best moment I have ever lived? What is it that makes life good?

Think about it – the best moment of all. It does not get any better than that.

It never gets any better than that. It’s as good as it gets.

And it’s not enough.

It’s not enough, because we are never satisfied with it. We keep going on and on and looking for more.

The desire for pleasure through any means – beautiful sights, beautiful music, wonderful food, and good smells, pleasurable sensations on the body – it’s something that is never saturated, never complete, never full.

No matter how much good food we eat, we still want more. No matter how much sex we have, we still want more. No matter how much music we hear, no matter how many funny jokes we laugh at, we still want to hear more and more. No matter what our situation in life, still we always, always want more, just as a factory hen never gets fed up even of the same feed that she is given every single day.  

So what is it really, this thing that is the best thing about our existence, the thing that we live for that doesn’t last, that is never enough? 

Any good taste disappears in the mouth second by second – every food turns rotten, every joy turns to sorrow, every beauty has ugliness hidden inside which shows itself, given just a little time.

Even this very body of mine that I take as Me, I think is Myself – it has skin peeling away from it, hairs turning grey, all the parts of it are gradually dying. It’s impermanent, changing every second, degrading a little bit every second. It is getting worn out bit by bit, every day a little closer to being no good any more – programmed to be obsolete like a device made in China. Every time the heart beats is one heartbeat less that it has left to beat.

I love this body so much, I take care of it and beautify it and want people to think it’s pretty, and I act as though it will last forever, as though I can trust it – but no matter how much I cling to it all – beauty, youth, health, life – all will, without fail, be taken away and destroyed, and I have no control over this whatsoever.

So what is this that I depend on? What is so good about it?

What is this that my life is about? Again, where is the value in my life? Where is meaning in it? What is the purpose of it? Do I really want to continue endlessly like this through more and more birth and death, birth and death?

And if there is no worth in it as it is, how do I want to give it worth, how do I want to give it value? 

“Monks,” the Buddha is recorded to say on one occasion, “When you are lost in darkness, don’t you look for a light?”

But if we have lived all our lives in darkness, we don’t know we are in the dark, nor even what light is. We have to start by trust in one who has seen it for himself, so that we can work to  see it for ourselves, and from there to go and find the way out.  

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