The Universe is Born and Dies With You

I’m not precisely sure what the material I am offering for this week’s blog post is. It may be notes I made for one of my YouTube videos. It may be notes I made for use in my forthcoming book. Maybe it’s both!

For many years I have noticed that a lot of my favorite Buddhist teachers sometimes say things that amount to “the universe is born and dies with you.” It’s a curious statement that runs absolutely counter to what most of us have been taught to believe. I always learned that I came into a universe that had already been here for billions of years before I arrived and I learned that the universe would carry on without me after I died. Yet many teachers who I respected deeply said otherwise

Rather than comment here in this blog about why I think they said such weird things, I am going to just present you with a compilation of these strange statements.


•In his essay Yui Butsu Yo Butsu (Buddhas Alone Together With Buddhas), Dogen says, “Mountains, rivers, the earth, and human beings, are born together. The buddhas of the three times (past, present, and future) and human beings have always practiced together.” 

Then he says, “Thus, if we look at the mountains, rivers, and earth while one human being is being born, we do not see this human being now appearing through isolated superimposition upon mountains, rivers, and earth that existed before [this human being] was born.” 

•In his book Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama says something similar to this, but takes it even further. He says, “When I took my first breath, my world was born with me. When I die, my world dies with me. In other words, I wasn’t born into a world that was already here before me. I do not live simply as one individual among millions of individuals, and I do not leave everything behind me to live on after me.”

•In his book Each Moment is the Universe, Dainin Katagiri puts the same idea like this. He says, “When beings appear, why do you happen to be the particular being that you are now? You don’t know exactly why, but you are a being whose life is already supported by the vast network of time and space. When a particular being arises, it is not just one thing that arises — all beings arise simultaneously. One thing can’t arise alone because all life is deeply interconnected and nothing has its own independent existence… When you are born, the whole world is born with you. When you die, the whole world dies with you.”

•In the book Discovering the True Self, Kodo Sawaki Roshi said, “When we are born, our universe is born too. When we die, we take everything of our universe with us.”

•In the book I Am That, the Advaita Vedanta teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “All the universe is born with the body and dies with the body; it has its beginning and end in awareness, but awareness knows no beginning or end.”

• Katagiri Roshi talks about how the practice of zazen makes these kinds of odd statements found in Buddhist philosophy clear. Then he says, “Now is important because the moment that is right here, right now, is eternal, abiding forever. What does eternal mean? It means that, moment after moment, right now appears as all beings; then again: right now; and again: right now. Right now appears forever that’s why now is eternal… this present is not just the present; it’s connected with the whole universe. If you see this universe, you realize that you are a part of a dynamic reality that is constantly changing according to the conditions of every moment. Then you understand why human life is important. It is important because, if you take care of right now with wholeheartedness, you create good conditions for the next right now.”

• As for Uchiyama Roshi, a little bit after he says his thing about the world being born and dying with him, he says, “I can’t stress enough how essential it is to look very, very carefully at this universal self that runs through everything in the universe. You live together with your world. Only when you thoroughly understand this will everything in the world settle as the self pervading all things. As Buddhists… we vow to save all sentient beings so that this self can become even more itself.” Again, we have another statement emphasizing the ethical side of Buddhist practice — saving all beings. But, again, we are offered nothing in the way of proof that when we are born and die, the universe is born and dies with us.

Kodo Sawaki also said, “What I call ‘me’ cannot sustain itself by itself. When we give up this ‘me,’ it becomes the Self that is the universe.” And he said, “Your personal action is the action of the whole universe. You alone act as the universe. That is the meaning of deep Zen practice.”

• The next thing Dogen says after making his claim about the universe being born and dying with us, and saying we ought to investigate it is, “We do not know the end or the beginning, but we have been born. Neither, indeed, do we know the limits of mountains, rivers, and the earth, but we see them here; and at this place, it is as if they are walking. Do not complain that mountains, rivers, and the earth are not comparable with birth. Illuminate mountains, rivers, and the earth as they have been described, as utterly the same as our being born.”