Kindness. Contemplation. Creation. Connection.
This is a transcription from the Upaya Dharma Podcast of an article written by Robbert Dijkgraaf and read and translated by Irene Kaigetsu Bakker to retreatants at the Upaya Institute and Zen Centre during the 07-24-2012: Sesshin: Mountains and Waters Sutra (Part 6, last part) Dharma talk (link). It elucidates the teachings of “Inter-being” or Inter-connectedness. Please take the time to listen to the entire podcast. It is very interesting and illuminating.
Robbert Dijkgraaf is a Dutch physicist and string theorist who is currently the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and formerly president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is known to write and make science accessible to a broad public.
Irene Sensei is a certified Zen teacher from the Netherlands, a Zen priest and Dharma successor of Joan Jiko Halifax Roshi. She has been a student of Zen in the White Plum Sangha tradition since the mid-80s.
By Robbert Dijkgraaf.
Just sit down and relax and inhale deeply. Do it. Inhale deeply. Did you know that one of the molecules of air in your lungs right now has great historical value? Yes! Exactly the same molecule was exhaled by Julius Caesar, when he, in the year 49 B.C. was crossing the river Rubicon and said the famous words “Alea iacta est.” You are right away connected with this important historical event.
But it doesn’t stop there. Another molecule in the same breath was the one that your mother expired when she was giving birth to you. And one of the other molecules in this in-breath you just took might be the exhalation you did when you were blowing out your candle on your 8th birthday.
How can I say that with such certainty?
Well, through the real laws of probability and by the inconceivable amount of molecules in one breath that eventually spread themselves back into the atmosphere (whatever we breathe in – it spreads itself back out into the atmosphere) the complete world history at this moment is literally in you – in your lungs. And I hope you don’t take it too personally, but your body is just a living piece in a museum, a kind of collection of antiques and curiosa. Your very own, unchangeable, solid, “me,” “Self”, is constantly broken down and remodeled.
The life of one cell in our body is short and brutal. Our DNA is being attacked 100,000 times a day. Enzymes are continually trying to fill up the holes and trying to keep the whole thing together. But they can’t succeed for very long in preventing your decay. White blood cells live only a couple of days. Within a month your complete skin has been renewed. During the time that you’re reading these words, billions of cells have died and been replaced by new cells. They died and were renewed. Cells are dying and being born constantly. Constantly being renewed. How miraculous it is that you don’t notice anything of this happening right now, of this great big maintenance. You can just sit and read or listen, undisturbed by these changes in your body.
But if you don’t feel like you felt before, that’s understandable. This permanent recycling has great consequences. The atoms which all of us are built of, all of them have been used before. Nothing is new. Every atom in our bodies has been used before. You are carrying thousands of atoms of almost every person that has ever been alive. So there’s a little bit of Caesar in you, and some of Marie Antoinette, together with some traces of some Egyptian Pharaohs, or the Buddha, or Chinese Emperors… and there’s no reason to restrict that to just mammals. In a molecular sense, you are a walking history book of life on Earth.
For instance, take one simple carbon atom in your left pinky. Carbon atoms originate from very powerful explosions of stars. And on Earth they are usually captured within rocks or carbon or diamonds, and they can stay there for hundreds of millions of years. Sometimes one of these atoms escapes, and during this short escape, during this holiday or time off – that’s usually just a couple of million years – it will float on Earth in the form of carbon dioxide, dissolved in oceans and the atmosphere, and once in a while the atom will come to life, for instance, as part of an organism, like a leaf of a fern, or the wings of a tropical butterfly, or in the hair of a mammoth, and now it’s in your left pinky: The same atom. This is probably the crown on the existence of this atom.
Reincarnation, cosmic aura fields, and spiritual life forces are supposed to let us feel connected with nature. Actually, reality is much wilder and crazier than that. Through your atoms right now, your life is connected with every organism that ever existed on Earth, or will exist on Earth.
And now, you can breathe out.