Nautilus

Over Time, Buddhism and Science Agree

I remember my grandfather commenting—wry amusement tinged with grim resignation—that what made him finally feel old was seeing his children reach middle age. I was a child then. Now I see my own children, not quite middle aged, starting to have children of their own.

Becoming a grandparent is quite lovely, an affirmation of continuity and a front-row-seat to watch (and even, on occasion, participate) as life itself is conveyed into the future. But aging is also our most undeniable memento mori, a reminder not so much of life as one’s own eventual death. My grandfather’s death frightened me as few things have since, except for the recurring recognition (usually at night, alone, in the dark) that his life, everyone’s life, even—astoundingly—my own, is short indeed.

All things, especially living ones, are marinating in the river of time. We see and understand that our bodies will wear out and we will die. At least that’s how it looks through the lens of Western science, where all things come to an end, winding down in a final surrender to entropy. But there’s another perspective, surprisingly in harmony with science, that helps us revisit that huge and ancient terror—fear of time itself—in a new and perhaps even reassuring way. And that is the perspective offered by Buddhism.

For Buddhists, the “center cannot hold,” as the poet W.B. Yeats pointed out, because it doesn’t exist as something rigidly separate from everything else. Nothing is permanent and unchanging, ourselves included. Attempting to cling to a solid, immutable core of a self is a fool’s errand because time not only creates anarchy, it provides the unavoidable matrix within which everything—animate and inanimate, sentient and insensate—ebbs and flows.

As Buddhists see it, all organisms are necessarily, unavoidably—even marvelously and gloriously—impermanent. In Sanskrit, the word for

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