The World Before “I”

In Zen practice, we meditate on the question, “What was your original face, before your parents were born?”

Seeing these new colorized, re-digitized old films of a relatively recent world long since disappeared, I actually meditate on them: I am looking straight into a reality where I did not exist yet. There was not even an idea of me yet. All of these people – – now made closer and more familiar by the optic warmth of colorization – – passing in front of the camera, even stopping to look at the person recording the film, all of them are gone, totally gone, not a trace of them remaining. Their elaborate clothing and carts and accoutrements, not abiding anywhere anymore in this impermanent world. And the two wars and conflagrations that are to come, gobbling up a whole vast mass of their descendants, are not even imagined yet!

When this film was shot, this something called “me” — and all of the impressions and thoughts and experiences of it — was not even an empty imagination anywhere existing: it did not possess even a molecule of substance. And while sometimes something feels “substantial” now about my experience — the wants and hurts and sufferings and joys and sadnesses and expectations and busyness and plans — it will also be just as empty, in a few years from now, as it was when this film was shot. As it was for the shadow-forms inhabiting this touching film-scrap. That means that my “I”‘s current appearance is also fully emptiness, even now, even in the feeling of its substantiality.

A bubble appearing in a stream does not exist before its appearance, nor after it disappears. There is only the continuum of H2O. This is what we practice for: we gain liberation by trusting, through insight, the continuum of that H20-like ground of all reality.

Seeing things like this, we can only be struck with the truth that the Buddha teaches in the Diamond Sutra,

This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence
in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

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