By Allan Hunt Badiner "This is what you can say tomorrow, and every full moon" Thich Nhat Hanh told us as he smiled and handed us a slip of paper in the dining hall of the pilgrim's hostel in Sarnath, India, in November 1988. "These are the Five Awarenesses." Later that night, my bride-to-be and I studied them by candlelight, while Hindi film music blared from a loudspeaker just outside our window. At our wedding ceremony the next morning, we found ourselves reciting these awarenesses to forty people amidst the ruins of ancient monasteries.
The oft-repeated words of the first awareness filter down to deeper states of attention, and my thoughts dwell on genes, pregnancy, and how human life is generated and sustained. In contemplating the fact that living cells have passed from my father's body into my mother's to mine and on to my wife's, to our child, and so on, I realize that there is a distinct molecular configuration that is part of me and all my relations that has never died. There is something in us, discernible at least in our physical bodies, and in the bodies of our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago, that is in continuous living evolution, just as there is some essence of our life that will live within a body and experience life countless ages into the future.
In scientific terms, we are composites of genetic material. Eight great-grandparents contributed to our make-up. If we trace back only thirty-two generations, we arrive at a figure of 4.3 billion -- greater than the total number of all the people who ever were alive at one time. Yet thirty-two generations span only half the Christian era, a fraction of our tenure as a species. Everyone, therefore, must have ancestors in common with a large number of other people through intermarriage and common ancestry. Every individual being is part of a vast biological reservoir.
The notion, culturally perpetuated since the advent of Darwinism, that we exist as independent pockets of life, fades quickly in light of the awareness that we are embedded in a veritable stream of life. This transformative awareness is vividly described by actor and Tibet House president, Richard Gere, in a recent magazine interview:
I had an amazing vision one time. It had to do with seeing my whole lineage behind my parents lined up through a field and over a hill. It went back hundreds of generations. I had this tremendous sense that I was the outcome of all that work and my connection to that was very emotional and very powerful. Not only are you the outcome of everyone else's previous work of all the lineages that came before you, but also if you perfect and cleanse yourself getting rid of all the guilt and suffering –- then you get rid of it for all those who came before you too. As you free yourself, you free the whole horde. I felt that I was one with all this love from all those before me.
In contrast to the idea that at birth, human beings are a tabula rasa, a clean slate, the first awareness reminds us that we are a composite of conditioning with roots that extend well beyond our life, spanning deep into both directions of time. It is helpful to use the metaphor of a garden to illustrate this. We find ourselves growing like flowers, conditioned by the way the garden was planted and cared for before our blossoming. We also find ourselves as the gardener, in a position to create or change the conditions that affect the life of the flower and all future generations of flowers.
While looking at this awareness of interbeing between generations, two confusions may surface immediately: The deep and apparent differences between generations, and the mistaking of this awareness with the notion of a soul or its physical counterpart. While one generation may seem totally distinct from another, almost to the point of seeming unrelated, in the long view, over many generations, the close similarities and shared aspirations become more apparent. Furthermore, the strong connections between generations of the same lineage often become more apparent in every other generation. According to the New England Journal of Science, recent studies conducted with wide samples over two decades indicate a surprisingly predictable relationship between the longevity of grandparents and their grandchildren. Statistically, the study concludes that to have two grandparents who both lived well into their nineties is a greater predictor of one's longevity than all other factors – diet, exercise, and personal habits notwithstanding.
To confuse that aspect of oneself that never dies with the notion of a soul is to misunderstand two of the most basic teachings of Buddhism-the awareness of constant change and the absence of any permanent, unchanging self. While the essence of life never ends and gets passed from one generation to the next, it is always being conditioned anew, constantly metamorphosing and adapting to an ever-changing environment.
As my wife, Marion, and I prepare to have children, we are looking deeply within ourselves for an awareness of the aspirations of our lineage. Can we experience the primordial feelings of our ancestors and forebears, and be conscious of their yearnings and dreams?
One area has been a fertile ground for learning these lessons. Since we began focusing our attention on the first awareness, we have noticed differences in the way we approach food, health care, and substance usage. We are clearer about our roles as caretakers for the stream of life passing through us, and our concerns for health and happiness are not as personal or self-involved as they once were.
In this precious lifetime, we have the opportunity to break the chains of despair and delusion, and shed light on those areas of darkness that have pained a family of beings for many generations. Equally, we have the ability to ignore our responsibility to past and future generations, exacerbating and compounding the chain of suffering. The choice seems to be ours, and the first awareness offers an important perspective to help us choose well.