Q: My background is Christian, but I’ve had a focus on Buddhism lately. I thought it might help me understand things better so that I could gain insight in what is beyond all religions. But there is something that has occupied me lately: I want to believe in the “live core” within myself so badly, because life would seem so banal without it. But I don’t seem to find an “equivalent” in Buddhism. If passing is the only reality, if nothing inside myself lives on when I die, and I don’t mean my “person”, then I can’t see the point of living at all. — H.

A: Dear H.,

This is a great question and like all great questions it is not so easy to answer without getting into all sorts of paradoxes. But, in short: Despite the fact that Buddhism officially doesn’t posit a soul or an essence, and does assert, as you say, that all things are impermanent and empty of any essence, Buddhism is explicitly not, as you worry, nihilistic (which is the conclusion one might come to, logically: if everything is fleeting, why bother?). Nihilism is the viewpoint that nothing really exists, nothing matters. This is based on the hidden assumption that one expects or desires that something be permanent and solid, and finding this not to be so, one falls into despair.

But the Buddhist view (which is more experiential than doctrinal) is the opposite of this: that exactly because things are radically impermanent (not impermanent against a backdrop of the wish for permanence, but impermanent in the sense that things arise anew every moment) they are sacred and in a sense eternal. Every moment partakes of eternity, if only we could fully live it, beyond our various deeply held conceptions of it. The point of practice is to bring us to this understanding, with which we can celebrate our life as it is really is, with nothing to hold on to, but everything present for us on each occasion.

On September 21, 2011 I gave a talk (you can find it on the Everyday Zen website) on Dogen’s text Mountains and Rivers Sutra in which I explicate this Buddhist understanding. The text is pretty abstruse, but I hope my explanation is understandable.

— Zoketsu Norman Fischer