It began with a rush of blood. Then came fear, and curiosity. Were there dangers hidden in my genes? Clues about my future, even my death? Was my “self,” my personality, programmed into my genome?
Penetrate completely the matter of birth and death, says the traditional Zen instruction. Somehow I imagined it might be easier to let go of “body and mind,” as Zen master Dogen instructed, if I knew that both of those phenomena had been constructed genetically.
Most of our ancestors are forgotten, faceless and nameless. But they left their genes, and some left their words. I searched through those words and genes, expecting to see in them the familiar face of a hero or victim from the old stories.
I glimpsed that face. But I saw something else, too. I saw the face of a persecutor, a killer. I saw a stranger’s face. My face.
And behind it, an entire world. My world.
Today, then, is the day
the melting snowman
becomes a real man.
The twelve words of this Zen death poem are the only record of Fusen, the monk who wrote them as he lay dying in his 57th year. In my own 57th year I looked down into the toilet I had just used and saw bright clouds of blood forming lazy cumulus shapes in the water. A round of cancer tests followed, administered by a doctor who insisted that “things like this don’t just happen.”
Anyone who’s being tested for a life-threatening disease lives in suspended animation. Our lives become drifting swirls of probability where futures emerge like faces, sometimes kind and sometimes fierce, only to recede with the next lab report. We’re like Schrödinger’s cat from the physicist’s thought experiment, locked in a lead box and neither alive nor dead—or rather, both alive and dead—until someone looks inside. Meanwhile indifferent strangers probe our bodies, or slip us into imaging machines where we scratch at the metal walls like cats.
In the end my tests showed nothing. No disease, no danger, no signposts to early death. Sometimes, apparently, things do just happen.
To study the self is to know the self, said Dogen. Our genome is like an ancient sutra. Like a sutra, the genome carries a series of brief coded instructions from the past. Genes guide our growth and bear programmed instructions. To learn more about mine, I laboriously filled a vial with spit and mailed it to a company called 23andMe. Then I waited.
To know the self is to forget the self, Dogen continued. Genes influence our health, our appearance, even some of our preferences and tastes. More controversial reports suggest they also influence our talents, sexual orientation, propensity for violence, even whether or not we’re safe drivers. Is there a “self” at all, or just an aggregation of genetic tendencies?
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. Buddhist teaching suggests that the Self is an illusion, and identity is an ongoing confluence of forces. That means that, very literally, our sense of self is shaped by the world around us. Genes that were shaped by environment and history then shape our bodies. The “self” is more like a raincloud than a stone. It’s created and shaped by intersecting currents of DNA and time, the way rain clouds are created and shaped by currents of air and water.
People often describe the genome as a blueprint, but it’s more like a weather report. It can’t tell us what tomorrow’s clouds will look like, but it can warn us there’s a chance of rain.
“Man is the language of God,” a Hasidic rabbi once said. My father’s parents escaped the Ukrainian pogroms and rarely spoke about the past. But the rabbi at my grandfather’s funeral read signs in the inscriptions on his tombstone and the location of his grave, a place of Hasidic honor within sight of the Grand Rebbe’s tomb in a Jewish cemetery.
We learned that my nonbelieving grandfather was the son of a Hasidic rabbinical judge, a dayan. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel wrote about the mystic Hasidic rabbis, who sometimes resemble Buddhist masters. One abandoned his identity so completely that he had no name but “The Jew.” Another rabbi felt sorry for a coachman standing in the snow outside a reception in his honor, so he held the man’s horses for hours and shivered as guests as came and went.
Some rabbis even spoke of reincarnation. “Long ago in Egypt,” said one, “every one of us was at the prophets’ feet to receive their teachings.” Heredity as rebirth, as karma? “The past,” said the rabbi, “is heavy with meaning.”
Wiesel wrote that once in the 19th-century the rabbinical courts of Eastern Europe—my great-grandfather’s courts—were suddenly “endowed with a messianic dimension” and swept by dark prophecies. Judges spoke of the biblical armies of Gog and Magog, wrote Wiesel, and “their gigantic, apocalyptic war.” Their apocalypse arrived a few decades later, delivered by the Third Reich.
My mother’s Catholic mother was French and Swiss, raised in Parisian wealth only to see her family lose everything in the First World War. My mother’s father was born in a covered wagon heading West, descended from the ‘bad’ side of an distinguished English family whose family tree included diplomats and convicts, pirates and bishops.
This grab bag of ancestors was unified by two things: an inclination to religious leadership and a deep aversion toward Germans. My Jewish relatives wouldn’t speak of them, and my Catholic grandmother would spit out the words “les sales Boches”—which, roughly translated, means “dirty Krauts.”
Who, exactly, was the object of their hatred? Imagine there’s no countries, the song says. But we don’t have to imagine. Science confirms that countries are a fiction. There is no “national” DNA. Bloodlines cross borders as freely as migrating birds. Germany’s gene patterns, like all nations’, overlap with those of its neighbors. In fact, Germany’s central location left it with a more mixed bloodline than those of more isolated countries like Ireland, whose residents are genetically more “Irish” than Germany’s are “German.”
A nation’s genetic patterns are like chords on a piano. Science traces our nationality by telling us which country’s “harmonies” our genome most closely resembles. Europe’s “notes”—its bloodlines—all come from somewhere else. They’re linked to people everywhere, including the “races” some Europeans want to exclude.
And the differences are miniscule. Everyone’s genes are 99.9 percent identical. They’re also 97.5 percent like a chimpanzee’s and 70 to 85 percent like a mouse’s (though different genes are turned “on” or “off” in different species). All living things share DNA from a common ancestor, a single, large, soup-like organism that divided into separate beings 2.9 billion years ago. Humans, plants, and animals were originally, to appropriate Roshi Bernie Glassman’s Zen phrase, “One Body.”
Our maternal bloodline, passed from mother to daughter, shows that we’re all descended from the same woman. Our paternal line, traced from father to son, leads to one man. “Imagine”? It’s the jingoists who “imagine.” Nations are an illusion. Ancient hatreds have no place in the genome. Genes don’t divide us. They unite us.
Good thing, too. Joanna Mountain, Senior Research Director at 23andMe, reviewed my report and explained that I’m more than half German. “You share more than half your DNA with people who had Germans as all four grandparents,” she said. There’s German “blood” on both sides. My mother’s ancestry is more German than British, French, or Swiss, probably because Angles and Saxons conquered England and originated in Europe.
My German-averse ancestors might have been shocked. Nietzsche, my fellow “German,” said, “He who fights monsters must take care not to become a monster too.”
Humanity’s common “mother,” called “Eve” or “MoM” (for “Mother of all Mothers”), probably lived around 200,000 years ago. She was dark-skinned and short— four feet tall or so. In her lifetime there may have been no more than two thousand human beings on the entire planet. Everybody comes from one of seven bloodlines, or “haplogroups,” each traceable to one of Eve’s female descendents.
My mother’s bloodline is the 40,000-year-old “H” group. It’s the most common European line, though all are found on most continents. The H line comprises half the population in parts of the Near East. It connects me to Luke the Evangelist (religion again!), who might have written the Bible’s book of Luke.
Eventually my ancestors branched off from the main line, separating me from H celebrities like Jimmy Buffett. So while my mother’s relatives can be found in Poland, Hungary, and Eastern Europe, I’m only distantly related to the residents of Margaritaville, and our final branching, “H7al,” is described in the scientific literature as “very rare.”
Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.
Our common “Father of Fathers” lived between 80,000 and 142,000 years ago. My father’s “J” line began with the common “father” of Jews and Arabs, who lived in the Near East 40,000 years ago. His genes were carried around the world by the Jewish Diaspora and the spread of Greek and Muslim empires. They can be found in most Lebanese, and in many Greeks and Italians. The ancient seafaring Phoenicians were Js. Others introduced agriculture to Europe.
A smaller, “J2” branch of my ancestry includes many of the world’s Jews. But some J2s migrated in Neolithic times, leaving me with Hindu and Shia Muslim relations in India and Pakistan. In the 1300s, one of my J2 “relatives” was the Italian poet and scholar Petrarch.
Truth seems much in one’s blood…
—Sir William Temple, 1652
Sir William Temple, one of my mother’s ancestors, was a 17th-century British diplomat and essayist who once hired Jonathan Swift as his personal secretary. Sir William’s grandson led the Church of England, making us the only kids in our Hebrew school descended from an Archbishop of Canterbury. I felt a visceral shock of recognition reading Sir William’s essays and letters. His literary “voice”—his cadence, tone, and style—strongly resembled that of my grandfather, who wrote journal accounts of his days as a railroad detective, and that of an uncle who died in World War II but left his diary behind.
Do genes shape personality? Geneticists argue that point furiously. Sir William’s essay “On Thoughts” has the amphetamine-like tone of a bipolar jag, veering from ecstatic to morbid in the same run-on paragraphs. “Darkness makes innocence,” he wrote ominously. “Theft or murder is no crime to those that can conceal it.”
His words tumble out in a manic flow like a medieval Jack Kerouac’s: “If I ever should begin to be angry with the world, God knows when I should end…. Though (thoughts) they have no substance, yet they have a form… imperfect, like meteors, without any influence from the sun of understanding… children of the brain… some die in the birth, and they cost the most pain.”
Coincidentally or not, my report says I’m at higher-than-average risk for bipolar disorder. Family lore says that Sir William died by suicide, although the official records don’t confirm that.
I have a higher risk of developing alcohol dependence and addiction, too, traits once considered failures of character, though poet and cleric John Donne doubted that. “Are chastity, temperance, or virtue gifts of the mind?” Donne wrote. “I ask … whether the cause of these not be in the body.” The geneticists now say ‘yes,’ at least partially.
I’m at greater risk of developing gout, too. Sir William did, and wrote a long, grisly, pus-ridden essay about it. And hypothyroidism, asthma, and chronic tremor. Good calls: I’ve already had all three. There’s added risk of bladder cancer, too, one of the diseases that might have caused that sudden rush of blood.
Some of the news was good. I’m at lower than average risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and prostate cancer, three diseases that haunt my family. And the report’s warnings about diabetes and gallstones are motivation to change my behavior.
But the exercise was beginning to feel narcissistic and almost arrogant, an attempt to know the unknowable. As Sir William wrote in 1652: “What hounds are we, that with our noses groveling on the earth and [tangible] objects, presume to trace that eternal order and series of things … the links of a certain chain, the end of which is in the hand of its Maker!”
In a mirror, in water, in an eye, in a vessel, and on a gem, images are seen; but in them there are no realities anywhere to take hold of.
Where was the person inside the information? The famous Buddhist parable compares the self to a chariot whose “chariotness” can’t be found in its parts—wheels, axle, or platform. Even within the biological world, genes aren’t the only forces shaping our fate. Dr. Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, is creating a Human Microbiome Project to study the millions of creatures that inhabit us and alter us. And studies show that life expectancy is more closely tied to income level than genetics. Want longer human life spans? Eliminate poverty.
Joanna Mountain took me through my genetic profile with an online tool that compared my profile to the profiles of people from different countries. The plot points zoomed in on a continent, a region, a country. But the closer we came, the more they scattered. At the end my genome hovered in space, untethered to any point on the earth’s surface. It resembled many nationalities, but matched none. “One must have chaos still inside him to give birth to a dancing star,” said Nietzsche.
I’m pretty European, as such things go, but not from anywhere in particular. Germany’s the closest match, followed by Eastern Europe. But genetically I have no homeland but the planet, no nationality except humanity. And even that’s flexible: Like most Europeans and Asians, some of my DNA (about 2.5 percent, in my case) is Neanderthal, so genetically I’m not even 100 percent Homo sapiens.
If my place of origin is less identifiable than most, genetics shows us that we’re all essentially rootless on the earth. We come from many places, and from none. And we share 2.9 billion years of ancestry with all other living things. The Tibetans were right, at least metaphorically, when they said all beings were once our mothers.
Imagine this, as if it were a dream: Somewhere on a savannah a small figure hides at the sound of your approach. You’re large and frightening to her, and she seems primitive and strange to you. But she’s human, very human. She reminds you of a Xhosa woman. She is small, and looks something like one of the Khoisan people, called “Bushmen” by some, or a member of the Aka, Efé, or other African peoples once called “pygmies.” You don’t remind her of anyone or anything she knows—not of Neanderthals, or birds, or the creatures that her people see sometimes in their dreams. Yet you still seem familiar to her. She finds herself wanting to protect you.
Your eyes meet hers, and you see kindness there. You realize you’ve seen that kindness before—in your mother’s eyes when she looked at you, and in your grandmother’s when she saw her daughter holding you. It’s a look that’s passed from mother to daughter for 150,000 years.
Know the masculine
keep to the feminine
and be the Brook of the World.
—Tao Te Ching
I’d asked ancient questions. Seven hundred years ago Petrarch wrote: “Often have I wondered with much curiosity as to our coming into this world, and what will follow our departure.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav had a theory: “Two men separated by space and time can nevertheless take part in an exchange,” he said. “One asks a question and the other, elsewhere and later, asks another, unaware that his question is an answer to the first.”
The answer I received was to a question I didn’t know I had asked: Who is my enemy? The answer? No one. The Tibetan Buddhists say, “Drive all blames into one.” My ancestors couldn’t despise Germans without rejecting their own history. The same illusion of nationalism that birthed the Third Reich fueled their illusion of “enemies,” deceiving them into thinking they were other than German themselves.
Much of our biological identity lies too deep for the genome. Whenever I hold my cat, my blood pressure drops. So does hers. As mammals we are hardwired to love, but that doesn’t appear in the genome. We may never know exactly how our common “Mother” and “Father” shaped us. We don’t even know their names. But we can be aware of their ongoing presence in our lives.
The “me” question, the “letting go of body and mind,” remained unanswered. But when I told my mother about this article she asked wistfully, “Do you ever feel connected to your ancestors?” I feel as if they’re inside me, I said.
“Remember the ancient way of strength,” says the Native American poet and activist John Trudell. Revive the memory of the universe.
The Hasids of Europe were thrown into the fire by Germans. Those who died in the gas chambers were my cousins. But so were the ones who released the Zyklon B into those chambers. They’re both in me, the killer and the killed. And to a greater or lesser extent, they’re in you too. “Man has no greater enemy than himself,” said Petrarch.
The mystic says we can save them all, those that came before us as well as those that will follow. “The future enters into us to transform us,” the German-language writer Rilke wrote, “long before it happens.” Let’s hope so. If humanity is the language of God, genetics is its vocabulary. We’re the story that it tells. Men tell their stories through sons and nephews, women through daughters and nieces. But the story is one.
I’ll die. The men who follow me will die. But we’ll survive, too, like those before us did, as lines in the unbroken death poem that leads back to the beginning of life. Each dying son and father, each melting snowman, will become a real man when it matters most—in the generations that follow him, in the generations that owe him life, in the generations that will never know his name.
Artwork by Mia Brownell
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