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What Can Colored Water Teach About Buddhism?

Feb. 28, 2018 — Earlier this week, Lori Veilleux’s students dropped food coloring into jars of water and observed how the color spread. This wasn’t an art class, though; it was a Humanities II World Religions course. The idea was to illustrate hard-to-grasp aspects of Buddhist thought. Veilleux, a religious studies and philosophy teacher, describes the connections this way.

View a video clip from the class.

Students found creative ways to connect their observations to core ideas in Buddhism, including impermanence, attachment as the source of suffering, and the concept of “no-self.” (These three concepts are called “The Three Marks of Existence” in Buddhism.) 

For example, many thought that, as the dye slowly spread through the water, it illustrated the concept of impermanence: even when things in the jar seemed to stay the same, the dye and water were moving and changing the entire time. 

As for suffering, many students noted their desire to stop the unfolding process of change and “freeze” the dye in a particularly beautiful configuration in the water, or they noted the disappointment when the water eventually turned to a uniform color. This, they noticed, illustrated the Buddha's teaching that attachment/desire leads to suffering or a state of dissatisfaction. 

Finally, many students made an analogy between the exceedingly tricky concept of “no-self” and the jars of water and dye. The jar of water may appear to be a discrete thing with its own existence and integrity; however, it is intimately connected to and affected by everything around it. The dye changed it, the air would eventually make the water evaporate, the jar could spill or break, and so on. 

From a Buddhist perspective, humans are like the jars. It feels like we are individual selves with our own existence and integrity, but we are just as interconnected to everything else as the jars are. We change from moment to moment in response to the world around us and our own actions. When we die (when the jar breaks or spills or the water pours into the pitcher), the things that make us “us” move on to a new existence informed by what happened in our previous lifetimes. 

These abstract concepts can be difficult to grasp, but the observations give students a concrete way to ground their understanding.

Photo and video by Glenn Minshall