The Heavens from Earth
As our planet rotates around the solar system, it passes through a sequence of planetary alignments and conjunctions with other celestial formations, both close and in far distant galaxies. Sages in the past read and interpreted these relative planetary positions as a portent or sign. Believing that through the mathematical and mythological mapping of the night sky, the past and future destiny of individuals, battles or nations could be told. The Latin word 'astrologia' is derived from an original Greek term which meant the 'account of the stars'. We once believed the celestial heavens spoke to us directly about the purpose of our lives, its future dangers or good fortune.
These days the 'account of the stars' is heard through a different medium, that of astro-physicists. They scan the stars with satellite telescopes in search of precise, detailed, verifiable information. They probe into the amount of matter and dark matter in the universe, look closely at collapsing galaxies, red dwarfs,and find black holes, read into this data and draw their speculative conclusions. This 'account of the stars' though researching a different sort of structure to reality, is still primarily an existential endeavour. Finding what made the universe come into being, will also speak metaphorically for what makes us tick. Though dressed up in the clean clothes of scientific rationalism, what we are learning is no less fantastical, improbable or impenetrable than the world that the ancients imaginatively conceived of as taking place in the heavens. The universe remains essentially an unbelievable place.
One thing that is interesting about this cosmic search for our origins, is that the information garnered is presented in such neutral terms. No religious meaning is presupposed, made explicit or imposed upon it. It’s just the bald facts, stripped of spiritual ornament. Despite this, we are undoubtedly piecing together a new creation myth here. The universe, the whole cosmos is minutely observed, so that we can dream and conjecture withe the eyes of science about what really gave birth to matter, time, space and to us. This Universe, born without any god posing as its creator, appears autonomously. A self-generating, self-justifying, self-imploding and self-expanding system. Breathing space dust in and out, like a giant macrocosmic lung.
The gods and goddesses of the ancients having been demystified, are now demoted. They no longer garner even the privilege of capital letters. Torn from the lofty role of sculpting our destiny, they are now more akin to theatrical understudies; only employed on a stage when someone has fallen ill. This godless universe creates a fascinating conundrum; what sense can be make of a self-contained cosmic mechanism, of a creation myth with no creator? The mathematical probabilities of particle physics keep looking for still deeper, ever more ephemeral, elusive qualities. Things whose presence is indicated by an absence, like gaps in a jigsaw. Words become barely adequate to describe accurately such fundamental things. What is it that defines the nature of reality, why is it as it is? Will this scientific investigation trail take us back through closely observed patterns in conditioning to a new genesis?
Buddhist practice for over two and a half thousand years, has minutely examined the traces of human experience and how reality really is. With a different emphasis and ultimately purpose in mind, than scientific materialism. It’s still existential in focus, though it is reluctant to answer questions of how things came into being in the first place, at least not in the strict linear terms we might expect. The primary obstacle, is not a lack of verifiable data, but the self-referential viewpoint from which we view all things. This blinds us to the import of basic but very evident truths such as the transitoriness of existence and insubstantial nature of our Self. Something scientific empiricism rarely fully takes on or explores, other than to try and reverse or prevent genetic deterioration We are always in danger of committing an existential evasion.
At the core of Buddhism is the conditioned co-production formula, whose implications indicate that our relationship with reality is not as we see it, as alienated by our own reflective self-awareness, but as a contributor to its fluidly dynamic, interactive and constantly evolving process. Nothing is so fixed that it can’t become unfixed. Nothing so conditioned that it can’t become unconditioned. This is the rubicon to be crossed through Buddhist practise.
'This being, causes other things to become;
because of the arising of these, further things will also arise.
This not being, will mean other things do not become;
because these cease to arise, then all further arisings will also cease' 1
These verses simply describe the functioning principle of what is happening right now, happened in the past, and will happen in the future. Even these concepts of past and future require a fixed viewpoint from which to view them that we call the present, with a fixed viewer who can stand in that present. All our concepts end up fixing the world and our central focal position in it. Effectively turning reality, that is all about movement, interaction and change into something that is immovable, dualistic and static.
Science as a human activity and practice cannot help but do this too. It finds itself engaging, working and being confounded by the complexity of this conditioned co-produced process in action, all the time. Because atoms exist they interact and create an event, which leads to looking for other sets of conditioning factors, for further particles and sub-particles to be present, and researchers then look to see if they actually do. Just when we think we’ve reached the end of the journey of discovery, a new path is revealed. It’s a bit like reading a detective book backwards, where by knowing who the culprit is we eventually discover the original circumstances of the murder. Scientific discoveries are then similar to re-erecting dominos that have fallen over. Eventually the basic building blocks for the entire cosmic chain of events will be reconstructed.
Will this conditional framework be fit for the purpose - ultimately? Might its usefulness at some point simply breakdown? For the mystery of the heavens to unlock itself, the key we use might need to be different one The key might be ‘no key,’ the lock ‘no lock.’ We are already being forced to go beyond the conditionings of form, time and space to find an explanation through our imaginations for things that may never be empirically found? The unconditioned may leave us living in an unfathomable universe.
A primary creator god is just one explanation for the origins and structure of all life. Like most explanations it creates contradictions inherent to its own premises and assumptions. Without a creator, where do primary particles come from, with a creator, where does god come from? Perhaps both came ‘out of nowhere’ - out of nothing. The buck stopping either with a god, or a godless origin may be one dualism that has to be gone beyond. A conditioned chain of events may ultimately have a cut off point, where it stops functioning as the universes observable principle. The conditioned universe then, may ultimately have a finite and paradoxically constant state. If, however, the conditioned chain of events were to have no cut off point, then the universe may just goes on and on and on, in an infinite and constant evolution? What if even this conditioned chain of events bound by time and space, can at some point can be transcended, gone beyond? Then again we may be looking at an unconditioned experience, one that is outside matter, time and space, something we can barely imagine or comprehend. By removing the creator god, we don’t necessarily change the question, only the answer. The questions are simple ones - is the universe eternal or not eternal, is it finite or infinite ? It may be a matter of insufficient information or the insufficiency of our conceptions, that we cannot as yet fully provide an answer.
No current hypotheses provides a complete answer, and will they ever find one ? Or is it that we just simply haven’t yet got the full picture. We are constantly being pushed to conceive of things beyond our tangible conditioned experience. It's little wonder people cling to the idea of a creator god. As a solution its easier to handle, to give responsibility over to him, or her. It’s also easier to grasp conceptually than the little explored and arcane metaphysics of science, badly explained and existentially incoherent. A god introduces an existential element of stability, of structure and purpose to what is otherwise a chaotic universe. Whilst not being a complete or logical solution to life, meaning and the universe, a god performs a comforting mythic role - existentially. So my bet is, that a belief in god will persist despite the lack of logic, coherence, or evidence to back it up. A godless origin is mostly held as being inconceivable. Or is it just a matter of improving our presentation skills?
When it comes to the nature and origin of the universe the Buddha was not silent. he just said that it was an 'imponderable' subject. It sounds at first, like this was just a neat way of sidestepping the issue. It isn’t that these ‘imponderables’ aren’t good questions, but are they spiritually speaking worth devoting time to. For a practicing Buddhist, it’s the cosmic version of navel gazing, to ponder endlessly on such 'speculative views'. Yet researching speculative theories is the way that modern life, science and society has progressed. A process that has been immensely beneficial to the wealth and welfare of humanity. The Buddha’s would I expect not have denied that. By designating these questions ‘imponderable’ he wished to encourage the contemplation and practice of what was conducive to insight into the true nature of reality, to the state of Enlightenment, to the liberation of the human mind. Anything else was squandering precious time. The following verses from the Culamalunkya Sutta in the Majima Nikaya, explains his view succinctly::~
'Remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared. And what have I left undeclared?'The world is eternal'~I have left undeclared. 'The world is not eternal'~ I have left undeclared. 'the world is finite'~I have left undeclared. 'The world is infinite'~ I have left undeclared
Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is un-beneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have left it undeclared.
And what have I declared? 'This is suffering'~I have declared. 'this is the origin of suffering'~I have declared. 'This is the cessation of suffering'~ I have declared. 'This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering' ~ I have declared.
Why have I declared that? Because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have declared it.'2
So, you reflect on whatever produces insight. Speculative views on ‘imponderable’ questions, od gods or no gods, were considered unproductive. Looking up to the heavens for a answer, would not advance you one step forward in the direction of Nibbana, it may even drag you backwards. What would take you forward, was closely examining and reflecting on your experience of the origins and cessation of your own suffering. Dragging your mind down from the speculative heavens that it so loves, with a specific purpose in mind. To put mind and body firmly in touch with earthly existence, to fully face what our experience of earthly reality has really been like.
1 ~ Freely adapted by Vidyavajra from the Udana, Chapter 3 on The Bodhi Tree, using J.Ireland's & F L Woodward's translations
2 ~ Taken from the Culamalunkya Sutta, Chapter 63, of the Majima Nikaya. Translated by Bhikkhu's Bodhi & Nanamoli, published by Wisdom.