One of my daily spiritual practices is to check on the condition of the universe. After all, that’s where I live. At least for now.
I get an update on the universe every time I turn on my Internet search engine, set to open on the “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” One day I saw a picture of a red dwarf star dying, consuming itself in a fireball similar to the one in which our own sun will eventually die. Another day I saw a simulated image of a newly discovered galaxy located a few million light-years from Earth and containing 600 billion suns. Some days the picture elicits an audible gasp, and I immediately begin forwarding the link to friends. “Look! Stars are being born! Galaxies are spinning through space! The universe is a gazillion times more vast than we ever could have imagined!”
I suspect that the Buddha would have enjoyed the astronomy picture of the day, and might have even advised his disciples to use it as a daily reflection, a way to bring some perspective to their lives. The Buddha wants us to sever our attachment to this individual drama, the “self,” and seeing the size of the universe could serve as a tool, a skillful means. It could help revise our belief that the Earth and the human species are the central focus of creation, bringing us some relief from our own self-obsession. We might even arrive at a new sense of co-arising and coexisting, a feeling that we belong to the universe and not the other way around.
Humans have always placed themselves at the center of creation, understandably. Our focus on human affairs seems an obvious extension of the survival instinct. And throughout our history we have had good reason to believe that we were specially created. Even at the dawn of consciousness, before we could fully articulate our existence, we must have noticed that we were the dominant ones, the real kings of the jungle, the alpha species. By the time we were able to spin stories about our lives and our place in the cosmos, we had become so dominant—and so arrogant—that we declared the entire universe was made just for us.
Of course, for most of our history we were also unaware that the Earth was traveling around the sun. And we didn’t know until recently that we were in a galaxy, let alone a galaxy cluster. But perhaps a greater shock was to see ourselves in the history of life on Earth, and to realize that we are not only related to other forms of life, but descended from them—cellular offspring of the pond scum and the dancing amoeba. Your mama was a germ! Darwin wrote in his secret notebooks that publishing his theory was like “committing murder,” delivering a mortal wound to human pride.
Occasionally I reflect on the latest science: the fact that the Earth is temporary and will be consumed when our sun flames out, which is expected to happen about 4 billion years from now. (The sun is a little more than 4 billion years old, so it is just now in midlife.) Meanwhile, the average mammalian species lasts a few million years. Do we qualify for extinction, or are we special, made of sterner stuff?
When I reflect on the impermanence and relative insignificance of my home planet and species, I feel a kind of relief. I think to myself that all of this Sturm und Drang is no big deal. But shouldn’t I instead be feeling concern, fear or sorrow? Am I betraying my own cause, devaluing my own kind and everything I love? And then there is the egoic reaction: how can this earthly existence be inconsequential when I am a part of it?
Don’t get me wrong: I do love this world and often find it achingly beautiful, and when I read about the structure of reality or how the DNA works I am filled with wonder at what this water planet has wrought. As Brian Swimme says, “Four billion years ago the Earth was a cooling ball of lava, and now it can sing opera.” I like to remind myself that I am a member of a spectacular species that has learned how to see to the edges of the universe, deep inside of matter, and has even developed the ability to know of our own existence. We are a wonder of the world—at least to ourselves! And I still hope to contribute to the diminishment of suffering in this world for as long as it lasts, because we are all in the same pain, and it feels so good to help. I also believe, as the Buddha did, that this is a “precious” incarnation because we are allowed to see through our solid sense of self and recognize our kinship with all things. May the experiment continue!
But maybe we should take some spiritual lessons from our latest scientific breakthroughs, and step back and away from our human-centric picture frame. Let’s “unhumanize” our views a little, as Robinson Jeffers put it; de-sentimentalize the human strut across the stage. It may sound strange, but I think that’s what the Buddha was trying to do.
One recent discovery has brought me a new sense of the human role in the cosmos. It comes in the form of the Kepler space telescope that in just the last year has started searching for other planets in our galaxy that could support life. After surveying just a small section of the sky, Kepler has discovered hundreds of potentially habitable planets orbiting other suns in what scientists call the “Goldilocks zone”—not too hot, not too cold.
Gliese 581g is one of the planets that the astronomers believe could support life. It is three to four times the size of Earth and goes around its sun every thirty-seven days, so the years just go whizzing by. If I lived on Gliese 581g, I’d be almost 700 by now.
Astronomers say that Gliese 581g is a few dozen light-years away from Earth, so we can figure that if beings actually do live on that planet they are just about to watch their first episode of I Love Lucy. And not in reruns.
But seriously folks, the earliest evidence from the Kepler telescope would indicate that there are thousands of planets in our galaxy alone that could support life, and when you consider the latest estimate of 100 billion galaxies in the universe, containing 30 to 50 billion trillion suns, it seems very likely that there is other life out there, lots of it. And I think this is great news for humanity because it takes the pressure off of us! We no longer have to carry the entire burden of meaning in the cosmos. We can relax a little. Whoopee! Human pride deflates, and all our ontological answers are again tossed up in the air.
Maybe life on other planets will have a different design and come with other kinds of consciousness. Could there be beings of light? Will life on other planets have their own gods and buddhas? Will they believe that the universe was created just for them?
By the way, if we find life in another galaxy we will suddenly gain a new identity—we will become Milky Wayans! Then, in the intergalactic sporting events of the future, our descendants will be the ones chanting, “Hey, hey, hey, Milky Way. Hey, hey, hey, Milky Way!”
As life goes spiraling on and on through the cosmos.