Part Four of a Series
Talk given at the Buddha Center, Second Life
by Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi
It is written in the earliest known texts of the Pali Nikayas that the Buddha chose to remain silent when metaphysical subjects arose, subjects that were unknowable in his culture and time. He was taking a view that a “science of thought” would allow human beings to recognize the suffering that encompasses life from birth to death, and to recognize as an individual and a society the alleviation of suffering. He came to the realization, through his own experience that any discussions of metaphysics would distract one from the realities of the causal Universe that humans engage with from birth to death. However, there is one aspect of metaphysics that Siddhartha first engaged in as a young man, and continued to engage in until his death at eighty years of age . . . mystery.
Mysteries are something to be solved. Whereas, metaphysics, magic, mythology and mysticism are events and abilities that are meant to be taken on faith especially when religion enters the conversation. They are meant to be taken as truth without the question ‘why?’ being asked. It is mystery viewed as a religious truth that is incomprehensible to reason and knowable only through divine revelation. When ‘why’ is asked with the intent of finding an answer based in reality and experience those metaphysical concepts take on the nature of mystery. Mystery can be viewed as what is the cause, why does something happen. A sense of spirituality arises with the question why no matter the context: religious, spiritual, or philosophical.
Ven. David said in a talk here at the Buddha Center, “Our spiritual side is driven by thoughts of what is this Universe all about. Humans love a good mystery. It is what drives the pursuit of science for example. A mystery is without boundaries, it requires an open mind, and the suspension of our ordinary filters, so we can be accepting of an ever increasing expansion of our mind’s horizons, so this expansion of thought results in making the abstract real.”
In the initial talk in this series, “Science of Thought”, I offered the 5Ms, metaphysics, mythology, magic, mysticism and mystery. Of the five, the first four are unknowables that become known over time with the advent of new ways of exploring and understanding the world around us, or may never become known. There is a mythological tale of the Buddha that says as a young man he determined through mathematics the approximate size of an atom. Before his Awakening Siddhartha engaged in what was termed a “counting contest” with a mathematician named Arjuna, a culturally significant way of settling disputes in ancient India. Siddhartha sought to win the heart of a woman, Gopa. To do this he was asked to calculate a very big number and a very small number, the number of smallest possible unit of measure, yojana. He would need to determine how many atoms (yojana) in a line ten kilometers long. The myth has it that Siddhartha nearly calculated the exact size of an atom millenia before an electron microscope was available. He arrived at the number 0.00000000001416 meter, more or less the size of a carbon atom. Siddhartha was very close to solving a mystery of the Universe without being aware of it, a mystery that was eventually solved in 1920.
The scientist and physicist Richard Feynman said, “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
Dr. Feyman is asking why, and then answering the question. Why does the artist believe that they have a better view of beauty? He answers it by revealing that as a scientist he goes deeper than the outer appearance and aroma of the flower, eventually getting to an encompassing answer to why is the flower beautiful not just to him, but that the beauty plays an interconnected role in the Universal causal chain. Certainly there is beauty in the outward appearance of the flower. There is also beauty under that surface, all the way to a molecular level. There is mystery in the ‘why’ that beauty is important in it’s connection with all other phenomena. But even the answer brings about the arising of more mysteries, more ‘whys’ that culminate with ‘I don’t understand . . .’
During a talk the Buddha held up a flower and his disciple Mahakasyapa came to the sudden awakening of the mystery of wisdom (prajna). The outward beauty of that lotus flower could be seen readily by all those attending the Buddha’s talk. Only Mahakasyapa realized the mystery that lay beyond the beautiful form of the flower to the beauty of the lesson. It is up to each of us to find the answers to our own mysteries.
How do we engage mystery as part of a Buddhist practice? That mystery often begins with a person’s first experience with Buddhism. Why Buddhism? Some people have a clear reason such as illness, fear, discontentment and a search for what they view as spiritual fulfillment. Others reasons are not so clear, even to themselves. It may be curiousity, an unrecognized discontentment with a practiced faith, or to find a place to “fit in”. No matter what brings them to the Noble Path it began as a mystery, and for many remains a mystery until through meditation practice, rigorous self-honesty, and engagment with the sangha they find an answer to what was previously an unknown. It is the mystery of “what comes next” that is a powerful motive to commit to the effort needed to make that discovery, and then go on to make other personal and societal discoveries.
Mystery is the pursuit of the unknown. The pursuit of mystery is one of life-long learning, one of spiritual development. Long before I encountered Buddhism I had a saying; a saying that has since become a personal mantra, ‘I love life and all it’s mysteries.’