By: David Xi-Ken Shi
A new year is almost upon us. Many of us use this time to reflect on our past year’s experiences and contemplate what we need to do to continue our practice with refreshed energy. This generally takes the form of making New Years resolutions. But I have a different thought for you this year. Consider, rather than making resolutions, creating a personal-life-theme for the year. A theme that encompasses a life-changing set of actions that can be deployed throughout the months to come. Take time to contemplate how this might be accomplished. Look for inspiration both within yourself as well as from others. Take time to polish your thoughts. Look for a deeper meaning that underwrites your theme. Here are some thoughts of mine that might start you thinking as you begin a year of greatness and beauty in practice. Perhaps this is the year for you to change lanes in order to get around all that life-traffic that has been slowing you down.
Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, lived in a world of metaphysics. 2500 years ago man interpreted the world around him in the only reality that made sense to him; through unknowing truths, mythical gods, and magical realities. The Buddha awakened to a broader and deeper meaning of this world as he expanded his inner vision to include a universal perspective. He applied a deep and rigorous logical approach to thinking beyond the limitations of his day that allowed him to awaken to a world driven by mutual-causal forces. He backed up his thoughts by validating them against his personal experiences. As a result he formulated a philosophy that included wise understanding of human behavior along with a practical way of living that was based on moving away from the various causes for suffering to a less complicated model for living a life full of positive potential for happiness. His methods foreshadowed those we use today that moved us into a modern scientific age. However, the Buddha also left behind a legacy of thought, full of spiritual meaning as well.
In today’s world we have marvelous tools that allow us to explore a universe not know to Siddhartha. We live in the scientific age, known as the age of discovery. As the age of science and man’s investigative tools improve, we come to view the universe, and our place in it, in ways unknown to ancient man. It is easy to consider that science can give us a perspective that things are about matter and mechanics, at least according to how things appear by using scientific instruments. So the universe is being delivered to contemporary man through evidence rather than by conjecture. This is not a bad thing, unless this new method for viewing the universe is a way of viewing our world with a tendency to move us away from the spiritual elements that drove man’s philosophical consideration of how man was in the universe to a more impersonal view of the universe as only being form and function. This more restricted view for using science as materialistic may, for some, reveal the universe as a lifeless thing and considering universal character as being like a machine. This has driven some to use this cold reality of the universe to serve their own ends. There is a growing consensus among atheists that there is no coherent arrangement to be considered of the universe beyond it’s practical functions.
Scientific advancement also has profound and challenging broader implications for humans to contemplate. Science generates interesting philosophical questions as well, and one can explore these perspectives from a number of interesting ways and worldviews. Scientific study of the cosmos brings into question concepts both from a religious perspective but also from a philosophical one as well. Such as how does the big-bang theory speak to our place in the universe. Man’s place in the universe drives astronomers as well as other people with spiritual interests to explore the universe. We do it together. But we have to be careful not to be cheated from understanding the underlying character of dharma by being blinded or overwhelmed by facts alone. We must come to understand that the facts presented to us are not the only facts available, and that most universal realities have yet to be revealed to us. A little learning can be a dangerous thing because there is always more to know. Scientific books are not the only ones that reflect man’s observation of life around him.
We need to use great caution when looking at what something is made of, which is not always the same thing as what it really is. If we apply this lesson to ourselves while considering the unwinding code on the genome, we may thing we are just these elements as representing ourselves as being what we are, but there still remains the mystery of our “not-selfness.”
Should we question the concept of meaning itself? There are some that would say that all these individual elements just make up the various forms in our existence and we have to make the best of it. Other thinkers would say that, no, it is just the opposite, not only is there meaning in the world but everything is meaningful. In a modernist worldview we also hear that humans are just an exception in that we just think that there is more to universal meaning and value than there really is. We can also take a more personal approach to the question as we consider the idea of consciousness and how we are dependent and interconnected and work to make sense of the world from that perspective. We can always find beauty and poetry around us in every moment and we can take a lifetime in trying to discover why something is, rather than just experiencing how we are now, and together. Not why, but how we are, is of importance in a Buddhist practice. The universe has a language that we are only beginning to understand. The universe has a meaning too that has no limit no matter how hard we try to bring closure to our understanding of why things are. This limitlessness of the universe should be experienced as being exciting, not disturbing.
It is not that an atheistic view of the universe is unreasonable or stupid, but allowing the spiritual dimension to influence how we come to consider the universe is more explanatory than treating universal meaning absent of the sprit and wonder of what can be beyond our common understanding. Does science push man away from a greater possibility that may lie beyond mere facts? I do not believe science leads us to atheism automatically, as you can also see wonderful contracts in the various forms beyond forms. When scientists observe the structure of the universe at it’s deepest levels they find it is wonderfully ordered. This is the process from which many of the theologies have arisen that has a tendency to cloud how we come to see the world, rather then allow the world just to reveal itself as it is without trying to always define meaning.
There are very interesting unanswered questions. Science makes its great progress by very carefully choosing questions that will have answers. For example, why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe comprehensible? These are all metaphysical questions, or beyond physics to explain. These are important questions that man has the philosophical ability to reflect on. But these questions are not the type of question that science is capable of answering. So we have to keep in mind that science is very good at doing its own thing, but this is not the totality of human thought or human appreciation. Science is very successful in answering questions it chooses to address, like how do things happen or work. When man looks at something he considers its purpose, value, and meaning. Science does not pretend to be able to answer all of these considerations. Science can answer how we can bring water to a boil, and how that works physically. But another answer is that we are boiling water because we want a cup of tea. So, how and why are difference questions. Science only answers one of them; the how. The question of why becomes more complicated. The important objective is how we balance the tension between the scientific facts and the broader deeper questions we contemplate on our cushions. In order to sit comfortably between these two human endeavors we must think with a universal mind. We can not limit ourselves to local or cultural expectations. The little gods no longer work in our modern world. The universe is full of meaning, when we quite the mind and move beyond our limiting expectations. A Buddhist practice is transformative. In that transformation we can find our own meaning. We are not here to suffer, we are here to find the transformation that promotes human flourishing. We do that within universal laws that we can not possibility understand completely.
We are challenged to look at the cosmos and ask deeper questions about it, try to find deeper meanings in it. Then I think Siddhartha would we delighted that we have found the path he laid down a long, long, time ago. Science can help clear some of the cobwebs away from old-world thought. Science can help improve our health and material flourishing. But we sit in mindfulness to enrich our spiritual being, and that requires a different toolset beyond the realm of science. Together, however, they function as co-agents for change.
Happy New Year /\