Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Stories of the whole earth
I arrange these in front of me on my desk, so that they are just under my gaze as I work on my computer. Each one of them ultimately serves as an object of contemplation of one kind or another, and I refer to them repeatedly throughout every day.
Each of the objects that I keep in front of me is, in its own way, a complete representation of the entire cosmos. They all represent objects, events, conditions, and circumstances; each one of them contains a conjunction of elements, formed over time, arranged through conditions, meeting in circumstances, to form objects. Every one of these objects contains all of the thoughts about the whole universe in it: the fact that the human mind is unable to encompass all of that information, that inwardly formed quality, at one time does not mean it is not there.
In a state of what is called “enlightenment”–which is what Buddhists would insist is only just the ordinary state that the mind always ought to inhabit, but doesn't–the mind could and would comprehend this. Bokusan says, "As one dharma is no other than myriad dharmas, whatever you realize embraces all the ten directions. In this way, to intuit... intimately" is essential." (Dogen's Genjo Koan: three commentaries, p. 54, Counterpoint-Berkeley 2011. The entire commentary in section 7, pp. 51-54, expounds on the subject of this essay.)
Perhaps my fascination with each object is that, unique as it is, it can't exist without any other objects or all other objects–it is in irrevocable relationship to them through the confluence of time, matter, and the reconciling force of love.
In some ways, each of these objects represents that reconciling force to me, since each one of them, whether it is man-made, naturally formed, or the product of evolutionary biology, expresses a perfection that is unique unto itself. Each of those perfections has a tale of billions of years behind it that includes the collapse of cosmic dust clouds, the formation of stars, the forging of elements, the creation of planets from those elements, and the re-arrangement of those elements into forms which go against the force of entropy to discover expressions that would remain unseen, unknown, and nonexistent but for the arising of consciousness to perceive them.
Consciousness arises specifically to perceive these things; it is not an accident. There is a need for all of these expressions of perfection to be perceived. In a subtle way, each one of them– every single thing, no matter how small– is both worthy of perception and has a wish to be perceived, just as the perceiver wishes to see. It is where the wish to see comes into conjunction with that which can be seen and wishes to be seen that the whole of the universe exists.
Without consciousness, you see, there is no universe–there is nothing. This is a philosophical conundrum that materialists generally fail to address, because reductionist materialism and atheism are fundamentally unable to come to grips with questions this subtle.
Small things in life are often dismissed. Few human beings look at an ancient seashell on a desk, scrutinize the many tiny marine worm holes in it, the rounded grains of quartz, and understand that the entire universe is unfolding itself in these apparently insignificant records. The original Zen schools in China understood this; perhaps this is why they held ordinary rounded stones from riverbeds in such high regard, putting them on pedestals as single objects for contemplation. We have few such parallels in the West. We have far more of an interest in coercing objects to do what we want them to than in appreciating them for what they are.
Scientists of the West do appreciate that the contemplation of any single object, rightly undertaken, can open a set of questions that unfold into every corner of the cosmos. Nonetheless, most of them have taken an unfortunately materialistic attitude towards this property; they fail to see that a sense of wonder is a sacred property, and that that sense of wonder itself is transcendental. Like religion, secularism brings a set of great strengths to the table that are offset by an equal number of weaknesses.
Our technology and reliance on consumer goods is progressively separating us from any understanding and contemplation of the natural world. We lose this sense at our great peril.
So the next time you pass something small and apparently insignificant, take a moment to stop and study it and ask yourself questions.
You may be surprised at where they take you.
I respectfully ask you to take good care.