Thursday, 14 November 2013

My so-called 64 million-dollar question

However did the Lord Buddha know about this, if he hadn't been the Enlightened One? All along, he had comprehended that we are one tiny speck of "intelligent" dust in the whole universe. It took several successions of scientists on Earth to just about acknowledge this possibility while all the time, some 2,500 years ago, the Lord Buddha must have already understood it perfectly.

I'm referring to this article that had appeared in The Star newspaper and online elsewhere, like in Huffington Post, just a few days ago.

I won't quote much from the story except for the opening paragraphs which I found so very interesting to my belief:
Space is vast, but it may not be so desolate: a study finds the Milky way is teeming with billions of planets that are about the same size of Earth, orbit stars just like our sun, and exist in the Goldilocks zone - not too hot and not too cold for life.

Astronomers using Nasa data have calculated for the first time that in our galaxy alone, there are at least 8.8 billion stars with Earth-size planets in the habitable temperature zone.

For perspective, that's more Earth-like planet than there are people on Earth.

As for what it says about the odds that there is life somewhere out there, it means "just in our Milky Way galaxy alone, that's 8.8 billion throws of the biological dice", said study co-author Geoff Marcy, a long-time planet hunter from the University of California at Berkeley.

Now, all my life I've grown up in a Buddhist family. My parents were of the Mahayana Buddhist faith and so were my grandparents and their parents before them. (Maybe they were more Taoist than Buddhist, but it didn't really matter because to most everyday Chinese, even till today, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism are considered inter-related though they should not be.)

But until a few years ago, I've never really questioned what Buddhism is all about. Hey, even today, I don't question my faith much. However, I do know that there is now more access to Buddhist teachings than ever before, and at any time if I want answers to certain questions about life and the existence of life, I could always turn to the Buddhist teachers for their explanations. Buddhist teachers like Ajahn Brahm or the late Reverend Suvanno or the many other Buddhist spiritual leaders have been great help to me.

I have to admit that sometimes, I have a stubborn streak. It is not enough that I get an answer from only one source. If the question is too complex for my simple mind to understand, I would want to ask it many times and see whether or not I get more or less the same answer.

In Buddhism, we are taught the concept of kamma and rebirth. (Let me digress to make a point. Newton's third law said that for every action, there is a corresponding reaction. That's what kamma is all about too: action and reaction. Doesn't that make Newton so very Buddhist in his thinking, huh?) Anyway, kamma is the blueprint of everyone's very existence. When the lifespan of a being ends, the being's accumulation of good or bad kamma will ensure that there is rebirth either in this plane or another plane of existence. We believe that kamma is pervasive; it follows everyone everywhere, irrespective of current way of life.

From my simple understanding of how things work, rebirth should be a rather straightforward progression from one life to another, from one plane of existence to the same plane or another plane. One being dies, it gets reborn. Another being dies, it also gets reborn. Ad infinitum through eons, unless nirvana is achieved.

At first, I couldn't reconcile this concept of rebirth with the fact that the Earth's population is growing exponentially. Where are the extra human lives coming from? And definitely, not only the human lives but also the animal lives. Where are they appearing from? Granted that there is progression from one plane of existence to another within this Earth, I couldn't understand with my simple mind why the number of living things kept increasing.

Then I got the chance to pose this question to a Theravadin Buddhist teacher. And another Buddhist teacher. And yet another one. I think all in, I must have asked about four or five of them. While there were slight deviations to their explanations, there was still one common thread among all of them. In essence -- IF I had interpreted them correctly -- they were saying that the Lord Buddha had taught that we should open up our minds to the universe.

But it was not until a few days ago that I made a connection. Do you see where the newspaper article above is leading to? Why, to the Lord Buddha's teachings, of course! If the scientists are correct in their calculations, it would mean the odds of life sustaining on other worlds have suddenly shot up beyond belief, even though the presence of life itself still cannot be proven with our present scientific instruments. But theoretically, there are billions upon billions of potentially life-sustaining stars; and as long as there are lifeforms of any kind, they are subjected to the universal law of kamma which would consequently affirm the Lord Buddha's infinite wisdom. The Lord Buddha had the answer all the time, except our own minds could not open up to the possibilities. It would take the Einsteins and the Hawkings to be part of a complex equation that would provide just the initial insight.

If we believe in kamma and rebirth, why should we limit ourselves to planes of existence only on this Earth? Could it not be possible that kammic energy can also flow across the billions of stars in our galaxy or even the billions of galaxies within the universe? As stars die and stars are born, could rebirth take place elsewhere within the infinite universe? I thought that I had gone beyond insular thinking but suddenly, I was now forced to think outside of a yet bigger box.

Wow, this was a revelation that literally blew my mind. An ancient teaching some 2,500 years ago which has now become so current with this very modern world. And not for the first time, I really appreciated the wisdom of the Lord Buddha. He understood the incomprehensible and he had explained it through his teachings. And it is only now that as a mere mortal, I can see it. I hope everyone can accept it too.

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