Inflation of the Cosmic Kind

Last March, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made a finding that supports Einstein’s last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein, even in the void of space-time, empty of stars and galaxies, ripples known as gravitational waves can move across space in much the same way that ripples spread across the surface of a pond. Until recently, there was only indirect evidence that gravitational waves existed.  In their press release JPL stated that they

[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope that measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)
The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope, which measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

This supports the Inflationary Universe theory, hypothesized in the 1980s by Alan Gult, who held that the initial expansion of the universe was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. “Cosmic inflation” suggests that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds, to be precise).

It’s a pretty big deal. According to Time, it means that gravity should no longer be seen as a force, “but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts,” This aspect of Einstein’s theory “also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”

Actually, Einstein was skeptical of the idea of a Big Bang. He favored the concept of a static universe as opposed to an expanding one. But when American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed how galaxies recede from the Milky Way, and that distant galaxies recede faster than those nearby, Einstein changed his mind.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for modern science and Buddhism to agree, or that science should prove Buddhism, but intersections between the two are always interesting. Here, we have a case where Buddhism and science both agree in some respects and disagree in others.

In The Big Bang theory, the entirety of space was contained in a single point of space and this was the beginning of the universe. Buddhism, however, says that there is no beginning (and therefore definitely no creation) because causes have no beginning.

The first line of Chapter One in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way reads, “Nothing exists that has arisen from itself, from another, from both, or from a non-cause.”

This does not negate the idea of a Big Bang, only qualifies it somewhat. The Big Bang could not have caused itself, nor could some being have caused it, or is it possible that a Big Bang was a combination of the two – there had to have been some prior cause, and as I understand it, this means The Big Bang must have been an effect. Still, Buddhism discusses the beginning of things in terms of consciousness, which is the real “creator” of all things, and consciousness has no beginning. So, in pondering all this, we should keep in mind the distinction between the ultimate and relative truth.

The other key notion in the Big Bang theory is that of an expanding universe. Here dharma and science seem to agree. In his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama stated

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or experiencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Obviously, there are differences between individual beings and universes, but I think the infinity of the continuum would be the same.  And again, from the Buddhist perspective, there must have been something prior, a previous cause existing before all of space was condensed into a single point that apparently exploded into our ever-expanding universe.

Likewise, there were prior points posted on this blog before I posted the single point that began this post, and therefor, today’s offering reflects the infinity of the continuum and therefore cannot be contained in a single end point . . .


Words of Trust

I am thinking of the events of the past couple of nights and I am also thinking about how one day old Chuang Tzu said,

Zhuangzi2Let me share with you something I have learned. In all human relationships, if there are two parties living close to one another, they may establish a degree of personal trust. However, if they are distant, they must use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be able to communicate effectively, without emotion, truthfully. When two parties are communicating, for both to be pleased they need to exaggerate some of the good points. To anger both parties, there must be some exaggeration of bad points. And yet, it is irresponsible to engage in exaggeration. When there is exaggeration, there can be no trust. When there is no trust the party who transmits the exaggeration might face some danger.

This is why there is a saying, “Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.” If you do that, you will probably find some justice.


Bodhicitta: The Nectar of Immortality

In Sanskrit, the word amrita means “immortality.” In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

Within Buddhism amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts or samaya “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

We can view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, representing spiritual nourishment. Therefore, anything that helps sustain or nurture wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is the foundation of the raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist cultivation, because in the Bodhisattva Way, we practice not just for ourselves but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings. Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world;
An inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

I like to think that Shantideva is using “the nectar of immortality” metaphorically to mean the non-fear of death. Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the now. As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes. When we live for more than just ourselves, we acquire a kind of courage, even without being aware of it, and of course, wisdom through which we see that death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, I am reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wonderful book that I will perhaps write about in more detail later. Near the beginning of the book, Kundera has these great lines:

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

And so ends my small offering of nectar for the mind and ambrosia for the heart.


Nonduality and The Middle Way

About a year and a half ago, the Washington Post noted:

Sociologists say that we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular. We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”

I’ve begun to notice that “nonduality” has become a key word in this new vernacular.

SANDAn example is an organization I recently became aware of called Science and Nonduality. They have a cool acronym (SAND) and a cool logo. According to their website, “The mission of Science and Nonduality (SAND) is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but rather is based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.”

Last month SAND held a conference in San Jose California that featured a bunch of participants I’ve never heard of before. But they’re having a “retreat”called “The Sutras of Science” at Esalen in February that will feature Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman, among others.

It seems rather obvious to me that they are using Nonduality as a substitute for the word “religion.” You notice in the mission statement above they mention religious dogma, and this is a group that seems informed by Eastern philosophy which to my mind is rather non-dogmatic. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overlay our issues with Western religion onto Eastern spirituality, and that’s a shame.

Several of the speakers at the SAND 2014 conference are described as “nonduality teachers.” I wasn’t aware that nonduality had become a field all its own. I guess I haven’t been paying attention.  I wonder if the pay for nonduality teachers is good. If so, I’d like to give it a try. I think I’d qualify.

Nonduality has been around quite a while.  Although Chinese philosophy has always had a non-dual view, what we think of as nondualism more or less got its start with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his teaching on the two truths.  In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, he calls nonduality (advaya) “the gate of security, the destruction of false views; the path walked by all buddhas, the ‘dharma of no-self-nature.’”

nondual-hotdog-72On the SAND website they write, “nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness. Our starting point is the statement ‘we are all one’.” This is true, and yet I wonder if they understand that this “oneness” belongs to the relative truth. In his Treatise on The Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

All things enter the non-dual dharma. Although things are not two, they are not one either.”

They do, however, posses one nature: they “are in truth sunya (empty).” For Nagarjuna, the non-dual dharma is like space (akasa) in that it is “completely unobstructive.”

I also occasionally see folks write something like this: “The message of nonduality is that the true nature of reality is non-dual.” Well, that is certainally part of the message and nonduality is an aspect of the true nature of reality, but not the whole thing. What I mean is that often people take nonduality to be the ultimate truth.

Actually, duality and nonduality both belong to the realm of relative truth. Neither-duality-nor-nonduality is the ultimate truth. In other words, the ultimate truth is neither extreme, it is the middle. Here’s one reason why Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka or Middle Way.

Let’s take the example of a coin. The point is not that we have one and only one coin. The point is that the coin has two sides. As K. Venkata Ramanan points out in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,

The extinction of ignorance does not leave us in a blank; it is not an act separate from the arising of knowledge. The two are simultaneous; they are two different sides of the same act, two phases of one principle. [Nagarjuna’s treatise] observes that in their ultimate nature there is no difference between ignorance and knowledge, even as there is no difference in the ultimate truth between the world of the determinate and Nirvana, the unconditioned reality.”

The ultimate truth is not emptiness because ultimately emptiness is empty. The ultimate truth is not nonduality because duality and nonduality are merely two sides of one thing. So what is this one thing? If we have to name it, let us name is Nirvana. And yet, Nagarjuna reminds us that “Nirvana is not any one thing.” This is the Middle Way.


Walk Alone

This blog’s title, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase used by Rabindranath Tagore during a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930.  Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, artist, playwright, composer and novelist. India’s first Nobel laureate.

On this date 101 years ago, November 18, 1913, he wrote a letter to a man named William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore.

Rothenstein and Tagore2bRothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore. The two had become close friends and Rothenstein was one of Tagore’s most ardent champions (Yeats first heard of Tagore through Rothenstein). The poet dedicated his poetry collection Gitanjali to the painter. In fact, Tagore wrote this letter to Rothenstein only four days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali.

In the letter, Tagore wrote, “The very first moment I received message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize, my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude”.

As Michael Collins (University of Oxford, UK) points out in his article History and the Postcolonial Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913: “Clearly, the extent to which his fame and fortune in the West was due to the assistance given to him by his Western, largely British, friends was an issue that was uppermost in his mind.” An issue, or rather a debt, he rightly felt he needed to acknowledge.

And now I must acknowledge that I have gone way around the mulberry tree and used this November 18 th historical connection merely as an excuse to present one of Tagore’s poems. It’s one of my favorite Tagore poems and it was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, only he used to sing it, so it was also his favorite song.

From Gitanjali, “Walk Alone”:

Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein
Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light
when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart
and let it burn alone.