The U.S. Government has finally admitted the existence of Area 51, the secret base where many people believe that for decades the Air Force has been studying crashed alien spaceships along with captured, or stranded, extraterrestrials. Area 51 is located 100 miles from Las Vegas, near the small town of Rachel, on Nevada State Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, so named because of the numerous UFO sightings and reports of other strange alien happenings along the road.
Unfortunately, according to the new declassified documents, Area 51 was just home base for the U-2 spy plane program and other aerial surveillance programs. How boring. But there is a caveat, and that’s that this information comes from the CIA, not famous for their truthfulness, so there is still a small ray of hope for UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.
I believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and I’d certainly like to meet up with an ET. Nothing would be cooler. Unless, he, she, or it wanted to zap me with a ray gun, or was intent on destroying the earth. That’s definitely not cool.
But believe me, the threat from space is real, and as it stands right now, we’re about to become less protected. The United States Air Force says that because of the sequester cuts, it can no longer afford to maintain the “Space Fence,” the space surveillance network that scans the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could destroy Earth. This is disturbing news because when the Space Surveillance System shuts down in October not only will we be vulnerable to global devastation from incoming comets and asteroids, but we’ll also be unable to detect impending interplanetary attacks.
This is serious stuff. This June, NASA announced that more than 10,000 asteroids and comets are near Earth, which means they could come within 28 million miles of the planet – that’s uncomfortably close. I guess.
Speaking of space, Lama Govinda notes that “According to the ancient Indian tradition, the universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as motion, and as that in which motion takes place, namely space . . . space is called akasa . . . derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore also the meaning of ‘ether’. . .” *
In Buddhism, there are two kinds of space, local or limited space (akasa-dhatu), and infinite space (ajata-kasa). You really got to hand it to the ancient Indians, because when most people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, those guys in India were envisioning multiple universes, multiple planes of existence within these universes, life on other worlds.
It’s really mind-blowing. Take the Lotus Sutra, for example. In this text, the Buddha explains that he didn’t actually become enlightened under the Bodhi tree as he said, but in fact, he became enlightened in unimaginably distant past.
He tells the assembly on Vulture Peak:
It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of kotis of kalpas (eons) since I in fact attained Buddhahood . . . Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi thousand-million-fold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, traveling east, passing another five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi worlds he drops one particle of dust. Then, suppose he continues eastward like this until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what do you think? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?”
Well, yeah, they can. A kotis is 10 million, and a nayuta is 100 million. It works out something like this: 5 x 100 x 1000 x 10,000 x 100,000 x 100, 000, 000, 000 x 1,000,000,000,000 x 1,000. On my calculator it comes out as 2.e+41, whatever that might be. Let’s just say it’s heck of lot of worlds. Actually they’re ‘world systems’ or galaxies.
By the way, I know you are very impressed with my calculations, but I have to admit that I got it from a book called Lecture on the Sutra by Josei Toda.
Then the Buddha says,
Suppose all these worlds, are once more reduced to dust, and each particle represents one kalpa (eon = 4.32 billion years). The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi kalpas. Ever since then I have been in this saha (mundane) world, teaching the dharma. Likewise, I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayuta asogi worlds.”
Not only that, but Buddhist tradition holds that there have been countless Buddhas in the past, although several eons usually go by between each Buddha’s appearance, and there are Buddhas presently teaching in other worlds.
I’m a bit pessimistic about all that, but at any rate, this passage in the Lotus Sutra is where the Buddha reveals that he is not the mundane Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha of history, instead, he is the cosmic, Eternal Buddha. Naturally, this shouldn’t be taken literally, because it’s allegory. Just as the Buddha says he has always existed in this world, the potential for awakening to Buddha Nature has always existed in our life.
We could say that in this allegory, infinite space represents the infinite mind. As a physical object, our brain, may not be a vast as space itself, but it does contain 456 trillion trillion atoms, and our brain can hold more information and process it faster than the most powerful super-computer on earth.
Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed the concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought.” These worlds, which some translators call dharma-realms, are basic conditions of life that interpenetrate one another, possess certain factors or qualities, and are manifested within the three spheres of existence: the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness), the realm of sentient beings, and the realm of the environment.
Chih-i arrived at the number of 3000 through a particular formula, but enough calculating for one post. Suffice it to say that the number of worlds is not important but rather what it represents, which is the interpenetration of all reality in a single thought. This is also stated as a single moment of thought permeating the universe with all phenomena in the universe contained within that single thought moment. Figuratively, then, the mind is a vast as space after all.
Chih-i’s identification of all reality with the mind was his way of equating the mind with Buddha-nature. All worlds or dharmas are Buddha-worlds or Buddha-dharmas, so the takeaway here is put succinctly by Chih-i himself in the text, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra,
If one contemplates the thoughts of one’s mind . . . with the understanding that all dharmas (realities) originate from the mind, then the mind is Buddha-nature.”
Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived roughly two hundred years after Chih-i once said, “Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”
Just as with space, we are really still in the early stages of our exploration of the mind. The mind is the true Extraterrestrial Highway because it can take us beyond our saha or mundane world. I don’t mean to formless realms or twilight zones, but rather to a dimension of space and time where we transcend the desires and illusion that bind us to a world of suffering.
The mind is said to be quiescent like space. Nirvana is also said to be quiescent like space. It is through quieting the mind, allowing Buddha-nature to ‘to radiate, to shine’ that we can find Nirvana, right where we are in a single moment, in the present moment.
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* Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960