Friday night I went on the roof of my building to watch the International Space Station pass over Los Angeles very close to the moon. The ISS appears as a high-flying aircraft does, only it is faster-moving and has no flashing lights. I’ve seen it a few times before and it is usually visible for only a few minutes. That’s probably because it’s traveling at around 17,000 MPH, some 250 miles above us. And there are astronauts up there. It’s way cool. If you’d like to check when to see the ISS in your area, head to NASA’s Spot the Station.
Speaking of Venus, I can see it out my front window just after sunset, shining brilliantly right now. Jupiter is also currently visible, in the east-northeast sky, after 9pm PDT. The Griffith Observatory Sky Report says “Binoculars are sufficient to see Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites.” But the meds I take cause my hands to tremble to such a degree I can’t hold the binoculars steady enough to see. One of these days, I must get a telescope.
In Los Angeles, we can only see the brightest stars with the naked eye. I feel nostalgic for those days of my youth when I lived in the Midwest and could look up at night and see a sky full of stars, along with that band of stardust called The Milky Way. And it still blows my mind that Venus is 26 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter 365 million miles, and that we can see light from stars that are, or were, billions of light-years away. These are facts I have known since I was in elementary school and still I find them amazing to contemplate.
I believe that is a condition known as wonder.
Wonder means to be amazed, astonished, in awe, and also “to think or speculate curiously: to wonder about the origin of the universe.”
As most of you know, Buddhism does not offer a full-fledged story about the origin of the universe, and there is no place in our philosophy for the idea of a creator being. It is said that the Buddha regarded speculation about the origin of the universe and whether or not it is eternal as among the “unanswerable questions” that he thought counterproductive, and which he refused to answer. Nonetheless, Buddhists have always considered the universe to be infinite and most likely filled with other worlds very much like our own.
From the standpoint of practice and Transcendental Wisdom, the Buddha was right. Knowledge of the universe does little, if anything, directly to relieve anyone’s sufferings. But, thank heavens, the mystery of the heavens was just too compelling for humans to ever pause in what Tagore called “the ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.” It is an adventure that grows more exciting as time goes by.
For instance, scientists at Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected neighbor. It’s practically next door, only 7 million light years away, which is about 2.5 times farther than our nearest large galaxy, Andromeda. A dwarf galaxy, named KKs3, with only 1/10,000 the stellar mass of the Milky Way, our new neighbor is very small, and very old. About 2/3rds of KKs3 is composed of star stuff formed 12 billion years ago, approximately a billion or so years after the Big Bang.
The Milky Way is one of three large galaxies belonging to the group of galaxies called the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter.
And 54 galaxies is nothing. Scientists estimate that there are somewhere between between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies just in the observable universe and who knows how many objects in each of those galaxies. In our galaxy alone there are 300-400 billion stars . . .
To quote an old song somewhat out of context, “Ooh, it makes me wonder.”
And then, ponder this from Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived during the Tang dynasty:
Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”