Midweek Mysticism: Zen and the Big Bang
The latest image of the supposed Big-Bang beginnings of the universe
The Big Bang is back in the headlines. It’s older than cosmologists thought — 13.8billion years instead of 13.7, as previously assumed.
I use the word “assumed” because there are lots of assumptions built into that estimate. Scientists admit they don’t understand time. They know “one-o-clock” — time for lunch — but they can’t work out what it is and how it operates in the universe. They are right to admit their ignorance, because time is the most mysterious quality in the cosmos.
The great 13th-century Zen master, Dogen, wrote about it with so much paradox that it has confused everybody ever since. Dogen is now revered as a great intellect and philosopher by many in the West, even as a precursor of Albert Einstein.
Dogen was an extremely well-read man and something of an infant prodigy. By the age of seven he had devoured the major Confucian classics, and by nine, the complex psychological literature of Southern Buddhism. Unlike the T’ang masters, who revelled in their anti-literacy, Dogen was more of a contemplative kind, a thinker who nevertheless transcended his own thought processes.
It was the death of Dogen’s mother when he was eight that precipitated his first interest in Zen. It is said that as he watched the smoke rising from the incense stick that burnt by the body, he felt directly the transience of all existence. His loneliness drew him towards seeking an explanation for this cruel evanescence, one that satisfied his deepest sense of being, not just a form of words.
It was the phrase, “shedding body and mind”, which was an important catalyst in his realisation at the age of 28. At the moment of his enlightenment Dogen exclaimed: “There is no body and no mind.”
Master Dogen was undoubtedly what today we would call a Renaissance Man, a polymath. He was comfortable with knowledge at all levels, at home with the philosophy of his day — even ahead of it — and he was a master writer, able to blend intellectual exposition with a poetic ability to make that writing act dynamically on the minds of his readers. For him words were force, never testaments to stale thoughts.
Words were his playthings, they sparkle for an instant then subtly change meaning, sometimes into a direct opposite, so that a negative term suddenly becomes positive. Words then are ultra-plastic. On the page they remain the same but, by artifice, a movement takes place in the mind of the reader.
The Einsteinian notion of space-time, a continuum in which time represents the fourth dimension, was apparently anticipated by Dogen, for whom time was inseparable from “being”. Time, of course, can only exist within the context of space, since it is a function of movement. But since being, or put another way, consciousness, is self-identical with space, time itself is inseparable from being.
Dogen said: “So-called time of being means time is already being; all being is time … Self is arrayed as the whole world. You should perceive that each point, each thing of this whole world is an individual time.”
Shunryu Suzuki elaborates this point: “Moment after moment each one of us repeats this activity (of breathing). Here there is no idea of time and space. Time and space are one … We do things one after the other, that is all … At one o’clock you will eat your lunch. To eat lunch is itself one o’clock. You will be somewhere, but that place cannot be separated from one o’clock.” Thus, to create an idea of a place separate from one o’clock, as when we say “I wish I had gone somewhere else for lunch,” is playing mind-games, weaving illusion.
Dogen’s ideas on being and time, which have aroused a lot of interest among modern thinkers, arise from his basic theme of the non-dual suchness of the world, the unity of being.
All dimensions and systems of measurement, therefore, are just mentally-created facets of the one central reality, and ultimately are indistinguishable from each other and the underlying reality realm.
The ramifications of this temporal system include the concept of all things existing in their own “being-time” for all time. Thus at this instant you and this time are identical. But you also participate in the whole structure of being-time, which is timeless. This means that you have always existed, and past moments are still in existence, but exclusively within their being-times. The notion resembles a roll of movie film, where individual frames can be observed and put into motion as being-time. However, the whole drama exists timelessly as the reel of film.
Dogen also points out that time can seem to be moving in various ways, from past to present to future, or the reverse, depending on the standpoint of the observer. In this he seems to be looking forward to Quantum Theory and other developments of mathematical relativity.
A number of current writers are making the connection between modern science and ancient Eastern philosophies, for example, Fritjof Capra in his interesting account, The Tao of Physics. Despite such ideas, Dogen was never diverted by mind-games and always remained firmly in the Zen realm of direct experience. Words to him were only fingers pointing to the moon, never the moon itself.
Dogen’s views on time and relativity are expressed in a passage from one of his essays in which he uses a boat as a metaphor:
“Life is like (sailing) in a boat: though in this boat one works the sail, the rudder, and the pole, the boat carries one, and one is nought without the boat. Riding in the boat, one even causes the boat to be a boat. One should meditate on this precise point. At this very moment, the boat is the world — even the sky, the water, and the shore all have become circumstances of the boat, unlike circumstances which are not the boat. For this reason life is our causing to live; it is life’s causing us to be ourselves. When riding in a boat, the mind and body, object and subject, are all workings of the boat; the whole earth and all of space are both workings of the boat. We are that life, life that is we, are the same way.”
The density of Dogen’s language here is wonderful to behold, sometimes looking both ways at once, as in “life is our causing to live; it is life’s causing us to be ourselves.”
Our turbulent ego “freezes” the frame of our thinking process, giving the idea of a solid mental environment. This is revealed as false when we closely observe ourselves in the manner of looking at the boat, rather than the shore, the thinker, rather than the thought.
Thus, the notion that we can accurately measure the age of the universe is shot through with absurdity. British astronomer Fred Hoyle did not think the Big Bang was true. His Steady State Theory assumed that Creation went on forever — whatever that means. Dogen would certainly have something to say about that.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Coming up: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.