The James Webb Space Telescope has been designed to answer many of the core questions that have animated astronomers over the past half-century … nothing less than to rewrite the history of the cosmos and reshape humanity’s position within it.
We are all of us in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. ~ Oscar Wilde
One journalist spoke of how in his youth:
I spent hours staring up at the stars, striving for some sort of visceral experience of how far they were. But you can’t measure your stride against a light-year, let alone a million or billion of them. It broke my imagination. Now it’s been broken again.
Here is how this is giving me a whole new appreciation for that expression:
Don’t sweat the small stuff! 😁
A full moon surrounded by stars
One hundred times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb’s full color images are “looking back in time farther than ever before and providing unprecedented observations of the birth of stars and the formation of galaxies. From this article.
When we envisage Buddha appearing in our mind, in our life, and in the space in front of us, we can view him as a full moon surrounded by the endless stars of all the enlightened beings of the three times and the ten directions.
I don’t know about you, but my visualization can be a bit closed – taking up approximately 100 square feet. Yet when I imagine the stars spreading to the ends of space, like the stars in infinite galaxies, filling a universe with no edges and no center, just hinted at in the Webb images, I get far more of a feeling of how many enlightened beings there might be.
How many straws do you need to take in a universe? Even a single straw is a porthole into the mystery of existence. It is full of galaxies — 30,000 of them, according to Dr. Finkelstein — in all shapes, sizes and colors, strung out in time and space — islands of creation where something might have happened or is happening now in remote lonely splendor. From this article.
Maybe there are more enlightened beings than sentient beings?! In which case, what is there to be so worried about? As soon as we pay attention to these powerful beings, they are able to bless our minds and lift our spirits. They can guide us all the way to the blissful reality of enlightenment, if we just let them.
As an enlightened being, Buddha Tara, for example, comes and goes from nowhere and everywhere – she already pervades all worlds and their beings. In Tara practice, we invite her with this verse:
From the supreme abode of Potala,
Born from the green letter TAM,
You who liberate migrators with the light of the letter TAM,
O Tara, please come here together with your retinue.
The infinite light of bliss and emptiness emanating from the seminal letter TAM is far vaster than any universe and can rescue all living beings from their pain and fear. I’ve been doing some Tara practice lately next to my mom’s bed, and sometimes she says a few words, making no sense while also making a curious lot of sense. “It is a strange opportunity,” she said to me today.
Even one Buddha is this powerful – so what happens if we allow countless Buddhas into our life?!
One of countless
Whenever we sit down to meditate, we can think that we’re surrounded by our mother and all mother beings, stretching to the ends of space and beyond. This too can be literally mind-expanding. Again, see above, I manage maybe a few hundred or so living beings on a good day – it is still nice, but how much more cosmic is my mind when I envisage countless of them?!
I was thinking about this earlier on a park bench in Waterlow Park while surrounded by scores of pigeons and assorted waterfowl – this woman had just been feeding them, while telling them, “It is a special day.” It is! It always is if we’re being kind. And, for example, we can feed others (or watch people feeding others, lol) while wishing for billions of beings to be free from the pains of hunger.
Back now up the hill, once again sitting next to my mother of this short life, I was showing her a book about all her travels overseas. She managed to whisper: “Have I read that book?” I told her yes, she had written it, and she looked puzzled. Her memories faded, her current life slowly imploding like a distant star, still emitting light — her consciousness is soon set to travel to a new galaxy, I pray a pure one. This is all of us. This world is not our permanent home, as Buddha said. We are all travellers bound for future worlds.
(For those of you kindly keeping up with this story of my mother and new blended family … on my last trip, Saint Patricia confided that she herself had been gravely ill and retired for life when her daughter Diana first asked her to care for my mother, now a year ago. But when she prayed on it she received a strong message from God: “Sally is your purpose.” (Thank you Geshe-la, lol!) The rest is history, their bond incredible. Meanwhile, the wrathful Diana was not impressed by one of the NHS agency carers being a bit rough with “my beloved Sally”, so she telephoned the agency anonymously as a “concerned family friend”, managing to get a replacement carer who happens to be called (and you can’t make this stuff up) “Bless”!)
Many scientists believe there’s another planet like Earth somewhere in the universe, and the search to find it is underway. From this article.
All beings are our mothers, and all have been as kind to us as our current mother. So many humans and animals deserve our care on this planet alone. Yet if we contemplate the gigantic boundlessness of this and other universes, how can we possibly think for a moment that sentient beings live only on this tiny little blue ball that we call Earth? Or that there’s only one or two other planets capable of harboring sentient life elsewhere in the universe?! Buddha explains that there are countless beings who live and travel between infinite world systems – we are one of them, and we’ve been doing this since beginningless time.
This is one of the things I love about Buddhism – it is so mind-stretching. The Webb images can help us appreciate some of this vastness.
Whatever happens or happened in these galaxies or any other pinwheeled wonders, I suspect, stays there, lost in space and within the limits of our imagination. Looking through Webb’s new void, I was overwhelmed by trying to imagine what forms life and matter might take out there. Could we ever know or even imagine what is possible in the cosmological horn of plenty depicted in the Webb images? From this article.
I think we CAN imagine and, through that, eventually come to know directly.
I am just one person, not large enough to appear even as a speck on any of these Webb photos – and these photos in turn reveal only a speck of the universes and galaxies beyond the telescope’s reach. This helps me see that I barely exist – the sense of an important self at the center of the universe is an optical illusion of my self-grasping and self-cherishing consciousness. Others are countless, so their happiness and freedom are far more important than my own. This perspective is so relaxing! And good for compassion.
This is a beautiful prayer by Shantideva:
For as long as space exists
And for as long as living beings remain in cyclic existence
May I abide amongst them to dispel their suffering.
In my mother’s book, she describes visiting a leper colony in Guyana (in the seventies):
“Yesterday was my regular trip to Mahaica Leper Colony. I seem to be getting used to it now, and it does not upset me so much. I suppose we get used to anything after a while. Even the lepers living their miserable and neglected existence in the middle of nowhere seem really quite cheerful, and their joy at receiving visitors and sweets and other little gifts make me feel very small by comparison.”
We are even smaller by comparison to countless living beings and what they’re going through.
Someone on Facebook put it this way:
“Seeing the images from the James Webb telescope have really made me reflect on bodhichitta, and what liberating “all sentient beings” actually means. It’s really beyond my comprehension. The many galaxies in the first image from the telescope are all within a patch of sky covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length. Countless living beings.”
No universe outside the mind
Put these two together — countless Buddhas and Buddha Lands and countless world systems and living beings and … WHOAH!!!
Vast and incomprehensible to the ordinary mind as all of this is, however, none of it exists outside of our mind!!!
All these countless worlds and beings are simply an appearance of mind, like a dream. We are not in the universe; the universe is in us. All galaxies and universes are held in our mind, the same nature as our mind. Adding this profundity to the vast spaciousness of this contemplation has been helping me appreciate the extraordinary and totally creative power of our mind.
The Webb telescope is apparently powerful due to its vast and pristine mirror. This mirror is extremely clear, but not clear enough to appear or perceive objects; only to reflect some of them. As Gen Rabten was saying in his excellent retreat at the recent Summer Festival, defining our mind as something that is “clear enough to perceive objects” may initially sound like an obscure riddle, but in fact the poetry speaks to us, giving us insight. We see everything in the mirror except the mirror, and we see everything through the glass except the glass. However, our mind is clear enough to perceive or appear objects. Our root or very subtle mind is like an infinite universal mirror that is animate or alive, that has the capability to appear everything. Irrespective of what is appearing to our gross mind, we are capable of conjuring up any reality, like in a dream, due to the infinite potential of our root mind, which is free from restriction and constraint. Inside me and inside you there is infinite potential.
The endless space of the galaxies is not outside the mind – it is all mere appearance, held within the infinite spacious clarity of formless mind. Where is all that space in a dream, for example? Is it inside or outside the mind? Sitting in the Grand Canyon Temple for World Peace the other day, I was contemplating how this stunning Temple, Heruka’s Pure Land, already reaches the stars.
Finding happiness from a different source
Talking of the Festival and cosmology, the Webb images also have some connection to Gen-la Jampa’s teachings on the benefits of concentration. He was saying that the most immediate benefit is finding happiness from a different source:
The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness form external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
I can’t disagree.
If our mind is pure and peaceful we shall be happy, regardless of our external circumstances, but it is impure and unpeaceful we can never be truly happy, no matter how hard we try to change our external conditions.
Is this not so simple and yet so true? Am I following this truth? Even after decades of practice, when I first get a delusion, and before this wisdom kicks in, I often assume that something or someone external needs to change or behave for me to get happy again. “Stop being so annoying!” “Why can’t everyone be nicer to each other?!” But as Venerable Geshe Kelsang continues:
We could change our home or our partner countless times, but until we change our restless, discontented mind we shall never find true happiness.
Gen-la Jampa also put it this way:
We could change our home or our planet countless times …
What is the answer to making our planet uninhabitable? Some people are suggesting we go to Mars. Ie, more external development! He asked how the first human beings on Mars would feel? — probably anxious, lonely, or angry, just like the rest of us back on Earth. And this is a crowning human achievement?!
Meanwhile, if we understand emptiness, we understand that the entire universe and everything in it is created by the mind:
This book our body, our friends, we ourself, and the entire universe are in reality just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream. ~ Modern Buddhism
The world is created by karma and by imputation. Without name, for example, things cannot exist. There is no creator other than mind. Everything is originated and shaped through the power of the mind.
When we die, our gross waking minds dissolve into our very subtle mind and the world we experienced when we were alive simply disappears. The world as others perceive will continue, but our personal world will disappear as completely and irrevocably as the world of last night’s dream. ~ Modern Buddhism
Our mind’s very function, or job, is to project or to create. It is always doing that, for better or worse. Rather than going to Mars, would it not make a lot more sense to direct our formidable mental resources into creating a world out of wisdom and compassion rather than attachment and anger? We need to control our minds, not our world; and for this we need to practice Dharma. As Gen-la Jampa went on to say, we need inner space, not outer space, which comes from peace and wisdom.
It is not just the Webb Space Telescope’s portal into the vastness of space that grants such valuable and liberating perspective. — it also provides a portal into the vastness of time. I don’t know about you, but I can get so caught up in all the flavor of the month joys and tribulations that I forget that my root mind has been around since beginningless time and that it will never go out of existence. Endless days, endless lives. Why sweat the small stuff?
With the Webb, we will be able to see back in time to the earliest objects in the universe for the first time.
Hang on a minute, what does that even mean?! How can we “see back in time” when the past no longer exists? Do those “earliest objects” exist in the past or in the present?! Whose past? Whose present? “For the first time” according to whom?!
Buddha had a lot to say about impermanence and time, which is also very mind-altering. There are no past objects and no future objects – only present objects, and these don’t even last a moment. Everything is like a flash of lighting; and even that flash of lighting has no existence from its own side. So who created these earliest objects in the universe, and when?! Answer: we did, through conceptual imputation; and now they are appearing to our mental awareness and sense awarenesses (via a giant telescope) along with their pasts. Like stars in a dream.
So maybe try this and see what happens: Imagine you are in the presence of countless Buddhas in Buddha Lands extending beyond the ends of space. Around you are countless living beings also extending to the ends of space and beyond. This life that seems so solid is just one dream-like chapter of a never-ending story. And this is the same for all the kind mothers around you.
I would love to hear your thoughts on all this below 😁 including any other interesting ideas you’ve come up with while contemplating distant galaxies.