19 Nov 2011
After a brief rain shower at the start of my evening radar watch, the clouds cleared and revealed the splendor of the night sky. Like a curtain lifting before a play, the sunset-tinged clouds parted to usher in the midnight show. Being in the middle of the open ocean, with no human souls beyond the boundaries of this ship, I looked toward the horizon with the greatest sense of awe. Upon adjusting my eyes to the moonless night, infinite constellations appeared before me – Taurus to the north, standing watch over Orion, flanked by Aries and Perseus. From horizon to horizon, sweeping across the sky was the Milky Way, our home, interrupted only by iridescent meteors shooting through the darkness of night. Between Pegasus astride in the western sky and Triangulum standing stately ahead, I catch a faint glimmer of Andromeda, a magnificent spiral galaxy two million light years away.
The calm of the night was invigorating. The tranquil waters below reflected a stillness of mind. The vast expanse of the ocean ahead begged the adventurous spirit. The boundless universe above challenged the ego. As I gazed into the distance, I was reminded of the words of the late professor Carl Sagan, who spoke about the earth in a photo that was taken of our planet by the Voyager spacecraft as it journeyed through our solar system:
…That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Tonight, as I peered into the distance and looked into the past, under the watchful spiral of Andromeda, I was left to ponder the state of our world. Anger, greed, and hatred are all too prevalent. Even fighting for what is right or supporting a worthy cause, if done in anger, will never lead to peace. We spend countless hours of our lives fretting over our inconveniences, bragging about our achievements, judging others instead of ourselves, and arguing with our loved ones because of our habitual clinging to our imagined self-importance. We are like “someone who fails to see a boundless ocean a hundred thousand miles across and is aware only of a single floating bubble,” as the great ancient Indian philosopher, the Buddha, once admonished in the Surangama Sutra, spoken from along the northern shores of this very ocean. We “see that bubble floating there and think it is the vast tide that surges toward the farthest branches of the sea.” We think the smallest of things are the biggest of problems. We amplify frustrations by losing ourselves in negative emotion. We dig a hole and never realize that we are sinking with each breath. In this confusion, in this box that we draw around ourselves and our lives, we live out our limited days. Ignorant, arrogant, and close-minded, we as a human race continue to cheat, to wrong, and to defraud each other day in and day out, not realizing the futility of our ways. We think that how “I” view the world is ultimately correct, never stopping for a second to ponder, “What is the reality beyond my personal bias?”
Tonight, while listening to the ripples on the sea, I heard the wisdom of nature.
Tonight, while looking into the boundless universe, I discovered perspective.
Tonight, while witnessing the ephemeral flash of the shooting star, I saw myself.
Alas, no words can possibly describe the lessons of life, as there are no words to describe the vastness of the night sky. The Buddha once said of our attempts at discriminating and judging the world at large, “…why have you resorted to terms used in the reckless fabrications of worldly discourse? You might as well try to seize a handful of space. However much you weary yourself in the attempt, space will forever elude your grasp.” Indeed, these words of wisdom spoken some 2,500 years ago near the shores of this Indian Ocean still ring true to this day.