“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
—Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics
The most important thing that humans create is meaning. Because of our distinctive ways of valuing and intending, it is with us (or, to express it less dualistically: in us, as us) that the cosmos becomes meaningful in a new way. To examine the universe objectively and conclude that it is pointless misses the point. Who is comprehending that the universe is pointless? Someone separate from it, or someone who is an inextricable part of it? If cosmologists too are a manifestation of the same universe that cosmologists study, with them the universe is comprehending itself. Does that change the universe? When we come to see the universe in a new way, it’s the universe that is coming to see itself in a new way.
Weinberg’s bleak scientific conclusion is very different from the traditional mythologies of perhaps all premodern societies. For them the world is objectively meaningful in the sense that humans are a part of a larger pattern and that we have an important role to play in maintaining that order. Mesopotamians believed that humans had been created by the gods as their slaves, to provide the temples and labor that were needed to appease and support them. In ancient Egypt, rituals were necessary to keep the sky goddess Nut separated from the earth god Geb; otherwise chaos would overwhelm the earth. Many pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies believed that human sacrifices were necessary to sustain the cosmos, the most famous example being the Aztec practice of cutting out the still-beating hearts of war victims as offerings to Huitzilopochtli, the sun god.
Most of the world no longer believes in such problematic mythologies, yet belief that the universe is ultimately pointless is burdensome in a different fashion. In one way, meaning is inescapable; it is built into our priorities. If my focus is “looking out for number one,” the meaning of my life becomes the promotion of my own best interests. If my own well-being cannot really be separated from the well-being of others, then that basic orientation may be based on a delusion; and if that delusion is widespread, the meaning built into the functioning of a whole society can be self-stultifying and even self-destructive. Such an orientation may nonetheless seem appropriate if the universe is pointless and our species is nothing more than an evolutionary accident. But if we are a way the generative cosmos becomes self-aware, there are more interesting possibilities.
“The more we know about our universe, the more difficult it becomes to believe in determinism.”
—Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty
One important human characteristic, apparently unique, is that we can develop the ability to “dis-identify” from anything and everything, letting go not only of the individual sense of separate self but also of collective selves as well: dissociating from patriarchy (I’m a man not a woman), nationalism (I’m American not Chinese), racism (I’m white not black), even speciesism (I’m human, not a “lower animal”). Meditation encourages such nonattachment, of course, which is necessary to realize one’s nondwelling mind. Yet the point of such letting go is not to dissociate from everything. It’s just the opposite: by not taking this side rather than that, we become receptive to both. By not identifying with either, we can come to identify with everything.
“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.… we, who have lost our [passenger] pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”—Aldo Leopold
That human beings are the only species (so far as we know) that can know it is a manifestation of the entire cosmos opens up a possibility that may need to be embraced if we are to survive the crises that now confront us. We can choose to work for the well-being of the whole, to make that the meaning of our lives. “The well-being of the whole” in this case can mean not only the well-being of the biosphere, but conceivably even (should a suitable situation arise) for the well-being of the whole universe. That we are the self-awareness of the cosmos makes the whole cosmos our body, in effect, which implies not only a special understanding but also a special role in response to that realization. Is that the answer to the greatest problem of all: the meaning of human life, both individual and collective? And is that how the bodhisattva path of Buddhism should be understood today?
“Whatever living beings there be—feeble or strong, long, stout, or medium, short, small, or large, seen or unseen, dwelling far or near… may all beings be happy! Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, even so, let one cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings. Let one’s thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world—above, below, and across—without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.” —Metta Sutta
If what Buddhism describes as “waking up” is how the universe becomes aware of itself, we are the species by which the universe becomes meaningful as a whole. Then to ask whether the universe itself is objectively meaningful or meaningless is to miss the point—as if the universe were outside us, or simply there without us. When we do not erase ourselves from the picture, we can see that we are meaning-makers, the beings by which the universe introduces a new scale of meaning and value.
“We—all intelligent, self-aware creatures that may exist in any galaxy—are the universe’s only means of reflecting on and understanding itself. Together we are the self-consciousness of the universe.”
—Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel E. Primack
~David R. Loy is a prolific author, professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The above is an excerpt from David’s new book A New Buddhist Path: enlightenment, evolution, and ethics in the modern world
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