Recently, the family and I went on the first vacation since the Pandemic to Victoria, British Columbia. I keep forgetting to post photos and talk about the trip due to time, but needless to say it was a great trip and we had a much needed break after 3 years.
On the final day, we visited the Royal British Columbia Museum and saw many great exhibits. The Museum is excellent, and I definitely recommend a visit.
Among its features that day was an IMAX movie about prehistoric Antarctica titled “Dinosaurs Of Antarctica 3D”. You can see a trailer of it here:
The IMAX movie provided a visual tour of Antarctica across various points in time, when it was a lush rainforest, how it survived the catastrophic Permian-Triassic mass-extinction, and much later when the asteroid struck the earth, leading to the end of the dinosaurs. Now, the entire continent is a frozen waste, with only remnants left in Australia, but it was not always so.
It’s sad to imagine a vibrant world like that is now long dead, buried under ice, but it’s also fascinating to think of how much time has passed, and how much the world changes. Even when Antarctica was warmer and sustained a vast array of life, that life changed and evolved over eons as well. In the earliest era, there were primitive lizard-like creatures that eventually evolved into mammals, huge predatory amphibians, and later the classic dinosaurs. They, like us, would not be able to mark such a long, vast passage of time.
Thinking about it puts all our efforts and beliefs into perspective. The earth, and its changing climate (man-made or otherwise) doesn’t really care whether you believe in it or not, or whether it might lead to extinction of some species while allowing others to thrive. This world belongs to the Earth, and we’re just living in it. Even on a small, more generational level, change occurs. When my family and I visited Leavenworth, WA earlier this summer we visited a local man-made island that had been created a hundred years ago. A plaque at the entrance pointed out that over time due to natural processes, certain species of trees had sprung up, but after another 100 years would die off and different species would be ascendant. Any human alive today will likely not be around to see the change, but in a few generations the island will have different flora and fauna simply due to natural process.
Faced with this reality, it makes us naturally worry about what our place in the world is, and how we can live in it. Many of our solutions, philosophical, religious and such are, if you scratch the surface, made by humans for humans. Even the Buddhist religion, of which I’ve been a follower since 20051 often feels like it has a lot human-centric window-dressing. Many aspects of Buddhist “lore” (think Star Wars expanded universe) seem somewhat silly in the face of science. It’s not necessarily “wrong” though, and I strongly disagree the Western-Buddhist tendency to write it off as “cultural accretions”, either.2 However, at the end of the day, it’s just human expression across history.
And yet, there are certain fundamental truths that all Buddhists know (or ought to), that not only conform to science, but also give it some sense of meaning beyond the raw, materialistic one:
- All things arise due to external causes and conditions. As such, their existence is contingent and fluid, not static.
- Therefore, life is precious and fragile.
- Similarly, change is the only true constant of the universe, and much of it happens outside our control. Some if it is induced by our own shortsightedness though.
- Thus, one’s mind is what truly matters.
- In the same way, conduct matters. What we do affects others, what others do affects us.
For this reason, many different approaches, or “dharma gates“, arose in the Buddhist tradition in order to actualize these truths. But sometimes, you also need something bland and neutral like natural science to kick you in the pants, ground yourself, and remind you what matters.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
P.S. Title of this post is a nod to famous song from the Chrono Trigger soundtrack: toki no kairō (時の回廊)
1 Arguably even further back, if you count dabbling in high school, but it’s a hassle to explain.
2 One researcher’s description of Western Buddhism as “Protestant Buddhism” is pretty spot-on, I think. Oh hey, look, more cultural accretions! Highly recommend the linked book, by the way.