The Idea of Light

When the human species evolved, moved out of the trees and spread around the world, the idea of light in the dark developed as a practical necessity.  With fire-making ability humans could endure a wider variety of climates, eat a wider variety of food and develop a closer social structure. Sitting around a fire was, and still is, a bonding and comforting ritual.  With fire the concepts of hearth and home could develop as well.

Inventions to start fire and carry light from place to place were important to human survival and cultural development. Candles, lanterns, electric light bulbs, neon signs came about. Capturing sunlight, in the form of solar power means that light can be transformed and stored for later use. It is now possible to illuminate all of our surroundings at any time we wish in thousands of different patterns and colors.

We can see just about anything that was in darkness, from the depth of a cave, the bottom of an ocean to the back of the crowded closet. But can we see into those hidden areas within our own psyche that contain both monsters and treasures?

People in any religion are looking for a light in the dark. It is an endeavor to explain ourselves to ourselves. Philosophy is a similar type of endeavor. One could even make a case for art and literature, psychology and many other disciplines. There is a hope that such a light, such an explanation exists.

For some people the explanations of religion and philosophy fail. So science becomes the next field to offer hope of explanations. Certainly science explains a lot. Any sort of matter can be dissected and analyzed. It’s workings can be documented and dissertated upon.

Even the human brain itself can be examined, probed and adjusted.

Meditation or other repetitive actions (prostrations, chanting etc) used for the purpose of focusing, taming or training the mind may be such an adjustment. Or they may be tools by which illumination can be obtained. Or they may be an engaging way of making us feel better as we sit and whistle throughout the night.

If we choose to undertake the Buddhist path there are many traditional ways to go about it. There are also many innovations, some of which include scientific methodologies.

None of that is at issue if we are clear about what we are attempting. It only becomes an issue if we lose sight of what it is we are doing. It is very easy to become myopic when there is a wealth of ideas, forms, words, actions, places, teachers, directions to choose from.  It’s like being at a buffet. It’s presentation, the aromas, the voices of others complimenting the cook, the wish to partake, the hunger itself, all overshadow the primary purpose, that of nourishment. 

Human beings are very good at invention. There seems to be a need to continually invent and sometimes not to recognize the foundation upon which invention is built.

In the case of the Buddhadharma a lot of effort is being made to amalgamate religion, philosophy, psychology and science to create some new and improved version of the experience of the Buddha as described in texts. Do we really need to do that? What is the purpose of it? What are we as the human species doing in the universe? Is this part of great doubt? Are we distracted by the shape of the lamp, the color of the bulb, the patterns projected on the wall through the shade?

The idea of light is not light itself.

In many ways we are still that species of fancy ape reaching around in the dark for a match. Or as Kodo Sawaki Roshi put it:

A strange creature, the human being; groping in the dark with an intelligent look.

2 comments on “The Idea of Light

  1. Nella Lou writes

    “In the case of the Buddhadharma a lot of effort is being made to amalgamate religion, philosophy, psychology and science to create some new and improved version of the experience of the Buddha as described in texts. ”

    Thank you for writing this. I have a background in science and try to practice in the Soto Zen tradition.

    I have always felt uneasy about the kinds of projects you describe. Buddha taught and the Buddhadharma expanded and was carried for thousands of years and across borders and into a myriad of cultures long before the mid-17th Century, during which modern science as we know it, began to come into existence in Northern Europe.

    Did not, according to the sutras, Buddha state that he had held nothing back, that he had taught and passed on all that was needed for the sangha to practice and become free from delusion, free from suffering and attain true happiness?

    I believe that we risk going off the rails in practice in at least two major ways:

    1) When we forget that we are embedded in the network of cause and effect and that all we do has consequences.

    2) That Buddha held something back and that our age is different from other ages, our culture is different or our psychology is different, and therefore we need add something, hang holiday tinsel upon the heart wood of the Buddhadharma.

    One thing that peeves me is hearing about enneagram workshops at Buddhist centers. Buddha never used this gadget, and its origins are highly debatable.

    My hunch is we get bored in practice, and instead of exploring boredom, we think we need
    to jazz our practice up by adding on something ‘extra’—legitimize it with science, or add on
    the enneagram, or blah, blah, blah.

    Just my personal bit of noise.

    Its an interesting exercise–instead of calling up the nearest Nobel Laureate and trying to get him or her to attend your Buddhist event, stop. Pause. Sit down. Apply penetrating insight to that restless ‘itch’ that wants us to add scientific legitimacy to Buddhadharma, something that made its own way by persuasion long before science as we know it existed.

    Now, yes, cultural features were added on as Buddhadharma made its way into new cultures and territories–and new climate zones.

    But these changes were done slowly, grass roots up. In China in colder regions, where rice paddies did not exist, the sanghas were given grants of land, so instead of begging day by day and doing retreats in monsoon season, they created methods of work practice.

    Clothing changed slowly and gradually to suit climate.

    This is different from rapidly adding new features based on changing fashions and marketing
    trends. Mass media and the cult of celebrity did not exist until recently, either.

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