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Stargazing With Senshin Buddhist Temple

Observing, Reflecting Upon These Objects Can Deepen Appreciation of the Dharma


Over the weekend of Feb. 10-11, I was the invited speaker for Senshin Buddhist Temple’s annual Nembutsu Retreat. 


In discussing the program with Senshin Resident Minister Rev. Ryuta Furumoto, he agreed to let me also include an evening activity which would involve us actually going outside: stargazing. 


I’m only an amateur astronomer, having just purchased my first telescope not long after retiring as the staff minister at Higashi Honganji’s Los Angeles Betsuin. At first, my stargazing probably arose out of an appreciation of the experience of quiet mindfulness under the night sky. 


However, more and more, I’ve also begun to appreciate the connections between stargazing and the teachings of the Buddha.


Of course, Senshin’s retreat was held at a huge hotel in Thousand Oaks, California. While it’s about 40 miles away from the “light dome” of Los Angeles, it’s a far cry from an ideal stargazing site with dark skies. 


Still, I think my idea of providing the retreat participants with a Buddhist stargazing experience was, at least in spirit, emulating the kind of nighttime mindfulness experience recommended by Shakyamuni. And so, after our Saturday dinner, we all went outside into the “wilderness” of the hotel’s parking lot.


At the beginning of our stargazing, we briefly reviewed the Buddha’s teachings we’d discussed earlier, that not only is everything impermanent and constantly changing, in this constant flow, nothing arises all by itself; everything arises dependent on myriad other things. And that we can witness this Dharma, this ultimate truth and reality, and appreciate its evidence not only in our everyday lives, but also outside under the night sky.


For example, one of the first things we observed was the Great Nebula in Orion.


I explained that this image we were viewing on the flatscreen was possible because my telescope was continuously imaging and tracking the Orion Nebula as it moved from east to west across the sky. This movement is just one of many examples of impermanence. Due to the Earth’s rotation, the night sky is in constant motion.


The Orion Nebula is a dense cloud of cosmic gas and dust. The bright core actually represents a kind of “stellar nursery”; the dust and gases that exist throughout the universe are condensing under the force of gravity and forming new stars. In turn, these new stars are extremely bright and their energy is ionizing the dust and gas, causing it to emit red light, which indicates hydrogen gas, and blue light, which indicates oxygen gas.

 

I think that the dynamic processes taking place in the Orion Nebula are a stunning illustration of the same truths that Shakyamuni awakened to. 


Today, 2,500 years after the Buddha, astrophysicists seem to be verifying the same truths that the Buddha awoke to. Everything in the universe is both impermanent and interdependent. In fact, according to many astrophysicists, the entire universe is actually one interdependent system — the dust and gases of the “interstellar medium” that exists throughout the entire universe have formed and are forming all matter.


Another object we observed was the beautiful star cluster known as the Pleiades.


These stars are also illuminating dust and gases and creating the same kind of nebulosity we saw in the Orion Nebula. However, the Pleiades is not a stellar nursery per se; these stars “just happen” to be moving through clouds of oxygen-rich gas, hence the blue color. To me, the beautiful glow of the Pleiades, caused by its stars just having “fortunately” run into clouds of oxygen gas is like a metaphor for the way our lives can likewise only “glow” if we too “just happen” to be the fortunate recipients of the support of our family, friends, and teachers.


We saw a number of other objects, but let me just share one final one with you. This is the famous Andromeda Galaxy.


Andromeda is the closest galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, and yet “close” in galactic terms means it’s “only” 2.5 million light years away; its light actually left 2.5 million years ago. It’s a massive collection of about one trillion stars; about twice the stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Like everything else, Andromeda is also moving and is another example of impermanence. 


Andromeda’s movement is, however, “closer to home”; Andromeda is on a course to collide with our galaxy. But that’s maybe 5 billion years in the future, so we can “kind of” relax.


Meanwhile, within Andromeda’s spiral arms, dust and gases are interacting and constantly forming new stars. We too, are all formed from the same dust and gases, the same carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so forth. Millions of years ago, every atom in our bodies was probably originally “out there” somewhere.


So, if we weren’t already in awe of Shakyamuni’s teachings, observing and thoughtfully reflecting upon these deep sky objects can deepen our appreciation of the Dharma. Because of the resonance of the night sky with the Dharma, when we’re stargazing, we’re really observing the Dharma itself, the ultimate reality of the impermanence and interdependence of all things that the Buddha awoke to.


And when we reflect on the infinite expanse of the universe — that there may be as many as two trillion galaxies — I think we can begin to realize just how incredibly rare our existence is here on Earth. And therefore, how precious our life and all other life is. We are also part of this interconnected reality. According to the Buddha, ultimately, we are this interconnected reality.


In closing, I’d like to express my gratitude to Rev. Ryuta Furumoto, to Neil Komai who helped organize the retreat, and especially to all the Senshin retreat participants. 


They helped me realize that while stargazing can of course be a rewarding solo experience, it’s a lot more fun when joining together with others. 


Namu Amida Butsu


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