Last night, while waiting an inordinately long time (even by Indian standards) to pay for our pizza, I made quite a startling discovery in a local newspaper lying on the counter: the Andromeda galaxy (our closest neighbor) is hurdling toward the Milky Way at a speed of 250,000 miles per hour. This means that in four billion years, our galaxies will actually completely merge- a process that will surely involve lots of galactic collisions and gigantic explosions. As Giulia and I discussed the implications of this, our conversation actually went back to what we had learned that day at HH the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
I came to a new appreciation for HH DL this time around, mainly because I saw what an example he is for what the rest of us might become. My admiration for this man increased not only because of his constantly jolly and lighthearted demeanor, but also because I realized that he is exactly the type of religious leader the contemporary world needs. He is thoroughly rooted in his own tradition, but is open and accommodating to other approaches. He reminded us that because different people have different dispositions, different approaches are necessary. For some, belief in a father like God may be useful, if it gets them to be less selfish and to practice generosity and compassion. For others, the Buddhist explanation of karma and the reality of interdependence may allow them to arrive at the same point. HH DL encouraged us to drop any ideas- even Buddhist ones- if they get in the way of our becoming more compassionate, loving people.
So out on our balcony, I mentioned to Giulia how the notion of God actually helps me to get a foothold in the vastness of the universe without being completely overwhelmed. Sure, I understand that colliding galaxies are actually nothing more than the result of past causes and conditions, but that feels a little too impersonal for me, especially when I consider the miracle of all the living beings that must be inhabiting these galaxies. If I describe the universe as God’s arena in which to grow beings in order to look out at Himself, it actually increases my wonder for it to a level beyond where I could reach if I meditated on emptiness.
But actually, the concept of God here helps me most to conceive that I cannot conceive. After all, the Andromeda galaxy is our closest neighbor and it is still 2.5 million light years away. That means that the light we see from it today left its source before anatomically modern humans evolved. And beyond Andromeda, there are billions of other galaxies containing billions of stars. My jaw drops, and my mind just stops trying to conceive of the vastness involved. The only word that comes even close to describing this is God- and even to say that is belittling the universe in a fairly egregious way. So for me, the thought of God is a necessary step to bring my awareness to the fact that this reality is a far greater than my petty concerns and desires. It’s a stepping stone to bring me to a point where I can sense my utter smallness in the grand scheme, while simultaneously feeling deep gratitude for being able to bear witness to it.
And what if there are other intelligent beings living in Andromeda right now, who happened to descend on HH DL’s teachings in Dharamsala for the past three days? Would they too laugh at the old Tibetan man with the oversized sunglasses bowing to HH DL’s image on a live feed TV screen? Would they marvel at the legions of monks diligently distributing gallons of tea to everyone who knew enough to bring a cup? Perhaps. But I think they would see in HH DL a vital link in the evolution of higher intelligence. They might even look back to their history and recognize a similar figure who emerged at a point to bring their species to a higher consciousness. And that’s what he can do here on earth too, if we’re open and receptive to his message, which is actually not his message, but the nature of things itself. Reality doesn’t care what labels you want to put on it, but HH DL reminds us that we cause ourselves a lot of suffering by grasping onto them. Whether we use emptiness or God to propel our awareness into the simple awareness of the miracle of being present doesn’t matter. It becomes a tragedy, however, when we get caught up in these very symbols and exclude the validity of the stepping stones other people happened to have found more useful.