Thursday, August 4, 2011

Through the Lens of Deep Time

This post incorporates passages adapted from an article previously published in the Missouri Zen Center’s December, 2001 Dharma Life newsletter (now Sangha Life) under the title ‘Ashfall or Awakening’. I was very much affected at the time by events taking place in the then brand-new post-9/11 world. Sadly, the theme of that original article is just as pertinent today, some ten years down the road. 

‘Ashfall’ refers to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, a place that I visited on one of my many road trips west. It was also on that trip that I became exposed to the writings of Loren Eiseley – literary naturalist, philosopher, and one of Nebraska’s adopted sons. I’ve enjoyed Eiseley’s work numerous times over the years since then, and even if this post only serves as an introduction to his writings, I will consider it a great success. Please enjoy!

Beside An Ancient Waterhole

Twelve million years ago, in the savannah-like world of what is now called Nebraska, something that might have looked like the billowing clouds of a gathering thunderstorm began advancing across the land. And as those clouds grew taller and darker and closer, perhaps the animals grazing or watering downwind occasionally lifted up their heads to gaze at them in anticipation of the cool breezes and refreshing water that they might bring. But even as they eyed that approaching storm, the camels and rhinoceroses and saber-toothed deer and oreodonts of that ancient world were already chewing the last nourishing mouthfuls of grass or swallowing the last thirst-quenching gulps of water that they would enjoy for the rest of their lives. No, this was no ordinary thunderstorm gathering on the horizon. This was the coming ashfall of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption on what is now the Snake River plain of present day Idaho.

Shortly, enough ash had fallen to cover the vast grassland as if with snow, and as the grazing animals scratched their way to mouthfuls of once-sweet grass they further stirred up the ash, causing the glass-like particles to hang in a suffocating haze all around them. With each breath their lungs became less and less effective, and their bodies began to succumb to disease. Thirsty, weakened, and distressed, they gathered about their favorite waterhole – a place already littered with the bodies of the birds and turtles and other aquatic life that was among the first to succumb. At best, though, that turbid water provided only momentary relief to their parched mouths and throats, even as it slowly killed them.


In such a weakened state as that, the grazing animals were easy prey for the predators in their midst, and the bone-crushing dogs that gathered to feed upon their bodies when they fell. But the predators and scavengers themselves were slowly dying and could do little more than gnaw on whatever prey or carcass they could find – unable to gain any satisfaction at all. Day after day, the carnage mounted until little remained alive of all that had once found a home on that vast savannah. The wind began to blow and the ash began to fill in the hollow of that waterhole, burying the bodies of babies beside their mothers, and birds crushed underfoot – predator and prey alike. Today, at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, this heart-breaking scene has been unearthed, and the fossilized remains of those ancient beings now reveal in incredible detail the story of their life and their demise. 

Deep Time

Perhaps that seems like another world, one so far removed from this one that it might well reside in another dimension, but of course it doesn’t. The only thing separating that world from this one is the passage of time – deep time. In deep time the wind blows relentlessly across an empty landscape, without an ear to hear it. In deep time the sun and moon blink incessantly overhead like strobe lights, without an eye to see it. In deep time oceans gather from the once icy tails of asteroids. In deep time continents break up and collide, and mountains rise and fall. Entire species arise and pass away upon the measureless field of deep time. 

Human beings have only recently come into existence on this field of deep time. Likewise, an awareness of deep time has only recently arisen within the consciousness of human beings. Perhaps it is early even now to speak of the awareness of deep time as if it were a universal human attribute. After all, debate still rages to this day between adherents of the various scientific disciplines undergirding the theory of evolution and believers in the theologically rooted concept of creationism. Debate notwithstanding, by the year 1960, Loren Eiseley felt secure enough in our awareness of deep time that he chose the title 'How the World Became Natural' for the first chapter of his absolute gem of a book, The Firmament of Time. Provocative title, no? Hasn’t the world always been natural? Indeed, but it hasn’t always been natural in the minds of men and women. For that we needed an awareness of deep time. 

Eiseley (1960) points to two significant events that set the stage for the world to “become” natural. One is Isaac Newton’s discovery of the force of gravity – the so-called weight driving the intricate clockwork of this celestial machine. Prior to any knowledge of the natural law of gravitational attraction one could only speculate about the guiding hand of God, or whatever other divine creator one might conjure up. The other event that Eiseley credits with helping to usher in the natural world is Olaus Roemer’s 1675 discovery that light does not, as was previously believed, instantaneously appear over here after being emitted from over there. The celestial clock had further revealed its inner workings when Roemer noticed a delay in the reappearance of one of Jupiter’s moons following an eclipse. This delay allowed the speed of light to subsequently be calculated as 186,000 miles per second – a speed that opened up awareness to then (and perhaps still) unimaginable distances. 

Discussion of cosmic evolution and the vast expanses of time required for it to take place commenced fairly openly from that point on – at least within the scientific community (Eiseley, 1960). It would be some years, however, before the concept of deep time was allowed any closer to home. Regardless of what might be true “out there”, “this” world was a mere few thousand years old – deduced to be so by a close reading of the genealogical information contained within the Christian Bible. Fossils, then, were not fossils as we know them – created by the gradual replacement of decaying organic matter with inorganic minerals. Rather, they were “formed stones”, formed like all things are formed, via a process of creation. Their very existence, some individuals contended, was intended to test the faith of men.

It is the work of James Hutton in the 1700s that Eiseley credits with opening wide the door to the world becoming natural. Whereas our concept of time up until then had been confined to that which could be imagined happening over the course of some small multiple of human lifetimes, Hutton’s work allowed us to glimpse the reality of deep time. What previously could only be imagined to be the result of discrete events such as catastrophic earthquakes and torrential floods (the work of an angry or dissatisfied creator) could be seen anew as the result of gradual (and natural) processes acting over uncountable millennia. Hutton, whose doctoral dissertation was on the circulation of blood in the body, seemed to straddle two worlds – one in which he was just as likely to use the then prevalent metaphor of ‘earth, the self-correcting machine’ as he was to reflect upon ‘earth, the living organism’ – existing at once in a state of “growth and augmentation” as well as “diminution and decay” (Eiseley, 1960, p. 24). It is Hutton who Eiseley credits with first glimpsing deep time in our earthly realm. He writes:
One has the feeling that [Hutton] sensed, on his remote Scottish farm, when frost split a stone on a winter night. Or when one boulder, poised precariously on a far mountain side, fell after a thousand years. For him and him alone, the water dripping from the cottagers’ eaves had become Niagaras falling through unplumbed millennia (p. 25). 

Emptiness, Deep Time, and Awakening

Human consciousness is, for reasons of survival, finely attuned to events that take place on the field of “ordinary” time. But it is through the lens of deep time that the Buddhist concept of emptiness can most readily be comprehended. Through the lens of deep time we can clearly see the absolutely fleeting nature of all phenomena, and their dependence upon the causes and conditions that preceded them. When viewed through the lens of deep time we can easily see that our individual existence is but a bubble within a great ocean of potential; we can relinquish our assumptions regarding the specialness of this world and this age; and we can relinquish the conceit that we humans are so very different from the rhinoceroses and oreodonts and bone-crushing dogs that fell upon that deadly bed of ashfall long ago. After all, our volcanic eruption is taking place in this present moment as we burn up the remains of every distant world that we can get our hands on. No, we're not all that different from those animals of long ago seeking refuge beside their waterhole. Perhaps you’ve already scanned the horizon and glimpsed our approaching storm. Perhaps you’ve already begun to feel as though you’re living a suffocated existence within a culture devoid of any meaning. And, yet, we still gather around the waterhole of egoism and materialism where we gulp polluted water expecting that our insatiable thirst will miraculously be quenched.

The Buddha saw this long ago. “Bikkhus,” he said, “[the world] is burning.... Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion” (Samyutta Nikaya SN 35). Thankfully, though, zazen is like a deep breath of fresh air – a long drink of cool water. But to say that zazen quenches our thirst is not really accurate. It is more accurate to say that zazen allows us to realize that what we desire will never really quench our thirst, that what we fear can never really harm us, and that how we think about ourselves and our place in the world is rife with delusion. Zazen allows us to get up off of our cushions and go about living what Rosan Yoshida roshi calls ‘Limitless Life’ – not desiring anything, not fearing anything, not deluded by anything.

So, what “bones” will we leave behind? Will they reveal a pitifully suffocated existence? Will they display the teeth marks of a desperate struggle for survival? Or will they reveal at least some semblance of awakening?




References


Eiseley, L (1960). The firmament of time. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Samyutta Nikaya SN 35. Adittapariyaya sutta: The fire sermon (√Ďanamoli Thera, Tr.) Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.028.nymo.html.

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank 

4 comments:

  1. My perception of time has certainly changed over the years. I know this isn't exactly related to your post, but now that I have what could be considered a milestone birthday approaching, I'm spending more time thinking about time. Quite the concept to ponder, isn't it?

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  2. Maku, I am replying to this from a hotel bar in Detroit. This post is in lieu of my customary sitting on Friday evening. First, your posts are getting more impressive each time! You have mastered the art of blogging. Second, thanks for hopefully bringing Eisely to the attention of some people. He deserves more recognition as not just a naturalist but a philosopher of man's place in nature. Third, your description of the Ashfall cataclysm is moving. Will some alien race in the future look upon our abandoned ruins and speculate on what befell us? Lastly, I really enjoyed the way you tied deep time with emptiness. I had never thought about it in those terms but it makes sense. Thanks for a real mind-expanding insight.
    @Kristen, what would that milestone birthday be, I wonder? You can't be 25 yet.

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  3. Bob, how old do you think I am? ;) I seem to have begun my quarter-life crisis a few months early. Any advice from either of you lovely gentlemen?

    I will definitely be looking for more of Eiseley's work. Thank you for introducing me to so many wonderful writers and viewpoints.

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  4. Hey Kristen! Actually, I think perception of time is very much related to this post. I think our experience of time speeds up as we grow older. As you aged from one year old to two, that extra year encompassed half of your life. Now that you are going from 24 years old to 25, this latest year represents 1/25 of your life. Each unit of time that we live becomes an ever-decreasing portion of our lived existence and, thus, seems to go faster. As I recall, my 25th birthday was one of my worst. You are now an adult - no ifs, ands, or buts! ;D Happy Birthday!

    Robert, thank you so much for your kind words. Coming from such a voracious reader as you are, I am very flattered. I'm happy whenever I can help someone see something in a new way. Thank you, also, for recommending Eiseley's autobiography. I'll have to check it out.

    Kristen, I'm glad you're interested in checking into Eiseley's work. He really brings vast expanses of time to life within this present moment.

    Thank you!

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