Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The "Lifing" of the Universe

Alan Watts, erstwhile Episcopal priest and Buddhist scholar, died at the relatively young age of 58, prior to ever seeing the Buddhist teachings that he helped disseminate in the West reach the level of acceptance and maturity that we know them to have today. I have the sense that people of about my chronological age represent the last generation of spiritual explorers to see his writings on bookstore shelves with any regularity. Regardless of your familiarity with Watts, however, you will almost certainly enjoy a very delightful, and delightfully animated, lecture snippet of his referred to as The Earth is People-ing (animated by Chris Brion and Todd Benson).

The Earth is People-ing challenges us to move beyond our usual way of thinking about the arrival of intelligent life here on earth in order to reflect upon the possibility that the intelligence that resides in people is actually a manifestation OF the Earth and not merely a characteristic of the beings that now happen to live ON the Earth. In this lecture, Watts states that when we think of the arrival of life ON Earth “we are thinking in a way that disconnects the intelligence from the rocks [the Earth].” I hope you’ll take a moment to check out The Earth is People-ing on YouTube.

Intriguing, eh, this idea that rocks might embody some sort of intelligence? But where might such an idea come from? Before any further speculation on that point, let’s consider how Watts’ view fits in with other views regarding the development of life here on Earth. While we’re at it, why don’t we also very briefly consider some of the benefits and drawbacks to the holder of each of these views?

The Guiding Creator of Life
Some divine entity most commonly referred to as God created this rock of the Earth and then all life residing hereon, such as with a literal reading of the book of Genesis. We might use the term dualistic in reference to the relationship between the creator and the created in stories such as this. We might also use the term dualistic in reference to the relationship between and amongst the earth and the distinct beings residing upon it. Note that holders of this type of view might still have differences of opinion as to how much the presumed creator continues to intervene in the unfolding of the creation, but the creator’s ability to intervene is without doubt.

Benefits: The benefit of holding such a view is that everything is explained, including the believer’s part in the grand plan devised by the creator. Such belief is comforting to the extent that it can be sustained.
Drawbacks: Unfortunately, belief in such a view is difficult to sustain given the fact that it does not correspond with rational thought and emerging scientific discovery. This battle between science and belief is one of the major social dilemmas of our time.

The Clockmaking Creator of Life
Some divine entity most commonly referred to as God created this universe as a clockmaker builds a clock to continue keeping time subsequent to the act of creation. The universe was “wound up” at the time of its creation (the so-called big bang, if you will) and it now proceeds to “tick away” according to plan – including the evolution of life – albeit without any subsequent intervention. This is essentially the Deist point of view of the Age of Enlightenment, a view held by some of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It is worthy of note that even some of the foremost scientists of rationalist modern times still leave at least some room in their thinking for such a concept of God. Albert Einstein, for instance, in contemplating the apparently chaotic and indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics, is famously reported to have remarked that “God doesn't play dice with the world.”

Benefits: This view meshes well with science in that the deity can be invoked to explain that which science cannot, but the two need not be in conflict with each other.
Drawbacks: The psychological and emotional comfort imparted by belief in a more continually “hands-on” God might be less readily enjoyed to the extent that one feels that the creator has taken leave of the creation.

The Unity of Creator and Creation
The life that exists on Earth is a manifestation of some inherent “intelligence” permeating all of space and time, intelligence that has somehow been actualized, or has actualized “itself”, in material form. We might think in even less dualistic terms by saying that this intelligence spoken of IS all of space and time, and everything herein. This intelligence permeating all of space and time and everything herein might be what some progressive Christians think of when they think of God. Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, might speak in terms of the Dharmakaya, “the cosmic consciousness, the unified existence that lies beyond all concepts… out of which all animate and inanimate forms… arise…” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 387).

Benefits: This view also meshes well with science in that whatever science discovers can be considered to be a manifestation of the underlying “intelligence” of God, Dharmakaya, etc. This view also addresses the questions related to the how and why of life in the universe, at least in some fashion.
Drawbacks: Depending upon how one fleshes out the details of such a view, it might tend to drift further away from the psychological and emotional benefits of a more “personal” God, leaving one to perhaps question his or her role in the grand plan of the universe.

The Inevitability of Life
The life that exists on this Earth is an outgrowth of a confluence of causes and conditions that is inevitable given the incredible variability of causes and conditions manifested within this vast universe and the incredibly vast time frame within which such variability might manifest. No inherent “intelligence” is required. While some might consider the confluence of life-yielding causes and conditions such as those that exist here on Earth to be so rare as to prompt thoughts of a “divine plan”, others will invoke the knowledge made possible by NASA's Kepler spacecraft: that there might be as many as 40 billion planets in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”, with orbits close enough to being circular, and with proximities to reasonably sized suns such that terrestrial temperatures allow for the liquid water necessary for the formation of a life-yielding “primordial soup”. Oh, and that is just in this Milky Way galaxy; there are untold numbers of other galaxies for which we have not been able to make such a scientific inference. Is the potential for life, then, so rare that intentionality must be the explanation, or is the potential for life, in fact, so common that the likelihood of its spontaneous biochemical assembly is a foregone conclusion?
Benefits: Holders of such a view are freed from the tyranny of imposed or misguided belief and the threat of the ramifications of inadequate faith.
Drawbacks: The psychological and emotional benefits of religious belief are absent; the individual is left to discover meaning on his or her own, or wrestle with the lack thereof. Questions regarding the how and why of the universe remain unanswered. After all, an entire universe can’t just pop into existence without first cause, can it? I’ll have to save that question for a future post!

At this point, let’s return to Watts’ lecture snippet and the aforementioned entities of God and the Dharmakaya. It seems pretty clear that the view that comes closest to what Watts is talking about is the one related to the unity of creator and creation. But is he really implying that we are the result of some consciousness-seeking intentionality inherent in those rocks, or is he simply urging us to think of ourselves and our home in a less dualistic fashion, in a fashion more in keeping with the Buddhist principle of emptiness, sunyata – as in the Heart Sutra’s teaching that form is emptiness and emptiness is form? Are his remarks more of a spiritual interpretation of evolution, or is he, in fact, speaking of – without specific reference – his understanding of God or the Dharmakaya, or both? I’ll begin again, then, with a discussion of the Dharmakaya, in order that we might better understand where Watts is coming from.

Dharmakaya is part of the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the Trikaya. According to Trikaya doctrine, the Buddha has three bodies. There is the physical body that lived and died and delivered the earliest teachings that have become part of Buddhist scripture; this is the Nirmanakaya. There is also the celestial Buddha whose appearance and activity is spoken of in the more fantastical Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra; this is the Sambhogakaya. Lastly, there is the body that is unified with the eternal and transcendent reality [the emptiness of sunyata] that “lies beyond all dualities and conceptions”; this is the Dharmakaya (Snelling, 1991, p. 85). As Watts (1957) himself stated:
The Nirmanakaya includes, in principle, the entire universe of form. There is next the Sambhogakaya, or “Body of Enjoyment.” This is the sphere of prajna, wisdom, and karuna, compassion, the latter looking down to the world of form, and the former looking up to the realm of the void [emptiness, sunyata]. Sambhogakaya might also be called the “Body of Enjoyment” since it is in this “body” that a Buddha realizes that he is a Buddha. Finally there is the Dharmakaya, the “Dharma Body,” which is the void, the sunya itself.

Thus, in Mahayana Buddhist thought we do indeed have some sort of “intelligence” that is one with eternal and transcendent reality even as it manifests in the world of form. This sounds an awful lot like a description of God, doesn’t it? In fact, At the risk of broad-brushing over any differences, it would seem that the three bodies referred to in Trikaya doctrine bear at least a passing resemblance to, respectively, the earthly form of Jesus, the risen Son that dwells in Heaven with the Father, and God – the uncreated creator.

In addition to the aforementioned similarities in the doctrines of the Trikaya and the Trinity themselves, there is similarity in their evolution as well. Just as Jesus did not teach us about the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, neither did Buddha teach us about the Trikaya. Sangharakshita (1980) notes that the doctrine of the Trikaya gradually evolved as the Mahayanists “penetrated deeper into the transcendental reality behind the mundane appearance [of things]” (p. 240). What are we to make of such striking similarities between two completely independently derived descriptions of the relationship between physical and metaphysical reality? Have Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism both tapped into a “truth by two different names”, or is it actually the case that the independent development of the Trinity and the Trikaya exposes some underlying structure of the way we humans think about our place in the universe? If the latter is a truer statement, then this passage from Sangharakshita (1980) reveals a little bit of this structure:
According to [the Madhyamikas (a sect within Mahayana)], the Dharmakaya of the Buddha consists chiefly of Prajna [wisdom]. In other words, His personality is ultimately identical with the Cognition of Reality, or, since on the transcendental plane no distinction can be made between the subject and the object of knowledge, identical with Reality Itself. (p. 243)

Of the Dharmakaya, Murti (1970) writes:
The Prajna-paramita texts [of which the Heart Sutra is one part, by the way] repeatedly ask us to consider Buddha as Dharmakaya, and not in the overt form which appears to us. Dharmakaya is the essence, the reality of the universe. It is completely free from every trace of duality. It is the very nature of the universe… It would be, however, not exactly correct to take the Dharmakaya to be the abstract metaphysical principle [which is the emptiness of sunyata]. The Dharmakaya is still a Person, and innumerable merits and powers etc. are ascribed to him. (p. 285)

So, what about the “people-ing” of the Earth? What about the “Lifing” of the universe? Is it a creation that stands apart from the creator? Is Life the result of some intelligence or intentionality inherent in the very stuff of creation, as Watts suggests, or does it just happen? Which of the four types of views comes closest to your way of thinking about the mysterious nature of our existence? Can you understand why someone might gravitate to one of the other views? At any rate, I hope this post helps promote mutual respect amongst all who are wrestling with the most profound questions related to how it is we are here, and why.


Murti, T. R. (1970). The central philosophy of Buddhism – A study of the Madhyamika system. George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Sangharakshita (1980). A survey of Buddhism. Shambhala Publications, in association with Windhorse.
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Snelling, J. (1991). The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.
Watts, A. (1957). The way of Zen. Vintage Spiritual Classics, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.

Image Credits

Closeup of Michelangelo’s depiction of God via:

Image of clockworks filtered by the author from the original obtained via:

Milky Way and open road courtesy of National Geographic via:

All other images courtesy of the author.


Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

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