Seeking words of wisdom from a renowned adept, a young acolyte trekked to the top of a mountain. Sitting at the master’s feet he asked, “Can you tell the future?” The master said, “Certainly I can. It’s easy. Today is just like yesterday. Tomorrow will be just like today. Unless, of course, there’s a change of consciousness.”
So far, there’s no indication that any change might prevent the degree of suffering in this millennium—local and global—from repeating itself in the next. In fact, there is much on the horizon to heighten our anxieties. And yet there must be a way to utilize the energy of this millennial moment to some benefit. Sure, it’s a man-made extravaganza of brilliant conceptual manipulation. But it provides an opportunity for a universal pause, for billions of people to reflect on the nature of life and loss, of being and meaning, to question—as only the millennium could persuade so many people to do at once—where the story of our lives, of any one life, intersects with the story of the universe. We can still stand on terra firma and, stargazing through a magnifying lens, exalt in ecstatic bewilderment. But what happens when, from planets other than our own, the lens points back toward us? How small can we allow ourselves to be?
If the vast view is a helpful antidote to the self-centered, human-centered, geocentric reality that is eating us alive and assuring our self-destruction, we can look to scientists and to poets in our own culture whose work and vision have an affinity with the vast perspective of the Buddhist view. For perhaps more than anyone else among us, it has been scientists who have provided us with a new and sometimes astonishing sense of scale that puts human concerns in their place. To reflect on where the millennium falls within vast time, we invited scientists, whose work ranges from mitochondria to slime molds to astrophysics, to contribute essays on where the year 2000 registers, if at all, from the perspective of their own work.
In his book on the history of the telescope, Seeing and Believing, science writer Richard Panek describes a recent achievement of the Hubble Space Telescope: "On January 15, 1996, the universe grew by forty billion galaxies.” As Panek explains, "What actually grew that morning, of course, wasn't the size of the universe, but our understanding of it."
Our understanding changed. But whether or not change in data and information is transformative in terms of consciousness is an open question. Over a period of several centuries, improvements in the technology of magnification brought into question the nature of the heavens, its laws and measurements; the position of planet Earth in the celestial constellation, and the authority of a supreme being for whom heaven was home. With a telescope aimed at other worlds, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, with Charles Darwin keenly examining this one, the biblical vision of a fixed, unchanging, two-dimensional, controlled, and controllable universe began its certain transformation. But for all this, are we any more—or less—awake?
Albert Einstein wrote that, “If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” So far, nothing new—such as the theory of relativity, or of evolution, or forty billion new galaxies, has clashed with Buddhist cosmology. Our idea with this section on “Vast Time” was to investigate what the scientists offer us. It seems quite clear that they offer us plenty. But whether we make use of it to affect a change in consciousness is another matter.