Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers

Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers

By Shawn Radcliffe

In the Buddhist text the Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Sutra, the universe is described as a multidimensional net known as Indra’s Net, with jewels set at every point where the strands meet. Each of the jewels reflects the light of the jewels around it throughout the entire net so that the entire universe, and its radiance, is reflected in every jewel.

This metaphor provides a way for us to grasp the infinite scope of the universe, along with the interconnectedness of every component, including each event, moment, and person—aka the jewels. But it also shows how deeply connected Buddhism is with astrophysical concepts, even centuries before Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo pointed the first telescope at the night sky in 1609.

For astronomer and ex-Zen monk Mark Westmoquette, Indra’s Net comes to life in the young, star-forming nebula NGC 346 in the Small Magellanic Cloud, as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The image looked to me like a myriad of beautiful jewels nestling in a blue, glowing silk pillow. Most of these jewels are actually young, massive stars which are burning bright and hot,” Westmoquette writes in Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers: Find your inner universe.

Westmoquette goes on to describe the role that Indra’s Net plays in eliciting understanding:

“This metaphor helps us see how every grain of sand on the beach or every atom in our own body contains the essence of the entire Universe … The atoms making up your body are dependent on the Universe being exactly as it is and having arisen as it has. Your body, this book and this writing are dependent on every single event and process that has formed the Universe, right back to the beginning of time.”

Buddhist’s texts are littered with metaphors like this, meant to spark the light of understanding in a mind that’s been prepared through meditation and diligent study. It’s the same kind of understanding that comes from looking up at the night sky and being swept away with awe, something many of us have done at one point during our life.

In his book, Westmoquette plots a heavenly course through Buddhism, finding his own metaphors for many concepts—from The Three Poisons that are the source of our suffering (want, aversion, delusion) to Loving-Kindness to The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (the body, our sensations, the mind, mind objects). 

All of his metaphors are drawn from astrophysics, Westmoquette’s original vocation before he “decided to end my astronomy research career and take up teaching yoga and meditation full-time”—and in the process, turned from contemplating Outer Space to pondering Inner Space.

Some people reading Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers will find these concepts new—the Buddhist ones or the astrophysical ones, or both—but that shouldn’t be a problem. Realization can’t occur without preparation, and preparation can’t occur without some amount of mental discomfort to shake us free of our current, but limited, understanding.

This discomfort, or confusion, often happens when people try to comprehend the immense size of the universe, whether through a physics perspective or using a metaphor like Indra’s Net. That discomfort also arises when we attempt to wrap our head around something as ethereal as the Buddhist concept of Interconnectedness. But it’s not hopeless—when you look at a concept enough times from enough angles, it eventually gives way to understanding, as Westmoquette describes in the case of cause and effect:

“Nothing is a fixed object existing independently, because everything is ‘interdependent’ on everything else. In reality, cause and effect are not actually separate. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be a cause of something else… When we see that ‘I’ am made from a whole Universe of ‘non-I’ elements then we might start to understand that our normal perception of self, of ‘me’ and of ‘mine’ is really just an illusion.”

This book is all about understanding, an understanding that is earned through contemplation—whether it’s done by staring up at the night sky or by meditating and observing your own twinkling points of inner light.

Along the way, Westmoquette gives readers many ways to approach these topics, which works because not every metaphor will “click” for each person. However, if after reading through the book, you still aren’t sure if you are following the right path or grasping the metaphors effectively, imagine sitting on a tree-less hilltop at night looking up at the moon—and know that you are not alone on this path toward greater realization. For Westmoquette, this nocturnal journey provides a way toward Loving-Kindness:

“When you look up at the moon, there is a high chance that some of the 3.8 billion people in darkness are also looking up at the moon at that moment. As we share that experience, how would it be to send out wishes of kindness to all those people—whoever they are, wherever they be and whatever they are going through in their life right now?”

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