View From Space and The Logic of Faith
In 1968 the United States sent a manned spacecraft into orbit to circumnavigate the moon and explore the mysteries of the cosmos. These astronauts became the first in human history to travel beyond low earth orbit and look back at a fully illuminated earth from space. None of them had anticipated the transformative effect that such a glimpse would have on them. So impactful was the experience that those involved in the initial journey have wondered in retrospect if it may not have been the most important reason we went.
Since then many astronauts have described their experience of seeing earth from space as a sudden and unexpected recognition of interconnectedness: a decentering of the strong self-focused tendency we all have to put our self or our nation at the center of the universe. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who traveled to the moon in 1971, wrote books on his experience of this phenomenon, in which he chronicled not only his venture into space, but also how it served as the entry point into his personal exploration of human consciousness and the nature of self and its relationship to the universe. Mitchell described in a short film called Overview the effects of gazing out the window of the spacecraft at planet earth as an alteration of his human perspective: “a kind of self-awareness that was not something new, but important to how we humans are put together.”
Every great spiritual tradition has emerged from such human experiences of awe. As Mitchell suggested, this experience of self-awareness is not something new; nor is it exclusively for astronauts. And although we can’t capture such encounters in words, we give them names: the grace of God, the Divine, Buddha-nature, or the Tao. We have developed sophisticated systems of philosophy in an attempt to describe these experiences and have designed various methods of meditation and ritual to cultivate them. And all of these creative expressions—all the iconography, poetry, hymns, sacred architecture, and language—beautify our world; that is, of course, until we declare that our particular tradition is the one that really has it “right.” This never fails to dampen the sense of wonder that initially inspired this creative expression in the first place.
Let’s take care not to lose sight of the original purpose of our wisdom traditions by protecting them from rightness. Let’s cherish them because their ultimate aim is to release us from our constant struggle to find sanity in a world we can’t secure.
I remember vividly my first meeting with the accomplished Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, when I was in my early twenties. He had an impressive history. In his teenage years, driven by his own longing, he left home to practice meditation alone in a cave for many years. He mastered all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism—protecting and cherishing each of them according to their unique qualities while emphasizing their essential similarities. He escaped Tibet with his family during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and settled in India. In time he assumed the position of spiritual advisor to the royal family of Bhutan and became the spiritual father of hundreds of young monks whom he tenderly raised in his monasteries in Nepal and Tibet.
He had a grand and elegant physical presence, and although he was in his mid-seventies when I first met him, he didn’t seem confined by time, age, or even gender. Before entering his room I had pictured him as a wise old man from whom I would receive spiritual guidance. But to my astonishment, as I entered his quarters, what struck me most—and how I remember him to this day—was how he embodied, more than anyone I had ever met, the spirit of amazement. He did not live in some distant state of meditative absorption. Rather, he seemed touched and delighted by everything and everyone around him, and he responded to it all with curiosity, playfulness, and gentleness. In that moment I thought, “This must be where the spiritual path leads.”
—from Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel’s upcoming book The Logic of Faith, from Shambhala Publications, to be released in February 2018.