A Shocking Experience in the Universe II

And I thought, as this was happening, that maybe we, the first generation of space-faring people to go out from our planet and see earth and heavens from this different perspective of the space, are to re-ask those ancient questions all over again. And from the point of view of being a space-faring civilization I realized that science is a fairly modern development in human understanding, as modern form began in the West only about 400 years ago, with Sir Isaac Newton and the great thinkers of that period about 400 years ago.

A great distinction was made in the seventeenth century by the great thinker and philosopher, Rene Descartes, who came to the conclusion that body and mind, physicality and spirituality, belong to different realms of reality. Now that serves a very noble purpose in the West. But at that point in Western history, the church was persecuting those who disagreed, to the point of burning them at the stake for disagreeing with the church. And the Cartesian conclusion that body-mind, physicality and spirituality were two different things and didn’t interact caused the inquisition, which was the police agency of the early church, to quit burning people at the stake who disagreed with their theory, as long as they stayed away from mind, consciousness, and spirituality.

Thus, science in the Western world, for the last 400 years, grew up as a strictly materialistic concept without any understanding, whatsoever, of mind, spirituality, or of that side of human existence until the 20th century when quantum mechanics (see note) came along. But that's enough for that story for the moment.

As I came back and landed on earth, I could not understand this ecstasy, this magnificent experience I had in space. So I started asking questions about it, read but found nothing in the science literature that explains this type of ecstasy. I looked into the religious literature of the West. Nothing I could find. And then I got some help from other scholars, and started looking in the ancient mystical literature, and found in the Sanskrit of ancient India the concept of samadhi. And it was the experience of seeing things separate as they are, but experiencing them internally, at the level of emotion, as a connected one, as a unity, and therefore a blissful, ecstatic feeling responded to that, and that was the experience. I said yes, that was exactly what happened in space.

Prof. Yeh:
So in other words, you know you are one with everything else.

Dr. Mitchell:
Yes. That is exactly what came out of it, the feeling of total unity and oneness with everything that exists.

Prof. Yeh:
Shifu, from the perspective of the Buddhadharma, does Dr. Edgar Mitchell's experience of becoming one with the universe constitute the attainment of enlightenment? Or is it a process of attaining enlightenment? Could you explain for us?

Master Sheng Yen:
Firstly, I want to congratulate Dr. Mitchell on having such a unique experience. Among a thousand people, it is difficult to find a person with this kind of experience. So, is such an experience the attainment of enlightenment? The answer may be "yes" or "no". To say "yes" means that if, in the process of one's life, a new experience occurs and produces a new introspection, then we can call it attaining enlightenment. As I just said, hardly one person among a thousand has attained this kind of enlightenment. But the problem is that some people treat it as an unexpected encounter and never look into it afterwards. If so, then it is useless to them and it is not an attainment of enlightenment. As for some other people, this kind of experience causes them to generate a lot of new ideas, or to make new researches and new explorations. Then, we can call it attaining enlightenment. And we call this kind of people those with good karmic root or wisdom.

Dr. Mitchell is a scientist, but he could not resolve the issues related to such an experience from a scientific perspective. So, he thought that it is a frontier of knowledge, and started to pay attention and look into it. And now, I want to give feedback to Dr. Mitchell. It is a kind of mystical experience, which is in the realm of religion. Science cannot explain it. Nor can philosophy infer it in theory. It is a kind of actual psychological experience. This kind of psychological experience is generated through one's eyes and body. After it occurs, it also causes a bodily reaction. Seeing the whole environment, he feels it is unified with him, rather than separated from him.

Such a kind of experience can be said to go beyond science. Because some people have experienced it, we can't say there are no such things. But having experienced it doesn't mean that everybody can see it. So, it is a personal experience. Take Dr. Mitchell's case as an example. At that time, there were six persons on the mission. But why only he out of the six persons had this vision? From the perspective of scientific theory, if one person has seen it, then the others should have seen it too. However, it is not science. Instead, it is his own experience, his personal experience.

One of my disciples practiced meditation with me. After a seven-day retreat, he saw, on his way home, that the trees, grass, people, and even little insects all welcomed him and smiled to him. He felt the whole world was so beautiful and thought that he had attained enlightenment. So, he came back swiftly to tell me what has happened to him. I told him, "What you have experienced is wonderful. Congratulations! But it will disappear in a little while. If you don't believe me, just go out again to see those flowers, grass, trees, little animals and people. You'll find their smile is not as big as before." He said: "If so, how can I preserve it?" I said, "If you want to preserve it, you must keep practicing."

But gaining mystical experience is not the purpose of our spiritual practice. The purpose of spiritual practice is to empty ourselves of self-identity. After we have emptied our self-identity, does this world still exist? To all of us, this world does exist. To the people with religious experience, such psychological experience also exists. But in the highest level of Buddhist practice, we must treat it as non-existent. We are not saying it doesn't exist. There is the experience, but we must treat it as non-existent. Then there won't be any worry or attachment in our mind. It is a kind of liberation.

Prof. Yeh:
So, in terms of the Buddhadharma, even if we apparently have an unique experience, do we need to let it go too?

Master Sheng Yen:
Though the experience is real, don't treat it as truly existent. Even though everything in the world is real, but they are all temporary and fleeting. They will change both in quality and in quantity. Since they will change and are constantly changing, they are not real. So, they are existent rather than non-existent, but they are not real.

Prof. Yeh:
Dr. Mitchell, has your experience been repeated? And have you re-experienced what you experienced before? And how often?

Dr. Mitchell:
Yes. I am able to re-experience that. But as Master Sheng Yen said, I am a meditator, I practice my meditation, and I have learned to repeat the experience by going to deep meditation, and I do know the practice of emptiness, and getting to that place where not only you can have the experience but it is meaningful to you. And using the tool on my thought after this was to use the tool of science because science has produced in a short period of time the greatest explosion of knowledge of how nature works. So I want to use the tool of science to help understand and deepen these experiences. And fortunately I have come in contact with many great Buddhist thinkers and practitioners, and they have taught me along the way, too, much of what we are talking about here.

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