Friday, December 30, 2016

Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead

I find this book exceedingly engaging because of the solid justification it makes, while also drawing many parallels with science. It is my first book on religion, but I often hear that Buddhism is not a religion. One of its fundamental teachings is that ‘in reality there are no such beings anywhere as gods, or demons, or spirits, or sentient creatures – all alike being phenomena dependent upon a cause.’

In its original form, or what we refer to as poti or folio, the editor Evans Wentz says that the book of the dead was ‘first committed to writing in the time of Padma Sambhava, ‘the lotus born’ in the eighth century, it was subsequently hidden away and then, when the time came for it to be given to the world, was brought to light by Rigzin Karma Lingpa.

We see its rendition during the Tshechu, the dance of the Judgment Day, where the Lord of the Dead, (Shin Jei Cho Kyi Gyalpo), The Good Genius (Lha Karchung) and The Evil Genius (Due Nagchung) decide the fate of the deceased. The judgment, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead takes place during the final stages of the bardo, called the Sidpai bardo.

When we die, we enter a fourth dimension of space. Deprived of our nervous system, we cannot differentiate between day and night. Only a twilight-like primordial light shine upon us. We go through various stages of the bardo meeting face to face with peaceful deities and the wrathful ones. If you haven’t gained liberation at the Chikhai Bardo and the Chonyid bardo, you enter the Sidpai bardo where the final judgment takes place.

The book describes the after death plane ‘as a prolonged dream like state in the fourth dimension of space filled with hallucinatory visions. These visions will be happy and heaven like if the karma be good and miserable and hell like if the karma be bad.’

Ultimately, one must meditate upon the subject of voidness, the visions are all void, reality is void, everything ultimately is void, your being and the visions you see are all void and thus voidness cannot injure voidness.  

The following is a short excerpt from the book explaining the experiences of the deceased during the Sidpai bardo at the judgment. It is read to the deceased thus:

 “O nobly-born, listen. That thou art suffering so cometh from thine own karma. It is not due to anyone else’s: It is by thine own karma. Accordingly, pray earnestly to the Precious Trinity; that will protect thee. If thou neither prayest nor knowest how to meditate upon the Great Symbol nor upon any tutelary deity, the Good Genius (lha Karchung, Little White God) who was born simultaneously with thee, will come now and count out thy good deeds [with white pebbles] and the Evil Genius (Due Nagchung) who was born simultaneously with thee will come and count out thy evil deeds [with black pebbles].

Thereupon thou wilt be greatly frightened, awed and terrified and wilt tremble and thou wilt attempt to tell lies saying, ‘I have not committed any evil deed.’

Then the Lord of Death will say, ‘I will consult the Mirror of Karma.’

So saying, he will look in the Mirror, wherein every good and evil act is vividly reflected. Lying will be of no avail. Then, one of the Executive Furies of the Lord of Death will place round they neck a rope and drag thee along; he will cut off thy head, extract thy heart, pull out thy intestines, lick up thy brain, drink thy blood, eat thy flesh, and gnaw thy bones (these tortures symbolize the pangs of the deceased’s conscience) but thou wilt be incapable of dying.

Although thy body be hacked to pieces, it will revive again. The repeated hacking will cause intense pain and torture. Thy body being a mental body is incapable of dying though beheaded. The Lords of Death are thine own hallucinations. In reality, thy body is of the nature of voidness and thus voidness cannot injure voidness, and the qualityless cannot injure the quality less.”

The scripture from the book is read in this way to the deceased, to guide him to liberation. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Science is a delight, much like art

And yet again, after a much needed break, I take delight in re-evoking my passion for science. For the last few months, I had completely stopped reading and took to watching only science documentaries. But the problem with documentaries is that it seeks to entertain more than educate and I won't remember much about it later. 

My romance with science is pretty recent, I wanted to take up science as a hobby after I first read the Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking three years ago. I had read around 16 books on science since the beginning of 2016 but I have yet too many to read. And then on April, my little Jigme Jorden entered the world. Since then I had devoted completely to my child. Now I have my beautiful wife, sisters, mothers and aunts taking turns to care for him.

So I decided to start the habit of reading again. And I held this book, by Carl Sagan which I had already read once and enjoyed thoroughly.

The book is a story of cosmic evolution and the development of consciousness. The book begins from the shores of the cosmic ocean and dares to embrace the vast immensity of the universe. So far, we have only, ‘waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or at most wet our ankles.’

Some 300 years ago, it was in the shores of the same ocean that Newton once avowed, “I’m just a little kid collecting shells besides the vast and unexplored ocean of truth.”

The universe is unimaginably large. If we were to be randomly inserted into the cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion, (1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).These scales confound me.

When we consider how ancient and how vast the universe is, human endeavors seem trivial. If we were to compress the age of the Earth in a 12 month calendar, Human beings had arrived on this planet only in the last ten minutes of the last day of the month. And yet the universe is much older than the earth

Intergalactic distance is so huge that conventional measures such as meters and kilometers become useless. Here distance is measured by the speed of light or how long it takes for light to travel in one year.

For instance, it takes eight minutes for light from the sun to reach earth. Which means the sun is eight light minutes away from earth. If the sun died at this very moment, we have eight minutes to say our last prayers.

My idea of taking science as a hobby was never to solve a complex mathematical problem, or construct a new theory that will change mankind’s understanding of the universe, although it is fascinating to think of the possibility. I am no astrophysicist. I leave that to the Great Minds and Scientists.

The idea of taking delight in science is simply because it has so much romance, fascination and wonderment. There is art in science. Mother Nature is an artist on the grandest of scale. The following picture of the Horse head Nebulae is perhaps Mother Nature’s masterpiece.
Source: Google

We live in a very unpopular neighborhood on the Milky Way, a tiny speck of dirt in the vast metropolis of the universe. 

There are more planets and stars in the universe than all the grain of sands we can see on the ocean shore.

How can we not believe that the universe is brimming with life but we don’t know that yet?

We look back towards the ocean from whence we came and yearn to return. We are a part of the cosmos. The stars gave birth to us. We are all precious, we are all star stuff. My journey to the edge of the universe begins again with this book, the Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Could there be more dimensions?

Warning: Don’t try to imagine how people see in a two dimensional world, it will injure your brain.

A Square living in a two dimensional world is in a hot argument with a Point living in just one dimension. Each one believes his own world is complete and that the world was the world and there was nothing bigger than it or beyond it.

Enter Cube from a three dimensional world, the world that we live in now. Cube takes Square to the 3D world and manages to convince him that there is a third dimension. To show him, he moves sideways and up and down.

Square is convinced there are other dimensions and that they are infinite. Cube believes his is the ultimate world while Square thinks there could be millions of other creatures living in millions of other dimensions infinitely.

I was discussing this book called Flatland with a friend, who’d already read it and suggested I not even try because it’s difficult to imagine a world in 2D. I said, I will give it a try and since then I am yet to order a copy of the book.

But then I saw a movie based on the book and couldn’t help but watch it.

To think of a fourth or a fifth dimensional space from the lens of our own existing laws of Physics and Mathematics would be problematic. But there could be other laws in other dimensions, which makes it more compelling and interesting to think of the possibilities.

Hollywood movies and films have restricted our imaginations of extraterrestrial life. We think of aliens having huge round head with antennas and long slimy fingers. But possibilities are, as always, infinite. We could very well be living among aliens right now and not even know about it, - a reality crossover.

It is fascinating to simply consider diverse possibilities such as those that tell us we are mere characters in an alien computer simulation and that the whole universe that we know today is an infenetissamliy tiny microscopic dot within a whole new level of universe.

Stephen Hawkins in his famous Brief History of Time offers a visual analogy. If a creature from a three dimensional space where to live on a two dimensional world, it would divide the creature into two halves, since we have a passage right through our body for eating and excreting. Perhaps the picture below would help you understand what exactly Hawkman meant.

Could there be infinite dimensions with their own laws of physics and mathematics quite different from ours? Are we living among creatures from other dimensions, completely unaware of each others’ existence? Well, these are just some interesting things to wonder upon.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Hiking with Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy

The first few pages of the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy left me thoroughly confused, almost irritable. The morning later, I woke up from a dream that felt acutely surreal.

The preface is some “unhelpful remarks by the author” where he draws the grand master plan of how the story would be told and how the idea of writing the book first came to his mind.

The book begins with suspense - something important, extremely crucial happened on a Thursday morning, but maybe the reader would discover the full implication of the effect of that day later.

Then we are introduced to Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect. Arthur is protecting his home from the municipal office which is constructing a by-pass where Arthur’s home happened to be right on the way.

The next moment, huge yellow spaceships hover in the air and an alien from the spaceship announces that the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council was building a space highway across the solar system and that Earth had to be demolished as it was on the way.

In the next chapter, the reader is unnecessarily introduced to a president of an alien race Zaphod Beblebrox. He arrives at a congregation, plays eccentric and diffuses a bomb.

I have so far, after completing 50 pages of the book, not understood the meaning and significance of this chapter. The next chapter takes us back to Arthur and Ford. Now they are inside an alien ship, belonging to the dreaded Vogons.

I’ve had a faint feeling that perhaps I was missing something important in the book. However confusing it got, the book made you want more. It is inviting to more and more delicious adventure, science and the universe.

The book is also supposed to contain the sacred number that is used as an answer to life, the universe and everything, the number 42. I’ve heard about the book for a long time, on television and other literature.

I read the review, which made me even more fascinated. A week ago, I’d just finished reading a lengthy Carl Sagan book, Cosmos, which is a book on cosmic evolution, the development of consciousness and civilization.

I love the idea of the universe, the science, the stars, distant galaxies and everything; perhaps it helps me escape.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Journey, (often of a romance) Through Space-Time

My love affair with science is regrettably recent. Just about a year ago I was introduced to Stephen Hawking, through his books. While I enjoyed the process of reading some of them, after finishing each book, I was somehow left completely clueless about the whole book all over again.

In one of his books, Hawking is boldly asserting his belief that the universe is not a mystery and that there is a mathematical explanation to everything. I love the universe; it is fascinating, all the stars, the galaxies and stuffs.

After reading a few books on science, and going through hordes of literature available online, I became more and more intrigued by science, but unfortunately, I understood only very little.  

For instance, after reading dozens of time in books, I still fail to understand the Theory of Relativity, which today, among scientists, has seemingly become the basis for understanding most aspects of cosmology.

But the more science became abstract and strange, the more it fascinated me. It tickled my curiosity. It started to become deliciously complicated. It had the beauty and romance of endless possibilities.

From Quantum Mechanics, the study of the very small, the sub-atomics, to Cosmology, the study of the very large, the measure of things became exceedingly mind-boggling. There are scientists, with theories that, our entire universe may just be a size of an atom for an altogether different cosmological order.

We are, but a tiny mote in the vast expanse of the universe. One well accepted theory among scientists is that space and time maybe finite but they don’t have an edge or a boundary, which means wherever you are right now, could be the centre of the universe.

So if you were to travel in search of the edge, you will land up back to where you started, and, in the words of a writer, -‘ would not have the heart to start it all over again’.

One of my favorite theory in the field of science has been the existence of giant monstrous beasts in our universe that take central stage in galaxies, the indomitable Black Holes. I had spent few days trying to understand these objects, where all laws of nature seem to collapse and nothing made sense. ‘Welcome to the world of extreme Physics’. Einstein, himself who proved its existence could not believe it exists.

In his own words, nature wouldn’t allow such a thing. From the little I gathered, the black hole is an area of extreme density that even light cannot escape its horizon.

The idea of a black hole can be understood if we take the example of crushing Mount Everest to the size of a marble. If you hold that marble on your hand, it will pierce a hole through your palm, dig deep into the ground and shoot out from the other end of the globe.

We can only imagine the gravitational force of such a dense object. Moreover, an average black whole would have a mass billions and billions bigger than our sun.

Any object unlucky enough to pass by would be shredded to nothingness. As you reach its event horizon, the point of no return, the gravity on your legs would be much more than on your head that it will make a spaghetti out of you and fling you to nothingness.

I had also come to understand that the universe came into being from a singularity. A singularity, scientists explain is an infinitesimally (extremely small) compact spot where there is no dimension, no space, no time, no past, no future, no nothing. More precisely, as a writer explains, ‘there is no space for it to occupy and no place for it to be.’ Its just tiny and its somewhere there.

In the flash of a second, and Bang! The entire universe is born, creating as it moves, galaxies, gravity, stars, time, space, universe and strange matters that fill the endless void of space. The universe is expanding. Scientists call it ‘inflationary universe’. In economics, inflation is the constant increase in prices.

An interesting perspective on the expanding universe is that, time moves from one point to another, thoughts precede action and we remember our past and not our future.

However, interestingly, this may not last, after a point in time, the universe could shrink, this would be known as the Big Crunch. Things weirdly start reversing, as they flow backwards, actions precede thoughts, and you remember your future and not your past.

It was a painful process to understand these concepts, so I took an altogether different interest in understanding a little bit about the concept of time and distance. In physics, time is also used to measure distance in terms of ‘light years.’- the time at which light takes one year to reach a destination.

Sunlight takes roughly eight minutes to reach earth, so if the sun dies right now, we have an average eight minutes to live. The sun is bound to die some day after it uses up all the fuel it is using right now.

There is so much violence on the sun that huge explosions happen time and again on its surface, but since our atmosphere doesn’t reach the surface of the sun, we do not hear them.

Indeed, the history of our planet, our solar system has been very violent; the earth too had a violent history. Around 4.5 billion years ago, the earth was formed by accumulation of dust particles revolving a newly born sun.

Somewhere in between, an asteroid, the size of mars crashed on to earth giving birth to the moon. For millions of years, asteroids constantly bombarded the earth. The violent asteroids brought with them, essential chemicals and elements that would later contribute to the rise of life on earth from single celled organisms to complex beings of multiple organs and shape, and ultimately to the Homo Sapiens and then to us today.

If the earth’s entire history till today were compressed to one day, civilization occupies only its last few seconds. How long would civilization last is completely uncertain. We are at constant risks, some of which we completely overlook or are unaware.

According to scientists, few asteroids, sizable enough to destroy earth passes nearby earth every week. While some are seen, many pass undetected. In fact, the earth, during its 365 days orbit around the sun, accumulates a lot of space dust left by asteroids and other matters.

There had been mass extinctions in the past of entire species. The asteroids impact on earth during the dinosaur era generated a thick layer of air filled with dust and ashes, suffocating the species to death and driving them to extinction.

Humans have been in the planet for a very short time in the geological calendar and how far it would go is vulnerable to many possibilities of either ultimate extinction or evolution to a different species adapting to a new environment.

This natural effort towards extinction is supposedly complementing our own efforts to wipe each other out by using weapons of mass destruction. Humans have developed bombs sufficient enough to destroy the earth many, many times. 

As much as we are vulnerable overhead, we are also in a great deal of threat from underneath. From the grounds where massive tectonic plates slide against each other with forces that create highest mountains and deepest trenches.

But we will survive, at least for an indefinite period of time. We will evolve. In fact some species are right now, in front of our own eyes, evolving. The melting of ice sheets in the arctic region is forcing polar bears to stay in the water. The polar bears are slowly evolving into sea creatures.

A concept more fascinating to me than any others in science or fiction has been for quite some time, extraterrestrial intelligence, because these concepts border between pure fantasy and science. This offered many possibilities.

It is fascinating to think there are other beings in the endless universe. In distant galaxies, there could be stars like the sun and a planet well positioned from it with all the necessities for making life possible.

Scientists have today sent a probe travelling through space, 20 times faster than the speed of bullet to a place where a planet was likely to harbor life. Even if the probe reaches the planet, and even if it finds life in there, it would happen 25,000 years later.

The idea of sending messages on probes across space was not to the liking of the great Stephen Hawking, who thought any encounter with an alien civilization would not end well for humans.

From the few books I read, I had thoroughly enjoyed a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. To offer any review of the book here would be a disservice. But many of the contemporary scientists were of the view that the book was ‘annoyingly free of mistakes.’

To write its review, perhaps I should read it again twice and wait until I feel comfortable enough. In the meantime, I will attempt to read more science books. But maybe I will find something else to do. Perhaps I will find another new favorite thing to do.

There is so much to read, but not the same amount of energy to do so. There are so many new concepts and ideas that I can only imagine. "I am just a little kid collecting shells besides the vast and unexplored ocean of truth," I heard Newton say that.