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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(May 01, 2008)

by Abbot John

"Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after awhile."

-- Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna

"Avoiding pride and conceit, eliminating conceptions of the world, dwelling on the precise point of extinction and infinity, this is the Enlightening Beings method."

-- Ten Acceptances – Avatamsaka Sutra

"It is good that you ask me this, in order for the beings of the world to penetrate the meaning of the numbers known to the Buddha. Listen carefully and think well about this."

-- The Buddha – Avatamsaka Sutra

Think well about this? Ok, sure.

A friend of mine has just recently begun to experience some of the fascinating things that occur when meditation begins to work its wonders. This morning he asked me if it was normal to have a peculiar, sort of fuzzy feeling of infinity. We didn't have much time to talk so I said, "I'm guessing that you mean that sometimes you get a sense of being immense and then at other times you feel as if you've shrunk to the size of one of those angels that dance on the head of a pin."

He said that this, indeed, was part of it. I assured him it was normal. "The sensation of the small and the large, micro and macro are common. Sometimes accompanying those spatial feelings is a sense of time distortion. Frequently it is a sense of being outside of time (eternal). It's a way of breaking down perceptions, that tendency we have to concretize the illusionary flux we call the Material World."

He stared at me blankly, my answer having clarified nothing. Persisting, he asked, "What is real and what is not?"

The question is dangerous to answer, pushing, as it does, the query to the edge of the solipsistic cliff. It’s real because it’s real to me, doesn’t get you favorable notice in debating societies, and neither does, nothing is real not even this conversation we're having. So I said what every good respondent says when he wants to get out of the spotlight that's shining in his eyes, "I'll have to get back to you later about that." And for the rest of the day I contemplated infinity, or rather, I thought about the way the Buddha contemplated infinity.

Our well-fenced minds give us a comfortable proprietary feeling. "You don't know what I'm thinking! Only I know what's in my mind!"

Concepts like infinity exceed the mind's natural boundaries. Yet, breaking through those limits is a task that all spiritual literature, in one way or another, assigns to those who want to experience a higher state of consciousness. Infinity and Eternity play "catch me if you can" on the meditator's scalp. Sometimes meditation can crack open the fontanelles and set our thoughts free to romp with playful concepts. Although we may think beyond space and time we also sense this is not fantasy. As a matter of fact we feel a reality that is more real than the one in which my fingers are touching the keys of this computer.

But knowing what happens gives us no insight into how to make it happen. We know the Zen joke: The young monk says to the hot dog vendor, "Make me One with everything." It's a joke because we know that no matter how earnest we are, asking only gets us mustard, sauerkraut and onions. As opposed to fantasy we find we have to work at it and follow the rules of disciplined thought. A few practices have passed the test of time. Koans have been known to crack a skull or two; and so does the impression made by numbers, to name a couple.

As a boy, I once questioned the priest who was instructing me in catechism class. "What did Lord Jesus mean when his disciple asked him how many times God would forgive him his sins. "Would God forgive me seven times?" he asked; and Lord Jesus answered, "Seven times seven times."

I, being quite the literalist at that time of life, was disturbed by the calculated limits which had been placed on my fondness for any and all sins. The thought of being able to get away with something for only forty-nine times depressed me. But the good priest reassured me that the phrase "seven times seven times" was merely an ancient way of expressing an infinitely large number – a number beyond comprehension. I could barely contain my relief.

My friend, and many like him, have begun the work and have felt the beginning sensations of the process. And for those who want to break through to the infinite by trying to comprehend it, The Buddha, in a chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra entitled The Incalculable, assigns a curious kind of Einsteinian thought experiment: To penetrate the meaning of the numbers, he instructs, "Ten to the tenth power times ten to the tenth power equals ten to the twentieth power; ten to the twentieth power times ten to the twentieth power equals ten to the fortieth power; ten to the fortieth power times ten to the fortieth power equals ten to the eightieth power"; and on and on until he arrives at …"that [the previous number] squared is ten to the power of 101,493,392,610,318,652,755,325,638,410,240; that number squared is an incalculable; an incalculable to the fourth power is a measureless; a measureless to the fourth power is a boundless; a boundless to the fourth power is an incomparable; an incomparable to the fourth power is an innumerable; an innumerable to the fourth power is an unaccountable; an unaccountable to the fourth power is an unthinkable; and unthinkable to the fourth power is an immeasurable; an immeasurable to the fourth power is an unspeakable; an unspeakable to the fourth power is an untold, which is unspeakably unspeakable, an untold multiplied by itself is a square untold."

At least we can all agree with the last one. An untold multiplied by itself is definitely a square untold. In 1920 mathematician Edward Kasner determined that the number 10 raised to the power of 10 raised to the power of 100 should indicate the difference between very large numbers and infinity, more or less. His nephew coined the term googol to give the number a much needed name. In years of raising a family I've officiated at many intriguing conversations but none has approached the extravagant locutions of the Kasner clan. I entertain a little fantasy: The Kasners invite me to dinner and over a glass of port I casually mention the unspeakably unspeakable or, if their wine is particularly good, a squared untold which I suggest is a double googol and immediately I am escorted to my car and asked to never return.

The question remains, why do we find so many elaborate descriptions not only of numerical constructs but of fanciful paradises with interminable varieties of jewels, sands, kaleidoscopic lights, rivers, and crystalline trees in Buddhist scriptures? Sometimes the answer is a simple one: a contrast is made between the value of numerous beautiful objects and a few lines of the Dharma's truth. We are assured that more valuable than gems is the Buddha's message.

At other times, this contrast is not made. Our imagination is challenged; and to the extent that the challenge is apparently elementary, it at first functions like a koan. We are meant to focus upon the task of solving the unsolvable or imagining the unimaginable. What begins by tantalizing soon becomes obsessive and "small mind" capitulates in frustration. There is a breakthrough into the world of Big Mind, but this, too, is not the purpose of the extravagantly complex.

It is when we are given a series of ever-increasing challenges to our imagination that we begin to train in the realization of those philosophical principles upon which the Mahayana is based. According to the doctrine of Shunyata the apprehension of Truth is reserved for minds that are free of illusion. Like the Idealists of a millennium later, Mahayana philosophers held that the world was a spiritual manifestation, a creation of divine will. Small mind, the ego, was an impotent fiction, but Big Mind did not have to adhere to any laws of the conservation of matter, or at least as we understood it. Big Mind could "will" spirit to become flesh (.i.e., matter). What was perceived as a material entity came into existence as directed thought. The power to create was also the power to destroy. Since the material world with all its pleasures and pains was illusion created by the will, it followed that just as the pleasant could be made manifest, so the unpleasant could be eradicated. The Chinese philosopher Hsuan Tsang summed the process up: "Thought attaches itself to itself and develops the forms of all external things; but this visible does not exist. Only thought exists."

Nagarjuna's views, revealed in the Avatangsaka Sutra, are clear: "The One True Essence is like a bright mirror, which is the basis of all phenomena. The Basis itself is permanent and real, the phenomena are evanescent and unreal. As the mirror, however, is capable of reflecting all images, so the True Essence, embraces all phenomena, and all things exist in and by it."

This is also spoken of in another way in the Heart Sutra where it is said, "Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is form."

Once we've broken through the constraints of ego and qualified ourselves as enlightened beings, we can begin the prolonged training period in which we cultivate that will power which penetrates truth and creates whatever it wants.

The Incalculable, then, with its exponentially increasing quantities gives us a method for breaking down the discriminating mind's rational barriers, but we must allow that the training time required in these exercises exceeds the limits most of us can spend on them. As our brain begins to ossify, we suspect that there is a boundary to this ever-increasing infinite series. Sometimes it's best to turn back and head towards negative infinity.

Less time consuming meditations which yield results akin to the numerical varieties are found in the Pratyahara techniques given in Patanjali's aphorisms, and also in other imagination exercises found throughout Buddhist literature.

For centuries Zen Buddhism has carried a standard that says, Mind Only. The mind in question is Big Mind, the mind of our Buddha Self. Big Mind is often contrasted with "small mind," the mind of our ego consciousness. The problem which confronts every Zen meditator is how to silence small mind - which chatters so incessantly that Big Mind cannot do its mathematically ethereal thinking. Contemplating infinity is an advanced way; for those who would be happy just to enjoy small-mind's silence, The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, offers a particularly simple instruction.

Xu Yun provides us with an account of this instruction - the most eloquent sermon the Buddha ever gave - Chapter 4 of The Teachings of Hsu Yun: The Buddha's Flower Sermon.

This is as close to infinite reality as many of us are lucky to get.

For those who are just entering through the Chan gate it is a wonderful time. Yet as we work each small crack to the breaking point, each small success building to the Enlightenment breakthrough it is hard not to be alternately exhilarated and then disheartened. We must neither fear nor anticipate. We need not fear that this is a fool’s errand; it is not. Neither should we anticipate what it is that we are about to experience; only that we will.

In the end most will find, the hard part is not climbing the slippery hundred foot Chan pole; the hard part is throwing the pole away

Humming Bird