HUMANS SHOULD PONDER THEIR PLACE IN UNIVERSE: Focus on no-self can help resolve many problems
Posted on October 24th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

This story is best told in pictures. It’s the story of planet Earth and its place in the universe.

Once upon a time, long before the Hubble Telescope, humans thought that Earth was the center of the universe. Now we know that Earth is a mere speck in the still expanding universe, 90 percent of which is dark matter.

Buddhist philosophy asserts that the universe is a giant cooperative network, which operates in consonance with paticca samuppada (the principle of dependent co-arising). This means that every part of the universe is interconnected, interdependent and interacting. Thus the entire universe exhibits three irrefutable charateristics: anatta (no-self/interdependence), anicca (impermanence/change) and dukkha (sorrow/unsatisfactoriness), collectively called ti-lakhkhana.

Explanation: The three truths of existence apply to planets, stars and the universe itself. They go through all the stages of life””‚birth, growth and death (anicca: change/impermanence); they are interdependent with their environment that signifies no-self (anatta); and they also go through the cycle of rebecoming that signifies unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) because they have no control over the cessation of the wheel of becoming.

The complex concept of anatta is what differentiates Budhism from all other philosophies and religions. Whereas others focus on atta (soul/self) in the conventional sense, Buddhism focuses on anatta (no-soul/no-self) in the absolute or ultimate sense. Buddha asserted that all phenomena””‚including humans and other sentient beings””‚are composites of five mental and physical khandhas (aggregates): body (rupakkhandha), feeling (vedanakkhandha), perception (sayyakkhandha), mental formations (sankharakkhandha), and consciousness (viyyaakkhandha).  Sayadaw U Seelananda points out: 

Most importantly, when all mental and physical phenomena are analyzed into [the five] elements, no residual entity, such as a soul, self, or ego, can be found. In short, there are actions executed by these groups, but no actor. The workings of these groups of forces and elements appear to us as an ego or personality, but in reality, the ego or self or agent of the actions has only an illusory existence.
It is, therefore, the illusion of atta in the coventional sense that leads to dukhkha when these phenomena try to hold onto other phenomena, all of which are anicca in the absolute sense. Buddhists use the term “stream of consciousness” as a substitute for the illusory “soul.”                                                        

Daoist philosophy views the universe as a hierarchically organized organism in which every part reproduces the whole. In the Chinese view of creation, the Dao (unity) created diversity through the ongoing interaction of yin and yang.  Every part of the cosmos is attuned in a rhythmical pulsation. Nothing is static; everything is subjected to periodical mutations and transformations. The Five Phases and the 64 hexagrams of the Yijing (Book of Changes) are basic recurrent constellations in the general flux. An unchanging unity (the constant Dao) underlies the kaleidoscopic plurality.

The three Abrahamic religions””‚Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have general faith in the Old Testament, assert that God created heaven and earth in seven days. He created light on the first day; firmament on the second; earth and sea on the third; sun, moon and the stars on the fourth; birds and sea creatures on the fifth; humans (in His own image), as well as animals, on the sixth; and proclaimed the seventh as the day of rest.

The Quran confirms that “Allah [God] created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, in six days” (7:54).

One major difference that creates an irreconcilable wall between Western and Eastern thought in general pertains to Genesis 1: 28:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule

over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.”

This makes it appear that the world was made for man’s enjoyment and benefit. This anthropocentric view has dominated western thought and action””‚the unfettered consumption of Earth’s resources””‚ever since. This view could be the reason for the Church’s adamant stand that Earth was the center of the universe and the sun and the planets revolved around it.

Now, let the following pictures tell the story.

Figure 1

Earth is the only planet in the solar system known to support life. Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest in the solar system. Earth’s mean radius (6,371 km) is just a few hundred kilometers larger than that of Venus (6,052 km).


Figure  2

Jupiter, the gas giant, is the largest planet in the solar system with an equatorial radius of 71,492 km  (11 times larger than that of Earth). Saturn, the second gas giant, has an equatorial radius of 60,268 km (nine times larger than that of Earth).  Although these two are the largest planets in the solar system, they are humbled by the size of the Sun  (see Figure 3).


Figure 3

Sun is the center of atttention in the solar system.  It holds the solar system together; pours life-giving light, heat, and energy on Earth; and generates space weather. Light and heat from the Sun travel a mean distance of 93 million miles (150 million killmetres) to reach Earth.  In terms of size, Earth is reduced to the size of a mere speck in comparison to the Sun, while Jupiter and Saturn are reduced to the siz of a corksrew each. The Sun’s radius is 109 times that of Earth.


Figure 4

Arcturus, 36.7 light-years from Earth, is in the constellation Bootes.  It is the third brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius and Canopus. Pollux is a giant orange star, 34 light-years from Earth, in constellation Gemini.  Sun is reduced to the size of a golf ball in relation Arcturus. Even Pollux and Sirius are several times bigger than the Sun.



Figure 5

Antares, also called Alpha Scorpi, is a bright red star in the constellation Scorpio of Milky Way, 600 light-years from our solar system. It is the sixteenth brightest star visible at night.  The radius of Antares is 800 times that of our Sun. Betelgeuse (Bahu in Sanskrit), located approximately 640 light-years from Earth, is the second brightest star in the constellation Orion and the ninth brightest star in the night sky. The radius of Betelgeuse is 500 times that of the Sun.



Figure 6

This is a Hubble Telescope ultra-deep-field infrared view of countless ‘entire’galaxies billions of light-years away.  Our picture story should convey a humbling message to all humans: “Small is beautiful.” Our planet in the solar system is a mere cog in an unfathomable network of interconnected, interdependent and interacting networks (viz. the universe), which exhibits the three truths of existence: anatta, anicca and dukkha.


Figure 7

A close-up of one of the darkest regions extracted from Figure 6. Are you lost in the cosmos? Can humans subdue Nature (the entire universe) ever? Perhaps this humbling journey through space would provoke more of us to move toward a more humane and humble lifeworld?


 Because Earth is a mere pixel in a map of the expanding universe, the namarupa (psycho-physical entity/ego) of its inhabitants require a substantial  degree of adjustment to reduce avijja (ignorance) through appropriate sankhara (karmic action) to eliminate the ill-effects of excessive indulgence in satayatana (sixfold senses), phassa  (contact), vedana (feeling), tanha (craving), upadana (grasping) and related nidanas (conditional factors).  “Small is beautiful,” the Buddhist principle popularized by E.F. Schumacher, should be the guiding motto to vindicate our existence as an integral part of the giant universe.

Although humans have attempted to plunder and control Nature within the confines  of little Earth, humans cannot ever hope to fathom life and Nature beyond the solar system even within the Milky Way (with 200 billion “”…” 400 billion stars), let alone any of the 3,000 visible galaxies or the estimated 125 billion other galaxies. Humans can be more humble than they are by learning to de-emphasize the focus on self.

The ability to distinguish between the ultimate truth of anatta and the conventional illusion of atta can help resolve many problems that face the contemporary world.

[These photos were sent online by C. Theodore Miller, a former executive director of the World Press Institute in Saint Paul, Minn., to a list of recipients.  I was not able to verify their copyright status. Still, I decided to use them in this essay to document the imperative for sustainable living because my intention was devoid of any financial gain or being the voice of any vested interests.]

The writer is profesor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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