Saturn (Courtesy of NASA)

Saturn (Courtesy of NASA)

Last night, I was thumbing through an Astronomy periodical that seemed intellectually “over my head”. Much of the jargon used seemed unfriendly and unapproachable, but I managed to surrender to the truly beautiful and amazing photos that were poised throughout. Photos of sunbursts and comets. Star bursts and meteor showers. Galaxies, auroras and solar storms. Photos of the Mars mission and how amazing the face of Mars looks….much like a Southwest desert. And then there it was…the most beautiful photo of Saturn and all its rings! Spectacular! I’ve always had a fascination with Saturn…perhaps because it’s the oddball of the bunch…a sentiment easy enough for me to relate to! After a short while my mind began to wander…..space aliens, robots, and clones don’t have belly buttons….this is a common trope and test of otherness on TV and in the movies. Yet I remember finding this devastatingly clever when I first encountered it on TV as a youngster. Did ET have a belly button? I don’t think so. It was interesting to me that you could be perfectly human in every way (a glowing heart; finding common ground in music/sound in Close Encounters), but if you lack this one tiny, seemingly insignificant detail, then you are revealed to be not of this world. It felt like an important lesson: little facts that are easily overlooked can turn out to be crucial. By the way, did Adam and Eve have navels? How could they? Yet what did it mean if they did not? This silly little mark turned out to be a door to mystery.
In the same way, the Buddha’s three marks or seals of existence can seem like insignificant details of our lives, no big deal…until they are. The first of the marks is that all things in this phenomenal and temporal world (including you and I) are impermanent. Everything changes yet nothing disappears completely…the state of things change. Secondly, all things in this world (including our mental constructs and machinations) lack a separate and inviolate selfhood….everything is subject to causes and conditions, everything is influenced by other things and made up of other smaller parts that themselves contain smaller parts. The third mark or seal of existence is knowing that such a changeable, a dependent world is bound to lead to frustration, anxiety, unease, suffering…..“dukkha” in the language of the early Buddhist’s texts. Nirvana is waking up from the fever dream that we can control such a world.
Life is precious. Our job is to figure out why. So we sit on our cushions and breathe. One breath ends, the next begins. We sink down into the earth, where the inhale and the exhale meet….head into each other….exchange positions, dying over and over for each other: giving life to us, like the seed that dies in order to become a tree. We’re dying and being reborn every instant of our lives….blink, and your 21st birthday becomes your 70th, your dimples now wrinkles, your face a map of everywhere you’ve been and all you’ve done in that blink of an eye. It’s a beautiful world.
As I finish this, the sun is rising overhead, which means it’s setting somewhere else. A jet is gurgling across the sky, going from here to there, and back again. Droplets of rain float down from that same sky, where it will return once more. And Saturn surely is out there spinning in all it’s magical, oddball beauty! Everything is as it should be….except for me, and maybe you. But don’t worry, we are getting there too…..