The Region of the Unfathomable.

The Region of the Unfathomable.

Photo by Siddharth Manu
An Ape Viewing the Sun from Eagle Peak, Where the Buddha Preached the Lotus Sutra. – Photo by Siddharth Manu

I.

We youthful warriors walk into the mountains to conquer the highest peak, determined to challenge the world, .  We climb ever higher along  clear mountain streams, rapidly tumbling along the boulders in a never-ending flow behind and ahead – up and up to the tree-line of the high-sierra and beyond, far above the distant forest into the world of bare granite and moss and clear light in breeze-blown air.  Finally, after a long day’s hike ascending the mighty mountain – we rest next to a mirror-smooth, spring-fed Alpine lake, the snow-capped peaks beyond us reflect in glassy water.  The sunset beyond turns the sky-world a pastel palette.

Unloading our burden, we set camp.  Stoves and bedrolls laid carefully between the lakeside rocks; we languish with tea to let the night slowly approach.

In a single moment of focused awareness, against the shadow backdrop of the granite cliff-face, across the mirroring lake, we notice a group of moving beings, a herd of mountain sheep.

Camouflaged against the granite slope, they require careful, patient, attention to notice.  Yet, there they are, about twenty woolly creatures molded to the vertical landscape, watching us from their granite perch across the silky mirror-source of their water.

Watching motionless and silent, so as not to startle these inhabitants of the mountain heights, we marvel at their agility among the rocks as they move, delicately, slowly, across the divisions and down the cliff to the water that beckons them.  When they finally descend to the water’s edge they pause – suspiciously eyeing the two-legged creatures across the lake.  Anxious for the water, yet fearful for their world invaded by strange creatures, they stare in patient wonderment across the reflected water’s surface. Our silent conversation, almost whispered, begins.

What must these creatures think of us?  We know from photographs and study that these are mountain sheep native to the high-Sierra, once almost extinct and now a recovering population. But of their world, and their daily, momentary existence, we know next to nothing.  Is the daily visit to their water source a routine they follow out of unthinking habit, or are they driven as a matter of considered, planned necessity?  How do they perceive their existence in this world? We see them as an entertaining phenomenon – as tourists view a distant landscape – unknowing and insensitive – we may as well be unconscious.

Those sheep, who know only the sheep-world of grass and mountains and other mountain creatures, look on us uncomprehending – bipedal humans from a strange world they will never, ever see. The realm we travel from – the cities and factories and automobiles, T.V.’s, and electric-lit houses of our existence – is completely unknown and unknowable to their sheep-awareness. They cannot begin to formulate in their sheep-minds what possible events brought these strange creatures to their high-watering place, or what purpose has brought us together in our hesitating observations.

Their sheep-minds, clouded and limited by their sheep-existence, are no less unknowing than our human minds observing them.  We understand little to nothing about their daring existence on the rock-face amidst the granite boulders and great mountain lakes.  Our imagination may be greater than the sheep ( or maybe not), or we might formulate questions at a more refined level – but when compared with a sheep’s understanding of our existence, we are equally benighted.

II

Darkness creeps slowly but inexorably over the lake.  We watch the mirror grow dim, along with the sheep images across the water – watching us. Minutes turn to hours as first dusk, and then night envelopes our senses.  We can barely make out the sheep-eyes, still watching us, glowing in the darkness at the reflecting water’s edge.

For those who have never witnessed the starry heavens from a mountain altitude above the tree-line, the revelation of “tiers” of stars – millions more than previously conceived of – may be a wondrous surprise.  While estimates of the number of galaxies like the Milky Way vary among different experts, an acceptable range of Milky Way class galaxies within range of the Hubble telescope is between 100 billion and 200 billion.

When we clearly see ourselves as but an observing “speck” in our star-disk of the Milky Way – knowing but uncomprehending that our home galaxy is but one of hundreds of  billions of such star fields visible to our earthly instruments – an unrestrained wonder and amazement grabs us. We abandon human argument.

Our small, egoistic importance, when faced with the vast consequence of the universe exhibited in that sea of stars, is conspicuously irrelevant.  We enter, with unrestrained humility, the region of the unfathomable.

milky way from hubble
The center of our home galaxy, Milky Way, from the Hubble Telescope.

III

The Chinese Buddhist sage, Tien-tai Zhiyi (Zhiyi of Mount Tien) formulated a meditation practice in his “Great Concentration and Insight”, as a way to observe the truth of life. The effective purpose of this meditation of the Tien-Tai (Tendai (Jp.)) Buddhists is to bring the practitioner to a high state of awareness leading to enlightenment.  The practice is made up of “Ten Meditations”, the first and foremost of which is called “Meditation on the Region of the Unfathomable.”

Painting of Śramaṇa Zhiyi

This meditation focuses on developing awareness of the “Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life” (Ichinen Sanzen (Jp.)), considered in Tien-Tai Buddhism as the essential truth, the essence of human life.  Rather than digress to a detailed explanation of this philosophy, or explain the meditation practice further, the reference to this concept is intended to excite our reader’s imagination – to invite speculation about what these words imply. Can our human powers of imagination formulate the right question? Are we capable of true awareness – or are we forever trapped within the “Region of the Unfathomable”?

The “Meditation on the Region of the Unfathomable” starts with the admission that we are sheep-like in our understanding; that we can barely formulate the questions that might clarify our true nature.  The “Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life” is a metaphorical conception for our swirling Milky Way of ever-changing life-states, interacting in each moment with our environment and our eternal lives.  The “Region of the Unfathomable” is, first, a subjective recognition that our human minds are incapable of grasping the vast truth or real meaning of our existence – just as those sheep across the mirror lake are unconscious of a true understanding of the human creatures they meet. Second, it implies the imperative of “faith” to enter the portal of awakening, to perceive life’s true essence.

Rendered in Chinese characters as “Miao” (“Myo” (Jp.)) meaning “mystic”, the truth and meaning of “unfathomable” is implied. The “Mystic/Unfathomable” Lotus Law  – Miàofǎ Liánhuá jīng in Chinese, or Myoho Renge Kyo in Japanese – is the title of Buddhism’s Lotus Sutra.  The Lotus in this expression is metaphor for the law of simultaneous cause and effect; simultaneous because the Lotus seed (cause) and bloom (effect) are the same thing expressed as two. Tien-Tai Zhiyi and his disciples worshiped the Miàofǎ Liánhuá jīng as the ultimate reality, their object of devotion, and the target of their Buddhist faith.

Today, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the “Daimoku (Great Invocation)” of the enormous worldwide gathering of Buddhists known as Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

2 Replies to “The Region of the Unfathomable.”

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