Awakening by Light

The Mind  |  The Scene   |   Don Cornell  |   September 10, 2012, 7:30 pm

In one instant observing measureless eons
Without going, coming, or dwelling,
Thus comprehending the events of past, present, and future,
Buddhas transcend expedients and fulfill ten powers.

Like unto the infinite worlds in space,
Without coming or going, pervading the ten directions,
Becoming and disintegrating, having no resting place,
So does the Buddha prevade space in the same way.

-Avatamsaka Sutra,
Awakening by Light

Coming from the perspective of a western scientific mind, I always find it amazing when an ancient sutra describes an experience that seems to correspond perfectly to principles of modern physics. This is the stuff my faith in the Dharma is made of, probably because I rely more on scientific validity than on spiritual experience to verify reality. Albert Einstein, when postulating his special theory of relativity, developed wonderful thought experiments that illustrate and elucidate the conceptual basis of his theories. One such thought experiment came to mind when I was reading the above verse in the chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra entitled “Awakening by Light.”

He described what an observer would experience if he could ride on a photon that was traveling between two distant galaxies.

Einstein was thinking about what it would be like to experience things from the perspective of a particle of light, also called a photon.  He described what an observer would experience if he could ride on a photon that was traveling between two distant galaxies. Through his phenomenal insight, Einstein realized that the observer would experience departing and arriving simultaneously, without experiencing any passage of time or traversal of space, regardless of the distance between the two galaxies. In other words, from his perspective, the photon rider would exist throughout all space, experiencing the past, present, and future in one instant.

The consequences of this insight form the conceptual basis for Einstein’s equivalence principle, more commonly known by its mathematical expression E=mc2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light.  This equation is a pillar of modern science, quantitatively describing the conversion of matter into energy, and accurately predicting countless natural processes. Basically, it hasn’t been proven wrong yet, and some believe it will stand forever. When I read the above passage I can’t help but think that the Buddha is riding on Einstein’s photon, or perhaps that Einstein’s extraordinary insight gleaned a glimpse of the Buddhas’ perfect wisdom. In either case, the title of the chapter “Awakening by Light” may be more literal than one thinks.

Previous post:

Next post: