Following the tragic loss of the seven men and women of the Columbia on the morning of February 1, 2003, there was a tremendous expression in the media of condolences to the families of the crew, as well as many speculative comments about why the accident happened. There were also, of course, the inevitable expressions of doubt about the future of our manned space exploration program. I too, feel a deep sadness about this very difficult loss, and wonder about the future of this program. However, I'd also like to express my gratitude to all of our astronauts, both past and present, for what I think are the unique insights they have often shared with us. I'm not referring to insights gained from scientific experiments, though those are certainly valuable. Specifically, I think that being up there in orbit around our planet and seeing it from high above, often seems to have a profound, almost "spiritual" effect on our astronauts. The view of Earth from outer space puts things in a different perspective. Things like territorial conflicts and threats of war, which we here on earth hear about so frequently that we tend to accept them as inevitable, are seen in a different light by the astronauts, and they often express this perspective following their missions. In doing so, I feel like they are trying to educate us to the "big picture" they experience up there.
One example of this different perspective is a memorable quote from Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese-American astronaut who died in the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1987. Onizuka, a Buddhist, once said of his experience in outer space, "I saw the Pure Land...it is the land of 'no boundaries.'" The "Pure Land" is the symbol for the Buddhist awakening in Pure Land Buddhism. However, it isn't really a "place" to go to. Moreover, it isn't a "destination" far away or something only accessible after death. According to the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, Shinran Shonin (a 13th century Japanese Buddhist priest), the Pure Land is really just the everyday world around us, however this is a "world" to which we who are unawakened, are unaware of. Thus, the "goal" in Buddhism is to become awakened, or as is sometimes said symbolically in Jodo Shinshu, "Be reborn in the Pure Land," and receive the same kind of awakened attitude Shinran Shonin had. Shakyamuni Buddha himself had this same awakening some 2500 years ago. After Shinran's awakening at the age of 29, and Shakyamuni's awakening at the age of 35, they both lived everyday in this awakened, "Pure Land." Ultimately, Buddhism is a teaching designed to help us follow in the footsteps of our Buddhist teachers, and like them, live the most peaceful, fulfilling, and creative life.
What exactly did Astronaut Onizuka mean by describing the Pure Land as a "land of no boundaries?" From a Buddhist standpoint, "boundaries" really means "distinctions" or "dualities." In other words, from high above the Earth, one simply cannot see the political, religious and racial "distinctions" we take for granted here on Earth, such as national borders, regional areas of religious strife, racial conflicts, etc. All of these problems can be traced back to the judgmental tendencies of the human ego. Specifically, Buddhism teaches us that the ego-self, which tends to be self-centered, self-righteous, and to possess an inflated sense of self-importance, is the true root of not only our own suffering, but the suffering we cause others around us. The judgmental nature of the human ego tends to result in a "dualistic" way of looking at everything. In other words, as we look around us, we tend to see other people as either "good or bad," "like me or different from me," "friend or foe." But Buddhism teaches us that all of these evaluations are really just arbitrary products of the ego. The ego-self, with its innately self-centered perspective, tends to evaluate all things in ways that are usually complimentary to itself. On the other hand, in reality--in the Pure Land--there are no boundaries and no distinctions; in the absence of the ego-self, all life is one, all life can be appreciated as interdependent.
When I heard Ellison Onizuka's comment about the Pure Land, I realized that the greatest value of our space program may not actually be, as we so often hear in the media, in the technological advances we gain from space exploration. I believe the greatest value of our space program is the astronauts themselves. As human beings, they have tried to share with us their unique and often transforming experiences in space. In sharing their experiences with us, these astronauts are really our teachers. They are trying to open our eyes, or as we say in Buddhism, trying to help awaken us from our delusion and slumber, from our narrow, self-centered way of viewing things. They are trying to get us to see the problem of our ego-self, and that we are always viewing things from our own decidedly skewed perspective, only seeing a small fraction of the "big picture."
The crew of the Columbia was right in the middle of their mission on January 28, 2003, the 16th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. They naturally wanted to pay tribute to the crew of the Challenger, and to the contributions their predecessors had made. Ironically, the tribute they read has since turned out to be a fitting tribute to their own work on the Columbia. Their tribute to the Challenger crew read in part, "...They made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for the benefit of all mankind."
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