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Extrait :Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine : Alan Lightman

Lundi 2 Juillet 2018

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Extrait :Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine : Alan Lightman
In recent years, I’ve gotten to know a prominent Buddhist monk in Cambodia by the name of Yos Hut Khemacaro. His friends call him Khema. He was born in 1948 in a little farming village in the province of Prey Veng and went to a primary school there administered by monks. At the age of ten, as he now vividly recalls, he was “attracted to learn wisdom” and began studying Buddhism. Eventually he was ordained a monk himself. In 1973, Khema started working with the United Nations on human rights, in Australia and Thailand. After the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid- to late 1970s, during which monks were targeted along with all educated people, Khema returned to Cambodia and played a major role in rebuilding the Buddhist monkhood there. 

I was hoping that he might help me fathom my communion with the stars that summer night in Maine and other experiences I’d not understood. Buddhism embodies an interesting mix of beliefs. The Four Noble Truths would appear to reside within the realm of the Absolutes, while the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is a Relative.

Wat Lanka is a large temple complex containing several pagodas, patios and walkways, and living quarters for some two hundred monks. The magnificent front gate rises forty feet high and is guarded by stone lions on both sides. As soon as you step through that arched edifice, you leave behind the steady drone of motors and the shouting of street sellers—and enter a realm of serenity. Slowly, I walked past the goldleaf pagodas. I passed obelisk-like stone stupas and scattered stone pots filled with red and pink bougainvillea. I passed through courtyards with young men in orange robes quietly strolling in pairs. Eventually, I came to Khema’s living quarters, a tiny house at the back end of the complex. We sat under some trees. A faint scent of jasmine wafted through the air. 

Under the trees, Khema and I began discussing modern physics and cosmology. I had brought him one of my own books on the subject. “Buddhism is in complete agreement with science,” Khema said slowly and smiled. Then he added, “Science puts in more details.” Khema explained the Buddhist belief that the universe has gone through an infinite number of cycles in the past and will go through an infinite number of cycles in the future. When I mentioned to him that modern cosmologists have evidence that the universe will continue expanding without further cycles, he laughed. Perhaps he thought it was preposterous that science could know such a thing. Or perhaps he thought it delightful that science could know such a thing. While we were talking, Khema’s sister, an ancient nun with a shaved head, appeared from somewhere and silently served us tea. I noticed that her hands were wrinkled and worn, like the cracked yellow paint on the walls of Khema’s house. 

I asked Khema how Buddhists know that the universe has already gone through an infinite number of cycles. He said that knowledge comes from the Buddha, one of whose names is lokavidū, the “knower of worlds.” “The Buddha knew everything,” said Khema. He took out a pen and scribbled down some books I should read. His writing was slow and deliberate, like himself. We stopped talking. In the distance, I could
hear the rise and fall of monks’ chanting, soft like the sound of the wind, unintelligible. I had no idea what time it was.

During my visit with Khema, he mentioned the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: First, that life is filled with suffering. Second, that the origin of suffering is the craving and clinging to impermanent things. Third, that the suffering of life can be ended. And fourth, that the path to that end is through meditation, selfdiscipline, and mindful living. Although the Buddha first articulated the Four Noble Truths 2,500 years ago, Khema was careful to make clear that we come to these truths through our own experience with the world. But on other matters, such as their belief in the infinite cycles of the universe, Buddhists base their convictions exclusively on the words of the Buddha, a human being born as Siddhārtha Gautama, later known as the lokavidū, the “knower of worlds.” I thought to myself: How do we know that the Buddha was the knower of worlds? Were Einstein and Darwin also knowers of worlds? The truths and laws that we believe about the physical and spiritual worlds—why do we believe them? And on what authority

The concept of a law goes back at least four thousand years. Long before laws for the physical world, the ancient Assyrians articulated their Code of Ur-Nammu. Those first laws were, of course, rules for behavior in human society. Quantifiable only in the number of shekels of silver owed or quarts of salt poured into the mouth for each specified infraction. For example: “If a man proceeded by force and deflowered the virgin slavewoman of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver.” 

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism—are they laws? Perhaps they are simply observations of the human condition. Certainly religious traditions have rules governing behavior, similar to the Code of Ur-Nammu. Not that human beings will always necessarily behave according to certain rules, as a dropped stone will necessarily fall to the ground. But various theological traditions command us human beings to behave according to certain rules. For example, “Thou shalt not kill,” the sixth of the Ten Commandments. Or, from the Qur’an: “He [Allah] loves those who keep themselves pure and clean…When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles.” Such daily routines as the manner of washing before prayer may seem mundane and insignificant, but when they are described in the Qur’an and considered the word of Allah, they are elevated to laws. Likewise, the statement that the relief of mortal suffering is to be had through meditation might seem like an opinion or a bit of philosophy or a page from a self-help book. But when it is uttered by the “knower of worlds,” it takes on the imperative of a law, or an absolute truth. (Here and in the following chapters, I use the words “law” and “truth” interchangeably, with the recognition that I am not being quite precise. I take a law to be a statement that expresses a truth. In science, laws are almost always expressed in quantitative and mathematical form.)

Quotations from the sacred books are used to declare truths ranging from the origin of the universe to the question of free will to the details of reproductive biology. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas makes a difficult philosophical argument against the Aristotelian view that the universe has existed forever, but then falls back on Scripture for his authority: 

Potentiality is prior in time to actuality (although actuality is prior in nature), yet, absolutely speaking, actuality must be prior to potentiality, as is clear from this, that potentiality is not reduced to actuality except by some actual being. But matter is being in potentiality. Therefore God, first and pure actuality, must be absolutely prior to matter, and consequently cause thereof. This truth divine Scripture confirms, saying: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. 

I respect the notions of God and other divine beings. However, I insist on one thing. I insist that any statements made by such beings and their prophets about the material world, including statements recorded in the sacred books, must be subject to the experimental testing of science. In my view, the truths of such statements cannot be assumed. They must be tested and revised or rejected as needed. The spiritual world, and the world of the Absolutes, have their own domain. The physical world should be the province of science.

Rédigé par E. Moris le Lundi 2 Juillet 2018

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