“Count the stars in the sky”

~ PZI Miscellaneous Koans

When considering the long stretches of time, vast distances and incalculable energy expended in the creation of the universe, it is not hard to feel alone and inconsequential when looking up at the night sky. How can this small human frame measure up to the boundless scale of outer space?

That sense of a vacuum, void or emptiness is impersonal and can make us feel small. But the emptiness the Buddhists speak of, shunyata, is quite different. From a Zen point of view, the emptiness of the vast universe is an exceedingly personal experience, an intimate one, where we feel large and grand rather than small and limited. We are not the least bit inconsequential in that universe.

I recently visited the majestic Griffith Observatory, sitting atop Mount Hollywood, overlooking Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. It was a famous backdrop for Rebel Without a Cause and more recently La La Land. A couple of floors below the observatory dome is a massive wall-sized picture, called the Big Picture, taken of the night sky over 11 days and blown up to a single photo 20-feet by 150-feet in size. Though just a slice of the visible universe, it is choked with bright stars and galaxies. Indeed, scientists now estimate there may be two trillion galaxies in the universe, as a starting number. See ,New York Times here.

Just a few feet from The Big Picture is a bronze statue of a seated Albert Einstein with his finger held up to massive photo, perhaps counting the stars in the sky. I doubt Einstein was a Zen-like sage. Though in the last years of his life he did talk about a “cosmic religious feeling” in his research and a desire to “experience the universe as a cosmic whole.” Nonetheless, my guess is, when looking at the universe, when he brought his questioning, creativity and obvious playfulness to bear, he felt larger rather than smaller and more intimate rather than more distant. When the stars sparkled at him, he in turn sparkled at the stars.