Monday, May 11, 2009

To See the Universe Whole

One of the most beautiful poems in the English language is William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence," which begins:
    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Last week I wrote about Julian of Norwich who would have had no trouble understanding Blake's vision, since she did, in fact, see the World, whole, in a grain of sand. Well, actually, it was a hazelnut, but you understand my point. She sensed, in a deep and direct way, the truth of the nature of creation which Blake wrote about centuries later.

The insight that Blake and Julian shared about the way things really are in this universe of ours was anticipated even earlier in certain Buddhist sutras, or teachings, dating from the 4th or 5th century. This particular teaching is entitled "The truth regarding the source from which Tathagatas arise." The Sanskrit name for the teaching is Tathagatotpatti.

A Tathagata is translated literally as "one who has thus come," and is understood in Mahayana Buddhism as the Buddha Nature, the quality or element in all sentient beings that allows for awakening and becoming a Buddha.

The main idea of this teaching is that everything in the universe contains, in itself, the whole universe. The teaching is done by way of a metaphor involving a scroll upon which words are written that represent the whole universe.

Just as with Julian's insight, we have, again, the concept that the universe is fractal. This insight that the universe is self-similar, every part being a copy of the whole, comes up again and again in mystical experience.

Luis Gomez has provided a translation (in "The Whole Universe as a Sutra," p. 107, Buddhism in Practice, Edited by Donald Lopez, Princeton University Press, 1995) of the Tathagatotpatti that captures the essential idea:

"...It is as if there were a sutra scroll...and on this scroll would be recorded all things without exceptions in this world system of three-thousandfold multi-thousand worlds...This sutra scroll thus containing the world system of three-thousandfold multi-thousand worlds would be contained in a minute particle of dust. And every particle of dust in the universe would in the same way contain a copy of this sutra scroll."

The teaching goes on to describe the appearance of one, a Buddha, who can unlock the secret of this scroll:

"Now, at one time, there would appear in the world a certain person who had clear, penetrating wisdom, and was endowed with a perfectly pure divine eye.

And this person would see the sutra scroll inside every particle of dust, and it would occur to this person, 'How can this vast sutra scroll be present in every particle of dust, yet it does not benefit sentient beings in the least? I should gather all my energy and devise a means to break open a dust particle and let out this sutra scroll, that it may benefit all sentient beings.'

Thereupon this person would find a means to break open a dust particle...this is the way it is with the wisdom and knowledge of the Tathagata."

And that is how it is to "See the World in a Grain of Sand," to see the Universe Whole.


  1. I personally have trouble with Buddhism, because its philosophy is known to be world-denying. That its goal is AWAY from the finite infinite world to some ideal of 'bliss', 'Nirvana' a 'blowing OUT'. hence we see the usual PRACTICE of sitting eyes SHUT-OUT-WORLD and negation of thoughts etc
    And isn't it revealing that the Buddhist idea of the infinite in finiteness HAS to be a scroll of their very philosophy that only the 'Buddhas' can see, not the poets, the children, the common folk?

    I Do love Blakes poen though ;)

  2. have you read the work of physicist David Bohm and neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, both of whom independently arrived at holographic theories or models of the universe one in physics the other in neurology. Basically if you split a hologram each half still contains the entire image you can sub-divide to infinity and still have the whole in a small part

  3. Hi, Brandon - thanks for the comment, and, yes, I'm very familiar with the work of both Bohm and Pribram. The holographic universe idea is, indeed, the same as the fractal one - the only difference is a semantic one. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. hello friends I really liked this information, a few days ago I read something similar, I would like to receive updates on this issue, as it is very interesting, thanks!

  5. impressive.i was looking for a link to that sutra and i was led here.i now have the sutra link,its content and much more from happening to find myself here.