First, because I am convinced of the teaching of the three marks of existence: anitya, that all things composed of parts will fall apart, and all things are composed of parts, anatman, that this is true of us as human beings as well. We have no special part in or about us that is exempt from the truth of anitya. And, that the experience of these things is dukkha, hurt, longing, dis-ease.
But, there is also that second thing, awakening. That is even as we are passing things composed of many things, we emerge in this world a miracle. And there is a saving insight that is accessible to us all with which dukkha becomes something different.
I note that it was on this day, the 27th of January, in 1967 that during a test of the Apollo 1 a cabin fire killed Command pilot Gus Grissom, and his co-pilots Ed White and Robert Chaffee. Beyond the personal tragedies it was a major setback in the American space program.
Me, I was nineteen at the time. Like most all children in the country I followed the space program avidly from the announcement of Sputnik when I was nine years old, to sitting with friends and watching a snowy black and white television broadcasting Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon’s surface two years after Gus, Ed, and Robert’s terrible deaths.
I continue to be interested in the exploration of space. And, in some visceral way I hope the stars are our destiny. Probably not. I believe it more likely we will kill ourselves off before we have the ability to reach out to the stars. We are such a bloody minded species.
But. Or, maybe it is and. Maybe part of why I like Star Trek a bit more than Star Wars. There is something beautiful in that reaching out. Just that reaching out.
Yes, there is an important admonishment on the Zen way about letting the ten thousand things advance to you rather than going out to the ten thousand things. A critical practice point. And, at the same time there is something as natural as breathing in reaching out. And if our hearts are open in a moment we can lose our sense of who is reaching out to whom.
The magic of the open heart, the miracle of the wide open mind. When we forget our certainties, who is reaching out to whom?
As I noticed this anniversary I found myself thinking of two things. First, when Ronald Regan, not my favorite politician, but, following another tragedy of the space program did what a president should do. He reached out a hand and offered a healing word. In that moment, which I find echoed in my heart today, he recited John Gillespie Magee’s sonnet High Flight.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Humans. The worst of animals. The most beautiful of animals.
What a piece of work…
As William Shakespeare sang and has been reusing so many times
Here we are within our human condition. I’ve heard us called a lot of terrible things. And, frankly, we deserve every epithet a thoughtful and observant person can call us. And, we are a miracle.
We can reach out and touch the face of God. I as something different can reach out to the divine. And, of course, there is something else happening at the same time.
Today on this anniversary, this terrible anniversary, I think of Gus, and Ed, and Robert. And, I picture that just reaching out. And the wonderment of who is reaching out to whom.
I think of us humans as something like that image we usually call the yin yang, really the tai-chi, the grand ultimate, with those two tadpoles, symboled as black and white, and each with an eye containing the seed of the other.
And, all along the way, every moment breath rises and falls within our bodies, we can turn toward the one, or the other.
From our birth doomed.
From our birth, reaching out to touch the divine.
Just reaching out.
Within the mystery.
The hand of God touching the face of God.