Lin-chi—the loudest and possibly orneriest of Ch’an teachers—demands:
You, this person who is right now listening to the Dharma here—how would you have him practice, how enlighten him, how adorn him? He’s not the sort of fellow who can be expected to carry out practices, not the sort who can be adorned. If you wanted to adorn him, you’d have to adorn him with everything that exists. Make no mistake about this!1
Let’s begin with everyone.
The Avatamsaka, or Flower Garland Sutra, is the longest discourse in Mahayana Buddhism: 81 bamboo scrolls, more than 700,000 Chinese characters. It describes a cosmos of infinite and inter-penetrating realms, or “adornments”—thus “garland”—and includes the ten vows and practices of the Bodhisattva Samantabadhra (who reclines on a six-tusked elephant and is known as the Bodhisattva of Great Activity or Conduct). Here the ninth vow, “To accommodate and benefit all living beings,” spells out the question of “all”:
There are those born from eggs, the womb born, the transformational born, as well as those who live and rely on earth, water, fire and air for their existence. There are beings dwelling in space, and those who are born in and live in plants and trees. This includes all the many species and races with their diverse bodies, shapes, appearances, life spans, families, names, and natures. This includes their many varieties of knowledge and views, their various desires and pleasures, their thoughts and deeds, and their many different behaviors, clothing and diets. It includes beings who dwell in different villages, towns, cities and palaces, as well as gods, dragons, and others of the eight divisions, Humans and nonhumans alike. There are also footless beings, beings with two feet, four feet, and many feet, with form and without form, with thought and not entirely with thought and not entirely without thought… 2
So? Well, just for starters, consider the estimated five thousand billion billion billion bacterial beings on Earth. Don’t forget the ones living three kilometers under the planet’s surface and one-and-a-half kilometers under the sea bed, as well as behind your knees and between your eyebrows. There’s about a billion in a single teaspoon of soil, and the total bacterial weight on Earth exceeds total human weight by a factor of 100 million. Bacteria constitute only 1-3% of a human body by mass, but the information contained in the bacteria’s DNA is about 360 times greater than the information contained in your body’s DNA, there are over ten times more bacteria cells in the body than human ones, and inside that 1-3% of your body mass there are approximately 10,000 different kinds of bacteria (500 species in your mouth alone).
Going back 300 million years, however, there seem to have been far fewer varieties. One observation about the so-called Tree of Evolution, as argued by S.J. Gould and others, is that it is not so profusely limbed. This is beautifully documented in one of Gould’s books, Wonderful Life, The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. It seems that early in the history of multicellular life many radically different taxonomies were floated; fossil evidence suggests entire biological orders that no longer exist. After the Permian extinction, in which about 75% of all genera were wiped out, life returned to fill in whatever relatively few families and sub-families were left, then got them busy generating more and more distinct species to fit the many nooks and crannies of all the available ecological space. So the tree was many-branched at the beginning, then hard-pruned to fewer branches supporting an ever-finer filigree of individualized environmental response. While it’s common to think of natural selection, first conceptualized by Charles Darwin, as an eliminative process, it’s actually wildly inventive. Basically, if the transformation of one kind of being into a different kind of being will produce a better fit to a local region of the ecological landscape, then the overwhelming odds are that this new being will emerge, given sufficient time. This transformative match-making appears to be a continuous process; no species is permanent (not even cockroaches) as long as conditions are impermanent. You are as you live.
Moreover, to many cosmologists it’s starting to look like the more or less familiar world that frames what and how we count ourselves may itself be just one world in a vast assemblage of diverse universes. This multiverse model, while difficult to imagine or verify, is nonetheless motivated and informed by real science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg says, “The word ‘universe,’ I suppose, should properly mean the whole thing—everything. But when we think of ‘universe,’ we sometimes use the word to mean just our Big Bang, the things we can see out to almost 14 billion light-years in all directions. And in this manner, it’s reasonable to question: Is our universe unique? Are there multiple Big Bangs? Could there be multiple Big Bangs in different senses?”3
(How many different senses could there be? Don’t ask. Or visit The New Table of Non-Periodic Elements and start counting.)
In short, assuming a universe refers to everything, a multiverse encompasses multiple and even possibly infinite everythings. (Helpfully, the sutra covers not just numbers but kinds and styles of aliveness, their many varieties of knowledge and views, their various desires and pleasures, their thoughts and deeds, and their many different behaviors, clothing and diets…) More -verses, more beings, more kinds of being, more kinds and ways of connection. Say for an infinity of beings there are approximately infinity-squared relations among beings, does that about cover it? Weird how this number, while mind-bogglingly large—by definition un-arrivable-at—is nonetheless somehow calculable as “all.” (Weird that the etymology of weird includes “that which cannot be counted.”)
In the end, infinity itself simplifies what might have seemed at first an uncomfortable accountability problem, since units of measure—indeed the countless kinds of any and all kinds—are blessedly irrelevant to the accommodation of an infinite cosmos. As Samantabadhra herself assures us, “Even if every single one of the awakened beings of all the ten directions were to speak continuously, for as many eons as there are fine motes of dust in a incalculably infinite number of worlds, the merits and virtues of awakening could never be fully described.”
The good news, unadorned? Quite simply, all means all.
- From The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, translated by Burton Watson.
- Excerpts from the Flower Garland Sutra are from http://selfdefinition.org/zen/Garland-Sutra-Avatamsaka-Sutra.pdf
- Robert Lawrence Kuhn, “Confronting the Multiverse: What ‘Infinite Universes’ Would Mean.”
Detail from Darwin’s notebooks, page 36 of Notebook B, on “Transmutation of species” (dated 1837-1838). The full text on pages 36-37 is reported to be:
Case must be that one generation then should be as many living as now.
To do this & to have many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction.
Thus between A & B immense gap of relation. C & B the finest gradation, B & D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. — bearing relation to ancient types. — with several extinct forms for if each species an ancient (1) is capable of making 13 recent forms. Twelve of the contemporarys must have left no offspring at all.
And from Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859):
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”