This piece is part of the Excursions series.
A few years ago, I was preparing to walk the River to River Trail, so I was walking more than usual, strengthening my body and hardening my feet. I remember it was late June, and I had been walking laps around our field. I was not thinking about anything in particular, just looking around, perhaps daydreaming. It was midmorning, so when I turned to the east, I tilted my head down to shade my eyes from the sun. I did so without thinking about it. That bright light in the sky was just one aspect of the general sensory phenomena that I moved about in and reacted to. That’s it, nothing special. We’ve all done this. Driving in a car, we might not be thinking about the stoplights, but we know they’re there and react to them without thinking about them. So was the sun to me that morning: I was aware of it, but I was not paying attention to it.
Then I looked up at the sun and thought about it. I thought about the idea of the sun: the immense size of it, the extraordinary heat of it, how far away it is. I also thought about religious ideas and poetic ideas. Dante, of course, but also Wallace Stevens who wrote about the “colossal sun” and “its choral rings.”
There were more thoughts, but particularizing them is not important. What I found interesting that morning was the transfer from a mere sensory phenomenon (I feel its warmth; I see its brightness) to the idea of the thing–not merely something to react to but a thing to think about, to marvel and wonder at. It occurred to me that at some point in deep prehistory, something like this must have occurred somewhat for the first time to a particular person. Some early hominid moved from merely reacting to the sun to thinking about it. That first idea might have been something we would verbalize in English as glory or awe or majesty. Of course, it might just as well have been cruel, angry, hurtful because evolutionary theory tells us that our upright postures, hairless thin bodies that sweat, and the bushy hair on the tops of our heads all developed in response to the dangerous heat of the African sun. Whether the idea framed the sun as good or bad (or more likely a bit of both), the feeling of that first moment of reflective thought would have been nearly identical, so I think, to that moment when some human for the first time made from a spark or a coal that same fire he or she had seen shining down on the African veld.
To better understand what I mean, go out and build a fire. Nurse it and let it grow and feel that sense that it is simultaneously something you created and something wholly beyond you. It is something somewhat akin to an inversion of a line in Hamlet: “our thoughts are ours, their source, none our own.”
As with the creation of fire, so with ideas: Conceptual thought would not have all at once become universal. The first human to do it might have done it once and then failed to do it again. Onlookers, when they eventually understood it, would have seen it initially as something they could do without–for they had always done without it. But eventually others would try it out, and sooner or later it would have dawned on them just how extraordinary these abilities were: fire from friction; ideas from sensing.
All human culture is heir to these discoveries. Some have used them to destroy the world in greed and stinginess and pride. Others have used them to guide the lost and warm the shivering. They are gifts, after all, and so we think we are free to do with them as we wish. But we should know better. A gift without gratitude and right use is theft and abuse.
A final thought: We live amid Bic lighters, internal-combustion engines, and climate-controlled houses with electric lighting, so it’s easy to forget where we came from and lose ourselves in the human-made world. We forget the old world in the creation of the new. By closing ourselves off to the source of these gifts, we lose their meaning and make monsters and slaves of ourselves and others. You have to go back to that first spark in the wilderness and feel it flowing in from the beyond, illuminating and beautifying the reality realm. Then you can see the miracle of the gift. You have been given something magical by Something beyond you. Don’t be greedy or stingy; snuff out your self-righteousness and pride. Look into the light and learn and love.
By the light of the sun,
We can see the sun.
By the light of the Buddha,
We can see the Buddha.
We see the great pure light
Of Vairocana’s ocean of worlds
Calmly realizing enlightenment,
Pervading the whole cosmos.
Like the World Honored One,
Purify oceans of lands,
And by the Buddha’s spiritual power,
Practice enlightening ways.
— adapted from Book Six, “Vairocana,” of The Flower Garland Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.