I have received a set of pictures via my e-mail sometime ago. They were forwarded from my colleague, where I have come to acknowledge them as 'casual mails' - mails which are not of importance, but are informative and entertaining nevertheless.
In the midst of a hectic or lethargic schedule of the day, receiving such mails do awaken one's senses to read them with interest and attention. Given my curiosity for the wondrous and mystical aspects of astronomy and cosmology, receiving such attachments of pictorial images certainly captured and captivated my whole conscious mind instantly.
The stars are not unfamiliar to me. In my much younger days as a child, I had been fascinated with our galaxy, and with every book that describes the details of these heavenly entities that came along, I had attempted to not only grasp the knowledge of recognizing them but also the inheriting of pure, simple and innocent joy in reading about them. Till this very day that excitement still reverberates in me whenever I come across news about or information of discoveries of our galactic heavens.
In viewing these pictures, however, I was not only fascinated or joyful. I was overwhelmingly awed by the sheer amount of difference between the largest star in our solar system, i.e. the Sun, and Antares, a Red Giant, expanding in its final stage of life and ranked 15th by brightness in our Universe. No one can possibly ever imagine, without the assistance of astronomical knowledge, a planetary entity of such magnitude and mass. As one scrolls down, one picture at a time, Earth shrinks further and further and ultimately, it is lost in sight, in space. In this simplest and most direct presentation, man's existence is faced with a most upfront confrontation of his significance and presence. Till the end, we humans are nowhere to be found.
Buddhism, which was originated from Hinduism, incorporated the latter's time system to substantiate its own Buddhist cosmology. From the period of formation, continuance, declination and disintegration, our Universe is believed to go through these four stages, each lasting 20 small kalpas. Humankind is originally born with a lifespan of 84,000 years, whereupon after every 100 years one year is deducted from it. This cyclical occurrence will repeat itself till mankind reaches the lifespan of 10, where for every 100 years passed, one human year is added back till they reach the age of 84,000 years again. The length of this total incremental and decremental shifts is considered 'one small kalpa'. A rough calculation of this one single shift came to a numerical figure of about 8 million human years. A small kalpa thus is about 16 million human years.
Inclusively a medium kalpa is made up of 20 small kalpas, while a total of four medium kalpas make up one major kalpa.
The concept of kalpa is further elaborated in other sutras with the following similes: a kalpa is longer than the time needed for one to remove all the seeds, one seed per 100 years, that filled a city of one cubic yojana (about 7.4 cubic km). Similarly, it is longer than the required time for one to brush a piece of rock measuring 40 ri (one ri about 450 meters) on each side, once every 100 years, with a piece of soft cloth until the rock is completely worn off. The scale of space and time as expounded by our forefathers of ancient civilisations certainly reveals the deep relationship between the eternal, compassionate wisdom residing in one's life and the infinitely grand, spatial dimensions of the Universe existing in the external realm of our galaxy.
In the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a famous revelation by Shakyamuni of his own enlightenment presented to us a concrete concept of space and time, where thousands of years later, scientist Einstein came to expound his famous space-time relativity theory.
Suppose one is to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million nayuta (10 to the power of 11) asamkhya (10 to the power of 59) major world systems, with one major world system equivalent to one Universe, and grind them into dust, which are atomic particles by modern definition. Moving eastward, he would drop each particle after passing five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya worlds. He would continue this journey until the last particle is dropped, where he would then gather all the worlds he had passed, regardless whether they received the grain of particle or not, and grind them all into dust again. If one is to let each particle be one kalpa, Shakyamuni's enlightenment is five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya kalpas more distant than the immeasurable number of kalpas generated.
In detailing this extraordinary simile, Shakyamuni successfully opened the eyes and minds of the assembly to the great, boundless state of the Universe's life, as well as his own free state of joy and will. Not only did they, for the first time, realised that Shakyamuni was not just a Buddha who gained his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree but aeons and aeons far back than anyone's imagination, the great assembly of bodhisattvas and arhats came to be enlightened that beyond the gigantic scales of space and time, there lies an immovable entity grander than the two aspects, and originating moment-by-moment every phenomena in the Universe. For once they could visualise that Shakyamuni's distant enlightenment had originated from a concrete and tangible source.