[Touched Up] The Late Planet Pluto's Silent Dharma
The Late Planet Pluto's Silent Dharma
"Sure enough, some people also asked the existential questions that the cosmos typically inspires. Why did it happen? What does it mean?" [Referring to the redefinition of Pluto]
- Jesse McKinley, Ex-Planet's Fans Voice Dismay, New York Times, 25 August 2006
The official new definition of a "planet", according to the International Astronomical Union, says that it is "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun [a star], has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces, so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and has a clear neighbourhood around its orbit."
That last bit on needing a "clear neighbourhood" was added, which disqualifies Pluto as the ninth and last planet of our solar system, since its oblong orbit overlaps Neptune's (the eight planet). It is now a "dwarf planet" (or "minor planet") instead, which is a small solar system body, such as an asteroid, comet or a natural satellite.
The decision was the result of a heated debate between 2,500 terrestrial scientists! I wonder how would alien lifeforms define Earth and Pluto. What confounds the matter is that Pluto has a large "moon" called Charon and two smaller satellites called Nix and Hydra. Some had previously proposed that Charon and Pluto might be double planets (orbiting each other), rather than a moon orbiting around a planet.
The sudden news that the solar system has one less planet comes shocking to many stargazers. And it brings on a tinge of sadness too - as if we have lost a familiar relative of our known world. However, the "revised" solar system now also includes two more dwarf planets - meet Ceres (between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) and Xena (after Pluto's orbit) - welcome to Sol's (the name of our sun) family! However, the truth is the truth, whether you discover it or not, whether you revise it or not. If all that is deemed conventionally truthful is constantly changing, then the ultimate truth is that there is constant change.
If you are to reflect more objectively, what has the identity of a far-flung planet got to do with us? Even if you believe in astrology, astrologers are saying that the identity change does not affect the laws of horoscope. And why the grief? It's not as if someone had died. Pluto is still itself, doing what it does naturally - which is eccentric though, in the way it orbits.
At the possibly worst, this might be seen as a case of "planetism", as in the line of planetary "speciesism"! A "planet" is but a label, but yes, people do bicker over labels - sometimes for good reasons and other times unnecessarily. While some lament at Pluto's fall from the hall of fame, Pluto is ironically totally unshaken by the hullabaloo; it does not even know it is "Pluto", or that it was a planet, or that it is a dwarf planet now. If Pluto is sentient, would he laugh at the fuss, or would he become as infuriated as the mythical Roman "god of the underworld" might?
Some felt that Pluto was "demoted" from its planetary status, as a full-fledged heavenly body. But then again, was it ever a planet? According to the old or updated definition? And is a dwarf-planet not still a planet, albeit more dwarfish? If you are Pluto, how would you take it. This is what is relevant to us, as a point for spiritual reflection!
What is particularly interesting is that most of us today, who understand the solar system to some extent, were brought up to believe that Pluto is a proper planet. But this knowledge suddenly fell apart. Not that it was a lie or worldwide conspiracy, but that the experts of astronomical sciences finally decide that it is not a proper planet. Had some great absolute truth changed? Not really, what changed was the arbitrary definition of the conventional truth of what makes a planet. The status of Pluto was in reality a blur all along. That itself is an undeniable "truth".
The terms "Pluto", "planet" and "dwarf planet" are but essentially empty labels, with definitions only as fixed as we want them to be. And even when labels are fixed, things change. Cosmically, planets can (d)evolve to be non-planets and vice versa. Just as the laws of conservation of energy and matter say that neither energy nor matter gets created or destroyed, but merely transformed from one state to another, Pluto never "died" and will never "die"; it merely changes. There is simply no real loss to mourn. Buddhists who understand this should shrug off the redefinition of Pluto. It is simply the reassertion of the reality of "emptiness" - of all names and forms, or mind and matter, being void of fixed unchanging natures. To have strong fixations on what is grey in nature is surely delusional.
As such, I welcome the scientific community's bid to be more clear, to name that more black (e.g. "dwarf planet-like") as "black", instead of calling it "white" (e.g. "planet-like"). Then again, they changed what constituted "black" (the definition of a "planet") too. We need to remember that renaming a planet tells us little of its nature; it only tells us as much as what the new label is taken to mean, which is subject to debate. Likewise, the study of the Dharma, as long as it pertains only to learning of terms and definitions, does not truly touches on the Truth - not as long as insight is not realised personally.
Are humans not seeking too far out into the reaches of the universe, to discover its nature? How about discovering more about the nature of ourselves? Which is more important? Exploration of outer or inner space? Investing so much time, energy, and money on investigating extra-terrestrial worlds, have we forgotten to focus more on our home planet? Here we are, in the midst of destroying it by global-warming, deforestation, pollution, war...
Please do not even imagine migration to another planet via advancements in technology, to shun this ravaged mess called the Earth - not when we are likely to ravage another planet's environment - as long as there is no change of heart. Will we be parasites of planets, or harmonious symbiotic lifeforms? The sizzling Venus, which is near the Earth and approximately of the same size, might be the best example of a hothouse planet that resulted from extreme greenhouse effects. Are we missing this warning of a similar probable impending doom?
To lose priorities, to focus on another world instead of ours, is to be like the Buddhist proverbial man shot with a poisoned arrow, who does not want to solve the present problem by removing the arrow, not before solving questions as to who shot the arrow, why and where it came from... This man would have died before getting answers to his excess and impractical questions. Of course, there is the argument that some knowledge can become practical in time to come. But life is short. Should we not prioritise by solving the problems we already face, when we already can?
Back to the definition issue, were we dogmatic for years, blind to the fallacy of what Pluto really was? To some extent, yes. But most of us have yet to truly experience Pluto first hand, much less to be able to be totally sure it exists! How then can we be sure it is more like a planet or otherwise? This reminds me of the fallacy of the Earth being flat. No one could be sure it was really flat or round - till someone rose up above it, to view it from top down. Science is supposed to end dogma, but when we believe science without question, we are still dogmatic.
As the Buddha taught, truth is to be experienced, not merely believed in. Even astronomers admit that they know little about Pluto, other than that it is tiny, faraway and has tumultuous weather. As Pluto's nature is still very much open-ended to speculation and discovery, the appropriate final identity of Pluto is still just as open-ended. Pluto probably still has many lessons to teach us.
When Pluto was first discovered, it was decided that it was not massive enough to cause distortions in other planet's orbits. A search began for a "Planet X". "Planet X" became the name for an undiscovered heavenly body that affects other planets - the default X-factor. It was never discovered. But that does not mean there is not some thing(s) out there that has or will have the equivalent effects of a Planet X. As far as I'm concerned, every object out there not comprehended in full is a Planet X of sorts, including Pluto. But I digress. Planet X is not as important as "Truth X" - which is that when realised, will lead us to spiritual liberation and natural understanding of life, the universe and everything. Truth X, to Buddhists, surely, is a collective name for "The Four Noble Truths".
Now, are you a "planetary" truth-seeker, who revolves around the central "sun" of truth, or are you a "dwarf planetary" truth-believer, who does not carry enough critical mass or weight by virtue of yourself, who gets easily swayed by the persuasion of gravitation by others in the neighbourhood? Do you have a clear orbit around reality? Are you going in delusional circles? Do you have a distinct personal path towards enlightenment?
"Unless knowing about it leads to greater understanding of oneself,
knowing about that out there is less important than knowing oneself."
- Shen Shi'an