An Excerpt from the Buddhist scripture: the Samyutta Nikaya
A certain monk approached the Buddha, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him:
“Venerable sir, how long is an aeon?”
“An aeon is long. It is not easy to count it and say it is so many years, or so many hundreds of years, or so many thousands of years, or so many hundreds of thousands of years.”
“Then is it possible to give a simile, venerable sir?”
“It is possible,” the Blessed One said. “Suppose there was a great stone mountain 16 miles long, 16 miles wide, and 16 miles high, without holes or crevices, one solid mass of rock. At the end of every hundred years a man would stroke it once with a piece of Kasian cloth. That great stone mountain might by this effort be worn away and eliminated but the aeon would still not have come to an end. So long is an aeon. And of aeons of such length, we have wandered through so many aeons, so many hundreds of aeons, so many thousands of aeons, so many hundreds of thousands of aeons.
The agenda for this morning’s sermon is ambitious.
We will talk about eternity.
And the critical instant.
We will explore the scriptures of three world religions and ask questions about how we live in the world…
But most importantly of all…
We will talk about ice cream.
Our story begins down the road a-piece, at Kimballs.
See that kid over there?
The kid could be a girl or a boy, but for the sake of our business this morning, I think he better be a boy.
He could be anywhere from 2 to 6 years old.
Let’s make him 4.
The youthful hero of our tale has been to Kimball’s a few times, but he’s not a veteran.
This is a moment of pure anticipation for him.
Can you see him?
He has given himself over entirely to the bliss of anticipation.
He asked his Mom to take him to Kimball’s and to his utter amazement, she has agreed!
She is feeling imprudent or over-indulgent this afternoon. It’s hot! So she let her son get a “small” cone instead of a kiddie-size.
a small is huge,
a medium is gigantic,
and a large would sink the titanic.
Observe our young friend. He has just been handed a sugar cone upon which is heaped a scoop of heath bar crunch, and a scoop of mint chocolate chip, which is all resting, heaven help us, on foundation of moosetracks. This nefarious concoction has been topped off with a layer of rainbow sprinkles.
The boy’s eyes flash with delight.
He cannot believe his good fortune.
He seizes the immense monument of sugar and cream and, never taking his eyes from it, wanders away from the counter.
The lad’s intensity is a marvel to behold!
Out on the hot pavement, now, the kid commences the attack. His face quickly becomes a sticky Technicolor smear of dairy and rainbow sprinkles.
This is an instant of pure attention.
Nothing exists for the boy except his mouth and the magnificent ice cream.
Nothing could make the moment more intense… Nothing!
St Augustine dedicated a whole chapter of his “Confessions” to the project of trying to figure out what time is.
Not what time it is.
What time is.
After pages upon pages of speculation, he eventually comes to an understandable, but rather unhelpful conclusion:
What is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is.
But if I want to explain it to someone, I don’t know what it is.
A similar frustration was evident in the Buddha’s response to the curious monk who asked him how long an aeon is:
“An aeon is long. It is not easy to count it and say it is so many years…”
The Monk, who is accustomed to the Buddha’s eccentricities, asks if the Blessed One can use a simile to describe the length of an aeon – and, as you heard in today’s reading, the Buddha indulges him.
He has the monk imagine a mountain that is 16 miles high, 16 miles, across and 16 miles long.
(Mt. Everest, in case you are wondering, is 5.5 miles high)
So we’re looking at a square piece of rock that’s more than three times bigger than Mt. Everest.
Now, the Buddha says—imagine a person walks up and slides a piece of cloth across the top of to this immense piece of rock. The man then goes away and returns a hundred years later, and again slides a piece of cloth over the top once.
How long would it take, using this process, to erode that mountain into non-existence?
Even this long the Buddha says, is less time than an aeon.
With this, the Buddha has done an exquisite job illuminating the idea of “a long time.”
This is not the instant.
This is eternity…
But it is eternity described…
Observe the way our minds grapple with this geologic description of time,
and then compare this mental state of agitation with the altogether unremarkable response that our consciousness has upon hearing the word “eternity” or “forever.”
These words seem flat. They merely stand for an idea – an idea that our minds can compute with ease.
But this rock, 16 miles thick– it defies the mind’s habit of being dismissive.
This is a definition of “a long time” is not particularly accurate. Its not a scientific measurement. It achieves something else entirely.
You don’t just know this definition you feel it.
If the Buddha had said: “An aeon is 10 times 10 to the 23rd years,” he might have given an accurate number, but it wouldn’t have opened the mind and poured wonder into it.
Science depends on accuracy.
But religion speaks the language of wonder.
Speaking of wonder, I know you are wondering what happened to the boy with the ice cream cone.
All in good time.
Before we return to the ice cream incident, I want to tell you another story – this time from the Hindu tradition.
This story involves another boy – a mischievous lad named Krishna Gopala.
Krishna Gopala is not just any kid.
In addition to being a troublesome young imp – who is, incidently, about the same age as our youngster with the ice cream – Krishna also happens to be God.
There are certain boys who have an intuition for trouble.
Krishna Gopala was one of these kids.
His mother was forever chasing him around because he was always finding new ways to cause a ruckus – breaking the pots of the cowherds or stealing clothes of the people bathing in the river.
One day, when his mother’s back was turned, Krishna Gopala wandered off and before long found himself by the riverbank at the edge of a delightful patch of mud.
What a gorgeous mess! It was four-year-old heaven! In went Krishna Gopala! Reaching out, he grabbed a handful of the magnificent mud.
At this point, of course, his mother’s second sense kicked in.
It was too quiet! Something wasn’t right!
Turning around she spied her son at the very moment that he dropped a giant handful of mud into his mouth!
Again, we have come to the instant!
Running to her son, Krishna’s mother pried open her son’s jaws and as she tried to extract the mud she looked into her son’s mouth.
And what did she see there?
Looking into her son’s mouth, she saw the entire universe!
The world with all its mountains and oceans. All the stars of the milky way. The unnumbered galaxies stretching further and further into unfathomable distance. All of space and time.
It was all there, in the child’s mouth.
Religion speaks the language of wonder.
Wonder, unlike science, is not concerned about accuracy. It is not concerned about fact.
Wonder is expansive enough to easily contain the most outrageous paradox and contradiction.
The fact that we know of no mountain that is 16 miles tall, wide and deep, is of no consequence.
We encounter, through the wonder of this idea, the feeling of eternity.
The fact that a child’s mouth could not contain the universe, is of no matter.
We encounter, through the wonder of this idea, the feeling of an instant–
How an instant, can hold eternity within it.
And lest we imagine that these flights of fancy have no bearing on real life, let us return once again, to the kid at Kimball’s.
Our young friend has just perpetrated the critical 4 year-old-ice-cream-cone-error.
This is how it happened.
He loved that top scoop of Heath bar crunch, and so, naturally he wanted to try the scoop below – the Mint chocolate chip
And that, of course, was totally awesome!
Unable to contain himself, he made a move for the moosetracks which was, as fate would have it, located at the bottom of the pile.
But since the other two scoops were still on top, his moosetracks exploration critically undermined the structural integrity of the ice cream architecture… and…
The whole thing went over.
Mint chocolate chip
All in a heap on the pavement!
All of time and space collapses into this one crushing instant.
As the tears well up in the boy’s eyes, he sees, for the first time, that unadulterated joy and utter tragedy are intimately connected.
He has no emotional capacity to deal with the utter completeness of this calamity.
If there is one reality that can compress a moment into its absolute essence, it is the tragic reality.
Joy had centered him on the moment, tragedy collapses time.
You and I – the grown-up onlookers – we know the deal – we understand that this is not the end of the world.
But for the kid, this is the end of the world.
As we get older, we learn about ice cream.
Most of us grown-ups have learned that ice cream, too, is susceptible to the laws of gravity.
More importantly, we know that the pleasure of ice cream, as intense as it is, is a fleeting pleasure.
This is part of what it means to be an adult. We can put things into context.
The Apostle Paul says “when I was a child I talked like a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things…”
Do you suppose the apostle Paul had a moosetrack ice cream cone incident of his own?
This all seems like a good thing – this process of “putting away childish things…” — this process of becoming rational grown-ups who can just shrug our shoulders at spilled ice cream is good,
Don’t you agree?
Sure. It easier to make it through the day when we know that world does not end when the ice cream cone topples.
But wait… I am aware that there is someone who does not agree with this very reasonable way of thinking.
It is our mutual friend Jesus, who says…
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Jesus is describing the kind of folks you are likely to meet in the Kingdom of God.
And, surprise surprise, he does not CEO’s CFO’s, COO’s CIO’s or CMO’s.
Superintendents of mid-level account resource managers are not guaranteed a spot.
And this is because being practical, and being successful may help you get a nice car and a nice house, but these characteristics will not get you into the Kingdom of God.
Neither is just being a kid.
There is one – one secret.
A secret that our young hero at Kimball’s is desperately tryikng to hold onto in the face of tragedy.
The Buddha knew the secret
As did the young rascal Krishna Gopala…
Jesus also speaks this language.
The language of wonder.