“You Are Star-Stuff” [ Reply to a Reader ]

Hi Sunim,

One time I texted about beautiful birds and bell sounds in Regensburg and wanted to visit them, as leaving the live-stream. What I really want to tell you is… the more beautiful things in Regensburg are your giggling and Dharma talks. And people seem to love your deeper resonating voice. Hope you know that and remember it in every moment.

The other day I was desperately longing and crying for wanting to know who really I am, where I’d come from and where I’m going to after death. I felt so lonely, feeling left alone in the middle of the universe without any guardian here. That’s why I said, “Breath is my only teacher” … Probably I have to take 10,000 years’ slow course of practice that will be a perfect path to the person who is a forever loner and likes to feel free and lazy. That’s OK. It’s not that big of a deal for me, who will live eons of eons years. Don’t know. I really don’t know what I’m doing here. Sorry!

Thank you for your teaching. Once again, you’re a wonderful master. Even though I don’t mention, please always have a good day!

Y. H.

Credit: NASA/ESA.

Dear Y. H.,

Thank you very much for your wonderful letter. It is very nice to hear from you! I am glad that you are finding at least some little benefit for your life from this daily live-stream. I am only doing this every day to support the effort of people like you to wake up, right in the middle of your every day life. So, if you get some inspiration from this to make your own daily effort, I am very happy.

In your letter, you write that you were recently desperately longing and crying for wanting to know who you really are, where you come from and where you’re going after death. You said you felt so lonely, feeling left alone in the middle of the universe without any guardian here.

Yes, this is a common experience for many people. You should not necessarily feel strange about having it. It is a very natural question for a human being. The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, once said that the only thing that truly separates us from animals is that we human beings — unlike animals — can reflect on the question of our “not-being“. We can be aware of our death coming, and therefore we alone are capable of reflecting back on the matter of our life. According to Schopenhauer, all philosophy (“metaphysics” is the word he uses) and all religion come from the fact of this question appearing to us, at least some time in our life. So, you should not feel strange or weird that this occurs to you.

The question is, how do you use the appearance of this hard question. It is like a seedling producing a blade of grass from the earth. If it receives enough water and proper sunlight, this blade of grass might make strong roots and grow up toward the sun, becoming a flower or a tree or food that can help someone to live. If it does not receive sufficient water or sunlight, maybe this blade will whither and die and produce nothing for this world. So, the appearance of these questions are natural – – you should not be too worried about that!

Yet very few people actually treat these questions skillfully with attention and effort. We only want to block them out. Everyone fills their days covering over this question with habitual music or mindless eating or killing time on TV or on the Internet, making useless chatter with people to fill the space in their relationship. Nowadays, it is normal and highly respectable to travel endlessly as a tourist just for the sake of gathering “new experiences”, taking selfies here and there to image oneself on social media. These are all things that only become empty memories and empty images the moment after they are experienced. And yet we chew up ever more of this finite Earth’s resources to accomplish this. We come up with interesting hobbies and pursuits that give little dopamine-pellets to the brain, making us only feel a short-term “buzz”-like relief from the hard edge of the question: Why was I born in this world? Why must I die? When? How? We want some false certainty that a religion or a belief-system gives to this question, when in fact the question only leads to “don’t know.” But nearly everyone doesn’t feel comfortable or at ease with what this “not knowing” reveals. Everyone is afraid to be exposed to this fact of “I don’t know“ for very long — it positively frightens them! This is why cheap religion is so popular throughout the world.

Yet some few people — vanishingly few! — wish to live closer to the words spoken by Socrates at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ).

Sometimes, people wonder why it is customary in Buddhism to bow three times to the Buddha whenever we enter the temple, or when we return to the temple after being away for a while, or when we bow three times to the Buddha at the beginning of morning practice and evening practice. This is not bowing to some God or some deity. We are simply expressing our gratitude that one living being took his own gripping question about the same question of life and death as you have, and he looked so deeply into it, and made such a strong effort, that one day this great doubt exploded open and he realized the nature of his very being. He did not depend on a “God“ or a myth (the same thing!), some easy religious explanation or orthodoxy or belief system. He depended on his own regular, consistent effort looking into this burning question. When his Great Doubt opened up, through meditation, he attained his nature, he attained that his nature and the nature of all universal substance is the same nature. And then he taught the “method“ or path to attaining this to other people, and it has been passed down to us.

So, when we bow to the Buddha, in the temple, we are not bowing as in a religion. We are bowing to science. Let’s take a little closer look at this:

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred one morning very very early, before the sun had risen. He was deep in meditation at the roots of a tree, as always, drilling down strongly on the question “what am I?” At some point in his effort, in one moment he looked towards the darkened pre-dawn sky, perhaps stretching his neck from all of the seated effort. Gazing into the heavens, he saw one star — a star like any other star, not special — and his mind completely exploded open. He attained that his “substance“ and the substance of the star are the same! Not only that star, but the moon, the trees, the air, the sun, the earth, and all things were the same substance. For his whole life from that point there after, he communicated to us the “methods“ that we could have this experience ourselves. So, when we bow to the Buddha, we are bowing to the fact of this experience, of a living being actually attaining this experience through his own agency. But then how is this science?

In the 1970s, in one episode of his groundbreaking TV series, Cosmos, the eminent astronomer Professor Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff.” These words are very very wonderful, and quoted all the time. They perfectly express a scientific, materialist description of the very same experience that the Buddha had, 2500 years ago! “We’re made of star-stuff.” Even millennia before the invention of heaven-scanning telescopes, the Buddha’s mind exploded open when he had that same realisation as Carl Sagan produced — and Edwin Hubble, et al. — from spectrograms and red-shift analysis in the twentieth century! Sitting half-naked under a tree, looking into his own mind! How wonderful!

And yet, merely just understanding these words alone cannot help you. It is like reading and perfectly understanding a menu at a Michelin five-star restaurant – – no matter how much you understand and analyse these words, this cannot satisfy your hungry stomach! Merely understanding the menu, however perfectly it is written, cannot give you the true experience of the food that the menu describes. You must order the food, and eat the food, and then you and the food completely become one. You can taste the food. You can feel the food. The food, in fact, becomes a part of you. This is the difference between mere intellectual understanding of “the great question“ or “enlightenment”, and the actual practice as realised by the Buddha and taught by the Buddha.

So, don’t worry so much that this gnawing question occurs to you – – actually, if you use it correctly, and with consistent effort, this question can become a passport for you to become liberated from your hellish suffering. I sometimes call this “great question“ or “great doubt“ your mind-passport. This “great question“ is your true mind-passport because, when you reflect into the question, all thinking is immediately cut off. The border between the dream-like realm of wandering aimlessly in scattered thinking, and the vast borderless no-time-no-space of don’t-know mind, is opened clearly before you. Only you must walk through it – – none of my explanations will help you if you do not do it your self. Most people don’t use this passport, or they just want to understand it or chatter about it or read it or watch videos about it. But that is not the same thing as actually using the passport.

In your letter, you also say, “It’s not that big of a deal for me, who will live eons of eons years. Don’t know.” That is right — just “don’t know.” That “don’t-know mind” is your passport and your rocket ship for eons and eons of years!

So I hope you grab your passport to freedom – – your big question, your Great Doubt, “What am I“ — make a strong regular and consistent effort to look into the nature of your mind using the clear and simple technologies taught to us by the Buddha, wake up to your star-substance, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.


[ Since I have mentioned the enlightenment of the Buddha and Carl Sagan’s famed speech in the same reply, it seemed fitting to add one anecdote about Sagan and a living representative of Buddhist thought and practice: His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It seems worth including here, but was not included in the reply sent to the original letter-writer, as it would be distracting to the thrust of “Just keep practicing!” ]

Carl Sagan was an amazing proponent of science and an ardent critic of religion, he was a steadfast atheist who wrote books critical of religious worldviews and their encroachment on the sciences. In books such as The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan struck a strong skeptical stance against the paranormal and the unexplained. While his holiness the Dalai Lama is thought to be the latest reincarnation of a series of spiritual leaders who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others, Carl Sagan had previously spoken and debated with religious leaders before. But he was uniquely surprised by his experience with the Dalai Lama. Speaking of the event, Sagan said:

“…in theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change. Even, I asked, if it’s a really central tenet, like reincarnation? Even then, he answered yes. However, he added with a twinkle – ‘It’s going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.'”


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