In the Moment

“Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind and the self and environment of all sentient well as all insentient beings in the three thousand realms, including plants, sky, earth, and even the minutest particles of dust.  Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena.  To be awakened to this principle is itself the mutually inclusive relationship of life at each moment and all phenomena.”  -Nichiren

Imagine your experience of the world as a “moving picture”. In the Internet age, what we now know as “streaming media” was originally called “motion pictures”, predating the term “cinematography”. The first “motion photography” is credited to Edweard Muybridge working on behalf of Leland Stanford to document the motion of a horse.

In 1872, the former governor of California Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon and race-horse owner, hired Muybridge for some photographic studies. Stanford had taken a position on a popularly debated question of the day — whether all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time while trotting. The same question had arisen about the actions of horses during a gallop. The human eye could not break down the action at the quick gaits of the trot and gallop. Up until this time, most artists painted horses at a trot with one foot always on the ground; and at a full gallop with the front legs extended forward and the hind legs extended to the rear, and all feet off the ground. Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question.

Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, 1878

Muybridge planned to take a series of photos on 15 June 1878 at Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm (now the campus of Stanford University). He placed twenty-four large glass-plate cameras in a line along the edge of the track; the shutter of each was triggered by a thread as the horse passed.

He copied the images in the form of silhouettes onto a disc to be viewed in a machine he had invented, which he called a zoopraxiscope. This device was later regarded as an early movie projector, and the process as the primary stage toward motion pictures or cinematography. The study is called Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion; it shows images of the horse with all feet off the ground. Muybridge compiled many studies in motion photography including bison at a gallop and boys playing leap-frog.   In each study, the principle of capturing a single moment with the light-catching technology of photography, and then joining each moment with the other moments in sequence, gives the viewer’s eye the illusion of constant motion.

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June 1878.

Our existence, like the illusion of the light-stream cinematography, is a stream of continuous moments. Our awareness of these moments is only partly observant.

There are famous anecdotal accounts of people for whom “time freezes”. Especially at critical times of trauma or exceptional events, one’s sense of the passing of moments may become acute; and the awareness of slow-moving time seems to capture each moment in a deliberate sequence – as if the projector had slowed the movement to a crawl.

Einstein’s theories of physics predict that each perceived moment of time is tied absolutely to space, and both time and space are inextricably linked to the matter and energy of the universe. “Moment”, in physics, is often used in combination with other physical quantities, as in moment of inertia, moment of force, moment of momentum, magnetic moment and so on. Quantum physics predicts that a moment of observation will alter the course and velocity of atomic particles – thus affecting the outcome of any atomic activity, and, by extension, the activity of all atomic particles in the universe. Difficult to grasp but irrefutable!

These fleeting moments hold an enormous amount of activity – both within our bodies and minds and in our external environment. But unless we focus intently, they are barely perceptible in our normal awareness.   Strung together in a continuum, these transient moments flowing in and out of existence constitute our perceived existence. We identify with this existence as a kind of continuous “stream”.

Like a stream, we try to distinguish a past and future of moments, all linked together in what we like to call “the present”.  But this “streaming present” concept does not do justice to the critical importance of each “individual moment”, which is linked to eternity and to each simultaneous moment occurring throughout the universe. Thus, the meditation gurus resist the thought of the “present” as distinct from “the past” or “the future”; and the sports psychologists like to talk about being “in the moment”.

Certain creative art forms, like dance  and live theater, depend heavily on the experience of “the moment”. Jazz music depends on spontaneous improvisation “in the moment”  As jazz master, Herbie Hancock puts it:  “Jazz is about being in the moment… it’s not about playing what you’ve practiced, it’s about here. Now. This moment. That’s what jazz is.  Jazz is this moment.”

The Nichiren Buddhism Herbie Hancock practices ,  based on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and synthesized through  Chinese Buddhist philosophy, includes an elaborate dissection of each single moment.  This idea of a single life moment containing three thousand potential life-conditions is called “Ichinen Sanzen“.   In layman’s terms, it means the Buddha condition exists within each of us, and is within reach at any given moment.

Here is the essential question: What can we do in one single transient moment to reflect our desires, as well as the enlightenment of the universe, and influence our times and our world? Is it possible to interrupt the continuum of moments, as the sequence of motion photography does, enough to perceive our true situation and adjust accordingly?

Probably not! Even the most intensely meditating yogis seem unable to achieve this. And magicians, taking advantage of our inability to track each moment accurately, are merely playing on our slow perceptions. Even if we can sometimes “freeze time”, can we influence the trajectory of that moment with our will? Although physics predicts that simply by observing the atomic phenomenon of each moment we are changing it, this remains a difficult and very subjective concept.

However, is it possible to influence each moment and, by extension, influence the continuum of our lives? In fact, we do this tirelessly. How? Certainly our determination influences the moment – but to what effect? And our actions in each moment determine the cause and effect relations of later moments – but this is an impossibly complex web of causality beyond our capacity of understanding. We can only speculate about the influence of our actions. Nevertheless, we understand in a vague way that our actions can influence our experience of life’s continuum, but not absolutely, not 100%  –  there is more to that single moment continuum than our actions.

To what extent does “prayer” influence each moment? Is prayer really some kind of a connection with the Divine – and does it allow us to influence each moment in a profound way? Is “prayer” a way resonating with that “Buddha nature” within?  What do negative emotions like fear or anger or greed do to impact our life of moments? Faith? Love? What do these strong emotions have to do with the out-flowing and in-flowing of our ‘moving picture”?NDE_Image12

The attempt to influence the stream of moments is the basis of religious incantations, magic spells, and sacred rituals.  The beliefs that certain sounds or offerings can influence the flow of experience are deeply held, and many people rely on these to relieve their feelings of powerlessness in the flow, to soothe their anxiety over their fears or compensate for their isolation.

What if the human voice expresses devotion to faith, or compassion for all living beings? Will the prayer of this higher intention change the moment in a  potent way, or change the inherent causality of any given moment — to change the “karma” or destiny of a believer?  This is what the chanting Nichiren Buddhists like Herbie Hancock believe and practice. To them, sound carries the intentions, the prayers and determination, of the voice; and the single moment of listeners and singers alike is profoundly influenced through sound – – as it ripples endlessly through the universe.

Can the sound of a human voice influence a single moment? Expressions of love or anger can definitely influence a moment, in permanent unforeseen ways.  Expressions of truth or falsehood, assertions of  belief or denial, can likewise influence the moments that make up our lives.

How does our imagination enter in?  Can we change our world through the power of our imagination…”in the moment”?

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