carl sagan on the meaning of life


“In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us. “



creativity and the tao

About the year 1215, a Zen priest called Mu Ch’i came to Hangchow, where he rebuilt a ruined monastery. By rapid swirls of ink he attempted, with undeniable success, to capture the moments of exaltation and set down the fleeting visions which he obtained from the frenzy of wine, the stupor of tea, or the vacancy of inanition. Ch’en Jung, about the same time, was noted for the simplicity of his life and the competence with which he fulfilled his duties as a magistrate. . . .Finally, he was admired for his habits of a confirmed drunkard. “He made clouds by splashing ink on his pictures. For mists he spat out water. When wrought up by wine he uttered a great shout and, seizing his hat, used it as a brush, roughly smearing his drawing; after which he finished his work with a proper brush” One of the first painters of the sect, Wang Hsia, who lived in the early ninth century, would perform when he was drunk real tours de force, going so far as to plunge his head into a bucket of ink and flop it over a piece of silk on which there appeared, as if by magic, lakes, trees, enchanted mountains. But none seems to have carried emancipation further, among these priests, than Ying Yu-chien, secretary of the famous temple Ching-tzii saii, who would take a cat-like pleasure in spattering and lacerating the sheet.      – from I Ching or the Book of Changes by Richard Wilhelm

The remarks about Ch’en Jung, in particular, suggest that these gentlemen, having splattered the silk with ink, would contemplate the mess until they could project the shapes and outlines of landscape. Thereafter they would take “the proper brush” and with a few touches bring it out for all to see.      Cases of this use of the creative un-, sub-, or superconscious are so numerous among painters (including Leonardo), physicists, mathematicians, writers, and musicians that we need not go into further examples. . .      – from Tao, The Watercourse Way by Allan Watts.

Footnote to Watt’s excerpt above:

Hokusai (1760-1829), one of the great Ukiyoye masters of Japan, was once summoned by the Emperor to paint at court. He first dipped the feet of a chicken in blue ink and gently dragged them over a long scroll of rice paper. Then he dipped another chicken’s feet in vermilion ink and simply let the chicken walk freely upon the scroll. After this was done, he bowed deeply to his royal patron and showed him the painting “Autumn Leaves Falling on the Yangtze River.”


“The tree uses what comes its way to nurture itself. By sinking its roots deeply into the earth, by accepting the rain that flows towards it, by reaching out to the sun, the tree perfects its character and becomes great.   Absorb, absorb, absorb. That is the secret of the tree.”  –Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao