“Space: the final frontier.”
This is the opening line from William Shatner’s character, James T. Kirk, from the beginning of each episode of the 1966-69 series of Star Trek. Today this is no less true, even after decades of exploration using high-powered telescopes that have provided spectacular images of the most distant galaxies in the known universe, unmanned probes that have given us detailed understanding of the planets and their moons within our solar system, and manned missions exploring our own celestial tag-along: the moon.
For millennia, humans have marveled at the skies. But only in the 20th century did widespread reports of sightings, encounters, and even abductions by aliens arise. This was likely due to the rise of our own technological capacity: missiles and later ships capable of being launched beyond our planet’s atmosphere. If we could do it, why couldn’t other forms of life out there? And if there was life out there, what would it be like? As we saw our own technological abilities progress rapidly alongside understand of our human species as a rather new addition to Earth, it was easy to hypothesize other intelligent life that had earlier than humans. This life would, of course, be a lot like us: just more advanced.
However, our lack of knowledge of extraterrestrial life has opened the doors to widespread opinions and perhaps our own projections of hopes or fears. In The War of the Worlds, first serialized in both Pearson’s Magazine and Cosmopolitan magazine in 1897 and later published as a book and finally a famous (or infamous) 1938 radio broadcast, Martians descend to wreak havoc on humanity, overcoming everything that people can throw at them before mysteriously succumbing to a pathogen and dying out.
In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a humanoid alien announces, “I come in peace,” before being shot by a nervous American soldier. All is well that ends well, however, and the alien survives to offer a moral message of pacifism and unity to humanity before disappearing into the skies. A shared factor is the unification of humanity against a common threat.
Common to many media is the very idea of alien life serves to help us see beyond differences in race, class, and nationality. We are one human race, interconnected in struggle, either against a distant foe, or against our own violent proclivities. Either way, we see that there is no benefit to our current fighting against one another.
Curiosity and exploration are central to our self-understanding as humans. But they might also arise from what the Buddha called the three roots of unwholesome action: greed, hatred, and delusion. In a world so busily searching “out there” for validation of fears or moments of comfort, might our “inner world” be a more wholesome sphere of exploration?
The Dalai Lama spoke on the topic of encountering alien beings in an address at the University of Portland in 2013. There, he spoke of the short-sightedness of even the more optimistic visions of an alien encounter. He said, “If I come here to talk, with a strong feeling that I’m a Buddhist, and perhaps, furthermore, that I’m the Dalai Lama or ‘His Holiness,’ then that kind of mental attitude automatically creates a kind of distance. As soon as you look at others as something different from you, and you consider yourself as something different, then this sort of uneasiness comes.”
When “we” set ourselves apart from “them” in a fundamental way, uneasiness arises. This fundamental teaching can be traced back to the Buddha’s realization of anatta, or not-self. This teaching points at our all-too-human proclivity to identify rigidly as this or that, in opposition to some “other.”
The Dalai Lama continued, “So therefore, I practice this, of course firstly there are the teachings: we always say, ‘other sentient beings,’ even though we make distinctions between human beings, insects, and others.” We can begin overcoming self-conceit by simply recognizing the sentience, and thus equality, of other beings. We don’t need extraterrestrials to do this: we can reach out to insects and animals right here already. For many of us, even respecting the dignity of other humans would be a powerful step in moral growth.
“Eventually,” the Dalai Lama concludes, “if we receive some visitor from another galaxy. Look, same human beings. Maybe a little different sort of shape. But basically the same. Then furthermore same sentient being. Just like that. It’s the same sentient being. We can immediately shake hands, if they have some sort of similar hand there. If we put too much emphasis on ‘we are human beings on this planet’ then someone from outside who comes is a ‘stranger,’ that creates more anxiety, more fear.”
Whether we have already been visited by aliens or will be in the future, the most important way we can prepare is by developing this understanding. Whether we are greeting an extraterrestrial or a person from a different religion or way of life, we can respond with distance, judgment, and fear, or with warmth arising from a legitimate sense of equality. But to do this, we must practice in the hear and now, finding those “others” we feel so separated from and connecting with them, letting go of perceived difference and treating them as we would wish to be treated.