A very special project just ended on Saturday, April 24, 2021. This project, led by the Human Adaptation Institute, called Deep Time, involved a group of fifteen volunteers, aged between 27 and 50, to live in the Lombrives Cave in France for forty days. The Lombrives Cave is located at the eastern edge of the Pyrénées Ariégeoises Natural Regional Park, Southwestern France. It is considered the largest cave in Europe by volume. In terms of length, it measures 39 kilometers (24 miles), which is not very long as there are caves in Europe that are over 200 km (120 mi.) long. However, the Lombrives Cave is distinctive in that the cave’s passages and caverns are distributed on seven superimposed levels. And, some caverns are as high as 80 meters high (260 ft.). Excavations during the late nineteenth century have revealed that the cave was occupied by humans during the Neolithic Era.
Today, we live in a world where we are increasingly dependent on modern conveniences. The Human Adaptation Institute spent 1.2 million euros (approximately US $1.5 million) for eight men and seven women to spend forty days in Lombrives Cave as an experiment to monitor the effects of a lack of daylight, clocks, and external communication. They were asked to spend their time with no sunlight. The average temperature inside the cave was 10 degrees Celsius (50 F). And, the relative humidity was at 100%. The subjects in the experiment were not permitted to have any contact with the outside world. This means that there was no communication with family or friends. Obviously, there was also no access to any news of what was occurring outside. Inside the caves, the participants slept in tents, and generated their own electricity with a pedal bike. Water was drawn from a well that is 146 feet below the surface of the earth.
Scientists in laboratories in France and Switzerland followed the fifteen member’s sleep patterns, social interactions, and behavioral reactions through sensors. One of these sensors was a tiny thermometer inside a capsule that participants swallowed. Body temperatures were recorded by a computer.
What was most conspicuous about this experiment was that everyone lost their sense of time. 33-year-old Marina Lançon alluded to her experience as, “pressing pause,” elucidating further that she did not feel compelled to rush to do anything. After, exiting the cave, some felt that thirty days had passed. One person thought that 23 days had passed. So, time slowed down for most everyone. The participants of the project had only their own biological clocks to tell them when to wake, eat, and sleep. They counted their days not in hours but in sleep cycles. What seemed most challenging for all the participants was working together on projects without being able to set a time to start their tasks.
The most curious part of the experiment for me was the overall reaction of the participants. For the most part, most of their reactions were very positive. Only one person, Johan Francois, a 37-year-old math teacher who ran six-mile circles inside the cave to stay fit told reporters that he had “visceral urges” to leave the cave. But, two-thirds of the participants claimed that they wanted to stay in the cave longer. “How could this be?” I thought. This experience could only be palatable because they knew that it was temporary
and that they would someday be released from this experiment and be allowed to return to their normal lives. Surely, it must be the novelty of it all. It would be very difficult to maintain the extreme living conditions inside the caves for an extended period of time.
During Buddha’s time, and continued by his disciples, the Buddhist sangha practiced what is called u-ango (雨安居). The word ango means to dwell in peace. u means rain. U- ango refers to a period of Buddhist practice that traditionally starts on April 15 and lasts for ninety days. The interesting aspect of this practice session is that it was conducted in caves to escape the rain. There happens to be more than 1500 caves both natural and carved out by humans in India. Of these, about one thousand are considered to have been created by Buddhists between 200 BCE and 600 CE. Many of these rock-cut architecture contain important Buddhist works of art. The Buddha himself is believed to have spent time meditating in Indrasala Cave. The mention of this cave appears in scripture, but no one knows where it is located. Of the caves which are historically associated with the Buddha, the most notable is probably Saptaparni Cave located southwest of Rajgir, Bihar. It is believed that the Buddha spent some time in Saptaparni Cave before his passing (parinirvana).
Buddhists entered these caves to concentrate on their practice. This involved reading the sutras, meditating, and practicing the Buddha’s teaching. When we as priests enter into a period of practice, we are essentially cutting ourselves off from the outside world so that we can focus our attention on our practices. Much like the 40-day experiment that was conducted in France, the restricted circumstances of ango assists in prompting greater concentration on one’s practice. But, in reality, this is a fabricated and isolated environment that is difficult to maintain for any protracted period of time. At some point, it is expected that we practitioners will return to a more normal living situation.
A practice period such as ango provides us with optimum conditions to concentrate ourselves on what we need to know and put more emphasis into practice. Many times, this level of focus is unattainable when surrounded by worldly distractions. In most cases, it is easier to pursue what we may refer to as Buddhist ideals while practicing in ango. We are not constricted by time, and are allowed to freely concentrate on what we need to learn. In fact, it is much more difficult to realize Buddha’s teachings outside of the caves simply because there are more variables of which one needs to be aware. Inside the caves, everyone is bound by a set of rules and objectives. And, there may be certain prescribed ways to accomplish tasks, as there are established agreements that bind them. Once outside of the caves, however, one must now co-exist with people who may not think in the same manner, for example. There are also more chances with which one’s agenda can be disrupted. Sudden changes over which we have no control can complicate our lives.
Practice sessions such as ango, as the Lombrives Cave were for fifteen people, also provides a factor of novelty. This can help to stimulate one to study harder in the beginning. But, at some point, when a routine develops, it can become dulling if not, a chore. The good lessons that one acquires in an ango situation should not be forgotten, but rather encouraged to be applied in real-life situations. The fifteen members involved in the 40-day experiment in France saw their participation to completion. Undoubtedly, this is a
great success. But, the greatest difficulty as it is in Buddhism is to apply, every day, in the real world, what one had gained through his or her previous concentrated and cloistered experience. (Eisei Ikenaga)