Cosmological Thought in Buddhism and Modern Science
At the outset it must be realised that the Buddha did not profess to give any specific instruction regarding the formation of the universe. He laid down, as an essential part of His system of philosophy only such principles as were general and universal because it is these alone which have a bearing on man’s own nature, and must be understood in order to bring the mind out of delusion into the state of enlightenment.
At the time of the Buddha’s ministry, certain ideas belonging to the schools of Vedic Brahmanism were current regarding the physical world, and, since the Teacher Himself did not categorically deny them, they passed into Buddhist thought with only such modification as was imposed by the central tenets of the philosophy.
The view held by the compilers of the Upanishads was that the universe, which is essentially illusory (Māyā), is a projection of the eternal, self-existing Brahman: that is to say, of the nirguṇa Brahman, the neuter, or attributeless Brahman, as distinct from the personalised, or sa-guṇa Brahmā. It was supposed to come about by the interpenetration of Prakṛti (matter) and Puruṣa (spirit).
It was thus the play (līlā) of the divine principle which comprehended all things and permeated them, in a single unity. It is this view which is held today by the school of Advaita, or absolute monism. There is also a school of qualified monism, but since it shares the central concept of divine creation, or projection, what may be said of it in relation to Buddhism is the same as may be said of Advaita. It was this theory of a primal moving spirit, which Buddhism discarded, substituting for the Brahman the universal law of inter-dependence and causality. If there were a creator, Buddhism argues, he would himself be subject to some law whereby he could perform the act of creation.
His being itself requires laws, for to exist is to function, and there must be principles, anterior to and above the functioning, to make the functioning possible. To put it in another way, every action presupposes alternatives, and these alternatives must exist as potentials before the action can be possible.
When we say that an action is possible, we postulate a law or principle of possibility, and that principle must exist prior to the action. Therefore there cannot be a First Cause in the absolute sense. There must be a prior condition to the existence of anything, including God. This principle was actually acknowledged in the earliest Upanishadic thought under the name of Ṛta—the law to which even God is subject. But the Upanishadic schools never pursued this concept of necessity to its logical conclusion. Buddhism does so, and the result is the rejection of a First Cause entirely.
The intermediate agent, God as creator, being found unnecessary, Buddhist thought concerns itself solely with the laws of being, and there is no attempt to present them in anthropomorphic guise. But Buddhism agrees with Vedantic ideas in accepting the concept of cyclic evolution and devolution of universes. In Hinduism a world period represents a day of Brahmā; it is a period during which a complete cycle of evolution and decline, leading up to the dissolution of the universe, takes place.
This is followed by the period of quiescence, or night of Brahmā, between the collapse of one universe and the arising of the next. Leaving out the poetical symbology of the days and nights of Brahmā, the Buddhist Cyclic system follows the same pattern. The measurement of cosmic time is the “great kappa” (Sanskrit: kalpa), which may be termed an aeon. Its duration is said to be incalculable: “Imagine a mountain consisting of a solid cube of rock, one league in length, in breadth and in height.
If with a piece of cloth one were to rub it once at the end of every hundred years, the time that it would take to wear away such a mountain would not be so long as the duration of a great kappa.” The great Kappa, according to 19 Ledi Sayādaw, is not a period so much as a notion of time itself. It corresponds to the idea of an eternity. The great kappa is itself divided into four subsidiary kappas, each representing a cyclic period of a particular world-system.
These periods which may be denoted as aeons, too, are not calculable, and may vary in length. And while there are four such aeons to an eternity, each of them in turn is subdivided into shorter kappas or ages, of more or less measurable duration. The third type of kappa is that which corresponds to the maximum life-span of any particular being. 5 The fourth and last kappa is the period that intervenes between the destruction of one universe and the formation of another.6
During this vast period of time—or timelessness, for time exists only in relation to events—the substance of the entire cosmos is reduced to its primal elements and distributed throughout space in an undifferentiated mass. In terms of modern physics we would say that the sub-atomic forces are disintegrated and dispersed. This may come about in two ways: the universe may expand until it reaches the point at which the force of repulsion overcomes that of attraction, and the particles of matter are scattered widely throughout space, or it may shrink until the opposite effect is brought about, and an intense condensation of matter occurs.
If, on the other hand, the universe is a “steady-state” system, neither expanding nor shrinking, the breaking up of its constituents might occur through a disturbance of the interior forces of equilibrium. Anyone of these causes could bring about nuclear fission at some stage of the process. All that would then be left of the cosmos would be the released electronic nuclear energy, with which the whole of space, whether expanded, contracted or stable, would be uniformly filled.
In this condition the quiescence would not be altogether complete; so long as a residuum of energy remained, there would be the potentiality of renewed differentiation of matter and a reconstruction of the universe in accordance with natural law. Like the pendulum which swings to its greatest extremity and after a moment of equipoise swings back, or like a vast pulse beating to an unvarying rhythm, the cosmos repeats its past history.
Movement within the distribution of matter begins to increase; clots of matter begin to form, and over immeasurable ages the island-universes begin to take shape once more. The process may commence with a tremendous cosmic explosion, or in the case of a “steady state” system, with a number of minor individual explosions where the concentrations of matter are greatest. In either case the result is the same: the matter forms itself automatically into stellar clusters and nebulae, and in the course of time space again assumes the general aspect with which we are familiar. And life again begins to evolve.