The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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How did the universe come into existence according to Buddhism?
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Buddhists (Theravada) believe in the concept of Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination) which means that things are born out of causes. Without causes, things cease to be. The purpose of this theory is to teach humans to let go of things and possessions the departure from which cause suffering to humankind. The goal is to make people enjoy the here and now in their lives and accept changes. For buddhists, nothing comes to be without a cause, not even God. That is to say: there is no “unmoved Prime mover” in the universe. Even a supreme God like Brahma, despite his longevity, will have to die one day. Nothing lives forever. So there can be (G)ods in Buddhism. But God too is subject to the unchanging eternal law of Dhamma. God, too, has to die.
2. The Buddha rarely talks about the origin of the Cosmos, for he thinks that such knowledge is unnecessary in order to achieve the liberation from Death and Rebirth. However, Theravada Buddhists do have a creation myth. This is recorded in the Aggañña Sutta. Aggañña Sutta teaches how all beings became animals; how they developed into opposite genders; how they came to divide themselves into difference races; how they lost their “Eden” (or the fertility of the earth); how they became avaricious and sinful; how the religion began etc. Aggañña sutta’s creation myth is evolutional in its theme, for there is no divine intervention involved. It doesn’t directly refer to a Big-Bang type of event. But anyone who reads Agañña Sutta with an open mind will tell you that it is the world’s best creation myth, much better than anything in the Bible or Quran.
[Origin of Races]: Aggañña Sutta reveals that men became racist after they had forgotten that every being was once the same. But after becoming addicted to the taste of Savory Earth, they developed racial variations and sexes. And thereafter they started to sin by copulating.
[Origin of Sins]: All other sins originated from greed and want of comfort. The Earth once offered unlimited food (magical grains of rice which replenish every morning); there was no need for gathering. But people started to develop agricultural techniques in order to stockpile rice grains for weeks and became addicted to comfort. Soon after, these innovations killed off the primordial fertility of the Earth. Rice grains stopped replenishing themselves. Now agriculture was invented and arable lands were portioned to members of the society. Laws were created. Kings were chosen to enforce them. People began to lie and kill and steal. … The Buddha is trying to teach that the innovations that we have invented due to our avaricious nature and our blind love of comfort invariably lead to the destruction of nature and force us to work harder. They were the root cause of all injustices. Buddhist monks shall not hoard resources more than what they need for subsistence.
[The First Religion]: when people became sorely distressed because of work, scarcity and injustice, some of them became Brahmins and started to meditate. They were first called “Jañña” (meditating ones) by the people. However, after they failed to find salvation (there weren’t yet a Buddha), they quit meditation and started to create religious texts (vedas … maybe Torah too) which consisted of fictionalized “fake truth” and did not lead to true liberation. People became very indignant towards these Brahmins and threw dust and stones at them. People were now calling the scripture writers “ajañña” meaning “those who don’t meditate.” However, the Buddha comments that, though this practice (scripture writing) used to be condemned, “it is much esteemed today.” (Note: this is, for me, the best joke of this Sutta). → The Buddha suggests that, in a true religion, a seeker must meditate in order to develop a true and liberating wisdom. Religions, which are based on Scriptures, are more or less fictionalized. No amount of mythology and solemn rites will lead you to the liberation from death and rebirth.
In sum, Buddhism (if you can call it “ism” at all)’s aim is to teach mankind to awake from avijja (ignorance). Ignorance in Buddhism doesn’t mean that you don’t receive Yaweh or Jesus or Allah or Superman as your one and only Lord. It means that one does not know what is the true cause of suffering (dukkha). Aggañña Sutta uses a creation myth to teach buddhist faithfuls about the origin of sins while explaining why (Theravada) Buddhist monks must lead austere lives and devote their lives to meditation (instead of becoming scripture writers).
According to the philosophy of Theravada Buddhism, the knowledge of how universe came to existence did not lead to liberation from cycles of life (Nirvana). So Buddha refused to answer that kind of question.
-Is the world transitory or eternal, finite or infinite? Is the life principle the same as the body or different from it? Does the holy one exist after death? Buddha refused to express an opinion on these questions because the knowledge of such things does not lead to any progress on the path to holiness, because it does not lead to peace or enlighten.
Consider as undeclared that which I have not declared. Consider as declared that which I have declared.
-O monk, what do you think which are more numerous, the leaves on my hand or the leaves of all the trees in the forest?
Few are the leaves the Lord holds in his hand. Very numerous are the leaves of all the trees in the wood.
Similarly, much have I learned, very little have I taught you. But I have not acted like those teachers who close their fists to keep their secrets to themselves
for I have taught the useful truths which are the principles of the religious life. This is what leads to disgust, renunciation, destruction, destruction, stillness, peace, super knowledge, perfect enlightenment, Nirvana. That is why I have taught it.
-Whoever says that the samana Gotama knows and sees everything, claim to possess omniscience and omnivision, whether during walking, standing, sleeping or working, whoever says that, misinterprets me.
But if anyone were to say that the samana Gotama possesses the three fold knowledge (i.e of previous lives, of the working of Kamma and of the destruction asava), he would state the position correctly.
There’s the idea of a world system. It’s not really like our modern ideas as back then many thought the Earth was flat. Some Buddhists have thought this right through to the present day, or at least, last century. There’s also the idea of the whole universe destroyed and recreated. Not by any external deity - rather it’s part of the teaching on impermanence - that even the entire universe is Saṅkhāra, conditioned, dependent on causes and eventually will decay and be gone on immense timescales. So there’s the idea of previous worlds and solar systems like that too, and even previous entire universes or cosmoses.
TRADITIONAL BUDDHIST COSMOLOGY WITH CYCLES OF CREATION AND DESTRUCTION
But they had the idea that regularly the entire world system gets destroyed, sometimes by water, sometimes by fire, sometimes by winds, or earthquakes.
This however is on immensely long timescales, not even trillions of years. The idea of a kalpa - a timescale that is really hard to imagine at all. It’s not like Christian ideas of Armageddon.
IDEA OF A THOUSAND BUDDHAS IN THIS WORLD SYSTEM
Indeed, Buddhists have the idea that the historical Buddha was the fourth of a thousand Buddhas (different accounts here in different traditions). With each Buddha the teachings eventually fade away and then there is a long gap before the next Buddha arises. Based on that there must be many thousands of years between each Buddha.
So traditional Buddhist cosmology would say our world system has been around for a long time, and will be around for even longer into the future before it is destroyed. During that time there will be many smaller disasters but complete destruction is more than trillions of years into the future.
BUDDHA TAUGHT WITHIN THE COSMOLOGY OF HIS DAY
I’ve just learnt that in the Vedas world systems are sometimes described as spheres floating in air above an ocean of water. The Vedas are very ancient, thousands of years old, preserved by memorization word for word. So perhaps Buddha was living in a culture with ideas of spherical planets, though not quite like the modern ideas, but I don’t know of sutras that address this.
However, as I understand it, the very early sutras don’t have that much about cosmology. Especially in the earliest sutras, Buddha tends to just not answer questions about cosmology.
This is one of the few sutras, where he talks about a future with one sun, then two suns, then eventually seven suns, it’s got lots of problems astronomically if you think of it as literal truth but if you think of it as saying that even our entire Earth, it’s ecosystems and the Earth itself is impermanence, then there is a lot of truth in that. And it does give some ideas about what happens when a universe is destroyed and a new one is formed. It doesn’t go into a lot of detail though.
The later sutras of the Mahayana schools, the Avidhamma, do have a cosmology, but their’s is a “flat earth” cosmology. Ours is one of four great world systems surrounding Mount Meru and our sky is blue because that’s the light reflected off the southern side of Mount Meru which is made of the precious stone lapis-lazuli. It’s fine as mythology but doesn’t really match our physical world well.
There is a real mountain that seems connected with the Mount Meru mythology, and that’s Mount Kailas which is a place of pilgrimage for several Indian religions and a place of blessings for the Tibetans:
It’s north of India and though it’s not at all the largest mountain even in its region, its unusual four sided pyramid shape, and isolated position make it seem much higher, and the ancient Indian ideas of Mount Meru may be based on it, and it’s still seen as connected with Mount Meru.
“To the earliest Buddhists, Mt. Kailash was special because of its geographical placement and its extraordinary beauty and grandeur. Its perceived characteristics are sometimes used as a metaphor for the highest spiritual values. To have attained enlightenment was metaphorically described as having “touched great Neru's peak.” (M.I,338). The mountain's immovability and equanimity were also seen as traits worthy of emulation. However, other characteristics the mountain possessed were considered less admirable. Legend said that it gave off a golden radiance that made all the animals living around it, noble and ignoble, appear to be the same. In other words, it lacked discrimination (avisesakāra) and the ability to distinguish (navibhajati) between skilful and unskilful, good and bad, foolishness and wisdom. In the Jatakas this is pointed out as one of the mountain's blemishes (Ja,III,247; V,425).”
“In later centuries Mt. Kailash came to be seen as the abode of bodhisattvas, gods and demigods. Later still in Tibetan Buddhism, a pilgrimage to the mountain was believed to have the power to purify the most negative kamma and if walked around 108 times, to lead to complete liberation. Like early Buddhism, the gentle ascetic faith of Jainism has always revered Mt. Kailash without attributing it with any particular salvic power. The Jains revere Kailash as the centre of the Earth and the place where their first Tirthankara, the sage Rishabha, attained enlightenment. Jain cosmological charts and paintings always show Mt. Kailash in the centre of the Earth”
Mount Kailash, A Pilgim's Companion, Ven. S. Dhammika
More about the cosmology of the Abidharma here: The Science of Chinese Buddhism. Following this cosmology, Tibetans even into the twentieth century would think of our world as flat, just because their sutras say so. Heinrich Harrer talks about his conversations with the Tibetans trying to persuade them that the Earth is round.
But, following a path of discovery and openness to truth, there was no reason for them to continue to hold this belief after they found out about modern science, yet, the idea is a useful image in a poetic sense. A bit like Blake’s poetry, describing imagery that you don’t have to take literally but it has a poetic significance that you might not get without those images.
Buddha didn’t teach to advance physical sciences and cosmology, he just used the ideas around at his time. And in Buddhism we don’t have the idea of “revealed truth”. Rather we are encouraged to find things out for ourselves. If new discoveries contradict Buddhist teaching, and you can see that these new things are true, there is no doubt, you go with the new discoveries.
PROBLEM WITH IDEA OF A GOD CREATING THE WORLD - WHAT DOES THAT EXPLAIN?
Sometimes Buddhists will raise an issue with the idea of God creating the world. They ask, who created God? Or was he self created? Or has he always existed, and if so what lead him to create the world and how did he come into being?
It’s just the idea of a creator God that’s the issue here. If there was such a being, he or she would be unconditioned, not the result of causes. Nyanaponika Thera, one of the first Europeans to become a Bhikkhu, born in Germany in 1901, ordained in Sri Lanka in 1931, wrote this: Buddhism and the God-idea which has some interesting reflections on this, about how Buddhists also recognize the mystic states that in theistic religions are often seen as evidence for God or a connection to God..
“The psychological facts underlying those religious experiences are accepted by the Buddhist and well-known to him; but he carefully distinguishes the experiences themselves from the theological interpretations imposed upon them. After rising from deep meditative absorption (jhana), the Buddhist meditator is advised to view the physical and mental factors constituting his experience in the light of the three characteristics of all conditioned existence: impermanency, liability to suffering, and absence of an abiding ego or eternal substance. This is done primarily in order to utilize the meditative purity and strength of consciousness for the highest purpose: liberating insight. But this procedure also has a very important side-effect which concerns us here: the meditator will not be overwhelmed by any uncontrolled emotions and thoughts evoked by his singular experience, and will thus be able to avoid interpretations of that experience not warranted by the facts.”
“Hence a Buddhist meditator, while benefiting by the refinement of consciousness he has achieved, will be able to see these meditative experiences for what they are; and he will further know that they are without any abiding substance that could be attributed to a deity manifesting itself to the mind. Therefore, the Buddhist's conclusion must be that the highest mystic states do not provide evidence for the existence of a personal God or an impersonal godhead.”
”Buddhism has sometimes been called an atheistic teaching, either in an approving sense by freethinkers and rationalists, or in a derogatory sense by people of theistic persuasion. Only in one way can Buddhism be described as atheistic, namely, in so far as it denies the existence of an eternal, omnipotent God or godhead who is the creator and ordainer of the world. The word "atheism," however, like the word "godless," frequently carries a number of disparaging overtones or implications, which in no way apply to the Buddha's teaching..””
Buddhism and the God-idea
Trungpa Rinpoche puts it a bit differently, not so much denying any idea of a diety at all, but just that it is irrelevant to the Buddhist path:
“One of the big steps in the Buddha’s development was his realization that there is no reason we should believe in or expect anything greater than the basic inspiration that exists in us already. This is a nontheistic tradition: the Buddha gave up relying on any kind of divine principle that would descend on him and solve his problems. So taking refuge in the Buddha in no way means regarding him as a god. He was simply a person who practiced, worked, studied, and experienced things personally. With that in mind, taking refuge in the Buddha amounts to renouncing misconceptions about divine existence. Since we possess what is known as buddhanature, enlightened intelligence, we don’t have to borrow somebody else’s glory. We are not all that helpless. We have our own resources already. A hierarchy of divine principles is irrelevant. It is very much up to us. Our individuality has produced our own world. The whole situation is very personal.”
PATH OF VERIFIABLE TRUTHS
If you are following the path of the Buddha, it’s a path where you look for truths that you can see and verify for yourself.
Buddha taught that there are many things like that, and that it’s a distraction that can lead you into confusion and suffering, to try to solve questions, which we can’t answer for ourselves. In other religious paths such questions are solved by using revealed truth. But his path is one where you don’t rely on divine revealed truth to solve such questions either.
This is not to say anything against the paths in other religions that do rely on revealed truth. But for a Buddhist following the path of the Buddha, it’s an unanswerable question, how the universe began, or if it began or has just been here forever in some form.
We could only solve such questions if Buddha gave the answers to us as a revealed truth as in “This is the truth, I know because I am Buddha, so you must believe it”, or “This is the truth because some ancient sage or a deity has said so and you need to follow what they say”. But that wasn’t his way.
MODERN COSMOLOGICAL IDEAS
There are modern cosmological ideas where there were cycles of “universes” - universe only in the sense it is everything there is for the beings within it. Our Big Bang could be the result of the death of a previous universe, in some theories. Those would fit very well with the basic idea behind those traditional Buddhist cosmologies - of course not the flat Earth etc, but the idea that the entire universe gets destroyed and recreated. Which is a natural outcome from the observation that everything is impermanent on the much shorter timescales that we usually encounter in our daily lives. Extrapolating that to the largest space and time scales, you then come up with this idea that the entire universe also surely can’t be a permanent thing - how could it? If so it is likely to fall apart at some point, and then a new universe be born.
So, yes the basic ideas of a Big Bang do fit quite well with Buddhist cosmology, as well as could be expected given that nearly everyone, or possibly everyone in the world at that time thought the Earth was flat. Even the Greeks didn’t come up with the idea of a spherical Earth until around the fifth century BC, around the time of Buddha. Spherical Earth
But the early Buddhist cosmology didn’t fit modern Big Bang theory in detail. The main thing they had was this idea that without revealed truth, that we can find out truths for ourselves. So saying the Earth is spherical, and orbits the sun, and that the Big Bang happened at such and such a time billions of years ago etc - that’s just part of natural development and discovery and is not at all a problem for Buddhists.
Also, Buddha taught by silence, remaining silent when asked to answer these unanswerable questions. He gave an example of someone shot by an arrow, that you could spend forever trying to figure out what type of person shot it, the type of arrow, where it was made etc. Or you can just pluck it out. That’s in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya
In the conclusion to this sutra, he says
“"And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undeclared by me.”
“"And what is declared by me? 'This is stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the origination of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are declared by me.”
“"So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared."”
There “stress” is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation for “dukkha” which is more generally any kind of unsatisfactoriness. Even if you are experiencing unblemished happiness, for years on end, not a moment of unhappiness or disatisfaction, nothing ever goes wrong in your life, still, you know that such a state can’t go on for ever. Even if you don’t think about that either, still, that doesn’t mean you have achieved a state of permanent happiness and freedom from suffering, it just means you have a “holiday in Samsara” that lets you forget about if for a while.
So the path he taught is not a path to answering these types of questions. He isn’t trying to teach us a “theory of everything” that will answer our every question about the world. Rather amongst all the things he could have taught, things he might or might not have had insight into, he teaches us a path to cessation of suffering, and of all forms of unsatisfactoriness, and to wisdom and compassion.
FRUITLESS SPECULATION AND SCIENTIFIC QUEST
However in the modern world I think that the scientific exploration of our universe, trying to understand how it works, that’s a different thing from the fruitless speculations Buddha taught about when he remained silent when asked those questions.
It’s more practical, it’s investigating directly, and is a way of looking for answers to detailed questions he couldn’t have anticipated. And it’s a search for truth that we can come to understand and verify for ourselves. Modern Buddhist teachers are sometimes very interested in modern science, for instance the Dalai Lama has a special interest in the results of physics, astronomy etc.
Nevertheless I think that surely we’ll never be able to answer questions such as whether the universe has existed for ever or not. If it seems to have begun at some point, you can always ask “How did that beginning come to be, was there another universe before”? E.g. with Stephen Hawking’s idea of the entire universe as a quantum fluctuation - still you can ask - how did that happen? Was there something else before then in some sense (even if it began time for our present universe, still there may have been something else causally prior)?
And if it seems to have existed for ever, as in the various endless cycle universes (e.g. Penrose’s conformal mapping model), you can always ask - “Might it have had a beginning at some point”? Then you can ask similar questions about the future of the universe as well, also about its spatial extent.
Those sorts of questions then are similar to the ones Buddha remained silent about, translated into a modern scientific context. At that point, if one got anxious about those and felt that it was necessary to solve those questions, especially feeling you have to solve such questions to follow the Buddhist path - that’s then Buddha’s forest of views and fruitless speculation.