The Buddha’s Cosmology
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1930
The teaching of the Buddha, particularly where it is most profound and spiritual, is for all practical purposes identical with the teaching of the great Upanishads. The great Upanishads contain cosmological principles, which derive the manifested worlds from the unmanifested Being by a series of emanations, downward steps from impalpable Shining Ether, through the forms of Fire, Air, Water and Earth, to the fulness of concrete and formal existence. Further, there is in the great Upanishads a body of teaching concerning what one may call solar physics, a classifying of the radiant forces of the Sun, with a description of the Sun’s concentric spheres which bear a good deal of resemblance to the chromosphere (or rose-coloured layer), the photosphere (the brilliantly shining layer), the darker core revealed in the sunspots, and so on, as described by contemporary science.
Throughout the Buddha’s discourses which, taken together, make up a sum of material immensely greater than the Upanishads, there is, of this kind of cosmological thinking, hardly a trace. Why? The answer is given in a discourse which tells us how a distinguished disciple reproached the Buddha with this very deficiency in his teaching, and flatly threatened to resign unless the defect was immediately repaired. But let the compilers of the Suttas tell the story in their own way.
Once upon a time the Master was in residence in the Jetavana monastery in the park which had been laid out by a rich than of charitable heart. The distinguished disciple Malunkyaputta, in solitude and absorbed in meditation, discovered this consideration in his mind:
“There are problems which the Master has left unexplained, pushing them aside and ignoring them; for example, the problem whether the universe is eternal or not; the problem whether soul and body are the same thing, or distinct from each other; the problem whether the liberated sage can be said to have a continued existence after the death of his body, or has not such a continued existence. These problems the Master does not explain to me. And I feel aggrieved that the Master does not explain these problems. Therefore I shall go to the Master and lay the matter before him. If the Master is willing to explain to me whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal, whether the soul and the body are identical or distinct, whether the liberated sage continues to exist after the death of the body, then I am willing to go on practicing spiritual discipline under the Master. But if the Master will not explain these problems to me, then I will give up the life of spiritual discipline and return to the worldly life!”
When evening came, the distinguished disciple Malunkyaputta came forth from solitude and went to where the Master was. Dutifully greeting the Master, he took a seat respectfully beside him and laid before the Master the grievance that had arisen in his mind during his meditation, in conclusion saying that, unless the Master explained to him these problems, he would give up spiritual discipline and return to the worldly life.
The Buddha answered him with a certain restrained indignation:
“Tell me, Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Enter on spiritual discipline under me, and I will explain to you such problems as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal, whether soul and body are identical or distinct, whether the liberated sage continues to exist after the death of the body, or ceases to exist’?”
“Or did you ever say to me, ‘Sire, I am willing to enter on spiritual discipline under the Master, provided that the Master will explain to me such problems as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal, whether soul and body are identical or distinct, whether the liberated sage continues to exist after the death of the body, or ceases to exist’?”
“In that case, vain disciple, with what justice do you accuse me? Malunkyaputta, should anyone make up his mind not to enter spiritual discipline under the Buddha until the Buddha had explained these problems to him, such a one would be overtaken by death before the Buddha explained these problems to him.
“It is just as if a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends had brought to him a skilful surgeon, and the wounded man were to say, ‘I will not have this poisoned arrow extracted until I find out whether the man who shot me was a Kshatriya, a Brahman, a Vaishya or a Shudra’; or, ‘I will not have this poisoned arrow extracted until I find out whether the man who shot me was tall or short or middle-sized’; or, ‘I will not have this poisoned arrow extracted until I find out whether the bow-string was made of sinew or hemp or bamboo fibre’; or, ‘I will not have this poisoned arrow extracted until I find out whether the feather of the arrow came from a vulture, a heron, a falcon or a peacock’; or, ‘I will not have this poisoned arrow extracted until I learn whether the barb was plain or curved, made of iron or of ivory.’ The man would die, Malunkyaputta, without having learned these things.
“Exactly the same with him who says, ‘I will not undertake spiritual discipline until I have learned from the Master whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal, whether soul and body are identical or distinct, whether the liberated sage continues to exist after the death of the body.’ The man will die, Malunkyaputta, before the Master has explained these things to him.
“For spiritual discipline, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the view that the universe is eternal, or that the universe is non-eternal; whether the universe be eternal or non-eternal, there still remain birth, decay, death, misery, lamentation and despair. I teach how to conquer these in this present life.
“So with the problem of soul and body, and the survival of the liberated sage. Spiritual discipline does not depend on the answers to these questions. In either case there remain birth, decay, death, misery, lamentation and despair. I teach how to conquer these in this present life.
“These problems, Malunkyaputta, I have not explained. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because the answers do not bear practical fruit, nor teach how to turn away from sensuality, to cleanse the heart of passions, to attain serenity, the higher powers, wisdom, liberation.
“But what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? The origin of misery, the conquest of misery, the path to the conquest of misery. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained this? Because this knowledge bears practical fruit, and teaches how to turn away from sensuality, to cleanse the heart of passions, to attain serenity, the higher powers, wisdom, liberation.”
Speaking generally, therefore, the Buddha directed the hearts and minds of his disciples to problems quite other than the mysteries of cosmology. The purpose which he consistently followed was to develop, not astronomers or theologians or abstract metaphysicians, but practical disciples, valorously fighting against self and the dangerous delusions of self. He deliberately withheld any explanation of the wide vistas of spiritual life, because in his deep wisdom he knew that, until the treacherous delusions of self are conquered, there can be no real insight into spiritual life. Those who seek to penetrate these high mysteries with tainted minds, thereby distort and disfigure every dawning insight that might lead them toward the light. Let the disciple first conquer self, we can imagine the Buddha saying; after that fight is won, he will know for himself the reality of spiritual life. If he desires that wisdom, let him fight for it and win it.
But it would be a complete mistake to think that, because the Buddha did not encourage his disciples to ask large, vague questions about the stars and the ages of the past, he himself had closed his eyes to these mysteries, possessed no knowledge of them, believed that knowledge of this kind is unattainable.
On the contrary, there is clear evidence that he had penetrated in consciousness to far-off worlds and remote ages; that he held views concerning these matters, which were consistent and complete; views which, in fact, break through his practical teaching to disciples, giving, for the intuitive soul, luminous glimpses into the beyond.
On a certain occasion he set forth, in the Discourse of Beginnings, a valuable and vitally interesting history of the evolution of the human race, beginning with what one may call a past of descending angels, then depicting long periods of increasing solidification and obscuration, and finally describing the differentiation of the sexes, and the gradual growth of human institutions as we are familiar with them; but it is characteristic of the Buddha’s method that his purpose in this immensely interesting discourse was not simply the elucidation of a doctrine of Cosmogenesis and Anthropogenesis; the avowed aim of this scientific sermon is to show that the Brahmans’ pretension of superiority rested on a delusion; that the Kshatriya was in fact the more ancient and higher caste. To put the matter in a slightly different way: the Brahman claim of superiority was based on the dogma that the Brahman caste issued from the mouth of Brahma, while the Kshatriyas came forth from Brahma’s breast. This theological dogma the Buddha opposed by a teaching of natural evolution, beginning with the palpable fact that Brahman babies are born in exactly the same way as babies of all other classes. There was probably a further reason for this scientific discourse. The young Brahman to whom it was addressed, almost of necessity had been inducted into the Brahmanical doctrines; the Buddha, to prove his case, appealed to doctrines which the Brahmans themselves held, though, for the multitude, they cloaked them with theological fables which exalted the Brahman caste.
There is, however, as was said a moment ago, a complete system of cosmology implicit in all the Buddha’s teaching, a system which often breaks through the immediate practical instruction which the Buddha is imparting. For example, in the Discourse of the Fruits of Discipleship, when describing the higher powers to which the victorious disciple attains through courageous self-conquest, the Buddha says:
“He brings back into memory his various temporary states in times gone by, one birth, or two, or three, or four, or five births, or ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred births, or a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand births, in many a kalpa of involution, in many a kalpa of evolution . . .”
Childers, in his Pali Dictionary, thus defines kalpa:
“The term kalpa is given to certain vast periods or cycles of time, of which there are three, Mahakalpa (‘great kalpa’), Asankhyeya-kalpa (‘uncountable kalpa’), and Antara-kalpa (‘intermediate time’). All the Chakravalas (‘spheres’) are subject to an alternate process of destruction and renovation, and a Mahakalpa is the period which elapses from the commencement of the destruction of a Chakravala to its complete restoration. Each Maha-kalpa is subdivided into four Asankhyeya-kalpas. . . . In the first the destruction (by fire, water or wind) begins and is accomplished, the Chakravala being resolved into its native elements, or consumed so that nothing remains; in the second this state of void or chaos continues; in the third the process of renovation begins and is completed, and the fourth is a period of continuance. After the end of the fourth period the dissolution recommences as before, and this alternate process of destruction and renovation goes on to all eternity.”
While this system of kalpas is repeatedly alluded to by the Buddha in discourses primarily concerned with practical discipline, it is fully worked out in its details, not in the first discourses of the Buddha, but in certain treatises like the Visuddhi Magga (“Path of Purity”), written by Buddhaghosa some centuries later; and as there is good reason to accept the tradition that these more detailed teachings come from the Buddha himself, we shall consider them as evidence for the system of cosmology which the Buddha held and taught.
The noteworthy thing about this cosmology is that on one side it anticipates the views of the most recent science. Nowhere is the resemblance closer than in the use of enormous numbers. Whoever has looked into the books of Sir James Jeans or Arthur Stanley Eddington, must have been impressed by the way in which they deal with millions and billions, whether of years or of distances across space. And here a word of caution is necessary: the word “billion” means one thing in England and another thing in America. In England a billion is a million times a million, or a million squared (once multiplied by itself), but in America a billion has the same meaning as the French “milliard”, namely, a thousand millions. In England a trillion is a million times a million times a million; or a million cubed (twice multiplied by itself); a quadrillion is a million raised to the fourth power; a quintillion is a million raised to the fifth power, and so on. These numerical details are given because the system of numbers used in Buddhist works like the Visuddhi Magga closely resembles the English system, except that the starting point is not one million but ten millions (in Sanskrit and Pali “koti”, in the modern dialects of India “crore”); so that the Pali numbers are the square of ten millions, the cube of ten millions, the fourth, fifth and sixth powers of ten millions, up to the Asankhyeya already mentioned, which is the twentieth power of ten millions: that is to say, 1 followed by 140 ciphers. So that when we find Eddington saying that “the mass of the sun is 2 followed by 27 ciphers” in tons, we realize that Buddhaghosa, to say nothing of his great Master, would find himself completely at home in this kind of counting.
When we pass from numbers to broad ideas of cosmology, the likeness is impressive. We may approach the matter by taking the latest book by Sir James Jeans, The Universe Around Us, which runs almost parallel to Eddington’s Stars and Atoms, published two years ago. In what is common to the two books we may safely say that we have the last word in modern cosmological thinking.
What account do they give of the universe? Jeans takes as his point of departure what he calls Primaeval Chaos, at a time when all the substance of the present stars and nebulae was spread uniformly throughout space. He expresses the density of this tenuous substance as compared with the density of water by the fraction 1 divided by the number 1 followed by 30 ciphers. With justice he tells us that this is almost inconceivably tenuous:
“In ordinary air, at a density of one eight-hundredth that of water, the average distance between adjoining molecules is about an eight-millionth of an inch; in the primaeval gas we are now considering, the corresponding distance is two or three yards. The contrast again leads back to the theme of the extreme emptiness of space. . . . Calculation shows that if ordinary air were attenuated to this extraordinary degree, no condensation could persist and continue to grow unless it had at least 62½ million times the weight of the sun; any smaller weight of gas would exert so slight a gravitational pull on its outermost molecules, that their normal speeds of 500 yards a second would lead to the prompt dissipation of the whole condensation . . . If there ever existed a primaeval chaos of the kind we are now considering, it would not condense into stars, but into enormously more massive condensations, each having the weight of millions of stars. . . . Now it is significant that bodies are known in space having weights equal to those just calculated, namely the great extra-galactic nebulae . . . the condensations which would first be formed out of the primaeval nebula must have been the great extra-galactic nebulae, and not mere stars. . . . These nebulae are so generally similar to one another that it seems likely that they must all have been produced by the action of the same agency. . . . As the original condensations in the primaeval gas contracted they must have produced currents, and these would hardly be likely to occur absolutely symmetrically. If the motion in each mass of condensing gas had been directly towards the centre of condensation at every point, the final result would have been a spherical nebula devoid of all motion, but any less symmetrical system of currents would result in a spin being given to each contracting mass. This spin would no doubt be very slow at first, but the well-known principle of ‘conservation of angular momentum’ requires that, as the spinning body contracts, its rate of spin must increase. Thus when the process of condensation was complete, the final product would be a series of nebulae rotating at different rates. And this is exactly what is observed; so far as our evidence goes the nebulae are in rotation, and at different rates” (pages 192-195).
Now let us turn for comparison to a part of the Visuddhi Magga which is avowedly based on the passage we quoted from the Buddha, concerning the memory of past kalpas:
“The upper regions of space are one with those below, and wholly dark. Now after the lapse of a long period, a great cloud arises. And first it rains with a very fine rain . . . when this cloud has filled every place throughout a hundred thousand times ten million worlds, it disappears. And then a wind arises, below and on the sides of the water, and rolls it into one mass which is round like a drop of water on the leaf of a lotus. But how can it press such an immense volume of water into one mass? Because the water offers openings here and there for the wind. . . .”
We are evidently considering a cosmic evolution very similar to that which Sir James Jeans outlined: First, what he calls “primaeval chaos”, which the Buddhist teaching describes as a condition in which the “upper regions of space are one with those below, and wholly dark”. Next, Jeans depicts enormously large condensations of this at first almost infinitely tenuous substance. The Buddhist teaching says that “after the lapse of a long period, a great cloud arises”. And it is evident that the Buddhist teaching contemplates something immensely more extensive than the formation of a single planet, or even a single solar system: it is a question of “a hundred thousand times ten million worlds”. Sir James Jeans speaks in particular of two great extra-galactic nebulae (that is, nebulae outside the limits of the Galaxy, the Milky Way, within which our solar system is situated): the weight of one of these is estimated to be 2000 million times that of the sun, while another is even larger, 3500 million times the weight of the sun. It is evident, therefore, that the Buddhist teaching and the modern astronomer are dealing with magnitudes of the same order; the one calls them great clouds, the other calls them nebulae; which is Latin for “mist”.
We then come to an even closer parallel. Sir James Jeans shows that, if the modern understanding of the forces involved be correct, the irregular condensation of these enormous nebular masses would set up currents, and that these currents would tend to develop what he calls a “spin”, a movement of rotation, leading to the formation of immensely large revolving spheres of nebular substance. The Buddhist teaching says that when the cloud has filled every place throughout a hundred thousand times ten million worlds, “a wind arises, below and on the sides of the water, and rolls it into one mass which is round like a drop of water on the leaf of a lotus.” One may note in passing that this simile is singularly exact, since Sir James Jeans shows that the earlier revolving spheres of nebular matter would become flattened out into a shape which he compares with a watch; and this is precisely the shape of a drop of water on a lotus leaf.
One point more: the Buddhist teaching asks how it is that the wind can press such an immense volume of water into one mass, and answers that it is because the water offers openings here and there for the wind. This closely corresponds to the lack of symmetry both in shape and arrangement, which Sir James Jeans ascribes to his primal nebular condensations. There is, therefore, a general resemblance both in the fundamental processes outlined and in the magnitudes considered, between the Buddhist teaching and the present conclusions of astronomy.
One expression deserves special comment, namely, the use of the term “water” by the Buddhist teaching, to describe the substance of the primaeval nebulae. In a note to the second edition of Stars and Atoms, Eddington speaks of the constitution of the hypothetical Nebulium, the name given to the substance of the nebulae. “Nebulium”, he says, “turns out to be an oxygen atom with two electrons missing. Singly ionized atoms of oxygen and nitrogen are responsible for the other lines in the nebular spectrum not previously identified.” Hydrogen is an element found extensively in the sun and in the stars, which have condensed from the nebulae. But water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen, so that there is nothing fundamentally unscientific in describing the substance of the nebulae as uncondensed water, as the Buddhist teachings do. We may, if we wish, think of this merely as a guess. If so, it was a brilliant guess, anticipating spectroscopic discoveries which were completed only two or three years ago, when Nebulium was found to be a form of oxygen.
It would appear, therefore, that we are justified in seeing a close parallelism between the cosmological conclusions of contemporary science and the views set forth by a great Buddhist fifteen centuries ago, and almost certainly derived from the teaching of his Master, twenty-five centuries ago. It is certain that the Buddha and his disciples came to these sane and highly philosophical conclusions without either telescope or spectroscope, the magical implements of our contemporary sages. There is an explanation in the teachings of the Buddha, but we need not consider it now.
Let us close with an interesting parallel, which carries us back to our point of departure: the comparison drawn by the Buddha between what is, and what is not, profitable material of study for the disciple. A recent book by Eddington, published in 1929, concludes with an eloquent section on Mystical Religion, from which a few suggestive sentences may be quoted:
“We have seen that the cyclic scheme of physics presupposes a background outside the scope of its investigations. In this background we must find, first, our own personality, and then perhaps a greater personality. The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory. . . . It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. . . . One begins to fear that after all our faults have been detected and removed there will not be any ‘us’ left. But in the study of the physical world we have ultimately to rely on our sense-organs, although they are capable of betraying us by gross illusions; similarly the avenue of consciousness into the spiritual world may be beset with pitfalls, but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible.”
One may conceive the Buddha answering: “The pitfalls are there; but it is the duty of the Buddha, and of all Masters, to open the eyes of the disciple to these pitfalls, to guide his feet through them, to the way of truth. After that, perhaps, the time may come to consider the building of the stars.”