❮ Contents
❯ Contents
Buddhist Cosmology by Ajahn Brahmali
Please wait ...
Loading Book ...
Buddhist Cosmology

Introduction

One of the rarely discussed yet astonishing facts about the suttas is that they contain very modern ideas of cosmology. These are not vague teachings that might be interpreted in a number of different ways, but specific and direct descriptions of the universe. Much of what the Buddha has to say about this has been borne out by modern research. This is rather incredible and really demands an explanation, something I will attempt in the course of this essay. Some of the things mentioned by the Buddha go beyond even our current cosmological models, such as whether the universe started with a Big Bang and how it is going to end. Considering what the Buddha had to say about cosmology, I believe it is justified to conclude that the Buddha had a direct understanding of the evolution of the universe.

Before I go any further, I wish to put in place a couple of caveats. The purpose of this essay is not to “prove” that early Buddhism is true because some of its claims happen to overlap with those of modern science. Even if all the cosmological details in the suttas can be explained in purely conventional terms, this does not affect the Buddha’s message on suffering and its ending. The latter is the essence of the Buddha’s message, whereas the former is entirely incidental. My purpose, rather, is only to investigate certain aspects of the suttas that appear extraordinary, and to discuss how they may have originated. I believe this is valuable in its own right.

In what follows I have simplified what is really quite a complex subject. I have done this to avoid burdening the text with too many details that distract from the flow of the main topic. For more details on some of the complexities involved, please see the appendix at the end.

Cosmic Cycles

Early Buddhist ideas about the universe are encapsulated in the core sutta passage on the recollection of past lives. Here is an extract from that passage:

I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births … a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion. (MN4)

The idea of a cycling cosmos is part of the fundamental Buddhist outlook that things don’t have absolute beginnings. Here is another passage that describes this typically Buddhist view of the world:

Monks, this saṁsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. (SN15.1)

According to Buddhism, nothing arises without causes and conditions. There is no such thing as a first cause. Given this outlook, a cyclic model of the universe makes sense.

Yet is it really reasonable to think that the Buddha had a conception of the cosmos as something vast, in the way we do now? It does seem that the Buddha saw the cosmos as something far more than what can be observed from Earth. In the following passage he speaks of an “impenetrable darkness” beyond the reach of the light of the sun:

Monks, there are world intervals, vacant and boundless, regions of gloom and impenetrable darkness where the light of the sun and moon, so powerful and mighty, does not reach. (SN56.46)

Prediction 1

Basing myself on the early Buddhist texts, I am going to be bold and make two specific predictions about the future development of cosmology. My first prediction, which draws on the sutta passages quoted above, is that modern cosmology eventually will settle on a model of the universe where Big Bangs are followed by Big Crunches, a universe that alternates between expansion and contraction.

At present most scientists do not subscribe to such a model of the universe; they believe it all just started with the Big Bang. If the Buddhist model holds up, it will be contrary to the expectation of the vast majority of scientists. This in itself would be rather remarkable.

The Buddha on Solar Systems

A second aspect of cosmology mentioned by the Buddha is the “world system”, the loka-dhātu. A world system, according to the suttas, consists of the planet Earth, the moon, the sun, and all the beings that exist in dependence on it:

A thousand times the world in which the sun and moon revolve and light up the quarters with their brightness is called a thousandfold minor world system. In that thousandfold world system there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sinerus king of mountains, a thousand Jambudīpas, a thousand Aparagoyānas, a thousand Uttarakurus, a thousand Pubbavidehas, and a thousand four great oceans; a thousand four great kings, a thousand heavens of devas ruled by the four great kings … (AN10.29/AN3.80)

The Earth is here represented by Jambudīpa, Aparagoyāna, Uttarakuru, Pubbavideha, and the four great oceans. The ancient Indian ideas of the Earth were quite limited. They did speak of those parts of the planet that were known to them, including Jambudīpa, their own country, as well as four great oceans, presumably the oceans surrounding the Indian sub-continent. They had some knowledge of the Greeks (MN93) and presumably the Persians, but most of their knowledge of the lands outside of India was semi-mythical, as can be seen from the names Aparagoyāna (“the western Goyāna”), Uttarakuru (“the northern Kuru”), and Pubbavideha (“the eastern Videha”). These names are clearly not names of actual countries, but rather designations of recognized geographical areas about which very little was known. Although their conception of the Earth does not fully overlap with our modern ideas, it is nevertheless clear that they had an idea of the Earth as a separate entity in a larger universe.

So the Earth, the moon, and the sun, with all the beings that exist in connection with them, form a unit known as a “world system”. Since the suttas do not seem to have any conception of planets, a world system is essentially what we would now call a solar system. But here is the truly interesting point: the suttas, as we have seen above, do not say there is just one such solar system, but vast numbers of them. The Buddha speaks of a thousand-fold world system, a thousand-fold to the second power world system, and a thousand-fold to the third power world system:

A world that is a thousand times a thousandfold minor world system is called a thousand-to-the-second-power middling world system. A world that is a thousand times a thousand-to-the-second-power middling world system is called a thousand-to-the-third-power great world system. (AN3.80)

The last of these, of course, is a billion-fold world system. With the discovery in the past couple of decades of planets around distant stars, we are now starting to see that all this is indeed true. But the Buddha anticipated modern astronomy by almost 2,500 years.

It’s not long ago that the idea of planets around distant stars would have seemed preposterous to much of humanity. If we go back to the Europe of the middle ages, to the time before the modern astronomical revolution, they had an idea known as the firmament. The firmament was envisioned as a semi-sphere arched over a flat Earth, or whatever territory they regarded as the Earth. The night-sky was no more than this semi-sphere, an arch over the planet, a few hundred metres or a few kilometres up. Stuck in that semi-sphere were little lights, which was how they conceived of the stars. This worked because the stars are essentially in fixed positions relative to each other, and they move in the sky according to regular and predictable patterns. It was a very primitive outlook, with almost no conception of space or a universe. The Europeans of the middle ages had absolutely no idea of what was going on.

It can be hard to fathom that 2,000 years prior to the end of the European middle ages there was a man in India – we don’t know all that much about him, but he is now known as the Buddha – who said that there are solar systems out there. Not only one or two, but billions of solar systems – all these suns with planets going around them, and with moons revolving around the planets. It’s astonishing that all that is right there in these ancient texts.

But the Buddha went even further: he said there are beings living in dependence on these solar systems. The Buddha knew about aliens! There is no Buddhist word for alien or extra-terrestrial, nor is there any description of them in the suttas. So what exactly did the Buddha see? Did he see little green people with antennas, the staple of cheap science fiction? Actually, I believe we can answer this question using Buddhist principles.

From the modern scientific point of view it seems quite likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe. We have found the planets, some of them at the right distance from their host star, the so-called “habitable zone”. The argument goes that if life was able to evolve on Earth, why wouldn’t it also evolve on these other planets? And if this is correct, what sort of life would it be?

From a Buddhist point of view, I think it is fairly clear that these beings are going to be very much like us. Why? Because we are all connected in so many ways. For instance, sometimes we might get reborn on another planet, and the beings there might get reborn here. Because we presumably move around the cosmos in this way and because we tend to be attached to our appearance, it seems natural to think that beings everywhere will look approximately the same. Even if you have no memory of your previous life, it would be psychologically uncomfortable to be reborn among a bunch of green creatures that have little in common with humans, because your habits and comfort zone would be challenged at a deep level. Moreover, we are connected in the way we think about, perceive, and view the world. Our desires and attachments are going to be similar, and our egos and sense of self will be looking for the same sort of gratification. And because we think in the same way, we tend to evolve in the same way and to look roughly the same. Generally speaking, beings with similar kamma are likely to look similar.

Prediction 2

This, then, is my second prediction. When cosmologists eventually discover life on other planets, assuming they will, it is not going to be like the movies. In the late 1970s there was a movie called “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”, which told a story of humans meeting aliens. The aliens were weird, with thin legs and arms, and big heads, and that sort of stuff. I suppose if it weren’t for the special effects, if the beings had looked pretty much like us, the movie would have been boring and unpopular. The reality from a Buddhist point of view, however – perhaps the boring reality – is that the so-called aliens are going to be similar to us. The term “alien” may in fact be quite inappropriate; “cousins from outer space” might be better. Giving them a suitable label might also stop us from killing each other.

At present there is no consensus among scientists what they will find if and when they discover life on other planets. I believe Buddhist principles and foresight can be used as a guide.

The Fate of the Earth

There is another discourse that is fascinating in the context of cosmology, “The Seven Suns Sutta”. This is one of those discourses that really caught my eye when I first read it. In this sutta the Buddha discusses the future relationship between the sun and the Earth. He says that in the future the Earth will warm up as the sun becomes hotter and hotter. Being unable to cope with the heat, the plants will start to die. And since the plants are at the bottom of the food chain, all animal life will also cease to exist. There is a Wikipedia article on the topic of the fate of the Earth as the sun expands, and it too starts with all plant life dying. The sutta then goes on to describe various stages as the sun heats up, with the water of the oceans gradually evaporating until it is all gone. Eventually, the sutta says, the Earth becomes so hot that the whole planet starts to smoulder, smoke, and burn. Mountain peaks come crashing down, everything disintegrates and is burnt up, nothing remains:

There comes a time when, after a long time, a seventh [stage of the] sun appears. With the appearance of the seventh [stage of the] sun, this great earth and Sineru, the king of mountains, burst into flames, blaze up brightly, and become one mass of flame. As the great earth and Sineru are blazing and burning, the flame, cast up by the wind, rises even to the brahmā world. As Sineru is blazing and burning, as it is undergoing destruction and being overcome by a great mass of heat, mountain peaks of a hundred yojanas disintegrate; mountain peaks of two hundred yojanas … three hundred yojanas … four hundred yojanas … five hundred yojanas disintegrate. When this great earth and Sineru, the king of mountains, are blazing and burning, neither ashes nor soot are seen. (AN7.66)

Some of the ideas expressed here, especially the mention of Sineru, are decidedly foreign from a modern perspective. But we should really expect this. The Buddha’s audience was used to a certain way of looking at the world and the Buddha would have had to meet his audience half way to get his message across. What is remarkable, rather, are the strong parallels to our modern outlook.

How is it possible that these modern ideas are found in the suttas? From the point of view of modern cosmology and astrophysics, we know that this is exactly what will happen. We know the sun will expand, eventually burning up our planet – nothing will be left. We know this and it makes sense to us. But how could this be known to a man who lived two and a half thousand years ago? At the end of the same sutta the Buddha asks rhetorically who can possibly believe this, except someone who has seen the truth. In other words, the Buddha realised that this would be inconceivable for most people at that time. Apart from confidence in the Buddha, there would be no basis for believing in this. So far as I am aware there is nothing quite like it in any other ancient literature. And there is no evidence that these insights into the nature of the universe existed in pre-Buddhist Indian culture in any form similar to what we find in the suttas. Are we then compelled to believe that the Buddha arrived at this understanding through his own mental powers?

These are some of the things that stand out when you read what the suttas have to say about cosmology. By now you probably think I am some kind of religious zealot. It is often the case that religious people say all sorts of unsubstantiated things, things that have no basis in fact. So having briefly discussed these remarkable sutta passages, even having made a few predictions about what will happen in the future, I want to discuss whether there are any conventional ways this may have made its way into these ancient scriptures. What alternatives do we have in explaining this? Do we really need to conclude that the Buddha had some extraordinary mental powers, or are there other explanations?

Possible Explanations

Pre-existing Ideas

Is it possible that reliable ideas about the universe already existed in India and that the Buddha simply accepted them as true? So far as I am aware, none of the above ideas is found in any recognisable form in pre-Buddhist texts. Moreover, even if some or all of these ideas did pre-exist the Buddha, we would still be faced with the problem of explaining how they arose. The interesting question here is not so much who discovered such facts about the universe, but that they were discovered. Thus we can set this explanation aside as being irrelevant to finding out how the knowledge was attained.

Even if we admit the possibility that these things may have been discovered by someone prior to the Buddha, as unlikely as this may seem, we know from the Buddha’s character in the suttas that he was not the sort of person who would accept things simply on trust. He was revolutionary in rejecting so much of the contemporary philosophy and world-view. Unless his experiences happened to coincide with those of others, he quite consistently went his own way. He only taught based on his own insights (SN56.31). Assuming that the suttas give us a realistic picture of the Buddha’s personality at least in this regard, it would be out of character if he had spoken these things merely based on trust in someone else or another tradition.

As mentioned above, after the Buddha has spoken about the sun becoming warmer and eventually burning up the Earth, he asks rhetorically who could possibly believe this unless they had seen it for themselves. In acknowledging that the whole idea must have seemed quite outrageous to most people, he seems to confirm that this idea was unknown in ancient India.

Later Insertion

A typical explanation for extraordinary passages in the suttas is that they are not authentic, but late insertions. But in the present case this is really a non-starter. The things we have discussed above are very modern ideas of the cosmos, mostly discovered in the second half of the 20th century, perhaps slightly earlier. At the same time we know for a fact that these scriptures, these particular suttas we are discussing here, go a back a long way. It can be shown through comparative study that these suttas are likely to go back at least to the time of Emperor Ashoka, almost 2,300 years ago. They have been handed down in different traditions that have existed separately since then. The fact that these suttas exist across these traditions to the present day can only really be explained if we assume that they stem from a time before the various traditions went their separate ways. These are genuinely ancient texts.

In any case, there are physical manuscripts of these suttas that predate the findings of modern cosmology by several centuries. That these suttas were added to the Buddhist scriptures in modern times is simply impossible.

Wrong Interpretation

When you read these texts, how do you know that you have interpreted them correctly? How do you know that you have properly understood what the Buddha was trying to convey?

In truth, one of the things that stands out about the Buddha’s teachings, something that makes them different from the vast majority of comparable literature, is their directness and the ease with which they can normally be understood. Most of the time the suttas are just straightforward declarative prose, composed in a style that is largely independent of time, place, and culture. They normally speak directly to universal aspects of the human condition. They were composed to be understood, not to serve as mystical religious texts. There are, of course, metaphors, similes, and occasional parables, but the meaning is normally clear since they generally serve the purpose of highlighting points made in the declarative prose. And the texts are largely free of mythology. It follows that the problems of interpretation are relatively minor, especially when compared to other texts of similar antiquity. For this reason, when you read about the sun heating up and eventually burning up the whole Earth, there is little doubt about the overall meaning. There are no reasonable alternative interpretations.

I would like to add one thing, because I think this is a very important point. Many people are scared of reading the suttas because they think they are too difficult to understand. They think it will be difficult to understand something that was written in such a different culture, so long ago. But in my experience – and this may seem astonishing – it is far easier to understand the word of the Buddha in these ancient texts than to understand most contemporary Buddhist teachings. When I read books about Buddhism by contemporary teachers, they are often superficially easy to read. The style may be polished and fluent, and the content may be appealing and even entertaining. But the deeper questions are often left unanswered. And if they are answered, I am often left wondering what exactly is being said. There is a lot of ambiguity.

So if you want clarity about Buddhism, if you want to understand the Dhamma, go to the Buddha. The suttas are usually clear, concise, and well-structured, with beautiful similes illustrating important points. Once you get past the unusual style, which is largely a result of oral transmission, they are not hard to understand. On top of this, they are deep and powerful. The common belief that contemporary teachers are easier to understand is the exact reverse of the truth. For a real understanding of the Dhamma you can’t do better than the word of the Buddha.

So, comparatively little interpretation is required for understanding these suttas. Misinterpretation of the Pali is unlikely to be an explanation for what we are reading in translation.

Coincidence

A fourth potential explanation is that the cosmological ideas found in the suttas just happen to coincide with how the universe works. The idea is that the Buddha had a philosophy about the universe, which by some remarkable coincidence happens to match our modern scientific outlook. Such coincidences, of course, can never be completely discounted. But the more information you have, the more scriptural statements there are that fit our modern outlook, the less likely it is to be a coincidence.

To test the likelihood of coincidence we can compare our ancient Buddhist texts with ideas from other comparable ancient cultures. I am no expert, but I am not aware of any other ancient ideas that conform to the modern cosmological outlook in quite in the way that some of the Buddhist ideas do. You do find things about cosmology in other ancient texts, for instance in ancient Greek philosophy and in the Brahmanical tradition, but the meaning is rarely as clear and easy to interpret as that of the suttas. Often expert knowledge is required to draw out what is thought to be the implied meaning. Even then a lot of uncertainty remains.

So coincidence is not really a viable explanation either.

How the Buddha Acquired His Knowledge of the Cosmos

We have racked our brains to find a standard explanation for how these realistic passages about the universe have come to be included in the early Buddhist suttas. Since none of them is satisfactory, we have to go further afield. If the suttas say accurate things about the cosmos, perhaps we should listen to what they have to say about how this knowledge was obtained. The Buddha does actually speak about this. His explanation is a bit more challenging than the above suggestions, but we should really expect this. Other than the cosmological ideas discussed here, most of the Buddha’s message on the nature of life is quite different from the prevailing modern ideas. Indeed, this is an important aspect of what makes him worth listening to.

So how does the Buddha explain his cosmological knowledge? The Buddha says, or implies, that much of this is accessible through recollecting one’s past lives (MN4). If you go far enough back in time – thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of lives, aeons – eventually you start to see how the universe functions, because you see the whole thing unfold before your eyes.

Even if you accept the idea of past lives, you may wonder how this ties in with understanding cosmology: after all, we are just little human beings and the cosmos is so vast by comparison. Big Bangs and Big Crunches, sometimes called Big Bounces by cosmologists, would surely be impossible for humans to observe directly, not least because of the violence of the event. But from a Buddhist point of view there are different kinds of rebirth, different vantage points from which you can observe the workings of the world. Having observed the whole thing from different points of view, especially from high realms where you are not touched by the actual violence of these events, after a while you understand what’s going on. You see the cyclical nature of the universe.

When the Buddha says that the sun in future will incinerate the Earth, this knowledge would have been acquired in a similar way. It is not so much a vision of the future as a prediction of the future based on seeing the past. Because of his knowledge of the universe in the past, the Buddha is able to make inferences about the cosmological future. He is able to grasp some of the natural laws that govern the stars and the cosmos as a whole. By recalling the deep past, he is able to infer about the distant future.

Why Does the Buddha Speak about the Cosmos?

But why does the Buddha even mention these things? What on earth (!) do they have to do with our practice of the Buddhist path in the here and now? It may all seem very interesting, but does it have any practical consequences?

The first thing that occurs to me when I read these passages is that they are evidence for rebirth. We need to account for the fact that these passages exist. Having looked at the alternatives, it seems to me that the recollection of past lives is the most plausible explanation. The Buddha lived in a technologically and scientifically simple society. Two and a half thousand years ago in India there were no telescopes, and the possibilities of observing the universe were very limited. Cosmology was more about speculation and mythology than rigorous study. The Buddha had very little to aid him. The reality is that he gained all his knowledge while sitting at the foot of a tree.

Imagine going into the jungle. You see this man sitting at the foot of a tree. He is an exceptional person – very peaceful, very kind – and you get this feeling of enormous wisdom and understanding. When you ask him a question, his answers are simple but profound. You get a feeling of being in the presence of someone very special, yet it is impossible for you to grasp what a Buddha is truly about. Only when you listen to his teachings do you start to realise who the Buddha is. It becomes clear that his mind has essentially encompassed the whole universe. He has fully understood the nature of existence.

Not only is this evidence for the recollection of past lives, but it says something about the Buddha as a person. This man sitting at the foot of a tree has a realistic view of the cosmos: solar systems, Big Bounces, “extraterrestrial cousins”. Here is someone who has a very different outlook and overview of the world compared to the vast majority of us. For the most part people are trapped in their own little universe, “my world”, while missing the big picture. This difference is one of the things that makes the Buddha so extraordinary. This seemingly simple man at the foot of a tree had some extraordinary and profound insights, some of which we can only verify through modern science. In fact it seems he may have known more about cosmology, at least in some respects, than we know even in the present day. This then provides an additional angle from which to recall the qualities of the Buddha, which is one of the fundamental ways of giving rise to joy in Buddhist meditation.

But we still haven’t properly answered our question: what was the Buddha’s purpose in speaking about cosmology? I recall mentioning to someone that I thought some of the cosmology found in the suttas was quite astonishing. They asked why I was interested in this – would it not be better to focus on the core teachings of the Buddha? This is a valid point. In the suttas we have been discussing, the Buddha does not present his ideas about the universe as core aspects of his teachings, but rather as incidental to the essence of the Dhamma. He teaches cosmology as part of a broader outlook, generally just to illustrate aspects of his teachings. This is quite remarkable. The cosmological issues that the Buddha brings up are matters we take very seriously in the modern world. Few things are regarded as more important in science and popular culture than understanding our universe. Yet for the Buddha this is all secondary, just illustrations of something much more important, the real Dhamma.

What is that much more important point? To understand this we need to go back to the beginning, back to what motivated the Buddha to leave the home life and go forth into homelessness. He was searching for an end to suffering – happiness, if you like – an end to this round of birth and death. To fully understand happiness and suffering, you have to understand the big picture – you can’t just look at this one life and think that will be enough. Only when you understand all potential rebirths and whether any of them might provide lasting and complete happiness, can you make a fully informed decision on where freedom from suffering is to be found. And understanding all possible forms of rebirth is in many ways similar to understanding the universe – at least if we consider the universe in its broadest possible sense, including any realms that may not be immediately accessible to us.

There is another even more direct relationship between cosmology and the deeper aspects of the Dhamma. Let us take another look at the sutta that describes the fate of the Earth. The sun becomes hotter and hotter, the Earth eventually burning up and disintegrating. Everything is unstable and unreliable, even the universe on the very largest of scales. There is nothing to hold on to. When we realise this, we understand why it all needs to be abandoned. When we see the impermanent nature of all phenomena, we are repelled by them, and this leads to dispassion, the ending of craving, and eventually to liberation from all of it. The cosmological details are just there to exemplify the all-encompassing nature of impermanence. The point is to drive home the message of impermanence.

For most of us these large cosmological questions may seem important and certainly interesting. But from the Buddha’s point of view they are just a sideshow. The real issue is impermanence. So forget the cosmology – it is impermanence we should get excited about!

Impermanence

Let us briefly consider impermanence in a bit more detail. The Pali word behind impermanence is anicca. I recommend people to look at core doctrinal concepts from different angles, because this usually helps you appreciate their full meaning. Impermanence is an acceptable translation for anicca, but it is perhaps a bit wishy-washy: you know what it means, but it may not bring up much of an emotional response. At least that’s the case for some people. Another way of rendering anicca is “unreliable”. Anything that is anicca may not be there when you need it. If you have an unreliable friend, you never know whether they will be there for you. The world is the same. If you ask something from the world – as Ajahn Brahm likes to say – you never know if it will deliver. Yet we keep on asking for things from the world. This is what attachment is all about. When you are attached to someone or something, you are asking for reliability. But this is asking for the impossible, says the Buddha. The world is inherently unreliable.

When we think of impermanence, we often regard it as something we are aware of in meditation. You sit down and watch the impermanence of phenomena: you watch your body, you watch your mind, and you see how things arise and pass away. This is one of the standard way of talking about impermanence in Buddhism.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it is interesting that the Buddha often speaks about impermanence in quite a different way. The Buddha often speaks of the big picture. He reminds us that all the things around us, all the things in our lives, are unreliable and unstable. If you attach to them, you are going suffer. Your possessions, your friendships, your family members, your partner in life, your physical body – all of these things will eventually have to go, often before you die but at the very latest when you pass away.

Even your sense of identity is to a large extent tied up with this world. You identify with the networks of social relations you belong to: your position in your family, your broader social status, your education, your occupation, the religion you belong to, and so on and so forth. For instance, I am a Buddhist monk. If I cling too much to that, I will be disappointed when I die, because at that point I won’t be a monk anymore. (I can’t imagine my disembodied spirit wearing monastic robes!) So while you are still alive, you hold on to those robes, because you know they will give you a lot of happiness if you live the monastic life well. But no matter how good the monk’s or the nun’s life is, at the point of death you can’t attach anymore. Your status as a monk has to go. The same is true of much of our sense of identity. If you hold on too much, no matter where that holding is, you will suffer as a consequence.

The sutta about the sun becoming hotter and hotter is about big-picture impermanence. When the Buddha speaks of the whole Earth disintegrating, it means our entire civilisation will be gone forever – our cities, our culture, our scientific achievements – all the things we have worked so hard to build up and look after. History itself will be wiped out. No-one will be remembered. The idea of having a legacy, a sense of identity that connects us to the past, will seem ridiculous. In the big picture everything is impermanent, everything is unreliable. There is nothing to hold on to.

The Buddha says that when you see this, when you understand the absoluteness of this unreliability, you stop desiring anything. You become repelled by it all, for you see it all as suffering. Enough! When you are repelled, craving for all these things stops. This is how liberation happens, and this is what it is all about. Joy at last! Yes, we can make some interesting points about Buddhist cosmology, but this is the real purpose of the Buddha’s message. This is the context in which everything else needs to be seen.

Appendix: A Word of Caution

Here I wish to briefly set out a number of caveats to what I have written above. The first thing I wish to point out is that large parts of Buddhist cosmology was inherited from the pre-existing Indian culture, especially from Brahmanical sources. This is clear from the significant areas of overlap, for instance in the names of deities. We should hardly be surprised at this borrowing of ideas. Early Buddhism existed in a certain context, by which it would have been shaped, at least in part. Some of this probably entered the suttas after the passing away of the Buddha, but parts of it may stem from the Buddha himself. There seems to be no reason why he would not have used contemporary cosmological ideas to facilitate communication with his audience, especially if these ideas were innocuous and only tangentially related to his teachings. The Buddha presumably did not take these ideas as absolute truths, and whatever his audience made of them would not affect their ability to grasp the Dhamma.

It is also possible that some of the ideas found in the early Buddhist texts originated outside India, for instance in Babylonia or ancient Greece. Some research has been done in this area, especially by Thomas McEvilley in “The Shape of Ancient Thought”, but much of it is inconclusive. The direction in which the ideas flowed is often uncertain, as is the degree of influence. The lack of clarity has forced me to largely ignore this interesting phenomenon. But there is great potential for further research in this area. The outcome of such research could potentially affect some of the arguments made in this essay.

The above means that the cosmological ideas found in the suttas have at least two different sources: pre-existing ideas and new ideas stemming from the Buddha. Often it is impossible to reliably differentiate between the two. My approach, therefore, has been to largely disregard this distinction. Instead, I have simply focussed on those ideas that fit with our modern perspective, while leaving out any ideas that are difficult to square with the results of modern research. This may seem biased, but it is sufficient to find a single instance where the sutta view matches modern ideas to ask how this could possibly have come about. It is the exception that demands explanation, as is the case in all scientific enquiry.

Another important aspect of Buddhist cosmology as found in the suttas is that it is not a systematic or complete exposition. The Buddha’s purpose was never to understand the natural world, but to find a solution to the problem of suffering. Whatever insights he acquired into the workings of the physical world would have been a by-product of this deeper search. We should therefore expect no more than occasional glimpses of a true understanding of physical reality. Yet, depending on the quality and detail of these glimpses, we may still be persuaded that the Buddha saw things 2,500 years ago that are only now being discovered by scientists.

Then there is the problem of interpretation. The suttas use language that was current in a very different and in some ways much more primitive society. As a consequence, it is often not obvious how terms used by the Buddha should be understood. Take the Pali word loka, which is almost universally rendered as “world”. This, I believe, is actually a very suitable translation, yet it is impossible to know with any precision how well the meanings of the two words overlap. For instance, in English “world” can refer to the cosmos, but the extent to which loka is used in the same way in the suttas is open to debate. In other words, it seems unlikely that the ancient Indians had an idea of the cosmos that exactly matches our own.

Even trickier are Pali words such as vivaṭṭati and saṁvaṭṭati, which are crucial to a correct interpretation of one of the passages I have discussed above. These words mean something very close to “rolling apart” and “rolling together”, or “evolution” and “devolution/involution”. The context in which they are used makes it clear that they concern very long periods of time. Apart from this we have to rely on later Buddhism for a more precise definition. So although it seems quite plausible that this is about the expansion and contraction of the universe, it is impossible to pin this down with certainty based on the suttas alone. The suggestions made in this essay therefore need to be viewed with appropriate caution.

Finally, the point of this essay is not to make any special claims for the Buddha, such as suggesting that he was superhuman or even omniscient, something he himself denies in the suttas. The Buddha was special in only one important respect: he discovered the truth of suffering and the path to its end. Apart from being the first to make this discovery, any other special attributes or powers the Buddha may have had are in principle equally available to any human being whose mind is sufficiently developed. Sometimes we possess latent abilities that we are not even aware of!

-- END OF PHYSICAL BOOK --
-- ADDENDUM FOLLOWS --

Addendum - Suttas

All suttas translated by Bhikkhu Sujato, 2018.
Origin: SuttaCentral

AN3.80. Lesser

Then Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, I have heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘Ānanda, the Buddha Sikhi had a disciple called Abhibhū. Standing in the Brahmā realm, he could make his voice heard throughout the galaxy.’ I wonder how far a Blessed One, a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha can make their voice heard?”

“He was a disciple, Ānanda. Realized Ones are immeasurable.”

For a second time …

For a third time, Ānanda said to the Buddha: “… I wonder how far a Blessed One, a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha can make their voice heard?”

“Ānanda, have you heard of a thousandfold lesser world system, a galaxy?”

“Now is the time, Blessed One! Now is the time, Holy One! Let the Buddha speak. The mendicants will listen and remember it.”

“Well then, Ānanda, listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”

“Yes, sir,” Ānanda replied. The Buddha said this:

“Ānanda, a galaxy extends a thousand times as far as the moon and sun revolve and the shining ones light up the quarters. In that galaxy there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sinerus king of mountains, a thousand Indias, a thousand Western Continents, a thousand Northern Continents, a thousand Eastern Continents, four thousand oceans, four thousand Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Four Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Thirty-Three, of the Gods of Yama, of the Joyful Gods, of the Gods who Love to Create, of the Gods who Control the Creations of Others, and a thousand Brahmā realms. This is called a thousandfold lesser world system, a ‘galaxy’.

A world system that extends for a thousand galaxies is called a millionfold middling world system, a ‘galactic cluster’.

A world system that extends for a thousand galactic clusters is called a billionfold great world system, a ‘galactic supercluster’.

If he wished, Ānanda, a Realized One could make his voice heard throughout a galactic supercluster, or as far as he wants.”

“But how would the Buddha make his voice heard so far?”

“First, Ānanda, a Realized One would fill the galactic supercluster with light. When sentient beings saw the light, the Realized One would project his call so that they’d hear the sound. That’s how a Realized One could make his voice heard throughout a galactic supercluster, or as far as he wants.”

When he said this, Venerable Ānanda said to Venerable Udāyī, “I’m so fortunate, so very fortunate, to have a teacher with such power and might!”

When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to Venerable Ānanda, “What is it to you, Reverend Ānanda, if your teacher has such power and might?”

When he said this, the Buddha said to Venerable Udāyī, “Not so, Udāyī, not so! If Ānanda were to die while still not free of greed, he would rule as king of the gods for seven lifetimes, and as king of all India for seven lifetimes, because of the confidence of his heart. However, Ānanda will be extinguished in the present life.”

AN7.66. The Seven Suns

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Vesālī, in Ambapālī’s Wood. There the Buddha addressed the mendicants, “Mendicants!”

“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:

“Mendicants, conditions are impermanent. Conditions are unstable. Conditions are unreliable. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

Sineru, the king of mountains, is 84,000 leagues long and 84,000 leagues wide. It sinks 84,000 leagues below the ocean and rises 84,000 leagues above it. There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, the rain doesn’t fall. For many years, many hundreds, many thousands, many hundreds of thousands of years no rain falls. When this happens, the plants and seeds, the herbs, grass, and big trees wither away and dry up, and are no more. So impermanent are conditions, so unstable, so unreliable. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a second sun appears. When this happens, the streams and pools wither away and dry up, and are no more. So impermanent are conditions …

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a third sun appears. When this happens, the great rivers—the Ganges, Yamunā, Aciravatī, Sarabhū, and Mahī—wither away and dry up, and are no more. So impermanent are conditions …

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a fourth sun appears. When this happens, the great lakes from which the rivers originate—the Anotattā, Sīhapapātā, Rathakārā, Kaṇṇamuṇḍā, Kuṇālā, Chaddantā, and Mandākinī—wither away and dry up, and are no more. So impermanent are conditions …

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a fifth sun appears. When this happens, the water in the ocean sinks by a hundred leagues. It sinks by two, three, four, five, six, or even seven hundred leagues. The water that remains in the ocean is only seven palm trees deep. It’s six, five, four, three, two, or even one palm tree deep. The water that remains in the ocean is only seven fathoms deep. It’s six, five, four, three, two, one or even half a fathom deep. It’s waist high, knee high, or even ankle high. It’s like the time in the autumn, when the rain falls heavily and water remains here and there in the cows’ hoofprints. In the same way, water in the ocean remains here and there in puddles like cows’ hoofprints. When the fifth sun appears there’s not even enough water in the great ocean to wet a toe-joint. So impermanent are conditions …

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a sixth sun appears. When this happens, this great earth and Sineru the king of mountains smoke and smolder and give off fumes. It’s like when a potter’s kiln is first kindled, and it smokes and smolders and gives off fumes. In the same way, this great earth and Sineru the king of mountains smoke and smolder and give off fumes. So impermanent are conditions …

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a seventh sun appears. When this happens, this great earth and Sineru the king of mountains erupt in one burning mass of fire. And as they blaze and burn the flames are swept by the wind as far as the Brahmā realm. Sineru the king of mountains blazes and burns, crumbling as it’s overcome by the great fire. And meanwhile, mountain peaks a hundred leagues high, or two, three, four, or five hundred leagues high disintegrate as they burn. And when the great earth and Sineru the king of mountains blaze and burn, no soot or ash is found. It’s like when ghee or oil blaze and burn, and neither ashes nor soot are found. In the same way, when the great earth and Sineru the king of mountains blaze and burn, no soot or ash is found. So impermanent are conditions, so unstable are conditions, so unreliable are conditions. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

Mendicants, who would ever think or believe that this earth and Sineru, king of mountains, will burn and crumble and be no more, except for one who has seen the truth?

Once upon a time, there was a teacher called Sunetta. He was a religious founder and was free of sensual desire. He had many hundreds of disciples. He taught them the path to rebirth in the company of Brahmā. Those who totally understood Sunetta’s teachings were—when their body broke up, after death—reborn in a good place, the company of Brahmā. Of those who didn’t totally understand Sunetta’s teachings, some—when their body broke up, after death—were reborn in the company of the Gods Who Control the Creations of Others. Some were reborn in the company of the Gods Who Love to Create, some with the Joyful Gods, some with the Gods of Yama, some with the Gods of the Thirty-Three, and some with the Gods of the Four Great Kings. Some were reborn in the company of well-to-do aristocrats or brahmins or householders.

Then the teacher Sunetta thought: ‘It’s not proper for me to be reborn in the next life in exactly the same place as my disciples. Why don’t I further develop love?’

Then Sunetta developed love for seven years. Having done so he did not return to this world for seven eons of cosmic expansion and contraction. As the cosmos contracted he went to the realm of streaming radiance. As it expanded he was reborn in an empty mansion of Brahmā. There he was Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the undefeated, the champion, the universal seer, the wielder of power. He was Sakka, lord of gods, thirty-six times. Many hundreds of times he was a king, a wheel-turning monarch, a just and principled king. His dominion extended to all four sides, he achieved stability in the country, and he possessed the seven treasures. He had over a thousand sons who were valiant and heroic, crushing the armies of his enemies. After conquering this land girt by sea, he reigned by principle, without rod or sword. Yet even though Sunetta lived so long, he was not exempt from rebirth, old age, and death. He was not exempt from sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair, I say.

Why is that? Because of not understanding and not penetrating four things. What four? Noble ethics, immersion, wisdom, and freedom. These noble ethics, immersion, wisdom, and freedom have been understood and comprehended. Craving for continued existence has been cut off; the attachment to continued existence is ended; now there’ll be no more future lives.”

That is what the Buddha said. Then the Holy One, the Teacher, went on to say:

“Ethics, immersion, and wisdom,
  and the supreme freedom:
these things have been understood
  by Gotama the renowned.

And so the Buddha, having insight,
  explained this teaching to the mendicants.
The Teacher has made an end of suffering;
  seeing clearly, he is extinguished.”

AN10.29. Kosala (1st)

“As far as Kāsi and Kosala extend, and as far as the dominion of King Pasenadi of Kosala extends, King Pasenadi is said to be the foremost. But even King Pasenadi decays and perishes.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

A galaxy extends a thousand times as far as the moon and sun revolve and the shining ones light up the quarters. In that galaxy there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sinerus king of mountains, a thousand Indias, a thousand Western Continents, a thousand Northern Continents, a thousand Eastern Continents, four thousand oceans, four thousand Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Four Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Thirty-Three, of the Gods of Yama, of the Joyful Gods, of the Gods who Love to Create, of the Gods who Control the Creations of Others, and a thousand Brahmā realms. As far as the galaxy extends, the Great Brahmā is said to be the foremost. But even the Great Brahmā decays and perishes.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There comes a time when this world contracts. As it contracts, most sentient beings migrate to the realm of streaming radiance. There they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time. When the world is contracting, the gods of streaming radiance are said to be the foremost. But even the gods of streaming radiance decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are these ten universal dimensions of meditation. What ten? Someone perceives the meditation on universal earth above, below, across, non-dual and limitless. They perceive the meditation on universal water … the meditation on universal fire … the meditation on universal air … the meditation on universal blue … the meditation on universal yellow … the meditation on universal red … the meditation on universal white … the meditation on universal space … They perceive the meditation on universal consciousness above, below, across, non-dual and limitless. These are the ten universal dimensions of meditation.

The best of these ten universal dimensions of meditation is when someone perceives the meditation on universal consciousness above, below, across, non-dual and limitless. Some sentient beings perceive like this. But even the sentient beings who perceive like this decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are these eight dimensions of mastery. What eight? Perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limited, both pretty and ugly. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the first dimension of mastery.

Perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limitless, both pretty and ugly. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the second dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limited, both pretty and ugly. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the third dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limitless, both pretty and ugly. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the fourth dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. They’re like a flax flower that’s blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. In the same way, not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the fifth dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. They’re like a champak flower that’s yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. In the same way, not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the sixth dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. They’re like a scarlet mallow flower that’s red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. In the same way, not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the seventh dimension of mastery.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. They’re like the morning star that’s white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. In the same way, not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the eighth dimension of mastery. These are the eight dimensions of mastery.

The best of these dimensions of mastery is when someone, not perceiving form internally, sees visions externally, white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ Some sentient beings perceive like this. But even the sentient beings who perceive like this decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are four ways of practice. What four?

  1. Painful practice with slow insight,
  2. painful practice with swift insight,
  3. pleasant practice with slow insight, and
  4. pleasant practice with swift insight.

These are the four ways of practice.

The best of these four ways of practice is the pleasant practice with swift insight. Some sentient beings practice like this. But even the sentient beings who practice like this decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are these four perceptions. What four?

  1. One person perceives the limited.
  2. One person perceives the expansive.
  3. One person perceives the limitless.
  4. One person, aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, perceives the dimension of nothingness.

These are the four perceptions.

The best of these four perceptions is when a person, aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, perceives the dimension of nothingness. Some sentient beings perceive like this. But even the sentient beings who perceive like this decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

This is the best of the convictions of outsiders, that is: ‘I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine.’ When someone has such a view, you can expect that they will be repulsed by continued existence, and they will not be repulsed by the cessation of continued existence. Some sentient beings have such a view. But even the sentient beings who have views like this decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are some ascetics and brahmins who advocate ultimate purity. This is the best of the advocates of ultimate purity, that is, when someone, going totally beyond the dimension of nothingness, enters and remains in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. They teach Dhamma in order to directly know and realize this. Some sentient beings have such a doctrine. But even the sentient beings who have such a doctrine decay and perish.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with it. Their desire fades away even for the foremost, let alone the inferior.

There are some ascetics and brahmins who advocate ultimate extinguishment in this very life. This is the best of those who advocate extinguishment in this very life, that is, liberation by not grasping after truly understanding the origin, ending, gratification, drawback, and escape of the six fields of contact. Though I speak and explain like this, certain ascetics and brahmins misrepresent me with the false, hollow, lying, untruthful claim: ‘The ascetic Gotama doesn’t advocate the complete understanding of sensual pleasures, sights, or feelings.’ But I do advocate the complete understanding of sensual pleasures, sights, and feelings. And I advocate complete extinguishment by not grasping in this very life, wishless, extinguished, and cooled.”

MN4. Fear and Dread

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery.

Then the brahmin Jāṇussoṇi went up to the Buddha, and exchanged greetings with him. When the greetings and polite conversation were over, he sat down to one side and said to the Buddha:

“Master Gotama, those gentlemen who have gone forth from the lay life to homelessness out of faith in Master Gotama have Master Gotama to lead the way, help them out, and give them encouragement. And those people follow Master Gotama’s example.”

“That’s so true, brahmin! Everything you say is true, brahmin!”

“But Master Gotama, remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest are challenging. It’s hard to maintain seclusion and hard to find joy in it. Staying alone, the forests seem to rob the mind of a mendicant who isn’t immersed in samādhi.”

“That’s so true, brahmin! Everything you say is true, brahmin!

Before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I too thought, ‘Remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest are challenging. It’s hard to maintain seclusion, and hard to find joy in it. Staying alone, the forests seem to rob the mind of a mendicant who isn’t immersed in samādhi.’

Then I thought, ‘There are ascetics and brahmins with unpurified conduct of body, speech, and mind who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest. Those ascetics and brahmins summon unskillful fear and dread because of these defects in their conduct. But I don’t frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest with unpurified conduct of body, speech, and mind. My conduct is purified. I am one of those noble ones who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest with purified conduct of body, speech, and mind.’ Seeing this purity of conduct in myself I felt even more unruffled about staying in the forest.

Then I thought, ‘There are ascetics and brahmins with unpurified livelihood who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest. Those ascetics and brahmins summon unskillful fear and dread because of these defects in their livelihood. But I don’t frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest with unpurified livelihood. My livelihood is purified. I am one of those noble ones who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest with purified livelihood.’ Seeing this purity of livelihood in myself I felt even more unruffled about staying in the forest.

Then I thought, ‘There are ascetics and brahmins full of desire for sensual pleasures, with acute lust … I am not full of desire …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins full of ill will, with malicious intentions … I have a heart full of love …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins overcome with dullness and drowsiness … I am free of dullness and drowsiness …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are restless, with no peace of mind … My mind is peaceful …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are doubting and uncertain … I’ve gone beyond doubt …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who glorify themselves and put others down … I don’t glorify myself and put others down …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are cowardly and craven … I don’t get startled …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who enjoy possessions, honor, and popularity … I have few wishes …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are lazy and lack energy … I am energetic …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are unmindful and lack situational awareness … I am mindful …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who lack immersion, with straying minds … I am accomplished in immersion …’

‘There are ascetics and brahmins who are witless and stupid who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest. Those ascetics and brahmins summon unskillful fear and dread because of the defects of witlessness and stupidity. But I don’t frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest witless and stupid. I am accomplished in wisdom. I am one of those noble ones who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest accomplished in wisdom.’ Seeing this accomplishment of wisdom in myself I felt even more unruffled about staying in the forest.

Then I thought, ‘There are certain nights that are recognized as specially portentous: the fourteenth, fifteenth, and eighth of the fortnight. On such nights, why don’t I stay in awe-inspiring and hair-raising shrines in parks, forests, and trees? In such lodgings, hopefully I might see that fear and dread.’ Some time later, that’s what I did. As I was staying there a deer came by, or a peacock snapped a twig, or the wind rustled the leaves. Then I thought, ‘Is this that fear and dread coming?’ Then I thought, ‘Why do I always meditate expecting that fear and terror to come? Why don’t I get rid of that fear and dread just as it comes, while remaining just as I am?’ Then that fear and dread came upon me as I was walking. I didn’t stand still or sit down or lie down until I had got rid of that fear and dread while walking. Then that fear and dread came upon me as I was standing. I didn’t walk or sit down or lie down until I had got rid of that fear and dread while standing. Then that fear and dread came upon me as I was sitting. I didn’t lie down or stand still or walk until I had got rid of that fear and dread while sitting. Then that fear and dread came upon me as I was lying down. I didn’t sit up or stand still or walk until I had got rid of that fear and dread while lying down.

There are some ascetics and brahmins who perceive that it’s day when in fact it’s night, or perceive that it’s night when in fact it’s day. This meditation of theirs is delusional, I say. I perceive that it’s night when in fact it is night, and perceive that it’s day when in fact it is day. And if there’s anyone of whom it may be rightly said that a being not liable to delusion has arisen in the world for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans, it’s of me that this should be said.

My energy was roused up and unflagging, my mindfulness was established and lucid, my body was tranquil and undisturbed, and my mind was immersed in samādhi. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I entered and remained in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected were stilled, I entered and remained in the second absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of immersion, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without placing the mind and keeping it connected. And with the fading away of rapture, I entered and remained in the third absorption, where I meditated with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one meditates in bliss.’ With the giving up of pleasure and pain, and the ending of former happiness and sadness, I entered and remained in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness.

When my mind had become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward recollection of past lives. I recollected many kinds of past lives. That is: one, two, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand rebirths; many eons of the world contracting, many eons of the world expanding, many eons of the world contracting and expanding. I remembered: ‘There, I was named this, my clan was that, I looked like this, and that was my food. This was how I felt pleasure and pain, and that was how my life ended. When I passed away from that place I was reborn somewhere else. There, too, I was named this, my clan was that, I looked like this, and that was my food. This was how I felt pleasure and pain, and that was how my life ended. When I passed away from that place I was reborn here.’ And so I recollected my many kinds of past lives, with features and details.

This was the first knowledge, which I achieved in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute.

When my mind had become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward knowledge of the death and rebirth of sentient beings. With clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman, I saw sentient beings passing away and being reborn—inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, in a good place or a bad place. I understood how sentient beings are reborn according to their deeds: ‘These dear beings did bad things by way of body, speech, and mind. They spoke ill of the noble ones; they had wrong view; and they chose to act out of that wrong view. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. These dear beings, however, did good things by way of body, speech, and mind. They never spoke ill of the noble ones; they had right view; and they chose to act out of that right view. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.’ And so, with clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman, I saw sentient beings passing away and being reborn—inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, in a good place or a bad place. I understood how sentient beings are reborn according to their deeds.

This was the second knowledge, which I achieved in the middle watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute.

When my mind had become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward knowledge of the ending of defilements. I truly understood: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’. I truly understood: ‘These are defilements’ … ‘This is the origin of defilements’ … ‘This is the cessation of defilements’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of defilements’.

Knowing and seeing like this, my mind was freed from the defilements of sensuality, desire to be reborn, and ignorance. When it was freed, I knew it was freed.

I understood: ‘Rebirth is ended; the spiritual journey has been completed; what had to be done has been done; there is no return to any state of existence.’

This was the third knowledge, which I achieved in the final watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute.

Brahmin, you might think: ‘Perhaps the Master Gotama is not free of greed, hate, and delusion even today, and that is why he still frequents remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest.’ But you should not see it like this. I see two reasons to frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest. I see a happy life for myself in the present, and I have compassion for future generations.”

“Indeed, Master Gotama has compassion for future generations, since he is a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha. Excellent, Master Gotama! Excellent, Master Gotama! As if he were righting the overturned, or revealing the hidden, or pointing out the path to the lost, or lighting a lamp in the dark so people with good eyes can see what’s there, Master Gotama has made the teaching clear in many ways. I go for refuge to Master Gotama, to the teaching, and to the mendicant Saṅgha. From this day forth, may Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge for life.”

MN93. With Assalāyana

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery.

Now at that time around five hundred brahmins from abroad were residing in Sāvatthī on some business. Then those brahmins thought, “This ascetic Gotama advocates purification for all four classes. Who is capable of having a dialogue with him about this?”

Now at that time the brahmin student Assalāyana was residing in Sāvatthī. He was young, newly tonsured; he was sixteen years old. He had mastered the three Vedas, together with their vocabularies, ritual, phonology and etymology, and the testament as fifth. He knew philology and grammar, and was well versed in cosmology and the marks of a great man.

Then those brahmins thought, “This Assalāyana is capable of having a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this.”

So they approached Assalāyana and said to him, “This ascetic Gotama advocates purification for all four classes. Please, Mister Assalāyana, have a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this.”

When they said this, Assalāyana said to them, “They say that the ascetic Gotama is a speaker of principle. But speakers of principle are hard to have a dialogue with. I’m not capable of having a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this.”

For a second time, those brahmins said to him “This ascetic Gotama advocates purification for all four classes. Please, Mister Assalāyana, have a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this. For you have lived as a wanderer.” And for a second time, Assalāyana refused.

For a third time, those brahmins said to him, “This ascetic Gotama advocates purification for all four classes. Please, Mister Assalāyana, have a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this. For you have lived as a wanderer. Don’t admit defeat before going into battle!”

When they said this, Assalāyana said to them, “Clearly, gentlemen, I’m not getting through to you when I say: ‘They say that the ascetic Gotama is a speaker of principle. But speakers of principle are hard to have a dialogue with. I’m not capable of having a dialogue with the ascetic Gotama about this.’ Nevertheless, I shall go at your bidding.”

Then Assalāyana together with a large group of brahmins went to the Buddha and exchanged greetings with him. When the greetings and polite conversation were over, he sat down to one side and said to the Buddha:

“Master Gotama, the brahmins say: ‘Only brahmins are the highest caste; other castes are inferior. Only brahmins are the light caste; other castes are dark. Only brahmins are purified, not others. Only brahmins are Brahmā’s rightful sons, born of his mouth, born of Brahmā, created by Brahmā, heirs of Brahmā.’ What do you say about this?”

“But Assalāyana, brahmin women are seen menstruating, being pregnant, giving birth, and breastfeeding. Yet even though they’re born from a brahmin womb they say: ‘Only brahmins are the highest caste; other castes are inferior. Only brahmins are the light caste; other castes are dark. Only brahmins are purified, not others. Only brahmins are Brahmā’s rightful sons, born of his mouth, born of Brahmā, created by Brahmā, heirs of Brahmā.’”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Have you heard that in Greece and Persia and other foreign lands there are only two classes, masters and bonded servants; and that masters may become servants, and servants masters?”

“Yes, I have heard that.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose an aristocrat were to kill living creatures, steal, and commit sexual misconduct; to use speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical; and to be covetous, malicious, with wrong view. When their body breaks up, after death, they’d be reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. Would this happen only to an aristocrat, and not to a brahmin? Or suppose a merchant, or a worker were to act in the same way. Would that result befall only a merchant or a worker, and not to a brahmin?”

“No, Master Gotama. If they acted the same way, the same result would befall an aristocrat, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker. For if any of the four classes were to kill living creatures, steal, and commit sexual misconduct; to use speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical; and to be covetous, malicious, with wrong view, then, when their body breaks up, after death, they’d be reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose a brahmin were to refrain from killing living creatures, stealing, and committing sexual misconduct; from using speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical; and from covetousness, malice, and wrong view. When their body breaks up, after death, they’d be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm. Would this happen only to an brahmin, and not to an aristocrat, a merchant, or a worker?”

“No, Master Gotama. If they acted the same way, the same result would befall an aristocrat, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker. For if any of the four classes were to refrain from killing living creatures, stealing, and committing sexual misconduct; from using speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical; and from covetousness, malice, and wrong view, then, when their body breaks up, after death, they’d be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Is only a brahmin capable of developing a heart of love, free of enmity and ill will for this region, and not an aristocrat, merchant, or worker?”

“No, Master Gotama. Aristocrats, brahmins, merchants, and workers can all do so. For all four classes are capable of developing a heart of love, free of enmity and ill will for this region.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Is only a brahmin capable of taking some bathing paste of powdered shell, going to the river, and washing off dust and dirt, and not an aristocrat, merchant, or worker?”

“No, Master Gotama. All four classes are capable of doing this.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose an anointed aristocratic king were to gather a hundred people born in different castes and say to them: ‘Please gentlemen, let anyone here who was born in a family of aristocrats, brahmins, or chieftains take a drill-stick made of teak, sal, frankincense wood, sandalwood, or cherry wood, light a fire and produce heat. And let anyone here who was born in a family of outcastes, hunters, bamboo-workers, chariot-makers, or waste-collectors take a drill-stick made from a dog’s drinking trough, a pig’s trough, a dustbin, or castor-oil wood, light a fire and produce heat.’

What do you think, Assalāyana? Would only the fire produced by the high class people with good quality wood have flames, color, and radiance, and be usable as fire, and not the fire produced by the low class people with poor quality wood?”

“No, Master Gotama. The fire produced by the high class people with good quality wood would have flames, color, and radiance, and be usable as fire, and so would the fire produced by the low class people with poor quality wood. For all fire has flames, color, and radiance, and is usable as fire.”

“Then what is the source of the brahmins’ self-confidence and forcefulness in this matter that they make this claim?”

“Even though you say this, still the brahmins maintain their belief.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose an aristocrat boy was to sleep with a brahmin girl, and they had a child. Would that child be called an aristocrat after the father or a brahmin after the mother?”

“They could be called either.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose a brahmin boy was to sleep with an aristocrat girl, and they had a child. Would that child be called an aristocrat after the mother or a brahmin after the father?”

“They could be called either.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose a mare were to mate with a donkey, and she gave birth to a mule. Would that mule be called a horse after the mother or a donkey after the father?”

“It’s a mule, as it is a crossbreed. I see the difference in this case, but not in the previous cases.”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose there were two brahmin students who were brothers who had shared a womb. One was educated, a reciter, while the other was uneducated and not a reciter. Who would the brahmins feed first at an offering of food for ancestors, an offering of a dish of milk-rice, a sacrifice, or a feast for guests?”

“They’d first feed the student who was educated, a reciter. For how could an offering to someone who is uneducated and not a reciter be very fruitful?”

“What do you think, Assalāyana? Suppose there were two brahmin students who were brothers who had shared a womb. One was educated, a reciter, but was unethical, of bad character, while the other was uneducated and not a reciter, but was ethical and of good character. Who would the brahmins feed first?”

“They’d first feed the student who was uneducated and not a reciter, but was ethical and of good character. For how could an offering to someone who is unethical and of bad character be very fruitful?”

“Firstly you relied on birth, Assalāyana, then you switched to education, then you switched to abstemious behavior. Now you’ve come around to believing in purification for the four classes, just as I advocate.” When he said this, Assalāyana sat silent, embarrassed, shoulders drooping, downcast, depressed, with nothing to say.

Knowing this, the Buddha said to him:

“Once upon a time, Assalāyana, seven brahmin hermits settled in leaf huts in a wilderness region. They had the following harmful misconception: ‘Only brahmins are the highest caste; other castes are inferior. Only brahmins are the light caste; other castes are dark. Only brahmins are purified, not others. Only brahmins are Brahmā’s rightful sons, born of his mouth, born of Brahmā, created by Brahmā, heirs of Brahmā.’

The hermit Devala the Dark heard about this. So he did up his hair and beard, dressed in magenta robes, put on his boots, grasped a golden staff, and appeared in the courtyard of the seven brahmin hermits. Then he wandered about the yard saying, ‘Where, oh where have those brahmin hermits gone? Where, oh where have those brahmin hermits gone?’

Then those brahmin hermits said, ‘Who’s this wandering about our courtyard like a cowpoke? Let’s curse him!’

So they cursed Devala the Dark, ‘Be ashes, lowlife! Be ashes, lowlife!’ But the more the hermits cursed him, the more attractive, good-looking, and lovely Devala the Dark became.

Then those brahmin hermits said, ‘Our austerities are in vain! Our spiritual path is fruitless! For when we used to curse someone to become ashes, ashes they became. But the more we curse this one, the more attractive, good-looking, and lovely he becomes.’

‘Gentlemen, your austerities are not in vain; your spiritual path is not fruitless. Please let go of your malevolence towards me.’

‘We let go of our malevolence towards you. But who are you, sir?’

‘Have you heard of the hermit Devala the Dark?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I am he, sirs.’ Then they approached Devala and bowed to him.

Devala said to them, ‘I heard that when the seven brahmin hermits had settled in leaf huts in a wilderness region, they had the following harmful misconception: “Only brahmins are the highest caste; other castes are inferior. Only brahmins are the light caste; other castes are dark. Only brahmins are purified, not others. Only brahmins are Brahmā’s rightful sons, born of his mouth, born of Brahmā, created by Brahmā, heirs of Brahmā.”’

‘That’s right, sir.’

‘But do you know whether your birth mother only had relations with a brahmin and not with a non-brahmin?’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘But do you know whether your birth mother’s mothers back to the seventh generation only had relations with brahmins and not with non-brahmins?’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘But do you know whether your birth father only had relations with a brahmin woman and not with a non-brahmin?’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘But do you know whether your birth father’s fathers back to the seventh generation only had relations with brahmins and not with non-brahmins?’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘But do you know how an embryo is conceived?’

‘We do know that, sir. An embryo is conceived when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the spirit being reborn is present.’

‘But do you know for sure whether that spirit is an aristocrat, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker?’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘In that case, sirs, don’t you know what you are?’

‘In that case, sir, we don’t know what we are.’

So even those seven brahmin hermits were stumped when pursued, pressed, and grilled by the seer Devala on their own doctrine of ancestry. So how could you succeed, being grilled by me now on your own doctrine of ancestry—you who have not even mastered your own teacher’s doctrine?”

When he had spoken, Assalāyana said to him, “Excellent, Master Gotama! … From this day forth, may Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge for life.”

SN15.1. Grass and Sticks

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. There the Buddha addressed the mendicants, “Mendicants!”

“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:

“Mendicants, transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. Suppose a person was to strip all the grass, sticks, branches, and leaves in India, gather them together into one pile, and chop them each into four inch pieces. They’d lay them down, saying: ‘This is my mother, this is my grandmother.’ The grass, sticks, branches, and leaves of India would run out before that person’s mothers and grandmothers.

Why is that? Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. For such a long time you have undergone suffering, agony, and disaster, swelling the cemeteries. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.”

SN56.31. In a Rosewood Forest

At one time the Buddha was staying near Kosambī in a rosewood forest. Then the Buddha picked up a few rosewood leaves in his hand and addressed the mendicants: “What do you think, mendicants? Which is more: the few leaves in my hand, or those in the forest above me?”

“Sir, the few leaves in your hand are a tiny amount. There are far more leaves in the forest above.”

“In the same way, there is much more that I have directly known but have not explained to you. What I have explained is a tiny amount. And why haven’t I explained it? Because it’s not beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t explained it.

And what have I explained? I have explained: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’.

And why have I explained this? Because it’s beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It leads to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I’ve explained it.

That’s why you should practice meditation …”

SN56.46. Darkness

“Mendicants, the boundless desolation of interstellar space is so utterly dark that even the light of the moon and the sun, so mighty and powerful, makes no impression.”

When he said this, one of the mendicants asked the Buddha, “Sir, that darkness really is mighty, so very mighty. Is there any other darkness more mighty and terrifying than this one?”

“There is, mendicant.”

“But sir, what is it?”

“There are ascetics and brahmins who don’t truly understand about suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. They take pleasure in choices that lead to rebirth … They continue to make such choices … Having made such choices, they fall into the darkness of rebirth, old age, and death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from rebirth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from suffering, I say.

There are ascetics and brahmins who truly understand about suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. They don’t take pleasure in choices that lead to rebirth … They stop making such choices … Having stopped making such choices, they don’t fall into the darkness of rebirth, old age, and death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re freed from rebirth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re freed from suffering, I say.

That’s why you should practice meditation …”

-- END OF BOOK --
Wiswo Logo Wisdom & Wonders