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Origins and Decline: An Essay in Buddhist Cosmology

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo


In the Agganna Sutta ("On Knowledge of Beginnings" Digha 27) the Buddha relates a myth of the origins of this planet and of the human race. He does this primarily to refute the false claims of the Brahmin Caste that they are a special creation "born of the mouth of Brahma." But if we examine and consider this mythological sutta, there are many valuable teachings contained in the framework of the story, which encapsulates important aspects of the Buddhist cosmology.

"There comes a time when, sooner or later, after a long period, this world contracts. At a time of contraction beings are mostly born in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious - and they stay like that for a very long period. But sooner or later, after a very long period, this world begins to expand again."

Here we have a broad outline that agrees with a least one modern cosmological model: the alternately expanding and contracting universe. (Big Bang and Big Crunch.)

But more importantly, a couple of key Buddhist principles are found here;

ONE. The law of change, anicca. The universe is never static but is always evolving or devolving in a constant flux of changing forms.

TWO. The Law of Dependent Origination. Nothing arises by chance or by the arbitrary fiat of a Creator but is causally arisen from previously existent factors. The new constellation of factors becomes in its turn the cause of further arisings.

"At that period there was just one mass of water and all was darkness, blinding darkness. Neither moon nor sun appeared (or; were manifest) no constellations or stars appeared, night and day were not distinguished, nor months and fortnights, no years or seasons, and no male or female, beings being reckoned just as beings. And sooner or later, after a very long period, savoury earth spread itself over the water where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that spreads itself over hot milk as it cools..."

Again this has striking resonances with the modern scientific view of the early earth as covered in impenetrable clouds, and the early ocean as being a soup of organic compounds.

The next phase of the planet's evolution occurs when the divine beings become involved with insensate matter. The beings become curious and greedy and taste the nutritive foam. They then take on coarse material bodies.

What is happening here? One way of seeing this is as a mythological explanation of the Dependent Origination link from Consciousness to Name and Form (Mind and Body.) This is vitally important and may be difficult to grasp because it is the opposite of modern assumptions. Mind, in this mythological framework, is not an epiphenomena of matter. The truth is closer to the reverse; Mind is the originator, if not of raw matter, at least of Form.

No consciousness moment can possibly exist without a pre-existent consciousness. This would be creation ex nihilo and would violate the Dependent Origination. Thus each new consciousness arising in a womb is the continuation of a series pre-existing, of a being who has died. But how did life and consciousness arise in the first instance on this planet earth?

In this sutta, the answer is given in the majestic image of Brahma beings from an old pre-existing world becoming involved in material form, thus adding the elements of life, consciousness, form and order to the wild primeval chaos.

The Buddhist myth and modern evolutionary theory agree in seeing life as an ever-changing process. There are no static species, created once and for all, but only an ongoing and ever varying flux. However, Buddhist thought must reject the rigid reductionism of evolution by random mutation and natural selection only. Life, let alone mind, could never arise from such a process. Instead, Mind is seen as a pre-existing factor which is a vital component of the causal sequence giving rise to Life, Form and Being.

The sutta goes on to describe the gradual devolution of these entities brought on by immorality and greed. Over the long course of eons their lives become shorter and their bodies coarser. Their food supply degenerates as well and they are forced to earn a living by the sweat of their brows. A key stage in the process is the episode where they begin to store their food, rather than gather it every day. This causes undue stress on the rice plants leading to their degeneration so that they no longer yield their daily harvest without the toil of plowing, sowing, reaping and threshing.

This in turn leads to the institution of private property and the state, evils not known before. One cannot help but see this as a reflection of the Neolithic Revolution.

In the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta (Digha 26) this history is continued into the present and beyond. It chronicles a continuous decline of morality and life span until the terrible period is reached when humans live only ten years and essentially revert to an animal like state. After this bottoming out, they will gradually return to a higher life in an evolving age.

This myth diametrically opposes the popular modern myth; that of Progress. This myth assumes, somewhat arrogantly and very complacently, that we are more intelligent, healthier and generally better off than our poor benighted ancestors.

While it would be absurd to argue for the literal interpretation of the sutta myth, it should be contemplated with the utmost respect. And it seems an open-minded consideration will find more than a grain of truth, if not in the details, then at least in the general picture.

It is an anthropological fact that Cro-Magnon Man was a superior physically specimen, taller and even bigger brained than his modern descendants. Also, life spans may have been longer, possibly much longer, in the distant past. The oldest records of the Egyptian and Sumerian kings record reigns of many centuries each. Other ancient records, most notably the Hebrew text Genesis, also speak of people living several hundred years. This is too easily dismissed as mere legend. On what basis do we reject the testimony of the ancients?

On a shorter time-scale, if we examine the birth and death records for the last century, longevity appears to be increasing only until we factor out the difference due to decreased infant mortality. If we factor that out, we find that life expectancy has declined by one full year since the 1890's.

With increasing pollution, climate change, declining food quality, new pestilences like AIDS and mad-cow disease not to mention radiation from faulty power plants and sundry other horrors, it seems a reasonable bet that life-expectancy will further decline in the coming decades, perhaps drastically.

Technology itself can be seen as symptom of decline, rather than as an advance. Every stage from hunter-gather to agriculturist to industrialism to high tech has marked an increase in hours worked. Necessity is the mother of invention and technologies are often concocted to meet new needs due to environmental decline or loss of innate abilities. Thus, agriculture only became necessary when the big game became scarce at the end of the last ice-age. Writing became necessary when our mental powers of memorization began to fail.

The Dharma too, has been in steady decline. From the first unspoken and unspeakable realization of Gotama the Buddha to the crystallization of that truth into language already marked a movement back from the transcendental. And each succeeding age has seen a further decline, from the crystal purity of the early suttas to the formalism of the commentaries through the extravagances of some schools of Mahayana to the sorry state of the sasana today.

There have been periodic movements of rejuvenation and reform; Chan/Zen, the Thai Forest Movement, some trends even in the Vajrayana. But the overall picture is one of decline, which is exactly what the Buddha foretold. Today it is very hard to find the true Dharma. The East is falling under the evil spell of capitalistic materialism and the Dharma in the West is a fragile new bloom. Already it is under assault by movements of so-called rationalism which would reduce it to a minor branch of psychotherapy.

But it is still possible to attain enlightenment. One should take the warning and strive in this very life, because it may be very long haul otherwise.

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo
Arrow River Community Center, Ontario, Canada

Source: Arrow River Community Center , Ontario, Canada, http://my.tbaytel.net/arfh/

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