Buddhism and the Origin of Life
The Buddha did not give any specific teaching regarding the origin of the universe or of life. Thequestion was said to be unanswerable from the level of ordinary mundane intelligence In theAṅguttara Nikāya it is said: “The origin of beings revolving in saṃsāra, being cloaked by avijjā(ignorance) is undiscoverable.” At the same time it is laid down, as a natural consequence of thelaw of Dependent Origination (paṭicca samuppāda) that in the ceaseless cycle of cause and effectthere cannot be any link in the sequence that can be designated a first cause. Each effect in itsturn becomes a cause, and the beginning is nowhere apparent; it is a closed circle of relatedconditions, each factor being dependent on the preceding ones.
The early Buddhists, because of this silence on the part of the Buddha, and His unwillingnessto attempt the hopeless task of explaining the inexplicable, took their ideas concerning thenature of the universe from the Brahmanical teachings already current in India. These, becauseof their remarkable correspondence to modern scientific concepts, are well worth examination.
In the first place, it must be realised that the Vedic teachings, because of the lack of technicaland scientific knowledge and the necessary vocabulary in which to express such modes ofthought, used allegory and symbolism, much of it being of a primitive and animistic kind. Theearly Buddhists found the concepts of Brahman and Ātman unnecessary and, while adhering inoutline to the Brahmanical idea of the universe, they considered it to be self-sustained by lawsinherent in its own nature, the whole group of laws being part of the universal law of kamma,or cause and effect. The universe consists of innumerable cakkavāḷas or world systems. Thesecome into being and pass away again in an endless cycle covering periods of millions of years,called kappas and yugas.
The system of chronology is complicated and unthinkably immense, as
is the number of inhabited World-systems in this cosmic mechanism. It is unnecessary to go intothe divisions of time in detail, but a sufficient indication of their tremendous span can be gainedfrom the fact that a yuga is equivalent to several millennia, and that eight of these yugas,representing a cycle, makes one small or antara kappa. Twenty small kappas constitute a middleor asaṅkheyya kappa, and a full cycle of four middle kappas is called a great or mahā kappa, whichis the largest unit of calculation. Each great kappa is the cyclic period of a world-system, duringwhich the entire process of coming into being, existence, decay and destruction is brought intooperation. After the destruction of a world-system another immense period of time elapses, atthe end of which the process begins over again, the whole being repeated ceaselessly, withoutbeginning or end.
Turning to the Brahmanical theory we find a similar general pattern of events. Vedantateaches that the cycles of the universe are divided into the “days and nights of Brahmā.” In thebeginning the whole of the basic material substance of the universe is evenly distributedthroughout space. This material substance is called Prakṛti (matter) and is to be considered asatomic units in a state of almost complete balance and almost complete inertia. Gradually, overunimaginable aeons of time, a slight movement in this vast ocean of matter gathers impetus andgradually the mass comes to life. In Vedantic phraseology it is said that Prakṛti is animated byPuruṣa or Spirit; the Brahman is manifesting through the material substance. This substancebecomes differentiated into worlds, and living beings appear. Cosmic evolution then comes intoplay and the cycle of the universe runs its course, through development and degeneration todecay. When the period of the cycle is completed the universe disintegrates and returns to thesame state of undifferentiated material elements as before. Again the process repeats itself,without beginning and without end.
The Buddhist view is much the same, except that, as stated before, in place of the Brahman orany controlling deity Buddhism substitutes the law of cause and effect; one universe or world�system arises from the kamma, or causal genesis, of the one preceding it.
The Visuddhimagga summarises the process thus:
The astronomers Jeans and Eddington are among those who have attempted some speculationregarding the origin of the universe. Eddington, calculating the recession of the spiral nebulaefrom the colour changes in the spectrum, has formed the theory that the entire universe is inprocess of expansion. The countless planets and solar systems comprising it are governed by thelaw of cosmic attraction and repulsion, which is a law inherent in the nature of matter. It is thislaw which holds together all the material substance of which the universe is composed, from thesmallest atomic units to the largest planet. It is believed that in the course of expansion of theuniverse one of two things will, eventually, happen: either it will reach its maximum point ofexpansion and the law of cosmic repulsion will cause the atomic elements to scatter throughoutspace, or else the law of cosmic attraction will gain the upper hand and the process will bereversed, causing the universe to shrink back on itself.
In either case, the ultimate result will
probably be the same; that is, the atomic elements will become uniformly distributedthroughout space. Eddington has also hazarded the guess that this is the primal state fromwhich the universe first took form, that is to say that his imaginative picture of it before“creation” is very similar to that of the Vedantic and Buddhist conception. Again, we are toimagine the whole of space filled with atoms, electrons and neutrons in an almost perfect stateof balance and homogeneity. In this undifferentiated mass there is only a slight movement orvibration, but over incalculable aeons the movement becomes more pronounced as the law ofcosmic attraction and repulsion comes into play. Gradually the even distribution of substanceforms clots, masses of electronic particles being drawn together, so that in time whirling massesof gaseous matter are formed, and from these emerge what astronomers call the “islanduniverses“ - that is to say, systems forming themselves round a central nucleus, like our ownsolar system. It is obvious that this process, as in the Buddhist system, can be repeat over andover again.
In this way science does away with the need for a creator god, but still it has not explainedthe origin of the movement in the inert matter, which carries the process forward. Buddhismexplains it as being kamma, that is, the principle of the indestructibility of force or energy. Themovement is the residuum of activity from the previous universe, which never entirely ceases,though that universe itself has ceased to exist. When we examine the operation of kamma as itfunctions in the rebirth of living organisms it becomes possible to relate it to the cosmic processand trace the parallel between the kamma of a sentient being and the kamma of materialphenomena.
From this comparison of modern scientific ideas and the teachings of over two thousandyears ago it will be seen how strikingly they agree. The question then arises: How was itpossible for the sages of that remote period to penetrate the illusion of material substance andfind that it was composed of electronic forces, and to form so accurate an idea of the nature ofthe universe and its processes? The answer can only lie in the belief that they were able to raisetheir consciousness beyond the sphere of the mundane, through the practise of jhāna ormeditation. They had no laboratory equipment, no microscopes or telescopes and nomathematical formulae to guide them; and, when they had made their discovery they had notechnical language or common basis of knowledge by which to impart their discoveries toothers. It would indeed have been hopeless for the Buddha to attempt a description of thenature of the universe on these lines; no one of His time would have been capable ofunderstanding Him.
That is why He refused to answer questions concerning the origin of the world or whether itwas eternal or not eternal. Had He given an affirmative reply or a negative one to eitherquestion it would have been in a sense untrue. The Buddha’s reply, in effect, was that suchquestions were not conducive to release from rebirth; but the implication always remained thatthe true knowledge could be gained by oneself, through insight, though it could not beimparted to others. The Iddhi, or so-called “supernatural powers” gained by the Arahats weresimply the knowledge of hidden laws of the universe and how to make use of them, but byBuddha they were regarded as only another and greater obstacle to the attainment of freedomand the quenching of desire.
We observe the effects while remaining ignorant of the causes, just as when we switch on theelectric current and the light appears. The scientist Max Planck wrote: “What sense is there,then, it may be asked, in talking of definite causal relations in regard to causes where nobody inthe world is capable of tracing their function? The answer to that question is simple. As has beensaid again and again, the concept of causality is something transcendental—quite independentof the nature of the researches, and it would be valid if there were no perceiving subject at all… .We must distinguish between the validity of its [application]. This means that even the scientisthas to admit causes beyond his comprehension. The Buddha stated: “Whether Buddhas arise ordo not arise (to perceive and reveal the Law) the law of causality, the principle of thedependence of this upon that, the causal sequence of events, remains a fixed and unalterablelaw.”
“The concept of causality is something transcendental.” This is a significant phrase indeed,coming from a scientist. It is just in this transcendental concept of the causal law that Buddhismestablishes the moral principle of kamma. The materialist rejects the idea of God and Soul; andbecause he sees no evidence of a spiritual or other purpose in life, he rejects all belief in themoral order of the universe as well. Buddhism also is independent of a theistic creator and of asoul or ego principle, but Buddhism maintains the validity of the moral law.
the infinite multiplicity of worlds and the apparent insignificance of man—yet man is the mostsignificant of all beings, according to Buddhism, man is of more significance than the gods. Whyis this? Because the gods are merely enjoying temporarily the results of good actions in the past,but man is the master of his own destiny—on the battlefield of his own mind he can conquer theten thousand world-systems and put an end to saṃsāra, just as did the Buddha. But to do thishe must understand the nature of kamma. The principle that governs his internal and externalworld.
According to the Aṅguttaranikāya,23 to believe that the cause of happiness or misery is God,Chance or Fate, leads to inaction. Our spiritual evolution depends upon ourselves and ourselvesalone. If there is any force behind the moral laws, any exercise of free-will in the choice betweengood and evil, right and wrong, it stands to reason that there must be the possibility ofadvancing or degenerating, evolution. If progress upwards were a mechanical process and aforegone conclusion, there would be no point in any freedom of choice in a world of opposites.
The nineteenth-century Darwinists believed that the course of biological evolutionrepresented a steady upward progression from rudimentary to complex forms of life, and hencefrom primitive social structures to higher states of civilization. On this too-facile assumption,with its essentially materialistic basis, they built up an edifice of optimistic belief in the destinyof mankind.
It was thought that humanity itself would automatically improve with the increaseof knowledge, and perhaps evolve into a yet higher species. Later knowledge showed that theirsupposition was fundamentally false; they did not at that time know enough about theprocesses of natural selection or the history of the various links in the biological chain.
Evolution, we now know, does not move consistently upwards nor, as Karl Marx postulated, inan ascending spiral. It progresses in waves, and the currents produced by it are continuallychanging direction, often turning back to their point of origin. Some species improve, whileothers degenerate and disappear.
Evolution may be depicted on a graph as a succession of
It is essentially the individual that evolves, and the illusion of collective evolution follows uponthe appearance of groups (e.g., the human species) whose individual members have reached acertain level of being with sufficient uniformity to constitute a type. This comes about throughthe operation of incalculable factors in their past personal history, which science does not takeinto account because they are not normally open to scientific investigation. Those unknownfactors are the kammas, or activities, which relate man’s being to the moral principles of theuniverse.
If it were true that evolution takes place solely on a physical basis and is consistentlyprogressive, all human beings at any specific stage would display uniform characteristics; it isonly by taking the individualist and spiritual view that we can explain the appearance of aBuddha, or, indeed of any lesser leader who has shown himself to be far in advance of hiscontemporaries.
The analogy of a wave or ripple, travelling in a circle, is perhaps the best symbol of theindividual evolutionary current. Just as in biological evolution there are advances andrecessions, successes and failures, so in spiritual evolution the individual sometimes rises andsometimes falls. There is no stability and no constant direction to his course. Because of hisactions he may take birth as a human being, only to fall from that relatively high estate tobecome once more an animal.
and those who see the processes of biological evolution also as a purposeless, meaninglessdrifting, can trace a close correspondence between the manifested material laws and theinvisible spiritual ones that motivate them. The materialist who declares that life has no ultimatepurpose is making a safe deduction from the evidence available to him.
In the material sense ithas no purpose, and can never arrive at a state of perfection. But he is only considering thematerial aspect of life and ignoring its spiritual undercurrents, which are in reality the truedetermining factors behind phenomenal appearances. It is to those that we have to turn whenwe seek for a meaning and objective in our mundane existence. Knowledge—or rather, paññā—gives us sight of the goal and the means of attaining it. We do not find the meaning of lifewithin the circle of evolutionary Processes, but outside it.
The astronomer Jeans has voiced the spirit of modern scientific logic in his conclusion that themore we come to know of the universe and its Workings, the more surely are we driven to thebelief that it is in some way the manifestation of thought, or of some kind of mental processcomparable to our own. Where other scientists quarrel with his view is on the ground that itappears to savour of a return to the discarded idea of a personal creator-god.
It is precisely herethat Buddhism bridges the gulf between religious and scientific thought. For Buddhism, whileendorsing the view that the ultimate basis of the universe is mind, does not require a god, orany external agency, to provide that mind. The processes of the evolving (saṃvatta) anddevolving (vivatta) universe are carried on by the mental activities of the sentient beings that area part of it. It is this mind-force, not that of any god, that causes the physical universe tomaterialise and go through the stages of growth, decay and dissolution.
The starting-point of all mental and bodily activities is craving—the taṇhā of Buddhistphilosophy. In the lowest grades of evolution this craving is supreme, and there it meanscravings of purely sensual and material kind. The individual evolves spiritually by rising abovethese, but at any stage of his progress be is liable to become possessed once more by the lowerforms of craving, and so may sink down again.
As a human being he becomes a battleground inwhich the lower cravings struggle against higher ones, represented by cravings that we mayclass as intellectual, aesthetic or even spiritual. When the higher cravings triumph we call it inmodern parlance “sublimation,” but this sublimation is merely the replacement of grossercravings by more intellectualised ones. To put an end to the aimless drifting in saṃsāra, eventhese sublimated cravings must be abandoned.
They are called rūpa-rāga and arūpa-rāga—desire
for life in the worlds of form and in the formless, purely intellectualised spheres For example,the artist who has sublimated his lower instincts into an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty ofnature and the human form, provided he has lived in accordance with moral laws (whichsublimation enables him to do), is likely to re-manifest in the sphere of the rūpa deva-lokas, wherebeauty of form is the characteristic quality.
But a philosopher, or ascetic who has sublimated hisinstincts into a love of abstract thought, meditation or any such activity divorced from materialcontexts, qualifies himself for rebirth in the arūpa Brahmā-lokas where existence is non-materialand consists purely of zones of mental force. This is the highest type of evolutionary existence insaṃsāra, in which craving is reduced to its lowest ebb and most etherealised form; yet, becausecraving is still present, the being who has attained this condition may still continue to drift inthe currents of saṃsāra. Complete release from the cycle of existence only comes withdestruction of craving and the ego-delusion. This is Nibbāna.
From the foregoing account of the physical universe as it is viewed by Buddhism and modernscience—that is, as a cyclic process extending over unimaginable aeons—we see that it isincorrect to equate the beginning of life with the beginning of the earth, the solar system or eventhis particular universe. The question still remains in what way did life originate, however farback in time its beginning may have been?
Science does not provide any solution. It puts forward a tentative theory that sentient lifeappeared on this earth through a technical process combined with the action of cosmic rays andthe heat of the sun. But this is only a theory, and may-well be modified, though it is interestingto note in passing that the Buddhist doctrine that living beings appeared through the action oftejo (kinetic energy) combined with: utu (utuja meaning arisen from seasonable circumstancesand physical law of causation), offers a similar explanation so far as mundane life is concerned.
This, in any case, only carries speculation back to the beginning of life on this planet, but theactual origin we seek is the beginning of life from a point where there was no preceding cause,and this cannot be found.
Theistic religion also fails to answer the question. In ascribing the origin of living creatures toa Creator-god it still leaves unanswered the problem of how and why the god himself came intobeing. If a god can exist, though uncreated, there is no reason why the other phenomena of theuniverse should not exist without having been created also.
The actual truth is that the idea of the necessity for creation or, in other words, the search fora beginning of the causal process, springs from the limitations of the human mind, which canonly conceive phenomenal things in their arising, decay and dissolution. In the circle of causallinks there is no First Cause.
The universe could not have been created out of nothingnessbecause in a condition of void, empty of phenomena and events, there could be no pro-existenceof time. As a concept, time can only exist in relation to physical bodies and their movements inspace; this is the basis of Einstein’s “space-time continuum.”
It is apparent, therefore, that timecould not have existed prior to the existence of the physical universe on which it depends. But,for an act of creation to take place, there must be time already in existence because creationrequires the three phases of time; i. e., past (before the thing created came into being), present(the phase of its momentary existence) and future (the time of its continued existence andultimate cessation).
Without the existence of time in these three phases there could not be any
All human reasoning ends in a paradox because it follows the periphery of a circle, the sphereembracing time, space and phenomena. All that reason can do is to show that the process ofsaṃsāra is without any discoverable beginning and that a first cause, in the sense in which weunderstand it, is not only unnecessary, but impossible. The truth can only be gained by Insight,in accordance with the teachings of the Exalted Buddha, which means rising above the realm ofrelative and conditioned factors. That point being gained, it will be found that there is noanswer to the problem, but that the problem never existed, save as an illusory product ofIgnorance (avijjā)