by Rev. Tri
Ratna Priya Karuna
The topic of
my Dharma talk today is Buddhist cosmology, a term which does not
occur in everyday conversation. What then, is cosmology? The dictionary
defines it as a branch of philosophy dealing with the origin, processes
and structure of the universe.
This may sound
like a rather formidible definition, whose exploration has little
relevance to the problems we encounter in everyday life. Actually,
the opposite is true, since an understanding of the workings of
the universe and the cosmic laws that are involved in its unfolding
pattern can provide us insignificant humans with precious guidance.
If we are wise enough to follow this guidance we may avoid the bad
decisions that can lead to undesirable consequences, and instead
will be able to make progress toward positive goals during the course
of our lives.
because of the infinite wisdom of our Lord Sakyamuni Buddha and
his predecessors who appeared on earth long before His time, we
are the lucky inheritors of a cosmological tradition of such awesome
grandeur that it totally eclipses corresponding conceptions in western
religions. Even before the time of Lord Buddha, the Indian sages
and thinkers through imagination, the use of super-normal powers
and the contemplation of a most ancient wisdom inherited from pre-historic
times, managed to arrive at the conception of such a vastness and
immeasurability of time and space that for all practical purposes
they had arrived at the point of infinity.
clearly bears witness to the fact that the Lord Buddha, with his
supernormal vision, purified and perfected this understanding of
the virtually limitless extent of the universe as well as the incalculable
length of time required in the past, present and future for the
cycle of arising and passing away of spheres of phenomenal existence
to run their course. According to Lord Buddha, the beginning of
the whole of phenomenal existence of which the universe known to
science is but the lowest of thirty-one planes, is incalculable;
it has no perceptible beginning.
universe consists of an infinity of world systems scattered through
boundless space, each coming in to existence and passing away through
beginningless and endless time.
In an attempt
to provide his disciples with some idea of the vast amounts of time
required for the unfolding of their life-patterns, the Buddha declared
that the amount of mothers' milk drunk and tears shed during their
previous existences was greater than the waters of the four mighty
the broad horizons and the limitless vistas contained in the Buddhist
conception when contrasted with the narrowly geocentric conceptions
found in Semitic religious literature, especially the Bible, can
in the words of one prominent author, "seem like stepping out from
a windowless cabin and gazing up into the star-filled midnight sky."
A world period
of virtually incalculable length is referred to as a kalpa or maha-kalpa.
This kalpa is divided into four shorter periods, each of which is
so long that it cannot be measured even in terms of thousands of
years. During the first period of a kalpa, the previously exisisting
world system is completely destroyed or resolved into its constituent
elements. The majority of beings residing in its various planes
of existence are reborn into the Brahma world, the highest and subtlest
plane of phenomenal existence, which is exempt from destruction
or dissolution. As the second period of the kalpa commences, we
find that the residual energy of matter, representing total objectivity,
and the Brahma world and its inhabitants, representing complete
subjectivity, are isolated from each other at the opposite poles
of phenomenal existence. This absence of interaction continues until
the third period of the kalpa is well under way. During this period
the world system re-evolves from the residual energy of matter,
while most of the beings return from the Brahma world to reborn
on a dark and water covered earth. This does not seem to inconvenience
the mind-generated beings, since they continue to live much as they
had formerly in the Brahma world, self-luminous, nourished by rapture
and not divided into different sexes.
With the passage
of an immense length of time, conditions begin to change. A scum,
with the character of boiled, milky rice, begins to accumulate on
the cooling earth, and the terrestial inhabitants begin to taste
it and enjoy the sensation. This new sense pleasure leads to craving
and an ever increasing dependence on the scum for nourishment. The
earthly residents find that their formerly light, ethereal bodies
become gross and solid and more differentiated in shape and appearance.
Gradually, the waters covering the earth subside; the mists disperse
and the sun and moon are clearly revealed in the heavens.
With the continuation
of this period of evolution, first lichenous growths, then creeping
plants and finally edible grains appear. As the beings learn to
subsist on these food sources, they become even more gross, losing
their bright and radiant character. They eventually become differentiated
into many species, as well as into male and female genders. This
separation into two sexes leads to lust, passion and hatred, and
the concomitant development of family grouping, and all the institutions
of society. The blood smeared record of the last few thousands of
years bear witness to the conditions which are typical of the last
phase of the third period of the kalpa.
The fourth and
last division of a kalpa finds the world system remaining at the
stage of development it has already achieved until the commencement
of the next kalpa, during which the whole process is repeated again.
Whether we like it or not we are now residing on the fringes of
the fourth period of the present kalpa.
It should be
apparent that this incredible process contains within it a distressing
paradox: As the world system follows a path to greater material
progress, each upward step on the material plane is accompanied
by a corresponding downward movement of psychic or spiritual degeneration.
applies to the entire world system, of which this insignificant
planet plays a tiny part. Incidentally, this world system contains
as many as 10,000 worlds.
There are so
many of these world systems and the length of a single kalpa so
incredibly long, that the appearance of a Buddha is a comparatively
rare event. Some kalpas are known as empty kalpas because a Buddha
does not appear. Other more fortunate kalpas may be blessed by one
or more Buddhas. Our own world system has been favored by 28 Buddhas,
including Sakyamuni, during the course of many kalpas. The kalpa
in which we are now living has the distinction of being a greatly
auspicious kalpa of five Buddhas: Kusanda, Konagamana, Kasyapsa,
Sakyamuni and Maitreya, who is yet to come.
We now turn
our attention to the many sentient and intelligent beings of various
kinds who have existed in this universe as well as in the countless
universes over immeasurable time periods. Even though it is generally
agreed that enlightenment can occur only to a human being, there
exist higher and happier planes of existence, endowed with beings
of greater beauty, happiness and power than humans are blessed with.
Rebirth in these realms is reserved for those beings who performed
meritorious deeds and led virtuous lives. However, these heavenly
states are not permanent, and when the good karma has been exhausted,
these spirits will have to be reborn on the human plane again.
Below the human
plane there are several levels of painful existence, including terrible
hell realms, where those beings who have committed evil deeds are
punished until they have been rehabilitated and have developed the
desire to progress back to the human realm, which is the only one
where enlightenment and Nirvana can be reached.
we have seen, time and space are virtually infinite in extent and
a being's state during any particular life depends upon the karmic
influences brought over from previous lives. This karmic energy
determines his predilections, attitudes, and to a considerable extent,
his conduct and character. Having free will, it is up to the individual
whether he will surrender to the negative karmic energy with which
he came into this world and make no effort to correct his evil tendencies.
In such a case his next rebirth will probably be less desirable
than the present one. On the other hand, if the individual, at the
instigation of his Buddha nature, through sustained and committed
effort succeeds in purging his nature of many of its flaws and allows
his consciousness to rise to a higher level of wisdom, compassion
and insight, his next rebirth will undoubtedly be a more favorable
one, with more opportunities for progress to the only goal that
is important - enlightenment.
Thus, the individual
is totally responsible for his fate. All karma laden beings are
reborn to experience endlessly transforming destinies determined
totally by their prior choices and actions in this and previous
lives. The Buddha did not proclaim the depressing reality of samsara
with its inevitible suffering and disatisfaction that could go on
and on virtually forever without a very wise and compassionate motive.
He wanted his followers to realize that the two causes of the dreadful
inevitability of ceaseless rebirth are desire and ignorance. If
these can be overcome through the attainment of knowledge and wisdom,
then release from the necessity for further rebirths can be achieved.
This deliverance from samsara, is, of course, Nirvana.
The Buddha expanded
his discussion of the causes of rebirth into the famous sermon on
the twelve links in the chain of conditioned genesis known as Pratitya
Samutpada. Dependent co-arising, or the Buddhist law of moral cause
and effect, is thus expressed in the twelve links or preconditions
leading to continued suffering and bondage to rebirth. Each precondition
depends upon the one before it. Thus, when ignorance ceases, dispositions
cease, consciousness ceases, and so on all the way to aging and
dying that cease when rebirth ceases.
Some time after
the Parinirvana of Lord Sakyamuni Buddha, His vision of samsara,
the cycle of existences, combined with the twelve links of dependent
causation was expressed as a diagram, often elaborated as a detailed
painting, called the Wheel
of Life. It schematically represents the drama of personal choice
and consequence. As we can see from the diagram I am holding, the
whole wheel is held in the mouth and claws of Mara, who in this
case represents impermanence and death. Around the periphery of
the wheel we see the twelve preconditions or links in the chain
of conditioned genesis. In the center we usually see the representatiuon
of the three poisons: the rooster symbolizing desire, the snake
symbolizing anger-hatred and the pig symbolizing delusion. These
poisons are considered to be the driving forces of the cycle of
existence. An individual's response to these forces generates karma,
which determines where on the wheel he will be reborn.
As we examine
the diagram we can see that there are six realms into which beings
are reborn. Rebirth in heaven, the titan realm or the human realm
is a reward for virtuous lives and meritorious acts, while rebirth
in the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm or the hell realm can
be considered well-deserved punishment for lives spent harming others
and wallowing in ignorance and evil, while making no effort to grow
and attain a higher level of consciousness. However, as I said earlier,
residence in hell may last an extraordinary length of time, but
fortunately, not forever. Rebirth into these three lower realms
can be considered the Buddha's tough love, which assumes this form
to teach and rehabilitate them, so that after their karmic debt
has been paid, they will be able to regain human status.
The human realm,
although technically lower than the heaven realm or the titan realm
is more important, since only there can wisdom and virtue be increased.
As mentioned earlier, heavenly beings reborn in the two highest
realms reside there only temporarily as a reward for outstanding
meritorious acts in the past. However, when that good karma runs
out they are subject to birth in a lower realm. This expulsion from
their former state of pleasure and privilege can be exceedingly
realms of samsara with their transience, suffering and death are
undesirable. Only one goal, since it is permanent and forever free
from suffering, is really worth attaining. It is the release from
the wheel of life altogether. This is Nirvana, release from rebirth,
which transcends totally the grim cycle of existence we call samsara.
a statement that has echoed through the ages, Buddha hurled the
challenge to each individual with the words: "Here is the path leading
to the end of suffering. Tread it."