Tri Ratna Priya Karuna
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.
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
literature 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.
material 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.
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 oceans.
grandeur, 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
principle 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.
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.
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.
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.
as 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.
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.
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.
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 (below). 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.
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.
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 painful.
all 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.
in 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."